Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Vice President Biden Visits Mexico and Central America

by Shannon K. O'Neil
March 5, 2012

U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden and Mexico's President Felipe Calderon pose for a photograph prior to a meeting at the Los Pinos presidential palace in Mexico City (Tomas Bravo/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden and Mexico's President Felipe Calderon pose for a photograph prior to a meeting at the Los Pinos presidential palace in Mexico City (Tomas Bravo/Courtesy Reuters).

On Sunday, Joe Biden began his second trip to Latin America as Vice President. In 2009  he went to Chile and Costa Rica to talk about the global economic crisis; now he is in Mexico and Honduras, focusing on security (among other issues) in the lead up to the April Summit of the Americas.

The main event in Mexico was a Monday meeting with President Felipe Calderon. But Biden also took time to meet with all three of Mexico’s presidential candidates, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Enrique Peña Nieto, and Josefina Vázquez Mota (in alphabetical order so as to avoid claims of favoritism). A few decades ago a U.S. official meeting with opposition candidates would have caused great consternation and tension between the governments; today it is accepted and even expected. These meetings not only highlighted the vast changes in Mexico, but also signaled that the United States is both interested in and open to working with any future president of Mexico, whomever it may be.

On Tuesday, Biden travels to Honduras to meet with President Porfirio Lobo, as well as his El Salvadoran, Panamanian, Costa Rican, and Guatemalan counterparts. Security will undoubtedly play a large role, as Central America’s governments battle drug cartels and soaring homicide rates. The U.S. has upped financial support over the last few years through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), but the results are still quite limited.

The frustration with the current approach to tackling drug cartels has led to calls from numerous Latin American heads of state, such as Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, for an international debate on drug legalization. The declarations stem largely from these government’s struggles on the ground with organized crime and violence. In Guatemala’s case it also likely reflects the desire to increase U.S. aid and to lift the ban on weapons sales instituted in the 1970s. During his visit Vice President Biden will, at least privately, likely be fielding questions about the United States’ “war on drugs,” and the seeming inability to rein in the money, guns, and drug demand that fuels the violence.

It appears that, at least for now, there will be no change in U.S. drug policy. Dan Restrepo, NSC Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, commented that “the Obama administration has been quite clear in our opposition to the decriminalization or legalization of illicit drugs.”  But while the United States won’t be changing policies this go round, the fact that drug legalization is a central part of discussions is in itself something new.

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