Coali­tions ac­cen­tu­ate U.S.-Mex­i­can re­la­tions

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - NATION & WORLD - By Al­fredo Cor­chado

You have pow­er­ful peo­ple from Mex­ico talk­ing, drink­ing, hav­ing din­ner with very pow­er­ful Texas peo­ple. These guys and gals have known each other for years. They will push this agenda.” James Hol­li­field Di­rec­tor of the Tower Cen­ter at South­ern Methodist Uni­ver­sity, on post-elec­tion ties be­tween U.S. and Mex­i­can busi­ness lead­ers

MEX­ICO CITY >> Busi­ness lead­ers in the United States and Mex­ico are qui­etly strength­en­ing coali­tions from Amer­ica’s heart­land to north Texas in an ef­fort to per­suade a skep­ti­cal Don­ald Trump to main­tain strong ties be­tween the two coun­tries. The pres­i­dent-elect has sent am­bigu­ous sig­nals over fu­ture and past trade deals and build­ing a wall, or per­haps just a fence, along the bor­der with Mex­ico. The plan is to make the case that Mex­ico is not China and should be treated not as an ad­ver­sary, but as an eco­nomic and cul­tural ally, with se­cu­rity the crit­i­cal glue bind­ing in the re­la­tion­ship, busi­ness and pol­icy lead­ers on both sides of the bor­der said. North Texas is key in that ef­fort.

“You have pow­er­ful peo­ple from Mex­ico talk­ing, drink­ing, hav­ing din­ner with very pow­er­ful Texas peo­ple,” said James Hol­li­field, di­rec­tor of the Tower Cen­ter at South­ern Methodist Uni­ver­sity and a found­ing mem­ber of the Mis­sion Foods Texas-Mex­ico Cen­ter. “These guys and gals have known each other for years,” he said. “They will push this agenda. You will see a pow­er­ful bi­na­tional coali­tion form­ing be­tween these two coun­tries. That’s what I have been watch­ing take place over the past 20 years and I’d be sur­prised if that’s not hap­pen­ing again.” Nearly 5 mil­lion U.S. jobs de­pend on trade with Mex­ico, with more than $400 bil­lion in goods and ser­vices criss­cross­ing the bor­der. Of that fig­ure, $179 bil­lion is be­tween Texas and Mex­ico. Over the years, the two coun­tries have set up sup­ply chains that snake across the coun­tries, of­ten along the In­ter­state 35 cor­ri­dor, car­ry­ing man­u­fac­tured goods, in­clud­ing cars, as­sem­bled in both coun­tries. Cars built in places like Ar­ling­ton criss­cross the United States and Mex­ico bor­der, in­clud­ing Si­lao, Gua­na­ju­ato, at least eight times dur­ing pro­duc­tion, ac­cord­ing to a study by the Woodrow Wil­son Cen­ter’s Mex­ico In­sti­tute.

“This re­la­tion­ship is not op­tional,” said U.S. Am­bas­sador Roberta Ja­cob­son. “And this re­la­tion­ship isn’t just about eco­nom­ics, or cul­tural ties, but se­cu­rity too.”

The tim­ing in Mex­ico is crit­i­cal. The coun­try of more than 120 mil­lion is fac­ing un­cer­tain times, and Trump’s as­cent can ei­ther mean a slower growth rate or re­ces­sion. Dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Trump re­ferred to Mex­i­cans as “rapists” and crim­i­nals, drug deal­ers — “although some, I as­sume, are good peo­ple,” he said. He promised to de­port mil­lions of un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, which would cur­tail more than $22 bil­lion in an­nual re­mit­tances into Mex­ico. And he also wants to rene­go­ti­ate trade deals, in­clud­ing the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment, which over the past 22 years has wo­ven an in­fra­struc­ture of new in­dus­tries stretch­ing from Mex­ico to Canada.

SINCE THE LATE 1980s, Mex­ico has shifted from a close, pri­vately held econ­omy into one of the most open in the world, hedg­ing its bets on trade agree­ments, in­clud­ing NAFTA in 1994. To­day, the av­er­age Mex­i­can has about one-third of his in­come from jobs tied to trade.

Trump has also threat­ened a trade war with Mex­ico by slap­ping 35 per­cent tar­iffs on cars and auto parts im­ported from Mex­ico. His most ap­plauded pledge was to build a wall with Mex­ico and have the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment pay for it, lead­ing sup­port­ers to chant “build that wall.” But since his elec­tion, Trump has seemed to back off his prom­ises. “What shocked so many of us dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign was not that a can­di­date could de­scribe Mex­i­can im­mi­grants as crim­i­nals and rapists or that he would threaten a trade war with Mex­ico,” said U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, whose dis­trict, which in­cludes El Paso, has been trans­formed by trade. “What was shock­ing was that so many peo­ple through­out the coun­try seemed to agree with those sen­ti­ments. The vil­i­fi­ca­tion of Mex­ico and the un­der­val­u­a­tion in the U.S. of our bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship did not hap­pen overnight. It will take many years to get it back on track.” In Mex­ico, “all pos­si­bil­i­ties are on the ta­ble,” said a se­nior Mex­i­can of­fi­cial who was not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly.

That in­cluded bring­ing back for­mer Fi­nance Min­is­ter Luis Vide­garay, who fell from grace as the mas­ter­mind of Trump’s last-minute, con­tro­ver­sial visit to meet with Pres­i­dent En­rique Pena Ni­eto in Mex­ico City last Au­gust. Vide­garay promptly re­signed amid the fury that en­sued.

But fol­low­ing Trump’s vic­tory, Vide­garay’s stock rose, and on Jan. 4, Pena Ni­eto named Vide­garay as Mex­ico’s top diplo­mat. The U.S.trained tech­no­crat is known as a friend to key bi­na­tional busi­ness lead­ers and has ties to some of Trump’s key peo­ple, in­clud­ing the pres­i­dent-elect’s son-in-law, Jared Kush­ner. (On Mon­day, Kush­ner was named a se­nior ad­viser to Trump.)

The fi­asco contributed to Pena Ni­eto’s wors­en­ing approval rat­ings — now in the low 20s — and fall­out with the Demo­cratic Party in the U.S.

Mex­ico will need to “si­mul­ta­ne­ously en­gage the in­com­ing (Trump) ad­min­is­tra­tion and re­build ties with the Demo­cratic Party,” said Ar­turo Sarukhan, Mex­ico’s for­mer am­bas­sador in Wash­ing­ton. “If NAFTA were to un­ravel, it would be the prover­bial span­ner in the works, one that will dam­age Mex­ico and the United States alike.”

Other chal­lenges for Mex­ico range from gaso­line price hikes and short­ages to more cor­rup­tion, im­punity in Pena Ni­eto’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, and re­newed drug vi­o­lence in re­gions, in­clud­ing Ci­u­dad Juarez, across from El Paso. In the first 10 months of 2016, more than 17,000 peo­ple were killed in Mex­ico, the high­est 10-month tally since 2012. That has gen­er­ated fears among cit­i­zens of a re­turn of gang­land may­hem that’s marred Mex­ico for more than 10 years.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever felt safe again,” said Fran­cisca Jimenez, a clean­ing woman in Ci­u­dad Juarez. “There’s also more un­cer­tainty for Mex­i­cans here and in the United States with the ar­rival of el senor Trump.” Iron­i­cally, over the years, Mex­ico has dra­mat­i­cally slowed il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion north, in part due to a decades­long cam­paign to lower fer­til­ity rates and trans­form its econ­omy into a mega cen­ter for cars, tele­vi­sions, aerospace man­u­fac­tur­ing and com­put­ers. “Mex­i­can busi­ness lead­ers need to go to Wis­con­sin, Kansas City, Michi­gan, Ok­la­homa, north Texas and skip Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and the bor­der,” said a se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial with­out per­mis­sion to speak pub­licly. “The heart­land, mid­dle Amer­ica, is where the fight is. There is a need to re­mind Amer­i­cans that Mex­ico is a part­ner, not a ri­val.”

SAN DIEGO UNION-TRI­BUNE / TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE

A worker as­sem­bles com­mu­ni­ca­tion head­sets at a “maquiladora” or for­eign as­sem­bly plant in Ti­juana, Mex­ico, for Plantron­ics. The head­set com­pany is head­quar­tered in Santa Cruz, Calif.

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