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'No more bullying': fresh start to U.S.-Mexico relations eyed under Biden

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A Joe Biden presidency could reset ties with top U.S. trade partner Mexico that have suffered since Donald Trump made his first White House bid, tarring Mexican migrants as rapists and gun-runners and vowing to keep them out with a border wall.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. workers build a section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall at Sunland Park, U.S. opposite the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, November 9, 2016. Picture taken from the Mexico side of the U.S.-Mexico border. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

Biden, vice president under Barack Obama, was declared victor of the U.S. presidential election by several major television networks on Saturday, despite President Trump filing lawsuits, alleging fraud without providing evidence and saying the race was “far from over”.

A fixture of U.S. politics for half a century, Biden has pledged to stop construction of Trump’s southwest border wall and pursue a “humane” migration policy far more in line with the one espoused by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Under Trump, Mexico has had to duck, feint and move quickly to navigate abrupt demands that it stem illegal migration or face having over $600 billion in annual bilateral trade upended.

Lopez Obrador has nimbly acceded to Trump’s migration dictates, forging an uneasy relationship of some mutual convenience. In exchange, the Mexican leftist carved out space to change the rules on energy sector investment after the fact.

Underlining the delicacy of the situation, Lopez Obrador, who claimed he was robbed of the presidency in 2006 and 2012, on Saturday declined to congratulate Biden on his win, saying he would await the resolution of the attendant legal disputes.

Diplomats, politicians and foreign policy experts believe Biden would put brinkmanship and overt coercion behind him.

“There will be no more bullying. No more using the bully pulpit of the White House to harass Mexico either on the trade agenda or any of the other agendas,” said Andres Rozental, a former Mexican deputy foreign minister for North America.

“We’ll go back to a more normal relationship. With problems, and disputes on trade and other things,” including security, he said. “But they’ll be dealt with the way they were in the past.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on Trump’s treatment of Mexico.

Despite Biden’s conciliatory overtures on migration, Mexican officials acknowledge he will not want to face a sudden surge in migrants. So Mexico would maintain firm control of its southern border, they say.

Complicating matters, tensions have bubbled to the surface following the arrest last month of a former Mexican defense minister in Los Angeles on a warrant from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Mexico has publicly expressed its displeasure about being kept in the dark about the operation to nab former army chief Salvador Cienfuegos on drug-trafficking charges, and Lopez Obrador this week said he wants to review U.S.-Mexico cooperation on counternarcotics policy.

“This is one of the most direct challenges to the strategic, forward-looking synergistic relationship that had been developing between Mexico and the United States,” said Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to Washington.

The row has surfaced at a time when bilateral cooperation on security was already faltering after steady and substantial progress for two to three decades, Sarukhan said.

Still, it would be better managed under a Biden administration and would “not contaminate the whole of the bilateral agenda, simply because of the hands-on experience that Biden has had in the U.S.-Mexico relationship,” he added.

PRESSURE ON ENERGY POLICY

Biden also faces pressure to temper Lopez Obrador’s drive to empower Mexican state-owned energy companies at the expense of private businesses, which has thrown billions of dollars of foreign investment into doubt.

More than 40 members of the U.S. Congress, both Republican and Democrat, on Oct. 22 wrote a letter to Trump urging him to take a firmer line with Lopez Obrador on his energy agenda.

Lopez Obrador argues corrupt past governments skewed the energy market in favor of profiteering private interests, both in oil production and in renewable energy generation - an area in which Biden has committed to creating millions of new jobs.

Both Mexican and U.S. business groups are hoping Biden urges Lopez Obrador to respect their contracts, with related litigation already threatening to create problems for Mexico.

At the same time, Biden is beholden to trade unions that want to enforce tougher new labor laws under the new Trump-crafted United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade deal that is meant to stem the outsourcing of jobs to Mexico.

That may yet dovetail with Lopez Obrador’s priorities, as he has promised to strengthen the rights of workers and improve their pay, overseeing large increases in the minimum wage.

Lopez Obrador has said he would work with whoever won the election, though he upset some U.S. Democrats by making his only foreign visit as president to Trump at the White House in July, lavishing him with praise - footage of which quickly became part of the American’s re-election campaign propaganda.

Lopez Obrador’s chippiness toward media criticism and tendency to polarize the electorate has drawn comparisons with the U.S. president. One former Mexican official said Trump had referred in private to Lopez Obrador as “Juan Trump.”

But those close to Lopez Obrador say the Mexican was always wary, viewing Trump as dangerously unpredictable and liable to turn on Mexico at any moment if it suited him.

Many officials in Mexico are privately looking forward to diplomatic business returning to more traditional, institutional pathways.

“No (U.S.) party is peaches and cream for Mexico,” said Gabriela Cuevas, a congresswoman and foreign policy specialist in Lopez Obrador’s governing National Regeneration Movement (MORENA). But Biden looks set to be far more committed to promoting a multilateral, environmental agenda than climate-skeptic Trump, which will benefit Mexico in the long-run, Cuevas said.

“It will be good to have someone much more concerned about what’s going on in the planet at the head of a country as important as the United States,” she said.

Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Tom Brown

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