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An Urban Myth

Arturo Sarukhan

Check out the latest Expert Take from Mexico Institute Global Fellow and Advisory Board Member Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan.

For some time now, the idea that the most suitable result for Mexico in regards to the U.S. presidential election is the reelection of Donald Trump has been circulating in some Mexican public opinion sectors. In part, this is the result of a conditioned reflex, a sort of muscle memory resulting from a decade’s long prevailing conviction among some pundits and businesspeople, that Mexico tends to fare better with Republican administrations than it does with Democrats.

While there is some hard data to support this idea at different periods in the history of our two nations, suffice it to say that there have been Republican administrations, such as Reagan’s for example, in which the agenda was severely damaged by bilateral issues (such as the kidnapping and murder of a U.S. DEA agent on Mexican soil) as well as regional and multilateral issues (the Central American conflicts, in particular). And the current administration, Republican in name only, that has broken all of the paradigms and principles of the bilateral relationship built over nearly three decades, using Mexico and Mexicans as a political-electoral piñata. Actually, it can be argued that beginning with the George H.W. Bush administration -which due to the NAFTA negotiations perpetuated the perception that GOP administrations are more convenient for Mexico- and regardless of which party has been in power since then until 2016, the bilateral agenda acquired –albeit with its inescapable and trying moments and conflicts arising from the structural complexity and asymmetry of power in our relationship– traction and strategic direction. It happened with Bill Clinton investing political capital to ratify NAFTA and presenting a financial rescue package for Mexico, and with George W. Bush and Barack Obama and their commitment to a comprehensive relationship based on shared responsibility as the central tenet of our agenda.

Even a month and a half ago, when both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders were still in the race with Joe Biden for the nomination in the Democratic primary, it was understandable that some in Mexico were alarmed by the candidacies of either senator: in Sanders’ particular case (and I include myself as one of those concerned), for his stated intention to renegotiate the USMCA, his immutable opposition to the NAFTA, and the positions that he has maintained on fundamental issues and interests of Mexico in the United States, such as immigration reform and gun control and regulation. But now, with Biden as the de facto candidate, there should be no doubt about which of the two, Trump or the former vice president, would be the best option for Mexico. On one hand, you have a man who thoroughly knows and has been invested in the bilateral relationship and who has played a central role –first from the Senate and then the Vice Presidency– in all of the issues on our agenda during the past three decades: the approval of NAFTA in 1993, the financial package of 1994, the elimination of the unilateral process of congressional certification on drugs in 2001, support for the Kennedy/McCain bipartisan immigration reform bill in 2007, and the construction of a platform of cooperation on security, intelligence, justice reform and the rule of law, first from the Senate and then the Executive. On the other hand, you have Trump and his policy of blackmail, attacks, diatribes, ambush, and permanent contamination of the relationship with Mexico, and on a path that he has discovered delivers results whereby unilateral threats and punitive measures are used to force concessions in the agenda from his neighbor to the south. He already did this with migration and trade, and from there he continued with drug trafficking and terrorism. Does anyone want to bet that he will not do so again with, say, measures to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic, water on the Rio Grande, or Mexican tomato exports?

And I am not suggesting here that a potential Biden administration will be a field day for Mexico. From the outset, there will be debts to settle as a result of perceptions –regardless of whether we share them or not– that this and the previous Mexican government have jumped on the Trump bandwagon. And Biden will be much less reluctant to speak –publicly or privately– about the domestic challenges Mexico currently faces. But without a doubt, in terms of the mature, co-responsible, and synergistic relationship with the United States that many of us have been betting on for years, the most desirable scenario is a Biden victory on November 3rd.

But even so, the weakest and most fallacious argument circulating today in Mexico regarding why Trump’s reelection is convenient for the country is that the U.S. president is one of the few real counterweights and checks and balances to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. It is true; the Mexican president has sought –whether out of conviction or fear– to avoid any conflict with his U.S. counterpart, which in itself is not bad. I have supported not going into the ring to fight histrionics with more histrionics, although certainly being brave is not at odds with being courteous. But one must acknowledge that Trump has largely managed to get his way on issues where the Mexican government should have painted a red line. And there’s no mincing words here: betting Mexico’s future on another Trump term is like handing the keys to Rome’s walls to Attila the Hun. Once NAFTA was renegotiated, the only issues that Trump cares about in regards to Mexico are border security, migration, and as of late the trafficking of illicit drugs, fentanyl in particular. Beyond those issues that are at the core of his political narrative in the face of a tough general election, Trump is not even going to lift his pinky finger to defend the premises of a liberal democracy or of a system of checks and balances and effective separation of powers in Mexico, the autonomy of its institutions and agencies, which are key to our democratic health, human rights and equity, the importance of freedom of expression and of the press and independent media who question power when it should be questioned, an economy with clear rules and a level playing field, or of a plural and open society. Trump could not care less about all of these issues.

So, if there are hopes that four more years of trumpism will manage to constrain public policies in Mexico which cause concern to many there, we will have to wait until hell freezes over. And be careful, one should remember – quoting Oscar Wilde – that “when the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers.”

This article was originally published in Spanish in El Universal.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author. 

About the Author

Arturo Sarukhan

Arturo Sarukhan

Global Fellow;
Advisory Board Member, Mexico Institute, Wilson Center; Former Mexican Ambassador to the United States; Founder & President, Sarukhan + Associates
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Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more