By NELSON W. CUNNINGHAM
Presidential summits have a well-deserved reputation for being much talk and much less action. President Barack Obama’s April 16 summit in Mexico City with that country’s president, Felipe Calderon, certainly had its share of high-flown, friendly sounding rhetoric.
“Today … we have confirmed the determination of both governments to consolidate the very, very close contacts and links that join and bring together Mexico and the United States,” President Calderon offered. “I see this visit … as an opportunity to launch a new era of cooperation and partnership between our two countries,” President Obama responded.
And then, just seven days later, that rhetoric was put to a real test. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Mexican citizens were thought to be sick with a new epidemic flu, and dozens or even hundreds were thought to be already dead. The disease seemed to have almost immediately spread to the United States — including at least one member of President Obama’s traveling party in Mexico. Within days, Mexico City was effectively shut down and newspapers in both countries — and around the world — blared the possible arrival of a major new pandemic influenza with the potential to kill millions around the world.
And in the face of mounting hysteria, the response of both Mexico and the United States was an almost perfect display of the cooperation and partnership the presidents had loftily promised.
As the H1N1 virus broke out, some countries hastily canceled flights to Mexico and some halted trade. Not the United States. When some in this country called for shutting the border, President Obama forcefully rejected the idea and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called it “pointless.” This decision not only made practical sense — since the virus had already jumped to the United States, closing the border would have done nothing more than wreak economic havoc on both economies — but the symbolism carried great weight in Mexico. After all, just a year ago the United States was talking about building a wall between the countries. All three Mexican political parties, in a rare demonstration of agreement, applauded the Obama administration’s response.
Mexico did its part to act responsibly. Rather than hiding its problem or refusing to accept outside help out of a misplaced sense of “dignidad,” or the fear of exposing holes in its public health system, Mexico did not hesitate to immediately ask the United States for material support. The Mexican authorities worked closely with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and their Canadian counterparts, sending them suspected samples for testing that went beyond Mexico’s capabilities. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that the United States would send 400,000 regimens of antivirals to Mexico. Dr. Richard Besser of the CDC reported that 34 CDC staff were in the field in five locations in Mexico. The CDC helped Mexico build a lab capability to do diagnosis and confirmation of the H1N1 virus in Mexico itself — a major step that allowed faster confirmation and response, and a shorter path to identifying risk factors.
In short, officials in both countries cooperated closely without the crippling lack of trust that has frustrated our joint efforts in the past, and that we still find to an extent in law enforcement and narcotics matters.
Now that the immediate threat of a killer pandemic has receded (the CDC recently dropped the advisory against unnecessary travel to Mexico, though a recent death and more infections and school closings in New York and elsewhere suggest the danger is not past), it is possible to look back on these events of the past month and see true signs of a new, stable and confident relationship between the United States and Mexico.
In fairness, of course, Obama and Calderon did not wave a wand and create this new relationship. They have benefited from nearly 20 years of close cooperation — from Bush 41 and Carlos Salinas to Clinton and Ernesto Zedillo, and then to Bush 43 and Vicente Fox — that started with the negotiation of NAFTA. Setting aside the lingering public unease over NAFTA’s economic impact, it’s plain that NAFTA did one thing very well: It helped cement a mindset of shared responsibility and institutional frameworks that promote open exchanges between our governments. Notably, of course, President Obama is no longer talking of renegotiating NAFTA.
Presidents Obama and Calderon are both mature, thoughtful leaders, and they have fully embraced this 20-year evolution and may yet bring it to a new level — truly a “new era of cooperation and partnership.” How they and their governments handled the brief but intense H1N1 public hysteria tells us a lot about how we can expect them to develop their own personal relationship, and that of our countries, in the years ahead.
Next up, perhaps, is an issue that touches deep emotional chords in both nations: immigration, and the fate of the millions of Mexican “illegals” living in the United States. Comprehensive immigration reform is an urgent political need; but maneuvering through the political backlash that progress will unleash will require the skilled management and cooperation we showed during the H1N1 scare.
In August, the three leaders of North America — Mexico, Canada, United States — will meet in what has now become a once-yearly North American Summit. President Obama deserves credit for seeing the value of these meetings, which started during the time of his predecessor George Bush. The flu tested our relationships — and found them strong. Now, on to new challenges.
Cunningham was special adviser to President Bill Clinton for Western Hemisphere affairs and is the chair of advisers of the Latin American Policy Initiative of NDN, a center-left think tank and advocacy group in Washington, D.C.