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Biden and Mexico's López Obrador find common cause on migration after a rocky start

Talks on Monday between President Biden and Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador got off to a bumpy start.
Andrew Harnik
/
AP
Talks on Monday between President Biden and Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador got off to a bumpy start.

MEXICO CITY — President Biden and Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had a bumpy start to talks on Monday when what were supposed to be some brief opening pleasantries devolved into a contentious debate over the history of U.S. support for Latin America.

Biden, López Obrador and a phalanx of cabinet members and advisers had just sat down in the ornate National Palace at the start to discuss working together on trade, fentanyl interdiction, and migration — ahead of Tuesday's North American Leaders' Summit with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

López Obrador told Biden that the United States had done little to support development in Latin America since President John F. Kennedy's "Alliance for Progress" spending in the early 1960s.

"This has been the only important thing, really, that has been done in terms of cooperation for development in our continent in more than half a century," said López Obrador.

"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.

President Biden and members of his cabinet listen as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks during a meeting at the National Palace in Mexico City.
Andrew Harnik / AP
/
AP
President Biden and members of his cabinet listen as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks during a meeting at the National Palace in Mexico City.

Biden took issue with that description

Biden took issue with López Obrador's characterization of U.S. support. Straying from his prepared remarks, he noted that the U.S. government has spent "tens of billions of dollars in the hemisphere" over the past 15 years, and said he had secured agreements from G-7 countries to support infrastructure projects in the region.

"The United States provides more foreign aid than every other country, just about combined, in the world — to not just the hemisphere, but around the world," Biden told López Obrador.

"Unfortunately, our response just doesn't end in the Western hemisphere: it's in central Europe. It's in Asia. It's in the Middle East. It's in Africa," he said. "I wish we could just have one focus."

President Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador leave for a long motorcade ride after Air Force One landed at Felipe Angeles International Airport on Jan. 8.
Claudio Cruz / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador leave for a long motorcade ride after Air Force One landed at Felipe Angeles International Airport on Jan. 8.

Biden has had a lot of face time with López Obrador on this trip

Biden is known for putting a lot of stock in developing personal relationships with world leaders.

So far in office, he has spent more time with Trudeau at meetings of the G-7 and G-20 and NATO, than with López Obrador, who chose to boycott a big regional summit hosted by Biden in Los Angeles last summer.

An Oval Office meeting last summer with López Obrador also saw the leftist leader hit on some politically touchy issues, like U.S. gasoline prices.

The White House took pains on this trip to accommodate one of López Obrador's domestic political issues, landing Air Force One at Felipe Ángeles International Airport instead of the more convenient and central Benito Juárez International Airport.

López Obrador was there to greet Biden on the tarmac.

Biden "had the opportunity to ride with President López Obrador from the airport back into town, which gave them the chance to just have a one-on-one chat on kind of how they're seeing the world right now, what's on their minds," Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters. "I think they both got a lot out of it," he said.

President Biden walks with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the National Palace in Mexico City on Jan. 9.
Andrew Harnik / AP
/
AP
President Biden walks with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the National Palace in Mexico City on Jan. 9.

Nearshoring is on the agenda for Tuesday

Biden is slated to meet with Trudeau on Tuesday before the three leaders sit down together.

One big issue on the agenda is how the three nations can work together on 'nearshoring' to reduce their reliance on China.

"In our ports on the Pacific, we still see how more ships full of merchandise are arriving, and this is something that's growing, and they're coming from Asia," López Obrador said. "Couldn't we produce in America what we consume? That's what we're asking. Of course we could," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.