- The Washington Times - Monday, November 26, 2012

U.S. immigration reform, U.S.-Mexican drug-control policies and the possibility of opening Mexico’s state-controlled energy sector to foreign investment are among Tuesday’s discussion topics when Mexican President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto visits the White House.

Mr. Pena Nieto is keen on using the visit to focus President Obama on the potential for economic growth between the two nations, sources close to the incoming Mexican president say.

In addition, a key issue will be drug-control policies in the wake of Colorado and Washington state voting to allow the recreational use of marijuana, in violation of federal law.

A leader of Mr. Pena Nieto’s political party — the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — has said the incoming administration must rethink how to deal with drug cartels now that the two U.S. states have eased enforcement of drug laws.

The U.S. support for Mexico’s iron-fisted drug war dominated the U.S.-Mexico relationship through Mr. Obama’s first term, as economic ties quietly surged between the two nations under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

A 40 percent jump in Mexico’s per-capita gross domestic product since NAFTA’s inception has resulted in a robust Mexican middle class eager to buy automobiles and other expensive goods for which their country had not been a major market.

With Canada as the No. 1 U.S. trading partner, Mexico now rivals China for the No. 2 spot — ahead of Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom and Brazil.

Mr. Pena Nieto has said the landscape is ripe for deeper relations among Mexico, the United States and Canada, perhaps creating the world’s most powerful economic bloc under a “NAFTA 2.0.”

Latin America analysts in Washington generally agree that Tuesday’s meeting between Mr. Pena Nieto and Mr. Obama represents a unique chance to reshape the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

“I think the theme is that there is an opportunity here, there is a sense of this sort of unusual moment,” said Michael Shifter, who heads the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

Mr. Obama’s posture on immigration reform has widespread support in Mexico, where leaders from across the political spectrum have long criticized the U.S. treatment of illegal immigrants.

Mr. Shifter said Mr. Obama’s re-election has fueled Mexican hopes for a broader softening of the U.S. posture toward Mexicans living illegally in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Mr. Pena Nieto’s victory has been watched closely by U.S. energy executives eager to capitalize on the potential opening of Pemex, Mexico’s state-controlled oil and gas corporation.

But the “Obama administration is going to encounter resistance to immigration reform here in the United States, and there’s going to be resistance to energy reform in Mexico,” said Mr. Shifter.

Opening Pemex to foreign investment is unlikely to come easily in Mexico, where it will require a series of politically delicate legal reforms.

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