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Obama heading to Mexico

Sat., Aug. 8, 2009

Little progress expected at meeting with other North American leaders

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama will meet Sunday in Guadalajara, Mexico, with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts for a summit of North American leaders that will be long on vision and short on anything concrete. In the midst of a punishing global economic downturn, that’s not bad.

Beyond the back slaps and photo opportunities, however, are growing tensions within the powerful trading bloc. Mexico is upset over delayed aid to fight violent drug cartels. Canada is steaming over “Buy America” provisions in U.S. laws that are hurting its exports. The U.S. isn’t happy with Mexico’s human rights record.

The three leaders will discuss common strategies for containing the H1N1 virus, commonly called swine flu, which is expected to flare anew in the fall. They’ll also discuss boosting their respective economies, look for common ground on global climate-change negotiations and discuss ways to promote renewable energy sources.

The meetings Sunday and Monday will mark a unique point in time for three amigos whose nations bound their economic interests together in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. None of these three leaders – Obama, Mexico’s Felipe Calderon and Canada’s Stephen Harper – has any political investment in NAFTA, unlike their predecessors.

With NAFTA now 15 years in operation, most trade barriers have come down, and there’s a growing mood that something more needs to come next – but just what, nobody’s sure.

“I think the kinds of things that come next are things that can’t be solved at the present time. How do you make North America a more efficient economic region? One that can not only increase commerce within the three countries but make the three countries more competitive as a region?” said James Jones, who was the U.S. ambassador to Mexico when NAFTA was starting.

Officials from all three countries confirmed to McClatchy Newspapers that there will be scant talk of NAFTA at all this weekend, save for ways to resolve a 15-year dispute over allowing Mexican trucks to operate in U.S. border states.

Higher domestic political priorities leave all three leaders with little appetite for amending NAFTA just now. Obama is fighting to revamp health care. Calderon and his conservative National Action Party suffered a stinging defeat in July legislative elections. Harper and his Conservative Party, blamed for economic problems stemming from the U.S. downturn, are trying to fend off calls for national elections.

“I think the message is that in the midst of an economic recovery is not the time to revisit existing trade agreements,” said Andrew Selee, the head of the Mexico project at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a nonpartisan research institution in Washington.

That’s not to say that there won’t be friction at the Guadalajara summit; it’s just likely to be behind the scenes.

Canada is unhappy that the U.S. Congress, over objections from Obama, placed Buy America provisions in the economic stimulus plan and other new laws.

The biggest controversy will center on delays by Congress in releasing $40 million promised to Mexico to help it fight drug cartels, an initiative known as the Merida Plan. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who controls a powerful appropriations subcommittee, has held up the money because of his concern that a forthcoming State Department report fails to criticize Mexico on human rights issues.


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