“Mexicans are not crap but our government is,” a large sign I saw in the southern Mexico State of Oaxaca proclaimed earlier this year, just as the country’s presidential campaign was moving into high gear. Equally disgusted by their own government’s corruption and President Donald Trump’s insults, Mexicans are getting ready on Sunday to elect a president and a Congress that could be more hostile to the U.S. than any in at least 80 years. If they do so, it will be a government created in large part by Trump’s own misjudgments.
It will also be a new, almost unprecedented Mexican government that in myriad ways will affect the lives of just about all New Mexicans. Some pundits have argued that foreign policy doesn’t matter to U.S. voters. But in this case it clearly does—and will.
Immigration, drug smuggling, border security, imports of everything from tequila to cars and exports of everything from computer chips to beef will all be affected. High tariffs and the possible end of the North American Free Trade Agreement will mean New Mexicans will export fewer products and services while paying more for almost everything we buy.
Mexico is our state’s largest trading partner. China, against which Trump has also launched a trade war, is No. 2. The two countries combined constitute two-thirds of New Mexico’s $3.6 billion in exports. Nearly $1.6 billion goes to Mexico.
Relations with Mexico are likely to go even further south after July 1, when Andrés Manuel López Obrador (widely known as AMLO after his initials), a socialist who is promising a populist “revolution,” is expected to win a landslide election for president. His margin in the polls is so enormous that he could well carry on his coattails a majority of the Mexican Congress.
A couple of years ago the twice-defeated AMLO (in extremely close, disputed and corrupt presidential voting in 2006 and 2012) was regarded as a long shot. He had abandoned his long-time socialist party allegiance in favor of starting a new party from scratch, almost as difficult a feat in Mexico as it would be in the United States. After all, only two parties had ever governed the country, and one of them, the PRI, was in power for 70 consecutive years before losing and then regaining the presidency.
Then along came Donald Trump and his broadsides against Mexicans as murderers, rapists, gangsters and drug addicts. Every time Trump opened his mouth, AMLO’s popularity increased, one Mexican political observer told The Economist magazine.
All four presidential candidates bitterly oppose Trump, but AMLO is the one who is regarded as most likely to do something about it. He has a lot plans, even if they remain a bit vague.
He wants to make Mexico self-sufficient in food, pave all the roads in southern provinces like Oaxaca and build a rail line between the Caribbean coast and the famed Mayan ruins of the interior. (Mexico currently has no passenger trains except a short tourist line in the northern Copper Canyon area.) He also intends to create a tax-free industrial zone in the 20-mile-wide strip just south of the U.S. border.
Most intriguing of all, he has broached a scheme to pardon all low-level drug dealers and integrate them into the economy and society, a miniature version of what Colombia has been doing with the FARC guerrillas. There are also a couple of possibilities that could be even more disruptive to the U.S.: repealing all drug laws and ceasing cooperation with U.S. law enforcement.
AMLO has not campaigned on an anti-U.S. platform. When asked earlier this year about Trump, he said, “We have to have enough patience to get to grips with President Donald Trump, to maintain the relationship.” In the June 25 issue of The New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson quoted AMLO as telling him, “Quite apart from my differences with Trump, I have teated him with respect.”
But he added, “No threat, no wall, no bullying attitude from any foreign government will ever stop us from being happy in our own fatherland.”
In the most recent of his six books, “Oye, Trump,” published last year, AMLO wrote, “Trump and his advisers speak of the Mexicans the way Hitler and the Nazis referred to the Jews, just before undertaking the infamous persecution and the abominable extermination.”
The putative new Mexican president unites lifelong socialist idealism, bedrock Mexican nationalism and the political pragmatism of an experienced and successful leader (he was the phenomenally popular mayor of Mexico City, leaving office with an approval rating of 85 percent) in an unusual combination. He is expected to be a tougher opponent of Trump than the current young PRI president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who bent over backwards to avoid antagonizing Trump and even had a friendly and much-criticized meeting with him during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The greatest animosity in Mexico is caused by Trump’s repeated promise, or threat, to build a wall for between $25 billion and $50 billion and “make” Mexico pay for it.
But recently a potentially even greater abrasion has been created by Trump’s new policy of separating children from their families when they enter the U.S. as refugees. Although Trump officially abandoned the policy last week, most of the 2,300 children who have been incarcerated in cages, tents and warehouses have not been returned to their families and no one in the administration has been able to say when or how that might happen.
It’s possible that despite Trump’s executive order the policy could be continued and even expanded. The Pentagon announced it was preparing to house 20,000 children on four military bases: Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas; Fort Bliss in El Paso; Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Tex.; and Dyess Air Force Base near Abilene, Tex.
The Mexican election and its fallout will also directly influence politics in New Mexico. Already last week, the two candidates for governor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican Steve Pearce (both members of the U.S. House of Representatives) were debating Trump’s family-separation policies, and Lujan Grisham visited the Texas facility where 1,000 children have been incarcerated. On Saturday, a large rally in Downtown Albuquerque was held to oppose family separations. Unless the Trump administration can quickly solve the issue, it promises to be a major focus of the fall campaign, throughout the United States as well as here in New Mexico.
There is an old saying that when the United States catches cold, Mexico sneezes. The Mexican election could turn the adage on its head. Its July 1 election cold may well produce a gigantic sneeze north of the border.