Mexico's president visits White House after snubbing Biden at summit

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President Biden meets in November with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the Oval Office. They meet again Tuesday. (Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

A month after he boycotted a major regional summit in Los Angeles and snubbed the Biden administration, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador came to Washington on Tuesday for wide-ranging talks with his U.S. counterpart.

Administration officials have sought to downplay the lingering tensions and U.S. frustrations ahead of talks between President Biden and López Obrador that White House officials see as key to addressing immigration, crime and the economy. López Obrador says he wants to talk about inflation and how to cut it. Biden wants the Mexican government to continue to play an active role in stopping the arrival to the U.S. southern border of thousands of people, many seeking illegal entry.

López Obrador has been harshly critical of U.S. immigration policy and is expected to seek more visas for Mexican workers and businesspeople.

“We expect the focus to be a lot on how we can expand legal pathways, with a particular focus on labor pathways from Central America but also from other parts of the region,” a senior Biden administration official said, briefing reporters ahead of the meeting, which is scheduled to begin at 8:15 a.m. Pacific at the White House,

The official said several border infrastructure projects will be announced as part of the meeting, but details were not immediately available, and it was unclear the work and repairs will go beyond what has already been planned.

López Obrador, a leftist populist prone to bombastic rhetoric, declined Biden’s invitation to attend the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles in early June, in protest over Washington’s refusal to include Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela on the guest list.

The summit, which is held every three or four years, was in the U.S. for the first time in three decades, and the White House had billed it as a major event bringing the hemisphere’s leaders together for several days of talks and regional agreements. When López Obrador refused to attend, several other countries — including El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — sent lower-level delegations. Mexico was represented by its foreign minister.

The boycott of a summit that was supposed to delve into the same issues as those in the White House meeting has led some analysts to conclude that López Obrador isn’t as interested in Tuesday’s agenda as the message he hopes to send to the region.

“The most important reason AMLO is there is to show himself, and to show the world, that he is the unique and [true] regional leader of Latin America. He wants to be the older brother of Latin America,” said Viridiana Rios, an academic and writer who specializes in U.S.-Mexico relations, using the president’s nickname based on his initials.

For López Obrador, the stop in the Oval Office, along with a separate breakfast with Vice President Kamala Harris, is a “performance” that will confirm his power as the region’s leader, Rios said.

Harris was put in charge by the president of strategy for Central America that attacks the “root causes” of irregular immigration but has yet to show results.

López Obrador has also clashed with some U.S. leaders and numerous human rights organizations on other issues.

He routinely berates journalists at daily marathon news conferences and denounces Mexican anti-corruption and other groups that receive donations from outside Mexico.

He also refuses to reduce Mexico’s reliance on fossil fuels and is promoting an energy package that critics say favors state-run electricity companies over private firms. The U.S. says it’s likely a violation of the North American free trade agreement that Mexico brokered with the U.S. and Canada.

Just the other day he condemned the U.S. extradition of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, and said that if the U.S. imprisons him, the Statue of Liberty ought to be dismantled and returned to France.

“This is the first president since the 1980s who does not share a common vision with the U.S.,” said Luis Rubio, an economist at the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. “He is also at the stage of his presidency where everything is about his popularity. In this sense, Biden is no more than a cog in the pursuit of his objective.”

Still, the Biden administration knows it needs cooperation from López Obrador and his government as it confronts an influx of migrants illegally crossing the southern U.S. border. Republicans have been pounding Biden over the issue, especially as the number of stops of migrants has risen.

For Biden, the goal is to gather allies, even when they don’t see eye-to-eye, as the world “realigns” in the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine, said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute.

“Biden has made a decision that the world is now split into different camps and Ukraine is the axis around which this is dividing, and whether or not he has differences with López Obrador, that is less important than making sure he can manage that relationship,” Selee said.

“AMLO not going to the Summit of the Americas was a big blow to the relationship” between Washington and Mexico City, said Jason Marczak, senior director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. “This [meeting] is incredibly important to reassure both Mexicans and Americans of the strength of U.S.-Mexico ties.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.