April 17, 2009
President Obama stopped in Mexico City today en route to Trinidad and Tobago, where the Summit of the Americas is being held. It is his first trip to Latin America since his inauguration, and will be an early test to see whether his softer approach to diplomacy is reciprocated. CNN.com notes that his predecessor visited Mexico several times during his eight years in office, but did not go to Mexico City, presumably because of fears that anti-U.S. protests would get out of hand. This overseas venture by Obama comes just two weeks after his trip to Europe and the Middle East, which was hailed by some as a public relations success even though he largely failed to persuade allied countries to follow his lead in economic policy.
The violence in Mexico perpetrated by the narco-trafficking gangs has put the very authority of the government at risk, though the situation has stabilized somewhat since the Mexican army cracked down last month. This, plus the subsequent admission by Secretary of State Clinton that U.S. drug abuse is leading cause of Mexico's problems, has at least taken the heat off the U.S.-Mexico relationship. President Felipe Calderon is tightly constrained by the need to work with a congress that is dominated by political opponents: the center-left PRI and the left-wing PRD.
Few would doubt that foreign policy is not a high priority for President Obama, and among the regions of the world, he is probably least concerned with what happens in Latin America. During the 2008 campaign, he consistently opposed free trade agreements with Latin America, bowing to pressure from American unions who dislike competition from cheap-labor countries. In April he was criticized by President Alvaro Uribe for opposing the pending U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement, in June the Democrats blocked congressional consideration of that agreement, and in November he was warned by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Calderon that his plans to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement would have serious negative effects. Obama is enough of a pragmatist to avoid making big blunders on trade policy, but at a time when leftist radical governments are harming U.S. interests in several countries, his aloof attitude toward our hemispheric neighbors is a tragic squandering of potential good will.