President Barack Obama's first North American summit is proving it's a lot easier to agree on battling a killer flu virus than to untangle knotty disputes over cross-border trade.
President Barack Obama’s first North American summit is proving it’s a lot easier to agree on battling a killer flu virus than to untangle knotty disputes over cross-border trade.
Obama flew into Mexico’s second-largest city late Sunday for a two-day speed summit with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper – a meeting whose main accomplishment will likely be a joint plan of attack for swine flu.
But there was little chance of any breakthrough in long-running squabbles over Mexican trucks, or U.S. “Buy American” rules or how best to curb the deadly flow of drugs across the frontier.
The so called “Three Amigos” summit began over dinner at an ornate cultural center here and was to conclude a mere 17 hours later at a joint news conference.
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In April, when Obama visited Mexico City, the first swine flu cases were just surfacing. Now, it’s a global epidemic that’s sickened more than 43,000 people in the United States and is blamed for 300 deaths. The toll in Mexico is at least 15,000 cases and 141 deaths; in Canada it’s 10,000 cases and 50 deaths.
While the H1N1 virus is in a summer lull in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s expected to roar back in the fall. Public health officials are readying medicines and public education campaigns, hoping to curb the flu without disrupting vital cross-border trade and tourism.
“We’re going to do everything possible to minimize the impact,” said John Brennan, Obama’s top White House adviser on homeland security. “There is going to be a joint statement on how the three countries … tackle the H1N1 challenge.”
On other subjects, the summit was more a chance to catch up than make progress.
Started by George W. Bush in 2005 near his Texas ranch, the North American Leaders Summit has become an annual showcase on trade. Canada is the top U.S. trading partner, while Mexico is number three.
This year, as the U.S. economy struggles out of a crippling recession, the leaders met at the Institutos Cabanas, a 19th-century home for poor children that’s now a sprawling art museum with 23 arched courtyards filled with grapefruit and mango trees.
Streets around the complex were sealed off by heavily armed federal agents and police in riot gear.
The security stemmed in part from the drug wars that have raged in Mexico since Calderon deployed the army to crush the country’s notorious cartels. Some 11,000 people have perished in the conflict.
In a separate meeting with Calderon, Obama voiced strong support of the offensive, but Calderon expressed concerns about delays in the latest installment of U.S. aid under the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative, a U.S. official reported. The money’s been held up by allegations of human rights violations.
Calderon also pressed Obama on allowing Mexican trucks access to U.S. highways, said the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity to describe the private talk. Mexicans are convinced the U.S. limits are less about safety – their stated reason – than protecting American hauling companies from competition under the NAFTA free trade accord.
Also unlikely to be resolved at the summit were objections from both north and south of the border about the “Buy American” provisions in Obama’s stimulus plan.
And immigration remained a sore spot. While Obama has said he’d like to start crafting an overhaul that legalizes millions of Mexican immigrants, there’s little chance of Congress acting this year, since even top administration priorities like health care and climate policy are moving slowly amid heated partisan debate.