Mexico's President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto will meet President Barack Obama for the first time on Tuesday and the leaders have some weighty issues on their agenda.
According to the White House, the leaders will meet for under an hour while trying to tackle everything from economic development, trade, immigration, and "common security challenges" (read: the drug war). But first and foremost, the leaders will need to establish a rapport that could define their relationship for the next four years.
"He's got to establish a personal connection with President Obama," said Eric Farnsworth, the vice president of the Council of the Americas in charge of the organization's Washington, D.C. office, said Peña Nieto. "This is a get to know you session."
The 46-year-old president to be has much to prove.
A newcomer to the world stage, Peña Nieto, must prove he is committed to democracy since his Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) ruled Mexico with an autocratic iron first for nearly 70 years and became notorious for its rampant corruption.
The president-elect has said he represents a new breed of PRI leaders, but according to Farnsworth, "The president elect has the burden of proof on his shoulders that he is not of the old PRI and that this is a new day."
Mexico's reputation in the United States has reached a nadir. Nearly six in ten Americans see Mexico as a source of problems for the U.S. rather than a good partner and neighbor, according to a recent study commissioned by Vianovo and GSD&M. That does not bode well for a country that's one of the U.S.'s top trading partners.
President Obama has said that immigration will be one of his top domestic priorities during his first year in office, but expect Peña Nieto to urge him further to take up the issue.
Mexico's political leaders have constantly prodded the U.S. to pass a reform bill that addresses the status of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the country as well as issues like the flow of migrant labor. Fifty-eight percent of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are Mexican, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
"I think the president elect is going to encourage Obama to move forward on immigration reform," said Farnsworth, a former official at the State Department and in the Clinton White House on Latin American affairs. "There are obvious implications for Mexico as well."
Propelled into office by the support of 71 percent of Latino voters, who for the first time made up 10 percent of the electorate, Obama stated that he would make immigration a priority.
At a news conference one week after he is elected, Obama said that "we need to seize the moment" and pass an immigration bill, adding that he expects a bill could be introduced shortly after he's inaugurated for a second term in January.
"I am very confident we can get immigration reform done," he said.
Peña Nieto echoed Obama's optimism in a Washington Post op-ed published on Nov. 23.
"Some analysts detect new momentum for comprehensive immigration reform since the U.S. presidential election. All Mexicans would welcome such a development," he said.
Farnsworth said that it's unlikely that Peña Nieto will endorse policy specifics for the U.S. since he is a foreign leader, but seeing that both leaders agree on the need for reform, they can talk broadly about the immigration issue.
With net migration from Mexico falling to zero, thanks to a weakened U.S. economy and tough border enforcement measures, the leaders could address ways to bring in more laborers legally from Mexico to work in sectors like agriculture.
"Fundamentally what [Mexico] want in terms of immigration is recognition that Mexican labor is critical to the well-being of the United States economy, "said Farnsworth.
Peña Nieto wrote in The Washington Post that it is a "mistake" to limit the U.S.-Mexico relationship to drugs and security concerns. But the fact is that the drug war remains one of the most pressing topics.
Mexico's war on drug cartels, which is aided by the U.S., is largely mired in a stalemate and has resulted in the deaths of at least 60,000 people since the effort began in 2006 under President Felipe Calderón, according to reports.
The drug war is the main driver of Mexico's negative image in the U.S., with 72 percent of Americans naming drug-related violence as the main reason for their perception, according to the Vianovo study.
Peña Nieto has said he will continue the fight against the cartels, but that he will re-think Calderón's approach by focusing more on street-crime reduction and bolstering the country's police force to fight the drug organizations instead of relying heavily on the military as is done now.
"Both of our nations are seriously affected by organized-crime activities and drug trafficking. Working against them must be a shared responsibility. I will continue the efforts begun by President Felipe Calderón, but the strategy must necessarily change," wrote Peña Nieto in the Post.
Burgeoning support for the legalization of marijuana also comes as a backdrop to the talks. Colorado and Washington in November became the first states in the U.S. to legalize the drug for recreational use.
In addition, some Latin American countries are rethinking their approach. Uruguay is considering a proposal backed by President José Mujica to legalize and regulate the production of small amounts of recreational pot. Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina has even floated the idea of international drug legalization.
But both Obama and Peña Nieto do not back legalization and instead will focus on how best to execute the drug war moving forward.
Peña Nieto could ask for stronger U.S. cooperation in its anti-cartel efforts in terms of reducing the demand for illegal drugs in the U.S. and stopping the flow of automatic weapons and laundered money south of the border. The president-elect is also expected to meet with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Tuesday.
"Is this going to become a real partnership or just a finger pointing exercise?" asked Farnsworth.
The U.S. and Mexican economies are not only linked by immigration, but by trade. Mexico, A North American Free Trade Agreement Partner, is the U.S.'s third-largest trading partner behind Canada and China, engaging in more than $369 billion in trade activity (imports and exports) with the United States this year alone, according to Census data.
The U.S. doubles as Mexico's largest trading partner, with nearly 80 percent of Mexican goods being exported to the U.S. and more than half of Mexico's total imports coming from the U.S.
Mexico has also joined in talks with the U.S. and other nations to form a Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement with Asian countries. And Peña Nieto has spoken about opening up Mexico's energy industry to private and foreign investment.
Together with the United States and Canada, this may well contribute to guaranteeing North American energy independence — something from which we would all greatly benefit," he wrote in the Post.
Commitment to Democracy
Peña Nieto will also meet with Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress and with Vice President Joe Biden during his D.C. visit in an effort to deepen his familiarity with U.S. officials.
The Obama administration's decision to send Biden to Peña Nieto's inauguration this Saturday is seen as a positive sign in Mexico, but there is still some wariness in the Mexican public about how the new president will govern the country.
Mexico's center-right National Action Party (PAN), which has held power for the last 12 years, implemented democratic reforms and there is some concern about how those will hold up under a Peña Nieto administration. Observers will closely watch whom he appoints to cabinet positions, for example.
"I don't think the Mexican public anymore is willing to put up with the PRI of the past," said Farnsworth. He added that Peña Nieto can't earn that trust from world leaders and the public in just one day, but making a good first impression is critical.
"I expect to be judged by his actions," he said. "But if you establish that trust at the personal level [with U.S. leaders], that goes a long way," he said.