In pushing for ouster of US ambassador to Mexico, did Calderón shoot the messenger?

Instead of praise, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has come under criticism in the press and even from an ex-president over the resignation of the US ambassador.

Marco Ugarte/AP
In this March 7 file photo, Mexican President Felipe Calderón is shown speaking at the Los Pinos presidential residence in Mexico City. Calderón has come under criticism in the press and even from an ex-president over the resignation of US Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual.
Marco Ugarte/AP
This Oct. 5, 2010 file photo shows US Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual.

When US Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual stepped down March 19 following public ridicule from Mexican President Felipe Calderón, it appeared a score between two outsized personalities had been settled.

It also seemed that President Calderón's image as a tough nationalist could be on the mend, after suffering in recent weeks from revelations that US security forces permit guns to flow into Mexico in order to track traffickers through Operation Fast and Furious, and also that Calderón had authorized US drones to fly deep into Mexico unbeknownst to Mexico's Congress.

But rather than cheering the departure of Mr. Pascual – a man some believed disdained this country – Mexican columnists, academics, and even an ex-president turned a critical eye on Calderón. The resignation did little to calm outrage over recent bilateral impasses with the United States, and has instead underscored the intense tug-of-war that Calderón is in between Washington and the Mexican public.

To add to the frustration, which for now is mostly mounting on the Mexican side, Pascual may not quickly be replaced, as a lengthy and politicized process to choose his successor is expected. All of this raises doubts that Pascual’s departure will improve US-Mexico relations or Calderón's image as he gears up for a tough reelection campaign next year.

“Pascual’s resignation could lead to a modification in style but not substance in bilateral relations,” respected historian Lorenzo Meyer wrote yesterday in Spanish-language Reforma newspaper. He likened the current situation to 1927, when the recall of a US ambassador failed to stop the United States from imposing its interests regarding oil above those of Mexico.

Problems mount for Calderón

The controversy began when diplomatic cables leaked from Pascual's time at the US embassy portrayed Mexican security forces as deeply corrupt and uncoordinated. Calderón called out Pascual for his “ignorance” in an El Universal interview last month and the president’s trip to Washington shortly thereafter came amid tensions over the Feb. 15 murder of a US special agent in Mexico.

Despite Pascual’s departure, which many Mexican politicians supported, analysts point out that cooperation between both countries’ administrations and security forces is still at an all-time high.

“The real day to day cooperation is deepening,” says Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. But the tone of the relationship will go through ups and downs as 2012 presidential elections approach for both countries, he adds, crediting negative comments against Calderón as signs of the nearing election season.

Mr. Selee says Pascual may not leave Mexico for weeks and a successor may come under intense cross-examination by US lawmakers who could use Pascual’s resignation to sound off against American policy in Mexico.

Other analysts say Pascual's pressured resignation may portray Calderón as a stronger bargainer for Mexican interests in bilateral negotiations.

'He killed the messenger'

But judging from local reaction, mostly played out in the media, which ranges from questioning the move to criticizing Calderón, it is not clear the incident has helped the president.

“Felipe Calderón finally got what he wanted. He killed the messenger,” Denise Dresser, a well-known political commentator, wrote in Reforma. “For telling the truth even though it hurts to acknowledge it.”

Even former President Vicente Fox of Calderón’s own political party told that Pascual’s assessments of Mexico's grim security situation were not far from the truth, and that Calderón should return the Army to their barracks.

Some commentators are also raising concerns about a “boomerang effect” in which Mexican interests in Washington may be hurt and a vacuum may be created at the embassy, says pollster Jorge Buendia of Buendía & Laredo in Mexico City.

But while the media has not stopped opining on Pascual, the public has little knowledge or interest in an affair that does not affect them directly, he says. That assessment rings true in the case of Antonio Aguilar, who owns a small diner in Mexico City.

“I was surprised that the president could overthrow an ambassador of such high caliber,” he says. “But if Calderón throws a fit, why should it matter to me?”

Public opinion polls show confidence in Mexico’s security has dropped steadily as more than 35,000 people have died in the past four years of the drug war. Major media outlets signed a pact Thursday agreeing to stop sensationalizing the violence or beaming images of bloodshed into Mexican homes.

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