Financial advisers often differentiate between low-risk, low-return investments, from higher-risk bets, albeit with higher potential returns. The Mexican President’s trip to Washington last week followed a different logic: high risk with low returns. Given what the trip involved, it was not a bad strategy, but victory can only be claimed once it becomes clear that the reverberations do not prove counterproductive.
The speeches by the U.S. and Mexican presidents at the Rose Garden could not have been more contrasting because each one had a different goal. For President Donald Trump, the goal was to put an end to the dispute that he had generated with Mexico to appease Hispanic voters in light of the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Trump’s speech last week was flat, predictable, and contradicting everything he had said since his first presidential campaign in 2016, particularly about the border, migration, NAFTA and, in general about Mexicans. Trump’s was a sparse speech, designed to praise his Mexican guest and, at the same time, addressed to his potential voters.
Despite much speculation, the goal of Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) was transparent: being recognized by the President of the United States. More than a national agenda, AMLO’s goals were personal and electoral. AMLO’s speech at the White House was not that of a President engaged in sensitive negotiations. It was the speech of someone who had reached the zenith of a mountain and wanted to turn it into a historical milestone for his political base. AMLO shouting “Long live Mexico!” (¡Viva México!) at the White House might seem a bit out of place, but it was the call of someone who had just been legitimized by a higher authority. And that was the problem with his speech. Despite repeatedly demanding that he be treated with respect and as an equal partner, AMLO’s speech suggested that he does not feel he is.
The dinner hosted by President Trump offered the opportunity for American businesspersons to ask questions and make clear their concerns regarding certain decisions by the López Obrador government, starting with the cancellation of the construction of Mexico City’s airport back in 2018. The U.S. business sector delegation invited to the dinner was strongly represented by large investors in Mexico, especially in the automotive, financial and energy sectors. This was a dinner chaired by a businessman like Trump, who clearly understands the importance of certainty and trust in investment decisions. It was also a perfect environment for the American entrepreneurs to “express themselves frankly,” as the diplomatic jargon would have it.
The list of guests from the Mexican side leaves no doubt about the way AMLO thinks about business. All of AMLO’s guests to the White House dinner represent economic activities dependent on the government: contractors, owners of concessions (telecoms, radio, mining and television), and sellers of services to government entities. The contrast with the Americans list was palpable. This will not help mitigate the concerns raised every time the AMLO government cancels an investment project, calls for manipulated “referendums” or eliminates an independent regulatory agency.
The Mexican government was pleased that the visit to the Washington ended without major incidents (which is something to be celebrated) but its sights were not high to begin with.
There are three risk factors that were not addressed, two of them consciously: the Democrats and the Mexican communities in the U.S. The date of AMLO’s meeting with Trump was not a coincidence. If it had taken place a week earlier, while the U.S. Congress was in session, AMLO would have had to pay a visit to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a key person in the approval of the USCMA trade deal. Otherwise, he would have created a diplomatic incident. Pretending that there will be no repercussions for the Mexican government among Democrats or with the team of presumptive candidate Joe Biden is naive. For them, the visit means an AMLO vote for Trump. One ought to wait to assess the final results of AMLO’s visit. Better leave the celebration for later.
Regarding the lack of a meeting with Mexican communities in the U.S., it is inexplicable that AMLO did not hold even an informal encounter with the leaders of such militant organizations that he has has cultivated for a long time. Such a meeting would have had a minimal cost for AMLO. Not having had one will surely have a monumental cost for him. One wonders who decided something so absurd and at the same time so obvious.
The third risk factor are the protests that took place when the Mexican president stood guard at the monuments of Juárez and Lincoln. I was not there, but the shouting did not sound like Mexican Spanish. Rather, they appeared South American, perhaps Cuban or Venezuelan. It is known that there is some opposition along those lines brewing in the state of Florida, so it is not impossible that the president has opened a dangerous Pandora’s Box without even realizing it.
There are two unknowns left which are not minor. The first one is: what will happen when a journalist catches Trump off-guard and he returns to his traditional anti-Mexican rhetoric? Or what will happen when Trump takes action on the DACA issue in the next few days?
On the other hand, nothing in this visit altered the stumbling block on the Mexican side. The wind will take care of the words heard in the Rose Garden last week. What matters afterwards are not speeches but results. To be successful, the new USMCA trade agreement (the avowed reason for meeting Trump) depends entirely on the certainty that the AMLO government can generate among investors, something that is not guaranteed. The visit was saved. Now, the Mexican economy needs to be saved as well.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubiof