Obama heads to Mexico for North American summit

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 7, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will meet Sunday in Guadalajara, Mexico, with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts for a summit of North American leaders that will be long on vision and short on anything concrete. In the midst of a punishing global economic downturn, that's not bad.

Beyond the back slaps and photo opportunities, however, are growing tensions within the powerful trading bloc. Mexico is upset over delayed aid to fight violent drug cartels. Canada is steaming over Buy America provisions in U.S. laws that are hurting its exports. The U.S. isn't happy with Mexico's human rights record.

The three leaders will discuss common strategies for containing the H1N1 virus, commonly called swine flu, which is expected to flare anew in the fall. They'll also discuss boosting their respective economies, look for common ground on global climate-change negotiations and discuss ways to promote renewable energy sources.

The meetings Sunday and Monday will mark a unique point in time for three amigos whose nations bound their economic interests together in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. None of these three leaders — Obama, Mexico's Felipe Calderon and Canada's Stephen Harper — has any political investment in NAFTA, unlike their predecessors.

With NAFTA now 15 years in operation, most trade barriers have come down and there's a growing mood that something more needs to come next, but just what, nobody's sure.

"I think the kinds of things that come next are things that can't be solved at the present time. How do you make North America a more efficient economic region? One that can not only increase commerce within the three countries but make the three countries more competitive as a region?" said James Jones, who was the U.S. ambassador to Mexico when NAFTA was starting.

As a candidate in the Democratic presidential primaries, Obama campaigned on a promise to renegotiate NAFTA. He later softened that to revisiting NAFTA after an embarrassing leak revealed that one of his economic aides had assured Canadian authorities that Obama's tough talk was just for public consumption.

After Obama became president, his remarks about NAFTA softened even more.

Officials from all three countries confirmed to McClatchy that there will be scant talk of NAFTA at all this weekend, save for ways to resolve a 15-year dispute over allowing Mexican trucks to operate in U.S. border states.

Higher domestic political priorities leave all three leaders with little appetite for amending NAFTA just now. Obama is fighting to revamp health care. Calderon and his conservative National Action Party suffered a stinging defeat in July legislative elections. Harper and his Conservative Party, blamed for economic problems stemming from the U.S. downturn, are trying to fend off calls for national elections.

"I think the message is that in the midst of an economic recovery is not the time to revisit existing trade agreements," said Andrew Selee, the head of the Mexico project at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a nonpartisan research institution in Washington.

That's not to say that there won't be friction at the Guadalajara summit; it's just likely to be behind the scenes.

Canada is unhappy that the U.S. Congress, over objections from Obama, placed Buy America provisions in the economic stimulus plan and other new laws. While the language doesn't break international commitments, many state governments, less familiar with international laws, have blocked local construction projects that use Canadian-made pipes or other materials.

"Buy America was not an executive branch idea," conceded a high-level Canadian official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss matters freely. That doesn't reduce the level of concern in Canada, however, which has considered retaliating. The official said these views "may be reiterated."

The biggest controversy will center on delays by Congress in releasing $40 million promised to Mexico to help it fight drug cartels, an initiative known as the Merida Plan. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who controls a powerful Appropriations subcommittee, has held up the money because of his concern that a forthcoming State Department report fails to criticize Mexico on human rights issues.

Leahy and other Democrats say that Mexico's military, which is battling the drug cartels, hasn't been held to account for human rights abuses. One example: holding 19 Tijuana police officers allegedly connected to drug traffickers at a military garrison. A high-ranking Mexican official scoffed, asking whether the men should've been held instead at the "Four Seasons hotel in San Diego?"

One person who's close to the negotiations over the report, who demanded anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity, said the officers complained that they'd been tortured. The State Department asked Mexico repeatedly for an example of how abuses by soldiers have been punished or investigated, but no evidence was given, the insider said.

Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan said Wednesday that his nation desperately needed the promised money to combat increasingly violent crime syndicates.

"We'd like to see it accelerated," Sarukhan said.

Daniel Restrepo, the senior National Security Council member responsible for Mexico, said Thursday at the White House that problems with the State Department report were being addressed.

"New information has been recently provided; that information is being updated into the report and the report will be moving to Congress when it is ready," he said.

The report doesn't appear likely to go to Congress ahead of this weekend's summit, however, as the Mexican and U.S. governments had hoped.

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