By ANTONIO GARZA, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico
Summer’s over. And its last few weeks were certainly noteworthy for U.S.-Mexico affairs.
On Thursday, Sept. 10, the United States and Mexico restarted the High-Level Economic Dialogue (HLED) after a four-year hiatus under former U.S. President Donald Trump. Vice President Kamala Harris opened the one-day talks in Washington D.C., which were led by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard. The goal was to reset economic priorities with top agenda items, including supply chains, investment in Central America, cybersecurity and workforce development.
While much remains to be resolved, this multi-agency dialogue was a significant step in broadening the bilateral agenda.
On Sept. 2, Harris swore in Ken Salazar as U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Salazar, who participated in the HLED meetings, is a former U.S. senator to Colorado and was secretary of the interior under President Barack Obama. Ambassador Salazar has been central or privy to discussions on key issues in U.S.-Mexico relations for most of his career. I can think of no one more qualified for this role amid the extraordinarily challenging times we now face.
In the days leading up to the dialogue, Canada and Mexico took a firm posture on rules of origin for automobiles under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). The two countries’ flexible interpretation of regional-based content has become a source of contention with the Joe Biden administration, which favors a stricter approach. The dispute remains unresolved, creating uncertainty for investors in the region.
In D.C., the Mexican and U.S. delegations also discussed cross-border trade. Both sides agreed to work together to build more resilient supply chains to better prepare for future crises and robust border infrastructure in order to attract investment in critical sectors. Mexico’s Economy Secretary Tatiana Clouthier held meetings to urge logistics, technology and semiconductor firms to relocate their supply chains to Mexico.
Following up on the high-level engagement, cabinet-level security talks anticipated for November are expected to prove challenging. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has repeatedly criticized the Merida Initiative, a $3 billion effort that provided the framework for security cooperation for over a decade. And recently, Ebrard deemed the initiative “dead.” The two governments will now be tasked with reimagining collaboration post-Merida.
During the dialogue, the United States and Mexico also discussed economic development to southern Mexico and Central America to address the root causes of migration.
On Thursday, Sept. 3, López Obrador said that he would urge Biden to offer temporary work visas to Central Americans, yet this request remains pending.
The bilateral dialogue occurred two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block a federal district court’s order to reinstate the Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which returned individuals requesting asylum to dangerous conditions in Mexico to await their U.S. immigration hearings. To comply, the United States has begun talks with Mexico about a “lite” version of the program, but the two sides did not announce any agreement at the end of the HLED talks.
In July, the number of migrant crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border hit a record level. Under the Title 42 public health measure, the Biden administration continues to rapidly expel arriving migrants. Pressured by the United States to do more to contain migration, Mexico has also increased its deportations.
The leaders also addressed recovery from the covid-19 pandemic in the meeting. Last month, the United States pledged to send 8.5 million additional doses to support Mexico’s vaccination drive. According to Bloomberg’s tracker, Mexico has fully vaccinated 28 percent of individuals and inoculated 47 percent with one shot. Riding on the curtails of the U.S. stimulus, Mexico estimates its economy will grow by 4.1 percent in 2022, after its rebound in 2021.
Although López Obrador appears to be open to a slightly more institutionalized bilateral relationship, he remains unwilling to engage on some of the thornier issues, such as energy. In fact, the Mexican president recently announced that he planned to move forward with a constitutional amendment that would favor the state-owned electricity company over private competitors.
While the HLED’s engagement was encouraging that relations are heading in the right direction, what is still missing is a clear strategic vision for the bilateral relationship and North America.
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.