President Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador met as scheduled Friday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.
The two leaders had a wide-ranging discussion, including on bilateral commerce, the illicit drug trade, migration and North American economic cooperation.
Biden highlighted unity between the two North American countries, which have the largest country-to-country trade relationship in the world, but also share a complex and politicized border.
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In a moment of levity, Biden joked that first lady Jill Biden was “so captivated” by López Obrador at dinner on Thursday that the U.S. president is “worried she likes you more than she likes me now.”
But the two presidents engaged in serious discussions, particularly on migration and fentanyl, two issues that will affect presidential races in both countries in 2024.
According to senior administration officials, the two also discussed democratic backsliding in Guatemala, where the sitting attorney general is aggressively persecuting allies of President-elect Bernardo Arévalo, due to take office early next year.
“They talked about the concerning signals coming out of Guatemala with efforts to really undermine the ability of President-elect Arévalo to be inaugurated next year due to some of the attacks that the public ministry and the corrupt attorney general of Guatemala has been undertaking to try to subvert the will of the Guatemalan people,” said the official.
They also discussed Venezuela and Cuba, a priority for López Obrador, who has expressed willingness to serve as an intermediary between the U.S. government and the communist island.
The focus on regional and global affairs belies Biden’s need to keep López Obrador as an ally, as Mexico’s collaboration on fentanyl trafficking and migration could make or break Biden’s reelection chances.
López Obrador is not facing reelection, but he has a strong interest in his governing party keeping power in next June’s elections.
While Biden and López Obrador talked about upholding democratic norms in third countries, Biden did not address democratic concerns about Mexico, instead commenting on the need to combat corruption, according to a senior administration official
“Look, on matters internal to Mexico, what I would note is that the Mexican population is having these debates, and has institutions to work through these debates,” said the official.
“The United States has been on the record on the importance of free and fair elections, but the two leaders were talking about the situation in Guatemala as it relates to potential drivers of migration and instability that impact the United States and Mexico.”
Biden and López Obrador also “compared notes” on meetings they each had with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the margins of the summit, especially as it relates to the fentanyl trade.
Fentanyl, a hot button political issue in the United States, is a trilateral issue for the United States, Mexico and China, with each country playing a key role in the illicit trade.
The two also discussed regional migration at length.
Though López Obrador has repeatedly said the solution to migration is in addressing root causes, like poverty and violence, Mexico plays a key role in detaining and deporting migrants either expelled from the United States, or who would otherwise head to the United States.
That role is essential for Biden’s political future, as Republicans have weaponized monthly migration figures against the president.
“On migration … there was just a real affirmation that we need to continue working together as partners on the things that we are doing together that are working,” said another administration official.