Election 2020 Politics

Mexico’s Lopez Obrador to ask Biden for help with coronavirus vaccines in virtual summit

Mexico has scrambled to get shots, signing agreements for seven different vaccines that have been approved or are in testing, but they have been slow to arrive. About 2.5 million people in Mexico had received at least one dose as of Sunday; the number in the United States is around 50 million.

López Obrador has emerged as a vocal critic of global inequity in the distribution of the vaccines. He confirmed in his morning news conference Monday that it would be a top subject at the session with Biden.

“The issues: Covid, this is important to us. Above all, vaccines,” he told reporters at Mexico’s National Palace. “What other issues? Migration.”

A reporter asked if López Obrador would press Biden to authorize U.S.-based firms to sell the vaccine to other countries. Former president Donald Trump signed an executive order in December mandating that Americans have first access to vaccines procured by the U.S. government.

“If President Biden wishes, he can give us an answer in the conversation, about the vaccines,” López Obrador responded. “We have to be respectful, but it’s a subject that matters a lot to us.”

The Mexican leader previously asked Trump for assistance in getting access to vaccines. The U.S. government declined to provide them, saying it needed to distribute them first to the American population, according to Martha Delgado, a senior Foreign Ministry official.

“That relationship helped us get a good contract” with the U.S. pharmaceutical company, Delgado told The Washington Post. The Pfizer BioNTech vaccine started arriving in Mexico in December, but later shipments were delayed by an overhaul at the company’s production plant in Belgium, which serves the non-U.S. market.

Delgado said it was particularly important that Mexico obtain more vaccines because of the close relationship between the neighboring countries. “Mexico will take several months more than the United States to vaccinate its population,” she said.

“This is a delicate subject. Why? Because we are neighbors, with a border, we are wall-to-wall, tied together,” with a huge daily flow of people and merchandise.

Reuters reported that López Obrador would ask the U.S. government to lend Mexico vaccine supplies, which would be paid back when Mexico received its shipments later this year. Foreign Ministry officials said they could not confirm the report.

Mexico has suffered one of the world’s largest coronavirus outbreaks. The country says more than 185,000 people have died after testing positive for the virus, but the total number of deaths attributable to the pandemic could be twice that number.

Mexico’s coronavirus czar, Hugo Lopez-Gatell, has been hospitalized in recent days after developing covid-19.

López Obrador said he would also discuss with Biden his idea for an ambitious work visa program that he said would reduce illegal migration while satisfying the demands of the U.S. labor market.

“You will need Mexican and Central American workers to grow, to produce,” he told reporters Saturday, describing the pitch. “We are better off ordering the migratory flow, legalizing it to give the workers a guarantee so that they do not risk their lives, so that human rights are protected.”

He said the idea was similar to the Bracero program, the series of agreements between the United States and Mexico which allowed for the arrival of thousands of Mexican farmworkers in the United States during World War II.

“If you don’t have Mexican labor, how will the United States increase production?” he said. Under his proposal, Central American migrants would also get access to U.S. work visas.

When Trump was president, López Obrador agreed to a series of measures that limited migration to the United States, from a program that forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico to a deployment of Mexico’s national guard to detain migrants. As Biden reverses many of Trump’s policies, López Obrador is now trying to recalibrate his platform.

Biden and López Obrador are both aware that liberalizing their countries’ immigration policies could lead to an increase in the migration of Central Americans and others through Mexico to the United States. López Obrador has called himself a defender of migrant rights, but such migration flows have become increasingly unpopular among Mexicans.

Mexican officials described López Obrador’s work visa pitch as an attempt to strike a balance between supporting migration without appearing to encourage unregulated groups to travel through the country.

In 2019, Mexico promised its own work visa program for the mostly Central American asylum seekers waiting in Mexico. The country’s foreign ministry said thousands could find jobs in the country’s northern industrial belt. But ultimately only 64 people were formally employed through the program.

Sieff reported from Mexico City.

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