TOLUCA, Mexico — They came to talk about their roles as powerhouses in world trade, but President Obama and his two North American counterparts made little progress Wednesday in boosting their ambitious plans to ease borders and expand into new frontiers.
In a daylong summit, other issues overshadowed most discussion of economy and commerce. Obama, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered only modest steps aimed at better economic integration.
"We have every incentive to make this work," Obama said. "A lot of our conversations have focused on how do we reduce any trade frictions." But he acknowledged that "parochial" interests often thwarted leaders.
Officials said the meeting in Toluca, capital of the state of Mexico, was aimed in large part at building on the landmark North American Free Trade Agreement, signed by the three countries 20 years ago, and at finding ways to move ahead on the gigantic Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact under negotiation by 12 Western and Asian nations.
The summit "gives us an opportunity to build on the enormous progress we've already made in making sure that North America is the most competitive region in the world," Obama, sitting next to Peña Nieto, said in brief remarks shortly after arriving in Toluca, just west of Mexico City.
But Obama is blocked by Congress, which has refused to give him the broader "fast-track" powers to negotiate the transpacific pact more easily.
At the conclusion of the short summit, Peña Nieto announced a list of measures aimed at easing border access and making the region more competitive, including a trusted-traveler program, improved transportation infrastructure and a larger exchange of students. But the list was short on specifics.
Earlier, on his flight to Mexico, Obama made an initial gesture by signing an executive order that officials said would dramatically cut waiting time on permits to import and export goods for American businesses. He later pledged to further streamline red tape.
Experts have long complained that a slew of regulations and restrictions on border crossings and export-import businesses place a drag on the region's economies. The steps announced Wednesday by the leaders were not expected to go very far in rectifying those problems.
Obama's day in Toluca was short to start with, with the president arriving in the afternoon and leaving in late evening for Washington. It wasn't even enough time to sample the famous local chorizo, a fact he bemoaned during a meeting with business leaders.
But even that light day of business had to be squeezed in around other matters. Obama was barely in town before he had to interrupt a meeting with the Mexican president to weigh in on the crisis in Ukraine, holding that government accountable for the violence there, then later to speak by phone with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss Syria and other Middle East crises.
Obama also turned his attention to Venezuela, where protests against the government of President Nicolas Maduro have turned deadly.
He urged Maduro to "instead of making up false accusations" focus on addressing Venezuelans' grievances. Venezuela expelled three U.S. diplomats, accusing them of fomenting a coup against the government. Obama also called for the release of prisoners.
In Toluca, there were scattered demonstrations, mostly from Mexicans who oppose their government's decision to open up its energy industry to foreign investment. But reinforced security squads kept most protesters at bay.
Peña Nieto noted the importance of Toluca and the state of Mexico to his career. It was here that he climbed the political ladder of his Institutional Revolutionary Party, then served as governor of the state until his 2012 run for the presidency.
He did not mention its egregious security trouble, including the highest homicide rate in the country last year.
For all the generous mutual praise exchanged by the leaders, the trilateral relationship is clearly showing its age and strains.
"This North American Leaders' Summit is really one of the only things left that's truly trilateral in the North American relationship, and unfortunately even … this hasn't been happening each year in the last few years," said Christopher Wilson, an associate at the Washington-based Mexico Institute.
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City contributed to this report.