When US president Donald Trump looks at Mexico, all he sees is a $60 billion trade deficit glaring back at him.
“Maybe we do a new NAFTA and we add an extra ‘f’…because it’s very unfair,” he said earlier this month, announcing plans to renegotiate the landmark trade deal.
But NAFTA’s benefits go way beyond trade. The pact has generated more than two decades of goodwill between the US, Canada, and Mexico—especially when it comes to Mexico’s willing cooperation in curbing Trump’s twin pet peeves of illegal immigration and illicit drugs.
That spirit of cooperation is fragile given Mexico’s troubled history with the United States, and since Trump came to the White House, the relationship is worse than it has been in decades.
It appears Trump is now trying to patch things up. This week the president is dispatching his top diplomat, secretary of state Rex Tillerson, and Homeland Security chief John Kelly to Mexico to discuss contentious topics such as immigration, border security, and trade.
And White House press secretary Sean Spicer said this week that the Trump administration’s goal is to “improve the quality of lives” of people in Mexico and the US—a decidedly more constructive message than his boss’s tweeted assertion last month that Mexico has “taken advantage of the US for long enough.”
“The relationship with Mexico is phenomenal right now,” Spicer said.
Saying it doesn’t make it so: Just a day earlier, the White House rolled out harsh new measures on immigration, including a plan to ship immigrants with pending cases to Mexico, regardless of their nationality. That was quickly condemned by Mexican officials as “hostile” and “unacceptable.”
It’s not an auspicious beginning for a meeting between partners.
Whether by ignorance or by design, Trump’s taunts on Twitter and “bad hombres” banter have revived the potent anti-American sentiments harbored by Mexicans for much of the two countries’ shared history.
It’s only until relatively recently that Mexicans stopped viewing the US as an imperialistic mastodon towering over their country due to geographic happenstance. “Poor Mexico, so far from God, and so close to the United States,” lamented Mexican president Porfirio Díaz.
Díaz lived through the US invasion of Mexico in 1846—a conflict that resulted in the loss of around half of Mexico’s territory. The event has been described in history textbooks (link in Spanish) to generations of Mexican children as “a veritable robbery,” “a plunder,” and “a cowardly and unjust aggression.”
In the following decades, Díaz and other Mexican leaders had to fend off the US’s continued trespassing into Mexican territory and interference in the country’s affairs. That kind of behavior tainted US-Mexico relations for decades.
NAFTA dramatically changed the dynamics of that relationship, chipping away at the asymmetry in power, wealth and size between the two countries. The trade deal turned Mexico’s proximity to the US into a tangible blessing, offering easy access to the world’s biggest economy, and brought the governments and people on both sides of the border closer.
It’s also worth noting that the $60 billion trade deficit is an incomplete representation (paywall) of the US-Mexico commercial relationship. The surplus only counts physical goods, for one thing; the US runs a healthy $10 billion surplus on services. And much of the surplus in goods is due to Mexican oil exports, not maquiladora factories blamed for bleeding away US manufacturing jobs.
Nevertheless, it is unquestionable that the flow of trade has induced Mexico to put aside some of its insecurities about national sovereignty.
In a symbolic concession in 2015, the Mexican congress passed a law to allow foreign agents to carry weapons inside the country. On the day before Trump took office, Mexico handed over drug-cartel kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán only a year after his capture—that qualifies as express extradition as far as those transactions usually go.
US congressman Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose district stretches over a big portion of Texas’s southern border, points out that Mexico also screens potential threats to the US through its own visa program. “That would not be very helpful if we had all those people right across the border,” he said.
Mexico effectively serves as a giant anti-immigration barrier—one far more cost-effective than Trump’s proposed wall could ever be. It rapidly responded to the US’s calls in 2014 for help in dealing with a surge of Central American immigrants by intercepting them before they reached the Rio Grande.
That’s the kind of binational collaboration that’s at stake if Trump continues to revive Mexicans’ historic grudges against the US. Mexicans’ uneasiness towards their northern neighbor has already shot up, according to a January poll (Spanish) by BGC-Excélsior.
And it’s not just mistrust that Trump is inspiring. The reaction from some sectors is a mirror image of his “America First” stance.
After Trump’s spat with Peña Nieto over who would front the bill for the border wall, some Mexicans called for boycotting American companies such as Starbucks and McDonald’s, using the hashtag #Adiosproductosgringos (“goodbye gringo products”).
Leftist politician Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose populist rhetoric and penchant for hyperbole have earned comparisons to Trump, even harked back to the times of the Mexican-American War (Spanish) in his call for national unity. According to the latest polls, he’s the frontrunner for Mexico’s 2018 presidential race.