When President Joe Biden spoke with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Friday, the most controversial issues complicating the relationship between the two countries were not on the agenda.
It’s a sign that Biden is looking to reset his relationship with the Mexican leader who had developed a close personal relationship with former President Donald Trump, sources briefed on the content of the call tell CNN.
In the months following Biden’s election victory, López Obrador — known in Mexico as AMLO – has challenged his new counterpart by talking up the bond he developed with Trump and making controversial policy decisions related to security. It will take a tremendous personal commitment from both sides to get Biden- López Obrador relationship on a positive footing, explain people closely tracking the relationship.
“I think the administration, and particularly President Biden, believe in letting bygones be bygones. He wants to build a constructive relationship going forward,” said the former Mexican ambassador to the US Arturo Sarukhan, reflecting on the friendly initial phone call which avoided the most contentious issues. “But as with most things in life, the saying goes you need two to tango, or two to salsa in this instance. And the question is if López Obrador will want to work with his American counterpart.”
López Obrador was one of the last world leaders to congratulate Biden on his victory, and when they finally spoke during the transition period, the Mexican president bluntly reiterated to Biden that he had developed a positive relationship with Trump, according to sources briefed on the call.
By contrast, readouts from the phone call last week seemed mild and friendly. It was the second call Biden had with a world leader, following his conversation with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The White House said the two leaders largely focused on migration – agreeing to “work closely” to stem irregular immigration – and on coordinating to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It is a signal that the relationship could start to move in the right relationship with that phone call. It is a vital relationship to both countries and it is important that the relationship stabilize,” said Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico.
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But there is more than rhetoric to fix. Substance and style are also expected to be hurdles.
López Obrador took actions which put stress on the relationship with the US ahead of Biden assuming the presidency.
In January, López Obrador unexpectedly said his country planned to offer Julian Assange political asylum. He also welcomed a British court ruling rejecting a US request to extradite the WikiLeaks founder to the US, “because he is a journalist and deserves a chance.”
‘Shot over the bow’
In December, López Obrador signed a security law placing restrictions on the presence of US drug agents in the country. It was clearly retaliation for the US arresting Mexico’s former defense secretary, Salvador Cienfuegos, in Los Angeles in October and charging him with being tied to drug trafficking. After that arrest he was turned over to Mexican authorities and on his return to the country, the charges were dropped. It was also a decision that could impede the US-Mexico security relationship.
“It was a shot over the bow,” said Sarukhan, adding that AMLO also recently has said he is considering taking action against the US for allegedly fabricating information in the Cienfuegos investigation. “Now, are you trying to use that as a negotiation point with the incoming Biden administration, or is it that you just do not get how the relationship works? That is the question that I have not been able to answer. Like so many things in life it may be a combination of both.”
The security aspects of the relationship and the future of Trump’s border wall did not come up in the initial conversation between the two, according to the readouts and sources familiar with the call who added it’s unclear when the more difficult matters will be addressed. But they all agree that those issues cannot be avoided.
“The overarching concern is that the incredibly necessary and strategic intelligence, security and law enforcement relationship between both countries needs to be on sure footing,” Sarukhan said. “I think the administration needs to send that message clearly, that in the aftermath of 9/11 this is not just about drugs, it is about much more in terms of common security writ large.”
Immigration is an area where the two leaders are expected to work together. Due to the devastating toll that the coronavirus pandemic has taken on Latin America, thousands of immigrants are headed to the US border. López Obrador said they are closely watching developments as a migrant caravan moves toward the US from Central America.
But getting the two leaders synced up on issues across the board could be a challenge.
Biden, who is known for being able to establish close personal relationships with world leaders, will be tasked with developing a personal bond with López Obrador, whose leadership style does not mirror his.
Schmoozing will be needed
“You build the relationship because it is so important. Biden is a very good personal politician, as is López Obrador. They are good schmoozers,” said Richardson, who also added “there are going to be differences.”
The two leaders do not share the same bombastic and transactional governing style and López Obrador is a populist who built a political brand on his own cult of personality, leading him to bond with Trump.
Last fall, when he visited DC, López Obrador praised Trump for his “understanding and respect” despite Trump’s history of deriding Mexicans and attempting to use coercive measures including threatening tariffs and border closures against the López Obrador administration.
López Obrador has more pressing problems though after announcing on Sunday that he had tested positive for Covid-19.
And even the pandemic is an area where the two leaders will have challenge in seeing eye to eye. The two leaders have taken a contrasting approach to crisis which is devastating both nations. Biden has been very clear about the need to wear masks and maintain social distancing whereas López Obrador has been dismissive of the virus and traveled throughout the country during the pandemic, often times without wearing a mask.