After months of sparring with the Trump administration, the Mexican government has a new point of frustration with its US counterparts.
During testimony in front of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on April 5, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly was pressed by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain on the current status of US-Mexico relations.
After asking about the border wall and ways to monitor the border, McCain turned to Mexican domestic politics.
McCain: But, however, we’ve got a problem with Mexico. Right now there’s a lot of anti-American sentiment in Mexico. If the election were tomorrow in Mexico, you would probably get a left-wing, anti-American president of Mexico. That can’t be good for America.
Kelly: Right. It would not be good for America or for Mexico.
McCain and Kelly then moved on to discuss US-Mexico security cooperation, with Kelly saying he had close working relationships with Mexican officials, particularly the chiefs of the army and navy.
But their brief exchange — which seemed to be a reference to leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador — on the state of the Mexican presidential race raised the hackles of the Mexican government.
The next day, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray, speaking at a news conference in Washington, said he had brought the remarks up with Kelly.
“I told him in a respectful but clear manner that the electoral decisions … correspond to Mexicans alone and that what we expect from the United States is respect toward the Mexican electoral process,” Videgaray said.
Lopez Obrador, responding to the remarks, dismissed the notion that he was “anti-American,” but he has railed against Trump and the US president’s policies.
The Mexican populist, who views himself as an outsider, has made hay of Trump’s anti-Mexico stance during his campaign, especially during stops in the US, exhibiting both fiery rhetoric and restraint in his criticisms.
“We should counter the strategy of Trump and his advisers not with shouts and insults … but with intelligence, wisdom and dignity,” he said during an event in Los Angeles earlier this year. “This is a battle that we should wage on the terrain of ideas.”
Lopez Obrador left office as Mexico City mayor in 2005 with an approval rating over 80%, but lost narrowly in the 2006 and 2012 presidential races, disputing the result each time. Prior to Trump’s election, Lopez Obrador drew comparisons to him on both style and some of his positions, which Lopez Obrador rejected.
He also railed against corruption and graft viewed as pervasive in Mexican politics, though his own dealings have attracted scrutiny. Some observers see him as pursuing politics of personality and showing “little commitment to institutions,” though his supporters have heralded him as a welcome change from the current government, seen as venal and unresponsive.
Lopez Obrador has also placed high in recent polls, seemingly buoyed by anti-Trump fervor.
An early-April poll showed 29% of respondents intended to vote him, behind the 32% garnered by Margarita Zavala of the conservative National Action Party but ahead of the 27% earned by Miguel Osorio Chong of the governing center-right Institutional Revolutionary Party. Another poll from March put them at 33%, 27%, and 13%, respectively.
A poll released this week on party preference showed Lopez Obrador’s National Regeneration Movement (Morena) party with a slight lead on the PAN, 24% to 23%, with the PRI at 13%.
Recent weeks have seen strains in US-Mexico ties soothed by less frequent pronouncements from Trump and more high-level engagement, including by Kelly, the Homeland Security secretary.
Those improvements suggest smoother sailing over the 15 months between now and Mexico’s presidential voting.
Lopez Obrador himself has avoided criticising President Enrique Peña Nieto directly, but a poor handling of those issues by Peña Nieto and his PRI government could make Lopez Obrador Trump’s next Mexican counterpart.
“Our relationship with the United States will be one of friendship and cooperation, but not one of submission,” Lopez Obrador said in response to McCain and Kelly’s comments. “We are a free and sovereign nation.”
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