The Summit That Never Was
By MARK LORENZANA
At the conclusion of the trilateral meeting between the three heads of state — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — as part of the North American Leaders’ Summit (NALS) held at the National Palace in Mexico City on Tuesday, Jan. 10, there was a sense that nothing significant was achieved.
On the morning of Tuesday, the White House laid out a “key deliverables” fact sheet on its website that detailed major issues that were to be addressed in the summit, which included the illegal trafficking of fentanyl into the United States from Mexico, irregular migration, public health and democracy, among many others. At the end of the meeting, however, there wasn’t much progress on these issues — if they were even addressed at all.
Instead, what unfolded was a harmless photo op and back-patting among leaders who didn’t seem to want to offend each other, in a conscious effort to avoid conflict.
To put it mildly, it was a wasted opportunity to advance real pressing issues in the region.
During the joint message given at the end of the summit, Biden and Trudeau advocated for the development of clean energy, but López Obrador was visibly mum about the issue. When pressed about it by the media, AMLO spoke for 28 minutes — in addition to the 13 minutes he used in his welcome message — without alluding to the energy policy. In total, AMLO spoke for 41 minutes, while Biden spoke for 14 and Trudeau for only 12.
In their initial message, Biden and Trudeau talked about the need to promote the transition to electric vehicles, reduce emissions and comply with the Paris Agreement to fight climate change. Trudeau was the most insistent on the urgency of achieving a strong but green economy.
“We can further boost our economic resilience by working to create a clean economy, things like clean energy, including hydrogen, manufacturing zero-emission vehicles and encouraging more people to adopt them,” he said.
For his part, Biden urged his fellow heads of government to lead by example in championing clean energy.
The only time López Obrador touched on the subject was when he made reference to the Sembrando Vida Program, which is focused on tree planting.
Political columnist F. Bartolome of the Mexican daily newspaper Reforma criticized AMLO, saying that the Mexican president “let go of the opportunities to attract investment, give certainty to the partners and, of course, obtain benefits for Mexico.”
“In the end, López Obrador won the limelight. The trilateral meeting had gone well for him, without achievements, but without surprises. He had his photo in the AIFA (Felipe Ángeles International Airport), his ride in ‘The Beast’ presidential limousine, and it was just a matter of saying ‘Hasta la vista, baby’ … but he couldn’t. He lost his tongue,” wrote Bartolome.
“As a souvenir of their visit, Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau took the data that López Obrador released via his ‘brief’ message — 41 minutes! In the absence of substantial agreements, many superficial words. Too bad, it was a good opportunity to open doors for Mexico, but the president went between his legs, like a ball to the box.”
Indeed, a lot of important topics were not touched on in the trilateral meeting. One of the biggest was AMLO’s energy policy that has violated provisions in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), measures that favor Mexican energy companies over foreign energy investors in the country, including investors from the United States and Canada. As late as Friday, Jan. 6, less than a week before the summit, Trudeau talked to the media about “arguing with López Obrador” about the dispute that is now being discussed in a consultation that was requested by both Ottawa and Washington.
“Both President Biden and I are going to be … fairly clear with President López Obrador that this … needs to be understood as a way to help Mexico develop, a way to continue to draw in investments from companies in Canada and the United States,” Trudeau told Reuters.
The AMLO energy-policy issue, however, was not discussed during the summit proper, among other issues ignored, such as the recent capture of Ovidio Guzmán López, son of notorious drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the ongoing violence in Peru, where the death toll among protesters who are against Peruvian President Dina Boluarte’s administration has reached 47 deaths, and the prospective project to integrate trade among countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Trudeau, at least, brought up the energy-policy issue to López Obrador a day later, during the two leaders’ bilateral meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 11, which forced AMLO to respond that he will establish a dialogue with Canadian energy companies operating in Mexico who feel they are unjustly treated by the Mexican government. Likewise, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar touched on the issue on Wednesday, denying the statement of Mexican Foreign Relations (SRE) Secretary Marcelo Ebrard a day earlier that it was agreed upon by the foreign ministers of the three countries that AMLO’s energy policy under the USMCA need not be discussed during the summit.
Biden, on the other hand, apparently never mentioned anything to López Obrador regarding his energy policy.
Nor did Biden take the opportunity in the trilateral talks to touch on Mexico’s anti-democratic turn, thanks — or no thanks — to López Obrador’s penchant for verbally attacking journalists during his, ironically, daily morning press conferences and the increased militarization of Mexico.
Christian Paz, a senior politics reporter at Vox Media, wrote that “while López Obrador was quick to condemn the actions of rioters in Brazil, he’s been less willing to accept criticism for his own attacks on journalists in Mexico, his efforts to reform the country’s independent electoral commission, and his militarization of the country through the new national guard (that he formed). All of these amount to a slow-burning anti-democratic campaign to consolidate power in the executive branch, challenge the independence of other branches of government and silence critics — the kinds of actions that create social instability and break down trust in institutions.”
Paz, in his opinion column, quoted Mexican journalist José Díaz Briseño, the Washington correspondent of MundoFox, who said that “Biden won’t say anything as he struck an implicit (Donald) Trump-like deal in exchange for AMLO stopping migration.”
Paz further wrote: “The erosion of democratic norms in Mexico and the rest of the Americas isn’t specifically on the agenda of items the leaders will discuss, despite calls from congressional leaders, like Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (who asked the Biden administration to raise these concerns with López Obrador) and human rights organizations. But the chances of Biden publicly criticizing López Obrador are low, Andrew Rudman, the director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center think tank, told me. ‘If he says anything publicly, it just creates conflict, because López Obrador will reject it, he’ll say, ‘How dare you,’ and that won’t get anything accomplished,’ Rudman said. ‘But President Biden should say these things matter. I certainly hope that the president makes clear that folks in the States are absolutely watching what happens and are concerned and do want to be helpful, but also see that weakening of democracy and weakening of safety can have a negative impact on the Mexican economy and on the trilateral desire to promote North America as a strong, vibrant region.’”
And still speaking of Biden, hanging over the summit like a dark cloud was the news that classified documents were found at his former office. After initially evading questions on the matter from journalists, Biden in the end addressed the issue head on in the press conference after the trilateral meeting, denying any knowledge of the government documents, saying he was “surprised” at the discovery.
“I was briefed about this discovery and surprised to learn that there were any government records that were taken there to that office,” Biden said. “But I don’t know what was in the documents. My lawyers have not suggested I ask what documents they were.”
The White House has said it is cooperating with the National Archives of the United States and the U.S. Department of Justice, after confirming that documents from the Obama administration, including materials marked classified, were found by personal lawyers for Biden on Nov. 2 at the Penn Biden Center think tank at the University of Pennsylvania.
And just like that, the North American Leaders’ Summit has drawn to a close. It was punctuated by Trudeau flying to Ottawa on the evening of Wednesday, and by Biden leaving a day earlier. The U.S. president, however — even though he arrived at AMLO’s controversial Felipe Ángeles International Airport on Sunday, Jan. 8, as a gesture of “friendship and solidarity” to the Mexican head of state — decided to leave for Washington aboard Air Force One from the Mexico City International Airport (AICM).
It was perhaps a fitting end to the summit that never was.