Donald Trump and his Mexican counterpart, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, praised a bilateral relationship they say has never been stronger at a White House summit to mark the USMCA free trade deal, glossing over past differences over migration, trade tariffs and the US border wall.
On his first foreign trip as president, and the first meeting between the two populists, Mr López Obrador effusively praised Mr Trump’s demonstration of “understanding and respect” towards Mexico, despite ideological differences that some had forecast would lead to clashes.
“What I most appreciate is that you have never sought to impose on us anything that would undermine our sovereignty . . . You haven’t tried to treat us as a colony,” he said at ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.
“I’m here to express to the people of the United States that their president has behaved towards us with kindness and respect. He has treated us the way we are — a dignified, free, democratic and sovereign country and people,” he added. “Long live the friendship between our two nations.”
“The relationship between the United States and Mexico has never been closer than it is right now, and as the president said . . . people were betting against that. We are doing tremendous job together. We are cherished friends, partners, and neighbours,” he said.
Mr López Obrador made several stops during his Washington visit, including to the Lincoln memorial © Bloomberg
Mr López Obrador skirted touchy subjects — praising the contribution Mexican migrants had made to the US, for example, but avoiding criticism of Mr Trump’s insults towards Mexicans, immigration policy, its attempts to scrap protections for Mexicans taken to the US as children under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme or Mr Trump’s provocative recent tour of the US-Mexico border wall.
Mexico last year cracked down on Central American migrants heading north, at Mr Trump’s behest, after he threatened to impose tariffs on all Mexican exports.
But Mr López Obrador — who was elected president in December 2018 and has scant interest in international affairs and prefers to focus on tackling corruption and poverty in Mexico — thanked Mr Trump for making up the difference when Mexico refused Opec-led oil production cuts at Easter, and for helping provide ventilators to Mexico during the Covid-19 crisis.
Despite criticism at home for appearing biased, he is not meeting Joe Biden, the Democrat who will challenge Mr Trump four months from now in the US presidential election.
Pamela Starr, a professor at the University of Southern California, said both leaders got what they wanted.
“Trump will be able to say ‘I changed the relationship with Mexico — they weren’t our friends, on trade or migration — but now everything is going well. And it plays into López Obrador’s hands — he can say the US isn’t meddling in Mexican affairs,” she said.
Boosting the image of the two nations as allies, reports emerged while Mr López Obrador was at the White House that César Duarte, former governor of the state of Chihuahua, who is wanted on graft charges, had been captured in Florida.
Despite their relationship of unequals “López Obrador isn’t cowering before the US. He’s being very strategic . . . he’s learned how to play Trump,” Ms Starr said.
But Roberta Jacobson, a former US ambassador to Mexico, was less sure.
“If he thinks that going to the US at this moment is going to insulate him from future attacks by this president, especially in an election year . . . I think he’s fooling himself,” she told a Wilson Center webinar.