As the saying goes, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
This is the phrase that comes to mind around Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s upcoming trip to Washington to meet with President Donald Trump at the inauguration of the USMCA trade agreement.
Why is AMLO coming? Does he think that he can stand side-by-side with Trump and control the image and the message of this visit? Ojo. Significant interactions between Trump and Mexican leaders have not tended to break in the latter’s direction.
Let’s review the outcome of past meetings between Mexican leaders and Trump.
First, there was the memorable meeting between President Enrique Peña Nieto and candidate Trump in August of 2016. Peña Nieto invited both presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Whatever the original motivation for the invitation, we know the outcome. Trump came. He looked presidential. Peña Nieto appeared accommodating, standing next to Trump who had shortly before been spouting insults about Mexican migrants being criminals and rapists. Upon return to the U.S., Trump gave a strident immigration speech calling for building “the Wall” and reaffirming that Mexico would pay for it.
While Peña Nieto might have thought that he could control the image and message by hosting the meeting with Trump, he was wrong. Trump seized the opportunity, using it to reinforce his message to his base of supporters.
Then last year, President Trump grew frustrated with record numbers of Central American families fleeing violence and requesting asylum in the United States. These asylum seekers had crossed Mexico to reach the U.S. southern border. Trump wanted the flow to end and he wanted Mexico to make it stop. If Mexico did not act decisively to stop Central Americans from reaching the United States, he threatened to impose an immediate 5% tariff on imports which would scale up to 25%.
AMLO sent Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard to Washington to negotiate. The outcome seemed more capitulation to the threat than negotiation. Mexico’s new National Guard was deployed to its southern border to block migrant crossings; it committed to detain and deport more Central Americans and expanded the “Remain in Mexico” program, under which those seeking asylum in the United States would be forced to remain in Mexico while their cases were adjudicated in the United States.
At the beginning of the AMLO administration, only months before, any of these actions would have been unthinkable for Mexico. At the start, AMLO’s new migration policy was to be based on respect for migrants, not treating them as criminals or a security threat. Yet, at the threat of U.S. tariffs, Mexico folded.
The change in Mexican migration policy was a big political win for Trump. It fed his base. He might not have been able to get Congress, or the Mexican government to pay for “the Wall”, but he could turn Mexico into a wall.
Now, just a year later, AMLO comes to Washington to celebrate the USMCA. This is a dangerous visit. Trump is intensely campaigning for another term in office. He does not respect Mexico or the rights of Mexican migrants in the United States. He will seek to use AMLO to reinforce whatever message his campaign finds advantageous this week. It would be insane to expect a different outcome.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson