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The USMCA Agreement: A New Era in Mexico-US-Canada Relations?

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Image credit: Official White House Photo

The agreement between the US Mexico and Canada (USMCA) entered into Force last 1st of July 2020 replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Although in many aspects the new treaty resembles the old one a lot, unlike the previous Trade Agreement, the USMCA focuses mainly on car exports, aluminum, and steel tariffs. It also increases environmental and work regulations while incentivizing domestic production of cars and lorries. This agreement also imposes a quota for Canadian and Mexican Automotive production. One could say that majority of the amendments that were made to the old NAFTA and that are crystallised in the USMCA benefit mainly the US than Canada and Mexico.

During all the negotiations that preceded the approval, ratification and enforcement of the new agreement, the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) showed no interest in visiting any of his counterparts either in Canada or the United States.During his first 2 years as incumbent president, AMLO has not attended any international events so far, and he has focused on touring cities and regions of Mexico. In 2019, during his first year in office, the President declined to participate in at least three relevant international forums: the Davos World Economic Forum (WEF), which was held from January 22 to 25 ; the Group of 20 Summit (G-20), held on June 28 and 29 in Osaka, Japan; and the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN), which occurred on September 24.As outlandish and questionable that strategy was, it was consistent with the foreign policy approach he embraced ever since he took office: The best foreign policy is the domestic one.

For decades it was a common practice that the newly elected presidents of Mexico and the United States sought to meet each other personally, review the state of the relationship between the two countries, perhaps set an agenda of priorities, and send a signal of cordiality between the newly elected administrations.  Very frequently both presidents preferred to meet at the border to avoid having to decide if they would do it in Washington or in the then Federal District, now Mexico City. Such visits have been held for 107 years. They began in October 1909, the first time that Porfirio Díaz and William Howard Taft crossed the border to meet in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, at the inauguration of the international bridge that connects the two cities. During the presidential terms of Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto, the first meetings were held in Mexico, just last week and after Trump let out that the Mexican president that had been summoned to meet him, AMLO does not only break with that custom, since now the first meeting will take place in the United States, but is also breaking his presidential campaign promise of focusing on domestic issues rather than international ones.

Donald Trump knows very well that the US is AMLO’s Achilles’ heel in his attempt to sell Mexico as an independent and sovereign country. That is why when Donald Trump threatened to bury the NAFTA, AMLO aligned himself with Trump’s wishes and became the southern wall to stop migration from Central America Trump had so long wished for. AMLO’s foreign policy and concessions to the US have reduced the Mexican diplomacy to the level of servility. The respect, dignity good faith and cooperation that should characterize all diplomatic relations among countries has been lost between Mexico and the US;  not only because of Trump’s incendiary, populist, racist, anti-Mexican speech, but also by AMLO’s submission to Trump’s whims.

Last April during an OPEC+ Summit, Mexico refused to reduce its oil output endangering a global agreement to decrease oil production to tackle the oil price crisis. Donald Trump saw a golden opportunity here and did not miss it: he came to the rescue and he offered to cut American production further to make up for Mexico’s share, he went on to say that Mexico would reimburse the US back at a later date. It was obvious that Trump would not ask Mexico to pay back in one go, and this forced visit to the US might be the first of an unknown series of installments of a debt that Mexico is not even fully aware of.

One can already visualize the scene: both presidents shake hands and pose smiling for the media on the porch of the Oval Office in the White House. They declare having had an extraordinary interview where they share points of view on a variety of topics. Of course, they celebrate the entry into force of the renewed and improved Trade agreement which they describe as the trigger for investment, greater commercial exchanges and of course greater prosperity for the 3 countries that will translate into less poverty, less unemployment and a more equal distribution of resources.

They will not talk about the future of the 11 million Mexicans living in the US, and there will be no talks whatsoever about the about the close to six million Mexicans who are undocumented and that are the target of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, who are constantly persecuted, discriminated against, abused, separated from relative, caged, and deported by the American government. AMLO will not question Trump about such policy and will not try to negotiate some sort of solution to end the violation of their human rights. AMLO will not demand the massive raids and repatriations of Mexicans who have been living in the US for years to be suspended during this health emergency. There will also be no joint statement from both administrations on how to deal with the increasing violence unleashed by drug trafficking in Mexico, and the millions of weapons that are smuggled yearly from the US and that conveniently end up in the hands of the Mexican drug cartels.

As opposing as they may seem, there are several striking similarities between Donald Trump and AMLO. This will explain the docility that will characterize the Mexican envoy this week. AMLO has been carefully crafting since late 2004, when he first started campaigning for the presidency, the image of a nationalist, left-wing advocate for social justice who is ready to stand up for anyone threatening Mexico’s sovereignty. Trump is a simply a racist and a demagogue. Nonetheless, both share a desire to make of the Executive the most powerful branch of the state; they both dismiss institutions and the rule of law; they both have consistently attacked free press and free speech; they both publicly humiliate those that disagree with their policies; they both have shown contempt for science, experts’ advice, research and academics; they have both pursued utterly shambolic policies that have made the pandemic effects worse in both countries; and they both show a high degree of disaffection, lack of empathy, narcissism and have created a sick cult of personality around their persona.

Just like in 2016, when Donald Trump visited Mexico, the visit of the 8th and 9th of July of AMLO will be used by Trump to harvest huge electoral and political gains. Trump is losing popularity rapidly, and he is in desperate need of a foreign policy boost before the November elections. All previous attempts to make him look good internationally have been a failure: he has not been able to kick-start the Middle East Peace Process; the visit to North Korea’s  leader Kim Jung Un ended up as a media mess that benefited North Korea more than the US; and his attempt to bring down the government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela has not yet materialised. Donald Trump will be looking to make of the USMCA his big highlight of the year. This will also help him divert attention from his disastrous domestic policies to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and will allow him to again use Mexico as the centre of his next electoral rallies just like he did in 2016.AMLO’s decision to visit Donald Trump during electoral months in the US will also be perceived as Mexico publicly backing Trump’s reelection campaign over Biden’s. This will he detrimental to the bilateral relation should the Democrats win the presidency back in November.

AMLO, however, could turn this visit into a success if he would be willing to change course. One of his many unfulfilled campaign promises was to make the economy grow at an average of 4% annually. Ever since he took office the economy has remained stagnant and latest projects place Mexico to suffer a 10 to 11% contraction because of the global pandemic, one of the worst slumps in Latin America. AMLO could sell this visit as chance for Mexico to regain foreign investment his 60s inspired economic, hyper-centralised economic policies have scared away and have contributed to increased poverty, inequality, and unemployment. He is in serious need of an economic boost to help him regain his rapidly decreasing popularity just 2 years into his 6-year presidential term.

However, AMLO is not planning to potentially benefit from this meeting on any way. He is flying commercial without any delegation of representatives and he wants this visit to remain as low key as possible. He has given no indication about his willingness to change direction and promote Mexico’s foreign investment. One just must look at the symbolism of Trump’s declaration of the Mexican president to understand that this visit does not bode well for Mexico. Donald Trump boasted last Tuesday during a conference that AMLO, was to soon visit the United States after he travelled to Yuma Arizona to monitor the progress of the border wall. On the whole, this will be a zero-sum game in which Mexico will be the loser.

Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza is a politics and international relations tutor at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She gained her Bachelor's in International Relations at the Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City and her MA in International Relations and World Order at the University of Leicester, England. She holds a PhD in Politics and International Relations from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She has spoken at numerous international conferences and has written on topics such as democracy, migration, European politics, Contemporary Mexican Politics and the Middle East. Her research interests include: Democratisation processes, governance and theories of the state, contemporary Mexican politics, Latin American politics, political parties, international relations theories, contemporary USA-Latin America foreign policy.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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As Refugees Flee Central America, the Mexican Public Sours On Accepting Them

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Authors: Isabel Eliassen, Alianna Casas, Timothy S. Rich*

In recent years, individuals from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have been forced out of their home countries by extreme poverty and gang violence. While initial expectations were that the Lopez Obrador administration would be more welcoming to migrants, policies have slowly mirrored those of his predecessor, and do not seem to have deterred refugees. COVID-19 led to a decrease in refugees arriving in Mexico, and many shelters in Mexico closed or have limited capacity due to social distancing restrictions. Now that the COVID-19 situation has changed, arrivals could increase again to the levels seen in late 2018 or 2019, with overcrowded refugee centers lacking in medical care as potential grounds for serious COVID-19 outbreaks.

Mexico increasingly shares a similar view as the US on this migration issue, seeking ways to detain or deport migrants rather than supporting or protecting them. For instance, Mexico’s National Immigration Institute has been conducting raids on freight trains to find and detain migrants. Public opinion likely shapes these policies. In the US, support for allowing migrants into the country appeared to increase slightly from 2018 to 2019, but no significant majority emerges. Meanwhile, Mexican public opinion increasingly exhibits anti-immigrant sentiments, declining considerably since 2018, with a 2019 Washington Post poll showing that 55% supported deporting Central Americans rather than providing temporary residence and a 2019 El Financiero poll finding 63% supportive of closing to border to curb migration.

New Data Shows the Mexican Public Unwelcoming

To gauge Mexican public opinion on refugees, we conducted an original web survey June 24-26 via Qualtrics, using quota sampling. We asked 625 respondents to evaluate the statement “Mexico should accept refugees fleeing from Central America” on a five-point Likert scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. For visual clarity, we combined disagree and agree categories in the figure below.

Overall, a plurality (43.84%) opposed accepting refugees, with less than a third (30.08%) supportive. Broken down by party affiliation, we see similar results, with the largest opposition from the main conservative party PAN (52.90%) and lowest in the ruling party MORENA (41.58%). Broken down by gender, we find women slightly more supportive compared to men (32.60% vs. 27.04%), consistent with findings elsewhere and perhaps acknowledgment that women and children historically comprise a disproportionate amount of refugees. Regression analysis again finds PAN supporters to be less supportive than other respondents, although this distinction declines once controlling for gender, age, education and income, of which only age corresponded with a statistically significant decline in support. It is common for older individuals to oppose immigration due to generational changes in attitude, so this finding is not unexpected.

We also asked the question “On a 1-10 scale, with 1 being very negative and 10 very positive, how do you feel about the following countries?” Among countries listed were the sources of the Central American refugees, the three Northern Triangle countries. All three received similar average scores (Guatemala: 4.33, Honduras: 4.05, El Salvador: 4.01), higher than Venezuela (3.25), but lower than the two other countries rated (US: 7.71, China: 7.26) Yet, even after controlling for general views of the Central American countries, we find the public generally unsupportive of accepting refugees.

How Should Mexico Address the Refugee Crisis?

Towards the end of the Obama administration, aid and other efforts directed at resolving the push factors for migration in Central America, including decreasing violence and limiting corruption, appeared to have some success at reducing migration north. President Trump’s policies largely did not improve the situation, and President Biden has begun to reverse those policies and re-implement measures successful under Obama.

As discussed in a meeting between the Lopez Obrador administration and US Vice President Kamala Harris, Mexico could adopt similar aid policies, and decreasing the flow of migrants may make the Mexican public respond more positively to accepting migrants. Lopez Obrador committed to increased economic cooperation with Central America days into his term, with pledges of aid as well, but these efforts remain underdeveloped. Threats to cut aid expedite deportations only risks worsening the refugee crisis, while doing little to improve public opinion.

Increasingly, the number of family units from Guatemala and Honduras seeking asylum in Mexico, or the United States, represents a mass exodus from Central America’s Northern Triangle to flee insecurity. Combating issues such as extreme poverty and violence in Central American countries producing the mass exodus of refugees could alleviate the impact of the refugee crisis on Mexico. By alleviating the impact of the refugee crisis, refugees seeking asylum will be able to navigate immigration processes easier thus decreasing tension surrounding the influx of refugees.

Likewise, identifying the public’s security and economic concerns surrounding refugees and crafting a response should reduce opposition. A spokesperson for Vice President Harris stated that border enforcement was on the agenda during meetings with the Lopez Obrador administration, but the Mexican foreign minister reportedly stated that border security was not to be addressed at the meeting. Other than deporting migrants at a higher rate than the US, Mexico also signed an agreement with the US in June pledging money to improve opportunities for work in the Northern Triangle. Nonetheless, questions about whether this agreement will bring meaningful change remain pertinent in the light of a worsening crisis.

Our survey research shows little public interest in accepting refugees. Public sentiment is unlikely to change unless the Lopez Obrador administration finds ways to both build sympathy for the plights of refugees and address public concerns about a refugee crisis with no perceived end in sight. For example, research in the US finds public support for refugees is often higher when the emphasis is on women and children, and the Lopez Obrador administration could attempt to frame the crisis as helping specifically these groups who historically comprise most refugees. Likewise, coordinating efforts with the US and other countries may help portray to the public that the burden of refugee resettlement is being equitably shared rather than disproportionately placed on Mexico.

Facing a complex situation affecting multiple governments requires coordinated efforts and considerable resources to reach a long-term solution. Until then, the Central American refugee crisis will continue and public backlash in Mexico likely increase.

Isabel Eliassen is a 2021 Honors graduate of Western Kentucky University. She triple majored in International Affairs, Chinese, and Linguistics.

Alianna Casas is an Honors Undergraduate Researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Business Economics, Political Science, and a participant in the Joint Undergraduate/Master’s Program in Applied Economics.

Timothy S. Rich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics.

Funding for this survey was provided by the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

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Indictment of Trump associate threatens UAE lobbying success

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This month’s indictment of a billionaire, one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the United Arab Emirates highlights the successes and pitfalls of a high-stakes Emirati effort to influence US policy.

The indictment of businessman Thomas  J. Barrack, who maintained close ties to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed while serving as an influential advisor in 2016 to then-presidential candidate Trump and chair of Mr. Trump’s inauguration committee once he won the 2016 election, puts at risk the UAE’s relationship with the Biden administration.

It also threatens to reduce the UAE’s return on a massive investment in lobbying and public relations that made it a darling in Washington during the last four years.

A 2019 study concluded that Emirati clients hired 20 US lobbying firms to do their bidding at a cost of US$20 million, including US$600,000 in election campaign contributions — one of the largest, if not the largest expenditure by a single state on Washington lobbying and influence peddling.

The indictment further raises the question of why the Biden administration was willing to allow legal proceedings to put at risk its relationship with one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, one that last year opened the door to recognition of Israel by Arab and Muslim-majority states.

The UAE lobbying effort sought to position the Emirates, and at its behest, Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed’s counterpart, Mohammed bin Salman, at the heart of US policy, ensure that Emirati and Saudi interests were protected, and shield the two autocrats from criticism of various of their policies and abuse of human rights.

Interestingly, UAE lobbying in the United States, in contrast to France and Austria, failed to persuade the Trump administration to embrace one of the Emirates’ core policy objectives: a US crackdown on political Islam with a focus on the Muslim Brotherhood. UAE Crown Prince Mohammed views political Islam and the Brotherhood that embraces the principle of elections as an existential threat to the survival of his regime.

In one instance cited in the indictment, Mr. Barrack’s two co-defendants, a UAE national resident in the United States, Rashid Al-Malik, and Matthew Grimes, a Barrack employee, discussed days after Mr. Trump’s inauguration the possibility of persuading the new administration to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a designated foreign terrorist organization. “This will be a huge win. If we can list them. And they deserved to be,” Mr. Al-Malik texted Mr. Grimes on 23 January 2017.

The unsuccessful push for designating the Brotherhood came three months after Mr. Barrack identified the two Prince Mohammeds in an op-ed in Fortune magazine as members of a new generation of “brilliant young leaders.” The billionaire argued that “American foreign policy must persuade these bold visionaries to lean West rather than East… By supporting their anti-terrorism platforms abroad, America enhances its anti-terrorism policies at home.”

Mr. Barrack further sought to persuade America’s new policymakers, in line with Emirati thinking, that the threat posed by political Islam emanated not only from Iran’s clerical regime and its asymmetric defence and security policies but also from the Brotherhood and Tukey’s Islamist government. He echoed Emirati promotion of Saudi Arabia after the rise of Mohammed bin Salman as the most effective bulwark against political Islam.

“It is impossible for the US to move against any hostile Islamic group anywhere in the world without Saudi support…. The confused notion that Saudi Arabia is synonymous with radical Islam is falsely based on the Western notion that ‘one size fits all,’ Mr. Barrack asserted.

The Trump administration’s refusal to exempt the Brotherhood from its embrace of Emirati policy was the likely result of differences within both the US government and the Muslim world. Analysts suggest that some in the administration feared that designating the Brotherhood would empower the more rabidly Islamophobic elements in Mr. Trump’s support base.

Administration officials also recognized that the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt constituted a minority, albeit a powerful minority, in the Muslim world that was on the warpath against the Brotherhood.

Elsewhere, Brotherhood affiliates were part of the political structure by either participating in government or constituting part of the legal opposition in countries like Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, and Indonesia.

The affiliates have at times supported US policies or worked closely with US allies like in the case of Yemen’s Al Islah that is aligned with Saudi-backed forces.

In contrast to UAE efforts to ensure that the Brotherhood is crushed at the risk of fueling Islamophobia, Nahdlatul Ulama, one of, if not the world’s largest Muslim organization which shares the Emirates’ rejection of political Islam and the Brotherhood, has opted to fight the Brotherhood’s local Indonesian affiliate politically within a democratic framework rather than by resorting to coercive tactics.

Nahdlatul Ulama prides itself on having significantly diminished the prospects of Indonesia’s Brotherhood affiliate, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), since the 2009 presidential election. The group at the time successfully drove a wedge between then-President Susilo Yudhoyono, and the PKS, his coalition partner since the 2004 election that brought him to power. In doing so, it persuaded Mr. Yudhoyono to reject a PKS candidate as vice president in the second term of his presidency.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s manoeuvring included the publication of a book asserting that the PKS had not shed its links to militancy. The party has since failed to win even half of its peak 38 seats in parliament garnered in the 2004 election.

“Publication of ‘The Illusion of an Islamic State: The Expansion of Transnational Islamist Movements to Indonesia’ had a considerable impact on domestic policy. It primarily contributed to neutralizing one candidate’s bid for vice president in the 2009 national election campaign, who had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said militancy expert Magnus Ranstorp.

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