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Mexico's Lopez Obrador: U.S. must move relations past drug war

WASHINGTON — Speaking just blocks from the White House, a fiery Mexican populist who narrowly lost his country's presidential election five years ago called Tuesday for a reboot of U.S.-Mexican relations, criticizing the Obama administration as failing to help immigrants and militarizing a historically strained bilateral relationship.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a former union leader and former mayor of Mexico City who's widely known by his initials, AMLO, called on Washington to "change priorities" and "substantially change" the way the two nations relate. He advocated direct economic development aid instead of the stepped-up military assistance the Obama administration provided to combat drug trafficking.

Mexican presidents serve single six-year terms, and ahead of the 2012 elections candidates for that office have been delivering high-profile speeches in Washington, in part because many undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. vote in these elections.

Lopez Obrador and his followers in the Party of the Democratic Revolution insist that he won the 2006 election, which his conservative rival, Felipe Calderon, was declared the winner of by just 236,000 votes in an outcome eerily similar to the disputed U.S. election in 2000.

In his first speech in the U.S. capital, delivered at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Lopez Obrador blasted the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico's embrace of globalization and Obama administration policies.

The U.S.-Mexico relationship has been characterized in recent years by joint efforts to combat increasingly violent drug cartels. Lopez Obrador charged that the rise of such cartels results from U.S.-backed free-market policies that have impoverished Mexicans and thwarted internal development in favor of an industrialized north near the U.S. border.

"In few words, the violence in Mexico (stems) fundamentally from the lack of development," he said, suggesting that the collapse of peasant farming and the lack of jobs leads young Mexicans into the drug trade or to emigrate in search of work north of the border.

Almost all U.S. aid to Mexico goes to supporting military modernization to combat cartels, he said. The United States should "amplify and reorient" its aid to Mexico to focus on developing the poorer southern states, from where many undocumented workers hail.

Given that U.S. lawmakers are trying to slash foreign aid and other forms of discretionary spending to reduce big budget deficits, Lopez Obrador's call for reorienting funding seemed to ignore current realities.

"A new Mexican administration could certainly propose this, but I doubt it will take hold in the current budget environment in Washington," said Andrew Selee, the director of the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute.

Lopez Obrador also criticized President Barack Obama as not keeping campaign pledges to give the millions of undocumented Mexicans living in the United States a path to citizenship.

Although he said he wasn't in Washington as a presidential candidate, Lopez Obrador spelled out what sounded like a campaign platform, including a jobs plan. He promised to modernize Mexico's state-owned oil company but not privatize it, and pledged to build five oil refineries. Mexico is one of the world's biggest oil exporters, most of it to the United States, from which it imports gasoline.

Asked by McClatchy how he'd pay for expensive refineries, which are mostly being built in Saudi Arabia and China, Lopez Obrador offered no cost estimate or source of financing. He said only that the savings from not having to import gasoline would pay the costs of building refineries.

U.S. diplomats have been wary of Lopez Obrador, fearing that his populist views would lead Mexico closer to like-minded leaders in Cuba and Venezuela. Lopez Obrador has fought with members of his left-leaning party, and he recently formed a new civic group called National Regeneration. It leaves open the possibility that he could run as a candidate for this new movement.

The likely candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which dominated Mexico's political life for most of the past century, Enrique Pena Nieto, spoke at the Wilson Center in August 2010.

A candidate from the conservative National Action Party, which has ruled Mexico since 2000, Josefina Vazquez Mota, is scheduled to speak in Washington on Oct. 21.


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