AMLO Isn’t Pro-Trump. He’s Proving a Point About Foreign Election Meddling.

AMLO’s decision to hold off on congratulating Joe Biden on his presidential victory has ruffled feathers among establishment Democrats. But the United States stands to learn a lesson from remaining impartial in foreign elections.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), president of Mexico, poses during a state visit to Mexico at Palacio Nacional on October 21, 2019 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Hector Vivas / Getty Images)

On November 7, four days after Election Day, the major television networks called the US presidential election for Joe Biden. In response, many countries proceeded to congratulate the former vice president; others did not. Among those who have declined to do so is Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), a fact that has incensed the Democratic Party hierarchy and the Washington intelligentsia alike. For Texas representative Joaquin Castro, AMLO’s reticence is a “stunning diplomatic failure”; Representative Sylvia Garcia has insisted that “an extended abrazo from our friends in Mexico is in order”; her colleague Henry Cuellar preferred a more open threat, warning that the “slight” would be “remembered” by Democrats. Writing in Foreign Policy, Amy Mackinnon and Augusta Saraiva lumped AMLO in with the “strongmen, populists, and authoritarians” who still believed in Trump.  

For his part, AMLO was unmoved. “We’re going to wait until all of the legal issues have been resolved,” he said in Villahermosa on November 11, during a trip to inspect damage from recent flooding in the state of Tabasco. “We don’t want to be imprudent, we don’t want to act lightly, and we want to be respectful of the self-determination of peoples and respectful of the rights of others.” The following day, in response to criticisms, the president was more categorical: “We are adhering to our policy of principles, to our legality,” he said at his morning press conference. “And furthermore, we are not a colony. We are a free, independent, and sovereign country.”

From a strictly legal point of view, AMLO is in the right to wait until results have been made official. Although the American media has all but ascribed to itself the power to declare the victor of a presidential election (an assertion the New York Times was forced to retract in an Election Day tweet), that power in truth belongs to the electoral college, which does not vote until December 14. Congress does not count those votes until January 6, and even then, a member of the House and Senate can jointly object to any of the results. In the absence of a concession from one candidate or another, the arcane, undemocratic nature of the US system allows for weeks of indecision and lawyer-enriching limbo.

Of course, there is more to it than that. As students of Latin-American history are well aware, the recognition of a new leader is not a neutral act but an important way for powerful nations to intervene in the electoral processes of the less powerful. This is a dynamic that AMLO knows something about. In 2006, when he first ran for president, the three countries with the largest economic interests in Mexico — the United States, Canada, and Spain — leapt out of the gate to congratulate his opponent Felipe Calderón, despite genuinely serious allegations of fraud and the fact that the Federal Electoral Tribunal had yet to certify the election. Although Bush’s White House and Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero then made a show of “walking back” their calls, the damage — and headlines — had been done. Instead of a contested process without a determined victor, AMLO could now be easily spun as the “sore loser” — despite record protests and the thousands who occupied Mexico City for months to demand electoral justice.


With the argument that “the best foreign policy is domestic policy,” AMLO came to power in 2018 seeking to find a way to neutralize American interference in his reform agenda as much as possible. Despite dire warnings to the contrary, he managed to work out a sort of détente with Donald Trump that left him the room for maneuver he was looking for. In exchange for a series of unfortunate concessions on immigration — the issue that obsessed his American counterpart — he has enjoyed wide latitude to act in other key areas of his Cuarta Transformación, or Fourth Transformation, including reasserting the primacy of the state in the geopolitically sensitive energy sector.

Although he has not challenged the energy privatization law passed under his predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto, AMLO has worked within its confines to fortify the Federal Electricity Commission and the state oil company, Pemex, against the voraciousness of private-energy interests. Mild as this may sound, it has resulted in such a ruffling of industry feathers that a bipartisan group of forty-two congresspeople wrote a letter to the White House to complain; among the signatories are some of those representatives — Veronica Escobar, Vicente Gonzalez, and Cuellar — who have been the most critical of AMLO’s “failure” to pay prompt fealty to Biden. And as the president-elect promises a more “internationalist” foreign policy and loads his government-to-be with interventionists, drone war apologists, and stand-ins for the defense industry, one begins to understand Mexico’s preemptive nostalgia for the relatively benign neglect of the Trump years.

AMLO’s decision to hold off on recognizing Biden, moreover, is in line with public opinion: according to a poll by the Mexican newspaper El Financiero, 57 percent of those polled agreed with the presidential decision to wait, and only 25 percent disagreed. In the context of embarrassing losses among Mexican-American communities in Texas last month, the Democrats might want to spend a little less time lecturing their neighbor on its own diplomatic prerogatives and spend a little more listening to people on both sides of the border.

You’re Free To Go

On November 19, a federal judge in New York approved the Justice Department’s request to drop charges against Mexico’s former secretary of defense, General Salvador Cienfuegos; the very same evening, Cienfuegos landed at the Toluca airport in the State of Mexico, a free man. The surprise liberation capped an extraordinary month of speculation and diplomatic back-and-forth since the general was arrested at the Los Angeles airport in October en route to Disneyland with his family.

For the AMLO administration, the affair had everything to do with Mexico’s sovereign right to try its own citizens, especially high-ranking members of a previous government. And with all the more reason, considering the evidence used to indict Cienfuegos had been gathered covertly within the country. “You can’t have a close cooperation with all of Mexico’s institutions and at the same time do this; you have to choose, whatever you decide,” said Foreign Relations Minister Marcelo Ebrard, with a certain swagger in reference to the failure of the United States to inform Mexico of the case in violation of shared security protocols. “The decisive element here is not what we gave them, but rather the trust that exists between us in the institutions we have, in those who head those institutions, and that there will be an investigation.”

Here, too, there is more to unravel. For Cienfuegos was not arrested on any old charge, but on four counts of drug trafficking and money laundering. So sensitive was the case, the product of a ten-year DEA investigation, that Mexico was not informed of it even when this meant violating diplomatic protocols. Once arrested, he was denied bail because it was considered that he would flee back to Mexico where, it was implied, he was unlikely to face justice. Yet barely a month later, he was sent, not from one jail to another, but home.

Together with economic coercion, security agreements represent the lesser-discussed arm in the American subjugation of its southern neighbor. With the ostensible aim of providing international cooperation in the fight against narcotics and organized crime, undercover American agents have run roughshod over Mexican autonomy for decades, violating laws, laundering money, and facilitating drug shipments, all in order to gather information that goes to feed the US intelligence borg. This information then jumps the fence into the political sphere, becoming tools for blackmail or pressure to keep potentially wayward governments in line. It is very likely that Cienfuegos possessed valuable intelligence the United States stood to glean as part of a plea bargain; what it appears not to have counted on is that the wily general also had information on them and their own questionable drug-enforcement activity that would be highly embarrassing were it to come out at trial.

Lulled by years of pliant Mexican governments, it is also likely that the United States was caught off guard by AMLO’s standing up to the blatant trampling of their security coordination. Whether or not he openly threatened to kick DEA agents out of the country if Cienfuegos were not released, as various media outlets reported, AMLO’s diplomatic note of protest and Ebrard’s follow-up conversation with Attorney General William Barr made his point clear. And regardless of what happens with the Cienfuegos affair, Mexico will not be anywhere near free with an asymmetric power playing spy-versus-spy in its territory for foreign benefit. It is high time for the DEA to go, and for the era of American vigilantism south of the border to come to an end.

At What Cost?

Mexico’s recent exercises in muscle-flexing have not come without cost. In order to gain a degree of internal maneuver to pursue his domestic agenda, AMLO has felt the need to give in on an inhumane immigration policy; in order to secure the return of Cienfuegos, he had to acquiesce — or appear to acquiesce — to a demand from his own military. And make no mistake: the military hierarchy wanted its former chief back and made sure the president knew it. Whether or not Cienfuegos now appears in a Mexican courtroom will be a significant test of the administration’s mettle — and its own autonomy. Between internal and external pressures, the road to sovereignty is a long and narrow one.