Obama and Mexico’s Peña Nieto: A Quick Meeting with a Big Agenda

BY Michael D. Mosettig  November 26, 2012 at 3:13 PM EST


Mexican president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto gestures after giving a press conference in London on Oct. 16. Photo by Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images.

It’s a ritual turning into a tradition that will be played out once again when re-elected President Obama meets Mexico’s President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto at the White House on Tuesday. And there will be a new twist: both leaders know that millions of voters with roots in Mexico vaulted them to their high offices, and in Obama’s case more than 70 percent of the Mexican-American electorate in the U.S.

According to the White House, the meeting will last only hours but cover a wide-ranging agenda. Peña Nieto, who takes office Saturday, then heads to Canada to meet his other NAFTA partner. His July victory represents a return to power for the PRI party, which had ruled Mexico for 70 years but had spent the last 12 in opposition.

For Mexicans, the hope is that this meeting will signal an evolution of the sometimes tortured relationship from “transactional to strategic,” in the words of Mexico’s outgoing Ambassador to Washington Arturo Sarukhan.

Many Mexicans are both optimistic and realistic in assessing whether the big Democratic win among Mexican-American and other Hispanic voters might give immigration reform a push in the U.S. Congress, where it has been bogged down since the end of the George W. Bush administration. They are, however, looking for an evolution of the relationship beyond immigration, narcotics and small bore but nagging trade issues such as tuna, trucking and the labeling of meat imports which took years to resolve.

Even the immigration issue reflects the changes in both economies as the latest demographic estimates show as many Mexicans returning home as going to the United States. Mexico, now the second largest economy behind Brazil in Latin America, has bounced back more strongly than the United States from the 2009 recession and posts a 3.8 percent growth rate amid its population of nearly 115 million. Even more importantly, it is the world’s seventh largest oil producer. In tandem with Canada and the United States, Mexico is part of a North American region poised to become a larger energy exporter than Saudi Arabia. Probably the most contentious domestic issue for Peña Nieto’s administration and a new congress is energy reform and allowing foreign investment in Mexico’s state-controlled and aging oil industry.

Even as Ambassador Sarukhan spoke at a recent session of the Inter-American Dialogue about a wider and deeper relationship, narcotics will probably take many of the headlines. The U.S. government, which has committed more than $1.6 billion to Mexico’s war on drug cartels, is wondering how the new president might change strategy or tactics in a fight that has cost more than 60,000 Mexican lives. Peña Nieto, the 46-year-old former governor of the populous province surrounding Mexico City, has vowed not to make a deal with the cartels and has proposed creating a national police force. But the question is what impact referenda in Colorado and Washington state legalizing recreational marijuana will have on the U.S. drug war.

Sarukhan coined the term “inter-mestic” to assert that “every issue in U.S. domestic politics creates a Mexico coalition outside of Washington,” comprising governors and mayors and a population of 35 million Mexican-Americans and another 11 million Mexicans living in the United States documented or illegally.

The ambassador acknowledged that the 1993 NAFTA agreement “is still a dirty word” among some segments of the U.S. population, especially the industrial Midwest, even as the three-nation trade pact supports 26 million U.S. jobs and a $1.2 billion daily flow of goods and services. But NAFTA in effect is going global and will be updated as Mexico and Canada join the United States, Colombia, Peru and Chile, and a cluster of Asian nations in negotiations already well underway for a Trans Pacific Partnership.

When completed, Sarukhan said, the partnership will link the northern and southern axes of the Americas with many of the world’s fastest growing economies. “My conviction is that this is the big strategic game for North America and the hemisphere,” he said. “All this develops a common footprint with Asia.”

Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he writes dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.