By Lila Abed *
President Joe Biden hosted the leaders of Canada and Mexico for a trilateral summit this past Thursday— the first North American leader summit (NALS) of its kind since 2016.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined Biden at the White House to develop a common vision for the region’s future. They discussed an array of issues including immigration, security, development, trade, climate change, and the coronavirus pandemic.
Although the three leaders generally avoided thorny issues, the bilateral meeting between the Mexican President and Joe Biden presented an opportunity to discuss various topics that are crucial for both nations.
The controversial energy reform that the Mexican government is pushing in Congress has prompted concerns for private companies in the United States that invested in the Mexican energy sector during the historic 2013-2014 energy overhaul that opened the market to competition and ended more than 75 years of oil nationalism in the country.
AMLO’s recent proposal to reform the Mexican electricity sector empowers the state-owned utility company (CFE), granting it a majority (54%) of the market. In addition to canceling permits that were granted to private companies for electric generation, the bill also calls for independent energy regulators to be incorporated into government agencies and gives the government control over lithium extraction.
Dozens of Republican lawmakers and governors have expressed their concerns with the Biden administration, as well as with the US ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, to pressure the Mexican government over discriminatory actions that negatively impact U.S. companies.
Regardless of whether the White House agrees politically or not with the energy reform in Mexico, the underlying issue is that it is violating various aspects of the USMCA. Not only does the Mexican legal system place international treaties above federal and state law but failing to comply with its commitments could translate into penalties and international arbitration cases that would ultimately damage the Mexican economy and the spirit of the agreement.
The joint declaration and public statements released after the trilateral summit was carefully drafted and underscored the diplomatic nature of the meetings. Nonetheless, the difficult issues are discussed and negotiated behind closed doors. Mexico’s energy reform, as well as labor rights, migration, and security, were some of the tougher matters that President Biden and his Mexican counterpart had to confront.
Mexico came out with a win on migration, securing funds from the U.S. government to expand two of its key social programs -tree-planting program Sembrando Vida and young apprenticeships program Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro– to southern Mexico and Central America. President López Obrador consistently requested the Biden administration to provide funds for these programs, and he finally achieved his goal at the NALS Summit.
The announcement of a joint investment to address the root causes of migration came at an inflection point for the White House, particularly with the upcoming midterm elections next year in the United States. It opened a temporary window of opportunity for the Mexican government to ask for something in exchange for stemming the flow of migrants at both of its borders- a quid pro quo of sorts.
Knowing that Republicans will use the migration crisis as a strategy to take back the majority in Congress, in addition to current negotiations to reinstate the Remain in Mexico program- which forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexican border cities while their cases are heard in U.S. courts- Mexico’s president was uniquely positioned to pressure the Biden administration to finally succumb to its demands. The situation at the border has caused political havoc for the White House. Mexico played its cards well.
While there were expectations that President Joe Biden would discuss AMLO’s support for the Cuban regime, the matter was not directly addressed at the bilateral meeting. Yet, during the remarks at the Oval Office, Biden sent a clear message when he stated that both the United States and Mexico are committed to assuring that their democracies deliver for their people, and that democracies in the last twenty years have significantly been reduced. In other words, he will hold his Mexican counterpart accountable for strengthening, and not undermining, Mexico’s democratic system.
President López Obrador boasted that the United States and Mexico are now equal partners, and that Mexico is no longer its neighbors’ backyard. The statement feeds into his foreign policy strategy, which emphasizes the importance of upholding the principle of non-intervention and respect for national sovereignty.
However, AMLO called on the U.S. Congress to enact immigration reform to regularize the legal standing of more than 11 million undocumented migrants living in the United States. Quite an interesting request for a President that repeatedly asks other countries to not interfere in the internal affairs of other nations.
Security issues were also priority on the agenda for both leaders. The Mexican wants to stop the trafficking of weapons into Mexico, which usually end in the hands of drug cartels, spurring violence in the country. The Mexican government has already filed suit against eleven U.S. gun manufacturers in a Massachusetts court, seeking US $10 billion in damages.
Meanwhile, the United States wants Mexico to further crackdown on cartels shipping drugs like fentanyl – as deaths from opioid overdoses surge in the United States. This could pose problems with the Mexican president’s security strategy “hugs, not bullets”, which aims to end the war on drugs.
AMLO’s social approach to reducing violence has not worked, as homicides reach record levels in the country. Security cooperation with the United States also reached a low point after Mexico approved a law limiting the work of foreign agents south of the border, including Drug Enforcement Administration agents. The desire to strengthen security cooperation to combat transnational organized crime across the border remains to be seen.
All things considered, the United States and Mexico partnership is strong. They will continue to cooperate with one another in a slew of issues that are vital for the prosperity of both countries, despite their differences.
* Lila Abed is correspondent for NTN24 in Washington and a weekly columnist for The Herald of Mexico. She is also a member of the COMEXI´s Young Professionals Program (PJCOMEXI). PJCOMEXI partners in several initiatives with The US-Mexico Foundation, 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: @usmexfound