Mexico City, Mexico – Five years ago, Donald Trump kicked off his first presidential campaign by saying that Mexico was sending crime, drugs and rapists to the United States. He thrust the US’s southern neighbour into the electoral spotlight and kept it there, making his infamous promise to build a border wall paid for by Mexico a cornerstone of his campaign.
Outrage roiled in Mexico then: pinata stores routinely stocked a Trump model so that Mexicans could buy it and give it a beating. There were comedy plays railing against him, an anti-Trump video game created by Mexican designers and even an ass dressed as Donald for the country’s annual donkey festival. All of that counted for nothing, because candidate Trump became President Trump and continued a fractious relationship with Mexico’s then-President Enrique Pena Nieto.
Fast forward to the 2020 US election, and things are different. Mexico wasn’t mentioned once in the US presidential debates, and Trump’s relationship with now-President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is more cordial.
AMLO – as Lopez Obrador is known in Mexico – might have published a critical book called Oye, Trump [Listen, Trump] while on the campaign trail, but since then, he’s gone out of his way to be friendly with the US president.
Lopez Obrador’s only foreign trip during the two years of his presidency so far was to Washington, DC to meet with Trump, and controversially, he didn’t try to sit down with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
In fact, Trump and Lopez Obrador’s relationship remains strong enough that the US president called his Mexican counterpart a “gentleman” who is “going to be a great president” at a rally last weekend. Does that mean Lopez Obrador is betting on a Trump win this time around?
For President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, there’s comfort in knowing that he already knows where he is with Trump ... Biden would add some stability. He’s not going to suddenly tweet threatening 25 percent tariffs on Mexican goods if he doesn’t get what he wants.
Friendship at a cost
Given Trump’s past attitude towards Mexico, that might seem unlikely, but Christopher Wilson, the deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, told Al Jazeera that there’s still some debate about which candidate would be best for US-Mexico relations.
“For President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, there’s comfort in knowing that he already knows where he is with Trump. They have a relationship, and the big issues like migration and the USMCA [United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade] have been worked out so far,” Wilson says. “But on the other hand, Biden would add some stability. He’s not going to suddenly tweet threatening 25 percent tariffs on Mexican goods if he doesn’t get what he wants.”
Therein lies the dilemma. Mexico is experiencing its biggest economic slump since the worldwide Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, and the US is a major trading partner. So while Lopez Obrador perhaps feels he can handle four more years of Trump, the friendship has historically come at a cost.
For example, Trump has used the economic imbalance between the two countries – 80 percent of Mexico’s exports go to the US – to pressure Mexico over migration.
In May 2019, Trump threatened tariffs of up to 25 percent if the country didn’t stop Central American migrants and asylum seekers from passing through. That led to AMLO having to deploy thousands of his newly created national guardsmen to the border rather than using them – as planned – to combat the country’s record levels of violence.
Trump also all but forced the country to take in US asylum seekers from other nations while their claims were being processed by US immigration officials. Mexico agreed reluctantly, and systemic kidnapping of migrants in at least one town was the result. In Matamoros, more than 5,000 people have been living in a tent camp for more than a year.
The US has a lot of influence in the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and there’s a sense that under Joe Biden, restructuring (Argentina's) loan will go more smoothly than under Trump, who is very ideologically different to the current, leftist government.
A more measured approach
Biden, on the other hand, has signalled that he would quickly roll back Trump’s strictest anti-migration measures if he were elected president.
Many Mexican analysts also believe he would take a more measured, long-term approach to the relationship rather than using sudden threats and demands.
“He favours dialogue between institutions over that kind of brinkmanship. And that would be a plus for Mexico,” Wilson explained. “When you’re dealing with a superpower, you want rules and mechanisms.”
Further south, other Latin American nations are also interested in the outcome of the US election. The region’s biggest economy is that of Brazil, and that country’s president has already made clear whose side he’s on.
“What Trump does, [President Jair] Bolsonaro repeats shortly after. Trump downplayed the pandemic, so did Bolsonaro,” Al Jazeera Brazil correspondent Monica Yanakiew said. “Trump blamed China, so did Bolsonaro. Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement; Bolsonaro threatened to do the same. He’s a big fan of Trump and openly supports his re-election.”
Yanakiew said Biden’s proposal to offer Brazil $20bn to stop destroying the Amazon or impose sanctions further alienated Bolsonaro, who called the comments “disastrous”.
(Hondurans) watching politics do care about who’s at the helm of the US. Many will perceive this as a race between a candidate who may be capable of empathy with them, and another who has put their children in cages.
At the tip of South America, there is also a vested interest in who the next US leader will be, according to Al Jazeera Argentina correspondent Teresa Bo.
“Back under the last president, the International Monetary Fund [IMF] gave Argentina a record-breaking bailout – more than $50bn. But now, the economy’s in trouble again and the country’s struggling to pay that back,” Bo explained.
“The US has a lot of influence in the IMF and there’s a sense that under Joe Biden, restructuring that loan will go more smoothly than under Trump, who is very ideologically different to the current, leftist government,” she added.
In Chile, many are also rooting for Biden, says Lucia Newman, Al Jazeera’s Latin America editor.
“Most economists and the private sector think he’ll be more open to free trade and less protectionist than Trump,” Newman explained. “Also, most Chileans simply hate Trump – and that even transcends ideological barriers. Even people on the right think he’s too extreme and the rightist president himself, Sebastian Pinera, has been at odds with him on several issues.”
Meanwhile, in Central America, many people are focused on just one issue: immigration, said Manuel Rapalo, an Al Jazeera correspondent based in Mexico who also covers Central America.
“Hondurans are not going to stop leaving the country because conditions are so bad. And those watching politics do care about who’s at the helm of the US,” Rapalo said. “Many will perceive this as a race between a candidate who may be capable of empathy with them, and another who has put their children in cages.”
But for all of these nations, the US and its elections may not be garnering as much attention as they would normally do.
The crisis provoked by COVID-19 has trumped foreign policy concerns for many in Latin America – and especially in Mexico, which has the fourth-highest death rate in the world and a flatlining economy. As much as Mexico depends on the US, domestic concerns and the global pandemic are what’s on everyone’s mind.