U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela got a chance to meet with Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO as he’s popularly known, during a visit to the National Palace in Mexico City earlier this month by the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade.
The congressman from Brownsville said he learned a lot about what’s happening in Mexico under the new administration.
“For me it was really productive,” Vela said. “My information on Mexico is what we all read in the newspaper.”
Though not a member of the subcommittee, Vela accompanied the delegation because of his interest in border infrastructure issues. The subcommittee members went there to explore Mexico’s progress on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, intended as the successor to NAFTA.
“In essence, Mexico passed the USMCA through its senate,” Vela said. “The Canadian Parliament has to pass it as well.”
As does Congress. Vela said the U.S. side is still addressing issues related to Mexican labor reforms, environmental provisions and pharmaceutical-industry issues surrounding the pact.
“I made it clear there, as I have on Capitol Hill, that any … USMCA negotiations should include addressing the $4.5 billion deficiency in our ports-of-entry,” Vela said. “That’s not a decision being driven on the Mexican side, because most of that infrastructure is funded through (the General Services Administration). But that $4.5 billion would update every port-of-entry from Brownsville to San Diego and Seattle to Maine.”
The delegation also met with several of Mexico’s cabinet ministers, the USMCA chief negotiator and the country’s new ambassador to the United States.
Vela said the meeting was general, covering a lot of ground beyond the trade agreement, while the Mexican president himself was “very, very personable” and listed as his top priority confronting the corruption and violence plaguing Mexico.
“Although we didn’t dig into specifically into how he intends to address that, it’s a big one, because it’s an issue that’s so systemic,” Vela said. “There’s no question that that is his primary objective.”
AMLO’s other major priority has consisted of austerity measures, including selling off the presidential jet, helicopters and bullet-proof vans, and refusing to live at Los Piños, the president’s opulent official residence.
“A lot of that may be symbolic, but for those of us who have friends and family in Mexico, the deg of frustration with their own government has been evident for a long time,” Vela said. “This is a way of getting people to feel better about their president.”
AMLO has his work cut out for him. Besides taking on Mexico’s pervasive violence and corruption, the country’s economy is on the precipice. Bloomberg reports that Mexico just missed sliding into recession during the second quarter, surprising most analysts, while growth lagged far behind what the president has promised.
After the meeting, AMLO broke with protocol and led the delegation on an executive tour of parts of the National Palace — Mexico’s equivalent of the U.S. Capitol — off limits to most people. A photograph shows Vela strolling down an ornate corridor with AMLO, Congressman Jimmy Gomez of Los Angeles just behind them and a painting of Miguel Hidalgo, Father of Mexico, on the wall.
The next day, AMLO was scheduled to travel to a hospital 260 miles from the capital to investigate reported problems, Vela said.
“It’s kind of ironic that we addressed this, because last week I was getting calls from Brownsville people that one of the hospitals in Matamoros was out of medicine and medical equipment,” he said. “The president was on his way to San Luis Potosi the following day because a hospital there had the same problem.”