As President Enrique Peña Nieto meets with US Homeland Security chief Kristjen Nielsen today, there has been a flurry of opinions and information regarding the US-Mexico relation. Much of it has been centered on Trump’s Mexico envoy and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his role in the future of the binational relationship at a moment when it’s at an all-time low.
Kushner’s surprise visit to Mexico to meet with Peña Nieto on March 7 and now Nielsen’s mission have caused speculation as to what’s going on behind the scenes. The official version mentions border agreements and platitudes on cooperation. Business Insider reports that prior to her visit:
US Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen and Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray signed several agreements this week — one aimed at promoting cooperation to stop illegal merchandise from crossing the border, one to implement joint inspection programs along the frontier, and one to promote agricultural trade. Nielsen said around 20 more were being worked on, and White House officials told The Times that several US federal agencies would announce agreements in the coming weeks.
In Mexico March 26 and 27, Nielsen met with Secretary of Foreign Affairs Luis Videgaray and her counterpart, Secretary of the Interior Alfonso Navarette, and later president Peña Nieto. The Homeland Security press release states that the two discussed “their efforts to improve border security through close collaboration”, and “facilitate more secure trade and travel between the two countries”.
Secretary Nielsen emphasized the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) commitment to working with Mexican counterparts to combat transnational crime affecting both the United States and Mexico. She also stressed the importance of the partnership between the United States and Mexico – particularly via intelligence sharing – and thanked the Mexican President for helping to foster a close partnership with the Department during his administration.
The press release actually thanks Peña Nieto twice for his service, especially in the war on drugs to enforce U.S. prohibition laws, which has cost Mexico upward of 160,000 lives over the past decade. Despite frictions between the administrations over Trump anti-immigrant directives and DHS policies and practices that have targeted Mexicans in the United States, it states:
Both sides expressed concerns with migration flows including those caused by the collapse of the Venezuelan economy and its impact in the region. The partners shared their mutual desire to confront transnational criminal organizations and money laundering. Lastly, both sides reiterated their long held respect for the human rights of migrants.
The commitment to migrants’ rights coming out of the Trump administration rings hollow to say the least. The specific reference to Venezuela is not unexpected in the context of the US government’s use of Mexico lately to denounce and isolate the Maduro govenment. The number of Venezuelans coming to Mexico has indeed risen sharply in the past year, but the statement stands out since the vast majority of migratory flows in Mexico and requests for asylum come from Central America.
Most migrants from the Northern Triangle (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala) report fleeing life-threatening violence and hunger in the region in the context of US-backed failed security and economic policies. The flows have been exacerbated recently by the electoral fraud in Honduras, also supported by the Trump adminsitration. This new crisis was confirmed by testimonies from this year’s Easter pilgrimage of Central American migrants from Mexico’s southern to northern borders called the Via Crucis.
The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees just released data showing that requests for refugee status in Mexico have increased 580% since 2014. The High Commisssioner stated that anti-immigrant policies in the U.S. under Trump and enforced by Nielsen’s Homeland Security are an important factor that leads them to predict that these flows that the two governments claimed to be concerned about will continue to grow.
The Mexican government statement issued a communiqué on the Peña-Nielsen meeting emphasizing precisely the areas most criticized in the relationship with the United States–protection of Mexican migrants’ rights in the United States, national sovereignty and the potential of the shared border where Trump contines to insist on building a sea-to-sea wall. However, it provided no information on any advances in these areas.
The Inconvenient Son-in-Law
Days before the visit, the New York Times published an article entitled “As Ties With Mexico Fray, Kushner Works Quietly to Mend Them“. Considering that the article has no new information in it, it is difficult to discern the reason behind the publication. A number of similar articles, including an almost identical one in the Business Insider under the title “Jared Kushner is still in the driver’s seat on US-Mexico relations, but a deeper problem persists” increased speculation.
The NYT piece is a political fluff piece on Kushner, seemingly designed to bolster his role as he falls deeper and deeper into problems. Not only was he stripped of his security clearance in the White House, but his delusions of grandeur have been further curtailed by reality checks and tainted by a slurry of bad press related to his business failings, the Mueller investigation reportedly on his heels for financial deals and security risks, and his failure to actually accomplish anything.
Why would Peña Nieto, a president of the 11th largest economy in the world, break protocol to meet with an advisor who doesn’t hold a cabinet position or even high-level security clearance? This isn’t the first time Peña has set aside national pride and personal face-saving to seek deals with the Trump administration.
One possibility is that the Peña administration believes that Kushner is its only hope of saving NAFTA before the elections. Kushner is Trump’s point person on Mexico and oversees NAFTA negotiations.
Peña is also likely looking to legacy, especially to lock in much-criticized aspects of his structural reforms, given the probable election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in part as a mandate to rescind or modify the broadly unpopular reforms in energy and education in particular. He clearly wants to make sure that his policies favoring the small political elite he forms part of remain in place and one way of doing that is by quickly creating a series of bilateral agreements that nail down cooperation on those policies.
Another side of it has to do with Peña and Kushner’s personal agendas. Mexican government insiders say that Videgaray has already taken over the reins in the run-up to the July 1st elections. In this context, Kushner’s reception could be a sign that Peña has virtually abandoned the vestments of office and is seeking personal gain and protection. There’s a phrase for the PRI tradition of emptying the coffers on your way out of office: “Año de Hidalgo, pendejo el que deje algo” (The year of Hidalgo, only a fool leaves anything behind”.
We don’t know what Kushner and Peña Nieto discussed in the reportedly three hours they spent in Los Pinos on March 8, but Peña Nieto is as desperate as Kushner to save his hide. Peña’s problem is not internal investigations or bad financial deals (he has enough raw power to put a lid on those), but the presidential election in July. His candidate, JoseAntonio Meade, is almost certain to lose, opening up the possibility that the traditional immunity former Mexican presidents have enjoyed could be stripped away.
Kushner, as mentioned above, has a number of weak flanks. The Washington Post reported that the former National Security Advisor, Gen. H.R. McMaster was concerned about Kushner’s foreign contacts and diplomats worry openly that foreign governments, including Mexico, could manipulate the famous son-in-law, green in foreign affairs and vulnerable due to his shaky financial standing and erratic father in-law. With Kushner reportedly holding debt in the range of 100 million dollars, he seems desperate for a lifeline to emerge from his privileged role as pseudo-diplomat, which opens up a dangerous and ethically dubious personal agenda in his international dealings.
Within this morass of complex interests that omit the only one that should be present in international diplomacy–the public good of the nations represented–it’s utterly absurd to present Jared Kushner as the White Knight who rides in to save US-Mexico relations.
His visit to Mexico went down badly in Mexican press. Maybe not quite as badly as his father-in-law’s August 2017 visit, which got Videgaray fired and then reincarnated as Secretary of Foreign Relations, but it was seen generally as another instance of Videgaray and Peña pandering for Trump’s attention.
Mexican magazine, Eje Central, wrote on the eve of his visit:
Jared Kushner, today more than ever, is a burden on President Donald Trump and nothing good can come out of a meeting with President Peña Nieto, with decorated Army Generals above him, and the weight of accusations of business favors as a member of the White House. As a message and as an event, this act confirms Trump’s disdain for Mexico and the traps that the Mexican government continues to fall into.
The free daily, Publimetro, referring to upcoming presidential elections in Mexico and the ongoing NAFTA negotiations, concluded:
The visit of the political advisor [Kushner] and envoy of President Donald Trump is neither opportune nor convenient in these times of economic instability and political uncertainty.
The Mexican government issued a vague press statement on the meeting:
The Mexican and U.S. officials discussed issues of common interest, including the fight against transnational criminal organizations, drug trafficking and the flow of arms and cash between both countries. Also, they discussed issues of border security; orderly and safe migration, including a potential project for a circular program for the mobility of agricultural workers; development in Central America; and fomenting job creation and shared prosperity through fair and reciprocal trade, as well as the continuaton of NAFTA negotiations in an expedite manner.
There continues to be a lot of suspicion regarding the real reasons for Kushner’s visit. One web comment stated:
Obviously [Kushner] didn’t come to Mexico just to say hi to Peña and Videgaray because he likes them so much. He came to see what that pair of corrupt scoundrels would offer him in excehage for support from the gringos in the presidential elections…
From what we know so far, there are no real breakthroughs for the beleaguered bilateral relationship in the Kushner and Nielsen agreements. Many are simply the result of the kind of normal neighborhood governance that takes place all the time, and others could be part of an attempt on the part of both governments to cement policies and practices before or in case the center-left candidate comes to power.
Either way, they do not improve the relationship. If the Trump administration is seen to be conspiring to tie the hands of a new democratically elected president, they could cause a further political backlash against Peña and the PRI.
In this context, citizens on both sides of the border must demand that the substance of the talks and the agreements be made fully public.