Why Biden Is Putting on a Charm Offensive in Mexico City

6 minute read

MEXICO CITY, Mexico—Call it car geek diplomacy.

President Biden, who loves muscle cars, happily showed off to his Mexican counterpart the different buttons inside the heavy, armored Cadillac limousine that Secret Service officers call “The Beast”, as they sat together for the hour-long drive from the airport outside Mexico City on Sunday night.

“He was showing me this special vehicle. He was pushing buttons, ‘It does this, this seat moves a lot,’” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador told reporters during one of his characteristically long daily press conferences on Monday morning.

Usually, American presidents travel with aides or their spouse in the limo while overseas, so when Biden invited López Obrador to share the car, the gesture wasn’t lost on López Obrador, who said the two leaders chatted like long-time neighbors. “It was very pleasant,” he added. “He’s a very good person.”

The genial interaction stood in stark contrast to the scene in Los Angeles six months earlier, when Biden hosted Central and South American leaders at a Summit of the Americas that López Obrador boycotted in objection to the governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua not being invited. The two men making nice also glosses over a laundry list of other differences. López Obrador still refuses to break with Russia over Ukraine. He’s offered asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange who faces U.S. espionage charges. He was one of the last foreign leaders to call Biden and congratulate him on his electoral victory in 2020, and didn’t publicly condemn the violent attempt to overthrow the election during the Jan. 6 attack.

“Biden, I think, has made the decision to let bygones be bygones,” says Arturo Sarukhán, Mexico’s ambassador to the United States from 2007 to 2013.

Mexico is critical to U.S. national security, and Biden seems willing to give concessions on ceremony that can appear to elevate his relationship with López Obrador if that helps secure Mexico’s support on stemming migration into the U.S., including accepting back tens of thousands of migrants arriving at America’s southern border from countries like Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua that have strained or non-existent extradition channels with the U.S.

“That’s part of what personal diplomacy looks like for Biden,” Sarukhán says. “The relationship isn’t pitch-perfect today. It’s a great step forward compared to four years of [Donald] Trump’s diplomatic vandalism with Mexico.”

Trump and López Obrador, both populists, built their relationship on raw self interest. Trump’s dealings with Mexico were largely orchestrated from Jared Kusher’s office in Trump’s West Wing and focused on squeezing Mexico for trade concessions and demanding more from Mexico in stopping migrants passing through the country into the U.S. In 2019, Trump threatened punishing tariffs against Mexico if it didn’t take bolder steps to stop Central American migration. López Obrador complied, sending thousands of Mexican national guard troops to the country’s southern and northern borders to block the path of migrants.

Since Biden took office, his administration has worked to reactivate the regular diplomatic channels. The North American leaders summit that ends on Tuesday and also includes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada is one of the most visible examples of that two-year effort, which is yielding results. In advance of Biden’s arrival in Mexico, López Obrador’s government agreed to accept back into Mexico 30,000 migrants per month who were being held in the U.S. And last week, the Mexican authorities rearrested Ovidio Guzmán, a son of the drug cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán during a deadly raid, a move that was seen by American officials as López Obrador wanting to send a signal that Mexico is capable to tackling the cartels without more interference from the U.S.

When Biden came to office, there was concern inside López Obrador’s circle that the Biden administration would hold up other issues to pressure the Mexican President to address concerns about his administration’s consolidation of power in the country, the erosion of Mexico’s democratic institutions, the separation of powers, and attacks on the media.

But Biden has largely held his fire on those issues. “Biden has had to be very strategic,” says Lila Abed, the deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. “There’s been questions along the way as to the Biden White House’s silence about what has been occurring in Mexico and some analysts come to the conclusion that a lot of it has to do with the fact that [López Obrador] has indeed been cooperating on migration.”

Nonetheless, a lingering tension simmered below the surface since Biden’s arrival on Sunday in Mexico City and briefly spilled into view Monday evening. As the two men met formally with several cabinet members in a wood-paneled room hung with gilt framed paintings, López Obrador called Biden a “humanistic” and “visionary” President before offering a sharp critique of U.S. foreign policy. He said the U.S. had shown “disdain” and “forgetfulness” toward Latin America, and Biden held the key to reversing that. Biden took issue with the characterization and, veering from his boilerplate remarks, pointed out that “in the past 15 years we’ve spent billions of dollars in the hemisphere, tens of billions of dollars in the hemisphere.”

He also made note of all the foreign aid the U.S. distributes around the world.

“Unfortunately our responsibility just doesn’t end in the Western Hemisphere,” Biden said.

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