4 more years of Andrés Manuel López Obrador? Part 1: Economy

President Trump and his Mexican
counterpart, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), will put on smiles, if not
masks, as they meet this week in Washington to showcase cooperation on trade
and immigration.

Trump can argue credibly that his hardnosed demands of Mexico produced a dramatic drop in illegal crossings since a deluge on the southwest border in May 2019. AMLO, who just celebrated the second anniversary of his landslide election, makes his first international trip to Washington to highlight his wily ability to strike deals with a man whose 2016 campaign featured nasty caricatures of Mexicans. What will not be said is that Mexico is in terrible shape, and US interests there are in grave jeopardy.

There was a time when the deft handling of
this prickly bilateral relationship was pivotal for a Mexican president. Washington
policy makers spent decades coaxing Mexico to fortify a modern state that would
enforce the rules of a market economy and fight drug smuggling. Today, these efforts
scarcely matter, as AMLO has essentially surrendered the economy and abandoned
security and public order to the coronavirus and organized crime.

“My country hasn’t been in worse shape in
my lifetime,” a Mexican political analyst told me on the eve of the meeting.
“Mexico’s economic and security problems are getting worse every day, and AMLO
not only seems indifferent to these challenges, but he seems to welcome them as
part of his ruinous agenda.”

Ryan Berg, of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), is more circumspect. He worries that Mexico is not poised to reap the benefits of the revised North American trade accord. “The coronavirus continues to cripple the main pillars of the Mexican economy — tourism, energy production, and manufacturing. The country’s economy could contract 9 percent this year, and more than 20 million Mexicans could slip into poverty,” he says. “According to an internal government report, the pandemic is likely to cost Mexico one million (formal sector) jobs.”

Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador holds a news conference at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Romero

Not so long ago, AMLO’s folksy style and
rambling morning news conferences reassured his supporters that he was a
well-meaning outsider, addled but harmless. From the beginning, however, the political
opposition, business class, and foreign investors saw a stubborn populist who
indulged expensive pet projects and used state powers to gouge opponents and
protect cronies.

It is fair to note that Mexico’s economy was treading water even before AMLO took office, and the coronavirus can be blamed for the current recession. But what AMLO has done has made matters worse. He failed to take the pandemic threat seriously, and he continues to drag his feet in the national response. His early decisions to reverse an historic opening of the energy sector to foreign capital, to cancel a massive airport project in the capital, and, recently, to short-change a desperately needed stimulus bill have confirmed investors’ worst expectations.

AMLO’s March cancellation of a $1.5 billion investment by the US firm Constellation Brands to build a beer bottling plant near Mexicali cost the region 2,000 jobs. AMLO based this draconian decision on a poorly attended plebiscite driven by disputed estimates of the facility’s water usage. The cancellation was another blow to Mexico’s reputation among international investors, dropping the country out of the top 25 countries, for the first time since 2011, in the Kearney Foreign Direct Investment Confidence Index. A recent survey of businesses by the Bank of Mexico revealed the paucity of investor confidence: 92 percent considered it a bad time to invest.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may skip the North American trade rollout, making the Trump-AMLO encounter a summit of outsiders. President Trump, four months shy of election night, will be showcasing his ability to deliver results on border security and trade reform. AMLO already is drawing fire at home for, as respected intellectual and commentator Enrique Krauze put it, traveling to Washington to pay “revererence to a man who has maligned [Mexicans].” With his country’s problems mounting, such criticism will scarcely bother AMLO.

However, Mexico’s mounting problems should bother Americans — because the man on stage with President Trump this week appears oblivious to the terrible shape his country is in, indifferent to the costs of inaction, lacking any sound ideas for halting his nation’s steep decline, and unprepared for a long four more years ahead of him.