By Dave Graham
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The politician leading the race to be Mexico’s next leader said on Sunday he wants to broker a deal with U.S. President Donald Trump to stem illegal immigration through jobs and development rather than a border wall.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the favorite to win Mexico’s July 1 presidential election, said he hoped to craft a deal with Trump similar to the “Alliance for Progress”, an aid plan launched in 1961 by then-president John F. Kennedy to help Latin America.
“Our dream, which we’ll achieve regardless of whether Trump accepts or not, is that the Mexican can work and be happy where he was born,” Lopez Obrador said during a campaign event in the southern border city of Tapachula.
Aides to Lopez Obrador, a leftist former mayor of Mexico City, say he thinks he can find common ground with Trump over migration, which has fueled tensions between the two countries.
For months the Mexican candidate has been working on his plan to improve wages and create better conditions for Mexican workers. It must also raise living standards in Central America and create more job opportunities there, said Lopez Obrador, 64.
Skeptics, however, doubt Lopez Obrador could persuade Trump to abandon his proposed border wall, a signature campaign pledge that fires up his political base, or that Trump would embrace a program to create employment in Mexico, which the U.S. president accuses of stealing American jobs.
Part of Lopez Obrador’s pitch, aides say, rests on his willingness to say the buck stops with him.
The candidate has said repeatedly that Mexico must do more to solve its own problems, including fighting corruption and violent crime, a view that Trump shares.
“Andres’ point is that it’s (Mexico’s) fault, it’s not the fault of the United States,” said campaign aide Marcelo Ebrard, who succeeded Lopez Obrador as mayor, serving from 2006-2012.
Lopez Obrador’s advisers say his plan has progressed on the back of months of study of the U.S. president. The candidate said he would detail his proposal in due course and that he also wanted Canada to be part of it.
Lopez Obrador has already talked of creating a special zone along Mexico’s northern border with lower taxes and higher wages. His advisers told Reuters that measures could also be directed at the southern border and elsewhere to contain migration.
If elected, Lopez Obrador would take office on Dec. 1. Aides say he would push for a development deal with Trump soon after assuming power.
Kennedy’s 1961 “Alliance for Progress” was a multi-billion dollar program that set out to improve democracy and living standards in Latin America. It had limited success.
It is unclear how Lopez Obrador’s plan would be funded or win over the current U.S. president, who not only insists Mexico will pay for his border wall, but is also threatening to quit the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) because of U.S. jobs moving to Mexico.
“Trump will not spend a dime of taxpayer money in any form or program for aid or support in Mexico,” said Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador in Washington.
By engaging with the United States on migration, Lopez Obrador also risks exposing himself to attacks by political opponents that he is appeasing Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Mexico.
Still, if Lopez Obrador can forge a personal relationship with Trump from the outset, and secures a strong electoral mandate, he might have more success, Sarukhan said.
“These are signals of strength that I think Trump will identify,” he added.
The U.S. government would not speculate on the outcome of Mexico’s election, a State Department spokeswoman said.
“We look forward to working with whomever the people of Mexico choose,” she said.
An election win by Lopez Obrador would put already-strained U.S.-Mexico relations into the hands of two mavericks with often directly opposing nationalist visions.
Austere in his habits, the Mexican candidate is in some ways quite unlike the flamboyant billionaire.
Still, adversaries frequently compare Lopez Obrador to Trump. Like the American, he can be thin-skinned, tends to belittle rivals and has often clashed with the media.
Some political observers worry the two could prove an explosive combination.
Within weeks of Trump taking office, Lopez Obrador toured several U.S. cities, pledging his support to Mexican immigrants, whom Trump had described as “rapists” in his election campaign. Lopez Obrador had strong words of his own, likening Trump’s rhetoric about Mexicans to Hitler’s vilification of Jews.
However, he has since softened his tone and stresses he wants to pursue friendly, respectful ties with Trump, even if his policy will always be “Mexico First”, said Hector Vasconcelos, Lopez Obrador’s pick for foreign minister.
Supporters contend that Lopez Obrador, a Mexican history buff who does not speak English, could be the perfect foil for Trump, because of his Mexico-centric vision.
“Nobody in their right mind could imagine him selling out to Trump,” said John Ackerman, a constitutional law expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Reconciling their differences would be a challenge.
Trump has pursued a renegotiation of NAFTA to repatriate jobs from Mexico and limit Mexican exports to the United States.
Lopez Obrador, meanwhile, wants Mexico to be self-sufficient in foodstuffs and gasoline, two major U.S. exports to Mexico. He has also signaled a more independent stance on security.
The potential perils of negotiating with Trump were illustrated on Saturday at the G7 summit in Canada. Just hours after agreeing to a joint statement on several policy issues with the United States’ closest allies, Trump changed his mind.
He then blasted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “dishonest” and “weak” on Twitter and threatened to escalate a trade dispute with Canada, stunning assembled diplomats.
Still, Tatiana Clouthier, another senior aide on the Lopez Obrador campaign, said he would be far more assertive with Trump than the outgoing Mexican president, Enrique Pena Nieto, who is limited by law to a single term.
Pena Nieto was ridiculed in the media for inviting then-candidate Trump to Mexico City in 2016 and failing to defuse tensions over the wall. And his attempts to build bridges with Washington have not curbed Trump’s enthusiasm for lashing out at Mexico, or ended uncertainty over the future of NAFTA.
Lopez Obrador would drive a hard bargain in talks with Trump on issues like security, his aides say. But he has no illusions about the test that Trump represents, said Lorenzo Meyer, a Mexican historian and longtime friend of Lopez Obrador.
“He knows he’s got a problem there,” Meyer said. “That they’ll need to handle (Trump) very carefully.”
(Reporting by Dave Graham; Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City; Editing by Marla Dickerson)