Obama Visit Suggests No Big Changes in Relations to Mexico; Promise to “Upgrade” NAFTA’s Labor, Environmental Clauses

With only a few days left until his inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama met with President Felipe Calderón in the second week of January, the first meeting with a foreign leader since his election last November, indicating the importance of the U.S. relationship with its southern neighbor.  Calderón’s National Action Party (PAN), Mexico’s most conservative major political party, is roughly the equivalent of the Republican Party in the United States.

President Calderón was joined in the meeting by Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa, Interior Secretary Fernando Gómez-Mont, Treasury Secretary Agustín Carstens, and Ambassador to the United States Arturo Sarukhán.  President-elect Obama was joined by Chief of Staff Designee Rahm Emanuel, National Security Advisor Designee General Jim Jones (Ret.), and White House National Economic Council Director-Designee Lawrence Summers.

President-elect Obama gave no indication of any major shift, stating rather that he would work to strengthen “the commercial ties, the security ties and the cultural ties that exist between the United States and Mexico.”   Speaking with the press, Obama lauded Calderón for his efforts on all fronts, from energy policy to the drug war.  The only sign of any change to be found in the president elect’s remarks was his commitment to revisit labor and environmental standards in NAFTA, but only time will tell exactly what that means.

In the brief initial meeting, Obama did not raise Mexico’s human rights record which has been criticized by the U.S. State Department, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International as well as many Mexican rights organization.  Nor did Calderón raise U.S. human rights violations affecting Mexican migrants.  Immigration policy was discussed, but no new policy was announced.

The meeting took place in the Mexican Cultural Institute and included a tour of the José Clemente Orozco gallery containing paintings by Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Mexican leftists whose work depicts the struggle of Mexico against foreign domination, labor exploitation, and fascism.

Praise for Calderón on All Fronts

Obama praised Calderón for his positions on both economy and security.  “It has been especially gratifying to me to participate in this meeting because I’m such an admirer of the work that president Calderón has done on behalf of this country,” said Obama.  “Not only has he shown leadership in the economy but he has shown extraordinary courage and leadership when it comes to the security issues, dealing with drug trafficking, dealing with the violence that has existed as a consequence of the drug trade.  So my message today is that my administration is going to be ready on day one to work to build a stronger relationship with Mexico.”

President Calderón’s war against the drug dealers has involved the mobilization of 40,000 soldiers and has so far resulted in more than 5,000 deaths, reportedly mostly of drug dealers and their gunmen, though some civilians have also been killed in the crossfire.  Human rights organizations, moreover, have complained of soldiers committing human rights violations from killings to rapes and robberies.

Obama Support for the Mérida Initiative

Speaking for Obama, spokesman Robert Gibbs told the media,

On security, President-elect Obama underscored his interest in finding ways to work together to reduce drug-related violence.  He applauded the steps that President Calderón has taken to improve security in Mexico and expressed his ongoing support for the valuable work being done under the Mérida Initiative.  President-elect Obama believes the cooperation under the Mérida Initiative can be a building block for a deeper relationship.  President-elect Obama expressed support for efforts in the border states in both the United States and Mexico to eradicate drug-related violence and stop the flow of guns and cash.  He told President Calderón that he intends to ask the Secretary of Homeland Security to lead an effort to increase information sharing to strengthen those efforts.  He pledged to take more effective action from the United States to stem the flow of arms from the United States to Mexico.

The Mérida Initiative, also known as Plan Mexico, which will eventually provide Mexico with $1.6 billion to fight the drug wars, has been criticized in Mexico as representing a threat to Mexican sovereignty; it has also been criticized in the United States, not just in Mexico, because of concerns about human rights as Mexico has mobilized not only the police but also the military to fight the drug dealers.

Energy Policy and NAFTA

Obama also gave his support to Calderón’s energy policy which has been so controversial in Mexico.  Obama said, “One of the things that’s particularly exciting is the leadership that Mexico under President Calderon’s administration has already taken on the issue of energy. . . .”  Many Mexicans, however, fear that their president’s energy policy will lead to the privatization of the country’s oil company and its gradual loss to foreign investors.

President Obama did pledge to make changes in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to “upgrade” its environmental and labor provision.  Gibbs said on behalf of Obama:

On trade and the economy, President-elect Obama said that with both countries facing very difficult economic times, it’s important to work together to maintain a constructive and comprehensive dialogue.  He expressed his continued commitment to upgrading NAFTA to strengthen labor and environmental provisions to reflect the values that are widely shared in both of our countries, and proposed the creation of a consultative group to work on a host of issues important to the United States and Mexico, including NAFTA, energy and infrastructure.  President-elect Obama noted that his economic recovery plan includes substantial investments for port of entry modernization and improvements on the Mexican border to facilitate legal trade and commerce.

Environmental Issues

Obama suggested that the U.S. and Mexico might join together to deal with environmental issues: “I believe that the future of the economy is going to rest on how we’re able to adapt to a potential crisis with climate change. . . .  The friendship between the United States and Mexico has been strong, I believe it can be even stronger and that’s going to be the commitment of my administration.”

Gibbs, speaking for Obama, praised Calderón’s efforts in the area the environment.  “President-elect Obama told President Calderón that he is impressed by the commitment Mexico made at the Poznan [climate change] conference and said he hoped our two countries could soon begin conversations about mutually beneficial opportunities in low carbon energy development and carbon abatement opportunities.”

While Mexico has taken some steps in the last few decades to deal with environmental issues, it is not considered a leader in this area.

Obama on Immigration

Obama talked with Calderón about immigration reform, but gave no indication of what his immigration reform policy might look like.  As Obama’s spokesman Gibbs told the media:

President-elect Obama underscored his commitment to working with Congress to fix the broken U.S. immigration system and fostering safe, legal and orderly migration.  He expressed his strongly held view that immigrants should be treated with dignity and that the immigration debate should not be a vehicle for vilifying any group, and that our two countries need to work more effectively to stop the flow of illegal immigration into the United States.

Obama has committed his administration to a more humane immigration policy, but what does it mean in reality?  The Kennedy-McCain “comprehensive immigration reform” package, which received support of many Democrats, would have created hundreds of thousands of new guest workers, a policy rejected by many immigrant groups.  During the last year, a year of declining Mexican immigration to the U.S., some 700 Mexicans still died attempting to come into the United States, due at least in part to the measures taken to “stop the flow of illegal immigration,” the goal that Obama says he will pursue “more effectively.”

No Mention of Mexico’s Human Rights Record

While such initial meetings between heads of states seldom lead to public comment on sensitive issues, nevertheless, human rights activists on both sides of the border will no doubt be disappointed that, in this first contact with Calderón, Obama made no mention of Mexico’s human rights record, though the U.S. State Department, as well as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and many other rights organizations, has for years reported on Mexico’s poor human rights record, including the involvement of the military and the police in the killing and kidnapping of civilians and the “routine” use of torture.  Nor did Calderón, on his part, bring up the U.S. human rights record, such as a routine failure to inform the Mexican Consul of arrests of Mexican nationals.

Dan La Botz is a Cincinnati-based teacher, writer, and activist.  He is the author of Rank-and-File Rebellion: Teamsters for a Democratic Union (1990), Mask of Democracy: Labor Suppression in Mexico Today (1992), and Democracy in Mexico: Peasant Rebellion and Political Reform (1995), and Made in Indonesia: Indonesian Workers Since Suharto.