United States President Donald Trump, who has denigrated Mexican migrants and threatened its southern ally with crippling tariffs, welcomed Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to the White House on Wednesday, calling him a cherished partner and claiming the countries’ economic and security ties were reaching new heights.
Trump’s warm words were a stark contrast to the days when he called Mexicans “rapists” and railed against migrants entering the US illegally. Lopez Obrador had cordial words for Trump, too, saying that while they have disagreed, it was better to find common ground and avoid slinging insults.
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Trump has dialled back his harsh words since Lopez Obrador took office a year and a half ago. And Lopez Obrador signalled he wanted to put the insults in the past.
“As in the best times of our political relations, during my term as president of Mexico, instead of insults towards me and more importantly against my country, we have received from you understanding and respect,” Lopez Obrador said.
This is what’s making the rounds on Mexican Twitter. Trump turns around and enters, leaving his guest, President López Obrador, behind. https://t.co/f4s7ocGINV
— Jorge Guajardo (@jorge_guajardo) July 8, 2020
“Some thought that our ideological differences would have led us inevitably to confrontation,” Lopez Obrador said. “Fortunately, this bad omen didn’t materialise and I consider that in the future there will be no need to break our good political relations, nor the friendship between our governments.”
The meeting was billed as a celebration of economic ties and a new US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, but critics in Mexico worry Lopez Obrador is being used as a political pawn to bolster the Trump campaign and his “America first”, anti-illegal migration agenda.
Christopher Wilson, Deputy Director at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, says while the two men appear, as individuals, to have a “strange camaraderie”, Trump’s rhetoric and policy towards Mexico had not changed. Many thorny issues, including immigration, remain.
“When I hear the two presidents speaking from the Rose Garden about how wonderful the relationship is I just have to ask myself what world they’re living in because it’s not the one I’m living in watching these policies unfold and seeing the real harm being done to US-Mexico relations as a result of these policies,” Wilson told Al Jazeera.
The two men signed a declaration highlighting US-Mexico relations and the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided not to travel to Washington, DC to celebrate the agreement, citing scheduling conflicts.
Trump and Lopez Obrador also pledged to cooperate in responding to the coronavirus, which has rocked both nations. Since March 2020, movement across the border has been restricted to essential travel while allowing the flow of goods and services. Last year, Mexico became the largest goods trading partner of the US.
Lopez Obrador arrived at the White House after morning stops at the Lincoln Memorial and a statue of Benito Juarez, a former Mexican president and national hero.
Trump and a military honour guard greeted him at the White House. The two posed for pictures and Trump flashed a thumbs-up. They also were to have dinner at the White House with about 20 US and Mexican business leaders, including Carlos Slim, one of the richest men in the world.
With the US looking to reduce its dependence on China for parts and supplies, Mexico is well-positioned to step into the void, although US businesses have viewed some recent actions taken by the Mexican government as harmful to their investments and say they undermine the framework of the USMCA.
“If there is not a better investment climate for both foreign and domestic private investment, it will be very difficult to use the opportunity of USMCA and the drift between China and the United States to our advantage,” Geronimo Gutierrez, who was Mexico’s ambassador to the US in 2017 and 2018, said during a virtual event hosted by the Wilson Center.
When Lopez Obrador arrived at the White House, he and Trump did not shake hands as would have been customary before the coronavirus pandemic. White House spokesman Judd Deere said all members of the Mexican travelling delegation were tested for the virus. The presidents sat at tables positioned many feet apart to sign their joint statement.
Lopez Obrador likes to point out that Trump helped Mexico reach a deal with other oil-producing nations to cut production and aided Mexico in obtaining more ventilators to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. Both presidents talk about a blossoming friendship that seems to stem from their pursuit of nationalist agendas.
Many Mexicans, however, remain wary of Trump, whose denunciations are intended to rally his most loyal supporters. Trump has threatened tariffs to strong-arm Mexico into playing an uncomfortable role in US immigration policy and insisted that Mexico will pay for a border wall meant to keep migrants out of the US.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany would not go into detail about what the two presidents said about immigration. Mexico deployed guards to the border to help stem the tide of illegal immigrants from Central America.