Obama in Mexico: More Rhetoric for Change

US President Barack Obama at a press conference in Mexico City on April 16, 2009. Obama has backed Mexico's war on its violent drug cartels in a first stop on a four-day trip to Latin America, calling for a crackdown on weapons trafficking and admitting shared responsibility (AFP/File/Luis Acosta)

Obama in Mexico: More Rhetoric for Change

MEXICO CITY - Reiterated promises of cooperation and respect marked U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Mexico Thursday. But activists and analysts from both countries told IPS that there have been enough words and that it is time for concrete action from Washington.

In his first visit as president to a Latin American country, Obama said the two countries are united by common opportunities and challenges in trade, the environment and development of border areas, and urged the media not to just focus on drugs and immigration in the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

The leaders met with the press after the welcome ceremony offered by host President Felipe Calderon at the presidential palace in Mexico City and a private meeting between the two of them.

Obama said he would push for immigration reform this year to legalize the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the United States, seven million of whom are Mexicans - a longstanding Mexican demand.

He also said that for now, because of the economic crisis, he did not believe it was prudent to review the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - one of his campaign pledges.

Obama's visit crowned a period of growing closeness between the two countries that had not been seen in decades. Calderon was the first foreign president to meet with Obama in Washington after the U.S. president-elect's victory.

And in March, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Mexico, before U.S. Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder did in early April, to discuss cross-border cooperation on organized crime.

Obama repeated his congratulations to Calderon for his "heroic job" in dealing with drug trafficking.

The U.S. leader heads Friday to Trinidad and Tobago, to take part in the Fifth Summit of the Americas this weekend.

Responding to a reporter's question on Cuba - the only country in the hemisphere that is not included in the summits because it was kicked out of the Organization of American States in 1962 - Obama said his recent decision to lift restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba by Cuban-Americans was aimed at pushing for changes on democracy and human rights in that country.

With respect to the fight against the drug cartels, Obama said "I will not pretend that this is Mexico's responsibility alone. Demand for these drugs in the United States is what's helping keep these cartels in business...More than 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States, many of them from gun shops that line our shared border."

He promised that his government would do much more to clamp down on the flow of weapons into Mexico, money laundering and domestic drug consumption.

But political scientist Daniel Blanco at the National Autonomous University of Mexico said "we have heard so many words, new diplomatic stances and promises from Washington in the difficult, asymmetrical relationship with Mexico, although there have still been few concrete developments."

"Obama's government is still young, but I think we have already heard enough; action is required now," the analyst told IPS.

One of the concrete steps announced by the U.S. government was the naming of a special "border czar" to head its stepped-up efforts to crack down on drug-related violence along the 3,200-km shared border between the two countries.

But the construction of the fence along the border - which Obama supported as senator - continues apace, as do immigration raids.

"It's true that Obama has a different discourse, but so far it's only words," Jennifer Allen, director of the Border Action Network, a Tucson, Arizona-based immigrant advocacy group, told IPS.

"In Obama's speeches and statements, we see clear changes with respect to his predecessor (George W.) Bush, especially on migration, which is our issue. But we are still waiting for concrete accomplishments," said Allen.

Enrique Morones, founder of Border Angels, a humanitarian group whose aim is to reduce the number of heat- and cold-related deaths along the border, told IPS by telephone from San Diego, California that Obama deserves his utmost confidence.

"We are giving him a year to demonstrate with actions what are now just words," said the activist.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported more than 349,000 undocumented immigrants during fiscal year 2008, which ended Sept. 30 - a 20 percent increase on the previous year.

Arturo Lopez, head of the office of care for migrants in the city of Ecatepec, in the state of Mexico near the capital, said he saw no difference between Bush and Obama's migration policies.

"The discourse is similar," he told IPS. "Bush reinforced the borders under the pretext of terrorism; Obama is doing so because of drug and weapons trafficking. Nothing has changed - immigrants are still the scapegoats."

Hugo Rosell, spokesman for the Center for Labor Research and Trade Union Consulting (CILAS), said his organization is still waiting, but without much hope, for Obama to review NAFTA as he promised during his campaign.

For many activists, trade unionists and political leaders, NAFTA, which brings together Canada, Mexico and the United States, has failed to become the engine of development and growth that it was promised to be when it went into force in 1994.

The Calderon administration is opposed to a renegotiation of the free trade treaty.

Opponents of the free trade deal say NAFTA has merely accentuated Mexico's heavy dependence on the United States.

In 1993, when Mexico's exports totaled 51.8 billion dollars and imports amounted to 65.4 billion, the United States represented 82 percent of exports and 69 percent of imports.

In 2008, 14 years after NAFTA went into effect, Mexico's exports have climbed to 292.6 billion dollars and imports to 310.1 billion, with 80 percent of exports going to the United States and 49 percent of imports coming from that country.

"Obama will bring about changes at the local and international levels - the special attention given to Mexico is an example of that - but we have to wait, we have to give him time," said Morones.

"Security is important in the relationship with Mexico, because of the violence that reigns there now," said the activist. "What we are hoping, and will fight for, is for that not to overshadow the other issues, especially immigration reform in the United States, which we expect this year."

Blanco, the political scientist, said that "from here on in, Mexicans don't want any more flattery and affectionate words from Obama, but actions and solutions; and the clock is ticking."

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