There's trouble south of the Rio Grande.
In 2006, Mexico elected a bright, conservative reformer as President. Felipe Calderon has attempted to open Mexico's flagging energy sector to private investment, fight government corruption, and crack down on the illegal drug trade. He's making some progress (albeit less than the U.S. would like) and it's coming at a significant cost.
Throughout these efforts, President Calderon had previously been able to count on the support of the White House as he pushed for an agenda that would ultimately benefit the U.S. When Barack Obama was elected, the situation changed - most notably because Obama favored renegotiating NAFTA, which Calderon had opposed. Nevertheless, Calderon agreed to negotiate - most likely because Mexico could pursue a guest worker program as part of any deal, and could push for more favorable treatment of its exports to the U.S.
In just the last few days however, the US-Mexico relationship has taken some serious blows. Things have deteriorated so badly and so quickly, that President Calderon has accused the U.S. of perpetrating 'a campaign against Mexico:'
In a speech before the America Society and Council of the Americas, Calderon lamented "what appears to be an anti-Mexico campaign ... but that neither intimidates us nor changes one bit our firm resolve to strengthen the rule of law in Mexico."
The proximate reason for Calderon's salvo was the listing by Forbes of a Mexican drug trafficker among the world's richest people. Calderon has also been stung by the concerns expressed by Obama about Mexico's handling of the war on drugs and his consideration of sending National Guard troops to the border. And it seems that the straw which broke the camel's back is the cavalier way Obama violated NAFTA. Apparently Calderon has decided there's more to be risked from being a friend of the United States than by putting some distance between himself and the new administration.
Calderon's criticism of the U.S. has gotten prominent play in the Mexican press (naturally). But perhaps even worse is the State Department response, which made the cover of several Mexican dailies. A spokesperson addressed Calderon's comments by saying:
"The United States government is not, you know, trying to hatch any plan against Mexico. That's just not the case."
That quote has been rendered as 'There's No U.S. Campaign Against Mexico' -- a headline which blared across many Mexican front pages yesterday. It's not exactly the headline that the Obama administration was looking for; it revives an awful lot of old stereotypes about the U.S. and its attitude toward Mexico. And if you need any proof that Mexican leaders are right now very raw about the treatment they're getting from the U.S. government, Secretary Clinton's recently-announced trip to Mexico is being described there as an emergency mission to ease tensions:
In order to ease tensions between Mexico and the United States, due to the criticism made by some officials of the presidency of Barack Obama on combating drug trafficking in Mexico and its consequences, Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state will conduct a lightning visit to Mexico later this month.
It's awfully early in an administration to be rebuilding relationships but then again, the Obama team has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to sour relations in a short span. Hopefully Secretary Clinton can take a step in the right direction, as our relationship with Mexico is critical going forward - and the Mexican government seems somewhat fragile right now.
For now at least, Calderon's rhetoric is probably more of a warning shot than it is evidence of a serious rift. But if Calderon and the Mexican government begin seriously to question the relationship with the U.S., then China, Venezuela, Russia, and others have shown a desire to build stronger ties in Latin America. If Mexico ever chooses to take a step toward one of those nations, it will become much harder for us to control our borders, fight drugs, and secure a stable energy supply. Hopefully there are some grownups in the White House who consider the future.