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Obama Seeking Pena Nieto's Help in Pressing for Opening of Cuba

Tuesday, 06 Jan 2015 06:51 AM

(Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama wants to enlist Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in pressuring Cuba to move toward democracy now that the U.S. is opening the relationship.

Cuba will be among the topics of discussion when Pena Nieto arrives Tuesday for his first White House meeting with Obama since taking office, along with Mexico’s security situation and U.S. immigration law, according to an administration official.

Obama is seeking to leverage Mexico’s longstanding ties to Cuba as the U.S. seeks to end more than a half-century of estrangement from the island nation 90 miles (145 kilometers) off the coast of Florida, according to the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity to preview the talks.

Improving relations with Cuba removes a point of friction in U.S. relations with Mexico and other Latin American countries that have normal diplomatic and commercial ties with Cuba. The official said the White House also will seek support from other leaders in the region to push Cuba on human rights and greater freedom for its citizens.

Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a New York-based group representing U.S. businesses, said Obama is being viewed more positively in Latin America after last month’s announcement that the U.S. would begin normalizing relations with Cuba.

“The announcement has already been received very favorably by most if not all of the Latin American leaders, so I think there’s a tailwind there,” Farnsworth said.

Economic Issues

Economic and security concerns will be high on the agenda for the talks. Mexico and the U.S. are tied together economically by the North American Free Trade Agreement that also includes Canada. The nations are also working with 10 others on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.

“They’ll probably talk about economic integration publicly, and security cooperation privately,” Farnsworth said in a telephone interview from Washington. “Current events in Mexico are framing the conversations.”

Pena Nieto’s visit follows months of protests at home by citizens demanding better security after the kidnapping and suspected murders of 43 college students, which brought Mexico’s decades-long fight against drug traffickers back into the spotlight.

Cartel Collusion

The students were allegedly kidnapped and killed by a cartel working with local police in a southern town where the mayor wanted to keep them from protesting an event honoring his wife. While suspects admitted to the killing, they burned the students’ bodies to cover the crime, and only one has been identified so far, according to Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo’s office.

Obama, in an interview with Telemundo last month, offered to help Mexico in its probe. Human Rights Watch on Monday cited the case and others in urging Obama to press Pena Nieto on improving Mexico’s justice system. While the White House says it’s pleased with progress, citing arrests of organized crime figures, the New York-based rights group said there’s much more work to be done.

Mexico receives development aid and crime-fighting assistance from the U.S.

The leaders are also likely to discuss immigration, said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

The U.S. is home to almost six million undocumented Mexican immigrants, more than half of whom are eligible for deportation relief, according to the Washington-based Pew Research Center.

Immigration Action

Shortly after U.S. mid-term elections in November, Obama announced the U.S. will halt deportations for about 5 million undocumented immigrants. Pew estimates the majority of newly eligible immigrants are from Mexico, based on 2012 data.

Mexico’s consular network in the U.S. will be key to helping nationals living in the U.S. document their right to remain, Wood said.

“It’s going to be partly celebratory about the executive action, but also about how Pena Nieto can take actions at home to help Mexican migrants,” Wood said.

On Cuba, Mexico maintained diplomatic and economic ties there even as the U.S. imposed an embargo following the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Through that time, the Mexican government has helped the U.S. “in terms of understanding what was going on in Cuba,” Wood said.

Easing Restrictions

Obama made the surprise announcement last month that the U.S. will ease some travel and financial restrictions and permit U.S. companies to export telecommunications equipment, agricultural commodities, construction supplies and materials for small businesses. The U.S. also will reopen its embassy in Havana.

Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, plans to travel this month to Havana for talks on U.S.-Cuba migration and to begin talks about normalization.

The U.S. embargo of Cuba, in place for more than 50 years, can only be lifted by an act of Congress, where Cuban-American lawmakers are vowing to block Obama.

Pena Nieto may be reluctant to apply pressure on Cuba given Mexico’s own weaknesses, Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said by phone from Washington.

“He has his own human rights problems,” Shifter said. “It’s going to be very hard for him to raise it, even using back channels.”

Still, the rapprochement with Cuba could improve the U.S. relationship with Latin America ahead of a summit of leaders from the hemisphere in Panama in April, said Carlos Gutierrez, U.S. Secretary of Commerce under former President George W. Bush, and a leader of the consulting firm Albright Stonebridge Group.

“It’s been part of a disagreement that the U.S. and Latin America have had, and it seems like symbolically it’s going to come down to this meeting in Panama,” he said. “The real thing to watch is what happens after Panama.”

--With assistance from Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington.

To contact the reporters on this story: Eric Martin in Mexico City at emartin21@bloomberg.net; Angela Greiling Keane in Washington at agreilingkea@bloomberg.net To contact the editors responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net Joe Sobczyk, Justin Blum

© Copyright 2017 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

 
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