MEXICO CITY — Incoming U.S. Ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne was briefed last week on the intimate but strained state of U.S.-Mexico relations — and what to expect when his plane lands here later this month.
In a day-long tutorial at Meridian House in Washington, and flanked by top State Department and White House security and intelligence officials, Wayne heard from experts on Mexico’s upcoming presidential elections (volatile), economy (sluggish), illegal migration (lowest in 40 years) and violence (relentless).
The message? Tread very carefully, Mr. Ambassador. Mexico is entering an election year, and polls suggest that President Felipe Calderon’s ruling PAN party will be ousted by the opposition party PRI, which ran Mexico with an iron fist in a velvet glove for most of the 20th century.
“Everything will be used against everybody, including the United States. There will be no loyalties, no convictions, no holds barred,” said Mexico’s former foreign minister Jorge Castaneda, according to one of the experts who attended the event.
Calderon himself has been amping up the rhetoric against the United States, blaming U.S. gun dealers and drug consumers — and a feeble response by Congress and President Obama — for the deadly firebombing of a Monterrey casino that killed 52 people last month. Alas, the roots of the casino tragedy more likely involve Mexican corruption than American drug users.
The education of Tony Wayne comes six months after his predecessor was essentially booted out of the country by Calderon — a stunning break in a partnership that U.S. diplomats boasted was one of “unprecedented cooperation.”
Until it was not.
Calderon was furious with revelations contained in former ambassador Carlos Pascual’s diplomatic cables, released by WikiLeaks, criticizing the infighting and timidity of Mexico’s security forces in their battles against the hydra-headed drug cartels, including a dig about the army being “risk averse,” which Calderon translated as cowardly. It didn’t matter that most Mexican analysts agreed with Pascual, who resigned in March.
Also vexing to Calderon, according to his inner circle and U.S. diplomats, was the fact that Pascual, a bachelor, was dating Gabriela Rojas Jimenez, daughter of a PRI party leader and the ex-wife of Calderon’s chief of staff.
Wayne is coming to Mexico after serving as deputy ambassador in Kabul, where he was praised by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for “reorganizing, reforming, redirecting, and reinvigorating” U.S. programs in Afghanistan. After time in that war-weary country, several panelists suggested, Wayne’s approach to Mexico would be “more realistic than idealistic.”
In interviews with The Washington Post, Wayne’s tutors at the day-long briefing described him as “the diplomat’s diplomat,” who did more listening than revealing. One participant offered, “He asked smart questions.” Another said, “He didn’t seem to know a lot about Mexico.” Some participants agreed to speak on the record about their own remarks at the briefing, while others asked to remain anonymous to speak more candidly about the session.
“The most important message we delivered was about how to behave in Mexico,” said Andres Rozental, a former senior Mexican diplomat, who suggested the U.S. ambassador “would be better to have a much lower profile on security” than did the former ambassador, who, one panelist said, “drove Calderon crazy.”
Pascual was seen by the Mexican political class as too “monothematic” in his obsession with battling the cartels, and too meddlesome, panelists said.
Pascual’s defenders say he wanted to see real progress. “Maybe he cared too much,” one panelist said.
“This is one of the most prestigious posts in the world,” said Andrew Selee of the Mexico Institute at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who attended the meeting. “But the U.S. ambassador to Mexico is at once very powerful and very powerless. He has very little power when it comes to what Mexico does, but a lot of power about what the United States does. Mexico is not Afghanistan, it’s India or China.”
Several of the tutors criticized Calderon’s U.S.-backed, military-led war on criminal organizations. George Grayson, a specialist on drug cartels and a professor at the College of William and Mary, said Calderon’s “kingpin strategy” has been counterproductive. Calderon boasts that 21 of the 37 drug lords named by the government in 2009 have been killed or jailed — though he never mentions that they have all been replaced.
Independent pollster Jorge Buendia told Wayne that the PRI would nominate the governor of the state of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, as its candidate — and predicted that Calderon’s center-right PAN would back Josefina Vazquez Mota and that the left would again support Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
“We haven’t heard any of the candidates say what they would do about the war on drugs,” Buendia said, but with a PRI victory likely, “the U.S. should not expect any major changes in the relationship.”
On migration, legal and otherwise, Mexican demographers celebrated the fact that as many Mexicans appear to be going to the United States each year as coming home. But panelists told Wayne they doubted the U.S. Congress would tackle immigration reform until after the 2012 U.S. elections — so he could put that hot potato on the back burner.