GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador started a lightning, five-day tour to four Central American countries and Cuba on Thursday, stopping first in neighboring Guatemala.
Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard wrote in his social media accounts that meetings with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and other officials focused on development, migration and strengthening bilateral ties.
López Obrador hopes to stem the poverty and joblessness that sends tens of thousands of Guatemalans north — crossing Mexico to reach the United States — by expanding his tree-planting program to Central America.
The program known as “Planting Life” pays farmers a monthly wage to plant and care for fruit and lumber trees on their farms.
Ebrard said the program was starting up in the Guatemalan province of Chimaltenango. Mexico has asked the U.S. government to help fund the program, something that so far hasn’t happened. Mexico is also touting another program that apprentices young people to companies. Critics say both programs lack accountability.
It is only be the third overseas trip in more than three years for López Obrador, who is fond of saying that the best foreign policy is good domestic policy. The tour is an opportunity for Mexico to reassert itself as a leader in Latin America and will be welcomed by some leaders under pressure from the U.S. government and others for their alleged anti-democratic tendencies.
Both geographically and metaphorically, Mexico finds itself wedged between the United States and the rest of Latin America. López Obrador has deflected criticism dating to the Trump administration that his government is doing Washington’s dirty work in trying to stop migrants before they reach the U.S. border.
López Obrador will be received in Central America, in part, as an emissary of the United States when it comes to migration policy.
The U.S. government has been trying to build consensus ahead of the June Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles to cement a regional approach to managing migration flows. In recent years large numbers of Central Americans, but also Haitians, Cubans, Venezuelans, Colombians and migrants arriving from other continents, have made their way up through the Americas.
Giammattei, meanwhile, has been under pressure from the U.S. government for backsliding on the country’s fight against corruption — a campaign central to López Obrador’s image in Mexico.
López Obrador will continue on to El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele has faced international condemnation since imposing a state of emergency after a surge in gang killings at the end of March. So a visit from López Obrador, who prefers a “hugs not bullets” approach to security, is a good opportunity to show he’s not being isolated. El Salvador’s security forces have arrested more than 24,000 suspected gang members in just over a month and human rights organizations say there have been many arbitrary arrests.
In Honduras, new President Xiomara Castro has forged a close relationship with the Biden administration. Last month, Honduras extradited former President Juan Orlando Hernández to face drug and weapons charges in the U.S. She is desperate to activate the economy and create jobs, so could be open to López Obrador’s proposals if there is money behind it.
The president’s agenda in Belize is less clear. The tiny country does not have a significant migration problem, but López Obrador did hint at one topic for discussion earlier this week. One of his favorite projects is the construction of a tourist train around the Yucatan Peninsula that neighbors Belize. The Maya Train has been criticized for its environmental impact and lack of feasibility studies, but López Obrador insists it will bring development to impoverished regions.
The president’s final stop in Cuba will be the most symbolic.
Cuba President Miguel Díaz-Canel visited Mexico for its independence celebrations last year. López Obrador has largely governed as a nationalist and populist, but he has positioned himself politically as a a devoted leftist.
The visit is an opportunity for López Obrador to show some independence from the United States. López Obrador has criticized the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba and he said that he told U.S. officials that no country should be excluded from the Summit of the Americas. The Biden administration has signaled that Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua would not be invited.
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