US, Mexico face stark choices as new president takes over

Published 30.11.2018 00:00
Updated 30.11.2018 08:00

Migrants, trade, crime, the border wall: The challenges to the modern U.S.-Mexico relationship have perhaps never been as stark and divisive as they are now, at a critical juncture for both countries.

With a new president preparing to take power in Mexico City this weekend and the Trump administration set to enter its third year, the two neighbors find themselves lurching between crisis and opportunity on each front. While a trade dispute that President Donald Trump had fanned with great enthusiasm seems set to ease, the other issues remain unresolved and potential flashpoints for both countries.

"This is really a key moment," said Earl Anthony Wayne, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico. "There are very serious short-term problems that have to be managed and managed in a way that can solidify relations over the course of the next six years."

President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador takes office Saturday, just a day after the two nations and Canada are to sign a replacement accord for the North America Free Trade Agreement, which Trump lambasted during the 2016 campaign and vowed to cancel.

Sealing that deal was an achievement for the outgoing Mexican government as well as for Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. He will attend the signing of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and will be awarded the highest honor Mexico gives to foreigners, the Order of the Aztec Eagle.

Neither Trump, who has reached out multiple times to Lopez Obrador since his election in July, nor Kushner will be at the inauguration. But Vice President Mike Pence will be there as will Kushner's wife, Ivanka Trump. In addition, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has already met Mexico's incoming foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard at least twice, plans to see him again in Washington on Sunday. Kushner will see the foreign minister and his team on Monday. These are indications the White House is keen to keep in close contact with the new Mexican leadership.

Nevertheless, the administration has yet to nominate a new ambassador to Mexico, a post that has been vacant since May. And the apparent personal goodwill and positive developments on trade can't mask deeper tensions over migration and drug trafficking, Trump's demands that Mexico pay for a border wall and the deployment of U.S. troops to the southern frontier with a threat to seal all crossings. There's also the matter of the president's frequent denigration of Mexicans, repeatedly saying Mexico was sending "criminals" and "rapists" to the U.S.

In the run-up to his inauguration, Lopez Obrador sought to continue his predecessor's aim of trying to demonstrate that Mexico is a reliable partner for the U.S. He is aiming to save face after accepting that Mexico would house migrants seeking asylum in the United States by seeking in return a big U.S. contribution to create jobs in Central America and southern Mexico so people would be less inclined to emigrate. Ebrard has suggested that $20 billion is reasonable figure. "It is like the Marshall Plan, in terms of the size of the effort that is needed," he said, referring to the post-World War II reconstruction effort in Europe.

The deft bit of maneuvering appears to signal that Lopez Obrador's team has tacitly accepted the U.S. desire for asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico while their claims are evaluated, in exchange for U.S. aid in an unstated quid pro quo. For some, it is a balancing act in which Lopez Obrador preserves Mexican dignity while avoiding angering Trump.

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