By Antonio Garza, Special to the Herald
The Jan. 20 inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris is certainly still on all our minds. The past few months have been a turbulent time for U.S. democracy. Biden now faces an unprecedented health and economic crisis, and must also navigate Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate and the investigation of the Jan. 6 uprising and violence at our nation’s Capitol.
Biden’s first 100 days will focus on controlling the pandemic, reviving the U.S. economy and addressing structural racism. With a slim majority in Congress, the administration also plans to push for immigration reform and measures to address climate change. Yet, it will be an uphill battle to get the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package and immigration overhaul passed on Capitol Hill while managing interlocking crises.
Biden also promised to act swiftly to remake U.S. foreign policy. Over the last four years, tension with China and Iran heightened, Russia was emboldened and North Korea became a greater nuclear risk. And Biden will also need to restore trust in U.S. leadership with allies around the world.
Mexico will be a key regional partner. On his third day in office, Biden spoke with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to discuss collaboration on migration challenges. This was the second phone call since Biden won the November election, and the first since he assumed office.
So far, the relationship has been cordial at best. After the November election, López Obrador waited six weeks to congratulate Biden. Then during their initial phone call in December, López Obrador made a point of stressing his good relationship with Trump.
This state of affairs was certainly not a given. Trump and López Obrador started off as unlikely allies. But over time they seemed to have reached an understanding: Trump stayed out of Mexico’s affairs, and López Obrador supported Trump’s plans on migration.
By contrast, Biden’s desire to engage on a range of issues reflects a more pre-Trump approach to bilateral affairs. And this institutional outlook appears to threaten López Obrador’s individualized style of governing.
Yet, López Obrador’s cold reception might not only be an attempt to keep the U.S. at bay, but may also score his party votes in the June midterm elections and distract from his uneven handling of the pandemic.
After downplaying the pandemic for almost a year, López Obrador announced last week that he had contracted COVID-19 and was receiving medical treatment for mild symptoms. His illness comes at a time when Mexico’s public health system has been at the point of collapse and hospitals across the country are at full capacity.
Recently, Mexico’s once-praised COVID-19 vaccination program had to be paused due to shipment delays. López Obrador, who is isolating at the National Palace, spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Jan. 25 and secured 24 million doses of the Sputnik vaccine. Warming Russian-Mexico relations is not good news for Biden.
On security, Biden and López Obrador’s personal relations take place amid an all-time low in bilateral security cooperation. In the last month, the Mexican government exonerated former Defense Minister Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, whom U.S. prosecutors had charged with drug trafficking and money laundering in the fall. Then, López Obrador defiantly released more than 700 pages of U.S. classified documents and named Cienfuegos an adviser to the Ministry of Defense.
Making matters more challenging, Mexico’s Congress passed a law in December to restrict U.S. law enforcement operations in the country. These unilateral actions have been a huge blow to bilateral cooperation, and come at a time when Mexico’s rule of law has already taken a downturn.
The energy sector has also become embroiled in bilateral tensions. On Jan. 11, top Trump administration officials sent a letter to their Mexican counterparts. They expressed concerns that the administration’s regulatory actions to give preference to state-owned energy companies and block private permits created “significant uncertainty” for investment. The letter also “raised concerns regarding Mexico’s commitments under USMCA” due to regulatory changes and hinted at potential lawsuits.
Last year, Mexico’s tax collection agency SAT began to threaten large companies with criminal charges for tax noncompliance, and SAT has set its sights in 2021 on cracking down on medium and small businesses. Next month, Mexico’s Congress will vote on a contentious outsourcing bill that would prohibit companies from subcontracting third-party firms. I’ll be keeping an eye on both these developments among the many issues we’re already monitoring.
Amid all of these changes, I should note that White & Case was named the most innovative firm in North America for 2020 by the Financial Times. Let’s make sure to stay in touch in 2021 to discuss the latest developments or just check in. You can find me here at White & Case or via Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.
Antonio Garza is former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and former Cameron County Judge.