López Obrador and Trump: An opportunity for partnership

December 23, 2018

On Dec. 1, Andrés Manuel López Obrador was sworn in as president of Mexico, a stunning change of events that offers an opportunity for stronger U.S.-Mexico cooperation. Twice defeated in his quest to become president, he won 53 percent of the votes this time, more than the combined total of his two major rivals. His presidency offers a number of opportunities for partnerships with us.

They include:

The updated NAFTA. One partnership issue in the new trade agreement is a joint border environmental cleanup, something first proposed by President George H.W. Bush decades ago.

Energy development. The previous president opened up Mexico’s energy sector to foreign investment, creating enormous business opportunities for energy companies in states such as New Mexico. More important, it can boost the flagging productivity of Pemex, Mexico’s national oil company and generate needed revenue for neglected social programs. Trump can help persuade López Obrador not to reverse this reform.

The border. López Obrador already recognizes that Honduras, Salvador and Guatemala have the highest per capita murder rates of any countries in the world, thus causing their citizens to flee north. President Donald Trump needs to join with him in the difficult but necessary task of bringing stability and safety to those countries so that their citizens can remain home in peace.

In the meantime, a joint border management program is essential. It is not only disgraceful but unnecessary what is happening in Tijuana and other border cities. The Mexican government should have prepared for this influx of migrants awaiting asylum hearings.

On the U.S. side, the number of United States Border Patrol agents more than doubled between 2004 and 2009 with the biggest increases occurring during the Obama presidency. The total number of agents is now between 19,000 and 20,000. I’ve been crossing the border repeatedly over the past eight years and what always seems obvious is an enormous level of overstaffing. Why not reassign those extra agents to deal with the huge backlog of initial asylum interviews?

I’ve twice visited La Casa del Migrante in Juárez, which houses hundreds of migrants while they await their hearings. Talking to them, it’s easy to see who has legitimate asylum claims and who simply want to come to the U.S. for better jobs. A reasonably staffed and committed screening process could quickly clear up this backlog. López Obrador needs to persuade Trump to accelerate this process.

Much of Latin America is falling apart and/or drifting toward more authoritarian governments. For example, Venezuela has the largest oil reserves of any country in the world, yet its people are among the poorest; Honduras, Guatemala and Salvador have the world’s highest per capita murder rates; and Nicaragua, a mini dictatorship since Daniel Ortega’s 2006 election, recently has erupted in violence, sending refugees fleeing into Costa Rica. Colombia, our strongest South American ally, is struggling with the influx of refugees from Venezuela and an upsurge of violence and drug trafficking; Brazil has just elected a militaristic hard liner, Jair Bolsonaro; and Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, a longtime critic of the U.S., just unleashed a blistering attack on President Trump at a September United Nations Security Council meeting.

Couldn’t a López Obrador-Trump alliance bring some of these countries closer to our democratic ideals? Will it happen? Will these two leaders see the value of cooperation? Let’s hope so.

Morgan Smith is a retired lawyer and government official from Colorado now living in Santa Fe. He can be reached at Morgan-smith@comcast.net.

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