MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador plans to begin a lightning, five-day tour Thursday to four Central American countries and Cuba to discuss his government’s approach to development and ways it might help alleviate the pressure to migrate.
It will only be the third overseas trip in more than three years for a president fond of saying that the best foreign policy is good domestic policy. The tour is an opportunity for Mexico to reassert itself as a leader in Latin America and will be welcomed by some leaders under pressure from the U.S. government and others for their alleged anti-democratic tendencies.
Both geographically and metaphorically, Mexico finds itself wedged between the United States and the rest of Latin America. López Obrador has deflected criticism dating to the Trump administration that his government is doing Washington’s dirty work in trying to stop migrants before they reach the U.S. border.
López Obrador will be received in Central America, in part, as an emissary of the United States when it comes to migration policy. He and President Joe Biden spoke by phone Friday and their foreign secretaries met in Washington Tuesday.
The U.S. government has been trying to build consensus ahead of the June Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. It hopes to cement a regional approach to managing migration flows, which in recent years have involved large numbers of Central Americans, but also more recently Haitians, Cubans, Venezuelans, Colombians and migrants arriving from other continents who make their way up through the Americas.
“We’re working together closely to deal with what is an unprecedented migration challenge throughout our hemisphere, and for that matter around the world, and the collaboration with Mexico is absolutely vital,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday.
There is agreement between López Obrador and Biden that root causes of migration like a lack of economic opportunity, crime and corruption must be addressed. López Obrador has repeatedly urged Biden to fund an expansion of some of the Mexican leader’s signature social programs to Central America.
One pays farmers to plant trees that eventually would generate income through fruit or timber and incentivizes staying put, a program praised by White House climate envoy John Kerry during a visit last year. Another apprentices young people to companies. Critics say both programs lack accountability.
The foreign ministry in Guatemala, where López Obrador will make his first stop Thursday, said it expected to discuss immigration and the tree planting program.
Ana Vanessa Cardenas, coordinator of the international relations program at Anahuac Mayab University in Merida, said the link between Mexico and U.S. is important to Central American governments under pressure to address the root causes of migration because “Mexico is the facilitator of this help and also a motivator of that aid.”
Guatemala President Alejandro Giammattei has been under pressure from the U.S. government for backsliding on the country’s fight against corruption - a campaign central to López Obrador’s image in Mexico.
El Salvador President Nayib Bukele has faced international condemnation since imposing a state of emergency after a surge in gang killings at the end of March, so a visit from López Obrador, who prefers a “hugs not bullets” approach to security, is good opportunity to show he’s not being isolated. El Salvador’s security forces have arrested more than 22,000 suspected gang members in just over a month and human rights organizations say there have been many arbitrary arrests.
Mexican Sen. Emilio Álvarez Icaza, a former president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, called for López Obrador to suspend the visit to El Salvador last week. “It would set a very serious precedent that the first time a Mexican president is in El Salvador it’s right in the setting of a state of emergency,” he said.
“It speaks badly of Mexican democracy, but for the other country (El Salvador), it has the opposite effect,” Cardenas said. “It endorses that things are being done within a framework of international recognition that Nayib Bukele would be hard pressed to get from another country.”
In Honduras, new President Xiomara Castro has forged a close relationship with the Biden administration. Last month, Honduras extradited former President Juan Orlando Hernández to face drug and weapons charges in the U.S. and Castro campaigned on cracking down on corruption. She is desperate to activate the economy and create jobs, so could be open to López Obrador’s proposals if there is money behind it.
The president’s agenda in Belize is less clear. The tiny country does not have a significant migration problem, but López Obrador did hint at one topic for discussion earlier this week. One of his favorite projects is the construction of a tourist train around the Yucatan Peninsula that neighbord Belize. The Maya Train has been criticized for its environmental impact and lack of feasibility studies, but López Obrador insists it will bring development to impoverished regions.
On Tuesday, López Obrador said the train would benefit Belize and Guatemala by spurring economic activity along Mexico’s southern border.
The president’s final stop in Cuba will be the most symbolic.
Cuba President Miguel Díaz-Canel visited Mexico for its independence celebrations last year. López Obrador has largely governed as a nationalist and populist, but he has positioned himself politically as a a devoted leftist.
“All Mexican presidents in post-revolutionary Cuban history have made a trip to Cuba and obviously (Andrés) Manuel López Obrador, leftist president, could not be the exception,” said Jorge Guajardo, a former Mexican diplomat and senior director at McLarty Associates in Washington.
The visit also is an opportunity to push back against the idea that López Obrador has been too aligned with the United States in helping hold back migration, he said. López Obrador has criticized the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba and he said that he told U.S. officials that no country should be excluded from the Summit of the Americas. The Biden administration has signaled that Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua would not be invited.
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