United States President Joe Biden held a virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador with the aim of overturning his predecessor Donald Trump’s hardline and often abrasive attitude towards the US’s southern neighbour.
Biden sat with other masked officials from his administration in Washington, DC surrounded by journalists and spoke through a screen with Lopez Obrador in Mexico City, with the help of an interpreter.
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On the agenda were immigration, the coronavirus pandemic and climate issues. The tone was starkly different from under former President Trump, who called Mexicans rapists and whose administration’s signature policy was to build a wall along the US’s southern border to stem migration.
“We look at Mexico as an equal, not as somebody who is south of the border,” Biden said. “You are equal and what you do in Mexico and how you succeed impact dramatically on what the rest of the hemisphere will look like.”
Lopez Obrador, often referred by his initials AMLO, acknowledged the gesture. “We are very thankful that you are willing to maintain good relations for the good of our peoples in North America,” he said during the meeting.
But Lopez Obrador came to the meeting with a more specific agenda in mind: asking Biden to sell Mexico much-needed vaccines to propel his country’s stalled coronavirus vaccination campaign.
“We want to receive a response about a request that we made,” Lopez Obrador said on Monday before the meeting during a news conference, “and if President Biden would consider it, that he could give us a response about vaccination during our meeting.”
The White House, however, made it clear earlier on Monday that the Biden administration is focused on vaccinating its own people.
“No, the President has made clear that he is focused on ensuring that vaccines are accessible to every American,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said. “That is our focus.”
The response was viewed as a snub in Mexico, leading to a wave of criticism on social media and among political commentators who saw Biden’s response as yet another failure on AMLO’s part to contain the pandemic. More than 186,000 Mexicans have died from the coronavirus, the third highest tally in the world.
Although Mexico has contracts with several drugmakers for millions of doses, vaccines have been too slow to arrive, amid worldwide shortages in production and shipment delays.
On Tuesday, Lopez Obrador sought to dispel criticism and said that although the two countries did not reach a deal on his proposal, they will be working on an agreement.
“In order to remove doubts and misunderstandings, Biden had an attitude of understanding towards our position,” Lopez Obrador said during his daily news conference.
“Teams from both countries will see what is possible and when,” he said. “There was no discrepancy, I’ll say it like this, categorically, not one discrepancy.”
Biden has made overturning Trump’s anti-immigration policies a focus of his administration. He stopped a programme that forced asylum seekers to wait for their court dates in Mexico and has proposed a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented migrants living in the US.
Lopez Obrador, under threat of economic tariffs by the Trump administration, agreed to stop the flow of Central American migrants from reaching the US-Mexico border. This understanding appears to remain in place, with Mexican National Guard troops still patrolling Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala and continuing to stop migrants from crossing.
Lopez Obrador added that the two leaders exchanged invitations for in-person visits, without indicating a date. Borders between the US, Mexico and Canada have largely been shut due to the coronavirus pandemic. And they are expected to remain closed until the neighbours make significant progress in their respective vaccination campaigns.
Following the meeting, the two countries issued a joint statement pledging to strengthen cooperation on migration, the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.