By the time the last brick is laid atop President Donald Trump’s Mexican wall, it’s a fair bet that someone more antagonistic toward the U.S. will hold power on its southern side.
Especially if that someone is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Which, thanks to Trump, looks increasingly likely.
The politician known locally as Amlo is the early frontrunner in Mexico’s 2018 presidential race. By itself, that may not mean much: Polls are unreliable, voting is a long way off, and Lopez Obrador is a two-time election loser in a country that stood aloof from Latin America’s populist turn and instead tethered its economy ever closer to the U.S.
But good luck selling that line to Mexicans right now. The momentum on Amlo’s side is palpable. Amid a spasm of national rage, voters are increasingly sympathetic to the cries of a radical outsider who promises to end a relationship of “subordination” to the U.S. and rebuild the domestic economy. In other words, Trump — with his brash pledges to rewrite Nafta and stick Mexico with the bill for building the wall — has created the perfect climate for an anti-Trump south of the border.
“Winner of today’s U.S. Mexico dust-up: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador,” Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer tweeted last week. “Hope Trump is looking forward to working with him.”
Even if it doesn’t come to that, the relationship is getting tense, as Mexico’s mainstream parties are pulled in Amlo’s direction. President Enrique Pena Nieto, who can’t run for re-election, canceled a visit with Trump scheduled for this week. And he’s begun to stress the importance of bolstering the local economy and raising wages — even though keeping them low, to make Mexico attractive to American corporations, has effectively been government policy for decades.
Mexico’s peso slid about 17 percent after Trump’s election win, before recovering some of those losses since he took office. Still, almost every time the new president talks about Mexico, there’s something to make investors uneasy — and Mexicans madder. This week, for example, he’s said to have suggested the U.S. might send troops to deal with “bad hombres down there,” a comment later downplayed as “lighthearted.” On Friday, a report showed Mexican consumers have never been so pessimistic about their economic prospects.
Popular feeling is running so strong that Mexican politicians have little choice but to fall in line. Online campaigns are calling on Mexicans to vacation at home (“Adios Disneylandia… Hola Mexico”). Local governments and activists demand boycotts of U.S. products. Many Mexicans have draped the national flag across their social media pages.
It just sounds less convincing coming from leaders who’ve made a career out of close U.S. ties. Pena Nieto’s approval rating is 12 percent. Jose Hernandez Solis, a 56-year-old street vendor at an Amlo rally in Mexico City on Monday, certainly wasn’t persuaded.
“The president is a boot-licker,” Solis said. “Lopez Obrador has the guts to stand up to Trump and tell it like it is.” Straight talk, of course, is exactly the reason many U.S. voters gave for backing Trump.
At the rally, Lopez Obrador — a 63-year-old with a shock of white hair who’s recently taken to sporting sideburns — did what he usually does. He blamed “neoliberalism” for rampant inequality and violence, and vowed to protect local farmers from northern competition. “Everything depends on strengthening Mexico,” he said, “so we can confront aggression from abroad with strength.”
Such rhetoric almost won him the presidency in 2006. Lopez Obrador lost that election by less than 1 percentage point. His supporters shut down central Mexico City for weeks afterward, claiming the vote was rigged. The standoff irritated many Mexicans, and may have contributed to Amlo’s defeat by Pena Nieto in 2012, when the margin was wider.
An Amlo presidency would be a step into the unknown for Mexico. His Morena party is only two years old; by contrast, Pena Nieto’s PRI has roots in the Mexican Revolution of a century ago, and has been in power for all but 12 years since then. An early test of the 2018 contenders may come in June this year when several states hold local elections.
There’s at least one Latin American precedent that’s encouraging for a left-leaning, nicknamed politician on the comeback trail. Luiz Inacio Da Silva finally won Brazil’s presidency for his Workers’ Party in 2002 after three failed attempts.
If Amlo can repeat Lula’s feat, it will spell trouble for Washington, according to Jose Cardenas, a former senior official at the State Department. The Brazilian toned down his populism once he took office. Lopez Obrador, according to Cardenas, bears a closer resemblance to another Latin leader who didn’t.
Amlo is a “Hugo Chavez wannabe,” Cardenas wrote in National Review. He warned of likely disputes “on everything from border security, counterterrorism, and drug-war cooperation to deportations and restricting Central American migration.”
Every item on that list is a hot-button issue for Trump. But, as seen from Mexico, they’re primarily northern problems.
South of the border, corruption and violence — especially the disappearance and killing of dozens of students two years ago, in which the police were implicated — had spread disillusion with the political establishment well before Trump’s arrival.
Lopez Obrador would add the country’s U.S.-friendly energy and agriculture policies to the catalog of woes. He says Mexico will consume its own gasoline and food on his watch, instead of importing it.
That would mean changes to Nafta, probably not the ones Trump has in mind — assuming the trade pact survives at all. Its impact on Mexico is hotly debated in any case, and both sides can cite data that backs up their arguments.
Nafta has made no inroads into Mexico’s poverty rate. It stood at 53 percent in 2014, pretty much unchanged from two decades earlier when the trade accord went into effect, according to the World Bank. But the country has attracted billions of dollars of foreign investment in that period, turning it into the worlds seventh-largest automaker and creating thousands of jobs.
Lopez Obrador and his supporters take the glass-half-empty view.
“Nafta is a straitjacket that has kept 50 percent of our society in poverty” said Senator Manuel Bartlett of the Labor Party. “This is not about being antagonistic to the United States, it’s about being nationalist in defense of Mexico’s interests.”
Americans north of the wall may soon get to decide for themselves which description fits Amlo best. He’s planning a speaking tour of U.S. cities with large immigrant communities. First up, on Feb. 12, is Los Angeles.