The irritation is palpable and plainly justified: The risks of a Trump presidency for Mexico are obvious and his jibes at Mexico and the Mexicans, unacceptable. Nobody disputes this. The question is whether Mexico can have a hand in stopping Donald Trump and derailing his candidacy, without provoking an unforeseen backlash.
Mexico’s geography has granted the country great economic opportunity, but it has not become a great political power. I don’t think anyone will declare Mexico to be a major regional power in Latin America. With that in mind though, and without underestimating the tarnished national dignity, the Mexican response to Trump cannot be visceral: Mexico must act in such a way as to improve its options without raising the risks.
Changing the word “enemy” to “neighbour”, nobody could say it better than the philosopher of war, Sun Tzu: “If you know your enemy and yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles. If you know yourself, but not your enemy, for every victory, you will suffer a defeat. If you know neither your enemy nor yourself, you will be defeated at every battle.”
The little actor’s strategy before a much bigger one has to be to contemplate the circumstances and possible consequences of his actions. For months now, the Mexican government has been acting with some presumption perhaps when promoting naturalisation in the United States of those Mexicans that meet the conditions, especially in “swing states” that are evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. The presumption is that their vote could make a difference on Election Day. While the numerical logic is clear, the political reasoning is not. Because Mexico may then face not just the “wrong” president, but also his wrath.
Clearly, Mexico must do something that does not entail devastating risks. Many Mexican presidents have gone to the US Congress in the past for some straight talking, and some have even gone beyond bilateral issues like migration or arms, to venture into sensitive issues like the Middle East or Vietnam. None managed to sway congressional opinion, and it would have been absurd to expect it when you think of how vigorously Mexicans have rejected any US interference in their own internal affairs.
In Trump’s case, particularly, evidence suggests that his campaign ratings have improved every time a Mexican public figure, like the former conservative president Vicente Fox, has criticised him on television. Trump’s solid base of supporters fervently believes in his message and any help on the part of Mexicans is welcome! Quite simply, Mexico mustn’t stoke the fire.
Since the late 1980s, Mexican governments have had excellent ties with the US. The interaction between the states is smooth and any problem or complaint is given due attention, if not always swiftly resolved. On two occasions at least, half the administration of US President Barack Obama came to Mexico City to prevent an increase in tensions.
The problem is not one of relations with the US government, but with its citizens. That is where the trust deficit lies, and at least part of the reason why Trump’s anti-Mexican discourse is vigorous and eagerly heard.
Creating a stigma
The North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) opened a world of opportunities for investment in Mexico and of exports of manufactures to its neighbours. The big cost was to turn it into a domestic affair of the US. The Americans used to view Mexico as a key country until the 1990s, even if debates were restricted to specialised agencies dealing with drugs or crime. The debate over Nafta changed this and created a stigma around Mexico for those hit by job losses with the transfer of firms and factories onto Mexican soil or beyond. The political reality is that Mexico has taken the blame for so many ills for which it was not responsible, but not that this matters in campaign politics.
What matters is that Mexico did nothing to stop it. After Nafta’s approval, Mexico forgot about US society as a whole, which it had courted so much before to win its approval. Mexico is now paying the price for that and has to think of a response.
Clearly, in the long term, Mexico must conquer American society with those of its assets that are exceptional: Culture, history, people, service, vitality, humour. In the short term, there isn’t much else to do but build contacts and bridges with both campaign teams, explaining the Mexican perspective and working to minimise future harm. And also (silently) hope that one bad scenario doesn’t come to pass.
— Worldcrunch 2016, in partnership with America Economia/New York Times News Service
Luis Rubio is chairman of the Centre of Research for Development, an independent research institution devoted to the study of economic and political policy issues.