US-Mexico tensions darken visit of President Felipe Calderón

Drug violence, trade, and border issues – including Arizona’s new immigration law – are among the difficult issues to be discussed when Mexican President Felipe Calderón visits Washington Wednesday.

President Barack Obama greets Mexican President Felipe Calderón before a dinner at the Washington Convention Center during the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April.

US-Mexico relations are never simple or care-free. But rising drug violence concentrated in Mexico’s border communities and Arizona’s new anti-illegal-immigration law provide a particularly difficult backdrop for Mexican President Felipe Calderón's state visit to Washington Wednesday.

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will be all smiles when they greet President Calderón and Mexican first lady Margarita Zavala for a full day's visit, which includes a press conference, State Department lunch, and a White House state dinner.

The Obamas are having guest chef Rick Bayless from their favorite Mexican restaurant in Chicago, Topolobambo, prepare the evening meal.

But the festivities won’t be able to cover over tensions in the relationship, including US concerns about corruption in the Mexican security forces and Obama’s failure to resolve a controversy over a NAFTA provision to allow Mexican trucks on US highways.

Compared to the last state visit by a Mexican president – when “Jorge” Bush received Vicente Fox in 2001 – the atmosphere today is considerably darker, many experts say.

“In 2001 there was real optimism, you had this sense of democracy blooming in Mexico and a sense in Washington that the post-cold-war adjustments were allowing the US to focus on the hemisphere, and both developments were encouraging people to think big thoughts about the relationship,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas in Washington.

'Difficult and vexing issues'

“But today there’s an absence of big ideas, and instead we’re focused on managing some very difficult and vexing issues,” he adds. “There’s a more somber, pragmatic tone to relations.”

One of the “big ideas” that Mr. Fox brought north with him in September 2001 was that of a North American community that would eventually include the free movement of people. Those days seem especially distant after years of border fence construction and now Arizona’s law tasking local police with questioning and detaining suspected illegal immigrants.

Neither president will be happy with the way the Arizona law has thrust immigration back on to the binational agenda, Mr. Farnsworth says. But he adds that the new “pragmatism” he senses also means that both sides may be ready to come up with some new practical solutions to respective worries about the border. The US wants to see a drop in the number of people crossing north, and Mexico wants to stop the flow of illegal weapons south – weapons that too often are arming Mexico’s violent drug cartels.

The Obama administration is seeking to focus attention on the promise of new economic development and cooperation to help address the immigration issue. The White House also trumpets how it has sought to redirect the $1.3 billion Merida Initiative, first signed with Mexico by the Bush administration, away from providing military hardware to “building strong and resilient communities” in Mexico’s border states.

A senior administration official said Tuesday in previewing Calderón’s visit that Obama is focused on a “four-pronged strategy” for addressing the rising drug-related violence focused in Mexico’s border states that includes disrupting the operations of the drug-trafficking organizations; strengthening institutions including local law enforcement and the judiciary; creating a “more efficient” border than encourages economic development; and community development.

But some prominent experts in US-Mexico relations say that no amount of cooperation and mutual respect is going to make a difference until Mexico changes fundamentally, both politically and socially.

“I don’t imagine my views will be the most popular at the State Department lunch,” says George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., who is on the guest list for Wednesday’s lunch with Calderón. “But the future of Mexico lies in Mexico, and it’s not the United States that is going to save or doom its neighbor.”

Glimmers of hope

Some glimmers of hope have shone through in recent years, Mr. Grayson says.

For example, he points to the professionalism and growing capacity of Mexico’s Navy (as opposed to the Army, he adds) to take on the drug cartels. But he insists that until Mexico’s elites shoulder more of the responsibility for their country’s growth and progress – by paying rather than evading taxes, and by demanding sound education and healthcare systems that will promote economic growth – Mexico’s fundamental problems will not be addressed.

“The elites are used to the US coming to the rescue and acting as Mexico’s safety net so they don’t have to face their responsibilities,” Grayson says, pointing to a border that has worked as a migratory “safety valve” for decades and the 1994 rescue from the peso collapse. “It’s time now for a dose of tough love in the relationship.”

But does he expect Obama, who has not shied away in other foreign venues from a theme of responsibility, to mention the perspective with Calderón? “Ni una palabra,” he says with a chuckle. “Not a word.”


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