Mexico is listening to President Barack Obama’s expectations for a second term and his plans to improve US-Mexico relations at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
When President Barack Obama delivers his speech accepting his party’s re-nomination at the Democratic National Convention, attendees and television viewers will be listening with a diversity of expectations. Mexican observers will be taking note of how much time the DNC will devote to the discussion of issues like drug trafficking and immigration during the upcoming meeting. During the recently-concluded Republican National Convention, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pushed for a “compassionate” immigration policy, to appeal to Latino voters. While this issue is important for U.S. citizens of Mexican background, it is just one of many facing the next administration.
The DREAM and Immigration
A well-known immigration-related bill is the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, commonly known as the DREAM Act, which, if passed, would be a major victory for the Obama administration. This piece of legislation provides legal residency status for undocumented residents who arrived to the country as minors, who graduate from U.S. high schools and have lived continuously in the country for five years. Since DREAM has yet to be passed, Obama signed an executive order earlier this year that resembles the aforementioned bill. According to research carried out by the Washington DC-basedImmigration Policy Center, most of the likely beneficiaries of DREAM are originally from Mexico and most currently reside in California. Whether similar initiatives will expand to other undocumented immigrants (based on their age group, time living in the U.S., or lack of criminal record) during a potential Obama second term, remains to be seen. Republican candidate Mitt Romney has been generally ambivalent on immigration policies.
Whether or not the immigration issue influences Latino voters’ decisions come November is debatable, though, a pro-immigration stance should help Obama gain significant votes in areas that have large Latino communities, like those of Mexican descent, such as California.
NAFTA and Free Trade
While campaigning during the 2008 Democratic primaries, President Obama and his then-opponent Hillary Clinton had differing positions on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which the U.S. signed with Canada and Mexico. Obama seemed to hint that he was supportive of free trade agreements, but that he wanted them to be more beneficial for American farmers. This meant that he would want to renegotiate such agreements as president. Some media reports argued that Mexican workers had supported renegotiation, as it might force the Mexican government to “[reform] its repressive low-wage labor policies.”
Ultimately, the Obama administration did not revisit NAFTA. If anything, the White House has pushed for other FTAs in the Western Hemisphere, as exemplified by the ratifications of said agreements with Panama, Colombia and ongoing negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership (which includes Peru and Chile). Additionally, trade between the U.S. and Mexico has grown: according the U.S. Census, the U.S. exported $193 million worth of goods in 2011, and has so far exported $106 million worth of goods in 2012 (according to data available up to June). Moreover, in 2011, the U.S. president and his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderon, finally agreed that Mexican truckers could carry goods into the U.S., eliminating “tariffs on $2.3 billion of American goods and agricultural products as soon as the first Mexican truck obtains a permit.”
Such initiatives suggest that a second Obama term would probably mean similar free trade-initiatives to promote greater economic integration with Mexico, as opposed to revisiting NAFTA.
Security issues for Obama-EPN
The future of security relations between Washington and Mexico City presents another important issue as Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN) assumes the Mexican presidency in December. The outgoing Calderon administration had a generally good relationship (punctuated by occasional friction) with Washington as he pursued a military option to deal with the various Mexican cartels.
The new Mexican head of state has hinted that he may take a more relaxed approach when fighting the narcos and drug trafficking as compared to his predecessor, a major concern for Washington. Does this mean that Obama will continue, increase or even decrease the economic aid Washington gives Mexico City under the Merida Initiative? In 2009 the U.S. president approved a supplemental budget, which increased funding for Mexico to $1.12 billion. Then, in 2010, the White House also requested $410 million in aid to Mexico and Central America for the 2011 fiscal year, $310 million of which would be for Mexico City. The (multi) million dollar question is whether economic aid to Mexico will vary once EPN takes the presidency and begins structuring his own strategy relevant to the drug war and the cartels.
In addition there is the question of what other initiatives a second Obama administration is willing to carry out if it believes the EPN presidency is not as firm on the cartels as some Washington insiders may like. Recently there was an incident in which, according to The New York Times, the Mexican federal police allegedly shot two CIA operatives in Mexico City. While details remain sketchy, the issue calls into question the numbers of U.S. security and intelligence forces working with, or independently of, their Mexican counterparts in Mexico. Washington is certainly interested in maintaining the momentum regarding Mexico’s militaristic approach to dealing with cartels, and one can’t help but draw parallels to the U.S.’s increased military and intelligence presence in Colombia via Plan Colombia.
Obama and his Team
Should Obama be re-elected, new initiatives regarding U.S.-Mexico relations will not just fall on his shoulders but will also depend on a number of other factors. For example, a critical issue will be the new shape of the U.S. Congress after the elections. The Democrats currently only control the Senate via a slim majority; they lost their majority of the House after the 2010 mid-term elections. If Democrats strengthen control in the former, or regain control of the latter, the victory may be regarded as a green light to new White House-sponsored initiatives, particularly regarding immigration and border-control.
Finally, there is the issue of what advice the President will receive regarding the structure of U.S.-Mexico relations over the next four years. As this author discussed in a previous VOXXI article, there are two important positions that help define Washington’s policy toward Latin America: the Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere on the National Security Council; and the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department. The former position is currently held by Ricardo Zuniga, who is known for his experience in Cuban affairs. Meanwhile, Roberta S. Jacobson holds the Assistant Secretary seat at State; she also served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Canada, Mexico and NAFTA. The U.S. ambassador to Mexico holds another relevant position; that title currently falls to Ambassador Earl Anthony “Tony” Wayne, who was nominated by President Obama in June 2011. How the White House responds to the first year of EPN’s presidency will most likely be influenced in part on the recommendations of Ambassador Wayne.
Re-election will grant Obama the advantage of not having to worry about a second re-election, allowing him, hopefully, to work for more progressive and bold projects. Besides previously discussed Mexico-related initiatives, this may mean lifting more sanctions regarding the Cuban embargo, or maybe even attempting to close the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, another of his campaign promises. We may see more trade and immigration initiatives as well, particularly if the Democrats gain a bigger presence in Congress and if Latin America (and Mexico in particular), receives greater attention in the White House’s foreign policy agenda.