GUATEMALA CITY ( Associated Press) — Mexico’s President Andres Manuel López Obrador on Thursday embarked on a lightning, five-day tour to four Central American countries and Cuba, stopping earlier in neighboring Guatemala.
Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard wrote in his social media accounts that meetings with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and other officials were focused on development, migration and strengthening bilateral ties.
López Obrador hopes to address the poverty and unemployment that sends thousands of Guatemalans crossing north-Mexico to reach the United States by expanding his tree planting program in Central America.
The program known as “Plant Life” pays farmers monthly wages for planting and caring for fruit and timber trees in their fields.
Ebrard said the program was starting in the Guatemalan province of Chimaltenango. Mexico has asked the US government to help with this program, which has not happened yet. Mexico is also offering another program that trains young people in companies. Critics say both programs lack accountability.
This is only the third foreign trip in more than three years for López Obrador, who is fond of saying that the best foreign policy is good domestic policy. The visit is an opportunity for Mexico to re-establish itself as a leader in Latin America and will be welcomed by some leaders for their perceived anti-democratic tendencies under pressure from the US government and others.
Both geographically and figuratively, Mexico finds itself divided between the United States of America and the rest of Latin America. López Obrador has defied criticism from the Trump administration that his government is doing Washington the dirty work of trying to stop migrants before they reach the US border.
López Obrador will be received in Central America, in part, as an envoy to the United States when it comes to migration policy.
The US government is trying to build consensus ahead of the June summit of the Americas in Los Angeles to strengthen a regional approach to managing migration flows. Large numbers of Central Americans, but also Haitians, Cubans, Venezuelans, Colombians, and migrants from other continents have also made their way through the Americas in recent years.
Meanwhile, Giammattei has been under pressure from the US government to back down in the country’s fight against corruption – a campaign central to the image of López Obrador in Mexico.
López Obrador will continue on El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele has faced international condemnation since imposing a state of emergency following a surge in gang killings in late March. So a visit by López Obrador, who prefers a “hugs not bullets” approach to security, is a good opportunity to show that he is not being isolated. El Salvador’s security forces have arrested more than 24,000 suspected gang members in just one month, and human rights organizations say there have been several arbitrary arrests.
In Honduras, new President Xiomara Castro has forged close ties with the Biden administration. Last month, Honduras extradited former President Juan Orlando Hernández to the US to face drug and weapons charges.
The president’s agenda is less clear in Belize. The small country has no significant migration problems, but López Obrador hinted at a topic up for discussion earlier this week. One of his favorite projects is the construction of a tourist train around the Yucatan Peninsula which is neighboring Belize. The Maya train has been criticized for its environmental impact and lack of feasibility studies, but López Obrador says it will bring development to poorer areas.
The president’s final stop in Cuba will be the most symbolic.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel visited Mexico last year for his independence celebrations. López Obrador has ruled largely as a nationalist and populist, but he has positioned himself politically as a devoted leftist.
This visit is an opportunity for López Obrador to show some independence from the United States. López Obrador has criticized the US economic blockade of Cuba and said he told US officials that no country should be kicked out of the US summit. The Biden administration has indicated that Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua will not be invited.