Obama Charms Mexican Hearts, Not Heads

By Tracy Wilkinson
(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times

MEXICO CITY -- Even before he sat down to a gala dinner of shrimp and roasted cactus, U.S. President Barack Obama had charmed much of Mexico with his repeated use of the word "partner," assurances of shared responsibility in the drug war and promises to reform immigration policy.

Obama's counterpart, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, spoke enthusiastically of a "new era" in U.S.-Mexican relations. The two leaders found common ground in their visions of intertwined economies and a need to cooperate on a host of issues.

If expressing goodwill was Obama's goal here, he succeeded. At the same time, there were few concrete steps taken during the 20-hour visit to Mexico, the first stop on his first official trip to Latin America. He departed Friday for the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, and Mexico had little to show for the American president's stopover.

"Yesterday was a very promising day for relations between Mexico and the United States -- the cordial environment, the empathy between the two heads of state, the quality of the speeches, all lead one to expect a genuine improvement in the bilateral relationship," said commentator Denise Maerker. "But, be careful. This is not the first time that a meeting like this generates great expectations."

Two of Mexico's priorities -- reviving the U.S. government's ban on assault weapons and opening U.S. roads to Mexican trucks as provided for in the North American Free Trade Agreement -- were left unfulfilled.

And discussions and proposals concerning the drug war emphasized military solutions (a U.S. offer of more Black Hawk helicopters, for example), with less attention given to root causes such as corruption in Mexico and consumption in the U.S.

Obama's mission here was in large part aimed at repairing damage caused not just by the years of perceived neglect under the Bush administration, but also by fierce criticism of Mexico emanating from Washington earlier this year.

Brazen murders and kidnappings, clashes between army troops and traffickers, high-level and escalating corruption -- all led to some U.S. experts characterizing Mexico as a potential failed state. Calderon was furious at the description, and the Obama administration has worked for the last month to reassure Mexico that the U.S. considers it a valued ally rather than a failed state.

Nevertheless, U.S. authorities are alarmed at the level of drug-crime violence that undermines the Calderon government and is spilling over the border into American cities.

The kind of keen interest in and regard for Mexico that Obama transmitted is something that has ebbed and flowed through generations of U.S.-Mexican relations, said political analyst Sergio Aguayo.

"The difference this time is that never in the last century has Mexican stability been so threatened by an enemy so strong and with so much tension concentrated along the border," he said.

Although Mexicans generally saw the Obama visit as symbolic, they were gratified that issues such as immigration reform also got an airing. In Mexico, as in Europe, Obama benefits from simply not being George W. Bush.

"We get a sense that we are dealing with a different type of government ... one more in tune with the problems that are important to Mexicans, such as inequality and bottom-to-top development," said Patricia Escamilla, a researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana.

At Thursday's state dinner, on the patio of Mexico City's much-acclaimed Anthropological Museum, with a giant Aztec calendar as backdrop, guests included Mexican Cabinet members, union leaders, opposition politicians from the left and Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian novelist who lives in Mexico.

To the most realistic eye, Obama's show of support for Mexico may or may not translate into new initiatives, more money or changed laws.

"Six months ago, Mexico was not on the Americans' map, and now we are certainly there," said Gabriel Guerra, an analyst and former diplomat. "The big question is follow-up. Obama gave good signals. That it translate into concrete acts and agreements, that's the complicated part."

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