In his landmark 1985 book, Distant Neighbors, Alan Riding, then the New York Times’ Mexico City correspondent, wrote that the Mexican president, in the days of the one-party state, was all powerful except for two things he could never do: 1) reelect himself (there’s a constitutional one-term limit for Mexican presidents) and 2) bring Mexico closer to the United States.
Mexico has a long, fraught history with the United States that is evident to Mexicans, but seldom understood in Washington. For Mexicans, the United States is the country that invaded and stole half of our territory. Mexican children, to this day, are taught about the “Niños Heroes,” the young cadets who defended the Castillo de Chapultepec, the 19th-century castle in Mexico City, one even wrapping himself in the Mexican flag and jumped to his death rather than be captured by the invading yanquis. Whether or not this tale is true, Mexicans learn from an early age that it is better to die with honor than suffer humiliation from our northern neighbor.
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Since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, this anti-U.S. sentiment has faded—gone dormant, even. Mexicans have grown used to trading with the U.S., and the Mexican government has managed to convince its people that cooperation with the U.S. is better than antagonism. Mexicans have gone along, reluctantly. Anyone who knows a Mexican national will see that, beyond all the niceties and friendship between neighbors, there’s always a lingering suspicion of the United States.
Fast forward to two thousand and Trump. Mexico now wakes up to his tweets and humiliations. He doesn’t even offer the usual routine condolences after an earthquake kills nearly 100 Mexicans, even though we offered that and more after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston. All our old suspicions are confirmed: The United States is not a friend. The United States is out to get us, again. We’re back to where we were before NAFTA.
In Washington, where I live, people tell me not to worry, not to pay attention to his tweets. “He’s just pandering to his base,” I am told. Perhaps. In Mexico, however, many believe Americans want to screw us, and Mexican politicians, like politicians everywhere, have to pander to voters if they want to win elections. No matter which of Mexico’s three main political parties they support, the demand is the same: Don’t submit us to humiliation from the United States. Not again. Not ever.
What U.S. observers see as a bargaining tactic for Trump, Mexicans see as a litmus test for our leaders. Any concession to him will be seen as cowering and politically unacceptable for any party, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s included.
This dynamic paints the Mexican NAFTA negotiators into a corner. On the left, presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says negotiations should wait until after our 2018 elections because the current president is too weak to negotiate successfully. On the right, Senator Roberto Gil Zuarth of PAN, the rough equivalent of a Christian democratic party, calls for Mexico to leave the negotiating table unless we are shown respect by Trump, and PAN presidential contender Margarita Zavala demands our national dignity not be compromised. In the middle, the president’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) sits warily, hoping they can continue the negotiations without Trump blowing everything up. They know that if he continues to threaten and insult Mexico, they’d have no choice but to leave the negotiations and break the agreement. We would rather wrap ourselves in the flag and jump to our deaths than be humiliated.
So what would happen if Mexico were to break with the U.S. on NAFTA? I leave it to the economists to tally up the economic costs and to debate which country stands to lose more, though it seems clear there would be no winner in such a scenario. What is evident to me is that cooperation with the United States would become political poison in Mexico. Every candidate, from every party, would try to position him or herself (a woman leads in the presidential polls) as the most anti-U.S. They would all try to prove to the electorate that they would not let Trump trample all over us.
How bad could it get? The first item off the table would likely be cooperation on issues of migration. In the past decade, Mexico has worked to stem the flow of Central American immigrants into the United States by stopping them at our southern border. This has pitted us against our Latin American neighbors, who resent us for doing the U.S.’s dirty work. With an adversarial northern neighbor; we would have to halt this cooperation immediately.
Next up would be cooperation on the drug war. Mexicans harbor long-standing suspicions of armed Americans in our territory, be they invading forces or U.S. law-enforcement agents. In a post-NAFTA cold war with the United States, the Mexican government would be pressured to expel all U.S. agents currently stationed in Mexico to help in the fight against drug trafficking.
And it wouldn’t stop there. In Mexico, drug trafficking has always been seen as a U.S. problem. Ask any Mexican, and she will be quick to say that the U.S. creates the demand, supplies the guns and launders the money; we suffer the deaths. The fight against drug trafficking is unpopular in Mexico because it is seen as a fight we’re waging on another country’s behalf. Whether or not such a view is correct, it would be politically unviable for the Mexican government to be seen as cooperating with an unfriendly neighbor on such a contentious issue. This is not a threat Mexican officials are making at the moment; it is a simple political reality.
The fight against terrorism would suffer. Since 9/11, Mexico has arguably been the biggest obstacle against terrorists trying to reach U.S. soil. Through deep collaboration with their U.S. counterparts, Mexican authorities have helped capture more than 200 suspected terrorists trying to enter the U.S., including a pair of Iranians who were planning to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. With an unraveling of U.S.-Mexico relations, there would be no political appetite for this cooperation to continue, be it in the general population or among the police and armed forces involved.
The list goes on: health, environment, transportation, water, disease control. No two countries in the world cooperate in as many areas as Mexico and the United States. Like a clean room, this extensive day-to-day cooperation is not noticed; it is taken for granted until something breaks down and the mess starts to show.
Mexico and the United States are at a breaking point. The political pressures in Mexico pushing our president away from the U.S. are becoming impossible to control. Trump’s tweets, which in Washington are fodder for a good laugh, are no joke in Mexico. We’ve been a strong ally and a good neighbor to the United States. With his utter recklessness and racism, Trump may be bringing an end to all that.