MEXICO CITY — It had been nine years since a US leader visited Mexico, and President Biden was determined to accentuate the positive. But he had barely taken his seat under the crystal chandeliers in Mexico’s 18th-century presidential palace when tensions flared.
The American president read his prepared remarks and then looked up at López Obrador. “The United States provides more foreign aid than every other country, just about, combined,” he said firmly, and added that it was distributed around the world. “Our responsibility just doesn’t end in the Western Hemisphere.”
The pointed exchange, which dominated news reports here, was the latest flash point in Biden’s tumultuous relationship with a crucial US ally.
López Obrador, known as AMLO, was among the last world leaders to congratulate Biden on his 2020 victory over President Donald Trump. The Mexican leader declined to condemn the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, saying he would not interfere in the “internal politics” of another country. (He was quick to denounce the similiar assault sunday on government buildings in Brasília, aimed at a fellow leftist, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.) He snubbed a June hemispheric summit convened by the Democratic president in Los Angeles. When he visited the White House a month later, he tweaked Biden over high American price of gas,
Yet for all his digs at the US president, López Obrador has provided him with critical support, particularly as unauthorized migration to the United States has spiked. Mexican authorities have dramatically increased arrests of US-bound migrants, to about 400,000 last year. Just days before Biden’s trip to Mexico this week for a North American summit, López Obrador agreed to take back tens of thousands of Venezuelan, Cuban, Haitian and Nicaraguan asylum seekers who crossed the border without authorization.
“He sees that there is an important relationship, and the United States is willing to work with him over the longer term,” said Earl Anthony Wayne, a former US ambassador to Mexico. But that hasn’t led him to rein in his criticism of Washington: “AMLO is AMLO.”
López Obrador is an icon of the Mexican left, long known for his strong pro-migrant views. Elected in 2018, he surprised almost everyone by developing a warm relationship with Trump,
Some analysts say the Mexican president viewed Trump as a kindred spirit, a fellow outsider who built a grass-roots movement, albeit on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Others say López Obrador was simply afraid of the Republican president, knowing he was willing to take extreme steps — such as imposing stiff tariffs — to pressure Mexico to crack down on migration.
Biden has used quiet diplomacy over the past two years to build trust with López Obrador, said Martha Bárcena, who served as the Mexican leader’s first ambassador to Washington. López Obrador’s opinion of the American president has changed, she said: Biden “has been much stronger and more effective than what he expected.”
The leaders met this week as part of a North American summit also attended by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. During the meetings, López Obrador showered his US counterpart with praise, calling him a “visionary.” He thanked Biden for being “the first president of the United States in a long time who has not built a single meter of [border] wall. He added: “Even though the conservatives don’t like it.”
But their differences remain stark.
López Obrador, a staunch nationalist, took office denouncing the Mérida Initiative, the $3 billion security partnership with Washington launched in 2007. He favors state-owned energy companies over private firms, sparking a bitter fight with Mexico’s No. 1 trading partner. He also prioritizes fossil fuels over green energy at a time of growing alarm over climate change.
The Biden administration decided “the best way to deal with Mexico is to build a bunch of institutions and processes to work on the difficult issues between us, and to be patient,” Wayne said. “The whole notion of that is, this is a long-term relationship” that’s worth the investment.
John F. Kerry, the US climate envoy, exemplifies that approach, traveling repeatedly to Mexico to urge López Obrador to set more ambitious goals on renewable energy. The Mexican government announced in November that it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 35 percent, up from its pledge of 22 percent. But environmentalists said the plan still falls short of Mexican targets set in 2016.
On security, the two countries hammered out a new framework that puts less emphasis on capturing narcotics kingpins and more on reducing drug abuse and arms trafficking. But it took three years, a period in which the illegal fentanyl industry exploded.
“I think there’s a real hesitancy to push López Obrador too hard, because there’s an understanding that he is very stubborn, and very sensitive about the possibility of the US violating Mexican national sovereignty,” said Pamela Starr, a professor of international affairs at the University of Southern California. “There’s concern if they push him too hard, he’ll become even more inflexible.”
Some say Washington has been too soft. The Biden administration has said little publicly about López Obrador’s growing use of the military for everything including fighting crime and building new airports and train lines.
US officials have also refrained from confronting López Obrador over his efforts to cut funding and strip powers from institutions created during Mexico’s democratic transition, such as the independent election body, (The president says he wants to overhaul the institutions to save money.)
Luis Rubio, a political analyst here, said López Obrador is convinced the Biden administration would not object to his domestic policies because it needs his help curbing migration. But as the Mexican president weakens institutions and concentrates power, he said, the risk of political instability is growing.
“These are topics that are not being considered in Washington,” Rubio said.
Complicating the relationship is López Obrador’s lack of foreign policy experience. In urging Biden to introduce a multibillion-dollar aid package for Latin America this week, he appeared oblivious to the difficulties the US president is already facing with the new Republican House majority.
López Obrador has been pitching ideas for humanitarian assistance and economic development to the White House since he took office, with limited success.
Among his most frequent requests is that the United States contribute to one of his signature programs, dubbed “Planting Life” — which pays rural Mexicans to plant trees. López Obrador has said it could be expanded across Central America with US support to curb irregular migration.
The United States has been careful not to criticize that initiative publicly, but privately US officials have said there are more effective ways to distribute aid. Environmentalists have said the program has led to deforestation, as farmers clear land to plant saplings for money.
The Biden administration planned significant investments in Central America to address the root causes of migration. But the program has been hamstrung by deteriorating relations with Guatemala and El Salvador.
Biden and López Obrador went into the summit with short-term political requests. Mexico is the no. 1 source of fentanyl that’s killed more than 100,000 Americans, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Biden sought Mexican help in containing both irregular migration and the flow of the narcotic across the border. Just days before the summit, Mexico captured Ovidio Guzmánthe son of notorious kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán and an alleged major fentanyl trafficker in his own right.
López Obrador successfully lobbied Biden to fly into Felipe Angeles International Airport, a little-used and much-derided facility 30 miles outside downtown Mexico City that he’s promoting as a new air hub.
Ultimately, the moments that made headlines — such as López Obrador’s public dressing-down of Biden — will probably matter less than the leaders’ talks on bigger strategic issues, said Julian Ventura, a former Mexican deputy secretary of foreign affairs who is now senior adviser at the Albright Stonebridge Group. Among those subjects are improving supply chains that could draw manufacturing from China to the United States, Mexico and Canada.
“Those are the issues that are really going to make a difference on how the three countries do in the years ahead in a very challenging global context,” he said.
Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.
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