The Mexican election, on Canada Day, could be all about the U.S.

But when voters go to the polls on Sunday, domestic dynamics may be a bigger determinant. Mexicans, expected to elect leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as president, may also give strong support to his insurgent National Regeneration Movement, which would deal a blow to the Institutional Revolutionary Party and National Action Party establishments.

Lopez Obrador — or AMLO, as he’s widely known — “clearly has broken with the political establishment and wants to chart a different course,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Latin American-focused think tank. “He has a huge constituency that have just become fed up with Mexico’s crime and corruption and violence and impunity.”

But despite the focus on internal troubles, international issues with continental consequence loom: NAFTA negotiations are ongoing, as is the migration crisis. And the enduring problem of drugs — the root of so much Mexican violence — takes a turn in October when marijuana becomes legal in Canada, just as it has been decriminalized in several states in the U.S.

The election stakes aren’t just high for AMLO and Mexicans, but for President Donald Trump and Americans, too.

“George W. Bush said six days before 9/11 that Mexico was the U.S.’s most important bilateral relationship, and I thought that was true then and I think that’s probably true today,” said Shifter. Listing a litany of interrelated issues, including trade, migration, drugs, crime, water and the environment, Shifter added that “it’s hard to see any other country where there’s so much at stake and a bilateral relationship of great consequence.”

And of great conflict, too.

“This is the worst that it’s been,” said Shifter, speaking of the bilateral dynamic. Sure, there have been tough times before between Washington and Mexico City, including rifts during the Reagan era over Central American wars and more recently during the Iraq war. “But this sort of goes to the bone; I mean you never had [Ronald] Reagan or George W. Bush saying these things about Mexicans, that kind of insult, just personal attacks and offensive language.”

The relationship has gone south north of the border, too.

The president projected his anger at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a tweet from Air Force One after he left the recent G-7 Summit that was held in Quebec. Trump called Trudeau (or “Justin” as he disrespectfully diminishes him) “very dishonest and weak” after the Canadian leader pushed back on U.S. tariff policy. Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro went further, saying “there is a special place in hell” for Trudeau. (Navarro apologized. Trump did not.)

Trump’s and Trudeau’s trade strife arises amid NAFTA negotiations that also involve the lame-duck Peña Nieto administration in Mexico City. “We’ve made great progress over the last year. We’re down to a few issues, albeit they’ll be tough issues,” said Paul Connors, the consul general of Canada in Minneapolis. “But Canada’s view is we’re going to stay at the table and keep working them with our American friends and our Mexican friends and hopefully we’ll get the puck in the net later this year.”

Connors means it when he says American friends. “There are millions and millions of interactions” between the two peoples that work to tighten ties even when they’re frayed on the political level. Connors points to just one of many highlights — in this case, literally — when the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis is lit in red and white for Canada Day (“a lovely, friendly gesture,” Connors called it).

But Connors also warned about a “dark cloud on the horizon” with steel and aluminum tariffs.

“We totally agree with the U.S. administration that the Chinese overproduction of steel is a challenge and needs to be addressed, but if we agree with the diagnosis we disagree with the prescription of putting tariffs on everyone, including allies,” Connors said.

And Canada, whose troops have fought and died alongside U.S. forces, is just that: an ally. Which may make the U.S. rebuke sting harder. “There’s been a tremendous amount of work to collaborate, to cooperate, to work at mutually beneficial solutions,” said Martha Hall Findlay, president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Calgary. “But at a certain point when we get threatened ... I think as a country we feel strongly about standing up.”

And stand up Canada did.

“We will not escalate and we will not back down,” Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said on Friday as she announced retaliatory tariffs that go into effect on Canada Day.

“When we enter into these trade disputes, they have a much larger effect from a proportional perspective on our economy,” Hall Findlay said. “The frustration that we have is that protectionism and trade wars hurt everybody.” The integration in auto manufacturing and multiple economic sectors means that “more and more Americans will realize that this approach to international trade is just not good for anybody, least of all the Americans,” Hall Findlay added.

But Canadians also stand up for their friendships with Americans.

“When we talk about the U.S. tensions, which there most certainly is at the political level, it’s not Canadians and Americans,” Hall Findlay said. “The individual and societal relationships, those are still extremely strong.”

The same goes in Mexico. “I think Mexicans have been very sophisticated in that respect,” Shifter said, on a citizen and a civic level. “Mexicans still realize that cooperation is important for both countries.”

The continental cooperation will kick in soon as the three North American neighbors start planning for the 2026 World Cup, which will be jointly hosted by the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The news triggered tweets more reflective of the enduring alliances, including Trump writing, “Congratulations — a great deal of hard work!” And Trudeau tweeting, “It’s going to be a great tournament.”

But perhaps U.S. Soccer Federation President Carlos Cordiero reflected the hope that better days are ahead when he said at the announcement at the current World Cup in Moscow: “Thank you for entrusting us with this privilege. The beautiful game transcends borders and cultures.”

 

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.