Mexican trucks to ply US highways? Obama is ready to roll.

President Obama on Thursday laid out a plan to allow trucks from Mexico to carry goods into America. Concern about safety of Mexican trucks have nixed such transport for decades.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama and Mexico's President Felipe Calderón leave the stage after their joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, March 3.

Mexican trucks may soon be rolling along US highways – especially along the US-Mexico border – if a deal President Obama announced Thursday to resolve a long-standing dispute fares better than previous proposals.

With Mexican President Felipe Calderón at his side at the White House, Mr. Obama announced the proposed solution to a standoff that has pitted US truckers against business interests since before the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect in 1994. Under NAFTA, the border was to be opened to crossborder trucking, but concerns about the safety of Mexican trucks blocked the provision’s implementation.

Under the deal, which still faces congressional and local scrutiny, the US would allow in Mexican trucks that comply with stringent safety standards. In return, Mexico would lift tariffs it imposed on US goods in retaliation for flouting the NAFTA provision. The Mexican trucks would carry recorders for verifying that they transported crossborder shipments and did not act as domestic transporters on the US side.

The trucking deal came during an Obama-Calderón meeting that was largely about atmospherics – essentially turning down the heat on a bilateral relationship that had reached the boiling point in recent weeks.

Mr. Calderón was irritated to the point of public steam-letting over a series of US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks that showed US officials – including US Ambassador Carlos Pascual – questioning aspects of Calderon’s five-year-old war on Mexico’s powerful drug cartels. The cables were heavy on critiques of Mexican corruption and poor coordination among the country’s security forces, and light on accolades for Calderón.

Then last month a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent assigned to the US Embassy in Mexico City, Jaime Zapata, was murdered in an ambush in northern Mexico.

The tensions appeared to be mostly assuaged by the two leaders’ meeting Thursday. Obama spoke glowingly of Calderón’s “courageous” fight against the drug cartels, and added a perspective that Mexicans long to hear when he said the US shares responsibility for violence south of the border that has claimed the lives of more than 35,000 Mexicans since Calderón took office.

“We are very mindful that the battle President Calderón is fighting in Mexico is not just his,” Obama said. “It’s also ours. We have to take responsibility, just as he’s taking responsibility.”

In private, Calderón did not back down from his criticism of Ambassador Pascual, according to US officials. But Obama made it clear he is sticking by his ambassador, the officials say – thus leaving intact one potential source of friction in the relationship at least until 2012, when both countries hold presidential elections.

Later Thursday, in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, Calderón extended the “co-responsibility” theme to issues beyond the drug war, and in particular to immigration.

Calderón said Mexico is working hard to improve education, health care, and overall living standards for all Mexicans, so that the country’s young people don’t have to migrate north to find a better life. He ticked off statistics about high numbers of new engineers graduated and new hospitals built.

But he added that North American migration would remain a reality for some time, and that migrants going to work in the US – labor that he said is aiding the US economy – deserve a secure legal status instead of “living in the shadows.”

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