Since taking office in 2018, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has reactivated coal-fired power plants, stopped new renewable energy projects and dismissed wind farms as ugly “fans” that pollute the landscape. In his pursuit of “energy sovereignty,” he has spent billions building a state-owned oil refinery and enforced laws that would require Mexico’s electricity companies to get more power from state-owned power plants that run primarily on crude oil and coal.
López Obrador’s energy policies couldn’t be more different from those of President Biden, who has pushed for historic investments in clean energy and seeks to wean the nation and the world off fossil fuels.
But when the two leaders meet in person for the first time as presidents in Washington on Thursday, Biden may not be able to press his counterparts to address climate change, no matter how central it is on his agenda . That’s because Biden is desperately counting on López Obrador’s collaboration in reducing migration to the United States, which has become a recurring challenge for his administration.
The US and Mexico are in the final stages of negotiations to reintroduce the so-called Remain in Mexico program, in which asylum seekers are housed in camps on the south side of the country’s border while they await the immigration process.
“Biden doesn’t want any problems with Mexico because what really matters to him is migration and he needs to make sure Mexico continues to cooperate on the migration front,” said Pamela Starr, professor of international relations at USC who has advised diplomats from both countries in the past. “He doesn’t want to call Mexico.”
Energy and migration policy are just two of the most momentous and annoying issues that López Obrador and Biden face at their meeting in the White House as part of the summit of North American heads of state and government, in which Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is also attending. President Trump did not convene a meeting of the three countries – sometimes known as the “three amigos” – during his four-year term, but Biden has tried to revive diplomatic relations since taking office.
Although López Obrador, who is often called by his initials AMLO, and Biden are considered to be the economic left, their policies differ.
Biden has tried to restore the US as international leader and has tried to restore some decency to the highest office in his country and promised to “make America respected again”.
However, López Obrador can be as argumentative as Trump and publicly clash with journalists, feminists and anyone else who criticizes him. He has put his domestic agenda on international affairs, leaving Mexico only twice before his trip to Washington this week.
Similar to Trump’s frequent anger against the “deep state”, López Obrador has portrayed himself as an advocate of the people who face the “mafia of power”. The Mexican president has also brushed aside norms and undermined control of his power, moves that critics claim have undermined Mexican democracy.
“He has a very special worldview and I don’t think he agrees with President Biden,” said Ben Rohrbaugh, a member of President Obama’s National Security Council where he worked on border issues with Mexico. “I’m not guessing that they are at eye level much.”
One of the sharpest contrasts concerns the energy. López Obrador grew up in the oil-rich state of Tabasco and looks back nostalgically at a time when the state-owned oil company Pemex drove national economic growth. His policy tried to reverse a constitutional reform initiated by his predecessor in 2013, which opened the door to more foreign involvement in the Mexican economy by ending state monopolies.
Such actions have crippled Mexico’s renewable energy sector because it relies heavily on funding from foreign firms attacked by the populist government of López Obrador. Meanwhile, state energy companies that are heavily dependent on coal and oil are pushing.
Environmentalists warn that López Obrador’s uncompromising commitment to fossil fuels will make it impossible for Mexico to meet its emissions reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement. Several US officials have accused AMLO’s energy policy of unfairly favoring Mexican state-owned companies.
Lisa Viscidi, an energy expert at the US think tank Inter-American Dialogue, said a breakthrough was unlikely.
“The Trump administration before and the Biden administration last year have criticized the direction in which things are going in energy policy, both in private discussions and in public,” said Viscidi. “And [López Obrador] is only digging its heels to further cement this policy. So far it doesn’t seem to have any effect at all. “
López Obrador said at a press conference on Wednesday that he would defend his energy policy against Biden and Trudeau if challenged by them.
“It’s very simple,” he said. “We want the price of electricity to be maintained and at the same time to end the abuse of private companies.”
In addition to energy policy and climate change, the three heads of state and government are expected to discuss the response to COVID-19, regional competitiveness and migration. López Obrador has announced that he will urge the US and Canada to offer more work visas to Mexican farm workers.
Biden is likely to continue urging Mexico to do more to help the US respond to the influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border.
Biden promised to reverse Trump’s tough immigration policies, but has left many Trump-era directives in place.
His administration is still enforcing Title 42, a law that allows US officials to ban migrants from entering the US during a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. And although Biden has abandoned the policy of remaining in Mexico, a federal judge ordered him to reinstate it.
The Biden government said in a lawsuit this week that it would be ready to enforce the rule once Mexico “makes an independent decision” to accept migrants awaiting immigration trials.
The two countries have made “significant progress and are close to finalizing discussions,” but there are “a number of outstanding issues that need to be resolved,” the Biden government said in the filing. Mexican officials have stated in the past that they would only accept migrants back into their country if they were guaranteed access to lawyers.
The meeting between Biden and López Obrador takes place amid tense discussions between the two nations about security cooperation, especially against drug cartels. Mexican and US authorities had worked together on such matters for years, but their relationship reached a near break with the 2020 arrest of retired General Salvador Cienfuegos for drug trafficking at Los Angeles International Airport.
After intense lobbying by Mexican diplomats, charges against Cienfuegos, who served as the country’s defense minister for six years, were dropped and he was allowed to return home. López Obrador immediately announced that Cienfuegos would not be charged in Mexico and accused the US Drugs Agency of fabricating the case against him. His party pushed for a new security law that has since restricted US drug control in Mexico.
At the same time, López Obrador has been pushing for a multi-billion dollar bilateral project to be revised approval known as the Mérida Initiative, a 13-year-old joint initiative to fight drug trafficking, share military intelligence, and improve Mexico’s judicial and law enforcement agencies. Under the deal, the US government provided helicopters, planes and equipment to Mexico as the countries focused their attention on targeting drug cartel leaders.
But that strategy failed to reduce the amount of drugs crossing the border and sparked record killings and kidnappings in Mexico. López Obrador said politics helped turn Mexico into a cemetery.
US and Mexican officials are negotiating a new deal. The US has promised to focus less on strengthening the Mexican military and more on a holistic approach to public safety that targets arms traffickers and their financial networks, while investing in drug treatment programs.
Linthicum reported from Mexico City and Megerian from Washington.