Back in 1980’s, at a time when Mexico-United States relations experienced dramatic tensions such as the impacts of the so-called “lost decade” and the economic crisis that followed; the controversy over the killing of a DEA agent, Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena; and a devastating earthquake that hit hard Mexico City and other parts of the country, the British-Brazilian journalist Alan Riding published Distant Neighbors: a Portrait of the Mexicans. This book, which very quickly became a best seller with multiple reprints in Spanish and other languages, aims at explaining Mexicans from a historical point of view and the way this background influences relations with its northern neighbor.
The book begins with the history of Mexico, from the arrival of Spaniards, leading up to the present moment which, at the time, was characterized by the debt crisis and the early innings of the neoliberal Miguel De La Madrid presidency. Riding also analyses power structures in Mexican society and proceeds through various angles, always by referencing historical events: he talks about politicians and their political factions, the relevance of the oil industry (and the dependence the Mexican economy has on it), businesses, landowners and peasants, agriculture, race and ethnicity (with emphasis on indigenous populations), artists and intellectuals, and Mexico’s relation with the world and particularly with the United States.
The book implies several national identity challenges Mexico faces: exclusion, racism, income distribution, business interests, a political elite that seems more interested in perpetuating in power than building a prosperous and safe country. Thus, Mexico intends to accommodate these multiple actors with the complex relationship it maintains with the United States, which experiences tension from time to time.
Looking back to the 80’s when the book was published, some elements analyzed by Riding are still valid in the 21st Century: Mexican culture and business remains torn between modernity and globalization on one hand and traditionalism and national pride on the other. Both admire the culture and success of the U.S. and deeply disdain its consumerism and negligent, self-interested foreign policy. Mexican industry remains reliant on foreign investment to thrive, but its history has left it proudly resistant to taking capital from world powers that do not show respect toward its society. Some Mexican administrations have looked for a closer and institutionalized relationship with Washington, the Salinas de Gortari government being the best example. Yet, the administrations that followed have somehow accepted what one may call “the tyranny of vicinity” which means that, no matter how many disagreements may arise or how often they happen, there is the need for Mexico and the United States to work together so that the enormous existing interdependence could be managed for the benefit of the two actors involved.
With that in mind, the most recent meeting between the president of México, Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his American counterpart, Joseph Biden, occurred amidst disagreements on the three pillars of the bilateral relationship: trade, security, and migration. Distant Neighbors was published when Ronald Reagan was at the White House. His punitive foreign policy toward Mexico made it very difficult for the De la Madrid administration to have a respectful and constructive relationship. Today Mexico is in a different situation. Biden, a Democrat, is institutional and somehow less interested in confronting Mexico although tensions still prevail. One cannot skip mentioning that the international position of the United States in the world in 2022 is highly diminished when compared to the Ronald Reagan times.
The AMLO-Biden meeting, although overshadowed by the trial procedures surrounding January 6, 2021, events that led to violent riots and the takeover of Capitol Hill by Donald Trump supporters, was important and necessary. Important, because Mexico and the United States have such a complex and interdependent agenda. Necessary because new tensions have developed between the two governments over a number of issues. For instance, disagreements prevail over energy reform in Mexico; labor provisions within the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA); the “Build Back Better” program of Biden to foster the production of environmentally friendly cars; the illicit traffic of weapons from the U.S. border into Mexico; illicit drug trade, with major concerns on methamphetamines and fentanyl; increasing undocumented migration; the “stay in Mexico” program; restrictions from the Mexican side to cooperation with American authorities to fight organized crime; Mexico’s foreign policy toward Latin America, Russia, and such; etcetera.
The encounter between AMLO and Biden was not an official visit, but rather a meeting to smooth things over. The most recent Summit of the Americas held in Los Angeles last June, was overshadowed by the decision of the Biden administration to exclude Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba from the meeting – reversing the Obama constructive engagement policy toward Havana that led to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US. Not only that: to many, the sanctions policy applied against Venezuela and the support to Juan Guaido has produced little results and prevents Caracas from complying with its financial obligations in regional institutions such as the poorly-financed Organization of American States (OAS). Ronald Sanders, ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the U.S., recently commented on the “foolish wrong” of pursuing a punitive policy against Maduro that no only has produce zero results, but also contributes to financial constrains of inter-American institutions such as the OAS and the Inter American Development Bank (IADB). Sanders explains that as of June 30, 2022, Venezuela owes the OAS $178.4 million in unpaid dues, and every year $1.9 million is added to that sum. Guaido, as the “interim president” of Venezuela, does not have any control over the administration, taxes and income of the country and this does not seem likely to change in the future.
So AMLO was not present at the Summit of the Americas and other Latin American leaders followed. Of course, AMLO understood that a meeting with Biden was necessary to heal the scars as soon as possible after the conclusion of the summit, and this is the reason he travelled to Washington last week. López Obrador, as it is well known, is not eager to travel abroad. He has left this task in the hands of his Minister for Foreign Affairs, Marcelo Ebrard, who, in fact, represented Mexico at the Summit of the Americas. Of the five international trips made by López Obrador abroad, four had the U.S. as the destination with only one to Central American and Caribbean countries. He even sold the presidential airplane and travels commercial or on Mexican Air Force aircraft. Contrary to his few international trips, he travels extensively within the country, where his popularity is high – unlike Biden’s.
At the meeting, the two distant neighbors sat together. AMLO presented to Biden with five key points he considers relevant to the bilateral agenda, including support to American gas consumers by suggesting they cross the common border to purchase gas in Mexico; promoting the construction of gas pipelines along the border and by insinuating that energy reform may happen some time in the future. The Mexican president talked about the nationalization of lithium as a source for clean energies. AMLO suggested that it has been good to bet on energy supplies based on fossil fuels since the current international environment has led to the increasing of oil and gas prices, thus benefiting the economy. But AMLO also profited from his high popularity versus Biden’s. He did not mention it, but he seemed to be very well-informed about the critical moment the Biden Administration is facing, especially by considering the forthcoming mid-term elections where the party to which he belongs may lose both the U.S. House and Senate chambers. Migration, a key issue for both governments was mentioned, but no major agreements were reached.
More discreetly, however, both countries reached some agreements that did not make big headlines. One has to do with the investment in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec plus the announcement that Mexico will increase purchases of crops and fertilizers – Mexico buys around 30 percent of fertilizers from Russia, which implies the country may be reducing its trade with Moscow after all, following strong pressure to do so by Washington.
Looking to the near future, the political environment in Washington, with a heavy focus on the mid-term elections plus the results of the Trump trials may prevent Biden from being more assertive when it comes to the bilateral agenda with Mexico. With elections on the table, migration, security and trade issues may be highly polarizing – and costly – for Biden to develop concrete policies at this time. But hopefully, when the North American Summit happens in Mexico, there may be a more structured agenda between Mexico and its North American counterparts. One thing is for sure: after November, it will be extremely difficult for Biden to have his initiatives passed by the Congress and the possible return of Republicans to the White House, with or without Trump, is a matter of concern to Mexico and, of course, the world.
Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by María Cristina Rosas, a professor and researcher at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Rosas can be reached via email at:[email protected]
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