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Mexico’s leftist president-elect begins his outreach to the U.S. and Trump

July 6, 2018 at 1:44 PM

Mexico's president-elect, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, greets supporters on Thursday in Mexico City. (Carlos Jasso/Reuters)

MEXICO CITY —  Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador has moved quickly to try to define his relationship with the United States and the world, replacing his first pick as foreign minister with an ideologically moderate politician and inviting President Trump to his inauguration.

The moves come amid a week-long lovefest in which the leftist-nationalist extended a hand to people, organizations and economic policies that he for years had harshly criticized and had made targets of throughout his campaign. The strategy is aimed at assuring investors and the Mexican public that nothing radical is in the pipeline when he takes office Dec. 1, analysts say.

López Obrador “is signaling to all how important he views Mexico’s role in the world and by extension the bilateral relationship,” said Antonio Garza, who served as the George W. Bush administration’s ambassador to Mexico. “I am encouraged.”

Of course, inviting Trump — as well as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — to the inauguration wouldn't seem strange in normal times. The three countries' economies are closely tied under the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Mexico shares a 2,000-mile border with the United States, north of which some 12 million Mexican citizens live.

But these are far from normal times, even for the routinely bumpy U.S.-Mexico relationship.

Trump made harsh criticism of Mexico and Mexican immigrants a cornerstone of his 2016 presidential campaign. He has kept up the pressure since taking office, frequently threatening to pull out of NAFTA, demanding that a wall be built along the entire border and ranting about the security threats posed by migrants from Mexico and elsewhere.

“Mexico talks, but they do nothing for us, especially at the border,” Trump said in May. “They certainly don’t help us much on trade. But especially at the border, they do nothing for us.”

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Andrés Manuel López Obrador is Mexico's new president after holding on to his commanding lead in the polls. AMLO campaigned on an anti-corruption platform that struck a chord with Mexico's lower- and middle-income voters.

López Obrador, 64,  frequently kicked back at such talk during his own presidential run. Last year, he  published  “Listen Up, Trump,” a compilation of speeches in which he trades blow for blow with the U.S. president.

In a speech last summer in Los Angeles, López Obrador accused Trump of “using racism and xenophobia as propaganda” and trashing migrants as part of a “neo-fascist strategy” to solidify his political base.

“We will defend, without conditions, the right of our citizens to earn a living anywhere in the world,” López Obrador said then. But he offered a conciliatory note.

“We don’t discount the possibility that Donald Trump shifts course and changes his aggressive policies toward Mexico,” López Obrador said. “It’s our duty to try to persuade him.”

Related: [Not Trump or Chávez, Mexico’s president-elect won’t fit your political analogy]

Foreign policy is far from López Obrador's strong suit. He's traveled little abroad and has built his career attacking economic inequality and corruption at home.

López Obrador this year repeated support for free-market policies, NAFTA and Mexico's many other trade pacts. But as president, he's likely to stress strengthening Mexico's internal markets and other problems over its global ties.

The pending change in Mexico's leadership comes at a particularly sensitive time, with Mexican and Canadian negotiators balking at U.S. demands for a revised NAFTA and a rancorous migrant crisis along the border.

Navigating those stresses now has been complicated by the wide revulsion for Trump among the Mexican public. Responding to Trump with anything less than resistance poses risks for any Mexican leader.

Related: [Marxists, evangelicals, business executives, working-class activists — meet Mexico’s strange new ruling coalition]

Luis Videgaray was forced from office as finance minister in part because he arranged for a 2016 Mexico City visit by then-candidate Trump to meet with President Enrique Peña Nieto, which was seen by many in Mexico as bootlicking in the face of insult.

Once Trump took office 18 months ago, Videgaray used a personal relationship he had forged with Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as leverage to be named foreign minister. While diplomats say cooperation on day-to-day issues continues apace between U.S. and Mexican agencies, the bilateral relationship since has largely been anchored by Videgaray.

Marcelo Ebrard. (Carlos Jasso/Reuters)

López Obrador's foreign minister will be former Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard, 59, a career politician and bureaucrat. Though he studied international relations in college and recently led a U.N. agency devoted to urban public security issues, Ebrard has devoted almost his entire career to the Mexican capital.

He served as López Obrador's police chief and minister of social development before being elected to replace him as mayor in 2006. Honored as one of the globe's best mayors by an international organization in 2010, Ebrard left office two years later under a cloud involving the exorbitant and shoddy construction of a subway line.

He has denied wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crime.

Despite his limited foreign policy experience, Ebrard “knows how to negotiate and plays to win,” said Garza, the former U.S. ambassador. “He knows the U.S. and is under no illusion as to how difficult the challenges related to this relationship will be.”

Ebrard lacks Videgaray's deep ties inside the White House, but he does have a relationship with Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor who is one of Trump's attorneys: As mayor, Ebrard awarded Giuliani's consultancy firm a lucrative contract to develop a security strategy for Mexico City.

Ebrard said Thursday that his first task will be to arrange next week's meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and López Obrador in Mexico City.

He's also coordinating the Mexican president-elect's attendance later this month at a meeting of presidents of the 11 countries belonging to the Trans Pacific Partnership, the trade pact that Trump withdrew the United States from upon taking office.

“Ebrard is an excellent choice and has a good understanding of the U.S.,” said Roberta Jacobson, a retired career civil servant who resigned as U.S. ambassador to Mexico in May. “Along with the initial economic statements, this is part of the reason the markets are reassured.”

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