Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Do AMLO & Biden Have to Gain in Today’s Meeting?

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and U.S. President Joe Biden, pictured last November, are to meet today at the White House. // File Photo: White House. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and U.S. President Joe Biden, pictured last November, are to meet today at the White House. // File Photo: White House.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden today at the White House. The meeting comes just over a month after López Obrador skipped the Summit of the Americas, which the United States hosted, in protest over the U.S. decision not to invite the leaders of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba over their records on human rights and democracy. What are the most important issues up for discussion between López Obrador and Biden? What do the presidents each want to get out of the meeting? How well are the two countries cooperating, and what are the high points and shortcomings of their bilateral relationship?

Andrés Rozental, member of the Advisor board and president of Rozental & Asociados: “The current state of the Mexico-U.S. relationship can only be described as hanging by a thread. Even though President Biden gave the Mexican leader a face-saving exit from his insulting nonattendance at the Summit of the Americas, the number of grievances, tensions and substantive differences that characterize this most important relationship have reached one of the lowest points in recent decades, even if one includes the Trump years. It’s no secret that AMLO strongly dislikes the United States and, like many left-leaning ideologues in Mexico, fears our more powerful northern neighbor. He has tried, with limited success so far, to stay on Biden’s good side by making Mexico deploy large human and financial resources to keep migrants from Central America and other countries from reaching the U.S. border. Although this ‘wonderful cooperation’ that AMLO constantly crows about at his daily pressers gives him some leverage to prevent Washington from complaining too directly about the disastrous state of Mexico’s economy, its endemic violence, homicides, as well as the constant threat of changing rules and regulations that harm U.S. business interests in the country, it is likely to last only as long as Biden holds a hope of keeping his party’s majorities in Congress and continuing to push for his immigration reform agenda. Once that possibility disappears in November, Washington may find that it no longer needs to give AMLO a pass or withstand the pressures from U.S. investors and social-issue advocates. Although the agenda for the AMLO-Biden meeting has been promoted as immigration-based, there are difficult trade, environmental and other bilateral issues that will likely be addressed. AMLO’s recent announcement that he will begin a campaign to dismantle the Statue of Liberty if Julian Assange isn’t set free after extradition to the United States is a nonsensical issue that he wants to raise, but that Biden should immediately dismiss as irrelevant to the bilateral relationship.”

Carlos Véjar, partner at Holland & Knight: “This may be the last time both presidents meet to discuss major issues on the U.S.-Mexico bilateral agenda before both countries’ 2024 elections take place. It is not clear if President Biden will run for a second term, but that is not the case for President López Obrador, who will be more concerned about his party holding the presidency for six more years. Aside from each other’s political circumstances, the Mexico-U.S. agenda includes serious security concerns related to the organized crime activities surrounding illegal immigration, arms control and drug cartels’ presence in the United States. These are clear bilateral issues that cannot be solved alone and hopefully, those issues will be addressed. Nonetheless, many expect the United States to take a hard stance against the Mexican president for not shifting its ‘hugs and not bullets’ policy against criminal activity in Mexico and for not stopping measures against U.S. investments in the energy sector (including its overall compliance with USMCA obligations, particularly on labor issues). The question is, how hard can you press a president who has shown a tendency to double down on policies that are clearly failing? It also might be too early for the United States to express concerns about Mexico’s upcoming democratic elections given evidence that shows organized crime involvement and a return to old undemocratic practices. Mexico will likely insist on additional resources for its social programs and those for Central America to contain immigration, but it’s hard to see the country gaining anything else from this meeting other than time.”

Pamela Starr, senior advisor at Monarch Global Strategies and professor at the University of Southern California: “Unsurprisingly, the agenda for the meeting between presidents Biden and López Obrador will focus on migration, still the number-one concern of the Biden administration and a renewed focus for Mexico after the incident in San Antonio that took the lives of more than 50 migrants, including 26 Mexicans. This will include joint efforts to address the root causes of migration in Southern Mexico and Northern Central America. Other matters to be discussed include security, climate change, North American competitiveness and closer collaboration on global issues. López Obrador has said he also wants to discuss binational cooperation to fight inflation. The two sides’ objectives for the meeting are surprisingly similar. López Obrador still wants one thing: diplomatic room. Room to implement his Fourth Transformation policies without U.S. meddling, and room to employ anti-imperialist rhetoric and occasional actions, needed to rally the base of his Morena party so its candidate wins the 2024 presidential election. Biden, meanwhile, wants a cooperative Mexico that does not make waves. The presidential agenda does not have room politically or diplomatically for a Mexico that is the source of new problems. Unfortunately, this parallel presidential desire for the other not to cause problems is unrealistic. The weakening of Mexican democracy, the growing reach of Mexican organized crime and Mexico’s energy nationalism pose a direct threat to U.S. national interests. The Biden administration thus seems destined to take actions that López Obrador deems unfriendly, leading to a future increase in bilateral tensions.”

Andrew Rudman, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: “Despite the numerous challenges facing our countries, U.S.-Mexico cooperation at the cabinet and sub-cabinet levels has improved over the past two years. Prior coordination among cabinet agencies allowed the High-Level Economic Dialogue (HLED) and High-Level Security Dialogue to produce work plans with clear, jointly agreed-upon objectives. The relationship is not ideal, however. Lack of trust among law enforcement agencies hampers security cooperation. Migration will surely top the agenda following the recent tragedy near San Antonio, the Supreme Court decision regarding Remain in Mexico and the upcoming U.S. midterm elections. Additional topics include supply chain resilience, efforts to attract nearshoring, USMCA implementation and climate change (including the energy transition). Less certain is whether and how President Biden will broach traditional pillars of U.S. foreign policy such as democracy, freedom of the press, the independence of institutions and violence against women, given AMLO’s noninterventionist stance. When members of Congress or the cabinet have raised concerns about these issues in public, AMLO has reacted harshly, as in the case of the Summit of the Americas (and others). Yet, AMLO has not shied away from commenting on U.S. domestic issues, despite his oft-stated insistence on nonintervention. The Biden administration will be seeking continued collaboration from Mexico to reduce the flow of migrants, and AMLO will use his perceived leverage to resist entreaties on these sensitive issues on which he would prefer not to engage. The question is whether Biden will allow migration to dominate the agenda behind closed doors as it seemingly has in public.” 

Amy Glover, president and founding partner of Agil(e): “Overall, both the AMLO and Biden governments have played their bilateral hands maturely, a real feat given the daily drama that characterizes U.S.-Mexico relations. U.S. backbends in deference to Mexico designed to avoid calling out AMLO’s populist tendencies, however, have become a little too acrobatic. AMLO’s prize for shunning the Summit of the Americas? A special visit to Washington. The perception on the ground in Mexico is that the U.S. government has been too reticent to defend its interests, including democratic values and transparency. That said, the Biden administration has done well not to pay attention to AMLO’s provocative theatrics. A suggestion to dismount the Statue of Liberty on the 4th of July? Oh, please. And AMLO has also known when to offer up some goodwill. For example, his June announcement of 10 climate commitments during a virtual meeting with Biden showed that when push comes to shove, AMLO can be a team player. The concrete steps required to reduce Pemex’s methane emissions by 98 percent remain a mystery, but a national commitment to move forward on climate change abatement provides some hope. When they meet in Washington, immigration will get top billing, as usual; both governments are experiencing internal political heat in the wake of the Texas tragedy. AMLO has highlighted that Biden has offered to discuss a regional strategy to address inflation coupled with a steeper economic downturn, a good idea. The private sectors on both sides of the border are less than satisfied with the paltry public sector creativity surrounding a nearshoring strategy—of relevance not just for Mexico—and neither government pays much attention to the concerns of business. Regular high-level conversations are no doubt important given the complexity of the relationship, but don’t hold your breath for major announcements.”

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