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Kind words, no pacts at summit

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, Mexican President Felipe Calderon and U.S. President Barack Obama walk toward a stand for an official North American summit photo in Guadalajara, Mexico, Monday.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, Mexican President Felipe Calderon and U.S. President Barack Obama walk toward a stand for an official North American summit photo in Guadalajara, Mexico, Monday.
Alex Brandon, Associated Press

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — President Barack Obama and his counterparts from Mexico and Canada emerged Monday from a speed summit united on recession-fighting and Honduras' ousted leader but still divided on security and trade, the areas that most define their partnership.

The annual three-way meeting lasted barely more than four hours, spanning dinner Sunday night and Monday's morning of talks. There were repeated shows of friendship as the leaders gathered at the Institutos Cabanas, a 19th century home for poor children that's now a sprawling art museum, but there were no concrete announcements.

Further, questions about domestic policy — especially Obama's efforts to overhaul U.S. health care — took much of the attention as the three leaders appeared together before reporters in a graceful stone-arched courtyard.

Obama said immigration changes, another politically explosive subject in both the U.S. and Mexico, would have to wait until next year. He said he expected draft legislation for an immigration overhaul this year but the matter would not get priority attention until 2010.

"We have a broken immigration system. Nobody denies it," Obama said. But politically and legislatively, it stands behind health care, energy legislation and an overhaul of financial regulatory rules on Obama's first-term agenda.

"It's very important for us to sequence these big initiatives in a way where they don't all just crash at the same time," he said.

The leaders' united front on Honduras produced some of the news conference's most animated talk.

Since Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a June 28 coup, international demands to return him to power have gone unheeded. The U.S. has suspended millions of dollars in aid and issued threats of more sanctions, but has mostly worked through the Organization of American States to try to resolve the situation. Some, including Zelaya, have criticized that as tepid.

Obama told critics they can't follow decades of complaints about American heavy-handedness in Latin America with today's pleas for more direct intervention. "You can't have it both ways," he said.

He got vigorous backing from his host, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, and from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. "If I were an American, I would be really fed up with this kind of hypocrisy," Harper said.

As heavily armed federal agents and police in riot gear sealed off streets, the leaders declared their intention to take "aggressive, coordinated action" to restore growth across recession-weary North America.

But a "Buy America" provision included in Congress' giant economic stimulus package earlier this year rankles both Mexico and Canada — and the leaders told Obama so.

The president said he hadn't believed at the time of the stimulus debate that the provision was necessary, but he acknowledged he declined to fight over it. He didn't promise to overturn it, and argued in any case that it was small potatoes and hadn't hurt trade. "We have not seen some sweeping step toward protectionism," he said.

He also made no specific promises to Mexico on some of its chief concerns: a U.S. ban on NAFTA-required access to American highways for Mexican truckers and the pace of money flowing south for Calderon's fierce anti-drug war. About 11,000 people have died in Mexico, and the violence is spilling over the borders into the U.S. and Canada.

One installment of the three-year, U.S. $1.4 billion Merida Initiative package may be withheld because of concerns that the Mexican army is committing human rights abuses while battling the drug cartels. Calderon got Obama's statement of confidence that the Mexican president is acting appropriately, but no explicit promise for the money.

Said Calderon: "There has been a very scrupulous effort to try to protect human rights, in all cases."

Mexico and Canada, meanwhile, are sparring over Canada's newly established visa requirements for Mexicans wanting to visit. Harper did not offer to rescind the policy, saying "it is the only tool available" to combat bogus refugee claims until Canadian laws can be changed.

He promised such changes, but Calderon expressed open disappointment nonetheless.

"Mexico certainly feels very bad about this decision, about this rejection," Calderon said. "It certainly gets in the way of a good relationship."