He's been Mexico's voice abroad. Now he wants the presidency

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Mexican Foreign Minter Marcelo Ebrard gives an interview at his office in Mexico City, Monday, April 3, 2023. Ebrard is testing whether his work on the world stage will translate to votes in Mexico as he competes for the ruling party nomination in the 2024 presidential elections. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

MEXICO CITY – He’s been the face of Mexico internationally for nearly five years and often the country’s leading voice in negotiations with top world leaders — including volatile ones, like former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Now Foreign Affairs Minister Marcelo Ebrard is testing whether his work on the world stage will translate into votes in Mexico as he competes for the leftist ruling party nomination for next year’s presidential elections.

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The 63-year-old is in the thick of a three-way race 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 created as a vehicle to secure the presidency, remains an extension of the highly popular leader, so his words, actions and even body language are being closely watched for signs of a favorite.

Among the hurdles Ebrard must overcome are a perception he doesn't connect with the party's base like the folksy López Obrador, and criticism that the U.S. government imposed its immigration policy on Mexico, making it do its dirty work on Ebrard's watch.

Ebrard has responded with humorous TikTok videos aimed at connecting with voters, including one of himself in a designer suit eating tacos at a street stand with his wife or turning a stumble into a repeatedly played dance move to a Bad Bunny song. He recently published an autobiography that frames his immigration negotiations with the Trump administration as a diplomatic victory because Mexico avoided threatened tariffs — and it could have been worse.

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

In an administration that insists helping the poor is the priority — about 40% of Mexicans live in poverty — Ebrard says his objective as president would be to grow the relatively small middle class, if he wins the ruling party nomination later this year.

He has more middle-class support than other leading contenders, experts say, but swaying the party’s low-income base — the voters most enamored of López Obrador — could be the deciding factor. Ebrard insists he has that support.

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

While some peg Ebrard as a centrist, he points to passage of legalized abortion and same-sex marriage while he was Mexico City mayor a decade ago as evidence of his support for progressive policies.

Still, there are doubts about the extent to which his achievements as the top diplomat for a president who prioritized all things domestic will be present in voters’ minds.

Ebrard led Mexico’s effort to obtain COVID-19 vaccines, working with vaccine producers and pushing multilateral initiatives, but Mexican governors and mayors like Sheinbaum were the ones present when the vaccines were given out.

“Mexicans aren’t interested in foreign policy beyond when it has to do with the United States and is going to impact the price of the dollar,” said Ana Vanessa Cárdenas, a Mexican international analyst now with Finis Terrae University in Chile.

On the country's pervasive violence — Mexicans' top priority according to polls — Ebrard has led so far unsuccessful efforts to sue U.S. gun manufacturers and gun shops for supplying weapons 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 rebuilding civilian police 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 accord is critical to his pledge to double Mexico’s annual economic growth if he is elected president in June next year.

Mexico’s proximity to the United States is its greatest advantage as the world emerges from the supply chain interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Ebrard told the AP. Factories and assembly plants are already beginning to move from China to Mexico to be closer to the U.S. 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 implemented the so-called “Remain in Mexico” program that forced asylum seekers to wait out their U.S. asylum requests in Mexico. Asylum seekers were concentrated in northern border cities largely controlled by organized crime, exposing the migrants to endless kidnappings.

In May 2019, Trump threatened crippling tariffs on all Mexican imports if Mexico's government did not slow the flow of migrants to the U.S. border.

Ebrard immediately flew to Washington, heading off the tariffs and what he said was the Trump administration’s real goal: a safe third-country agreement. Under such a deal, any asylum seekers crossing Mexico would first have to request asylum there rather than in the U.S.

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

The number of migrants intercepted at the U.S. border dropped in the short term, but Mexico faced criticism from within and abroad that it had allowed the U.S. government to export its immigration policy south.

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

Ebrard said the U.S. returning asylum seekers to Mexico under a COVID-19 health rule known as Title 42, set to expire May 11, was a unilateral move that Mexico has never approved.

It leaves Mexico two options: deport the returnees to their countries or let them enter Mexico, he told the AP. “We usually do the second and the U.S. knows it."

The Biden administration scrapped Remain in Mexico, but in February announced that it would generally deny asylum to migrants who show up at the U.S. border without first seeking protection in a country they passed through — a policy critics say is different in name-only from the safe third country agreement.

If Ebrard "hasn’t been able to stand out in foreign policy, which has been his portfolio, then I don’t think his prospects are very favorable,” said Núñez, noting that López Obrador’s disinterest in foreign affairs limited Ebrard’s room to maneuver.

Martha Bárcena, a career diplomat who served as Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S. during the first two years of López Obrador’s presidency, overlapping with Trump, believes Ebrard's priority was not foreign policy either.

“He’s a politician and the only thing he has really dreamed of all his life is to become president," she said. “There were many areas in which he could have been much more creative and advanced an agenda that was even more linked to the priorities of the Mexican government, which was to fight poverty, to fight inequality.”

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

“For any leftist government, your objective has to be that the middle class is the majority of the population,” Ebrard said. “In 10 years we need poverty to be much less than it is today. ... If not, what would be the point of everything we're doing?”

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