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Making Friends

Shortly after Arturo Sarukhan arrived in Washington as Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S. in early 2007, he drew up a short list of senators he most wanted to meet.

Among them was Barack Obama, then a junior senator from Illinois who sat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Sarukhan said he was surprised Obama was the first to accept his invitation:

“Barack Obama had never been south of the border. And forget about Mexico, he’d never been to Latin America. He knew very little, but he asked the right questions.” The questions Obama asked him about Mexico “were really of a man who instinctively understood the nature of the relationship and… is very thoughtful in trying to understand how these two countries can regain a different footing.”

Mexico and the U.S. have had a long, tumultuous and sometimes bloody relationship. But Obama’s election has spawned optimism on both sides of the border for a new relationship built on mutual needs and trust. The U.S. and Mexico share nearly 2,000 miles of border and nearly 30 million people in the U.S. are of Mexican ancestry. Yet both countries have been divided by differences in culture, politics and, most notably, economic strength. Mexico has often resented its neighbor’s dominance and accused it of using its might arbitrarily and despotically.

“Historically, the U.S. has been either hands off, or very heavy handed,” says Shannon O’Neil of the Council of Foreign Relations. “The relationship has run very hot and very cold.”

Today, the U.S. hopes Mexican President Felipe Calderon will break the backs of his nation’s powerful drug cartels and halt Mexico’s economic slide. Washington also wants Calderon to promote a good business climate for U.S. businesses and serve as a key ally in U.S. policy towards Latin America, especially efforts to rein in Venezuela. Mexico hopes the Obama administration will replace the controversial border fence---viewed by many Mexicans as a symbol of George W. Bush’s failures regarding their country---with a new era of respectful engagement.

“These two countries will succeed or fail together on a host of issues,” Sarukhan predicts, noting the Mexican government is “extremely encouraged” by Obama’s attentions toward Mexico in the short time he’s been in office, “Even during the transition period, he was seized by the importance of the relationship.”

A New Era

Obama has visited Mexico twice since his election and has thrilled Mexican officials with a promise to focus on immigration next year. Crises early in his administration forced Obama to turn his attention south. The swine flu first appeared in the United States in early 2009 in Mexican-American communities, an apparent result of family visits to Mexico, the nation that reported the first cases of the disease.

Then there was Mexico’s escalating drug war. That violence, which often breached the border, prompted Congress to loosen federal purse strings and fund a Bush-era agreement known as the Merida Initiative. The program pays for equipment---including U.S.-made helicopters---and training for Mexican forces fighting the drug war. U.S. aid to Calderon’s efforts to smash the cartels also includes intelligence sharing. Such efforts have heartened advocates of better ties between the two countries.

“Relations between the U.S. and Mexico have always had their ups and downs, the history has a lot of baggage, but in recent years that relationship has gotten much better…trust between the two countries has gotten better,” says a top aide in the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has visited Mexico five times. Particularly well-received was a March visit where Clinton said we shared the blame for Mexico’s drug violence because of the U.S. appetite for illegal drugs and our inability to stop arms crossing the border.”I feel very strongly we have a co-responsibility” Clinton said.

Tony Garza, who served as ambassador to Mexico in the Bush Administration, says “both countries have moved beyond the traditional finger pointing.” Mexico’s recent cooperation on extradition cases and money laundering cases has helped Washington warm up to Calderon’s government, he says. “Historically, our relationship was such that we didn’t have nearly the level of cooperation.” Garza also says Obama’s choices of former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to head the Department of Homeland Security and Alan Bersin to be the new “border czar” are inspired because both officials have experience dealing with Mexico.

Bersin learned the hard way. As border czar in the Clinton administration, he implemented “Operation Gatekeeper” which fortified the border in southern California, forcing illegal migrants to cross the deadly desert further east. Hispanic advocacy groups blamed the operation for increased border-crossing deaths.

Bersin later said he regretted “the tragedy of migrants dying.”

Obama’s choice to represent the U.S. in Mexico is Carlos Pascual, a Cuban-American who is an expert in Eastern Europe and was once U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine. Pascual’s appointment caused a stir in Mexico because he’s an expert in “failed states.” Writing for Foreign Affairs magazine in 2005, Pascual offered, “when chaos prevails, terrorism, narcotics trade, weapons proliferation and other forms of organized crime can flourish.”

U.S. officials hastily assured the Mexican government that Pascual does not consider Mexico a “failed state” and criticisms of Obama’s nominee died away.

But it’s clear Pascual was chosen to his new diplomatic posting because of his expertise in nations that are threatened by political instability and organized crime.

Pascual, who has been in office since August, declined a request to be interviewed.

Garza predicts his successor will be a good ambassador, calling Pascual “solid, whip-smart and very committed.” Pascual does share one view with Mexico that always caused friction with Bush, that the longstanding trade embargo on Cuba is counterproductive.

Wasted Opportunities

Garza says warming of relations began during the Bush Administration with the development of the Merida Initiative. But in Mexico many view the Bush years as a wasted opportunity.

When George W. Bush and former Mexican President Vicente Fox assumed office less than a month apart in January of 2001 and December of 2000 respectively, there were great expectations in Washington and Mexico City.

The new presidents ushered in a conservative shift in the politics of their nations and have a close personal relationship. They even shared a love of ranching.

But 9/11 and Bush’s subsequent focus on the war on terrorism prevented progress on many issues---including the one that tops Mexico’s agenda---comprehensive immigration reform.

Mexico wants the U.S. to regulate the flow of migrants through an expansion of resident visas and temporary worker programs. It also wants Washington to legalize the status of millions of undocumented Mexicans living in the U.S.. Bush backed a wide-ranging immigration bill and supported efforts to provide a path to legal residency for the undocumented. But, led by a growing number of anti-immigration Republicans, Congress rejected the comprehensive bill and limited itself to approving more punitive measures for violators of U.S. immigration law---and funding hundreds of miles of the border fence.

There’s new hope in Mexico City that Obama will be able to do what Bush couldn’t, yet optimism is tempered by political realities. Next year all House members and a third of the Senators are up for re-election. And it’s a mid-term election, when the party who controls the White House tends to lose seats in Congress. The prospect of significant Republican pick-ups because of voter opposition to immigration reform---or even the GOP’s retaking control of the House and Senate---may prompt Obama not to reopen the divisive and emotional immigration debate until after the November 2010 elections.

“We can create a system in which you have . . . an orderly process for people to come in, but we’re also giving an opportunity for those who are already in the U.S. to be able to achieve a pathway to citizenship so that they don’t have to live in the shadows,” Obama said during an August summit of North American leaders in Guadalajara. “Am I going to be able to snap my fingers and get this done? No. This is going to be difficult.”

Recent polls show public opposition to legalizing the undocumented has grown, apparently because the recession has heightened concerns immigrants will compete for scarce jobs. “It’s going to be tough,” says Sarukhan of Obama’s chances of getting congressional approval of a big immigration bill. The Mexican ambassador says he hopes Obama makes “intelligent use of the bully pulpit” to convince the American people of the need to change immigration law.

O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations said the first two years of Obama’s presidency will is the best time to push forward with difficult issues because a president’s mandate is strongest then. “But so much of what Obama does will depend on health care, “ O’Neil says. “Things will be much more difficult for him if he doesn’t get health care reform passed.”

Perception and Reality

Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize more for changing the tone of U.S. foreign policy and pledging cooperation with other nations on a host of issues rather than for concrete actions. That perception, that Obama has replaced American arrogance with civility and understanding, has raised our favorability rating with most nations, including Mexico. According to a study by the Pew Global Strategies Project, it was 64 percent in 2002, a year after George W. Bush assumed office.

It dropped to 47 percent in 2008, Bush’s last year in office, and rose to 69 percent after Obama moved into the White House in 2009.

O’Neil says Mexico has such high expectations of Obama that the danger is he won’t be able to meet them: “Mexico wants Obama to pull vast resources to help its economy, not just stop the flow of guns and drug money into their country.”

While Mexicans are optimistic about Obama, Americans with an interest in Mexico are less hopeful about Calderon’s ability to foster change.

Calderon began his term in 2006 with limited political capital because his slim electoral win over leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was highly contested. Some Mexican voters and politicians, including Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, still don’t recognize Calderon as the nation’s legitimate president.

But Calderon, a longtime activist in Mexico’s conservative National Action Party (PAN), quickly seized the reins of power. He capped the price of tortillas, a mainstay of the Mexican diet, cut salaries of top government officials and offered subsidies to companies that hire young workers who are new to the workforce.

The Mexican president also launched massive raids on his nation’s drug cartels, ordering soldiers and federal police into several cities where local cops had been corrupted by the drug trade, including Tijuana and Monterey.

That decisive move was followed in October by another. Calderon seized a state-run utility, Central Light and Power, deploying 1,000 federal police officers to enforce his decree. It was called a union-busting move and the first step to dismantle other trade unions by Calderon’s leftist critics and it fueled a massive protest. But the dismally managed utility company had been hemorrhaging state funds for years and had lost a third of its electricity production to fraud and theft.

Mexico’s convoluted (and often corrupt) political system is likely to block other attempts at reform by Calderon and blunt his efforts to pull Mexico out of its deep recession and make its businesses competitive overseas, said a recent report by the Pacific Council on International Policy, a Los Angeles-based think tank.

Facing a variety of national problems---crime, drugs, corruption, a troubled economy---Mexicans overwhelmingly are dissatisfied with the direction of their country, a recent Pew Global Attitudes report said. One of three Mexicans polled by Pew said they would move here if they could.

“There is definitely a push in the U.S. to really embrace Mexico in a positive way,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas. “The problem is, some of Mexico’s problems are so intractable.”

Window of Opportunity

Despite the deep problems south of the border, the Pacific Council’s report says there’s a “unique window of opportunity” for the U.S. to help Mexico become a more stable and predictable partner. It advises the Obama Administration to continue an initial flurry of meetings among high-level government officials and to redefine Mexico as a place that presents opportunities for Americans, rather than a source of problems that include illegal drugs, crime and unwanted migrants.

The report, released in April, also recommends following up on U.S. promises of a new partnership and “co-responsibility” and an ending of raids on American workplaces suspected of hiring illegal immigrants.

“Helping Mexico build a competitive economy, sustain a strong democracy, and control the drug cartels is not altruistic---it is the farsighted pursuit of U.S. interests,” the report said.

But the report warned “there will almost certainly continue to be frictions…disparities of power and wealth make this is a relationship among unequals, requiring some forbearance and patience.” Its author, University of Southern California professor Pamela Starr, says, “the Obama Administration has changed the rhetoric and done the easy things” she’s recommended. Those include halting workplace raids and continuing high-level government talks.

But the administration has not tackled the tough things necessary to improve relations, Starr says. She would like the U.S. to increase funding for the Merida Initiative, stop the flow of guns south and reduce U.S. demands for illegal drugs.

“Those are very hard things to do,” Starr concedes, noting that strong cross-border ties, a result of trade, migration and the need to work jointly on public health and environmental issues, require the Obama administration to make the effort and expend the political capital that may be necessary.

“No country is as important to the daily lives of Americans as Mexico,” she says, a strong reason to be friends as well as neighbors.

Ana Radelat lives in the Washington, D.C. area and writes about foreign policy, among other things.