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President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico joins U.S. President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on July 8, 2020.

Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times News Service

In explaining why he wouldn’t congratulate president-elect Joe Biden until all legal proceedings are concluded, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took potshots at a perpetual target that he shares with U.S. President Donald Trump: the media.

Mr. Lopez Obrador, who is known as AMLO, questioned how media outlets could “censor” the U.S. President by cutting away from his untested claims of electoral fraud.

“In Mexico, we’re accustomed to how they used to censor us,” he said in a morning press conference on Nov. 9. “But in the case of the United States, what happened is something special.”

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Mr. Trump trashed Mexico on his rise to power and later strong-armed it on issues such as trade and immigration. Yet Mexico’s President and some of his supporters have stayed silent on congratulating his successor – or celebrating Mr. Trump’s pending exit.

AMLO remains one of the few withholding official congratulations – joining the likes of Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro and Kim Jong-un – and has rebuffed calls to change course.

“We’re like pariahs,” said Barbara Gonzalez, a political analyst in the Mexican city of Monterrey. “He’s left us in an undesirable position, in a shrinking group of international actors, who are lending legitimacy to Trump’s ‘doubts’ over the electoral outcome.”

As congratulations from world leaders rolled in Nov. 7, AMLO demurred. He later said that he wanted to be “prudent” and would wait until the legal challenges were finished.

He also has relitigated his own experience from 2006, when he lost a close election and world leaders congratulated Felipe Calderon – while AMLO was alleging fraud.

“He thinks the world is doing the same thing that they did to him, they’re now doing to Trump,” said Esteban Illades, editor of the Mexican magazine Nexos.

And much like Mr. Trump, “Politics with this President is always a matter of things done to him,” Mr. Illades said.

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AMLO’s delays have drawn the dismay of U.S. Democrats, including some from border states. “This represents a true diplomatic failure from the president of Mexico,” tweeted Julian Castro, a former cabinet secretary and presidential hopeful.

But the stubbornness reflects a frequent criticism of AMLO – as an inward-looking leader with scant interest in international affairs. He’s travelled abroad once as President: to Washington to celebrate the implementation of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement trade deal, just as election season heated up. (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declined an invitation to join them.)

While at the White House, AMLO thanked Mr. Trump for treating Mexico with “respect” and earned a cameo in Mr. Trump’s election ads. The Mexican leader didn’t meet any Democrats while there.

His trip won plaudits at home, however. Mexicans marvelled at Mr. Trump’s civility with AMLO and claimed the Mexican President “tamed” his U.S counterpart.

Though products of different upbringings – Mr. Trump hails from the world of celebrity and New York real estate, while AMLO rose from a small town in swampy Tabasco state to build a massive political movement – the presidents share a political style and successfully positioned themselves as anti-system populists against underperforming elites.

The presidents also speak of being persecuted, distrust bureaucracies and undermine institutions. They both deal in conspiracies, deeply dislike the media and have preferred to play down the pandemic. (Neither man wears a mask unless required.)

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Still, Mr. Lopez Obrador, who identifies as “left” and brands his opponents “conservatives,” insists he’ll get along with Mr. Biden.

To make his point, he recently highlighted Mexico’s traditional foreign policy of non-intervention, in which Mexico refrains from meddling in other countries' affairs and expects the same in return.

“We’re not a colony, we’re a free, sovereign and independent country,” AMLO said in a three-hour morning press conference Wednesday – a daily occurrence comparable to Mr. Trump’s tweets in that it sets the news agenda.

“There doesn’t have to be any reprisals since we’re sticking to our principles.”

But observers point to contradictions: AMLO quickly congratulating election winners in Bolivia – despite the 2019 election being disputed.

Mr. Trump also put pressure on AMLO into participating in a scheme known as Remain in Mexico, in which asylum seekers wait in dangerous Mexican border cities while their claims are heard in U.S. courts. He later threatened Mexico with escalating tariffs on Mexican imports if it didn’t stop Central American migration. AMLO subsequently sent national guard members to the northern and southern borders.

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Neither decision has proved politically costly for AMLO; he has an approval rating of 60 per cent. Polls show support for migrants slipping.

“The U.S.-Mexico relationship has been relatively stable,” with migration and trade issues off the table, said Brenda Estefan, former security attaché at the Mexican embassy in Washington.

Mr. Trump, she added, has also stayed mostly silent on matters traditionally of interest to the U.S. government such as security and promoting democracy and human rights.

“With Biden, it’s not going to be a walk in the park,” she said. “But at least [the relationship] won’t be based on threats.”

Tensions loom, though. In his first calls with world leaders, Mr. Biden has spoken of climate change and clean energy – an issue AMLO recently called a “fallacy” as he’s bet on reviving the state oil company Pemex. Other potential issues include enforcing the labour provisions in the USMCA, rampant insecurity in Mexico and AMLO’s handling of the pandemic.

“He knows this is headed for bad times,” said Federico Estevez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

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“AMLO will kowtow to this guy, too. It sounds humiliating, but that’s just our fate. That’s geography.”


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