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How U.S.-Mexico Relations May Shift Under President-Elect Enrique Pena Nieto

November 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Pressing agenda items for President Obama's second term and incoming Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto will include economic relations, energy cooperation and security, especially drug trafficking and violence. Ray Suarez talks to Shannon O'Neil of Council on Foreign Relations and Michael Shifter of Inter-American Dialogue.
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on the president’s meeting with Pena Nieto and the U.S. and Mexico’s war on drugs, I’m joined by Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

Shannon O’Neil, first to you.

At any given moment, the president of these two countries have plenty to talk about. But at this very moment with two new administrations about to begin, what are the top agenda items in the Mexico-U.S. relationship?

SHANNON O’NEIL, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, as you heard from the press release, one of the big issues that Mexico comes with is the economic issue and the economic ties between the two nations.

Mexico is coming and wanting to bring this fully on to the agenda. It played second fiddle to security over the last presidency of President Calderon. So, they’re coming and saying, this is a big issue for Mexico. It’s also a big issue for the United States. So, that was front and center today and will be as these teams go forward talking to each other.

Also, with security, obviously, that’s been an ongoing issue. We have seen a change in that relationship over the last six years with President Calderon. And it will continue to deepen, the cooperation there.

And then the third issue that they at least talked about is the issue of migration. And obviously that’s an important issue for Mexico, since so many Mexicans are here in the United States, but an important issue for the United States and one that will likely come on the agenda once President Obama is back in office in his second term.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Shifter, same question. What are the pressing agenda items for the two presidencies? Do you have anything to add to Shannon O’Neil’s good summary?

MICHAEL SHIFTER, Inter-American Dialogue: I think the summary is very good. And I think the three are economic relations, energy, potential cooperation with the United States and Mexico, the security issue.

I would also add the drug question, which is related to security, but is separate from security. The drug issue has been a source of a lot of strain and friction between the United States and Mexico.

There’s a sense that there’s consumption in the United States. And that is fueling some of the criminal violence that has gotten out of control in Mexico.

And immigration, of course, is a crucial issue, which is very important for Mexico.

For the United States, it’s not seen as a foreign policy issue. It’s seen as a domestic issue. But for Mexico, it’s extremely important, the relationship. And to the extent there could be any progress on immigration reform in the United States, that would be very much welcome in Mexico.

RAY SUAREZ: As you note, security and drugs are both related and separate at the same time.

But just when American voters in a couple of states have decriminalized the use of marijuana, we’re getting a new Mexican president who had signaled during the campaign that he wanted to depart from his predecessor’s policy on the war on drugs. Has he said how he will do that?

MICHAEL SHIFTER: Well, he hasn’t really spelled it out. And we will learn more once he’s inaugurated on Saturday and when he begins to pick his cabinet.

But we do know that he’s going to focus on reducing violence and not give as high a priority on drug interdiction and other kinds of goals that are related to the drug war in particular. I think these votes in Colorado and Washington state have not gone unnoticed in Mexico.

And I think it’s going to be complicated. It reflects a shift in public opinion in the United States. And it’s going to be hard for a Mexican leader to justify that people getting killed in Mexico to fight cartels that are trafficking in marijuana when they’re being legalized in some states in the United States.

So, that’s going to be a complication that’s going to have to be addressed in the bilateral relationship.

RAY SUAREZ: Shannon O’Neil, all the way from street vendors to the president’s office, there’s a consensus in Mexico that this is an American problem, but one that is Mexico’s to deal with. How is Pena Nieto going to defer from President Calderon?

SHANNON O’NEIL: Well, as Michael just said, there’s going to be a shift from a war from drug trafficking to fighting violence, reducing violence.

And some of the things you do to fight drug trafficking and reduce violence are the same things. They’re professionalizing your police forces. They’re improving strengthening your court system. But some things are different, and particularly the priorities that you place on your police forces.

Do they go after drug kingpins, or do they actually go after people who extort, who kidnap, who steal cars, who commit other types of assaults? That type of prioritization we might see some sort of change in, because that would affect crimes that hit Mexicans day to day more than in many cases the transit of drugs up to its northern neighbor.

RAY SUAREZ: Conversely, the migration problem is one that has its impacts felt very heavily in the United States, but there’s been kind of an ambivalence in Mexican governing circles about what to do about it.

Today, President-elect Pena Nieto mentioned, we want to be involved in this, we want to be a part of this solution.

What form could that take, Shannon O’Neil?

SHANNON O’NEIL: Oh, sorry. Thank you.

You know, one thing they could do, Mexicans have learned in the past to not get too involved in our domestic politics because it can be counterproductive, because this is seen in the United States, as you mentioned, a domestic political issue.

But there are things Mexico could do to help if there was a comprehensive or some sort of immigration reform.

And things like improving their side of the border, monitoring their side of the border for things like people crossing, dealing with some of the back-and-forth, not just of goods, but also of people, is something they might be willing to join in some sort of effort.

But I do think this is an issue where Mexico, it would — if there was a change in the United States, it would be a big benefit for U.S.-Mexico relations, take some of the tensions out.

But I think there’s a wariness to really dive into the policy debate by Mexico, because they have seen that in the past be less than productive.

RAY SUAREZ: Don’t they, Michael Shifter, also have to be careful because remittances from the United States are a major inward investment in the Mexican economy?

MICHAEL SHIFTER: Well, absolutely.

They continue to be a very important source of Mexico’s domestic economy. And so there has to be a balance obviously that has to be achieved. We can’t — we have to — the Mexico — Mexico’s economy does benefit enormously from the Mexican population that’s in the United States.

But we have seen a tremendous shift in recent years, that it’s really — illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States is at its lowest level in decades. It’s really stabilized. And that has enormous implications.

So, some of the other issues that are on the agenda perhaps would get higher priority because the immigration question is not as severe. It is still politically very sensitive in the United States and in Mexico.

But in terms of the numbers, we have seen some trends that are quite encouraging.

RAY SUAREZ: Shannon O’Neil, what about the trade ties between the two? NAFTA is almost 20 years old. Both sides say they’re the other’s — among their most important trade partners.

Has the relationship gone about as far as it can go or is a growing Mexico creating new promise?

SHANNON O’NEIL: I think it’s the latter. I think a growing Mexico creates new promise, not just for Mexicans, but for the United States.

And you have seen — over the last 20 years with NAFTA, you have seen not just more trade go back and forth, but a deepening of the ties, of the production ties.

So what’s coming from Mexico and what’s going to Mexico is not necessarily finished goods, blenders and cars and things like that, but the pieces and parts of those types of things.

So, some come from the United States, go to Mexico, are put together there, things are added. Then it’s brought back to the United States and finished here, for instance.

And so that type of trade, where one company would have aspects of its production on both sides of the border, also including Canada, on three borders, actually, that sort of thing is a longstanding, total change in the way we make things in the United States, but it’s something that could continue to deepen.

And probably, as we think about how to grow in the United States, to grow out of recession, exports have been — bipartisan support for increasing exports. Well, how are we going to do that? It’s really going to come through ties with our neighbors, with Canada and particularly with Mexico.

RAY SUAREZ: Shannon O’Neil, Michael Shifter — quickly, to add…

MICHAEL SHIFTER: The two crucial issues in NAFTA 20 years ago were labor mobility and energy. And they look much more possible to deal with today than they did 20 years ago. And that can make a tremendous difference in the trade relationship.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Shifter, Shannon O’Neil, thank you both.

MICHAEL SHIFTER: Thank you.

SHANNON O’NEIL: Thank you.