Fifteen minutes are all President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto gets to speak to President Obama at the White House on Tuesday. While many hope that immigration, border security and marijuana’s legalization are touched upon, the truth is that the two leaders will spend their first short meeting building trust and establishing how they want to reframe their cooperative relationship.
While the meeting is short, the importance is clear. Mexico’s outgoing president, Felipe Calderón, has spent his six-year term battling violence and trying to eradicate drug trafficking, which even he admits is “impossible.” And while Mexico’s economy is currently growing fast and cartels are on the run, the perception of Mexico is one that focuses on the negatives rather the positives. And the sense — to most — is that the U.S. and Mexico’s relationship has centered on security matters.
“I think particularly from the Mexican side, there’s a real desire to rebalance the relationship,” says Eric Olson, Senior Associate of the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center. “There’s a perception and feeling that the security issue became the exclusive focus of the relationship [between Mexico and the US]. They want to make sure the economy and global aspects of the relations aren’t lost or subsumed. [Mexico] wants to make sure US policy makers don’t just think about security issues. And I think that State Department and the White House are happy to go along with that reframing,” he says.
The desire to rebuild or shift the framing of the relationship between the two nations is why Olson says the meeting, though short, is not a photo-op.
“It’s not going to be detailed, deep conversation. But I think the US and President Obama want a strong commitment from Peña Nieto to continue combating organized crime. Peña Nieto wants strong commitment to focus on how they can grow together and trade,” he says. “They’ll start to set the tone of their personal relationship and what they want to see.”
Maureen Meyer, Senior Associate for Mexico and Central America at the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA), agrees that Peña Nieto will want a different and deeper relationship with the U.S. “I think Peña Nieto would like a to see a broader relationship between the two nations. But I think there’s a sense of how do you expand the benefits,” she says. “You’ll want to continue cooperation on security, but there was just a security issue with US embassy employees who were shot at. You want to expand trade, but there are trade disputes they need to get over before they can expand.”
Experts believe that Mexico won’t just want better trade with the U.S., but also with Canada. Meyer believes that Mexico will look for a North American trade alliance and energy cooperation between all three nations, especially since Peña Nieto has mentioned energy as an issue he hopes to work on.
“I think Mexico has long wanted strong integration between the three countries and has wanted Canada as a partner,” says Olson, but he notes that Canada has been a reluctant partner despite Mexico’s growing economy. Mexico is the new home to state-of-the-art automotive assembly plants for Nissan and Audi and may have an economy that is growing faster than Brazil’s, notes Olson. It’s this growth that may lead to better relations and has some experts suggesting that Mexico will be the top trading partner for the US by the year 2018.
While energy reform, trade, education and migration will be touched on, the conversation always comes back to the war against drugs. With the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, many experts have shot down any notion that it will affect federal policy or change the mind of Peña Nieto, who has said he doesn’t support legalization as a method to ending drug cartel violence. Still, the issue of drugs — or more accurately the toll of drug production and trafficking — is of great value to Mexico.
In the Economist’s series on Mexico, Jorge Castañeda suggested that Peña Nieto’s new government must prevent new drug traffickers from corrupting the state while also avoiding all-out war. “It is a delicate and dangerous balancing act,” Castañeda writes. “As long as America imports billions of dollars-worth of drugs that it simultaneously insists must remain illegal, Mexico’s gigantic criminal economy is unlikely to disappear.”
Experts agree Peña Nieto must remind Obama and America, the world’s number one drug consumer, of the human cost of their consumption.
“He has to make the point, I don’t know how to put this gently, but say, ‘Hey, we’re dying down here quite literally because of U.S. consumption of drugs so be careful how you handle legalization because we’re the ones putting our lives on the line,’” says Olson. He believes there’s room for a bigger and broader discussion, not just between the U.S. and Mexico, but Latin America as well, about drugs, since past efforts haven’t changed the dynamic or the situation.
Peña Nieto’s inauguration is on Saturday. Vice President Joe Biden will lead the US delegation.
Tuesday’s meeting will be a short glimpse into how Peña Nieto and Obama will work to rebrand the Mexico-U.S. relationship and how they’ll establish their own. As Olson says, “It’s important to look each other in the face, shake hands and express a desire for collaboration and to build trust in each.”