Obama starts a new era in Mexico drive-by

I didn’t think I was going to be able to make it into work this morning. Not because of Mexico’s overloaded public transport system, but because U.S President Barack Obama was expected to arrive on his first visit to Mexico here in the country’s capital.

Dark-blue clad soldiers started cordoning off parts of the posh Polanco neighbourhood as early as Wednesday morning because Obama and his entourage were due to stay in a hotel up the road. On the way to my gym late yesterday afternoon, plain-clothes soldiers were loitering on street corners (their crew cuts and navy-blue caps a dead giveaway) and police trucks were driving slowly through the avenues, confidently holding their guns and scanning around from behind dark sunglasses.

But this morning proved to be much less of a challenge than I’d expected and I made it in ahead of time, albeit using the underground rather than my usual shank’s pony.

I saw on my arrival that Obama had written a column that was published in a number of Latin American newspapers as well as the Miami Herald in expectation of his arrival in Mexico and his approaching attendance at the 5th Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago Friday. See it here in English on the Miami Herald website.

“We can overcome our shared challenges with a sense of common purpose, or we can stay mired in the old debates of the past. For the sake of all our people, we must choose the future. Too often, the United States has not pursued and sustained engagement with our neighbors. We have been too easily distracted by other priorities and have failed to see that our own progress is tied directly to progress throughout the Americas. My administration is committed to renewing and sustaining a broader partnership between the United States and the hemisphere on behalf of our common prosperity and our common security,” he wrote. Strong stuff.

Every media in Mexico and the United States was on high alert and the Facebook updates started pouring in thick and fast, both from the journalistic community as well as from interested readers out there. The Twitter-sphere was also very active – and I’m not just talking about my twitter feed. Everyone from CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux to Inside Mexico and Mexico Times were busy all day keeping avid onliners up-to-date.

Pro-immigration protest during President Barack Obama's Mexico Visit

What can anyone could really accomplish in a 24-hour stop in Mexico – even if they are Barack Obama? Arguably, Mexico is the U.S’s most important “foreign” issue right now – although it’s hard to think of Mexico as a country that’s foreign to the U.S when they share a border, citizens and a multitude of economic interests,

The recent problem of drug-related violence in Mexico has added itself to the age old ones of trade and immigration between the two countries, and continue to confound policy-makers and frustrate citizens on both sides of the border. Neither of those two massive issues are going to be sorted out during this trip, especially against the background of the current economic crisis.

Padre Luis Angel Nieto, a catholic priest and immigrant activist, acknowledged that this afternoon when I spoke to him during a demonstration he organized outside of the United States Embassy on Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma. I went down there to get some quotes for the report we were putting together on local reaction to Obama’s visit.

Nieto and Elvira Arellano – a Mexican woman who was deported from the United States in 2007 after taking refuge in a Chicago church for a year – brought a group of ten children, all of them United States citizens, to the U.S Embassy to submit a letter addressed to President Obama asking that he push for comprehensive immigration reform in the United States.

“I know that these things can’t happen quickly,” said Nieto, adding that with all the good intentions in the world from President Obama, the issue of immigration reform was one for Congress, not the President alone.

The group of protesters was small, and there were nearly as many journalists there as there were manifestantes. But the tone of the dialogue was SO different from the anti-American sentiment so common here in some parts of Mexico that was given the conditions to flourish during the Bush administration.

Arellano said: “Personally I know he [President Barack Obama] is a person with a big heart because I met him personally when he was a state senator and we were fighting for the rights to driver’s licenses, and we approached him to thank him because he voted for driving licenses to for undocumented migrants in the state of Illinois.

“He promised that there was going to be migratory reform in his first 100 days as President. Time is coming to an end but we have faith that he is very willing to work with congressmen and senators in favor of a migratory reform.”

Arellano’s 10-year-old young son Saul Hernandez was one of the children present at the protest, and he wore a T-Shirt, the back of which said: “Born in the U.S.A. Don’t take my Mommy or my Daddy away.”

It’s not for me to speculate on what kind of policies are being developed behind closed doors, but its pretty safe to assume nothing’s going to happen overnight before Obama sets off to the Americas Summit. But maybe that’s not the point.

From the small insights that I can offer from Mexico’s capital, his visit does have a strong symbolic value for a lot of people here, who felt part-ignored and part victimized by the U.S administration of George Bush.

Mexico President Felipe Calderon said during the televised welcoming ceremony for Mr Obama:

"We are, we can and we should be friends, partners and allies.

"Mr. President, let’s start a new era of relations between the United States and Mexico, . . . new era in which we work together to make our border an example of productivity and security . . . a new era in which the fight against organized crime is waged completely as a shared responsibility, a battle waged by both Mexicans and Americans and won as allies.”

We can only hope that both he and the U.S President are st
arting as they mean to continue.

Obama's entourage driving past our offices in Mexico City, April 16th 2009. Not much to see I know

I did plan to sign off there, but wouldn’t you know it?Just as I was about to the cry went up around the office that Obama was about to drive past! So I rushed out with my trusty snapper as soldiers dragged steel railings into position and policeman on both sides of the road started signaling to each other. There were lots of men in suits standing around waiting just like us, joking "Here comes la Bestia!" (That’s the name of Obama’s car, apparently).

And they bloody DID drive by! So I snapped the car I THOUGHT Obama would be in – but he wasn’t. In fact, there doesn’t appear to be anyone in it, but that and around 28 other cars and SUVs with blacked-out windows swept by, escorted by policemen on motorbikes.


Please note, this reports only represents the view of the writer, Deborah Bonello, and not that of the Los Angeles Times.

See here for the LATimes daytime dispatch on President Obama’s visit and here for Tracy Wilkinson’s report in anticipation of his arrival.

Image: A sign hung on the fence outside of the U.S Embassy in Mexico City Thursday during a pro-immigration reform demonstration. Credit: Deborah Bonello. Click here for more images on Flickr.