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Top Mexico candidate blasts Trump, plans to redo NAFTA

Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador leaves in between supporters after speaking about immigration and against U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies during a meeting with Mexican migrants at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in New York, Monday, March 13, 2017. (Andres Kudacki / Associated Press)
Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador leaves in between supporters after speaking about immigration and against U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies during a meeting with Mexican migrants at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in New York, Monday, March 13, 2017. (Andres Kudacki / Associated Press)
By Nacha Cattan and Carlos Manuel Rodriguez Bloomberg

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto may be taking a cautious stance in his public comments on President Donald Trump, but the man who currently figures to be his successor is showing no such restraint.

In a 90-minute interview Tuesday in New York, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the radical outsider who’s the early frontrunner in next year’s election, blasted Trump’s “campaign of hatred” against Mexican immigrants, accused him of violating human rights laws, called his border wall plan a “propaganda” tool and said he couldn’t wait to handle the renegotiation of NAFTA himself.

“Pena is too quiet. And Donald Trump speaks very loudly,” Lopez Obrador said. “One doesn’t beg for liberty, one seizes it.”

It could be a foretaste of clashes to come. Mexico and the U.S. have enjoyed a cooperative relationship for decades. Trump has changed the dynamic. He’s gotten Mexicans so mad that, if the polls are right, they’re ready to elect a fiery nationalist of their own, a politician who’s spent years denouncing the way the economy is run in the interests of foreigners – in some ways, a Mexican anti-Trump.

Lopez Obrador, 63, a former Mexico City mayor who’s known simply as Amlo to compatriots, said Pena Nieto should have brought a complaint against Trump at the United Nations as soon as his wall was announced – and vowed to take legal action himself, once he’s president. He said it’s unlikely that NAFTA will be renegotiated anytime soon, and that’s just fine with him because “it would be better if we’re in power” when it happens.

First, of course, he has to win the presidency. He failed in his first two attempts, although he came within a percentage point of the prize in 2006. And the national mood is more favorable now. Pena Nieto’s PRI party, which has held power for most of Mexico’s modern history, has seen its popularity eroded by a series of corruption scandals, the police-abetted killing of 43 students, and surging gasoline prices. And that’s without counting the Trump effect.

Lopez Obrador said he’d expected Trump would soften his “xenophobic” campaign rhetoric once in office. “I was wrong about that,” he said. As a result, his own line has hardened. After Trump’s election in November, Lopez Obrador posted a video calling for calm. He’s still promising to behave respectfully toward the U.S. president, but also to file a complaint against him on Wednesday with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in Washington. Trump referred to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” during the campaign, and has promised wide-scale deportations.

“This campaign of hatred has no justification,” Lopez Obrador said. “It’s not only inhumane, it’s irresponsible.”

The White House declined to comment Tuesday on the candidate’s remarks.

Insisting that he supports free trade, Lopez Obrador said it makes no sense to insert tariffs into NAFTA as Trump has been threatening to do for months. But Lopez Obrador also didn’t appear too concerned about the possibility that the trade pact could break down completely and leave Mexico without preferential access to the U.S. market. Since the accord took effect in 1994, Mexico’s industrial output and exports have surged, without denting the country’s poverty rate.

NAFTA “didn’t hurt, but it wasn’t the panacea,” he said. “It’s not our salvation.”

The current government has also warned that it would walk away from NAFTA talks if the U.S. demands tariffs, and Pena Nieto – who can’t seek re-election – has himself pushed back against Trump. After catching flak locally for hosting the Republican candidate on a pre-election visit, Pena Nieto canceled a proposed trip to Washington in January.

When it comes to broader economic policy, though, there’s a distinct Amlo message. Like Trump, he hammers at the theme of unfair trade and the damage it’s done to swaths of the economy. In Mexico’s case, farms were among the worst-hit, and Lopez Obrador said he’ll revive them through subsidies – that’s what the U.S. does with its own agriculture, he pointed out.

He said Mexico can raise its growth rate by cracking down on corruption, cutting government salaries and setting up public-private partnerships – including in energy. Lopez Obrador has criticized the decision to open the industry to foreign investment, and said he’ll seek to reverse it via a referendum and not by some “authoritarian action.”

That kind of talk may be aimed at reassuring markets. The peso has recovered after its initial post-Trump plunge, but Mexican brokers say they’re receiving a growing number of calls from investors concerned about the prospect of an Amlo presidency.

Lopez Obrador said the time is right for the kind of economic overhaul he’s been advocating for decades. “There’s a consensus, which was missing before, to change Mexico for good,” he said. “Our agenda will be accepted by the vast majority of Mexicans.”

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