MEXICO CITY — Donald Trump has missed a plot twist throughout his incessant trolling of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto: For most of his administration, Trump will face a different head of state to the south. Mexico will hold elections in July 2018, putting a new government in office by December. The term of Mexico’s next president will extend until 2024, guaranteeing at least two years of direct engagement with Trump. If Trump manages reelection, the relationship will last six long years.
And while Trump has managed to dictate the terms with Peña Nieto, he might be in for a surprise once 2018 rolls around. Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Margarita Zavala, the two leading contenders for the Mexican presidency, have starker views of how the bilateral agenda should be conducted.
Leftist firebrand López Obrador ran for president twice before, in 2006 and 2012. Beaten by narrow margins, he questioned both outcomes, to no avail. In 2018, though, he finally seems poised to win. After seeing his anti-corruption message vindicated by the Peña Nieto administration’s long list of scandals, he is now leading in most polls.
For the duration of the presidential campaign in the United States, Lopez Obrador, who is not known as an internationalist, remained mostly quiet, refraining from any chest-thumping against Trump’s nativist rhetoric. Not anymore.
After the recent squabble over the border wall and the embarrassing cancellation of Peña Nieto’s scheduled visit to Washington, López Obrador broke his silence and unexpectedly backed Mexico’s battered president, a man he has belittled and criticized since 2012. Last Monday, during a long conversation in the same austere Mexico City office he has worked from for over a decade, López Obrador, who keeps a demanding schedule at 63 despite having survived a stroke in late 2013, went further.
“He has disrespected the way affairs should be handled between governments and nations,” Lopez Obrador said about Trump. He denounced Trump’s treatment of Peña Nieto on Twitter. “I just can’t believe that the president of the United States would tweet such threats,” he said. “‘Come see me, but if you won’t pay for the wall, then don’t come at all.’ That sounds like ‘kill yourself and then we’ll talk.’ We have never seen anything like this.”
López Obrador suspects that Trump is not calling the shots. “He might be a rude bully, but this is a well-honed political strategy. He’s behaving the way he’s being told to behave. There’s a team of people behind him,” he told me. When I threw out Stephen K. Bannon’s name, López Obrador nodded: “He is one of the people telling President Trump what to do. [Trump] just doesn’t wake up and tweet against Mexico … ”
Still, López Obrador says he can “convince” Trump of the error of his ways. The key? “Trump will fail,” he told me. “People will get tired of him. No one wants permanent confrontation; it just doesn’t work.” López Obrador says he’s also skeptical of Trump’s aggressive protectionism: “They won’t get jobs back by impeding free trade with Mexico. That strategy will fail,” he told me. Once Trump flops, López Obrador thinks the U.S. president will “come back to his senses. Soon we will see a different Trump.” If elected in 2018, López Obrador plans to be very clear with both Trump and his team: “We will not accept such harassment,” he told me, with added emphasis.
He won’t show Peña Nieto’s apparent willingness to receive America’s military, either: “Mexico’s troubles won’t be solved through coercive measures. Instead of them sending guns like they have, we should talk about development. If he’s so worried about immigration, let’s create jobs.” Finally, López Obrador plans to appeal to Trump’s base directly. “This is a poisonous, hateful, xenophobic political strategy, and we have to fight it,” he told me. “We have to explain to the American people that immigrants are not to blame for the jobs and income they’ve lost (…) I trust the American people, and I’m confident they’ll realize this is not the way.”
Former first lady Margarita Zavala (she is married to ex-president Felipe Calderón, who preceded Peña Nieto) is the leading contender for the nomination of the PAN, Mexico’s conservative party, and seems to be López Obrador’s ideological opposite in all but one issue: fierce opposition to Trump. I spoke with Zavala at her home in a quiet neighborhood in southern Mexico City, just a few blocks from the school where she has taught 12th grade for the past couple of decades. Zavala, a 49-year-old, quick-witted former congresswoman who can seem hesitant during interviews, spoke forcefully against Trump. “From the very beginning of the campaign, he called us rapists and thieves,” she told me. “That is hate speech.”
Zavala believes Trump’s disrespect of Mexico should never have been tolerated. She told me Trump’s visit to Mexico City during the campaign was “humiliating” and made it very difficult for the government of Mexico to recover a sense of dignity. “We have to demand a clear answer of the Trump administration as to whether it wants to be Mexico’s partner, and then we can act in consequence,” she said. A lawyer by training, Zavala seemed concerned by Trump’s apparent ignorance of the scope of the bilateral relationship. “Trump clearly has no idea of the many things we share in every area imaginable nor does he understand we don’t owe them anything,” she said. “We’ve been remarkable neighbors.” Zavala used NAFTA as an example. “We shouldn’t be talking about renegotiating or leaving NAFTA,” she said. “There are plenty of tools to avoid such a thing. We have to be creative.”
Like López Obrador, Zavala says Trump will encounter unforeseen difficulties. “He’s picking fights with everyone, opening every front imaginable. It might not work out for him,” she said. When I asked if she would accept military aid from the Trump administration, Zavala leaned in: “There is no way we’ll see American troops in Mexico. We might share technology and intelligence, because we are both responsible for the fight against organized crime, but troops in our country? Never.” If she becomes president of Mexico, Zavala says she would reject the notion of Mexico needing any kind of American backing: “Support is not the word. The concept is shared responsibility: There’s no superior partner here, like he seems to think.”
Margarita Zavala plans to visit the United States in the coming months to speak directly to the immigrant community and local political leaders. As for López Obrador, he will launch a four-city tour of the United States on Sunday. He plans to kick things off in Los Angeles, at the historic Plaza Olvera. That same day, Mexico will see mass protests against Trump. Under the banner “Vibra Mexico,” organizers — private and public universities, human rights groups and immigrants-rights activists — expect hundreds of thousands of people to show up in at least 20 cities across the country to “reject the recent measures imposed by President Trump.”
Distant neighbors, indeed.