The U.S.-Mexico relationship — a straightforward tradeoff during the Trump adminstration, with Mexico tamping down on migration and the U.S. not pressing on other issues — has become a wide range of disagreements over trade, foreign policy, energy and climate change.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is to visit Washington on Tuesday to meet with President Joe Biden, a month after López Obrador snubbed Biden’s invitation to the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. Mexico's leader had demanded that Biden invite to the summit the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela — all countries with anti-democratic regimes — and he has also called U.S. support for Ukraine “a crass error.”
On that, and other issues, it’s clear López Obrador is getting along much worse with Biden than with Donald Trump, who threatened Mexico, but wanted only one thing from his southern neighbor: stop migrants from reaching the border.
“I think it is more that the Biden administration has tried hard to re-institutionalize the relationship and restore the relationship that’s not centered solely on immigration and trade. And I think as a result that leads to issues coming up that AMLO is less comfortable talking about,” Andrew Rudman, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, said, using the Spanish acronym by which Mexicans refer to the president.
U.S. officials want López Obrador to retreat on his reliance on fossil fuels and his campaign to favor Mexico’s state-owned electricity utility at the expense of foreign-built plants powered by gas and renewable energy. Washington has filed several complaints under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement pushing Mexico to enforce environmental laws and rules guaranteeing trade union rights.
López Obrador also has angrily rejected any U.S. criticism of the killings of journalists in Mexico or his own efforts to weaken checks and balances in Mexico's government. He is also angered by U.S. funding of civic and non-governmental groups in Mexico that he claims are part of the opposition.
It all adds up to a witches’ brew in bilateral relations.
“At the end of the day, the problem is that you have the complete mismatch in this relationship,” said Arturo Sarukhan, who served as Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2006 to 2013.
The United States “needs Mexico as a key partner on everything from ‘near shoring’ (manufacturing for the U.S. market) … in terms of competitiveness, in terms of North American energy security, energy independence, energy efficiency,” Sarukhan said. “The problem is you have a Mexican president who doesn’t care about any of these things.”
What the Mexican president is interested in talking about is inflation, which in June spiked to almost 8%. Inflation and the economic after-effects of the pandemic are leading an increasing number of Mexicans to emigrate — 22 of the 53 migrants who recently died after being abandoned by smugglers in a semi-trailer in Texas were Mexican.
“We have to look for a way to act together, help each other in controlling inflation,” López Obrador said Friday. “That is a topic I am going to propose. We have a plan.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the same day that the Bidens are looking forward to welcoming Lopez-Obrador and his wife at the White House.
“They will discuss a broad and deep agenda, including joint efforts on migration, food security and economic opportunity, and so the president looks forward to having that conversation,” Jean-Pierre said.
She sidestepped questions about Lopez Obrador’s repeated public criticism of the Biden administration, including U.S. efforts to extradite Wikileaks founder Julian Assange from the U.K. for prosecution.
“We see AMLO, the president of Mexico, as a partner,” she said, adding that many conversations would be had. "And I’m going to leave it at that.”
The question is how hard the Biden administration is willing to push Mexico on anything.
With Republicans like Texas Gov. Greg Abbot relentlessly pointing at the migration issue, Mexico holds huge leverage. It is under no obligation to accept anyone returned at its border except Mexican citizens, but it has allowed the U.S. to continue to deport migrants of other nationalities under Title 42 health regulations.
López Obrador badly wants the U.S. to grant more work visas to Mexicans and Central Americans. While that remains a touchy issue in U.S. domestic politics, more visas could help tame clandestine border crossings.
Increasing such visas “would seem to be a way to resolve the labor shortage we have in this country, and also reduce some of the pressure on Mexico and Central America,” Rudman said. "So it seems like something that Lopez Obrador is for, and the Biden administration might be inclined to offer.”
Sarukhan thinks Biden is in a situation similar to that of European leaders who essentially outsourced immigration controls on hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and migrants to Turkey, which accepted them and prevented them from going on to Greece. The Europeans, in exchange, have had to put up with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic ways and foreign policy snubs, he said.
“In many ways, the Biden administration is in its own Erdogan trap,” said Sarukhan.
As if to underline the parallel, the Turkish president is scheduled to visit Mexico later in July, perhaps to shore up a new kind of “non-aligned” bloc like the one that existed during the Cold War in the 1960s and '70s.
López Obrador seldom passes up a chance to irritate the United States. He recently said the Statue of Liberty should be dismantled and returned to France if Assange is imprisoned in the U.S..
Still, there are some signs that Mexico has tried to make up for the summit and other slights.
In late May, Mexico started to crack down on hundreds of meth and fentanyl labs that have been sending to the U.S. a steady stream of those drugs, which have caused the overdose deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.
Mexico’s seizures of meth labs went from six in May to 72 in June, and many of those labs appear to have been operating for years. And days before López Obrador left for Washington, authorities raided two large warehouses in the northern city of Culiacan, finding a half ton of fentanyl and a half million fentanyl pills.
Rudman is skeptical the Mexican army just suddenly found out so many labs were operating. “How could Mexico not have known?” Rudman asks.
The question remains of why López Obrador got along so much better with Trump than he does with Biden.
“I think you can argue that AMLO and Trump ran similar campaigns and won for similar reasons,” said Rudman.
López Obrador’s program of encouraging Mexican self-sufficiency in food, energy and other areas harkens back to a Trump-like nationalism.
“It’s make Mexico great again,” Rudman said.