In Mexico, Obama’s words do for now

Even before he sat down to a gala dinner of shrimp and roasted cactus, President Obama had charmed much of Mexico, with his repeated use of the word “partner,” assurances of shared responsibility in the drug war and promises to reform immigration policy.

Obama’s counterpart, President Felipe Calderon of Mexico, spoke enthusiastically of a “new era” in U.S.-Mexican relations. The two leaders found common ground in their visions of intertwined economies and a need to cooperate on a host of issues.

If expressing goodwill was Obama’s goal here, he succeeded. At the same time, there were few concrete steps taken during the 20-hour visit to Mexico, the first stop on his first official trip to Latin America. He departed Friday for the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, and Mexico had little to show for the U.S. president’s stopover.

“Yesterday was a very promising day for relations between Mexico and the United States -- the cordial environment, the empathy between the two heads of state, the quality of the speeches, all lead one to expect a genuine improvement in the bilateral relationship,” noted commentator Denise Maerker. “But, be careful. This is not the first time that a meeting like this generates great expectations.”

Two of Mexico’s priorities -- reviving the U.S. government’s ban on assault weapons and opening U.S. roads to Mexican trucks as provided for in the North American Free Trade Agreement -- were left unfulfilled.


And most discussion and proposals concerning the drug war emphasized military solutions (a U.S. offer of more Black Hawk helicopters, for example), with less attention given to such insidious root causes as corruption in Mexico and consumption in the United States.

Obama’s mission here was in large part aimed at repairing damage caused not just by the years of perceived neglect under the Bush administration, but also by fierce criticism of Mexico emanating from Washington this year.

Brazen killings and kidnappings; clashes between army troops and traffickers; high-level and escalating corruption -- all led to some U.S. experts characterizing Mexico as a potential failed state. Calderon was furious over the description, and the Obama administration has worked for the last month or so to reassure Mexico that it considers it a valued ally rather than a failed state.

Nevertheless, U.S. authorities are alarmed by the level of drug-crime violence that undermines the Calderon government and is spilling over the border into U.S. cities.

The kind of keen interest in and regard for Mexico that Obama transmitted is something that has ebbed and flowed through generations of U.S.-Mexican relations, political analyst Sergio Aguayo said.

“The difference this time is that never in the last century has Mexican stability been so threatened by an enemy so strong, and with so much tension concentrated along the border,” he said.

Although Mexicans generally saw the Obama visit as purely symbolic, they were gratified that issues such as immigration reform also got an airing. In Mexico, as in Europe, Obama benefits from simply not being George W. Bush.

“We get a sense that we are dealing with a different type of government . . . one more in tune with the problems that are important to Mexicans, such as inequality and bottom-to-top development,” said Patricia Escamilla, a researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana.

At Thursday night’s state dinner, on the patio of Mexico City’s much-acclaimed Anthropological Museum, with a giant Aztec calendar as backdrop, guests included Mexican Cabinet members, union leaders, opposition politicians from the left and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian novelist who lives in Mexico.

Several guests toted copies of Obama’s first book (translated into Spanish and now selling here) and asked for and received his autograph, said people who were present.

The president reportedly fawned over Garcia Marquez, telling him he’d read everything he’d ever written.

To the most realistic eye, Obama’s show of support for Mexico may or may not translate into new initiatives, more money or changed laws.

“Six months ago, Mexico was not on the Americans’ map, and now we are certainly there,” said Gabriel Guerra Castellanos, an analyst and former diplomat. “The big question is follow-up. Obama gave good signals. That it translate into concrete acts and agreements, that’s the complicated part.”