- Christopher Landau, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico City
- Jane Harman, Director, President, CEO, Wilson Center
- Duncan Wood, Director, Mexico Institute
- Luis Rubio, President, COMEXI
Jane Harman: Good afternoon, I’m Jane Harman, the President and CEO of the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., former member of Congress, where I represented parts of Los Angeles, which I called, and still do, “North Mexico.” A huge Mexican influence there, all for the good. And a lot of time growing up to fall in love with Mexico, which I still am.
This event is organized by the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute and the Mexico Council on Foreign Relations.
I’m excited to welcome U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau, who will share his insights on U.S.-Mexico cooperation during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
We have a huge number of people listening in and trying to get in the air waves or I guess zoom in and we hope you are able to get in because this yet another event by our Mexico Institute that is attracting a huge audience.
Ambassador Landau is the son of the late George W. Landau, who served as U.S. Ambassador to three countries: Paraguay, Chile, and Venezuela.
I say that not to overshadow our special guest but to point out Latin America has played a major role in this Ambassador Landau’s childhood. That gives him extra qualifications on top of the all the ordinary variety of qualifications.
Duncan Wood, the Director of our Mexico Institute and a moderator of today’s discussion, tells me that Ambassador Landau’s Spanish still has a notable Paraguayan accent, go figure, whatever that may mean, but that his Mexican accent is getting stronger by the day. Duncan, your British accent is still strong, so I’m not sure what your observation means, in fact.
But Ambassador Landau arrived in Mexico at a crucial time. The surge of Central American migration last year brought the need for unprecedented coordination between the U.S. and Mexico on border security.
Thankfully, we have risen to the challenge and made great progress in the way of government cooperation. That’s a very good thing and it’s thanks, in no small part, to the Ambassador’s efforts.
The COVID-19 epidemic and pandemic, of course, has brought new and very different challenges. From ensuring the safety of Americans in Mexico to coordinating the partial closing of the U.S.-Mexico border, it’s safe to say that the Ambassador has had his hands full in recent weeks, so we are extraordinarily grateful that he has agreed to talk to us today.
Ambassador, as I’m sure you know, our Mexico Institute is the go-to source for analysis on the U.S.-Mexico relationship. So I’m comfortable leaving you in very capable hands of Duncan Wood for this interview. I’m not leaving you, I will be here, watching but Duncan will be the one to carry out the interview.
Special thanks to Duncan and his team for their hard work in excellent programing in these unusual times.
Please join me in welcoming the Director of our first in class Mexico Institute, Duncan Wood.
Duncan Wood: Thank you Jane for your kind words and also your leadership during difficult times. It’s been extraordinary to watch how the Wilson Centers has come up with such dynamic and relevant programming and seemingly on a not just a daily basis but a couple of times a day. Thank you for playing a role in so many of those events.
I’d like to thank our partner institution COMEXI, the Mexican Council on Foreign Affairs. We are going to be hearing from its President Luis Rubio, who will give some closing comments at the end of this event. Luis Rubio of course is a global fellow with the Mexico Institute and a member of our board.
Thank you Ambassador Landau for being here. It’s been wonderful to see how you have worked as Ambassador during these times. You really took the bull by the horns when you first landed in Mexico and embraced Mexican culture. I know that you are dearly loved by so many people in Mexico because of that and I’ll give you a more formal introduction in a second.
Let me also thank our corporate sponsors. We have board members from many different sectors at the Mexico Institute. We are grateful to you all them for their support but I’d like to specially point out the board members from the pharmaceutical and health sector, who support our work and in particular on public health cooperation between Mexico and the United States: Pharma, Pfizer, Amgen and Gilead. Thanks to all of them for their inputs.
Which actually helped us to put together a publication recently, titled “Beyond Pandemics: U.S.-Mexico Cooperation in Public Health”, that I co-worked with Andrew Rudman. And there are some ideas in there for taking public health cooperation forward after this pandemic is over.
But I’d like to give a more formal introduction to Ambassador Christopher Landau.
Ambassador was born in Madrid, one of my favorite cities, and now he gets to live in my favorite city, Mexico City, because, I mean, I have no doubt it’s the most fun city in the world.
But of course you, as Jane mentioned, you spent a lot of your childhood in Paraguay, and that’s where you learned your fluent Spanish. But you came back to the United States, went to school in Boston, you went to Harvard for both your undergraduate and your graduate work and go to GD Suma Cum Laude from Harvard.
Ambassador Landau was a very very successful lawyer before he came to be Ambassador in Mexico and argued nine cases before the Supreme Court. That’s something extraordinary.
He’s been the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico since August of last year. As many people who are watching this webcast know, there was a gap, a significant gap, before Ambassador Landau was able to go down to Mexico. And it was really felt, I think, that we needed an Ambassador in place.
So everybody watched with great interest to see who the choice would be from the Trump Administration and we are so glad that you were nominated and accepted to go down to Mexico City.
As I’ve said earlier on you have not only embraced the country and its culture but you really have been embraced by the country and I think that’s a testament to you as a human being and as a skilled diplomat. But it also shows very much the human side of diplomacy that we sometimes forget about.
Ambassador Landau: I’ve already accepted your invitation to do this thing. You don´t need to butter me up now!\
Duncan Wood: thank you so much for being here. I would like to turn the microphone over to you for some opening comments.
Obviously this has been a very complex and complicated timing over the last couple of months. But perhaps you’d like to being on some reflections on what you found when you first go down to Mexico
How you perceived the bilateral relationship before the pandemic and then to talk a little bit about the successes and the challenges of bilateral cooperation during the pandemic.
I will leave the microphone open for you right now and then come back to question you on more specific detail when you are done. So Ambassador Landau we are over to you.
Ambassador Landau: Perfect! Thank you so much to you Duncan and to you Jane for those introductions.
Let me just start out by saying that I’m honored and delighted to be here today at this forum sponsored by, not only the Wilson Center for which I have great respect, but also by COMEXI, an institution here in Mexico that I have really learned to cherish and to call on for very unfailingly wise advice.
So I feel like, this is actually my first public give and take since the pandemic started and I can’t think of a better forum than this.
You know, I’ve made the transition last year from being a lawyer to being a diplomat, and I can’t think of a much more dramatic change.
I specialized in appellate litigation so mostly taking cases at the Court of Appeals, very focused on writing briefs, presenting oral arguments in different courts but it was a very academic corner of the law, where I had a lot of time to think, to write, to read, all of which I have done very little of since I’ve arrived in Mexico as Ambassador.
My days now are mostly talking to people, you know, meetings, and it’s wonderful to work those different muscles but, I want to just emphasize, that I really value institutions like the Wilson Center, the Mexico Institute, within the Wilson Center and COMEXI, folks that actually have the time and the passion to do the deep digging, the writing, the reading, that needs to be done, that policymakers in my position we just don’t have the time to do that
And so I miss those days but I’m very grateful that there are other people who are still doing those kind of things and so, again, I just want to take my hat off to both Wilson Center and to COMEXI.
You know, let me just address Duncan’s point, which is, I always knew that going as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico was not going to be a champagne and cocktail party kind of embassy, this is not Luxemburg. And nothing against Luxemburg. I don’t know if there’s any Luxembourgeois people here but…I have one here in the room with me [laughs]. OK, there’s one in every crowd!
But, you know, this a very complicated and critically important relationship for both countries. One of the reasons I really wanted this job is that I firmly believe that neither of our countries can’t really have success in its own domestic agenda without getting the relationship with the other country right.
And so I came down here very much focused on three key areas, which are immigration, and as Duncan mentioned briefly, or it may have been Jane that said, that you think to last year — it’s funny how the crises of the day changes and the pandemic has kind of minimized everything else — We were facing a very serious crisis at our southern border last year and so that was kind of the top of the agenda.
Also, there’s the constant security issue with Mexico, which, from the U.S. perspective is basically about narcotics interdiction. But from the Mexican perspective it entails a far broader patchwork of corruption, insecurity within Mexico in general, crime in Mexico, violence, so there’s lots of aspects to that problem and it’s proven to be very difficult over the decades.
And then economic issues; the USMCA was still up in the air last year. Frankly, it was still somewhat up in the air until the moment when all the sudden it came into place back in December. But there were some very tense moments there going down to the wire.
And, you know, the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, the economic relationship, I’m sure that everyone on this call appreciates, is so important to both countries that we were each others’ largest trading partner in goods last year.
So, that part of the relationship is really critical to get right and, so my days in the nine months that I’ve been here up to know, let’s say in the seven or eight months that I was here before the pandemic, I would be kind of vary on any given day I might be focused on one, or the other, or multiple of those issues at once but those were kind of bread and butter issues.
When the pandemic kind of came along, in the beginning or middle of March, obviously that became the issue, how we respond to that. And all the other issues really had to be looked at through the pandemic lens. And I think that we can discuss in a moment how the pandemic has really affected all of those other issues
Suddenly, what seemed like a very complicated docket full of high priority issues: it’s amazing how a crisis like the pandemic — how an existential crisis — kind of focuses the mind and clears away a lot of the cobwebs.
Those other issues haven’t really gone away but now we have to kind of come out with a new normal, at least during the pandemic and looking towards a post-pandemic future.
I’d say that we are working, in general, in a very collaboratively with the Mexicans. We both have an interest in reducing the infections in both our countries, given just the huge volume of people that cross over our share border. You can’t really have a healthy Mexico without a healthy United States and vice versa.
We’ve been working with Mexico to try to support their health systems. Both, at the governmental level, where we’ve given them some support. Obviously Mexico is a country that has its own money to buy medical supplies on the international market and they’ve been doing that. But we’ve been providing them with support and assistance where we can and U.S. companies have really also stepped up to the plate. And the private sector, they just worked with some Mexican companies in funding a big COVID-19 temporary hospital here in Mexico City. I was very proud to see that and I’ve been tweeting about it.
And we’ve seen, you know, General Motors, for example, had turned over its factory in Toluca to making facemasks and I love highlighting that kind of stuff because it shows the breath of cooperation in a time of crisis.
You know, I’ve said there’ve been some areas that have gone fairly smoothly in the crisis. I think we can get more of this in a moment with Duncan but they way we kind of handled the border itself in the early days of the crisis back in March, I can consider to be a real success story.
It’s one of those kind of things that, you know, you don’t get headlines out of doing something successfully. Basically people are just…you can only kind of get in trouble if it blows up out in your face, but if everything gets smoothly then it doesn’t become a story at all. And I think that’s a little bit of what happened at the border, It’s kind of the story that wasn’t but I’m very proud of that.
I think, some of my most tricky moments as Ambassador were those days in March, in mid-March, when we moved to this new paradigm of how we are going to deal the stuff in the pandemic and how we addressed, keeping the border open to commerce in this crisis and not making the economic situation in both countries worse.
I’d say that the biggest frustration for me, and the thing that this pandemic has laid bare, that we have to do more on the economic front to talk about cooperation on things like essential industries in times of crisis. That has been a sore area from the beginning.
I’m a very frank person and I talk frankly about things and, you know, again I’m not blaming any particular person or government. I just think that none of the countries really proceeded in a coordinated fashion.
That’s understandable when you have a crisis like this and particularly when you have federal republics with significant authority and responsibility at the state and local levels, these kind of things don’t happen seamlessly. But I think you can certainly have procedures in place that will allow for more institutionalized on-going discussions of that issue.
I think, to me, one of the really important things here is to talk about lessons learned and things we can go forward with. I’m sure the Wilson Center and the Mexico Institute will be focusing on these issues as we move forward, and I certainly look forward to seeing to what they have to say about this.\
Because I’m very open to lessons learned and, certainly, hearing about different people’s experiences, things that those of you on the call, they presumably, all of you are in this call because you have interest in the U.S.-Mexico relationship in the time of pandemic.
And I’m very interested on hear all your perspectives on things that we can do better now, frankly, and moving forward. So, you know, I think, again, there are some things I think that we’ve done well, like in the context of our… We’ve significantly reduced our in-staff presence at the Embassy, as you might expect, and in the consulates when the health crisis really started ted to heat-up in mid-March.
We went to about 10 percent working at the office at that time to really keep open essential services and emergency services. I think, by large, my perception — and again, I’m open to hearing from other folks who are the users of our services — is that we’ve have managed to keep out heads above water and kind of keep the trains running, if not exactly on time, at least, you know, on the track, particularly in an area, which I can get into a little bit later, like agricultural workers that they need those H-2A visas. That is such a critical component really for both countries economies and we managed to keep that going.
So, again, I think there’s a lot of success stories here, as well, frankly, as a lot of frustration about the lack of coordination in other things as essential industries.
So, I think it’s a kind of a mixed bag overall but I want to focus, to accentuate the positive and acknowledge the negative. As I’ve said, I’m open to hearing different perspectives.
I’m very much a believer, just to kind of talk a little bit about, you know, the economic situation, I think it is, there are certainly very not only legitimate but compelling health interest at stake on both sides of the border and the key is to come up with a way to protect worker health without completely stopping economic activity.
I think it’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. I think that we’ve seen that in places like China and Europe. Mexico and the United States, particularly Mexico, has the advantage of being at the end of the world wide curve of this, so there’s a lot of lessons learned from other parts of the world and I’m always very eager to hear what companies who operate in other parts of the world have to say.
So, again, I think I’ll wrap it up there and maybe we can go to some more targeted questions but just let me reiterate again that I feel very honored to have this platform today to speak with you and, you know, I look forward to answering your questions. So, thank you very much.
Ambassador Landau: He’s been a great partner. And he knows— what’s most important in this business, I’ve come to see — is to be able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and really understand what are the constraints under which the other person is operating, so you don’t spend a lot of time on stuff that the other side couldn’t possibly accept. I think he knows pretty well the constraints under which I’m operating, I understand the constraints under which he’s operating, and so, we kind of get right to the point, and, again, there’s a lot of people involved in this.
I think the Border Patrol did a very good job. The CBP at the actual ports of entry, in terms of implementing this policy without… Obviously, this all kind of came up almost overnight. This all came up, from beginning to end, in less than 48 hours. So, when you think about it, particularly in that context, a lot could have gone wrong. But I think that relationship is very important, between Marcelo Ebrard, the Foreign Minister, is a key player and excellent partner. And I think both presidents want to have a good relationship with the other country, not withstanding what a lot of people think and thought when they came in. I think both of them value this relationship and it paid off dividends that night, when those decisions were made.
Duncan Wood: Let me take you to a slightly more difficult issue, the one that you’ve already brought up, and that is, of course, the question of supply chains, reactivating parts of the Mexican economy so that components can flow back across the border to the United States. You’ve already put out that this is a question not just of economy but of public health. We know that a reopening factory does put some people at risk. I wonder if you can talk about the progress that you’re making, or the problems that you’re facing on that issue because, despite the positive relationship, of course this is a very difficult issue to handle, and it’s received a lot of attention now in the press here in the United States. So I wonder if you could walk us through that.
Ambassador Landau: To put this in context, and you all know this better than I do, but, we are now the beneficiaries of basically thirty years of work by people on this call as well as other people to really push ahead North American economic integration, and use the relative advantages of each of our countries to improve the wealth of the region as a whole.
I, frankly, am concerned about North American supply chains. It’s a very intricate system where, so many companies in the States, not only the big ones like GM or Ford, but little companies that make lawn blowers or alarm systems, have certain components made in Mexico. The Mexican Government— President Lopez Obrador was kind of criticized in March and, again, everyone has to keep in mind that the pandemic hit here several weeks later than it hit the United States and Europe, so he was being criticized for going out and not doing enough, going out to rallies, high-fiving people, kissing babies — but at the end of March he put the Health Ministry here in control of defining the essential industries, basically gave them the authority to stop all non-essential industries in the country, and put that implementation in the hands primarily of the Health Ministry. As might be expected, this again was done at a pretty compressed timetable, they came up with a pretty narrow list of what industries are essential: basically health, security just in terms of private security and police and all that, and then food chains so, you know, very minimal.
We in the United States came up with some CISA guidelines that were guidelines at the Federal level, they had been implemented to one extent or another in the states, and I think Canada, my understanding is, had something similar to those CISA guidelines. Those are substantially more exapansive on essential industries than the Mexican ones. I have to say, that from the beginning I was concerned that there was no mechanism in Mexico, or in the United States really— but in Mexico, I guess, at this point— to coordinate with the United States on how you deal with these international supply chains and these differences in the definitions of essential industries.
So far we have been working kind of on an ad-hoc basis with American companies if we get word that an American company says: “Look, we’re allowed to be open in the United States, but we can’t open in Mexico, and our plants in the United States are going to have to shut down if we don’t get our supplies from Mexico…” we’ve been able to work with the Mexican Government both at the Federal and State level to try to get exemptions and to work it out, but there has never been in Mexico in this crisis a formal procedure for companies to petition to the Mexican Government “we need to be able to open the supply chain.” I think it’s going to be really important as we come out of this, and look to the future to have some kind of a mechanism in place so we can do those things. It’s very hard to to that once you’re in the middle of a crisis. We are still in the middle of that.
I just got off a phone call a few minutes ago about the opening of the automotive sector which now looks like in the States it’ll happen May 18. We’re still working closely with the Mexicans because, again, it helps both our countries. Nobody wants to inflict unnecessary harm on their own country’s economy, or on these North American supply chains, but it also has to be done in a way that takes into account very legitimate health concerns. So this has been a very recurring issue. I suspect lots of people in this call have heard about this, or may even be involved in this. And it’s been my bread and butter over the past six weeks, trying to deal with this kind of things. Again, kind of in a piecemeal basis which is not ideal. So I certainly hope that we come up with a mechanism that would at least allow there to be an established framework for coordination and discussion in the future on this kind of things.