MEXICO CITY – Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador challenged U.S. President Joe Biden to end an attitude of “abandonment” and “disdain” for Latin America and the Caribbean as the two leaders met on Monday, making for a brusque opening to a summit of North American leaders.
The comments were a stark contrast to the public display of affection between López Obrador and Biden shortly before, as they smiled and embraced and shook hands for the cameras. But once the two sat down in an ornate room at the Palacio Nacional, flanked by delegations of top officials, it didn't take long for tensions to bubble to the surface.
Most of the summit’s work will be handled on Tuesday, when the two leaders and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are to hold hours of talks. Migration, both legal and illegal, and border security will be key topics.
On Monday, López Obrador challenged Biden to improve life across the region, telling him that “you hold the key in your hand.”
“This is the moment for us to determine to do away with this abandonment, this disdain, and this forgetfulness for Latin America and the Caribbean,” he said.
He also complained that too many imports are coming from Asia instead of being produced in the Americas.
“We ask ourselves, couldn’t we produce in America what we consume?" he said. "Of course.”
Biden responded by defending the billions of dollars that the United States spends in foreign aid around the world, saying “unfortunately our responsibility just doesn't end in the Western Hemisphere.” And he referenced U.S. deaths from fentanyl, a drug that flows over the border from Mexico.
While both men pledged to work together, it was a noticeably sharp exchange, on full display before reporters. They met privately for about an hour before having dinner with Trudeau and their wives.
The meeting is held most years, although there was a hiatus while Donald Trump was U.S. president. It’s often called the “three amigos summit,” a reference to the deep diplomatic and economic ties between the countries, but new strains have emerged.
All three countries are struggling to handle an influx of people arriving in North America and to crack down on smugglers who profit from persuading migrants to make the dangerous trip to the U.S.
In addition, Canada and the U.S. accuse López Obrador of violating a free trade pact by favoring Mexico’s state-owed utility over power plants built by foreign and private investors. Meanwhile, Trudeau and López Obrador are concerned about Biden’s efforts to boost domestic manufacturing, creating concerns that U.S. neighbors could be left behind.
Biden and López Obrador haven’t been on particularly good terms for the past two years either. The Mexican leader made no secret of his admiration for Trump, and last year he skipped a Los Angeles summit because Biden didn’t invite the authoritarian regimes of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
However, there have been attempts made at thawing the relationship. Biden made a point of flying into the new Felipe Angeles International Airport, a prized project of the Mexican president even though it’s been a source of controversy.
The airport, which is expected to cost $4.1 billion when finished, is more than an hour’s drive north of the city center, has few flights and until recently lacked consistent drinking water. However, it’s one of the keystone projects that López Obrador is racing to finish before his term ends next year, along with an oil refinery, a tourist train in the Yucatan Peninsula and a train linking Gulf coast and Pacific seaports.
The two leaders rode into Mexico City in Biden’s limousine. López Obrador was fascinated by the presidential vehicle known as “the beast,” and he said Biden “showed me how the buttons work.”
In a notably warm comment, the Mexican president described the two leaders’ first encounter of the trip as “very pleasant,” and he said “President Biden is a friendly person.”
The U.S. and Mexico have also reached an agreement on a major shift in migration policy, which Biden announced last week.
Under the plan, the U.S. will send 30,000 migrants per month from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela back across the border from among those who entered the U.S. illegally. Migrants who arrive from those four countries are not easily returned to their home countries for a variety of reasons.
In addition, 30,000 people per month from those four nations who get sponsors, background checks and an airline flight to the U.S. will get the ability to work legally in the country for two years.
On Monday, before the summit began, López Obrador said he would consider accepting more migrants than previously announced.
“We don’t want to anticipate things, but this is part of what we are going to talk about at the summit,” López Obrador said. “We support this type of measures, to give people options, alternatives,” he said, adding that “the numbers may be increased.”
Mexico would likely also require an increase in those receiving work authorization in the U.S. in order to take back more migrants who are being expelled.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, cautioned that nothing was decided yet.
“What we need is to see how the program announced last week works in practice, what if any adjustments need to be made to that program and then we can talk about taking the next steps,” he said.
On his way to Mexico, Biden stopped in El Paso, Texas, for four hours — his first time at the border as president and the longest he’s spent along the U.S-Mexico line. The visit was highly controlled and seemed designed to counter Republican claims of a crisis situation by showcasing a smooth operation to process migrants entering legally, weed out smuggled contraband and humanely treat those who’ve entered illegally.
But the trip was likely to do little to quell critics from both sides, including immigrant advocates who accuse the Democratic president of establishing cruel policies not unlike those of his hardline predecessor, Republican Donald Trump.
The number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has risen dramatically during Biden’s first two years in office. There were more than 2.38 million stops during the year that ended Sept. 30, the first time the number topped 2 million.
On Monday afternoon, López Obrador formally welcomed Biden at the Palacio Nacional, the first time since 2014 that Mexico has hosted a U.S. president.
In a display of solidarity, the first ladies of the U.S. and Mexico delivered the same speech, alternating between Jill Biden in English and Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller in Spanish.
“We believe that poverty is not destined by God, but the product of inequality,” Jill Biden said. “We know that the poor deserve to live better and are working with compassion, every day, to improve lives for everyone.”
Earlier in the day, Jill Biden met with women from the fields of education, art and business, most of them recipients of U.S. cooperation programs or scholarships.
“Do whatever you want but teach others,” she said.
Biden is expected to follow up his first trip to Mexico as president with another to Canada, although it has not yet been scheduled.
A senior Canadian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said Canada is working with Americans on a visit in the near future.
Associated Press writers Andres Leighton in El Paso, Texas; Anita Snow in Phoenix; Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Mark Stevenson and Christopher Sherman in Mexico City; Rob Gillies in Toronto and Chris Megerian and Josh Boak in Washington contributed to this report.