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    Monday, August 26, 2019-8:31:33P.M.

     

     

     

     

     

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OPINION | Trump militarizes Mexico

IN his wildest dreams, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador could never have imagined that he would be bailed out politically by a Republican administration in Washington. Help from President Trump was probably even further from the mind of the left-wing demagogue from the southern Mexican state of Tabasco.

Yet that’s exactly what has happened, and Mexicans are likely to pay the price.

North America breathed a sigh of relief Friday evening when President Trump backed off his threat to slap a 5 percent tariff on goods from Mexico in retaliation for alleged Mexican complicity in the Central American migrant surge at the U.S. southern border. The tariff, Mr. Trump said, could have gone as high as 25 percent by October if Mexico didn’t adequately, in his opinion, stem the migrant flow.

In return for having the tariff “indefinitely suspended,” Mexico has agreed to militarize the country using Mr. López Obrador’s newly created National Guard, which is under military command. The effort will start at the southern border, though where it will end is anybody’s guess.

Mr. Trump has claimed victory in his tariff gambit. But it’s unclear how effective the promised troops will be at stopping migrants. The main causes of the crisis are liberal U.S. laws and procedures for claiming asylum, which attract migrants from Central America and other places. Congress has refused to pass reform. But markets work, as more than a half-century of a failed war on drugs proves, and the wild Guatemalan border will not be easily sealed.

Meanwhile, AMLO, as the Mexican president is popularly known, also won, though insidiously. The career politician with an authoritarian bent is a backer of Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro. Since taking office in December, he has been cozying up to the military. Now he pockets more power, and with the blessing of Washington. This is a setback for the rule of law.

President López Obrador initially had very high approval ratings. But they began falling when Mexico’s economy slumped in the first quarter, and his attacks on the press alienated even some of his most ideologically sympathetic constituents. Mexicans who were worried about the strongman instincts of their socialist president gained hope that the slowdown would force him to exercise greater restraint.

Then came Mr. Trump’s May 30 threat, and Mexicans rallied behind their president. A poll by the Mexican daily El Financiero last week found that “84 percent of Mexicans believe that, faced with pressure” from Mr. Trump, “the country should remain united and support” AMLO.

Mr. López Obrador knows how to play politics. In the earliest months of his presidency he encouraged the migrants before taking a more practical stance. In the face of standard Trump hyperbole about Mexico, he calmly sent a delegation to Washington to negotiate. His base is praising the deal, though had it been sealed by an AMLO opponent they would have vigorously denounced it. His opposition is happy because free trade is saved. An AMLO rally Saturday in Tijuana was originally billed as “an act of unity to defend the dignity of Mexico and in favor of the friendship with the people of the United States.” After the two sides came to agreement, it was changed to a “celebration” of the deal — and of the new life that Mr. Trump breathed into AMLO’s presidency.

For migrants nothing has changed. Many ask for asylum when they really just want to work. Greater legal access to the U.S. labor markets for Central American workers would alleviate some of the asylum backlog and resulting mayhem at the border. But a more generous immigration policy is dead in the water in Washington.

As the Migration Policy Institute observed in April, the administration has also played a role in propelling the migrant influx. “The start-and-stop nature” of its “efforts to deter asylum seekers has had the opposite effect, seemingly spurring on prospective migrants to journey to the United States before policies harden further.”

Blowing up the North American economy to solve the migration crisis never made sense. Before the North American Free Trade Agreement, the average tariff for Mexican goods entering the U.S. was only 4 percent. Twenty-five years later, North America is a highly integrated productive colossus that depends for its efficiency on seamless cross-border supply networks.

This deepening integration has produced many economic and security successes, including a rising middle class in Mexico, fewer Mexican migrants heading north, more security collaboration on the continent, and a globally competitive U.S. auto industry.

To continue, North American free trade needs certainty, and Mexico needs to nurture stronger, independent institutions. Mr. Trump has undermined both goals by threatening tariffs and empowering Mr. López Obrador. The matter is settled — for now. But the deeper scars on Mexico left by the mercurial U.S. president won’t heal so quickly.