By Rafael Bernal
April 19, 2016
The Obama administration has made a concerted effort to improve its relationship with Mexico following Donald Trump’s call for a massive border wall and his criticism of undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Trump’s comments on the campaign trail have infuriated Mexican leaders, who have fired back at the Republican presidential front-runner.
President Obama has publicly and repeatedly ripped Trump. Earlier this month, he mocked Trump’s wall initiative and his claim that Mexico will pay for it.
“Good luck with that,” Obama said.
The president noted he is being “constantly” asked questions “from foreign leaders about some of the wackier proposals that have been made.”
In February, Vice President Biden traveled to Mexico City for a meeting of the High Level Economic Dialogue, a bilateral Cabinet-level economic roundtable, and publicly apologized for the “dangerous, damaging and incredibly ill-advised” rhetoric of “some of the presidential candidates on the other team.”
Mexican governments traditionally shy away from their northern neighbor’s political limelight — especially in election years — and U.S. foreign policy tends to focus on the Middle East and strategic military relations with overseas allies and rivals.
When Trump announced his presidential run in June, calling Mexican immigrants “murderers” and “rapists,” things changed.
“It was necessary to break with the tradition of silence,” said Jorge Javier Romero, a visiting professor at Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching of Economics.
Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón said in February that his nation would not pay “a single cent” for the barrier.
Soon thereafter, Vicente Fox, another former Mexican president, echoed Calderón: “I declare: I’m not going to pay for that f---ing wall.”
In more diplomatic statements, current Mexican leaders have also said they’re not paying for Trump’s wall.
High-level Mexican officials, not an uncommon sight in Washington, have increased their visits to the U.S. A handful of Cabinet officials, including Finance Secretary Luis Videgaray and Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, have paid visits to their American counterparts.
Most recently, Videgaray had a closed-door meeting Thursday with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Ryan’s office confirmed the meeting but did not issue a readout or comments on its content.
The visits are “a way to shift the discussion and show the importance of the relationship,” said Maureen Meyer, director of the Washington Office on Latin America’s Mexico program.
“Although the new relationship between the two governments was so palpably positive, we perceived that in the context of the electoral campaign, there was a group within the U.S. population with a negative perception of Mexico and the Mexicans,” Paulo Carreño King, Mexico’s newly appointed undersecretary for North American affairs, told The Hill.
Trade deals have been a hot topic on the 2016 campaign trail. Both Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders have lambasted the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was signed in 1992. Obama vowed as a candidate to renegotiate the trade deal but has not done so as president.
U.S. and Mexican officials publicly downplay Trump’s effect on the U.S.-Mexico relationship. They routinely cite similar statistics — $1 million of bilateral trade per minute is a favorite — and point to a maturing long-term relationship, rather than a specific cause for increased cooperation.
“I don’t think there was a watershed moment in the bilateral relationship that abruptly changed things,” said Carreño.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Creamer agreed, attributing the unity to “a maturation of the relation we’ve built.”
The 2016 campaign caught the Mexican Embassy in Washington in transition, as Ambassador Eduardo Medina Mora had left in March to join the Mexican Supreme Court, leaving Ambassador Alejandro Estivill, a seasoned diplomat but a discrete political figure, as chargé d’affaires.
Mexico City scrambled to find a formal ambassador, appointing in September Miguel Basáñez Ebergenyi, an academic at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy with close ties to President Enrique Peña Nieto.
After only seven months as ambassador, Los Angeles Consul General Carlos Manuel Sada Solana, an experienced diplomat who also ran the consulates in New York, San Antonio and Toronto, replaced Basáñez.
Sada led the office in charge of congressional relations at the embassy in Washington from 2007 to 2011.
“I expect him to be a lot more engaged,” said Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) of Sada. The two interacted during Torres’s time in the California state legislature “because we saw Mexico as an opportunity for California-made products to be sold.”
The American ambassador in Mexico City, Earl Anthony Wayne, resigned in July. Obama proposed Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson to the Senate, where she ran into stiff opposition.
Leading the charge against Jacobson in the Senate was then-presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who argued Jacobson’s role in Cuban rapprochement disqualified her from the job. Rubio placed a hold on her nomination, and the embassy in Mexico City is still operating without a formally appointed ambassador.
Rep. Loretta Sánchez (D-Calif.) panned inaction on the diplomatic appointment, saying, “We have suffered for it.”
Creamer, who served as chargé d’affaires, says the embassy “has done a very good job,” while recognizing the limitations of caretaker ambassadors, mainly because “they don’t have the same level of access.”
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