Obama and Peña Nieto: Turning the same page?

By Tom Long
CLALS doctoral research fellow

Official White House photo by Pete Souza | public domain

Official White House photo by Pete Souza | public domain

On Saturday, Mexico’s new president Enrique Peña Nieto took office and the country’s oldest party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, returned to power. After six years dominated by an exhausting and bloody war against drug cartels, Mexico seems ready to turn the page on outgoing President Felipe Calderón. During the last few months, Peña Nieto has tried to steer the attention of the world—and the United States—away from a disproportionate focus on drug violence. In a recent article published in The Economist, the new president downplayed drug cartels, focusing instead on plans for the economy and to “recover our leadership in Latin America.” Security was just one of thirteen proposals in his inaugural speech. In part, Calderón has given Peña Nieto a head start as he begins his term, leaving behind strong economic growth and a dip in violence. Although Calderón himself started the switch to a violence-reduction strategy, his name is likely to remain closely associated with the frontal military assault on the cartels launched at the beginning of his administration and recalibrated only in his final year; Peña Nieto is positioned to gain credit for a return to normalcy.

This desire to turn the page also marked Peña Nieto’s s pre-inaugural meeting with President Barack Obama. Both leaders seemed to be playing the same tune.  Mexico has become the front line in the war on drugs, and the U.S. has spent billions on military, police, and other projects lumped under a “Merida Initiative” label. After their meeting, Obama and Peña Nieto promised to expand the bilateral agenda to include an expansion of trade, cooperation on energy, and discussions of immigration that go beyond border fences. Obama spoke effusively of Mexico’s importance as a partner, while Peña Nieto said the two had a “shared vision” of how to create jobs in both countries. On the stage with Obama as elsewhere, Peña Nieto reiterated calls for the United States and Canada to build on NAFTA and further regional integration to improve competitiveness.

It would be a healthy change if the two presidents could restore balance between economic and security aspects of U.S.-Mexico relations. Image matters – and the deterioration of Mexico’s brand has undermined both investment and tourism. The military approach to drug trafficking has inflicted enormous costs in economic and human terms with questionable payoffs, but Mexico cannot go back to old patterns of accommodation. Domestically, the new president needs to attack the culture of impunity by building a stronger and more independent judiciary in order to reduce the frightful percentages of crimes that are never investigated or prosecuted. Accountability remains weak, especially at state and local levels; improving it would require Peña Nieto to take on powers in his own party. Placing all these objectives under a “Merida plus” framework would counterproductively squeeze broad reforms into the drug-war box. If the two presidents are sincere about rebuilding a balanced partnership, they need to take action quickly on immigration and commerce. Otherwise, the gravitational pull of the war of drugs will again consume bilateral ties.

South America: Low Expectations for U.S. Election

Photo is in the public domain

Media in Colombia, Chile, and Peru are paying close attention to the U.S. presidential election, but only in Colombia do commentators seem to sense that November’s vote could have a direct impact on their country.  Colombian opinion-makers have not articulated specific concerns; their attention appears premised merely on the immensity of the relationship.  In Peru, commentators have noted concern about the positions advocated in the Republican primaries on a host of issues, such as immigration and the Cold War optic the GOP candidates espoused.  Chileans are following the horse race with curiosity but little mention of its potential implications.  In these countries, which are generally open to working with Washington, there is dissatisfaction with Obama but greater trepidation about a return to the foreign policies that characterized the Bush-Cheney era.  “Obama losing would not matter much,” wrote Antonio Caballero in Colombia’s Semana.  “But what would matter, a lot, is his Republican rival Mitt Romney winning.”  The columnist said it would be like re-electing Hoover after four years of Roosevelt.

Commentators fret that Romney’s swing right during the primaries proves he is unable to stand up to what they describe as conservative, white Tea Partiers on issues including gun control and taxes, but especially on immigration.  In Diario Correo, Peruvian Isaac Bigio wrote that Romney and Ryan would “launch an offensive against immigrants.”  On foreign policy, commentators see Obama’s record as mediocre.  In Colombia, the president gains points for passing the free trade agreement, but loses them for an overall lack of focus on the hemisphere.  But Romney’s rhetoric, punctuated by swipes at Russia and what he labeled a Chávez-Castro axis in the hemisphere, has created uneasy feelings.  “Romney advocates an aggressive discourse and hard hand in international relations,”writes Sergio Muñoz Bata of Bogota’s El Tiempo.  “If this sounds like a repetition of Bush’s policies, that is because those who dictate the foreign policy of the Republican candidate today are the same people who dictated Bush’s policies yesterday.”  Peruvian Santiago Pérez writes in Los Andes that Romney might “harden the U.S. position against ALBA…and try to intimidate (probably unsuccessfully) his unthreatening Bolivarian enemies.”  A return of the GOP could pose problems for the ongoing talks with the FARC and ELN, moderate Colombians fear.  Writing in Portafolio, Ricardo Ávila Pinto noted that Bogotá should be wary of “the U.S. reaction to any eventual success in the peace process with the FARC.”  Likewise, Chile’s Ernesto Ottone writes that Romney’s “uncultured simple-mindedness in foreign affairs responds to identity-based fanaticism with a warlike tone.”

A consistent theme is that the 2012 election lacks the hope of four years prior – hope for more effective U.S. partnership with the region, which Obama promised at the Summit of the Americas soon after his inauguration but has failed to deliver.  Many outlets reported former President Jimmy Carter’s comment that neither candidate was likely to pay much attention to the region.   While Colombian and Peruvian media reflect public concerns about immigration, the most prevalent fear is that a return to strident rhetoric would only heighten tensions between the U.S. and ALBA-aligned countries.  Colombia, Peru, and Chile don’t want to be stuck in the middle. There are no great expectations for improvement, but there is considerable worry about further decline.

The Consequences of Deferring “Deferred Action”

Photo by Larry Engel

The Obama administration’s recent announcement of a sweeping initiative designed to remove the shadow of deportation from the lives of nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. is the latest twist in the dual saga of immigration policy reform and enforcement. According to government sources, including the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Janet Napolitano, the carefully worded policy of “deferred action” is not an attempt on the part of the administration to sidestep a deadlocked Congress, an example of executive overreach, nor a strategic campaign maneuver during an election year in which the Hispanic vote could be decisive. It is simply the “right thing to do.”

The disparity between this morally grounded, high-level rhetoric and actual immigration law enforcement practices—which last year resulted in a record 400,000 deportations—has sent mixed signals about the current administration’s sincerity. It seems that the rising rate of deportations, touted last year as a “step in the right direction,” is beginning to be viewed within the administration as an unfortunate miss-step. Nonetheless, to many advocacy groups who lobbied in support of the DREAM Act and against blind enforcement of immigration laws, this Friday’s announcement by the Department of Homeland Security provoked a case of déjà vu. Only a year ago, in June 2011, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton enthusiastically revived the policy of “prosecutorial discretion,” promising to scale back the removals of young students, military service members, and others. However, as of May 29 of this year, only 4,363 cases —a mere two percent of the 232,000 backlogged cases under review—had been administratively closed or dismissed.

Beyond questions of electoral politics and policy implementation, one thing is certain: for many undocumented immigrants and their U.S.-based families, deferred action has come too late. A recent report from DHS cited that during the first six months of 2011 alone, over 46,000 parents of U.S. citizen children were forcibly removed—a statistic that raises serious concerns about the health and social impacts of deportation on U.S. Latino communities. As the current administration seeks to hammer out a consensus regarding a long-term solution to the country’s broken immigration system, it is crucial that such a consensus be informed about the consequences of political miss-steps.