Mexico’s president and its U.S. ambassador are close – maybe too close, some officials say

Ambassador Ken Salazar has entertained some of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s less-than-democratic inclinations.

By Michael Marks & Gabriella YbarraJuly 7, 2022 12:18 pm,

Part of an ambassador’s job is to develop close relationships with local leaders. But in the case of Ken Salazar, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, some fear that he’s grown too close to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico.

Salazar has supported López Obrador’s claims that the 2006 election was stolen from him and stood by as López Obrador has assailed journalists in his country.

Maria Abi-Habib, New York Times bureau chief for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, spoke to Texas Standard about Salazar’s relationship with López Obrador and its impact on U.S. interests. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below. 

This transcript has edited lightly for clarity: 

Texas Standard: Could you give us some examples of why some in Washington are concerned about the U.S. ambassador to Mexico at the moment?

Maria Abi-Habib: Well, Mr. Salazar has tried to become very close to AMLO, the president here in Mexico. Now, while he has succeeded in definitely getting on AMLO’s good side, it seems from all of the public appearances, the kind words that they’ve shared, what is concerning several people that we’ve spoken to in Washington and also at the embassy here in Mexico City, is that Mr. Salazar is not actually using that leverage, that close relationship, to make sure that U.S. interests are actually fulfilled in this country.

And it’s actually kind of ironic because one day before our story published, on the 4th of July, AMLO actually said in a public news conference that the U.S. may not deserve to have the Statue of Liberty and that it should give it back, and that he was going to start a campaign. So, for a head of state that seems to be constantly criticizing and sometimes humiliating Washington, it’s very important that the U.S.’s man in Washington make sure that American interests are fulfilled. And that also includes things like energy companies, by the way, many of which are in Texas.

Are there any hard examples of things that the ambassador has done that have people upset?

The Mexican president, AMLO, had insisted that the 2006 elections, the national elections, were stolen from him. Now, the elections were close; it was about 200,000 or so votes that ended up deciding the elections. But the United States and many, many others all kind of agreed that the elections were clean and fair and that any fraud was minimal.

Now, this is kind of akin to the Trump campaign’s big lie that the elections were stolen. So, this is a theory and a conspiracy that only AMLO’s most diehard supporters really have stuck to. And one of the interesting things was that Salazar kind of took it hook, bait and sinker and it seems he believes that the elections were actually stolen from AMLO. And we spoke with him and we asked him, why do you believe this? He said, well, lots of people have told me who have no bone to pick that the elections did not seem to be free and fair.

But more to the point, it was the U.S. position that the election was fair.

I mean, it was the U.S. position that they were. And we spoke to White House officials who said, well, first of all, this was the U.S. position. Elections were free and fair. Secondly, why are we relitigating something that happened 16 years ago? We should be focusing on the now.

Is there any chance that President Joe Biden is hearing about this and having second thoughts about the U.S. ambassador to Mexico?

Well, that’s hard to say. We do know that the men really do enjoy a very close relationship. And that’s one of the benefits of having a person like Mr. Salazar here, is that he can pick up the phone and call President Biden whenever he wants and some of President Biden’s top officials as well. But we do know that even from some of those political appointees that surround Biden, there’s also growing frustration. So, from what we understand, no, Biden doesn’t know. But let’s see if he finds out with our article.

Some would say, isn’t it part of an ambassador’s job to curry favor with local leaders? Could that explain some of Ambassador Salazar’s positions that seem to be running afoul with his directions from the State Department?

Well, 100%. I mean, I’ve seen U.S. ambassadors operate in very difficult places – including Afghanistan, Egypt and many others – places that aren’t necessarily super democratic or where leaders have come into power in questionable ways. But there is this kind of understanding that publicly, it’s going to be all warm and fuzzy and cuddly, but privately we’re going to take them to task and also make sure that things like democratic institutions are upheld and that U.S. interests are upheld.

But from what we understand is that Mr. Salazar is actually pressing the Mexican president’s most sharp line of attacks against democratic institutions in Mexico behind closed doors, when AMLO isn’t even there, to the heads of these institutions, which has made a lot of people very uncomfortable, because at the end of the day, the U.S. ambassador, wherever they may be, needs to be seen as holding a neutral court where anybody can come in and express their concerns to the ambassador.

And now what we’re hearing from a lot of people in Mexico, former diplomats or current officials or heads of NGOs is, why are we going to bother going to talk to the U.S. ambassador when it seems like he’s wholly on the side of this Mexican president who’s been attacking us this entire time?

Obviously, a lot of folks in Texas are paying attention here, especially given AMLO’s positions on energy independence. What are the implications, as you see it, for the many Texas energy firms that do business with Mexico?

Well, I mean, on one hand, Mr. Salazar has succeeded in getting them in front of the president to voice their concerns. And it seems at this point that the ambassador is defending billions of dollars of contracts that involve American energy companies. But at this point, it remains to be seen, because Mexico is led by a populist president, and he has spooked many foreign investors who believe that at a moment’s notice, long-standing contracts could be ripped apart. So, at this point, I think Mr. Salazar realizes that this is kind of a big no-go. Like you can’t touch American energy interests in the country and he has to do everything he can to make sure that they’re protected.

Is there any reason to think that he is not doing that?

There was some criticism that he was not doing enough at one point. He did say publicly something like, yes, you know, the president is right to push this energy reform along, which would have seen many American companies, their investments here, threatened. But he says it was on account of his Spanish, which is not as good as it should be, he says. And that he then continued to lobby to protect American interests behind closed doors.

If this is out of the standards for ambassadorial behavior, what interests does he have? Who is Salazar and why would he want to curry favor separately with the president of Mexico?

Well, Mr. Salazar is a long-time political aspirant, let’s put it that way. He was a senator in Colorado. He’s held numerous political positions, including within the Obama administration. And one of the complaints with many of the diplomats is that he is a political appointee – he was appointed by Biden; he didn’t come up through the State Department, for example, and he doesn’t know the nitty-gritty, the details of diplomacy.

And oftentimes, the hard-core diplomats believe that a lot of these political appointees believe that their charisma can carry them through tough negotiations. But they believe – people in the State Department, the embassy here – that actually, Mr. Salazar does not have the institutional knowledge to really make sure that what Biden wants done in the White House is executed on the ground here in Mexico.

Any sign that this might be the byproduct of internal sniping at the embassy more than anything else?

No, I would say not. I mean, what was quite amazing was the number of people who were willing to speak about this. And that was what was very, very interesting is that this is a widespread belief that he is not stepping up to the plate here.

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