As world congratulated Biden, Mexico’s president waited

As Latin American leaders hastened this weekend to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden, conspicuously missing from the ledger were two heavyweights: the presidents of Brazil and Mexico, the region’s most populous nations and home to its two largest economies.

That right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro didn’t jump on the Biden bandwagon was not surprising: The so-called “Trump of the Tropics,” Bolsonaro is an unabashed devotee, has publicly backed President Trump’s reelection and recently took umbrage at Biden’s suggestion that Brazil was abetting the decimation of the Amazon rainforest.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is a different case.

It is true that the left-wing populist has developed a close relationship with Trump, despite the ideological chasm between the two men and Trump’s periodic Mexico-bashing. But it seemed a given here that López Obrador would quickly reach out to the incoming president of the neighboring superpower — the lifeblood of the Mexican economy, accounting for 80% of foreign trade and tens of billions of dollars annually in remittances from Mexicans residing in the United States.

Instead, López Obrador has punted.

“We don’t want to be imprudent,” the Mexican president told reporters Saturday, speaking more than seven hours after U.S. news outlets had called the election, a projection that immediately sparked a global tide of solidarity for Biden. “I want to wait until the electoral process is finished.”

The Mexican leader stressed that he had amicable relations with both Biden and Trump, and that his decision did not amount for an endorsement of either. But he heaped praise on his U.S. counterpart.

“President Trump has been very respectful of us, and we have achieved some important accords,” López Obrador said. “And we are thankful to him because he has not interfered.”

Other global holdouts who had not congratulated Biden as of late Sunday included the leaders of Russia and China. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a Trump confidant, sent formal congratulations to Biden on Twitter more than 12 hours after U.S. networks called the race.

In Mexico, the ambiguous message from López Obrador immediately triggered a media firestorm from critics charging that the Mexican president had essentially sided with Trump.

“This was a very serious mistake by López Obrador,” said Jorge G. Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister, who noted that presidential aspirants worldwide welcome foreign affirmations as legitimacy-conferring markers. “The standard on these matters, and this is a long-standing issue in diplomacy, is pretty much this: You should do what everyone else does.”

Detractors labeled López Obrador’s tentativeness a de facto endorsement of Trump’s dilatory legal tactics and assertions of electoral fraud.

“The president of Mexico now owns Donald Trump’s hallucinatory observations about the presidential election,” tweeted columnist Pascal Beltrán del Río. “The relationship with Biden was already going to be difficult; now more so.”

And the fallout was not just on this side of the border.

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat who heads the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, went to Twitter to denounce the Mexican president’s wobble as “a stunning diplomatic failure … at a time when the incoming Biden Administration is looking to usher in a new era of friendship and cooperation with Mexico.”

U.S. Democrats were already irked that López Obrador agreed to visit Trump in July in Washington, his first foreign trip as president of Mexico. The Rose Garden confab became a Trump-López Obrador lovefest. From the standpoint of the Democratic Party, the visit was a genuflection to a blatant Trump campaign effort to woo Latino voters in the United States.

For seasoned López Obrador watchers, the president’s decision to eschew a seemingly pro-forma message of congratulations to Biden was in character, however questionable. Not only does he cherish loyalty, often viewing politics through a Trump-like, me-vs.-them prism, but the Mexican president has long projected an embittered image of himself as a victim of electoral chicanery dating to two failed runs at the presidency before he finally triumphed in 2018.

Like Trump, López Obrador is not one to concede defeat. Nor does he forget perceived slights.

Following his narrow loss in the 2006 presidential balloting, López Obrador mounted a protracted protest campaign alleging fraud that sent tens of thousands of supporters into the streets and shut down much of the capital for weeks. It was for naught: His conservative rival, Felipe Calderón, was declared the winner. As president, López Obrador has labelled Mexico during Calderón’s leadership as a corrupt “narco-state.”

On Saturday, López Obrador recalled with indignation how José Luis R. Zapatero, then the Spanish prime minister, recognized Calderón’s 2006 victory before certification of the final count.

“We don’t want to do the same thing,” López Obrador said.

Others see another motivation: an extreme, even obsessive fear of Trump, who turned the border wall into a political rallying cry during his 2016 campaign, denouncing Mexican immigrants as criminals and “rapists,” and, as president, employed threats of tariffs on Mexican exports to strong-arm the country into hindering U.S.-bound migrants.

The fact that Trump will remain in office until Jan. 20, some noted, would give the U.S. president time to retaliate should he become angered at a perceived Mexican betrayal.

“The crazy guy could close the border, deport people or [do] something else that could cause a lot of damage to Mexico and to our compatriots,” wrote columnist Genaro Lozano on Twitter.

Others say López Obrador — “scared to death of Trump,” in Castañeda’s estimation — is mistakenly allowing his over-the-top Trump anxiety syndrome to alienate Biden and the Democrats at a critical juncture: when Trump’s days are numbered, and the U.S.-Mexico relationship is facing a reset on many fronts.

“What kind of retribution is López Obrador afraid of?” asked Castañeda, a frequent critic of the Mexican president. “Trump is not going to close the border. Or bomb Ciudad Juárez. Or deport 2 million Mexicans. It’s not in the cards.”

Special correspondent Cecilia Sánchez contributed to this report.