Biden’s charm offensive in Mexico is all about the border

MEXICO CITY, Mexico – Call it auto geek diplomacy.

President Biden, who loves muscle cars, cheerfully showed his Mexican counterpart the various buttons in the heavy, armored Cadillac sedan that Secret Service officials are dubbing “The Beast” while they sat together for the hour-long drive from the airport outside of Mexico City on Sunday night.

“He showed me this special vehicle. He pushed buttons: ‘He does, this seat moves a lot,'” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador told reporters Monday morning during one of his characteristically long daily news briefings.

Typically, American presidents travel overseas with aides-de-camp or their spouse in the limousine. When Biden invited López Obrador to share the car, the gesture wasn’t lost on López Obrador, who said the two leaders were talking like longtime neighbors. “It was very pleasant,” he added. “He’s a very good person.”

The friendly interaction was in stark contrast to the scene in Los Angeles six months earlier, when Biden was hosting Central and South American leaders at a Summit of the Americas that López Obrador boycotted to object to the governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Venezuela not being invited and to raise Nicaragua. The two men who make themselves nice also gloss over a laundry list with other differences. López Obrador still refuses to break with Russia over Ukraine. He has offered asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is accused of US espionage. He was one of the last foreign leaders to call Biden and congratulate him on his 2020 election victory and did not publicly condemn the violent attempt to overthrow the election during the Jan. 6 attack.

“I think Biden made the decision to put the past behind him,” said Arturo Sarukhán, Mexico’s ambassador to the United States from 2007 to 2013.

Mexico is vital to US national security, and Biden appears willing to make concessions at ceremonies that appear to improve his relationship with López Obrador if it helps improve Mexico’s support for curbing migration to the US to secure, including the readmission of tens of thousands of migrants arriving at America’s southern border from countries like Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua that have strained or nonexistent extradition channels with the US

“That’s part of what personal diplomacy looks like for Biden,” Sarukhán says. “The relationship today is not perfect. It’s a big step forward compared to four years ago [Donald] Trump’s diplomatic vandalism with Mexico.”

Trump and López Obrador, both populists, built their relationship on pure self-interest. Trump’s deals with Mexico were largely orchestrated from Jared Kusher’s office in Trump’s West Wing and focused on pressuring Mexico for trade concessions and demanding more from Mexico to block migrants from crossing the country into the US. In 2019, Trump threatened punitive tariffs against Mexico if it didn’t take bolder steps to stop Central American migration. López Obrador complied, dispatching thousands of Mexican National Guardsmen to the country’s southern and northern borders to block the path of migrants.

Since Biden took office, his administration has been working to reactivate regular diplomatic channels. The summit of North American leaders ending Tuesday, which is also attended by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is one of the most visible examples of this two-year effort yielding results. Prior to Biden’s arrival in Mexico, López Obrador’s administration agreed to readmit 30,000 migrants held in the US each month back to Mexico. Last week, Mexican authorities re-arrested Ovidio Guzmán, a son of drug cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán during a deadly raid, a move believed by American officials to be López Obrador trying to send a signal that Mexico was in capable of tackling the cartels without further US interference

When Biden took office, there were concerns in López Obrador’s circle that the Biden administration would hold up other issues to pressure the Mexican president, concerns about his government’s consolidation of power in the country, the erosion of Mexico’s democratic institutions and to address the separation from Mexico powers and attacks on the media.

But Biden has largely contained his fire on these issues. “Biden had to be very strategic,” says Lila Abed, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. “There were questions along the way about the Biden White House’s silence on events in Mexico, and some analysts are concluding there is a lot to do with it [López Obrador] actually collaborated on the migration.”

Nonetheless, since Biden’s arrival in Mexico City on Sunday, an ongoing tension has been simmering beneath the surface and briefly came to the fore Monday night. As the two men formally met with several cabinet members in a wood-paneled room adorned with gold-framed paintings, López Obrador called Biden a “humanist” and “visionary” president before offering a scathing critique of US foreign policy. He said the US has shown “contempt” and “forgetfulness” toward Latin America and Biden holds the key to reversing that. Biden questioned the characterization, pointing out, based on his standard remarks, that “in the last 15 years we’ve spent billions of dollars in the hemisphere, tens of billions of dollars in the hemisphere.”

He also referenced all of the foreign aid that the US is distributing around the world.

“Unfortunately, our responsibility doesn’t end in the western hemisphere,” Biden said.

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