05.20.10

Obama's Broken Promise to Mexico

State dinners are nice, but Obama has spent too much time cozying up to Mexico’s ineffectual authoritarian leader and his cronies—and not enough time helping Mexicans.

Two years ago, President Barack Obama vowed to make Mexico a top priority during his administration. He condemned the fact that "the United States has not lived up to its historic role as a leader in the Western Hemisphere". He called George W. Bush's approach to Latin America "clumsy, disinterested and, above all, distracted by the war in Iraq."  The future president promised he would break the mold and establish "a renewed strategic partnership with Mexico."

Click Below to View Our Gallery of the White House State Dinner Honoring Mexico

This has not happened. Obama has proven to be as distracted and clumsy as his predecessor.  First came his mismanagement of last year's Honduran coup.  The United States flip-flopped on the sidelines in the face of this blatant power grab. The region´s strongmen have now learned that they can violently depose democratically elected leaders without running into trouble from Washington.

The Mexican case is similar.  Once again, Obama has refused to put democracy first.  Wednesday was a case in point.  Instead of taking advantage of the occasion to enter into a sincere dialogue with the Mexican people, Obama preferred to dote on Mexico´s highly questioned President Felipe Calderón.  Instead of sending a message of solidarity and hope to the battered border cities of Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana, Obama offered a lavish dinner full of overworked protocol and exaggerated accolades for Calderón´s cabinet. 

Across the board, Mexico´s president has proven to be an ineffective and authoritarian leader.  The facts are on the table: expanding poverty, a miserable human rights record, rampant corruption, and the total failure of his "war on drugs", with over 22,000 deaths since Calderón took power three years ago.

Obama has also been a disappointment for Mexicans.  He has failed to control the sale of assault weapons or stop their flow across the border. Drug consumption remains obscenely high in the U.S.  The president has not given immigration reform the priority it deserves.  He has not even dared to challenge the discriminatory Arizona legislation in the courts.

Meanwhile, Obama and Calderón toast with elegant crystal wine glasses, share their "dreams" for the future and boogie down to Beyoncé.  But they were not alone.  Some of Mexico´s leading robber barons, including Carlos Slim and Lorenzo Zambrano, were front and center at Wednesday night's dinner.  So were the representatives of the Mexican television media duopoly which controls over 90% of the market and has aggressively challenged recent democratic reforms.

The dire situation of so many Mexicans, 60% are below the poverty line, is not due to a lack of natural resources or human capital.  It is a problem of distribution and inequality.  Mexico is one of the most unequal countries in the world.  It ranks at the same level as Rwanda and Uganda, according to the United Nations.  The World Economic Forum has given Mexico a failing market concentration score of 3.5 out of 7. 

The best way to weaken Mexico´s drug cartels and slow illegal immigration to the United States is by eliminating poverty south of the border.  But this requires the political will to break the control of the monopolists over the Mexican economy and redistribute income. The inclusion of the likes of Slim and Zambrano at last night's dinner makes one wonder whether such political will may ever exist.

For all of the talk about "building bridges" and "deepening partnerships" between the two countries, the real message from yesterday is that Obama seems to be more concerned about keeping Calderón and his cronies happy than about helping Mexico and the Mexicans. 

If Obama were truly committed to changing the course of U.S.-Mexico relations, he would construct a new broad-based participative diplomacy instead of keeping to the same old suspects.  Another Obama promise from two years ago is that U.S.-Mexico summits would be "conducted with transparency" and be based on the "active and open involvement of citizens, labor, the private sector and non-governmental organizations in setting the agenda and making progress".  The two presidents have now met on four occasions; nothing of the sort has happened yet. 

Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske´s was right to say last week that the "war on drugs" begun 40 years ago by Richard Nixon "has not been successful.”  But Obama never misses an opportunity to express his unconditional support for Mexico´s own homegrown version of Nixon, Felipe Calderón, whose "war" has not been any more successful. 

It is high time for the U.S. to build alliances beyond Calderón.  The Mexican judiciary, congress, academics and organized civil society have developed numerous alternatives to the present predicament.  Millions of ordinary Mexicans also struggle daily to construct a better future from the ground up.  They also deserve a White House toast and a 21 gun salute.    

The author is a professor at the Institute for Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Editor-in-chief of the Mexican Law Review and a columnist for La Jornada newspaper and Proceso magazine.  Contact him at: www.johnackerman.blogspot.com