US-Mexican Relations: Real Engagement or Just Cordiality?

U.S. President Joe Biden. Photo: White House

By ANTONIO GARZA, former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico

The inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday, Jan. 20, is certainly still on all of our minds. The past few months have been a turbulent time for U.S. democracy. Biden now faces an unprecedented health and economic crisis, and must also navigate Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate and the investigation of the Jan. 6 uprising and violence at the U.S. Capitol.

Biden’s first 100 days will focus on controlling the pandemic, reviving the U.S. economy and addressing structural racism. With a slim majority in Congress, the administration also plans to push for immigration reform and measures to address climate change. Yet, it will be an uphill battle to get the $1.9 trillion covid relief package and immigration overhaul passed on Capitol Hill while managing interlocking crises.

Biden also promised to swiftly act to remake U.S. foreign policy. Over the last four years, tensions with China and Iran heightened, Russia was emboldened, and North Korea became a greater nuclear risk. And Biden will also need to restore trust in U.S. leadership with allies around the world.

Mexico will be a key regional partner. On his third day in office, Biden spoke with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) to discuss collaboration on migration challenges. This was the second phone call between the two since Biden won the November election, and the first since he assumed office.

So far, the relationship has been cordial at best. After the November election, López Obrador waited six weeks to congratulate Biden. Then ,during their initial phone call in December, López Obrador made a point of stressing his good relationship with Trump.

This state of affairs was certainly not a given. Trump and López Obrador started off as unlikely allies. But over time, they seemed to have reached an understanding: Trump stayed out of Mexico’s affairs, and López Obrador supported Trump’s plans on migration.

By contrast, Biden’s desire to engage on a range of issues reflects a more pre-Trump approach to bilateral affairs. And this institutional outlook appears to threaten López Obrador’s individualized style of governing.

Yet, López Obrador’s cold reception might not only be an attempt to keep the United States at bay, but may also score his party votes in the June midterm elections and distract from his uneven handling of the pandemic.

After downplaying the pandemic for almost a year, López Obrador announced on Sunday, Jan. 24, that he had contracted covid-19 and was receiving medical treatment for mild symptoms. His illness comes at a time when Mexico’s public health system has been at the point of collapse and hospitals across the country are at full capacity.

Recently, Mexico’s once-praised covid-19 vaccination program had to be paused due to shipment delays. López Obrador, who is currently isolating at the National Palace, spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, Jan. 25, and secured 24 million doses of the Sputnik vaccine. Warming Russian-Mexico relations is not good news for Biden.

On security, Biden and López Obrador’s personal relations take place amid an all-time low in bilateral security cooperation. In the last month, the Mexican government exonerated former Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos, who U.S. prosecutors had charged with drug trafficking and money laundering in the fall. Then, López Obrador defiantly released over 700 pages of U.S. classified documents and named Cienfuegos an advisor to the Secretariat of Defense.

Making matters more challenging, Mexico’s Congress passed a law in December to restrict U.S. law enforcement operations in the country. These unilateral actions have been a huge blow to bilateral cooperation, and come at a time when Mexico’s rule of law has already taken a downturn.

The energy sector has also become embroiled in bilateral tensions. On Jan. 11, top Trump administration officials sent a letter to their Mexican counterparts. They expressed concerns that the administration’s regulatory actions to give preference to state-owned energy companies and block private permits created “significant uncertainty” for investment. The letter also “raised concerns regarding Mexico’s commitments” under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) due to regulatory changes and hinted at potential lawsuits.

Last year, Mexico’s tax collection agency, the SAT, began to threaten large companies with criminal charges for tax noncompliance, and the SAT has set its sights in 2021 on cracking down on medium and small businesses. Next month, Mexico’s Congress will vote on a contentious outsourcing bill that would prohibit companies from subcontracting third-party firms.

The new U.S. administration will, no doubt be keeping an eye on both of these developments, in addition to the many issues it is already monitoring.

ANTONIO GARZA is a U.S. lawyer who served as his country’s ambassador to Mexico between 2002 and 2009. In recognition of his work, in 2009, the Mexican government bestowed on him the Águila Azteca, the highest award granted to foreigners. Prior to his appointment as ambassador, Garza served as Texas’ secretary of state from January 1995 to November 1997 and was also chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission. He is currently a lawyer specializing in cross-border issues at White & Case, which was recently named the most innovative firm in North America for 2020 by the Financial Times. He is also currently a director at both Kansas City Southern and MoneyGram.

…Jan. 26, 2021

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