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Need to know: Mexico's new president meets Obama

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Need to know: Mexico's new president meets Obama

  • Enrique Peña Nieto campaigns in March.
    Angélica Rivera de Peña/FlickrEnrique Peña Nieto campaigns in March.

BOSTON, Mass. — "Both Mexico and the United States held presidential races this year, and the results offer an opportunity to redirect our countries' bilateral relationship." That's the hope of Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico's president-elect, writing in The Washington Post Friday

During his first official visit to the White House on Tuesday, Peña Nieto had a unique opportunity to begin shifting gears.

Looking back, the last time a Mexican president-elect made his pro forma visit to the White House was in 2006, when Felipe Calderon met then second-term President George W. Bush. It's been a long, rocky road for the countries battling global economic turmoil and deadly drug lords since the days of Bush's "mi casa es su casa."

On Dec. 1, 45-year-old Peña Nieto will take the presidential sash from outgoing President Calderon, a close US ally whose party has been forging relations with Washington since it came to power in 2000. Pena Nieto is largely an unkown for Washington.

A dramatic shift in the relationship seems unlikely, the Washington Office on Latin America think tank said on Monday.

Still, many are watching to see how Peña Nieto — a somewhat reputable former state governor from a highly disreputable party — changes the tenor of the all-important US-Mexico alliance.

Here are a few points on the new Mexican leader's agenda as he visits the United States:

1. Take our trade, please.

Economics. It's not a new tune in the Mexico-US affair. But lately Mexico's escalated drug war — and the nearly $2 billion in US security aid poured into it since 2008 — has stolen much of the bilateral show. 

And the news headlines. One recent grisly case in point: 19 bodies found in northern state of Chihuahua.

Nevertheless, Peña Nieto says he wants to "rearrange our common priorities." 

"It is a mistake to limit our bilateral relationship to drugs and security concerns," he writes in WaPo.

Peña Nieto's bottom line: The relationship must refocus on economics and trade.

After almost two decades of the North American Free Trade Agreement first taking effect, those stars are aligning. The United States is Mexico's top trading partner. Mexico is the US' second export destination and third source of foreign oil.

Some experts see the relationship strengthening further.

Other bilateral and global issues will remain strong but "economic issues are likely to dominate the agenda for the first time in over a decade," says a recent policy brief by the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.

"The strongest engagement, going forward, is likely to be on the economic issues that can help create jobs for people on both sides of the border," the brief said.

2. Love thy immigrating neighbor.

So, about that immigration reform promised in Obama's first term …. That didn't happen.

But a shrewd Mexican president will see an opportunity in Obama's re-election, which happened in part thanks to massive Latino votes, to nudge his Washington amigo to push new efforts to update America's byzantine immigration laws.

Now the Republican Party, after losing big with minority voters, is feeling pressure to come up with a viable immigration overhaul option.

Obama took the lead on election night, with talk about a vision of "a tolerant America open to the dreams of an immigrant's daughter."

Mexicans will need to see more than talk.

The Wilson Center stresses that a quarter of all US immigrants are from Mexico and one in 10 Americans are of Mexican descent.

Many families in Mexico rely on remittances, the cash sent home from migrants laboring abroad. Most of that money flows from the United States and represents 2 percent of Mexico's economy, The Los Angeles Times reported.

Mexico's central bank data show remittances slipped by more than 20 percent in September compared with the same month in 2011. Mexicans losing jobs in the weak US labor market could be partly to blame. But more broadly, whether the economy's up or down, many of them long for a clear path to normalized working and living conditions in the US. 

In his opinion piece, Peña Nieto touched lightly on this.

"Some analysts detect new momentum for comprehensive immigration reform since the US presidential election," Peña Nieto writes. "All Mexicans would welcome such a development."

3. Drug war. What is it good for?

Peña Nieto rightly acknowledged both countries' recent presidential elections — but he omitted epic US referendums that will probably have a longer-lasting impact on their countries' ties. Americans legalized marijuana in the states of Colorado and Washington.

While Mexico's pot smokers undoubtedly felt the contact high from their US counterparts' legal victory, analysts and policymakers there saw heavy implications. It meant potentially deep cuts to drug cartels' vast revenue and a cause for revamping Mexico's counter-narcotics policy.

Latin America is already on course for historic overhauls of national anti-drug laws, and Peña Nieto does not seem averse to talking it over.

Time's Tim Padgett and Dolly Mascarenas today offered a glimpse of the magazine's forthcoming interview with the president-elect.

Speaking about the US new pot legislation, he said:

"it opens a space for a rethinking of our [drug war] policy. It opens a debate about the course the drug war should be taking. It doesn't necessarily mean the Mexican government is suddenly going to change what it's doing now … but I am in favor of a hemispheric debate on the effectiveness of the drug war route we've been on."

Those comments may actually be more akin to Obama's thinking than they sound. After all, on a visit in Mexico in March, Vice President Joseph Biden himself made it ambivalently unclear: "It's worth discussing, but there is no way the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy."

These are just a few points, but there's more at stake for Mexico's new administration's relations with Washington still in prenatal care.

Obama is in his final term but Peña Nieto, legally barred from seeking re-election, also only has one term to get it right.

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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