by Jeff Seelbach
President Obama visits Mexico today, the first stop on a weekend trip to Trinidad and Tobago for the fifth Summit of the Americas, where he will meet many heads of state from the Western Hemisphere for the first time.
The stop in Mexico will be short, but the two countries have much to discuss. Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón will focus on the drug-related violence that has caused more than 10,000 Mexican deaths in the past three years and may be inching across the border. Calderón has made combating Mexican drug cartels a primary goal of his administration, committing 45,000 troops to the cause across the country. President Obama has also responded to the escalating situation: last month he confirmed the U.S. commitment to the Merida Initiative, a $1.4 billion regional anti-drug package including $700 million to support Mexico’s armed forces, increase U.S. security along the border, curb the flow of arms and money from the U.S. to Mexican cartels, and slow the U.S. demand for illegal drugs. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Mexico last month, she surprised many by recognizing that the U.S. shares some responsibility for Mexico’s drug cartel problem.
While Secretary Clinton’s comments were certainly welcome in Mexico, many people there, including former President Vicente Fox, are now looking for concrete plans instead of just rhetoric. “No more words, no more plans, no more little pats on the back like I used to get for six years,” Fox said in an interview earlier this week. “You have to act, and it’s time to act.” Some Mexican officials have said that much of the support promised when the Merida Initiative was initially announced in 2008 has not yet arrived. The lack of anticipated equipment has hampered their efforts.
Another likely topic of discussion will be economic issues. The Mexican economy has been hit hard not only by drug violence, but also the recession in the U.S. Mexican remittances and exports are declining. Trade issues jumped to the forefront last month, when the U.S. Congress halted a program that allowed Mexican truckers to operate freely in the U.S., saying that some of the operators did not meet U.S. safety standards. Mexico saw the move as a violation of NAFTA, and responded by adding tariffs to about 90 U.S. products entering Mexico.
From Mexico, Obama will be off to Trinidad. Economic discussions will no doubt continue there, alongside discussions about recent developments in U.S. policy towards Cuba. Obama’s appearance at the summit has the potential to upstage whatever Hugo Chavez has planned, but the competition for the spotlight could be fierce.