Back in 2016, on August 31, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto welcomed the then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump to Mexico City. It was an unusual meeting that took everyone one – on both sides of the border – by surprise. 

It happened at a time when the Mexican Government realized the Republican Candidate could win the elections over Hillary Clinton. The meeting was widely criticized in Mexico. Political parties, intellectuals, the academia considered inappropriate a meeting with someone who insulted Mexico and Mexicans so many times. Even after the meeting, Trump ratified his views on the border wall and insisted that Mexico should pay for it!

It was the time when Mexican pop singer and national icon Juan Gabriel died. Mexicans were mourning him and, once the Peña Nieto-Trump meeting was scheduled many used a very well-known song by Juan Gabriel “Qué necesidad” (What’s the need?) to express their concern on the consequences of not extending the same courtesy to Hillary Clinton, the Democrat Presidential candidate. Peña Nieto said he invited her. Yet, they never met. 

As it is well known, Trump became President and once in power he developed a nationalist-protectionist trade policy. He decided the US could not be a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Then, he decided to negotiate a new free trade agreement, USMCA, with Mexico and Canada, to replace what he considered the “worst trade deal ever”- i.e., NAFTA. He initiated a trade war against China. He imposed trade barriers to steel and aluminum to all US’ partners. He punished European allies by imposing tariffs on several goods and services by arguing unfair trade practices.

For a while, economic nationalism seemed to work for Trump. The economy grew, not at the promised 4.6% rate, but between 2-3%, which is not bad. Unemployment declined – as of December 2019 it was 3.5% the lowest in half a century. Despite low rates of unionization, salaries grew. Median household income also climbed. The trade deficit in fact increased under Trump, despite his claims that economic measures, including the new USMCA would turn it into a trade surplus. But that is not bad news at all, since it showed people consuming more products, thus, boosting the economy.

Those economic gains promised a swift and smooth reelection for Trump. Yet COVID-19 changed that. The pandemic not only vaporized economic growth, employment, and international markets for US products. It demanded economic measures and multi-billion rescue packages to supporting the economy. The fact that the US is the worst-hit country in the world by COVID-19, with more than 2.5 million confirmed cases and 126 000 diseases, doesn’t help Trump. On the contrary. To the eyes of many Americans, Trump has poorly managed the health crisis and now he’s paying the toll.

US’ allies are turning their backs on Trump. By depicting multilateralism and the withdrawal from the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO), the International Coffee Organization (ICO) and, most recently the World Health Organization (WHO), Trump has secured almost universal condemnation and isolation from most of the world. Germany’s Angela Merkel was horrified at the US withdrawal from WHO, since, she commented, it is time to work together to find a solution to COVID-19, and WHO is the forum to do so. Racial violence is also an issue that has gained Trump a lot of criticism inside and outside the country.

Trump is alone, well, almost. There’s only a bunch of friends, not many, that may take his calls: Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador – also known by the acronym AMLO.

Under these circumstances, AMLO decided it would be a good idea to travel to Washington to meet with Trump – and possibly Canada’s Justin Trudeau – to celebrate the coming into force of USMCA. The fact that no leader in the world is meeting with one another – physically speaking – due to health safety reasons, comes to mind. Leaders prefer virtual meetings, which is understandable, safer and politically wiser. 

Trump seems to have a good opinion of AMLO. He has repeatedly stated that he “likes this one, not the other guy” – in reference to Peña Nieto. This has to do most probably to the fact that AMLO has comply with everything Trump has asked from Mexico: the ratification of a new trade deal – with several changes with respect to the original version; the sealing of Mexico’s southern border; to contain migrants in Mexico, thus preventing them from entering the US territory, and such. 

Since his inauguration, AMLO has never travelled abroad. Mexico’s foreign relations are handled by Marcelo Ebrard, former Mayor of Mexico City and current Foreign Minister. He has attended, on AMLO’s behalf, most international meetings prior to the pandemic. Yet AMLO has decided he wants to meet with Trump. And Trump is looking forward to it. Mexico extended an invitation to Canada’s Prime Minister who said he will not be attending. Thus, it will be just Trump and AMLO.

What is the reason for having such a meeting? USMCA will come into force anyway. It is true that the circumstances under which the agreement was negotiated dramatically changed due to the pandemic, but that goes beyond the will of the involved parties. It is also true that Mexico endorsed the candidacy of Jesús Seade, the former Vice Minister for North American Affairs and chief negotiator of the final version of USMCA, to lead the almost-defunct World Trade Organization (WTO) but there’s no need to meet with Trump to gain his support for Seade. He seems to be Washington’s man anyway. In addition to that, Mexico has secured his membership at the United Nations Security Council for the 2021-2022 period.

It is foreseeable the meeting between AMLO and Trump will draw a lot of media attention, but for the wrong reasons. It will happen when Trump is isolated from the world and finds himself in the polls below electoral preferences over Joe Biden. It will be the first face-to-face meeting between two heads of state – will they wear face masks by the way? – during the quarantine, in a region that is the world epicenter of the disease. It will also be AMLO’s first trip abroad.

It is hard to answer, indeed, why this meeting will take place, if it wasn’t for the desire of the Mexican Government to boost the political prolife of Trump in face of the forthcoming presidential elections. Yet, if this is the reason, it is a very risky bet. The visit should be accompanied by a clear effort from the Mexican Government to arrange for a meeting between AMLO and Biden -probably the later won’t accept a face-to-face encounter, but even a virtual meeting would be extremely important at this time. The Democrats are already disappointed at Mexico since 2016 – and for reason. Thus, a healing strategy between Mexico and the Democrats seems crucial. Otherwise, recalling Juan Gabriel, what’s the need?

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