Cinco de Mayo celebrations: Checking in on U.S.-Mexico relations
President López Obrador and his wife Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller celebrated Cinco de Mayo Thursday in the distinct ways for which the day is honored on both sides of the border.
While López Obrador visited the city of Puebla to take part in a military parade commemorating a Mexican Army victory over the French in 1862, Gutiérrez accepted U.S. First Lady Jill Biden’s invitation to be her guest of honor at the Cinco de Mayo celebrations at the White House.
Her visit aims to “demonstrate the current good relations and friendship between Mexico and the United States,” according to a press release issued by the Mexican Embassy in Washington D.C.
Jill Biden highlighted this friendship at the beginning of the celebration. “Dr. Gutiérrez, Beatriz, from our love of poetry and literature to our shared passion for education, we have so much in common,” she said. “It’s not only our history that is tied to Mexico, but our future, as well.”
Opinion polls conducted during the Trump administration found that U.S.-Mexico relations had deteriorated to much less than “friendly,” and tensions have simmered ever since. So Courthouse News spoke with several experts on various aspects of the bilateral relationship — politics, trade, security and border issues — to get an idea on the current state of the relationship between the two countries.
“The relationship between Mexico and the United States is much less confrontational than it was under the Trump administration,” said Rafael Fernández De Castro, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexico Studies at the University of California, San Diego. “The Biden administration understands perfectly the importance of Mexico to the United States.”
A key player in this relationship is Ambassador Ken Salazar, who has fostered a close relationship of trust with President López Obrador.
“In Mexico we’ve returned to the times of imperial presidencies. The president is very powerful, has very few checks and balances, so this relationship between Salazar and López Obrador is very important to bilateral relations and opens up a space for dialogue,” Fernández said.
However, there is still tension between the two governments. López Obrador tends to put internal politics before international relations, which has caused some strain. “What happened is that López Obrador broke the golden rule in bilateral relations, which is not to politicize the relationship,” said Fernández.
Some of Biden’s political opponents have also succumbed to this rule-breaking, as seen with Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s criticism of López Obrador’s discourse on the issue of violence against journalists in Mexico.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s increased vehicle inspections at the border in April in response to the Biden administration’s announcement to end Title 42 were another sign of these tensions, but Fernández said the political situation is improving overall, and that Gutiérrez’s visit to the White House is a positive sign.
“I like these kinds of meetings, because they require the participants to concentrate on the relationship and focus on results,” he said.
The areas of political conflict, however, do affect the economic side of the relationship, according to Gabriela Siller, an economic analyst at the Mexican financial firm Banco Base.
“Mexico is the United States’ second-biggest trade partner, but these trade relations are put at risk mostly by the reform initiatives carried out by the López Obrador administration, which jeopardize U.S. investment in Mexico,” said Siller, referring to the president’s proposed electricity reform, among other aspects of his touted “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico.
She said that actions like Abbott’s border inspections and López Obrador’s characteristic response to them in his morning press conferences — while in Puebla for the Cinco de Mayo parade, he called out Abbott’s politics with the visual aid of a music video by the popular group Los Tigres del Norte — only put trade relations more at risk.
“This only makes them more tense at a time of so much economic uncertainty and what we need most is stability,” said Siller.
Fernández, for his part, highlighted the economic side of U.S.-Mexico relations as a point of understanding and pointed to the USMCA free trade agreement as a stabilizing force between the countries.
Where the relationship really needs work, however, is in matters of security, according to Fernández.
Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, agreed, saying that the Bicentennial Framework for security signed this year is inadequate to address the security situation shared by both countries.
For Vigil, the agreement leaves too much responsibility for security problems in the hands of each individual country. “Without a cooperative agreement — which to me, this is not — it’s going to be disastrous for Mexico and the United States,” he said.
“What it’s lacking is teeth and a framework that would lay strong foundations for a much more cohesive working relationship,” he said, adding that both countries still must work on their own respective responsibilities.
The United States should focus more on reducing the demand for drugs at home through integrated drug education in schools, in churches and in the home, he said, and Mexico needs to do more to strengthen its justice system. But more collaborative enforcement efforts need to be implemented in order to reduce drug trafficking and the violence it causes.
“Drug traffickers can turn their strategy on a dime, and we need to be as proactive than the cartels, or even more so. There’s a lot of stuff that we can do together, but López Obrador has basically destroyed the bilateral working efforts in terms of counter-narcotics,” he said, pointing to the Mexican president’s restrictions on how the DEA and other U.S. agencies can work in Mexico after he exonerated former defense chief Salvador Cienfuegos in January.
López Obrador accused the DEA of “fabricating” the charges against Cienfuegos, who had been arrested in the U.S. on drug smuggling charges and returned to Mexico for possible prosecution.
“The Bicentennial Framework is not going to have any impact whatsoever. It’s like having a tiger with no claws or teeth addressing the drug problem,” Vigil said.
Despite all these tensions, much of the positive aspects of U.S.-Mexico relations can be found, interestingly enough, at the place where they are often most intensely focused in the public discourse: the border.
Irasema Coronado, director of the School of Transborder Studies at Arizona State University, said that she finds diplomacy, partnership and understanding in the economic and familial ties that span the frontier.
“Sometimes these transborder relationships can be affected by the broader U.S.-Mexico relationship, but at the local level, people by and large have better diplomatic and economic relations than the larger binational agenda,” she said.
This may seem contrary to what people often hear about this region.
“The further you get from the border, the scarier it seems. If you’re in Ohio or somewhere else far away, the border seems scary from all the stuff you see on TV, and surely there are those aspects to it, but there are also binational, functioning economic and family relationships that flourish on the border,” she said.
“From a border scholar’s perspective, and comparatively across the world, this is a relatively peaceful, open border, with good relationships. We’re not fighting with each other, we’re not killing each other. Are there tensions? Absolutely, but they’re part of the relationship,” said Coronado.
She and the others interviewed for this piece all agreed that meetings such as Thursday’s between the first ladies are a good thing for U.S.-Mexico relations.
“Meetings like this can absolutely help. The more people meet, the more engagement there is and the better they know each other, the more opportunities there will be for mutual respect to emerge,” said Coronado.