MEXICO CITY – After testing negative for the coronavirus, Mexican head of state Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador left Tuesday on a commercial flight bound for the United States and a highly anticipated meeting with President Donald Trump in Washington.
The stated purpose of the foreign visit, which is Lopez Obrador’s first since taking office in late 2018 and one fraught with concerns about its political ramifications, is to celebrate the launch of a new trilateral trade deal – the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the successor to the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.
The flight carrying the austere Mexican leader – who has put the presidential plane up for sale – and part of his delegation took off at 1:35 pm and was scheduled to land Tuesday night.
Early Wednesday, Lopez Obrador, Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard and Economy Secretary Graciela Marquez will lay wreaths at the Lincoln Memorial, which honors the 16th US President, Abraham Lincoln; and at the Statue of Benito Juarez, a 19th-century Mexican president and Zapotec Indian known for abolishing the legal privileges enjoyed by the Catholic Church and the army and passing laws to improve living conditions for millions of Mexican indigenous people.
On Wednesday afternoon, Lopez Obrador will visit the White House for a private meeting with his US counterpart, to be followed by a meeting in which the two heads of state will be accompanied by their respective teams.
The working portion of his visit will conclude with a dinner that Trump is offering at the White House for the Mexican government officials and a group of business leaders from both countries.
Ricardo Salinas Pliego, the owner of Mexican broadcaster TV Azteca; and Carlos Hank Gonzalez, chairman of the board of directors of Grupo Financiero Banorte, will be among those in attendance on the Mexican side, according to local media.
After a stay of just over 24 hours on foreign soil, Lopez Obrador will return to Mexico early Thursday.
The Mexican leader’s first foreign visit is not devoid of controversy, with some in his homeland denouncing the trip as an act of subservience that effectively rewards Trump for his past insults of the US’s southern neighbor.
The American president infamously launched his campaign in 2015 by saying that his country’s failure to implement tough immigration policy had resulted in crime, drugs and even “rapists” spilling across the border from Mexico.
He also has repeatedly vowed to build a wall spanning the US-Mexico border to put a stop to illegal immigration and last year threatened to impose escalating tariffs on all Mexican imports unless Lopez Obrador’s administration took decisive steps to halt the northward flow of mostly Central American migrants.
That threat led to a bilateral agreement in which Mexico deployed a new National Guard force to its southern border with Guatemala and agreed to take in more migrants pending their asylum hearings in the US.
Prior to becoming president, Lopez Obrador openly criticized the US president and even wrote a book, “Oye, Trump” (Listen, Trump), in which he laid out his proposals for defending the millions of Mexican-born undocumented migrants living in the US.
But the Mexican leader has adopted a much more conciliatory tone since taking office in December 2018.
“We’re not going there looking for confrontation,” the Mexican president said in a press conference Tuesday at Mexico City’s National Palace in which he repeatedly referred to the strong bilateral relationship.
And when asked for his opinion about the wall that Trump has pledged to build along the entire 3,000-kilometer-long (1,865-mile-long) border, Lopez Obrador was non-committal: “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves … I’m also the owner of my silence.”
Although he acknowledged that other topics will be addressed, the official purpose of the visit is the July 1 launch of the USMCA, a treaty of vital importance to Mexico because 80 percent of the country’s exports – goods and services valued at $371 billion annually – are destined for the US.
“Cooperation is always important for development, but now under the circumstances of a global economic crisis this treaty will help us a lot. It’s very opportune,” Lopez Obrador said.
But although the trade deal is a trilateral agreement, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will not make the trip due to “scheduled Cabinet meetings and the long-planned sitting of Parliament,” his press secretary said on Monday.
Lopez Obrador’s visit comes at a crucial time for Mexico, where coronavirus-triggered lockdowns have plunged the country into its worst economic crisis in decades.
While the US is the global epicenter of the pandemic with 2.93 million confirmed coronavirus cases and roughly 130,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19, Mexico ranks eighth in confirmed cases (more than 250,000) and fifth in deaths (more than 31,000).
As part of the protocol for the trip, Lopez Obrador finally underwent a coronavirus test and the result came back negative.