April 23, 2014

Obama's Trip to Mexico and Central America

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President Barack Obama faced some domestic challenges before his widely publicized three-day trip to Latin America (Mexico & Costa Rica) on May 2. He returned home to more opposition from the Republican dominated US Congress, and the impact of his important trip to visit the United States’ neighbors to the south has fallen off the radar. Prior to the trip, there was buzz generated by the White House and also the varied opinions from some of the more outspoken Latin American Heads of State. A few of them lamented that this was just a “vacation” for the President, while others welcomed the attention that this visit would bring to their countries and the region.

First Stop, Mexico

I had high hopes for the potential that this trip presented. The first stop on Obama’s three-day tour was, predictably, Mexico. This visit would mark the second face-to-face meeting between Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. The three predicted topics of discussion were bilateral trade, the flow of people and goods across the US-Mexico border, and the War on Drugs. These themes were all addressed.

Trade between the US and Mexico is booming. Mexico is the United State’s second largest export market and third leading source of imports. Last year bilateral trade almost reached half a trillion dollars, and was valued at around $1.4 billion a day. Both Obama and Peña Nieto called for increased economic cooperation, which I think will be productive for both countries. Of the three predicted topics of discussion it is the second that poses the greatest challenge: the flow of goods and people. I believe that the flow of goods will be solved as economic ties are strengthened. As such, it is not my chief concern.

The flow of people across the border and the current debate raging in the US over how to overhaul a broken and outdated immigration system is on the minds of almost everyone on both sides of the border. During his speech in Mexico City, Obama declared that he was optimistic an immigration reform bill would pass this year. Inhabitants of both countries would like to see this happen. However, such legislation may not pass in the US until the third item on the US-Mexico (US-Latin America) agenda is addressed: the War on Drugs.

I was hopeful that this trip to Mexico would strengthen security cooperation through improved communication and refocusing on key issues. However, it appears that we took a couple of steps back on the issue of the War on Drugs and border security. As soon as Peña Nieto was elected this past December he began the process of terminating the widespread access that US security agencies had to Mexican security forces under his predecessor. This is a departure from the strategy employed under former Mexican President Felipe Calderon—a strategy that was praised by the US but despised by many Mexicans. The new arrangement forces all branches of US law enforcement to use a “single door,” as described by Mexico’s federal Interior Ministry, the agency responsible security and domestic policy. Under the previous arrangement, US agencies had direct access to an equivalent agency or office. The US can only view this development in a negative light.  Curtailed access will probably result in less reliable intelligence, increased miscommunication, and an overall decrease in efficacy of coordination and meeting the goals of securing the border, fighting crime, and winning the War on Drugs—all of which are key components of the ability the US has to craft a passable immigration bill.

The US-Mexico relationship is far more complex than many people realize. It would behoove both governments to help the relationship evolve on each of the aforementioned issues, rather than forcing a “reset,” as Enrique Peña Nieto seems committed to on security cooperation. Such evolution would be mutually beneficial for all of those involved. Security cooperation was a continued theme during Obama’s trip to Costa Rica. There he met with Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla and leaders from Belize, Guatemala, Honduras El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Nicaragua to discuss the current security crisis in Central America.

Next stop, Central America

During his stop in Costa Rica, President Obama noted that it would be difficult for the region to develop economically “with the absence of security.” This seems painfully obvious, but is a step in the right direction. Obama also pledged continued to support for the Central American Regional Security Strategy (CARSI), a collective security strategy that is funded by countries inside the region and out.  I am hopeful that the Obama Administration actually will continue to support CARSI and allocate the correct type and a sufficient amount of resources to help their neighbors. If the security crisis is not solved it will creep further north into Mexico, which faces its own battle, and further threaten the US-Mexico border region, which could very well damage hemispheric relations.

Mexico and Central America

This was a landmark trip for many reasons, but regardless of the progress made in some areas, President Obama did not leave with any significant agreements signed. While there was progress made in US-Mexico relations on some fronts, there also were a few steps backwards on key issues, such as security cooperation. The subject of how to solve the main threats to hemispheric security was discussed in broad strokes, but no significant action was taken. Even after taking some time to evaluate the overall effect of the trip, I cannot be more than disheartened. This trip had so much potential for hemispheric relations, but it appears the Latin American leaders may have been correct in their original assessment of this Presidential visit as being a vacation. With Mexico and Central America being key for numerous reasons one can only hope things improve from here on out.

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