Biden, López Obrador to discuss complex bilateral agenda

President Biden will receive Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the White House on Tuesday in a meeting likely to span a wide array of subject matter, from migration to security, drugs, trade, labor and the environment.

The undefined agenda is a reflection of the complexities of the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship, a complex web of issues that both governments have historically preferred to manage behind closed doors.

Still, some topics are certain to come up, like the deaths of 53 migrants who were left in a truck in San Antonio last month.

“I think the tragedy in San Antonio is top of mind for both the U.S. and Mexico. And we know many of those who perished in the incident were Mexican nationals. So we are already doing a lot to expand our cooperation on addressing these human smuggling networks,” a senior administration official told reporters Monday.

Both Biden and López Obrador have political incentives to reduce the migrant death rate, and to present their countries with a more orderly border.

But Biden will also receive a Mexican president who’s shown he wants to be seen as a thorn in the side of the United States, a throwback to mid-20th century Mexican nationalism.

Most recently, López Obrador criticized the United States for attempting to extradite Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, from the United Kingdom.

López Obrador, who said the United States should “dismantle the Statue of Liberty” if Assange is convicted stateside, is likely to bring up the issue in conversations with Biden.

And Biden is armed with a laundry list of complaints from U.S. companies and officials against López Obrador’s unique management style.

The Alliance for Trade Enforcement, a coalition of businesses and groups that advocate for the U.S. government to enforce trade rules and treaties, earlier this month put out a release listing the various ways in which Mexico has not implemented the two-year-old United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA).

“I do expect and hope that the president will raise at least some of these issues and certainly the overall concern about Mexico’s lackluster enforcement record when it comes to USMCA when they meet,” said Brian Pomper, executive director of the Alliance for Trade Enforcement.

López Obrador has brought his anti-institutionalist style into government, cutting corners on issues like environmental regulations to speed up construction of a railway line he favors, or dismantling a half-built airport that was linked to his predecessor.

But while his control over national regulatory bodies is almost complete, López Obrador’s options are more limited on issues connected to the USMCA, which he signed.

Over the past two years, Mexico has dragged its feet on USMCA implementation on a variety of issues, from the environment to intellectual property.

In a still-unlikely worst case scenario, Mexico could be found to be violating its word on the agreement, leading to litigation and ultimately, to costly penalties.

“The way they’re enforced is the United States would withhold trade concessions in an equivalent amount. So we would arguably put tariffs, or block services or do something to enforce our rights or to get Mexico to enforce our rights and goodness, we never really want to get to that position. That’s not good for anybody,” said Pomper.

Biden is also expected to bring up López Obrador’s paltry human rights record, particularly when it comes to protecting journalists and activists in Mexico.

“I think there there needs to be an honest discussion between us as good friends – and between good friends, one can have honest discussions – about the concerns that I and others have about the erosion of the pillars of civil society within Mexico, the erosion of a free and independent press and their rights and the protections of them, the independence of the judiciary, the elements of the questions of the security apparatus and how it operates,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Menéndez (D-N.J.).

At least 40 journalists have been murdered in the country since López Obrador became president in 2018, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Rep. Jesús García (D-Ill.), is due to file a statement Tuesday with the House Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan group dedicated to defending human rights, regarding conditions in Mexico.

“The meeting between Presidents Biden and López Obrador comes at a time when Mexico has reached several grim milestones related to violence and impunity. In May, the official count of forced disappearances in Mexico reached 100,000. Just a few weeks ago, two Jesuit priests and a tour guide were killed, sparking widespread outcry. And since the beginning of 2022, 12 journalists have been killed, including several who conduct investigative oversight on politics, justice, and security,” wrote García in the statement reviewed by The Hill.

“These particularly well-documented killings are taking place amidst a larger context of increasing violence and current approaches in the US-Mexico relationship are not working. Security initiatives like Merida have failed, and [López Obrador] is increasingly moving forward with his militarization of security measures, which should be a concern to people and politicians both in the US and Mexico,” he added. 

But the irascible Mexican president has brushed away criticism over the violence epidemic, at one point calling Secretary of State Antony Blinken “interventionist” and “ill-informed” regarding murders of journalists.

Still, Biden has managed his personal relationship with López Obrador and his inner circle with kid gloves.

Former President Trump treated the bilateral relationship as a two-topic agenda based on migration and trade, threatening to break off the latter if he didn’t get cooperation on the former.

Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on Mexican goods quickly led to an agreement where Mexico reassigned its militarized police force to migratory duties.

Biden has returned to the deeper, more complex interactions of the past 30 years, but his efforts to roll out the red carpet for López Obrador have so far failed to temper the Mexican’s rhetoric or actions.

“President Biden will have to calculate that if you are pursuing one track, and that track has not yielded success, then you have to think of all elements of national power in pursuit of your ultimate goals on behalf of the national interest and security of the United States,” said Menéndez.

Tags Andrés Manuel López Obrador Bob Menendez

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