Bilateral relations

US-Mexico tensions rise ahead of Kamala Harris visit

The vice-president’s trip will be marked by a growing list of grievances regarding sovereignty, trade disputes, drug trafficking, migration and energy policy

US President Joe Biden with State Secretary Antony Blinken (l) and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas at a virtual meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in March.
US President Joe Biden with State Secretary Antony Blinken (l) and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas at a virtual meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in March.KEVIN LAMARQUE / Reuters

Tensions between Washington and Mexico have taken a turn for the worse, just in time for the planned visit by US Vice-President Kamala Harris from June 7. In recent weeks Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has stepped up references to American interventionism, and demanded that Joe Biden’s administration revoke funding for two civil society organizations he dislikes. “They are taking too long,” the Mexican leader said of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), an independent international cooperation body linked to the US State Department, urging it to cut all funding for Article 19, a global free speech nonprofit, and for an anti-corruption group called Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad (MCCI).

Harris will travel to Mexico and Guatemala primarily to address a longstanding phenomenon that has recently moved back into the spotlight: Central Americans trying to cross the border into the United States illegally. But the border is just for starters: trade frictions, differing approaches on tackling drug trafficking and security policy, economic reforms promoted by López Obrador that have rattled investors, and the lingering coronavirus pandemic are all to be discussed. For the Mexican leader, asserting sovereignty will play to his base and mark a departure from his dealings with the previous US president.

After an unexpectedly cozy relationship with former US president Donald Trump, López Obrador was one of the last global leaders to recognize Biden’s victory, waiting weeks to congratulate the Democrat as Trump tried and failed to challenge the result in the courts. The new president met his Mexican counterpart virtually at the beginning of March, when Mexico highlighted a relationship of equals and called once again for respect of national sovereignty. That insistence is now butting up against the reality of the United States’ outsize influence, especially in the context of the wider region’s economic fortunes.

There is a difference between what the two governments would like and the reality on the ground
Jorge G. Castañeda, former foreign secretary of Mexico

Under the Trump administration, the Mexican president largely bowed to threats and complied with stricter migration guidelines to avoid an economic war over tariffs. López Obrador may now be seeking a reset more in line with his espoused left-wing values, and though US rhetoric is less explosive than under Trump, recent months have witnessed several clashes and disagreements.

“There is a difference between what the two governments would like and the reality on the ground. Both Biden and López Obrador would like to continue with the same scheme as Trump,” said Jorge G. Castañeda, who served as Mexico’s foreign secretary between 2000 and 2003, and now teaches at New York University. In broad terms, Mexico did the dirty work for Trump by preventing the mass entry of migrants into the United States. That will be tougher to stomach for some wings of the new administration with strong progressive elements and support from unions, activists, big business and traditional agencies such as the DEA. “They will not allow Biden to turn a blind eye to what they see as their grievances in Mexico,” Castañeda said.

The United States filed its first labor complaints with Mexico under the US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (USMCA) on May 13, after a union was allegedly caught destroying ballots at a General Motors factory in northern Mexico. Under the treaty, workers are supposed to be allowed to choose their union and vote on contracts and leadership. The complaints could lead to sanctions and even the prohibition of products entering the United States. One complaint was filed by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), America’s largest union federation. Thea Lee, a former Chief of Staff at the AFL-CIO, is now overseeing the implementation of the trade agreement as an official in the US Labor Department.

A later meeting between trade representatives of the three North American countries generated fresh complaints, this time of López Obrador’s energy reform package. His plan to strengthen state-owned companies such as Pemex and the Federal Electricity Commission is currently paralyzed in the courts, but has already had an impact on the investment climate. Mexico is the main trading partner of the United States, ahead of China, leading to concern among companies in the energy sector. Mexico also retaliated with a complaint about the conditions of migrant workers in the agricultural sector in response to the US USMCA filings. Mexican Economy Secretary Tatiana Clouthier calls these problems a “legal impasse,” though she attributed them to the private sector and not a political spat.

López Obrador is always talking about sovereignty
Duncan Wood, vice-president of the Wilson Center

The Mexican president argues that the best foreign policy is domestic policy, and when forced to increase diplomatic activity he will always pull it back to local concerns. “López Obrador is always talking about sovereignty,” said Duncan Wood, vice-president of the Wilson Center think tank in Washington. Meanwhile the defense of sovereignty not only marks his legislative agenda but also his rhetoric and relations with neighboring countries. In this way, López Obrador lives in permanent campaign mode.

Beyond political posturing, the US-Mexico bilateral discussions will also take in investment and trade and essential issues such as security. “There are many open fronts such as drug trafficking, which did not interest Trump very much,” said Castañeda, anticipating greater scrutiny from the Biden administration. The extradition of former Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos, who was detained in Los Angeles and accused by the DEA of links to drug trafficking, ended with him being cleared of all charges by the Mexican Attorney General’s Office. The decision back in January has also strained relations.

When Biden’s Latin America envoy Juan González met with Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, it was to address an agenda that included reducing arms and narcotics trafficking, reducing violence caused by organized crime, addressing addiction as a public health problem and getting a handle on the finances of criminal organizations operating in both countries. Sources at the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs acknowledge that the strategy on narcotrafficking adopted in the past did not work. “During the Peña Nieto administration, the 120 most prominent [cartel] lords were arrested, including ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán. The violence did not stop, so it was not enough,” the sources said. Mexico now has a broader concept of security. González described the Mexico meeting as productive in building a common vision and joint action for security, but this was overshadowed by the harsh words of former US ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau, who accused López Obrador of passivity towards the cartels and of adopting “a laissez-faire attitude.”

Kamala Harris will arrive in Mexico just after the June 6 legislative elections, and the Mexican government will also have a series of demands for Washington. The first is increased investment in Central America in order to alleviate the humanitarian emergency and contain the flow of migrants into Mexico, especially from Honduras and Guatemala. The two administrations have very different visions of development aid, as the United States only delivers funds if performance markers are met by the recipient country. Mexico favors direct disbursement of funds.

In a nod to the tense political climate, Castañeda also noted that Kamala Harris will not meet with any civil society group in Mexico. “There are many who are looking out for her, especially women, but she is not going to do so because she does not want López Obrador to get angry and let the Hondurans in,” he said. In addition, the number of Mexicans crossing the US-Mexico border is up after years of relative decline, and detentions have reached their highest levels in three years with more than 320,000 migrants registered since last October. Although this is a consequence of the pandemic, economic policy at home is also a factor.

Finally, López Obrador has a request for extra Covid-19 vaccines. The United States has given three million doses to Mexico, but the country is still seeking more aid in this area. Foreign Secretary Ebrard designed a strategy known as “vaccine diplomacy” which, apart from Washington, has obtained the support of China, Russia, India and Spain.

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