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After Rocky Start, Biden builds relationship with Mexican President López Obrador


MEXICO CITY – Just about two years ago, the Mexican leader didn’t even recognize President Biden’s election victory. But on Monday, two men stood side by side at Mexico’s national palace, embracing their wives.

The President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, later called his American counterpart “a visionary president”, saying that “no other leader” would be able to unify the Western Hemisphere.

It was a remarkable turn in an important relationship that began difficult, but has changed in part because Mr. Biden has invested heavily in personal diplomacy with the Mexican head of state – and he López Obrador realized how beneficial that was. on US-friendly terms.

Significant challenges still weigh on both sides of the border, and the two countries have not always come to an agreement on how to stem the flow of irregular migrants across the Americas and curb the fentanyl trade. increasing or combating climate change.

The meeting between Mr. Biden, Mr. López Obrador and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, known as the North American Leaders Summit, ended on Tuesday without much fruit on new policies. And it’s unclear whether any warm gestures shown at the summit will translate into longer-term cooperation on those contentious issues.

At a news conference on Tuesday evening, López Obrador stressed the importance of leaving behind “hegemonic interventionism,” saying the three countries must treat each other “like good neighbours, allies.” economy and as friends”.

Energy remains a dilemma, as the United States and Canada have accused Mexico of violating a free trade agreement with policies that promote a state-owned power company to international companies. .

But the meeting sent a clear message: Years after former President Donald J. Trump, at best neglected — and at worst battered — partnerships in North America, the United States Ky is back on better terms with some of his closest allies.

“This trip is a good opportunity for President Biden to deepen his personal relationship with President López Obrador and Prime Minister Trudeau,” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters. added: “That’s an important aspect of this.”

Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign minister, said an important part of the summit was to deepen the “personal relationship” between the leaders.

Senior Biden administration officials have recognized that the relationship between the two leaders is key to ensuring deeper cooperation from the Mexican government in stemming the historic flow of people to the US border. .

Mr. Biden told his Canadian and Mexican counterparts at Tuesday’s press conference: “I’m grateful to have both of you as partners — and may I add friends — as we work together. to realize a common vision for North America.

Biden has focused on building a personal relationship with the Mexican leader, said a senior State Department official who was not authorized to speak publicly. The official noted that the US President has chosen Mexico as his first trip to any country in the Western Hemisphere and that the two leaders speak regularly by phone.

Friendly exchanges represent a noticeable change from how the relationship began.

López Obrador was one of the last world leaders to congratulate Biden on his 2020 election victory, vowing to wait “until all legal issues are resolved.”

The first time the two spoke by phone after the election, López Obrador was full of praise for the “very good relationship” his country had forged with Mr. Trump.

Martha Bárcena, who was appointed as Mexico’s ambassador to the United States by Mr. López Obrador from 2018 to 2020, said: “The relationship between AMLO and Biden did not start well.

While Mr. Trump has called some Mexicans “rapists” and threatened America’s closest economic partner with a trade war, he still adheres to at least one principle that the Mexican leader considers. important: virtually non-interference in the business of the country.

Mr. Trump effectively persuaded Mexico to accept a large number of migrants deported from the United States, but in return he left López Obrador to pursue an ambitious domestic agenda without talk a lot about the impact sometimes to the detriment of American interests.

López Obrador fears that the approach will largely change with Mr. Biden, in part because the Mexican leader sees Democrats as more interested in imposing their values ​​on Latin American countries, officials said. current and former of both countries said.

Before the final meeting between the three North American leaders, in November 2021, Mr. López Obrador attacked the Biden administration for funding Mexican media groups he described as “opposition publications” and called America’s prolonged embargo on “vile” Cuba.

Then, in June, he defeated Mr. Biden by refusing to attend a gathering of leaders from across the Americas organized by the administration in Los Angeles, because Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua were not invited.

But in recent months, Mr. López Obrador’s stance appears to have softened. The Mexican leader, in his morning press conference, spoke of Mr. Biden in rhetoric, praising him as “responsible, reasonable” and “respectable.”

What has changed? Analysts point to the disappointing performance of Republicans in the midterm elections and Mr Biden’s recovery in opinion polls as signs that the US president may be stronger on the side. politically compared to the expectations of many in Mexico.

More pressing for the Mexican leader, however, are elections in his own country. This year will mark the beginning of the 2024 presidential campaigns in Mexico, in which Mr. López Obrador is barred from running for re-election. But he is expected to have a significant say in who in his Morena party will run to succeed him — and fight to cement his legacy with another six-year term.

The president of Mexico realizes that the administration of the United States – which holds great economic and political influence in Mexico – could make it difficult to implement the sweeping changes he has promised to bring to the country later. when it won overwhelmingly in 2018.

For López Obrador, quelling any animosity between the two governments is now more valuable than ever.

“He doesn’t want the US government to support the opposition – or openly criticize his policies,” Ms Bárcena said. “It’s smarter to have better relations with the US government than at first.”

Mr. Biden also made a concerted effort to attract Mr. López Obrador. Six weeks after Biden took office, he and Lopez Obrador held their first virtual meeting, where the US president heaped praise on his counterpart, saying that “what you do in Mexico” affects whole hemisphere.

Last summer, after Mr. López Obrador refused to attend a regional summit organized by the administration, Mr. Biden publicly brought his counterpart into the White House.

At that meeting, Mr. López Obrador told Mr. Biden that “we trust him because he respects our sovereignty”.

Blanca Heredia, a professor at Mexico’s Center for Economic Research and Teaching, said the two leaders were “like a couple who didn’t know how to dance together at first, but then started to get along.”

She added: “It’s not just better if they don’t fight, but they’re both integral to each other.”

This week, Mr. Biden made another humble but important gesture: He bypassed Mexico City’s large international airport and instead flew into a smaller airport that the Mexican leader’s administration has operated. build.

Although it has been criticized as a silly pet project by the president, Mr. López Obrador sees the new airport as a monument to his success in transforming the country and has asked Mr. Biden to land. over there.

After dismounting from Air Force One on Sunday, Mr. Biden raised the bar: He invited his Mexican counterpart to accompany him in his limousine on an unusually long trip to the capital due to the distance. the airport’s sticky.

For Mr. Biden, landing an hour from the capital is a small price to pay to appease a leader whose cooperation – on migration, energy and trade – is more important than ever.

“For AMLO, this is an opportunity, seen as respected by the US president because of his policy-making vision and ability,” said Shannon O’Neil, a Mexico expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. his leadership. “The US bet is, we’ll give him the optics, and then he’ll be more lenient about giving it to us.”

Mr. Sullivan said the trip from the airport gave the two leaders an “opportunity to have a one-on-one chat,” about “how they’re seeing the world right now, what they’re thinking. I think both have gained a lot from it.

López Obrador raved about how “it was the president of the United States who showed me how the buttons work,” the Mexican leader said, referring to the vehicle’s control system. “President Biden is a friendly person.”

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