Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Wednesday he plans to travel to Washington to meet with President Donald Trump, an announcement that was met with a storm of criticism in Mexico.
López Obrador said he wants to make his first trip abroad in the first week of July to mark the start of the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade accord, which was negotiated with the Trump administration.
Trump is deeply unpopular in Mexico because of his remarks about the country. And Mexicans remember former President Enrique Peña Nieto’s ill-starred meeting with Trump that many feel strengthened Trump as a candidate in the 2016 election. Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department then issued a statement saying López Obrador's administration wants to steer clear of the U.S. elections.
The two leaders have displayed surprisingly cordial relations despite ideological differences. Trump said of López Obrador on Tuesday: "He’s really a great guy. I think he’ll be coming into Washington pretty soon." López Obrador has called Trump a friend and said his administration has shown respect for Mexico
Roberto Velasco Álvarez, the Foreign Relations Department's director of North American affairs, wrote in his Twitter account that "Mexican diplomacy is based on building bridges with all people."
"The main objective of the meeting proposed by President López Obrador is promoting our interests, and is not related to internal (U.S.) political processes," Velasco Alvarez wrote.
The critics were out in force, though.
Mexico's former ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhán, called the trip "a colossal political, electoral, diplomatic and long-term strategic error."
"Trump is only interested in using the Mexican president as a theatrical prop for the elections," wrote Sarukhán. "For broad sectors of U.S. society, visiting Trump now, when the country is experiencing its deepest social and ideological crisis in 50 years ... will be interpreted by many here as a show of support for the most polarizing president in modern U.S. history."
Though he is famous in Mexico for declining international travel, López Obrador said early Wednesday that he wants to go to Washington. He said he hopes Canada will participate in the meeting as well, "but at any rate we will go because it is very important to participate at the launch of an agreement that I consider historic."
The president has studiously avoided conflict with Mexico's much larger neighbor, even after Trump threatened to put crippling tariffs on Mexican goods imported into the U.S. unless Mexico did more to stop migrant caravans. Mexico effectively blocked the caravans.
Trump angered many Mexicans when as a candidate in 2016, he said Mexicans crossing the border brought drugs, crime and "tremendous infectious disease" to the U.S.. At the time, critics said Peña Nieto gave him a pulpit when he invited both U.S. candidates to Mexico City in 2016, but only Trump accepted. After taking office, Trump continued to promise to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it.
In a recent piece for the Washington Post, Mexican columnist León Krauze wrote about the 2016 meeting, "Why would López Obrador, who was so critical of Peña Nieto’s decision to prop up Trump during a contentious election, risk international opprobrium and condemnation at home over the exact same mistake?"
Krauze noted López Obrador hasn't yet discussed meeting with Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden.
"It could simply be another step in the Mexican president’s strange appeasement of the American president, a plan that has led him to embrace controversial immigration measures far from the humanitarian approach he promised as a candidate," Krauze wrote.