Obama in Mexico

President Obama touched down in Mexico and then flew to Costa Rica in a short trip with ambitious goals. The president sought to re-set the image of U.S. involvement in the region by downplaying the increasingly controversial drug war that is currently the focus of U.S. aid and engagement, instead highlighting trade and integration.

What he left unstated is how the two seemingly competing themes are intrinsically linked.

Agreement on Mexico’s NAFTA-Plus Agenda

It was easy for Obama and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto to come together on trade and integration issues. Peña Nieto comes from the historically nationalist Institutional Revolutionary Party. Within the party he’s connected to the former president Carlos Salinas, the architect of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Like his predecessor Felipe Calderon, Peña Nieto has a strong commitment to the neoliberal reforms that the U.S. government and multilateral banks have been imposing on Mexico for years. Unlike his predecessor, however, he has a chance of pushing them through.

During his visit to Mexico, Obama and Pena Nieto committed to deepening NAFTA, although they avoided calling the controversial trade agreement by name. Both are acutely aware that nearly twenty years since its ratification, NAFTA has a decidedly tarnished image among the publics of all three countries involved.

Instead, they announced a binational high-level commission to make both nations more competitive, increase efficiency and security at the border, and further integrate industry.  Obama also put in a plug for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a geographically rearranged version of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas killed by South American nations in 2005. In some aspects, the TPP goes even further in binding governments to corporate agendas than NAFTA.

Obama threw his weight behind Peña Nieto’s reforms, referring obliquely to the education reform that has provoked thousands of teachers to take to the streets in defense of their jobs and the public education system. He also mentioned the crown jewel for U.S. oil companies and Pentagon planners—the privatization of the national oil company PEMEX.

At the joint press conference in Mexico’s National Palace, Obama stated   “I want to commend President Peña Nieto and the Mexican people for the ambitious reforms that you’ve embarked on to make your economy more competitive, to make your institutions more effective. And I know it’s hard, but it’s also necessary. Ultimately, only Mexicans can decide how Mexico reforms. But let me repeat what I told the President — as Mexico works to become more competitive, you’ve got a strong partner in the United States, because our success is shared,”

U.S. oil companies have long been chomping at the bit to share success in Mexican oil resources. For decades, Mexican governments have run the state-owned enterprise into the ground in anticipation of making the case for greater privatization, taxing away funds for even basic reinvestment and maintenance. Peña Nieto denies he’s promoting “privatization” but believes he can pass legislation to greatly increase areas where private investment is allowed.

Obama’s reference to “Mexicans deciding” was carefully calculated. He arrived with a pronounced sensitivity to accusations of intervention; on several occasions, he felt it necessary to state that his government will not impose policies on Mexico. Any perception of U.S. pressure on PEMEX privatization would backfire—millions of Mexicans strongly oppose privatization. Even if Peña Nieto manages to get Congress on board for the reform, popular protests are likely. Even a shadow of a U.S. hand behind the move would add fuel to protests.

The sensitivity also arises from criticisms from both Mexican and U.S. citizen groups that the Obama administration is in large part responsible for the disastrous drug war.

The Obama administration–especially the Pentagon and DEA, FBI, CIA, ATF and other agencies that now enjoy an expanded presence in Mexico–has been watching carefully to see what the Peña Nieto government will do with the drug war morass it inherited. Despite the direct result of 80,000 dead, these agencies hail the strategy as a major advance in bi-national cooperation.

The Peña Nieto government dropped a bombshell just days before the meeting, announcing that all security cooperation with the U.S. government must go through the Secretary of the Interior. The decision effectively reins in U.S. security operations after the conservative PAN party tore down historical limits to U.S. intervention in-country.

This prohibits the now common (and largely uncontrolled and uncoordinated) operations directly between numerous agencies. U.S. government agents have complained the decision will have a chilling effect on U.S. operations in the country, which is probably just what Pena Nieto had in mind.

Direct U.S. involvement in Mexican security has been ramped up, with a huge increase in Embassy personnel, making the U.S. embassy in Mexico among the largest in the world. The range of security-related activities also expanded exponentially. The recent announcement is in line with consolidating the Interior Ministry as an Uber-ministry, which has already absorbed the Ministry of Public Security.

Publicly, Obama accepted the decision. Whether in response to the uncertainty surrounding Peña Nieto’s position or not, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced on April 18 that State Department aid to Mexico was decreasing by $124 million compared to 2012. He described it as a general “downward glide path”—a gradual decrease for both heavily funded Mexico and Colombia. However, Washington insiders say that even some appropriated funds are on ice as the terms of the new relationship are worked out and could be re-channeled. At the same time, security aid to Central America and the Caribbean are on the rise.

Both presidents painted a rose-colored picture of Mexico as an up-and-coming middle-class society that utterly ignored the rise in poverty and inequality, violence and human right violations. The Los Angeles Times coverage of Obama’s speech aimed at young people quoted several students smitten by the U.S. president but stumped by the distance between the his portrayal of their country and their own experience.  According to the Times, they wondered out loud, “what country is he talking about?”

Obama’s pronouncements weren’t just a matter of focusing on the glass half full. If Obama and Peña Nieto were to discuss the serious problems facing the nation, they would have had to confront the criticisms of the same policies they committed to continue.

“This American Moment”

Two weeks after Obama’s return, Roberta Jacobsen and Ricardo Zuniga, heads of Western Hemisphere Affairs for the State Department and the President, respectively, clarified the central purpose of his trip.

“The focus was really on diversification of energy supplies, new energy resources in the Americas, the way in which the global energy map is increasingly focused on the Americas, both in fossil and traditional fuels and in renewables, and new fuels, whether it’s shale oil or shale gas or other things. And so there was a lot of conversation about how to take advantage of this American moment, if you will, on energy throughout the hemisphere,” said Jacobsen.

Zuniga stressed the geopolitical aspect of the visit, “…we see energy as a unifying theme in the Americas, that it’s clearly something that tends to bring countries together because in the Americas you see both vast opportunity and a lot of the continuing challenges. And so bringing those two together and linking them together, and thinking about not just the Americas but the impact of the development in the Americas in the global energy supply and on the global markets is critical.”

Jacobsen noted that,

“The Americas obviously produces more than half of U.S. oil imports, almost one-third of its natural gas, nearly 30 percent of global electricity. And so we look forward to the possibility that in two decades the United States will rely almost exclusively on hemispheric sources of energy. And I think that’s an incredibly important point in terms of shifting strategic partnerships, that all of the countries of the region are feeling that greater importance in some ways because of the global energy map.”

The emphasis on Mesoamerica as an energy source for U.S. over-demand was the central point that the press and pundits largely ignored. It has tremendous implications.

In theory, the idea of helping to develop energy projects, especially clean energy sources, makes sense. But what that means and could mean in practice is far more disturbing. Throughout Mexico and Central American countries energy and mineral development projects are generating conflict and severe violations of human rights, especially of indigenous peoples and the rural poor. Experience shows that foreign policy based on desperately extending fossil fuel consumption and reliance, leads to conflict.  More and more, troops sent out in the name of the drug war are engaging with local communities fighting against displacement caused by energy and other development projects.

As energy sources become scarcer, the social and environmental costs of extraction and distribution rise sharply. By shaping a submissive Mesoamerica into the energy source for the United States, it is those nations and peoples that will assume those costs. The Connect the Americas 2022 initiative, discussed on Obama’s trip includes the prospect of hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. loans and millions in contracts for U.S. companies. Further energy development for U.S. needs would require privatization, and if history is any guide at all, imply displacement of populations often through violence.

The war on drugs provides the cover for sending soldiers and police throughout Mexico and Central America. Every day there is more evidence –local resource battles, Guatemala’s state of siege—that security forces are being used to back up changes in land use, wresting resources from local communities to deliver to large development projects. With a major push to open up energy and other resources in the region, the U.S. plan to make Mesoamerica its new energy platform only intensifies those fears.

Drug War pushed behind the curtain

The few references to the drug war, the Merida Initiative and to a lesser extent the Central American RegionalSecurity Initiative (formerly part of Merida) during the Presidential visit was no surprise. Obama’s security policy in the region has become a major embarrassment.

First, the strategy to physically attack drug cartels and militarize the country has sparked confrontations between the drug cartels, leading to widespread violence throughout the country that claims thousands of victims a year. Second, human rights violations have also risen alarmingly, with security forces involved in torture, rape, murder, complicity and other crimes.

As to the U.S. role, more of the public and even prominent political leaders regard the interdiction and enforcement model promoted by the U.S. as Mexico doing the dirty work of a nation obsessed with the both consumption and prohibition. U.S. involvement in the Mexican drug war is increasingly seen as a vehicle for U.S. politicians, advisers and agents to define and implement their own security priorities in Mexico.

During Obama’s visit, the leaders agreed in public to reorient the strategy to reducing violence rather than stopping drugs. It remains to be seen if that focus will be reflected on the ground, for example, in a decrease in DEA activity and an increase in social programs.

Central America was just as complicated for Obama when it came to defending current U.S. drug war priorities. When he arrived at the meeting of Central American heads of state, he faced leaders with major doubts about the strategy. Guatemala’s President, Otto Perez Molina, has called for a discussion on legalization. And he is not alone: the Organization of American States issued a report calling for discussion of legalization of marijuana and other alternatives to the drug war.

Meanwhile, in the United States, public views toward the most consumed illicit drug, marijuana, do not support the nation’s expenditures in marijuana seizures and arrests. There’s a general trend to greater social acceptance of marijuana use, a trend that has also been expressed in the legalization of use for medical purposes in 18 states, regulated use in two states and polls showing that a majority favors ending marijuana prohibition.

Desperate to show some justification for a drug war that has devastated producing countries, U.S. government agencies and allied think tanks have made the claim that consumption has declined. The statement is flat-out false. The government’s own National Institute on Drug Abuse survey shows an increase in illicit drug use among teens.

In the case of marijuana, use went up from 32% of those surveyed in 2008 to 36% in 2012, with a similar decrease in those who felt smoking marijuana was risky.

Instead of vowing to revamp the strategy in the midst of these contradictions, Obama said little about the drug war in public in Mexico or Central America. Press releases regarding the Central America meeting stressed programs for youth, prevention and blocking precursor chemicals and mostly ignore trafficking.

Threats and Promises

There is no doubt that recasting Mexico from a national security threat to a partner would be a positive and long-overdue step forward. The way in which Mexico has been portrayed as a threat—as a source of spillover drug violence, a failed state, a home to terrorist migrants, etc.—has distorted reality and devastated the bi-national relationship. On his trip Obama stated that the U.S.-Mexico relationship “must be defined not by the threats that we face but by the prosperity and the opportunity that we can create together.”

It’s just not clear that the shift is genuine. Aid to both Mexico and Central America continues to be heavily skewed to the drug war, including military and police aid, and training programs and “institution-building” among judiciary and penal institutions to support U.S. counternarcotics objectives. While State Department aid to Mexico may decrease somewhat, Department of Defense aid is growing and in Central America security aid is slated to rise 20% over already rising 2012 levels, as noted at the first SICA-North American Security dialogue held in Washington days before Obama’s visit.

A serious shift would require dramatically rechanneling security aid to social and development goals. It would require focusing on unmet responsibilities at home to stop arms flows and money laundering, reduce corruption and reduce the market for illicit substances through regulation, prevention and treatment. It would mean revamping economic policies that have led to the crisis in youth unemployment and lack of education in the region, to assure a future for youth instead of spending U.S. taxpayer dollars for at-risk youth who were placed at risk in part due to our policies. It would mean fixing trade and labor policies to ensure that working people are able to meet the needs of their families.

Nothing really changed on Obama’s three-day trip to the region. The effort to spin a new relationship built on shared interests left more doubts than optimism. The emphasis on economic ties rang hollow due to the absence of any mention of the relationship between those policies and the security crisis. Downplaying security when in fact it is still the central aspect of the relationship raises concerns about what’s below the shiny surface of the photo ops.

Laura Carlsen is director of the CIP Americas Program in Mexico City www.cipamericas.org

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .