Secretaries Pompeo and Mnuchin with AMLO following his election. Photo: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

Mexico's newly inaugurated president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), may have just scored a big political victory after a rocky start to his tenure. The U.S. State Department announced yesterday its intention to deliver $5.8 billion in aid and investment to Central America to stem the tide of migrants flocking toward the U.S. border.

Why it matters: AMLO has worked energetically since taking office to sell the White House on a "Marshall Plan" of support to address the region's growing migrant crisis. The U.S. commitment is a preliminary sign that he's at least being heard.

While much of the support falls under existing commitments, Mexico's foreign minister welcomed it as "good news for Mexico."

The big picture: Upon taking office, the Mexican president was caught between an irresistible force and an immovable object.

  • To his south, people fleeing poverty and violence in Central America have been crossing Mexico’s porous southern border on their way to the United States.
  • To his north, President Trump has made tightening border security his No. 1 domestic political issue. AMLO didn’t want to antagonize Mexico’s main trading partner by letting more migrants pass through.  

AMLO, who is grappling with a high crime rate and strained resources at home, also recognizes that taking in migrants creates its own set of political headaches.

  • Asylum requests in Mexico have increased more than tenfold over the past five years, reaching 14,544 in 2018. Those numbers were expected to rise even further after AMLO’s administration committed to take in asylum-seekers who have cases currently pending in the U.S.
  • While he campaigned as a compassionate voice on immigration, Mexico’s new left-wing leader spied the need for a grand solution. The U.S. funding will contribute to a $30 billion aid package envisioned by AMLO.

AMLO even dangled the prospect of Chinese investment to bring Trump to the table, according to the NY Times — reasoning that the U.S. might be more willing to pay up if it feared that China might try to expand its influence in the region by opening its wallet.

  • For context, Beijing is already a big investor and trading partner in the more prosperous parts of Latin America. While a quixotic idea to build a canal through Nicaragua hasn’t really gone anywhere, China has been investing in infrastructure in some smaller Central American markets. It’s also offered carrots to regional governments to get them to drop diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in favor of Beijing.

The bottom line: Whatever the motivation for the U.S. decision, the support for Mexico’s investment and aid program is an important boost for AMLO just a few weeks into his term.  

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