President Barack Obama on Thursday begins a whirlwind trip to Latin America, where a high-profile meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto involving immigration, drug violence and trade tops the agenda.
Obama will travel to America’s southern neighbor amid a changing relationship with Mexico, fueled in part by Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) member Peña Nieto’s election to Mexican presidency following 12 years of conservative governance. Already, Peña Nieto has signaled his interest in revisiting an aspect of Mexico’s relationship with the U.S. government, namely the collaboration in combating violent drug traffickers in Mexico.
President Barack Obama reacts to immigration reform legislation recently constructed by members of the U.S. Senate.
"I think that in my first conversation with [Peña Nieto], he indicated to me that he very much continues to be concerned about how we can work together to deal with transnational drug cartels," Obama said at a press conference Tuesday at the White House. "We’ve made great strides in the coordination and cooperation between our two governments over the last several years. But my suspicion is is that things can be improved."
Obama’s trip to Mexico on Thursday – and later, to Costa Rica, where the president will meet with various Central American leaders – is his first to Latin America since winning re-election. And even in the months since securing a second term, the political landscape in the region has shifted dramatically.
In addition to Peña Nieto’s ascension in Mexico, the Venezuelan government has undergone significant changes following the death of Hugo Chavez in March. And the Cuban regime, led by Raul and Fidel Castro, is on as precarious footing as ever.
But the meeting with Mexico, though brief, is sure to attract the most attention of Obama’s trip.
Peña Nieto’s government has suggested it may move away from aggressive prosecution of its battle against drug cartels, which have wracked the country with violence. His reformist agenda leaves open the question as to how – and whether – the U.S. and Mexico will continue to pool resources in fighting drug lords.
But the economic relationship between the United States and Mexico will also be a central element of Obama’s trip. Mexico sits near the top of the list of the United States’ largest trading partner, a relationship that was facilitated by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the 20-year-old trade arrangement between Mexico, the U.S. and Canada.
“We spend so much time on security issues between the United States and Mexico that sometimes I think we forget this is a massive trading partner, responsible for huge amounts of commerce and huge numbers of jobs on both sides of the border,” Obama said Tuesday.
Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP - Getty Images
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto delivers a speech in Mexico City on March 5.
The two leaders’ meeting also comes against the backdrop of the politically thorny battle over immigration reform in the United States. Both legal and illegal immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries has refashioned the political demography of many southwestern states, prompting Obama to vow to achieve comprehensive immigration reform this year.
In a late November visit to the White House, Peña Nieto voiced support for Obama’s goal of passing an immigration reform law that provides undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States a pathway to full citizenship. Perhaps as significantly, the immigration reform proposal before the Senate would also establish a temporary and seasonal-worker program for laborers in Mexico and other Latin American nations. At the same time, a proposed border fence between the U.S. and Mexico threatens to inflame aspects of the relationship between the two countries.
"We do have to tell you that we fully support your proposal, sir, for this migration reform," Pena Nieto told Obama during that visit. "We do want to tell you that we want to contribute. We really want to participate with you."
This story was originally published on Thu May 2, 2013 4:09 AM EDT