Mexico: Obama's 'House Call'

President Barack Obama next to Mexican President Felipe Calderon during the welcoming ceremony at Los Pinos presidential residence in Mexico City on Apr. 16. (Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP-Getty Images)

The posh, up-market Polanco district where President Obama stayed was "locked down" and turned into a virtual Baghdad-style "green zone." The perimeter around his luxury hotel was sealed off to traffic and pedestrians were systematically searched. The street vendors, who abound in Mexico City, were temporarily displaced for obvious security reasons. Mexico is not a safe place for American dignitaries these days, it appears. An impressive deployment of Mexican troops, F.B.I. agents and a plethora of security teams were mobilized on this occasion. At times the youthful and charismatic president, a "man of the people" like J.F.K., who emanates an almost cult-like superstar appeal, was subjected to bunker-like mobility.

Obama's movements were strictly confined to a limited area, unlike in Europe where he was able to stroll about in Strasbourg or walk about almost gingerly in Prague. His 24-hour Mexican visit which began on the afternoon of Apr. 16 and ended the next morning was limited to a "Los Pinos" (the Mexican White House) greetings ceremony complete with noisy schoolchildren waving flags of both nations, an overnight stay at the Inter Continental and a gala dinner in his honor (without his wife by his side) at the Archeological and History Museum. In attendance at the elaborate evening's banquet were 100 guests, carefully selected by the American embassy. The select list comprised a Mexican Who's Who of its most powerful business barons and members of this Latin American nation's corporate elite, including billionaire and international investor Carlos Slim.

The president arrived in his official limousine, called affectionately "the beast," a gleaming, glamorous version of an armored personal carrier. He brought along an almost imperial retinue of advisors and top government officials with him, among them: Jim Jones, national security advisor; Steven Chu, secretary of energy; Janet Napolitano, homeland security secretary; Larry Summers, White House chief economic advisor; John O. Brenan, the deputy national security advisor; Daniel Restrepo, U.S. advisor on hemispheric affaires; and Jeffrey Davidov, former U.S. envoy during the Vincente Fox presidency (2000 - 2006) and special advisor to the president for the Summit of the Americas.

On Obama's agenda with his Mexican counterpart Felipe Calderon was, of course, the issue of security related to the ongoing drug war and arms trafficking. Other just as pressing matters such climate change, its impact on both states, the demands of Mexican farmers to renegotiate Nafta to make the treaty more equitable for them, and the ongoing immigration issue, or the legalization of 12 million Latinos living and working illegally in the United States, were sidelined due to the border drug wars.

Why did Obama come to Mexico?

¿A que viene Obama? ("Why did Obama come?") was the question asked the most in the Mexican media ahead of his visit, it seemed. Obama's first "working visit" to Mexico as president comes at a time when relations are severely strained between Washington and Mexico City. Issues like the flow of narcotics to the north and the backflow of high caliber weaponry originating in America have frayed bilateral ties. In a historical context Obama's visit came almost 95 years after the notorious "Tampico Affair" which led to the breakdown of diplomatic relations and prompted President Woodrow Wilson to dispatch a contingent of American marines to seize and occupy the Mexican port of Vera Cruz on April 21, 1914 during the upheavals of the Mexican revolution. The port city was bombed twice by the United States Navy with large civilian casualties incurred on the Mexican side.

In an Apr. 17 La Jornada article entitled "An Open letter to Barack Obama," which the president is unlikely to have read, columnist Gilerto Lopez y Rivas gave readers a historical refresher course intended to ring alarm bells by chronicling the military interventions into Mexico by American troops when diplomacy simply failed to deliver the desired results.

In the provocative piece, he then questioned the legitimacy of the Mexican presidency: ¨… you should know [Mr. President] that millions of Mexicans consider Felipe Calderon a president who came to power by means of an electoral fraud with the support of the military and the complicity of leaders and governors of the Partido Revolucionario Insitutional (P.R.I), which governed Mexico for over 70 years.… This governing group has brought the country into the current disaster and seeks to consummate a silent annexation with the United States.

Is such treasonous treachery really afoot or this exaggerated nationalist rhetoric? That's hard to say, but one thing is for sure — the future of Felipe Calderon's presidency seems to be tied to Obama's actions (or inactions) when it comes to border security issue. The White House, for its part, has put all its chips on Calderon, betting he can vanquish the violent drug lords (with 1.4 billion in American assistance) who are wreaking havoc in the country that is spilling over into the United States. This is a risky gambit.

Dr. Obama's 'patient': President Calderon

As Miguel Angel Granados Chapa, one of Mexico's most esteemed journalists and an observer of the local political scene, pointed out in his daily one-man morning radio show, Obama's visit to Mexico was like a quick check up to take and assess the weakening pulse of his designated crusader against the drug villains. Calderon is a man beleaguered by the increasing violence in his country, and his presidency is in trouble as well. The legitimacy of electoral his victory in 2006 remains marred by unrelenting accusations of electoral fraud. Fifty percent of the Mexican voting public repudiated him in the July 2006 elections. Furthermore, midterm congressional elections are coming again in July. A very high abstention rate is anticipated this time around, hardly a rousing endorsement of the P.A.N. (National Action Party) party president.

For many Mexicans it seems Calderon not only "stole" the election but he also has failed miserably to bring stability and security to his fellow citizens. He is losing "his" drug war. For this reason, Obama came to prop up his foundering counterpart, and to attempt to rescue Washington's man from a perilous quandary. Yet great expectations on both sides were dampened by harsh and sobering realties — the violent struggle among Mexican drug lords battling for control of the narcotics trade, compounded by a civil war-like struggle between the well-armed cartels and the federal armed forces who are supposed to put them out of business. Few experts expect the very lucrative trade to diminish any time soon. There's just too much cash involved and corruption on both sides of the United States-Mexican border to curb or even control the two-way "free trade" of narcotics and weapons.

A simulated change?

A "new era" in bilateral ties was hailed during Obama's visit. But as Laura Carlsen, a specialist on Latin American affairs based in Mexico City puts it in her assessment of the visit in the Huffington Post Web site (Apr. 17), "President Obama's visit to Mexico produced vague and contradictory statements, centered on worn-out strategies. Many people who had hoped for a new approach that would seek to redress the inequities of the bi-national relationship will find little in these declarations to pin their hopes on."

In that sense, the visit was high-flying in grandiloquent praise for Calderon from Obama and vice versa. It was also a bit of a 'schmooze session' in which the Mexican president had hoped some of Obama's magic might rub off on him as well. Beyond the handshakes and back patting there few substantive measures were agreed upon to deal with the drug war. It looked as if the White Houses wanted to reassure skittish Americans that Mexico was now on the map and a top propriety of the Obama administration.

Carlsen saw it as also reassuring the Mexican side: "These overtures no doubt served to decrease tensions between the two governments that built up following U.S. statements of Mexico as a near 'failed state' that was losing a grip on its own territory to drug cartels, and a potential national security threat." The snag in the United States-Mexican game plan however, she wrote, could be that, "by focusing the trip on the person of Calderon and seeking to bolster his leadership rating, Obama forgets that Calderon is a polemical president in a deeply divided nation as a result of both his rightwing policies and the doubts of legitimacy that hang over his presidency."

Nevertheless the White house strategists have tied the outcome of the drug war to the fate of the Calderon presidency. Calderon, for his part, sees it differently: as the ball being in the United States' court on matters ranging from limiting the flow of high caliber arms into Mexico from the American side to immigration (Obama promised Calderon that sweeping migration reform would occur, despite a hostile Congress and rising protectionism north of the border).

Hence, Obama's patient is ill and the United States knows it. But by rushing to his bedside Obama hoped that his near cult-like status and popularity abroad could magically cure what ails Calderon and his country. But besides the drug war, Calderon also has to deal with the impact of the global financial crisis, which is hitting home hard, and began north of the border. Recently he asked for a $47 billion credit line or loan from the I.M.F. as a preventive measure, and to bolster the wobbly peso and offset potential speculative attacks against the historically shaky currency.

"Mr. Obama, tear down this border wall!"

Ronald Reagan, on a visit to West Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, implored his Soviet counterpart to break down barriers to end the Cold War. "Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall!" he exclaimed to cheerful throngs of Cold War-weary Germans, divided for decades. Mexico and the United States may not be on the opposite sides of an ideological struggle today, but nonetheless there is an irony here. While Obama stood "shoulder to shoulder" with his Mexican host and expounded on the close, neighborly ties and shared values of both nations, the Department of Homeland Security proceeded with the construction (613 miles so far) for the so-called "border fence" meant to deny Mexican migrants their chance to achieve the increasingly elusive "American dream."

The militarization of the border area continues apace, despite the flowery verbiage at the highest levels. Perhaps this huge fence can be interpreted as a "Mending Wall," the title of a poem by Robert Frost from which the adage "good fences make good neighbors" originated. But Mexico may not see it this way.

Obama previously came from a "borderless Europe." Yet North America remains a divided continent in terms of borders, wealth and opportunity. The "equal partnership" looks more uneven than ever before. There is however, thankfully no more talk publicly of Mexico being the United States' "backyard" but as Jesus Velasco Marquez summed up the state of the relationship in an Apr. 13 La Cronica article: "The United States will not change the position by which Mexico must submit to [the U.S.'] strategy." A strategy whose success or failure, from now on it seems, depends on the fate and future of Felipe Calderon.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Michael Werbowski.