He was Mexico’s voice abroad. Now he wants the presidency

MEXICO CITY (AP) — He has been the face of Mexico internationally for nearly five years and is often the country’s leading voice in negotiations with world leaders — including volatile ones like former US President Donald Trump.

Now Secretary of State Marcelo Ebrard is testing whether his work on the world stage will win votes in Mexico as he fights for the left-wing ruling party’s nomination for next year’s presidential election.

The 63-year-old is in the middle of a three-way battle with other members of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s inner circle, including Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum and Interior Minister Adán Augusto López.

López Obrador’s Morena party, which he founded as a vehicle to secure the presidency, remains an extension of the hugely popular leader, so his words, actions and even body language are closely monitored for signs of a favourite.

Among the hurdles Ebrard faces are a perception that he does not connect with the party’s grassroots, like the popular López Obrador, and criticism that the US government has imposed its immigration policies on Mexico, making it his dirty work under the Ebrards clock done.

Political cartoons about world leaders

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Ebrard has responded with humorous TikTok videos aimed at connecting with voters, including one of him in a designer suit eating tacos with his wife at a street stall, or stumbling into a replayed dance move to a song by Bad Bunny transformed. He recently published an autobiography that portrays his immigration negotiations with the Trump administration as a diplomatic victory because Mexico avoided looming tariffs — and things could have been worse.

In an interview with the AP, Ebrard described himself as a nationalist and progressive who pledges to uphold López Obrador’s signature social programs “to create a society where inequality is shrinking.”

In a government that insists on helping the poor, the priority — about 40% of Mexicans live in poverty — Ebrard says his goal as president is to expand the relatively small middle class when he leaves later this year the ruling party’s nomination wins.

He has more middle-class support than other leading contenders, experts say, but it could be the deciding factor in influencing the party’s low-income base – the voters most in love with López Obrador. Ebrard insists he has that support.

Ebrard narrowly lost his first attempt to become the left’s presidential candidate in 2012 to López Obrador. Before that he held various positions in the mayoral administration of López Obrador in Mexico City and later became mayor himself in 2006.

While some label Ebrard a centrist, he points to the passage of legalized abortion and same-sex marriage when he was Mexico City’s mayor a decade ago as evidence of his support for progressive politics.

However, it is doubtful to what extent his merits as a top diplomat for a domestic political president will be remembered by voters.

Ebrard led Mexico’s effort to get COVID-19 vaccines, working with vaccine manufacturers and driving multilateral initiatives, but Mexican governors and mayors like Sheinbaum were the ones present when the vaccines were distributed.

“Mexicans don’t care about foreign policy that has to do with the United States and will affect the value of the dollar,” said Ana Vanessa Cárdenas, a Mexican international analyst now at Finis Terrae University in Chile.

Referring to the pervasive violence in the country — the top priority for Mexicans, according to polls — Ebrard has cited unsuccessful efforts to sue US arms manufacturers and arms dealers for supplying arms smuggled into Mexico. But as president, like López Obrador, Ebrard says he would rely on the military-controlled National Guard to secure communities rather than rebuild civilian policing capacity.

During Ebrard’s tenure, Mexico successfully negotiated a new trade framework with the United States and Canada to replace the outdated North American Free Trade Agreement. The new deal is crucial to his promise to double Mexico’s annual economic growth when he is elected president next June.

Mexico’s proximity to the United States is its greatest asset as the world emerges from the supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Ebrard told the AP. Factories and assembly plants are already starting to move from China to Mexico to be closer to the US market, he said.

But that long shared border with the United States has also created some of Ebrard’s greatest challenges.

Shortly after López Obrador took office in December 2018, the Trump administration introduced the so-called “Remain in Mexico” program, which forced asylum seekers to await their US asylum applications in Mexico. Asylum seekers were concentrated in towns on the northern border, largely controlled by organized crime, leaving migrants open to endless kidnappings.

In May 2019, Trump threatened crippling tariffs on all Mexican imports unless the Mexican government slowed the flow of migrants to the US border.

Ebrard immediately flew to Washington to avoid the tariffs, and what he said was the real goal of the Trump administration: a secure third-country deal. Under such an agreement, all asylum seekers transiting through Mexico would first have to apply for asylum there and not in the United States

Instead, Mexico offered to use its newly created National Guard in a strategy to contain migrants in southern Mexico far from the US border.

The number of migrants intercepted at the US border fell briefly, but Mexico has faced criticism from inside and outside for allowing the US government to export its immigration policies south.

“The United States has won the battle” over immigration policy, said Silvia Núñez García, a researcher specializing in bilateral relations at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The tariff threat “was when Mexico decided to host and manage these irregular migrant flows within our territory.”

Ebrard said the repatriation of asylum seekers from the United States to Mexico under a COVID-19 health rule known as Title 42, which is due to expire on May 11, is a unilateral move that Mexico has never approved.

It leaves Mexico with two options: deport the returnees to their countries or let them enter Mexico, he told the AP. “Usually we do the second and the US knows it.”

The Biden administration abolished Remain in Mexico, but announced in February that it would generally deny asylum to migrants who show up at the US border without first seeking shelter in a country they have transited through — a policy that Critics say it differs only in name from the Safe Third Country Agreement.

If Ebrard “wasn’t able to excel in foreign policy, which was his portfolio, then I don’t think his prospects are very favorable,” Núñez said, noting that López Obrador’s disinterest in foreign policy limited Ebrard’s scope for action.

Martha Bárcena, a career diplomat who served as Mexico’s ambassador to the US for the first two years of López Obrador’s presidency and overlapped with Trump, believes Ebrard’s priority wasn’t foreign policy either.

“He’s a politician and the only thing he’s really dreamed of all his life is to be president,” she said of the Mexican government’s priorities, which are fighting poverty, fighting inequality.

Ebrard has accused Bárcena of “obsessive resentment” since she left the post. He says he will fight poverty and inequality if elected president.

“For any left-wing government, the goal must be that the middle class makes up the majority of the population,” Ebrard said. “In 10 years, poverty must be much lower than it is today. … If not, what would be the point of everything we do?”

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed.

Brian Ashcraft

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