AMLO’s actions set off speculation among México watchers over his motivation. Some argued he was indulging in yanqui-bashing for the sake of domestic politics. Others believed he was signaling his strong preference for the previous U.S. president, Donald Trump. Both explanations are flawed. AMLO has never been reflexively anti-American nor interested in an antagonistic relationship with his northern neighbor. And just because he worked with Trump does not mean he will be opposed to Biden. More likely, AMLO is trying to preemptively set his preferred terms of cooperation with the new U.S. administration.
AMLO is a man on a mission. He has dedicated his career to building a more egalitarian and more prosperous Mexico, under the guidance of a benevolent yet powerful state that pilots the economy and society. Now that he is president, but limited to a single six-year term, he is also in a hurry. He has instituted a series of social-welfare programs directed at long-neglected sectors of society, initiated infrastructure projects designed to benefit poorer regions of the country, and increased regulation on private and foreign firms while trying to rebuild the dominant position of the state oil company (Pemex) and electricity firm (CFE) to reestablish Mexican energy independence. And he is expanding presidential power to ensure the long-term survival of this project. He will not tolerate anything that could delay or derail his plans.
AMLO is now approaching the Biden administration as a potential impediment; he wants to prevent his powerful neighbor from exploiting its advantage to pressure Mexico to alter its domestic policies.
During AMLO’s first two years in office, he needed to deny Trump a reason to translate his anti-Mexico rhetoric into anti-Mexico policy. As a strategic move, he acceded to Trump’s demands around migration; for example, allowing the United States to force asylum seekers to wait in Mexican border towns for their day in U.S. court. And in exchange, the Trump administration kept quiet as AMLO pursued his domestic policies.
With Biden, AMLO is expecting greater U.S. pressure to modify elements of his domestic-policy project, and he has signaled that he will resist those efforts. At the same time, AMLO is fully aware that the deep integration between the two countries’ economies means that a good working relationship with the United States is also essential to his domestic-policy success.
In dealing with México, the Biden administration will need to take into account AMLO’s dual objectives — the need for good relations with the United States, but also to constrain the likelihood of U.S. efforts to press Mexico for policy change — as it selects where, when, and how to challenge him. Mexico will be a prickly partner for the new Biden administration, but not an anti-American antagonist.