By Raquel López-Portillo Maltos
The grand expectations a Joe Biden presidency generated on placing human rights at the center of the U.S. foreign policy have fallen short. His arrival at the White House raised two scenarios for the bilateral relationship between Mexico and the United States in this matter. On the one hand, a new era of government coupled with a strong political will that would establish a comprehensive, institutional, and fluid bilateral cooperation for the benefit of the two countries’ populations. On the other, experts anticipated tensions mainly in security, migration, and environmental issues. Seven months later, although discrimination and hatred are no longer coming from the presidential stand, the human rights policy with its southern neighbor is far from a real paradigm shift.
AMLO and Biden: Allies or foes?
In the battle between democracy and autocracy that Biden has raised, there are much more nuances in what this zero-sum game would imply. Although, as predicted, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s political strategy does not align with the pillars of the U.S. Latin American foreign policy, the outbursts between administrations have remained more contained than expected. So far, AMLO and his right-hand man, Foreign Minister Ebrard, have approached the Biden administration in a similar way as they did with Trump, navigating as smoothly as possible and avoiding significant obstacles to their so-called Fourth Transformation priorities.
Both presidents seem to agree that a good bilateral relationship is also essential to their domestic-policy success and beneficial to both countries. Antagonism and disruption would be too costly for their interests. Nevertheless, this interest-based relationship does not necessarily translate into positive changes in the human rights agenda.
The human rights narrative
In this sense, the human rights area in the bilateral relationship is filled with complicity and contradictions. For example, both the U.S. and the Mexican administrations have agreed to expand cooperation to manage orderly, safe, and regular migration flows with respect for the human rights of migrants and asylum seekers. However, there seems to be a tacit agreement of accepting economic investment and other benefits in exchange to halt Central American migrants who use Mexican territory in their transit towards the American Dream. In the discourse, there is a firm hand image towards handling migration policy with human dignity. But in reality, taking over the dirty work of deterring migration flows comprises a shared responsibility in denying the right to seek asylum and humanitarian aid for thousands of migrants that are left stranded to face their fate.
The absence of a narrative also sets up contradictions. So far, the Biden administration has been reluctant to comment on key aspects of its human rights priorities like the pro-environment and renewable energy agenda. This issue will probably arise soon as part of the commitments acquired under the USMCA trade deal. However, tackling this matter exclusively in economic and commercial terms, while avoiding taking a stand on projects like the Mayan Train and the Dos Bocas oil refinery, leaves a considerable void to guarantee the right to a healthy and sustainable environment. This is especially worrisome considering that global warming is at an irreversible point.
Finally, this shared narrative is full of good intentions but a lack of tangible measures. During her visit to Mexico, vice president Kamala Harris held a meeting with businesswomen and female union leaders to address gender inequality. However, without the proper agreements, economic and human resources, and follow-up mechanisms it is unlikely that this will translate into lasting changes. Additionally, while a plan to promote gender equality advancement in the Northern Triangle countries through economic investment, loans, and subventions was approved, a scheme of this kind has not been confirmed for Mexico.
A rocky path ahead
From alleging interventionism through U.S. government aid agencies to dismissing a U.S. Department of State’s human rights report on Mexico, AMLO’s criticism against the U.S. has not had severe repercussions so far. However, two looming issues are highly likely to generate tensions in the immediate term.
Even though the agenda is broad, the triad between security, migration, and human rights constitutes an utmost concern for both countries. In this sense, the U.S. Supreme Court’s order to reinstate the Remain in Mexico policy will bring new challenges and revive old strains within both administrations. How they tackle this Trump-era policy could have deadly consequences for asylum seekers while deepening the current humanitarian crisis at the border.
Additionally, the countries’ future collaboration on security matters, including the controversial Merida Initiative, will be defined in the upcoming high-level economic talks. This measure sought to combat transnational organized crime and drug trafficking while strengthening human rights and the rule of law through funding, training, and technical assistance to Mexican law enforcement forces, prosecutors, and judges. Officials are currently working on developing a new framework to address growing concerns in this matter. What will become of this program will be key in terms of the current regional militarization and its effects on migrant repression, enforced disappearances, and organized crime violence in Mexico’s northern and southern borders.
In the lead-up to the negotiations, Mexican Foreign Minister Ebrard affirmed that the Merida Initiative ‘is dead’ and has failed to address the violence increase. AMLO has stated that he would bet on social development and job creation instead. Both statements may translate into a direct halt to any possible U.S. interference in the matter. On the other hand, the U.S. government will likely be reluctant to fund the National Guard given the implications that its military rather than civilian nature have in public security. Although the future of these two measures remains uncertain, history shows that there will be no substantial change if human rights are not placed at the center of the proposed solutions.
Cooperation cannot follow the asymmetry of the bilateral relationship, where the United States outlines Mexico’s human rights policy unilaterally under its criteria. On the contrary, it presents an outstanding opportunity to integrate a common agenda. This endeavor is not exclusive to the executive branch. It requires collaboration between Congresses in both countries, government bodies, the private sector, the media, research centers, unions, youth leaders, civil society, and, above all, of people who have been victims of human rights abuses. In a relationship characterized by a pattern of conflict and cooperation, political will and multi-sectoral joint efforts seem to be the only way forward.
* Raquel López-Portillo Maltos is a human rights and gender equality specialist. She is a strategic regional analyst for Latin America, and a Board member of COMEXI’s Young Professionals Program (PJCOMEXI) The U.S.-Mexico Foundation is a binational non-profit organization dedicated to fostering bilateral cooperation and improving the understanding between the United States and Mexico by activating key people in the relationship that once were dormant. Twitter: @usmexicofound