Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Did Obama & Peña Nieto Achieve?

Pete Souza / White House

Q: U.S. President Barack Obama met last week at the White House with his Mexican counterpart, Enrique Peña Nieto, to discuss an agenda focused on economic, security and social issues. What were the most important developments to come out of the meeting between the two presidents? What are the biggest challenges that lie ahead for U.S.-Mexico relations in areas such as trade, immigration and human rights

A: Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs: “U.S.-Mexico relations are so strong today that they don’t make much of a splash. This is a good thing. For years, our relationship with Mexico was characterized by mistrust. The U.S.-Mexico relationship under Presidents Obama and Peña Nieto has been dominated by economic cooperation, particularly the U.S.-Mexico High-Level Economic Dialogue. With our economies tied together more closely than ever before, this dialogue is essential. The two next steps on the U.S.-Mexico bilateral agenda must be comprehensive immigration reform and a renewed effort to improve security in Mexico. President Obama’s executive action on immigration was a key step in taking immigrants out of the shadow and keeping families together, but now Congress must pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Both of our countries must redouble our efforts to improve security in Mexico. In the United States, this means stopping the illegal flow of firearms into Mexico and reducing the enormous U.S. demand for illicit drugs. It also means enforcing our anti-money-laundering laws and cracking down on U.S. banks that turn a blind eye to money laundering. The tragic disappearance of 43 university students in Iguala in September showed that much remains to be done to reduce violence in Mexico, particularly at the state and local levels. Congress and the Obama administration must support President Peña Nieto in professionalizing state and local police forces, improving the country’s justice system and rooting out corruption at every level once and for all.”

A: Arturo Sarukhan, member of the Inter-American Dialogue board’s board of directors and former Mexican ambassador to the United States: “Time and again, President Obama has demonstrated his commitment to–and direct engagement with–the bilateral agenda with Mexico. As president-elect, the only foreign leader he met with, 10 days before being sworn into office, was President Calderón. In 2010, Mexico was granted the first state visit of his administration, and now, the first meeting in 2015 at the White House with a head of state in the aftermath of two major policy decisions by the administration–executive action to provide relief to close to 5 million undocumented migrants and normalization of diplomatic ties with Cuba–was with President Peña Nieto. This is no fluke. Despite the ongoing global geostrategic challenges for U.S. foreign policy, the depth and breadth of the Mexico-U.S. bilateral agenda is unrivaled. I have always underscored that there are no two countries more important to each other’s future prosperity, well-being and security than Mexico and the United States, and that we must continue to transform our ties from a ‘homeowners association’ (Condoleezza Rice dixit) to a truly strategic relationship, in the hemisphere and globally. Moving forward, the meeting between both presidents seems to have attained one key deliverable: identifying concrete next steps in the relationship. These could involve ensuring that the Mexican and U.S. agendas are synergistic and as closely aligned as possible in the TPP negotiations; starting to deliver on the promise of enhanced educational exchanges that will help us win hearts and minds on both sides of our border; tackling the tyranny of small differences in regulations–and woefully outdated border infrastructure–that erode our competitive edge and prevent greater gains from trade; or capitalizing successful intelligence-sharing practices and protocols to confront transnational criminal organizations and enhancing human security and effective rule of law; as well as supporting eligible Mexican migrants seeking U.S. immigration relief and working together to constructively engage Cuba. An ambitious course of action has been set in motion for 2015. Both governments will now need to produce the goods.”

A: Juan Carlos Hartasánchez, director for Latin America and Mexico at the Albright Stonebridge Group: “While there were no surprises during President Peña Nieto’s first official visit to Washington, the fact of the meeting itself was significant. As neighbors and two of the most influential countries in the hemisphere, contact at all levels–including the highest–is crucial. As expected, President Obama addressed the tragic disappearance of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa, committed to continue supporting Mexico in its fight against violence and drug cartels and reaffirmed his commitment to working on comprehensive immigration reform. President Peña Nieto pledged to control migration flows and to collaborate with U.S. authorities on information exchange and logistics support to preserve public security. The most notable development was commitments made by both parties in the U.S.-Mexico High-Level Economic Dialogue (HLED). The HLED defined six goals to advance economic integration: energy cooperation, border modernization, workforce development, regulatory cooperation, regional and global leadership, and stakeholder engagement. There are many obstacles that need to be overcome to reach these goals. For example, laws in the United States that prevent oil exports need to be modified. It was promising to hear Commerce Secretary Pritzker’s recent statements that the United States is holding discussions with Mexican officials on the possibility of exporting light crude, but other regulatory and infrastructure hurdles still need to be overcome. These challenges, however, are only the tip of the iceberg. Violence and organized crime can seriously dent the efforts to integrate these economies. Solving these challenges will require tremendous commitment, work and investment, but success will bring jobs and prosperity to families on both sides of the border.”

A: James R. Jones, member of the Advisor board and chairman of Manatt Jones Global Strategies: “The recent bilateral between the governments of Presidents Obama and Peña Nieto was impressive in many ways. First, virtually the entire cabinet in economic policy and national security from both governments participated. Second, specific actions with timely, specific follow-ups were decided. Perhaps just as impressive was the easy relationship between the two presidents and their cabinet officials that was evident. It demonstrated a genuine partnership, which our governments have been trying to achieve for the 20 years since the passage of NAFTA. The discussions of the HLED reflected the concerns and recommendations of the private sector, including the ideas generated last month by the U.S.-Mexico CEO Dialogue. For example, considerable attention was given to developing our energy resources, both fossil and renewable, with the ultimate goal of making North America an integrated and efficient energy market. Initially, I expect to see action toward integrating and interconnecting electricity power in both countries. Initial attention must be given to harmonizing regulations and in some cases even legislative authority. While much progress has been made in the past year to improve the efficiency of our common border, much more needs to be done. This seems to be an area of general agreement, and greater border modernization should result this year. Discussions to appoint a high-level coordinator or czar in both governments to make sure that agreed-upon actions are carried out will help ensure that such bilateral meetings actually deliver on decisions and are not just nice words to be forgotten. There seemed to be agreement that before the end of this month, high-level coordinators should be appointed and specific action items should be pursued. The private sector’s job now is to be the watchdog to encourage and prod both governments to deliver on their promises. I think this will happen.”


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