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Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador flew to the United States on Tuesday on a commercial passenger plane. Footage showed the president in a window seat in economy before a layover in Atlanta and a second flight to Washington. The trip to meet with President Trump, López Obrador’s first overseas foray since winning a landslide election two years ago, was in keeping with his populist image of austerity. He abjures excessive expenditure on himself and still plans on raffling off the private luxury jet purchased by his predecessor’s administration.

It also offered another unusual sight: In recognition of pandemic-era health and travel protocols, López Obrador was wearing a mask, an action he has seldom taken in public, even as infection rates spike through the country. Like Trump, he’s under fire at home after letting complacency define his initial response to the coronavirus pandemic.

López Obrador’s scheduled Wednesday appearance at the White House provides a strange coda to the final months of the U.S. president’s term. Trump’s campaign was launched, notoriously, on anti-Mexican animus: He decried Mexican “rapists,” demonized a judge of Mexican heritage and repeatedly vowed to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, which Mexico would pay for. The southern neighbor became the locus of much that ails Trump’s America — a beneficiary of unfair trade deals, the staging ground for “caravans” of illegal infiltrators, the abode of menacing cartels and other criminal elements.

For AMLO — a common nickname for the Mexican president — Trump, too, presented a useful political foil. Before his election, he spoke of Trump as a “neo-fascist” he likened to Hitler and as “an irresponsible bully” whose border wall plans were a “monument to hypocrisy and cruelty.”

But since López Obrador came to power it has been a different story. The populist presidents have cultivated a conspicuously amicable friendship, despite the borders that separate them and their politics. Under AMLO’s watch, Mexico has diverted security resources to clamp down on migrants traveling into the country over its southern border. Facing the White House’s punitive tariffs, it agreed to the Trump administration’s controversial Migrant Protection Protocols, which force would-be asylum seekers to await their cases in often unsafe camps in Mexico.

“We should not have people forced to wait for asylum — trying to find safety for themselves and their families — while camped outside in the elements for months at a time,” Sister Norma Pimentel, director of a Texas-based Catholic charity that works with migrants, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last week. “It is contrary to our laws and the dictates of humanity.”

Democratic lawmakers in the United States warned that AMLO’s arrival risks politicizing the U.S.-Mexico relationship by shifting the focus away from the disaster of the pandemic. In Mexico, critics have also decried the visit, not least because it appears to endorse an American president with a long track record of demonizing immigrants and insulting Mexicans. Others contend that Mexico has little choice but to find common ground with the White House.

“We are talking about the most powerful man on Earth, Mexico’s most important trade partner. You want to be on good terms with that person,” Viridiana Ríos, a Mexican political analyst, told the Guardian. “At some point during his campaign, [Trump] is going to scapegoat Mexico and Mexicans again. But the key thing is policy: Do we get more out of a Donald Trump who feels empathy towards AMLO and towards his government, or not?”

In Washington, optimists hope that differences over immigration won’t disrupt proceedings. The two leaders will celebrate the start of the United States-Mexico-Canada trade deal, a moderately altered version of the previous North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump vociferously attacked in his campaigning. “The deal offers investors certainty, but 95 percent of it is basically the same as NAFTA,” Valeria Moy, an economist and professor at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, told my colleagues.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opted out of the gathering, placing the spotlight firmly on the other two leaders. Some analysts see them as a pair of demagogic peas in a pod.

“Both seek the absolute dominance of the executive branch,” wrote the Mexican commentator Enrique Krauze. “They dismiss institutions and the rule of law. They attack the critical independent press: Trump cries ‘fake news,’ while López Obrador repeats, ‘I have other data.’ They scorn science and have confronted the pandemic irresponsibly and ineffectively, and with total lack of empathy. Both cultivate a twisted cult of personality.”

“The two leaders are ideological foes but in some ways kindred spirits: populists whose strengths are in the realm of symbols rather than the substance of government,” noted the Economist.

The significance of López Obrador’s visit is expected to remain a mostly symbolic one. Analysts don’t see the leaders emerging from the proceedings with much more than what already has been accomplished. And even then, progress remains somewhat thin.

“Economists say the trade deal is unlikely to drive much new foreign investment, given uncertainty created by the López Obrador administration,” my colleagues reported. “He has canceled a new Mexico City airport project and a U.S. firm’s $1.4 billion brewery in Mexicali on allegations of corruption, and backpedaled on reforms to open the energy sector to more private investment.”

The upshot of this summit, argued Genaro Lozano, a professor at Mexico City’s Iberoamerican University, may have little to do with the principals involved. “Both Republicans and Democrats need to take Mexico and the region as a whole more seriously,” he wrote in Americas Quarterly. “Integration between the two economies and societies is unstoppable and, if nothing else, Mexico should be a regular stop for U.S. presidential candidates, just as the U.S. is a stop for any Mexican presidential candidate.”

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