Mexico’s next president is a Trump critic promising new US-Mexico relations

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(CNN) — Get ready for a new era of Mexico-US relations.

Voters overwhelmingly chose Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as Mexico’s next president, embracing his leftist platforms and his criticism of US President Donald Trump.

Lopez Obrador, known by his initials “AMLO,” will succeed President Enrique Peña Nieto on December 1.

He’s vowed to tackle Mexico’s most dire challenges — poverty, violence and corruption — while denouncing elitism and welcoming populism to the country’s highest office.

But internationally, many will be watching how AMLO’s respectful but contentious attitude toward Trump will play out.

‘Listen, Trump’

When it comes to AMLO’s thoughts about Trump’s proposed border wall, the title of his recent book says it all: “Listen, Trump! Saying Yes to a New Start for Mexico, Saying No to a Wall,” the cover reads, featuring an image of AMLO lecturing and pointing his finger.

In a speech to his supporters, AMLO said he would forge a new relationship with the US “rooted in mutual respect and in defense of our migrant countrymen who work and live honestly in that country.”

He said migration should be done by choice — not by necessity — saying Mexico needs to “strengthen the internal market to try to produce in the country what we consume and so that Mexicans can work and be happy where they were born, where their family is, where their customs and their cultures are.”

After AMLO’s victory, Trump tweeted his congratulations and said he looked forward to working with the President-elect.

“There is much to be done that will benefit both the United States and Mexico,” Trump said.

AMLO reciprocated the kind words Monday in an interview with CNN affiliate Televisa.

“I want to thank him (Trump) for his message, for congratulating me. It was very respectful,” he said. “That is what we are looking for in our relationship with the United States — that there is mutual respect, we will never disrespect him. … We do not fight; we will always look for an agreement.”

Victory speech mentioned migrants

AMLO made a point of mentioning migrants several times in his victory speech, emphasizing his plans to improve Mexico’s economy from the ground up, with an eye toward making life better for the country’s poorest and most vulnerable.

“Whoever wants to emigrate,” he said, “should do it out of desire and not out of necessity.”

One thing AMLO didn’t mention Sunday night: how he plans to handle the thousands of migrants from Central America who come through Mexico on their way to the United States. In recent years, Mexico has deported more Central Americans than the United States.

When the issue came up in a presidential debate, Lopez Obrador steered clear of declaring a firm stance on that matter. But he did suggest that if he were elected, Mexico would stop doing the United States’ “dirty work.”He also said he wanted Central American countries to be part of regional negotiations aimed at addressing the social and economic problems that fuel migration.

In a campaign speech last month, Lopez Obrador vowed to defend migrants and their rights — comments that spurred some right-wing websites in the United States to falsely claim the candidate had called for an immigrant invasion of the United States.

Here’s what Lopez Obrador actually said, according to a video posted on his campaign website: “We are going to defend the migrants from Mexico, from Central America, from the whole American continent and all the migrants of the world that out of necessity have to abandon their villages to go seek a better life in the United States; it is a human right that we are going to defend for Mexicans and for all migrants.”

Slashing his salary and calling out the ‘power mafia’

AMLO ran on a populist platform, saying he’s sick of the grip that Mexico’s elite — or “power mafia” — have on the country.

So he’s vowed to lower the salaries of top officials and even cut his own salary in half. (The 2016-2017 presidential salary was about 2.5 million pesos, or about $124,000, before taxes.)

He’s also promised to sell presidential planes and turn the presidential palace into a public park while increasing the salaries of lower-paid government workers.

Voter Dario Manuel Lopez Pineda’s said AMLO, the former mayor of Mexico City, has a strong track record of helping ordinary citizens.

“He was the first to give universal pension to seniors. He created 16 high schools in marginal areas,” Lopez Pineda said.

“He created such seemingly insignificant things such as permanent driver licenses so that the government would not keep taking money from the people.”

Ousting corruption and fighting violence

In Mexico City, voter Maria del Carmen Munoz said she supported AMLO during his two previous presidential campaigns.

“The third time (was) the charm,” she said. “I have supported him for so long because I believe in him, because the government we have is rotten.”

Lopez Obrador said the country’s infamous corruption was the “result of a political regime in decay.”

“We are absolutely certain that this evil is the principal cause of social inequality and of economic inequality,” he said. “Because of corruption, violence has erupted in our country.”

He said he will work with representatives of the United Nations, human rights groups and religious organizations to help tackle the murder rate, which soared to an all-time high under Peña Nieto’s tenure.

“The country’s problems are grave,” AMLO told Televisa. “But I am confident and I am willing to face these challenges.”

(CNN) — Like President Donald Trump, the new President-elect of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is adding his name to a growing list of elected leaders worldwide who have been swept into office on a trend of populist disaffection with the global political establishment. López Obrador’s decisive win is rattling international investors, Mexican business leaders, and many Americans who are alarmed that a leftist Evo Morales-type leader has suddenly appeared right on our doorstep.

The US-Mexico relationship is at its lowest and most dangerous level in years. Recent US policies advocating a security wall and separation of families at the border, along with NAFTA negotiations on the verge of collapse, have left this once very special relationship in tatters even before the Mexico election. Given these political realities, what should the United States’ position be towards the new Mexican leader, who comes to office with an electoral mandate?

For President Trump, López Obrador’s victory represents an opportunity to rebuild a strained relationship. Both men are populist leaders who talk directly to their bases and could use the same candor to talk to each other. On the other hand, if President Trump chooses to alienate him — as he has our Canadian and European allies — López Obrador could become a thorn in his side by refusing to cooperate on critical bilateral issues, such as drugs, cartels, trade and investment. To start on the right track, Trump must do the following;

First, immediately call López Obrador to congratulate him on his victory and invite him to the White House as President-elect. (On Sunday, Trump offered congratulations via Twitter.) The gesture of a call and an invitation would go a long way, given the turbulent Trump-Peña Nieto relationship that never produced a White House visit.

Second, pursue a policy of benign neglect; give López Obrador time and space to develop his own policies rather than cornering him into carrying his political capital to defend himself from unreasonable demands, such as paying for a border wall. While benign neglect was derided as a US policy approach to Latin America in the past, it might make sense today.

Third, settle NAFTA negotiations as soon as possible. This is an agreement that has been improved and modernized by the three countries in recent negotiations. It is a good solid agreement, particularly for US agricultural interests. López Obrador made it clear during his campaign that he has no interest in repealing NAFTA, as many critics had assumed. He has even gone as far as proposing a 30-kilometer duty free zone along the US-Mexico border to increase border trade.

Fourth, end the use of White House back channels between both countries that bypassed both the State Department and experienced diplomats on both sides. The Jared Kushner channel has only added confusion and misunderstandings on both sides. The proper contact is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the State Department.

Fifth, at the outset, focus the new relationship on issues where there is common ground with little chance of friction, such as narcotics cooperation, organized crime and cartels, and bilateral trade and commerce.

No one knows for certain which López Obrador will show up at Los Pinos (the Mexican White House), the pragmatist or the revolutionary. President Trump seems to have an affinity for unusual leaders like himself; if he is able to recognize and exploit his similarities with López Obrador, rather than their differences, he might be able to set a more positive course with Mexico, a key US ally and neighbor.

I bet López Obrador will be more pragmatic than revolutionary when it comes to foreign policy — particularly with the United States, given our mutual dependence and shared interests. Should President Trump not extend the hand of friendship at the outset and give the new Mexican President some space, there will be more trouble for an already deteriorating yet crucial US relationship.

We don’t need to alienate more of our friends around the world.

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