Editor’s Note: Jorge G. Castañeda served as Minister of Foreign Relations of Mexico (2000-2003) and was an advisor to two candidates for the presidency of Mexico, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and Vicente Fox. He is a professor at New York University, and his latest book, “America Through Foreign Eyes,” was recently published by Oxford University Press. He is a CNNE contributor. Read more opinion at CNN.
During his first months in office, President-elect Joe Biden will have more than enough on his plate to deal with besides peaceful and essentially non-conflictive neighbors like Mexico and Canada. Covid-19, the question of what to do about Donald Trump, the slumping economy, and Biden’s ambitious social agenda are almost overwhelming. Foreign-policy issues such as Iran, the Paris Agreements on Climate Change, China and Venezuela will probably concentrate his international attention.
But he shouldn’t procrastinate in excess with regard to Mexico; there is a fire kindling next door.
While there are a number of specific bilateral issues that Trump neglected and that Biden will have to concentrate on regarding Mexico, his task may be driven by another, more abstract notion: Mexican stability. Migration, drugs, security, the border, enforcement of the USMCA trade agreement, and climate change, along with a smattering of “third country issues” – including how the two countries approach, Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua – will dominate the US–Mexico agenda in the short term.
Migration, in particular, will demand immediate attention. The rise in immigrant apprehensions on the border since October, along with Biden’s commitments to roll back the most odious facets of Trump’s policies, will need deft and bold handling. The drug-enforcement agenda is also a challenging one, as a result of Mexico’s new law restricting Mexican authorities’ abilities to work with American DEA and ATF agents in Mexico and the lingering damage from the arrest on drug charges last October by US authorities of Mexico’s former Defense Minister, Salvador Cienfuegos, whom Mexico has exonerated after he was sent back to Mexico by the Department of Justice.
In recent years, some foreign energy companies have sued or considered suing Mexico over a recent move they see as discrimination in favor of Mexico’s state-run oil company and public energy utility, Bloomberg and the Financial Times reported. Earlier this month, three Cabinet members of the outgoing Trump administration complained to the Mexican government that it was not complying with USMCA provisions on energy investments. Tensions over the USMCA deal have been felt by organized labor, too: AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said this month that his federation of unions would file an unrelated labor dispute against Mexico in the early days of the Biden administration.
Biden’s green agenda is diametrically opposed to the inclinations of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, who has a penchant for oil and coal and an explicit dislike for wind and solar energy. And, of course, Covid-19 and vaccines will be a central matter for the two neighboring countries for months to come.
But another issue may well push all of these aside. Mexico is facing a major economic, social and political crisis. Its economy was contracting even before the pandemic; slightly in 2019, then by 9% in 2020. Its president has shown on various occasions that he can fall prey to authoritarian temptations, by verbally attacking journalists and news organizations during his morning press conferences, and also by going after the country’s autonomous agencies.
Unemployment, crime, and even hunger have all stricken the country, in many ways as a result of López Obrador’s misguided policies. Trump appeared to be uninterested in these dangers, as long as AMLO did the United States’ dirty work by keeping Central American migrants at bay. Biden may not be able to ignore them.
At some point, he might have to sit down with his colleague and read him the riot act. In a nutshell, he may have to lay out to AMLO that if Mexico continues to slide down the cliff, why and how it does so becomes a US affair. It would no longer be an exclusively Mexican sovereign matter. Biden may have to explain to AMLO that Mexican macroeconomic policy, the rule of law, compliance with international agreements, respect for representative democracy and human rights are all legitimate bilateral issues, not exclusively domestic Mexican concerns.
Making all of this explicit will not be simple. AMLO is an extremely insular president, uninterested in foreign affairs and devoid of experience in this field. He is also prickly and obsessed with his domestic agenda. Including Mexico’s domestic problems in the US-Mexican agenda will not be easy for Biden, but it may become inevitable.
Since President Clinton bailed out Mexico of its 1994-1995 financial meltdown, relations between the chief executives of the two countries have been limited to the traditional specifics of the bilateral relationship. I have long wondered if at some point, Clinton encouraged then-Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo to finally lead his country toward a full-fledged representative democracy, possibly implying that this might entail his party’s loss in the 2000 presidential elections. Recurrent economic crises, with concomitant American rescue packages, in 1976, 1982, 1987 and again in 1994-95, suggested that the Mexican political system had become dysfunctional, and that Washington was repeatedly picking up the broken dishes.
President Biden may find himself in a similar situation. The Mexican economy’s 9% shrinkage in 2020 was twice the decrease seen by Brazil and the US (according to Deloitte’s estimate of where the US economy sat in the fourth quarter of 2020), and worse than the global and Latin American averages, according to IMF estimates. Violence continues to rise in Mexico, with homicides reaching a record high in the first half of 2020.
The pandemic was gravely mishandled, with lethality rates and infections among the highest in the world. Economic growth in 2021 is not expected to rise above 3.7%; apprehensions of Mexicans and Central Americans at the US southern border hit a 13-month high in September. Tensions with American companies over investments in Mexican energy production are likely to endure. New laws either passed by the Mexican Congress or scheduled for very soon have provoked explicit warnings from the Trump administration for their bias and content. Last, but certainly not least, the Mexican military is being assigned responsibilities for traditionally civilian matters, like illegal immigration and infrastructure, and acquiring power like never before.
At some point, Biden may have to share his concerns over this situation with López Obrador, instead of just going over the traditional items on the two countries’ agenda. This implies treading a delicate path. AMLO could well respond: “This is none of your business. The Mexican people elected me to carry out my program, and that is what I am doing.” Moreover, AMLO has already been disdainful of Biden, to put it mildly. He practically endorsed Trump by visiting him at the White House last July, by declining to congratulate Biden on his election win until December 15, by offering asylum to Julian Assange, and by declining to condemn the assault on the Capitol by Trump supporters.
Biden would have to explain how, at least since Woodrow Wilson’s time, Mexican economic, political and social stability has been a major national interest for the United States, for the obvious reasons one can see on a map or on a TV news show. One and a half million Americans live in Mexico; millions more visit every year. Mexico is the US’s second-leading trade partner, ranking between Canada and China. A large share of the illegal drugs consumed in the US pass through Mexico.
As of 2017, there were 4.9 million Mexicans living in the US without legal immigration status, according to the Pew Research Center; yearly, hundreds of thousands of legal, temporary immigrants from Mexico harvest American crops, build American skyscrapers, work in the US hospitality industry and take care of American babies and the elderly. Biden has already halted construction of Trump’s US-Mexico border wall, and he is expected to propose an immigration-policy overhaul that would offer a multi-year pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the US.
The absence of any serious convulsions since 1920 has been a major Mexican achievement. Helping to keep it that way has been a major American contribution and source of tranquility.
A stable Mexico is a longstanding American national interest. AMLO is not only threatening the people of Mexico by not solving poverty, violence, illness and corruption – he is also jeopardizing a US national interest. It is not a minor one.