When Prime Minister Stephen Harper travels to Mexico City next week for meetings with his U.S. and Mexican counterparts, he can expect to find a country that is keen to show its neighbours it has moved beyond an era of debilitating battles with drug cartels and is turning its focus to economic growth.
Mr. Harper is set to arrive in Mexico on Monday afternoon, accompanied by a small group of cabinet members. He will hold bilateral talks with President Enrique Pena Nieto the next day, and the two leaders will be joined by U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday for a summit focused largely on opportunities for North American co-operation on security, energy and trade.
The meetings offer Mr. Pena Nieto a key opportunity to showcase a series of profound reforms he brought in, dealing with energy, education, finance and telecommunications. Analysts say the changes, which include more opportunities for foreign investment, could help position Mexico as an increasingly competitive and powerful economic partner in North America.
"They're looking at the summit as a way to showcase to the world that Mexico has started to arrive," said Carlo Dade, who directs the centre for trade and investment policy at Calgary's Canada West Foundation. "The trend lines are clear – they're going forward, they're going up, they aren't going backwards."
At the same time, Mr. Harper is facing growing questions about the strength of the two countries' bilateral relationship. Last summer, Mexico's ambassador to Canada, Francisco Suarez, told The Globe and Mail he hoped to push for a deeper bilateral relationship, saying the two countries had the potential to be diplomatic allies on a global stage.
As next week's meetings approach, there is little evidence of a tangible shift in that relationship. Some analysts suggest the Canadian government's focus on dealing directly with the United States has left it less responsive than it should be to Mexican overtures, and Canada's imposition of a visa on Mexican travellers has also made co-operation more difficult.
Mr. Dade said Mexico received little response when it approached Canada to look for ways to co-operate on trade issues that are of interest to both countries, such as talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. "The Mexicans have really been thinking about [these trade issues] and the response from Ottawa has been, 'We'll deal with the Americans directly. We have a special relationship, you do not,'" he said.
Mr. Harper's visit to Mexico will contrast sharply with his trip last month to Israel, where he was accompanied by more than 200 business, community and religious leaders, six cabinet ministers, nine Conservative MPs and three Conservative senators. A much smaller delegation will go to Mexico, but the Prime Minister's Office says Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, International Trade Minister Ed Fast and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver will be on the trip.
Mr. Harper will meet with Mexican cabinet ministers and Canadian business executives with operations work in Mexico, the PMO says.
The Canadian Council of Chief Executives has called for the visa to be lifted, saying there is no reason to maintain it now that the government has toughened its refugee laws, making it more difficult for Mexicans to claim asylum in Canada. Mexico has offered a number of suggestions to ease the restrictions, including simplifying application forms and recognizing U.S. visas that have been granted to Mexicans, but none have been taken up by Ottawa.
Andrés Rozental, a former deputy foreign minister for Mexico and co-editor of a book on Mexico-Canada relations, said Mexico was particularly offended by a decision last year to lift a visa requirement for citizens of the Czech Republic but not for Mexico. "I think that galls here, because the relationship between the Czech Republic and Canada is nowhere comparable to the relationship between Mexico and Canada," he said.
While the Mexican government has signalled that it does not intend to embarrass Mr. Harper during the meetings, the visa issue will nonetheless be a sensitive undercurrent to Mr. Harper's trip.
Analysts say Canada should be looking for ways to benefit from recent reforms to Mexico's energy sector, which will open it up to foreign investment for the first time in decades. In a recent interview, Mr. Suarez told The Globe he expects Canadian energy companies to have significant opportunities in Mexico, adding he is eager to see new direct flights open up between Calgary and Mexico City to facilitate those firms' involvement.