News Analysis: Biden administration’s complicated relationship with Mexico ‘is not working, but it is not kaput’
The Biden administration has been dedicating a significant amount of time to its prickly ally and neighbor to the south, Mexico.
High-level meetings have taken place in both countries over the last two weeks, with the two sides speaking of their determination to cooperate on vexing issues including migration and cross-border smuggling of fentanyl and weapons.
But even as America’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, extolled what he judged to be the countries’ “closest cooperation” in decades, Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was excoriating the U.S. for its foreign policy.
Late last month, as Mexico’s Foreign Secretary Alicia Bárcena met with Blinken in Washington ahead of his arrival in Mexico City last week for more talks, López Obrador condemned the U.S. for spending billions of dollars on the war in Ukraine, saying it dwarfs what is allocated to address poverty in Latin America, a root cause of migration.
The Mexican president went on to urge the Biden administration to “stop harassing free and independent countries” with economic embargoes and sanctions, a reference to Venezuela and Cuba, whose autocratic governments President Biden refused to invite to last year’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. Mexico, with friendly ties to Caracas and Havana, criticized that decision, and López Obrador boycotted the hemispheric gathering.
López Obrador’s rhetoric is part of a well-worn playbook. Even if the timing might seem inopportune, he often takes a nationalistic, anti-American stance, particularly during election season. Mexico holds presidential elections next year, and while López Obrador is barred from seeking reelection, he intends to promote his handpicked successor.
In a second week of high-level talks, U.S. and Mexican officials cover familiar territory: immigration and drugs.
U.S. officials have become accustomed to López Obrador’s verbal barrages — often delivered in his near-daily, hours-long news conferences that are broadcast live on Mexican television and radio — and have taken pains to avoid criticizing him or his public statements. By most accounts, the Mexican president takes a very different and friendlier tone in private — more business-like and less ideological.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials have emphasized their attempts to work with a broader group of Mexican governmental counterparts.
“One of the hallmarks of our cooperation with the government of Mexico is the ability for all agencies and all of those at all levels to roll up our sleeves and get work done,” a senior U.S. administration official said, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity.
On Thursday, as he wrapped up meetings in Mexico City, Blinken and other U.S. officials said they were confident López Obrador was a reliable ally in the fight against fentanyl, drug trafficking and illegal immigration.
“We have a very strong partner, and today we actually strengthened that partnership even more,” Blinken said at a news conference in the ornate National Palace.
He said he had “no doubt” that Mexico was committed to “working collaboratively” with the United States.
“And it’s not simply a commitment of words, as important as that is,” Blinken said. “It’s a commitment in deeds.”
Still, when the man at the top sets the tone, it can make getting that work done a little complicated.
López Obrador for months refused to acknowledge the magnitude of the fentanyl crisis or Mexico’s role in it. Mexico is primarily a transshipment point, where traffickers use precursor chemicals from China to supply the synthetic opiate to the United States, where it is a leading cause of death for thousands of American adults ages 18 to 49, according to U.S. statistics.
During Thursday’s news conference, as a slate of senior U.S. officials looked on, Mexican officials contradicted each other on whether fentanyl is produced in Mexico or merely transshipped through the country. The Drug Enforcement Administration says it is produced in Mexico in clandestine labs, though some Mexican officials refute that assertion.
“It is very hard to factor in cooperation when the [Mexican] president sees the U.S. as a liability or potential threat,” said Lila Abed, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington, who recently gave a closed-door briefing to members of Congress on U.S.-Mexico ties. She was alluding to the history of Washington intervention in Latin America and especially in Mexico, which has remained close to the surface in Mexican political consciousness.
“The U.S. is going to have a hard time establishing faith in security cooperation,” she added.
A product of 1970s Mexico’s leftist, anti-imperialism movement, López Obrador has a fiercely nationalistic belief in Mexican sovereignty that is influenced by a remembrance of past invasions, including from the U.S. But much of his public rhetoric is aimed at his political base to rally support among large labor unions, workers and voters.
“Within himself, there is ambivalence toward the U.S.; it pulls him in two directions,” said Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University. “He doesn’t like the dependence” on the U.S.
But López Obrador also knows there’s only so much he can do about it. The two countries are tightly intertwined — economically, politically and culturally. Mexico is now the largest trade partner to the U.S., surpassing China last year. Mexico is also heavily dependent on tourism and on remittances from its nationals who work in the U.S.
And so it is in the interest of both governments to keep cordial relations and strategic agreements afloat, Payan said. Yet the depth of López Obrador’s commitment remains to be seen, he added.
The Mexican president’s strategy is “to shirk and drag his feet — there are a lot of ‘yeses’ without really doing too much,” Payan said.
“The relationship is hobbling along,” he said. “It is not smooth, but it is not broken. It is not working, but it is not kaput.”
But Mexican and U.S. officials insisted on praising the relationship on immigration and the fentanyl fight.
Bárcena, who joined the news conference with Blinken on Thursday at the National Palace, defended López Obrador, saying he gave “very precise instructions” for “supporting and collaborating in everything that has to do with the production, trafficking, consumption of fentanyl.”
Blinken also gave an upbeat assessment as he wrapped up the talks, which also included Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas and Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland.
“More than ever before in my 30 years of being engaged in foreign policy, the United States and Mexico are working together as partners in common purpose,” Blinken said. “But the scale and scope of the challenges that we face is also unprecedented. And I think today we reflected on both of those facts — the unprecedented partnership, but also the unprecedented challenges.”
Faced with surges in both fentanyl smuggling and the number of migrants attempting to enter the U.S., Blinken said the officials agreed on a series of steps including better monitoring and tracing of the chemical precursors that arrive from Asia, more dismantling of clandestine drug labs and sharing resources to treat addiction.
On immigration, the most dramatic development was an announcement that the U.S., Mexico, Colombia and Panama had agreed to begin deporting Venezuelans to their home country, a reversal after hundreds of thousands from that nation have fled to neighboring countries and the U.S.
While the officials were meeting in Mexico City, it was revealed that the Biden administration resumed construction of a portion of the southern border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, another reversal in practice. Officials said the administration was legally obliged to spend money appropriated for the project during the Trump administration.
It was sour news for the Mexican government.
“On my side, I’m telling you that, of course, we are not in favor of anything of the sort,” Bárcena said in a rare point of open dispute with the Americans. “We believe in bridges, not in walls.”
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