Recent demonstrations in Mexico against US President Trump are indicative of both anti-US sentiment and dissatisfaction with the government of Mexican President Peña Nieto. Peña Nieto’s response is seen by many as weak and may open the door to a legitimate election challenge from the left in Mexico and volatile US-Mexican relations.
On 12 February, thousands of people marched in Mexico City and other Mexican cities in protest against US President Donald Trump. While some Mexican commentators claimed that the so-called Vibra México march for national unity was a failure because of a lower-than-expected turnout, the protest nevertheless represented a significant anti-Trump action. Some also saw the occasion as an opportunity to protest against Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has been criticised for being weak in relation to Trump and in particular for inviting him to Mexico in August 2016.
The march followed a testing period in US-Mexican relations in the wake of Trump’s election. The US president’s executive order on 25 January to proceed with the construction of the wall—only days after the presidential inauguration—was immediately condemned by the Mexican government. Peña Nieto reaffirmed Mexico’s refusal to pay for the wall and cancelled a meeting with Trump that had been scheduled for 31 January in Washington DC.
On 27 January, The Associated Press reported that Trump and Peña Nieto had spoken by telephone. Trump reportedly told Peña Nieto:
You have a bunch of bad hombres down there…You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.
The Mexican president’s office responded in a measured way that both leaders had expressed their commitment to collaborate in the fight against organised crime.
In a similarly cautious fashion, Mexican presidential spokesperson Eduardo Sánchez described the tone of the conversation as respectful and stated that it was “absolutely false that the president of the United States [had] threatened to send troops to Mexico”. This was reiterated by the Mexican foreign ministry, which indicated that the “the negative statements…did not occur during said telephone call. On the contrary, the tone was constructive.”
Others, however, focussed on the reportedly confrontational nature of the conversation, with US-based Mexican journalist Dolia Estévez stating that it “was a very offensive conversation, where Trump humiliated Peña Nieto”.
Subsequently, reports emerged that Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray had assisted in the drafting of Trump’s speech announcing the executive order on the construction of the wall during discussions in Washington DC with White House senior adviser Jared Kushner. On 9 February, The Washington Post published an account of what allegedly happened.
While it is not uncommon for governments to inform other governments of decisions they intend to take in advance of publicly announcing them and for there to be frank and honest bilateral discussions away from the gaze of the media, it would be unusual for a foreign minister to allow himself or herself to be exposed in such a way. The Mexican government quickly dismissed the claim that Videragay had assisted in the drafting of the speech as ‘fake news’.
The Mexican government is keen to demonstrate that it has shown goodwill towards the Trump administration and that it wishes to have a constructive dialogue. That said, there is little doubt that the Trump administration’s pronouncements on Mexico and stated determination to proceed with the wall are testing US-Mexican relations.
Mexicans regard the construction of the wall as a hostile and racist act against Mexico. It is also seen as a symbolic threat, aimed at strengthening security in the United States rather than at curbing undocumented migration. Mexican commentators point out that the majority of Mexicans who enter the United States do so legally via established borders. Despite this they argue that Trump is committed to cultivating anti-Mexican sentiment in the US.
There has also been a resurgence of nationalist sentiment in Mexico. Social media campaigns, such as ‘For the Love of Mexico’ (Por Amor a México) on Facebook, have urged Mexicans to boycott US products and to buy Mexican brands and to embrace Mexican culture and customs. WhatsApp and Twitter have been alive with nationalist and anti-Trump messaging, and Mexican companies have also responded to Trump’s perceived anti-Mexican rhetoric. For example, in January, Corona beer responded to Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign with a new advertisement which proudly proclaimed that America was one multicultural, united and diverse continent, and that “we are all Americans”. The advertisement declared that it was time to stop using the name of America to generate divisions.
While it is unclear yet whether the nationalist sentiment will have a negative impact on US interests in Mexico, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that some of the estimated one million Americans in Mexico are nervous about the potential impact of an increase in anti-US sentiment.
Commentators in both the US and Mexico have also highlighted the impracticalities associated with the construction of the wall. These include the cost, which according to some estimates would be between US$25 billion and US$40 billion (AU$32.57 billion and AU$52.12 billion); engineering difficulties; and legal issues, such as the need to acquire privately-owned land along the US-Mexican border. There would also be significant difficulties associated with the construction of a wall along the Rio Grande. Many believe that the Trump administration will seek to strengthen the existing border by enhancing existing barriers and increasing border surveillance.
Commentators also argue Trump’s proposal to force Mexico to pay for the wall—whether it be through taxing remittances, imposing a ‘border adjustment tax’ or through the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—is unrealistic. Taxing remittances would be unrealistic because Mexican workers would likely resort to informal means to send their money. It would also be difficult to tax Mexican remittances in a legal, non-discriminatory manner, without taxing remittances of other groups and individuals sending money abroad. Levying a ‘border adjustment tax’ on imports from Mexico would also be problematic because of its potential to breach NAFTA and World Trade Organization rules.
According to Wayne Cornelius, professor of political science and US-Mexican relations at the University of California, San Diego, using the wall as a bargaining chip in the NAFTA renegotiation would have “no credibility in Mexico”. Cornelius points out that, after “more than a year of unrelenting threats by Trump to scrap or radically renegotiate the treaty, Mexicans increasingly view NATFA as already dead, likely to be replaced by a bilateral trade agreement or nothing at all.”
Trump’s decision has been met with resounding anger in Mexico and has unleashed a wave of nationalist and anti-US sentiment which is unlikely to abate in the near future. The issue is a difficult one domestically and President Peña Nieto has been criticised by political opponents for being weak in his response to Trump. He is also suffering low popularity ratings in Mexican opinion polls and has been the subject of allegations of corruption and poor economic management.
All of this plays into the hands of leftist opposition leader and presidential aspirant Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the lead-up to the 2018 Mexican elections. If López Obrador is elected president, it will likely be a very different dynamic, and potentially uncharted waters for the US-Mexican bilateral relationship.
Dr Ruth Adler served as Australian Ambassador to Ireland (2013-2016) and Australian High Commissioner to Brunei Darussalam (2006-2009)—with earlier postings to Mexico and the Philippines.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.