When Mexican President Felipe Calderon went to see President Barack Obama on March 3, the Washington establishment didn't consider it of particular interest. It only made page A9 of The Washington Post. After all, Calderon had made an official state visit in May 2010, just nine months earlier.
Since then, the mood had changed. Internal U.S. Embassy cables, made public in December by WikiLeaks, revealed U.S. officials in Mexico City talking about a "dysfunctionally low level of collaboration" and "widespread corruption" among Mexican security agencies that were hurting the war against narco-traffickers. One cable described the Mexican army as slow and "risk averse."
When he arrived in Washington for the meeting with Obama this time, Calderon addressed immigration and commerce in addition to fighting organized crime. He made no secret that he was miffed at U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual. He told Mexico City's El Universal as much.
Right after the presidents conferred on March 3, Obama told reporters at a joint press conference that the two countries were deepening their cooperation against the drug cartels and the U.S. was "a full partner" in Mexico's fight with the narcos. Not only that, but we accepted "shared responsibility for the drug violence," alluding to U.S.-based arms, drug demand and funds that find their way into illicit hands.
Obama also praised Calderon's international leadership, recognizing Mexico will host the G20 next year, and for progress made at the Cancun global warming conference, where Calderon had crafted a Green Fund to help developing countries. Obama acknowledged that Mexico had spoken out forcefully for Libyan human rights and had played a leading role at the United Nations to suspend the Libyan regime from the Human Rights Council.
Obama seemed to recognize, as Mexico and other Latin American presidents have already, that a new space for dialogue and collaboration for trade and security is at hand when it comes to hemispheric relations.
Calderon reciprocated and thanked Obama for his planned spring-break visit to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, saying greater dialogue "will always be beneficial ...not just for Latin American countries but also for the United States." He saved zingers for other venues.
For instance, he told The Washington Post editorial board the same morning that the State Department cables released by WikiLeaks criticizing Mexico's handling of the drug war had caused "severe damage" to the relationship between the two countries. He commented that relations were so tense he could no longer work with the U.S. ambassador.
In a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in the afternoon following the news conference, Calderon emphasized other aspects of his policies. He said Mexico was working to become a more competitive country through education, reduced tariffs, entrepreneurship and infrastructure investments.
A refrigerator produced in Mexico is 8 percent cheaper than one made in China, he said. "While Mexico had ranked 73 in 2006 among nations in which to do business, the World Bank now puts it at 35." He said 9,000 new Mexican engineers and technicians graduate each year, more than in Germany, Brazil and Canada.
He used those facts as evidence that his country and Latin America were bigger stories than one-dimensional issues about violence, guns, drugs and immigration that dominate the news and many people's way of thinking.
By the time Obama's spring trip to Latin America began, Calderon's purpose in Washington may have begun taking hold. The United Nations' no-fly-zone military intervention had begun, with the U.S. in the initial lead role. The next day, Pascual announced his resignation, as Calderon had wanted all along.
While Libya began to preempt reporters' questions after Obama met with President Sebastian Pinera March 21, the U.S. head of state was partly back on-message, saying that his trip was not so much to impose an agenda but to find out "what Chile can offer us." He referred to clean energy, education, security cooperation, and regional collaboration among countries that are increasingly becoming world players.
Evidently, Calderon may have filled in some of the administration's international playbook pages, which Obama's Latin America advisers had left blank.
Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.