He presents himself as Mexico’s low-budget president: a cost-cutting commander-in-chief who has taken the presidential jet out of service and drives a seven-year-old saloon car.
But when Andrés Manuel López Obrador sets off – economy class – to Washington on Tuesday to meet Donald Trump many believe he will be making a high-stakes gamble, more characteristic of his casino-building host than Mexico’s famously austere leader.
“I think it’s hugely risky – for Andrés Manuel and for Mexico,” Eric Olson, a global fellow at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Centre, said of the 8-9 July summit.
The official reason for what will be López Obrador’s first foreign trip since taking power in December 2018 is to toast the start of a new free trade agreement between the US, Mexico and Canada, although Justin Trudeau will not attend.
But with the US election less than four months away, influential critics – among them the husband of his ambassador to the US – claim López Obrador is allowing himself to be sucked into a domestic political dispute and risks being humiliated by his Mexico-bashing peer and alienating Trump’s Democratic rival Joe Biden.
“We are heading blindly towards a historic mistake,” Agustín Gutiérrez Canet, whose wife is Mexico’s top diplomat in Washington, wrote in the newspaper Milenio last month, urging the man popularly known as Amlo to rethink.
In an open letter, the former foreign minister Bernardo Sepúlveda said he saw no justification for attending an “irrelevant ceremony” that would signal support for Trump’s re-election and cause “profound antipathy” among Democrats.
Olson said his sources suggested “almost everybody of any real weight within Amlo’s inner circle has recommended against [the trip] – mostly because the downsides are very high, the upsides are low, and it could be viewed as some effort to insert themselves into a US election”.
The fear was that since “the only thing Trump has on his mind right now is his stumbling re-election” he would use Amlo as a political prop, perhaps publicly berating him over immigration to impress his base.
In one of the bluntest critiques, the governor of Michoacán state told Amlo he was being exploited by “the most racist and conservative” US leader ever.
“As a man who claims to be of the left, know that your visit could contribute to the re-election of one of the worst presidents in US history,” Silvano Aureoles said.
Others are more generous to the leftwing nationalist, noting that – like Trump – Amlo governs with gut instinct and has a powerful grasp of how many ordinary voters feel.
“He understands something about his supporters that no one else does – and the truth is that’s because he’s shown up and talked to them,” said Carin Zissis, the Mexico-based editor of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas website.
“I think a lot of his supporters are going to say: ‘He’s doing this to protect us, he’s doing this for Mexico’ - and then they are going to go about their lives,” added Zissis, who thought Biden would also be unperturbed.
“They might not like Trump … but I think they trust Amlo enough to say: ‘He’s doing this for good reasons, we support him’.”
Viridiana Ríos, a Mexican political analyst, said she saw Amlo’s first face-to-face with Trump as a logical and pragmatic move to advance key discussions on trade, immigration and security.
“I don’t see why people think it’s kind of like a no-brainer that he shouldn’t go. It’s not a no-brainer at all,” she said.
“We are talking about the most powerful man on Earth, Mexico’s most important trade partner. You want to be on good terms with that person.
“At some point during his campaign [Trump] is going to scapegoat Mexico and Mexicans again,” Ríos added. “But the key thing is policy: do we get more out of a Donald Trump who feels empathy towards Amlo and towards his government, or not?”
The two leaders have struck up a unexpectedly warm relationship since the Mexican took power. Before his 2018 landslide, Amlo had attacked the US president, authoring a book called Oye, Trump! (“Listen up, Trump!”) about his “hate campaign” against migrants and Mexico. Amlo even compared Trump’s offensive remarks about Mexicans to Hitler’s rhetoric towards Jews.
But in office, Amlo has made placating Trump a priority, cracking down on migrants with troops and agreeing to a controversial scheme to return asylum seekers to dangerous Mexican border towns.
“I have to say reluctantly there are some similarities,” said Olson.
“They both seem to govern very intuitively, convinced of their superhuman powers to bend the narrative in their direction, regardless of what the evidence is or regardless of what history tells you – and sometimes they are successful.”
Olson said he suspected that was Amlo’s thinking as he flew to Washington despite the criticism and a coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 160,000 people in Mexico and the US.
“I think he has this idea he can bend the narrative around Donald Trump – that he has figured Trump out and he is going to come up here to prove it,” he said. “And I don’t think that is going to be borne out.”