In Mexico Meeting, a Show of Friendship With Few Results on Immigration and Trade

The New York Times
By: Peter Baker and Elisibeth Malkin
February 19, 2014

NYTimesTLogoSmall2TOLUCA, Mexico — They call it the “Three Amigos” summit meeting, and President Obama and his Mexican and Canadian counterparts played their parts on Wednesday. They shared a lunch, joshed about the Olympics, promised enduring cooperation, and took a staged stroll through a botanical garden, complete with requisite smiles for the cameras.

But the show of trilateral friendship did little to mask a series of stress points that divided the leaders during their first three-way gathering in two years. Although they announced agreements to make it easier to travel among the three countries and to find ways of protecting the Monarch butterfly, the divisive issues of trade, immigration and the hotly disputed proposed Keystone XL pipeline were left largely unresolved.

The meeting came 20 years after the three largest nations of North America tied their economies together in a landmark trade pact. Mr. Obama, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Stephen

Presidents Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto, center, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Wednesday.
Eduardo Verdugo/Associated Press

Harper of Canada vowed to further expand commercial flows and to broaden their ties to partners across the Pacific. But they gave little hint as to how they would overcome the obstacles holding up a proposed trade agreement with the dozen nations involved in negotiations, much less the political hurdles in Washington where Mr. Obama’s own party refuses to give him the authority he seeks to seal the deal.

Indeed, Mr. Obama arrived here in Mr. Peña Nieto’s hometown with little concrete to offer his host given the seemingly fading prospects not only for trade authority but for winning congressional approval of an immigration overhaul. Nor did Mr. Obama give Mr. Harper the commitment the prime minister wanted for construction of the Keystone pipeline to take Canadian oil to the Gulf of Mexico.

Until pressed by reporters at the end of the day, the president passed lightly over those issues during the public portions of the gathering, reiterating that immigration legislation “remains one of my highest priorities” and pledging “to complete negotiations” on the proposed trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with labor and environmental safeguards.

Mr. Obama conceded that some in his party oppose a new trade pact but pointed out that he managed to pass smaller ones involving countries like Panama and South Korea despite that sentiment within his liberal base. “We’ll get this passed if it’s a good agreement,” he said.

The “Three Amigos” summit meetings began under President George W. Bush as annual events, although they have been somewhat less regular under his successor. Mr. Obama, making his fifth trip to Mexico as president, said Wednesday that the three-way get-togethers were useful because they were a “forcing method.”

Yet the joint statement drafted and released before the three leaders actually sat down together seemed a statement of status quo. It used the phrase “continue to” eight times. With so little new to agree on, Mr. Obama opted not to stay for dinner and planned to head back to Washington after just eight hours on the ground.

The “key deliverables,” to use the White House phrase for concrete agreements, included creating a North American Trusted Traveler Program allowing prescreened individuals to travel more easily among the three countries. The leaders also agreed to create a working group to study ways to protect the Monarch butterfly, an issue that has generated great passion in Mexico. (The habitat that supports their migration across the continent is being compromised as milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s only food source, has been disappearing.)

The leaders also promised to work on ways to improve freight transportation, increase educational exchanges, expand energy cooperation and synchronize trade data. American officials said such step-by-step progress represented a maturing of the relationship and ultimately would add up to important results.

Mr. Obama was not the only leader with tough issues to avoid. Mr. Peña Nieto said little about the most recent drug violence that has plagued his country, part of his desire to shift relations with his large northern neighbor away from security issues to the economy. He noted the 20-year anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement, commonly known as Nafta, calling it “an economic initiative that marked a transcendental change” on the continent and calling for its expansion. “With the same spirit two decades later, we are obliged to go further,” Mr. Peña Nieto said.

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based group, said it was understandable that Mr. Peña Nieto would focus on economics. “However tempting it might be to do so, it is impossible to sweep security questions under the rug,” he said. “While Mexico has made some progress over the last year on the security front, profound troubles persist.”

Rafael Fernández de Castro, a professor of international studies at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, said the meeting was important to Mr. Peña Nieto to at least begin to lay out a road map for how to move forward on economic integration.

“After 20 years of Nafta, where should we be in 10 or 20 years?” he asked. “There is already a de facto integration. Now we have to take it into our own hands and manage it.”

Mr. Peña Nieto took some criticism in advance for not pressing Mr. Obama on immigration. Carlos Puig, a Mexican journalist, pointed out in the newspaper Milenio that Mr. Obama’s government had deported a record number of Mexicans but had not delivered promised overhauls. The column had the headline: “What Peña won’t tell Obama.”

Mr. Obama preferred to talk about the Olympics. “My brother-in-law is Canadian,” he told Mr. Harper, “so you know I have to like Canadians.” But then he noted that the United States and Canada may meet in hockey. “For a very brief period of time, I may not feel as warm toward Canadians as I normally do,” he joked.


Randal C. Archibold contributed reporting from Mexico City, and Michael D. Shear from Washington.


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