By EARL ANTHONY WAYNE, former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico

(The following article first appeared in the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute internal publication and is being republished in Pulse News Mexico with specific prior permission.)

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo led a high-powered delegation to Mexico City on July 13 to follow up on a positive initial phone call between Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and U.S. President Donald Trump. The visit set the stage for work on the complex and interconnected bilateral agenda in the months ahead, covering trade, migration, border management and public security.

Accompanied by White House advisor Jared Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen- Pompeo met with AMLO, who provided a letter for President Trump with a suggested “basis of understanding” for the work ahead.

Mexico’s president elect was accompanied by a strong team that represented the importance of U.S. relations for Mexico: Foreign Affairs Secretary-designate Marcelo Ebrard; designated Secretary of the Interior Olga Sánchez Cordero; the future secretary of Public Security, Alfonso Durazo; Jesús Seade, named to lead North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations; Graciela Márquez, the proposed secretary of Economy (Commerce); and Martha Bárcena, proposed as Mexico’s ambassador to Washington. AMLO announced separately that he would invite President Trump to his inauguration.

Secretary Pompeo and the U.S. team also met with current Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and other members of government to discuss work in the months before AMLO takes office for his six-year term on Dec. 1, 2018.  Shortly after the visit, Mexico’s current economy minister announced that U.S. and Mexican negotiators would reengage on NAFTA, seeking a preliminary deal by late August.

The visit and surrounding announcements underscore the importance of U.S.-Mexico relations. Mexico’s election and presidential transition provides an opportunity to reset U.S.-Mexico relations to a more positive tone. To succeed, both parties need to regularize respectful ways to manage divisive issues and find common ground, while avoiding the negative rhetoric that could drive them apart.

Many speculated that AMLO could be a “pugnacious counterpart” to President Trump and predicted clashes. AMLO and his allies have been sharply critical of U.S. words and actions, but they also make clear that they seek good relations of “mutual respect” and trust with their northern neighbor and they understand the importance of economic ties with the United States.

AMLO is riding to power on an enormous wave of support for change and with many promises to fulfill. He and his team are preparing specific proposals to address insecurity, corruption, inequality and poverty, as well as government reform. They must get ready to implement these objectives without having ever governed nationally, and their “Morena” party, founded in 2014, has never managed a congressional majority or the many state and local positions won on July 1. Popular expectations are high and Mexico’s challenges are daunting.

AMLO’s history and political orientation are sharply different from President Trump’s. Yet, he and his team recognize that Mexico and the United States are deeply intertwined by geography, history, culture, politics and economics.  Those economic ties are key for AMLO’s hope to improve the lot of poorer Mexicans. On both sides of the border, the relationship is “intermestic,” international and domestic. For both countries, there is no other bilateral relationship that touches the daily lives of citizens more than the ties and issues involving each other, for good and for bad.

Some 80 percent of Mexico’s exports head to the United States. Mexico is the United States’ second-largest export market in the world. Mexico is by far the United States’ largest international partner for “building things.” The two countries trade $1 million a minute, supporting millions of jobs in both countries. They manage a million legal border crossings each day. At the same time, millions of “undocumented” Mexicans live in the United States and tens of thousands of Central Americans flee toward Mexico and the United States each month. Illicit commerce includes drugs headed to U.S. consumers, and $20 to $30 billion a year in illegal drug profits feeding violence in Mexico.

These factors provide strong incentives for the two governments to hammer out a modus vivendi. It will take patience, discipline, hard work and good will to produce a shared way ahead, however, and to manage the complex set of “intermestic” issues like immigration that spark passions in both countries.  Issues of sovereignty, respect, pride and emotion can arise quickly from a stray comment or tweet.

NAFTA: Efforts to agree on a new North American Free Trade Agreement top the agenda. Talks have been at loggerheads over such issues as readjusting the “rules of origin” for autos, whether to have a “sunset clause” for the treaty, disputed settlement provisions and, most recently, over U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum, which led Canada and Mexico to retaliate. AMLO and his advisors support concluding the NAFTA agreement and seek U.S. and other investment to help generate jobs in Mexico as part of the long-term solution to crime and migration. His advisors plan to work with current Mexican negotiators, seeking to strike a deal by the time AMLO takes office in December. A NAFTA agreement would boost all three North American economies and be a good start for the six-year AMLO presidency.

Negotiators say an agreement is possible in the weeks ahead if Mexico, the United States and Canada can show flexibility and creativity on the big-ticket issues, which have stalled progress. The United States reportedly seeks to make headway first with Mexico and then work to bring Canada along, but until now, Canada and Mexico have resisted U.S. efforts to split the negotiations. Mexico and Canada have regularly argued that, for success, the negotiation needs to move from a “win-lose” perspective to a “win-win-win” outlook. AMLO, for example, no doubt hopes to portray an early NAFTA agreement as a success to add momentum for the reforms he will initiate.

Migration and Border Management: The flow of migrants northward is the most sensitive issue for both countries to manage.  Net migration from Mexico to the United States has been shrinking for about a decade, but an estimated 5.6 million “undocumented” Mexicans remain in the United States from earlier years. Migration from Central America northward has grown substantially since 2013-14. Mexican officials have been stung by U.S. criticisms and accusations that they do nothing to help on migration: They have sent over 500,000 Central Americans back home. Mexicans, more broadly, are very critical of U.S. immigration policy and treatment of migrant families.

AMLO previously criticized the current Mexican government for doing America’s “dirty work” regarding migrants. Yet, he has also proposed a new version of the 1960s era “Alliance for Progress” to address migration and development issues. AMLO likely has in mind significant new U.S. assistance to help alleviate poverty in southern Mexico and in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala as a way to address root causes of migration. Agreement on such a broad umbrella concept could help recalibrate and reinitiate U.S.-Mexican cooperation to manage migrants heading northward and to work with Central American governments, as well as to address some of the crime challenges in the region.  AMLO mentioned the concept of such an agreement in his phone call with President Trump. He likely desires investment of significant U.S. resources. The United States seeks Mexican actions to keep migrants far from the U.S. border. Forging an agreement will take a good deal of U.S.-Mexican groundwork.

Closely related to the migrant issue is border cooperation. Over the past decade, the United States and Mexico transformed border management into a much more cooperative effort, making trade more efficient and handling security threats farther away from the actual border, thus reducing risks for the United States. There is still much to do to create the agreed-upon “21st Century Border.” Also, recent U.S. steps to enforce migration controls on the border have led the United States to suspend previous U.S.-Mexico agreements to facilitate handling of the return of Mexican migrants to Mexico, undermining the confidence of Mexican officials. The two sides should work to restore and build mutual confidence and joint work on border management in the months ahead.

Fighting Crime: Similarly critical is countering transnational criminal groups that supply drugs to the United States and fuel violence and corruption in Mexico. That cooperation took an important step forward in 2017 when U.S. and Mexican cabinet officials agreed to a strategy for targeting the entire chain of drug production, transportation and finances of transnational criminal organizations. However, with the hostile atmosphere that developed over migration issues, Mexican officials became increasingly hesitant to take new steps. With Mexico’s change of government, there is an opportunity to redesign and reframe bilateral cooperation. This could include work to fight corruption and helping Mexican communities (and young people) caught up in criminal networks, which were central themes in AMLO’s campaign. AMLO and his team are still developing their public security strategy, however, including the approach to drugs (including decriminalization) and related criminal activity. The two sides should try to forge a common agenda and an action plan for collaboration on crime, the border and migration issues.

Quiet work in the months ahead can shape a better U.S.-Mexico relationship to the benefit of both countries. Progress requires careful, quiet, dedicated work by both sides (and with Canada for NAFTA). Avoiding negative public rhetoric from either side of the border will be key to building trust and agreement on a constructive modus vivendi.

Earl Anthony Wayne is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and career ambassador (ret.) from the U.S. Diplomatic Service, where he served as U.S. ambassador to both Mexico and Argentina, as well as assistant secretary of State for economic and business affairs.


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