MEXICO CITY — Those who thought that Donald Trump’s Mexico-bashing was just a campaign strategy have been roundly proven wrong. With the stroke of a pen and the sending of a tweet, Trump has brought the two nations to the brink of diplomatic rupture and pushed a teetering Mexico closer toward political and economic crisis, during just his first month in office.
Trump has rained down executive orders to punish Mexico, supposed to be one of the United States’s strongest allies. His threats to construct a wall along the entire border, orders to intensify deportation, constant insinuations that migrants are heinous criminals, promises to implement pseudo law-and-order measures against transnational crime and illicit drug dealing as if they were a foreign invasion, and threats of tariffs to block Mexican imports have shocked both economists and diplomats, even within his own administration. But nowhere are people more shocked than in Mexico itself.
Day after day, newspapers headline his latest attack: “Trump Insists Mexico Pay for the Wall” and “Trump Says All Deported Migrants are Criminals.” The man who called Mexicans rapists and thieves has achieved what few thought possible — he has brought about consensus among a famously contentious population.
Now that Trump has launched raids to round up Mexican immigrants and ordered the construction of a 2,000-mile border wall, insult has quickly turned to injury. That’s not to say that his rhetoric didn’t have an impact. Predicted growth for Mexico in 2017 has been revised downward to a meager 1.7 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund. Since Election Day, the peso has lost about 13 percent of its value. Currency markets understand the real risks behind the bluster. Any one of Trump’s threats could send Mexico into a downward spiral.
First, there’s that wall. A wall already exists, built with bipartisan support, along 700 miles of the most trafficked parts of the border. Even if Trump succeeds in barricading the other two-thirds, Mexicans who want to go the United States badly enough will find a way. More than the prospect of a physical barrier, it’s the message of the wall that enrages Mexicans — the idea that they are a social contagion, undesirable elements.
The current border wall has been one of the biggest taxpayer boondoggles in U.S. history. Multimillion-dollar contracts to security and construction companies have brought cost overruns and paid for failed technologies. It has battered cross-border communities, inhibited legal commerce and increased smugglers’ income, while failing to stop the flows of prohibited workers and of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. The money involved is high enough to buy off U.S. customs officials and law enforcement agents. The extended $20- to $40-billion Trump version would further inhibit international commerce and inflame racism.
Trump’s plan to deport 2 to 3 million migrants would devastate Mexico. Mexico has no plan to employ and sustain that many people. It already fails to create jobs for the approximately 1 million people who enter the workforce a year. Nearly 60 percent end up in the informal sector — another undesired consequence of integration with the vastly more powerful U.S. economy under the terms of the 1994 North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
The prospect of returning migrants needing jobs also causes anxiety among workers in Mexico, especially in the tourism industry. In the Pacific Coast resort city of Puerto Vallarta, waiters, vendors, shop clerks and hotel workers say they’re afraid of losing their jobs to returning migrants with a better command of English and knowledge of U.S. culture.
For workers in U.S. factories producing in Mexico, the Ford and Carrier cases have left them with wondering if their last day of work could be tomorrow. President-elect Trump convinced Carrier to cancel part of its investment plans in Mexico by offering a subsidy out of public funds. Shortly thereafter Ford announced its sudden decision to nix a $1.6 billion plant already begun in San Luis Potosi, citing other reasons but sending a clear message that Mexico was looking less attractive for transnational production. Trump’s threats to apply a 35 percent tariff or 20 percent border tax on Mexican exports have a chilling effect on foreign investment. Faced with tariffs that increase their costs and ability to compete in the United States, companies will search for greener global pastures in which case more Mexican workers will be out on the street.
Trump’s proposals to cut off or tax remittances to force Mexico to “pay for the wall” could be the most painful of all. Remittances, the money sent from migrants to their families back in Mexico, account for the largest cash flow into the country — about $25 billion a year. This money goes to some of the poorest families, in a nation where more than half the population lives below the poverty line.
The irony is that Mexico’s vulnerability to Trump has everything to do with its submission to U.S. and international finance institutions’ neoliberal prescriptions over the past three decades. Under NAFTA, the economy was forcibly oriented toward exports. That weakened both its internal market and local production, opening up to a flood of imports and concentrating 80 percent of exports in the United States. Mexican food production actually decreased. As it became harder for Mexican workers and farmers to make a living, many fled to the United States — but although NAFTA made it much easier for capital to cross the border to seek lower costs, it left it illegal for labor to cross the border to seek higher wages.
The trade agreement also showed how U.S. policies can come back to bite. It displaced some 2 million small farmers, increasing immigration to the United States. In recent years, more Mexican immigrants have been returning back home than coming to the United States, but if Mexico’s simmering employment crisis explodes, that would change. And organized crime finds recruiting much easier when large numbers of young people have no prospects for gainful employment.
With a peso that buys less, jobs that are more precarious than ever, and the possibility that their lifeline to the United States will be cut or reduced, Mexicans’ anxiety is also sometimes expressed as personal anger against North Americans. Longtime residents of beach resorts and San Miguel de Allende, which is home to an expat community of close to 10,000 people, report a spike in anti-American sentiment. Some have taken to wearing anti-Trump pins in public.
No Trump, No Peña
Mexicans have been demonstrating in the streets against Trump every week since the election. Tens of thousands routinely turn out, but their fury is not just directed against Donald Trump. The demonstrations have brought to a head discontent with Mexico’s dominant political and economic systems. From last August, when President Enrique Peña Nieto invited Trump to Mexico and gave him red-carpet treatment, to the revelation that Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray co-wrote Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order on the wall and border security, Mexicans are infuriated at the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) government.
A Feb. 12 march for “national unity” organized by pro-government business sectors and media conglomerates fizzled when only a few thousand people turned out. In contrast, nationwide marches on Jan. 31 that combined the protest against Trump with calls for Peña’s resignation and an end to gas-price increases brought some 60,000 into the streets of Mexico City alone.
Mexico is being forced to rethink its dependent economy, and grassroots organizations see that as an opportunity. With renegotiating NAFTA possibly on the table, small farmers’ organizations are demanding that Mexican food production be withdrawn from the agreement. Trump’s threat to pull the United States out would cause much suffering, but many organizations are looking at how to move out of a bad deal and into greater sovereignty and equality.
A new “Mexico Moment” could be in the making. Far from the one that put Peña Nieto on the cover of Time, this one won’t be registered in the U.S. mainstream media and it won’t be led by Mexico’s political elite. It’s building from below, and it includes strengthening cross-border ties.
Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy based in Mexico City.