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Washington’s New Ambassador to Mexico Is Already Wreaking Havoc

US ambassadors to Mexico have long been a meddling presence. The latest to join the ranks is former interior minister Ken Salazar, who has already distinguished himself for trying to derail AMLO’s efforts to regain public control of the country’s energy sector.

Ken Salazar speaks with media in Somerset, Pennsylvania. (Ross Mantle / Getty Images)

Since arriving in the country in September to assume the role of Ambassador to Mexico, former US interior secretary Ken Salazar has been having a grand old time. Bestriding the country in his ten-gallon Texan hat, the peripatetic Salazar has been showing up seemingly everywhere: at a regional governor’s meeting in Mérida, musing about offering a message to the nation on the Senate floor, meeting with opposition figures at the International Book Fair in Guadalajara, even hanging out with the mariachis in Mexico City’s fabled Plaza Garibaldi.

In and amongst all the fun and games, however, the new ambassador has found plenty of time to steamroll his way into the thicket of sensitive political matters. In early November, Salazar took his tour to the National Palace. There, he expressed “serious concerns” about the Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) administration’s proposed constitutional energy reform, which seeks to strengthen the hand of the public energy sector and nationalize the nation’s substantial lithium stores. The message received a quick rebuff from Mexican foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard, who calmly reminded the ambassador of an existing agreement with Washington not to weigh in on the reform without first having learned “what it is and what it isn’t.”

Not content with putting his foot in it once, Salazar plowed ahead two days later, tweeting out a photo of a meeting with “energy sector leaders” who provide “clean, accessible, and trustworthy energy to Mexico.” He then proceeded to hold a press conference in which he stated that businesses that have “invested in renewable energy with the backing of the United States” are concerned. For this reason, the United States — an earnest student as always — is seeking to better understand the reasons for the reform in order to arrive at a “resolution.”

The Leading Wedge of Empire

Given the historically fraught relationship between the United States and Mexico, the ambassadorship has always been a delicate position, a combination of hot seat and leading wedge of empire. The first to hold the position, Joel Roberts Poinsett, became so embroiled in the instrumentalizing of freemasonry, attempts to annex the northern half of the country, and plots to intervene in the presidential succession that he was tossed out of the country in 1830.

In the “ten tragic days” of 1913, Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson plotted with Generals Victoriano Huerta and Félix Díaz to overthrow Francisco Madero, the first democratically elected president in thirty-five years; the success of the coup led to the brutal assassination of Madero and his vice president, José María Pino Suárez, and strung out the Mexican Revolution for the rest of the decade.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan nominated former acting crony John Gavin to the post, with predictably disastrous results. Two decades later, in the aftermath of lingering Bush administration anger over Mexico’s refusal to support the Iraq War, Ambassador Tony Garza provoked a rift by temporarily closing the Nuevo Laredo consulate in order to “punish” its southern neighbor’s “failure” to control drug violence.

In 2011, the release of the WikiLeaks cables revealing the dark inner workings of the Felipe Calderón administration cost his successor Carlos Pascual — who was caught out in the cables criticizing the Mexican military — his job. And just last year, Trump’s ambassador, Christopher Landau, was forced to walk back comments that the “uncertainty” caused by AMLO’s energy sector reforms was creating a discouraging environment for foreign investment.

For Salazar, the ambassadorship represents a golden opportunity to further refine a shtick he’s spent his career perfecting: paying lip service to renewable energy while filling the coffers of the fossil fuel sector. Under his leadership, the Interior Department blocked federal regulators from regulating greenhouse emissions through the Endangered Species Act, green-lit oil drilling in the Arctic for Royal Dutch Shell, approved gas drilling in Utah’s Uintah Basin, and, most infamously, exempted British Petroleum (BP)’s drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico from an environmental impact analysis barely a year before the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Not only did the Interior Department proceed to provide a further twenty-seven exemptions in the wake of the explosion; following a temporary moratorium it went on to lease millions of new acres for oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, all while hiring a former BP executive to run its Minerals Management Service.

Upon leaving Interior in 2013, Salazar went through the revolving door to work for WilmerHale, a law and lobbying firm with close ties to the Trump family, whose roster drilling- and mining-related clients included none other than — you guessed it — BP. From his lucrative new perch in the private sector, Salazar used his clout to support the Keystone Pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Protocol (TPP), whose “investor-state” provisions would let corporations challenge environmental regulations in private tribunals; fought against ballot initiatives that would limit fracking and distance oil wells from buildings and bodies of water; opposed climate lawsuits against the fossil fuel sector; and, in a highly questionable skirting of ethics rules, provided legal counsel to the same company, Anadarko Petroleum, that benefitted on multiple occasions from his stint in government.

The Ugly Underbelly of US-Mexico Relations

The fact of sending an oil and gas lobbyist to lecture Mexico on renewable energy — one, moreover, representing an administration that just opened 80 million acres for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and is approving drilling permits on public lands at a faster rate than Trump — would be comical if it were not so revealing of the ugly underbelly of US-Mexico relations.

To American intelligentsia and its media sycophants in both countries, it is axiomatic that the United States is developed while Mexico is developing; the United States is dynamic and forward-looking while Mexico is traditional and (especially under AMLO) insistent on returning to the failed solutions of the past. Therefore, the former has the unquestionable right to lecture the latter, trusting that few will care to call out, or even notice, the glaring hypocrisy of an ambassador in hock to the fossil fuel industry amongst the barrage of diplomats, business associations, public relations firms, and NGOs spreading the same message of the need for Mexico to “modernize” and, more to the point, leave behind its reliance on outdated energy to join the enlightened circle of those who are heroically saving the planet from itself.

Once we clear away these underlying assumptions, however — ones that are all the more powerful for being unstated, at least in public — the message is clear. We, the United States and Global North, have produced the vast majority of greenhouse emissions over the course of history. And we, the United States and Global North, will continue to produce the vast majority of greenhouse emissions while wielding environmental discourse as a club to prevent Mexico, or anyone else in the Global South, from taking control of its own energy and denying us access to its resources, minerals, and electrical grid.

Not only does this perpetuate an unjust and exploitative state of affairs while attempting to turn Mexico into the next Enron, Texas, or Spain. Worse: it cheapens and delegitimizes a genuine environmental argument in the eyes of millions at precisely the moment when that argument is most needed. For despite all the lofty rhetoric generated for international consumption, renewable energy continues to represent a small fraction of private sector production in Mexico, and much of that is funneled to a select group of corporate clients that take advantage of subsidies and free access to the grid to pay cheaper electricity bills at the expense of their competition and the general public. Not that you’ll see that on an industry prospectus anytime soon.

As for Ken Salazar, his limelight tour of the country continues. But behind this lies a past of regulatory negligence, industry-friendly activism, revolving-door lobbying, and eye-catching conflicts of interest, together with a present of decidedly undiplomatic interference in Mexico’s domestic affairs. Perhaps the holidays would be a propitious time for him to reflect on his first few months and what the limits of an ambassador’s role should be. For while the US public pays precious little heed to what most of its representatives do abroad, in Mexico, historical memory is very long indeed.