Trump’s taunts stir Mex­i­can na­tion­al­ism

The U.S. pres­i­dent’s poli­cies are tap­ping into bor­der na­tion’s his­toric griev­ances and have sunk re­la­tions to their low­est point in decades

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - NICK MIROFF nick.miroff@wash­

Con­fronta­tion with the United States is so cen­tral to Mex­i­can his­tory there’s an in­sti­tu­tion ded­i­cated to the trauma. It’s called the Mu­seum of In­ter­ven­tions.

Re­mem­ber the Alamo? They do here — as the pre­lude to a string of de­feats, in­va­sions and ter­ri­to­rial losses that left Mex­ico wounded and di­min­ished, its na­tional iden­tity forged by griev­ance.

The mu­seum is housed in a for­mer con­vent where Mex­i­can troops were over­run by U.S. sol­diers in the 1847 Bat­tle of Chu­rubusco. And for most of the three decades since the mu­seum opened, its faded bat­tle flags seemed like the stuff of buried his­tory, an anachro­nism in an age of gal­lop­ing North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment in­te­gra­tion.

But Pres­i­dent Trump’s wall­build­ing, great-again na­tion­al­ism is re­viv­ing the old Mex­i­can ver­sion, too. His char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of tougher bor­der en­force­ment and im­mi­gra­tion raids as “a mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion” hit the nerve that runs through this legacy, un­der­min­ing his aides’ trip to Mex­ico City last week and the mes­sage that re­la­tions with the United States re­main strong.

In­stead, the pub­lic out­rage at Trump has sunk those re­la­tions to their low­est point in decades. It has in­spired a cam­paign to boy­cott U.S. chains such as Star­bucks and buy “Made in Mex­ico” prod­ucts. Pro­test­ers marched in a dozen cities this month, car­ry­ing grotesque ef­fi­gies of the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent. And Trump’s taunts have buoyed the poll num­bers of 2018 pres­i­den­tial con­tender An­drés Manuel López Obrador, the left-wing pop­ulist Mex­i­cans see as the fig­ure most likely to fight back.

For Mex­i­cans, the prob­lem is not merely the wall. They know their coun­try is poorer, more vi­o­lent and less law-abid­ing than the United States. If Trump had an­nounced plans for tougher bor­der se­cu­rity, many Mex­i­cans would have un­der­stood, even as they crit­i­cized him.

But when they hear Trump boast­ing he will make Mex­ico pay for the wall, and the wild cheer­ing in re­sponse, they rec­og­nize an un­mis­tak­able at­tempt to hu­mil­i­ate them. It is Amer­i­can na­tion­al­ism at Mex­ico’s ex­pense, and it stings in a deep, atavis­tic way, like a child­hood bully com­ing back to beat you up again.

“I’m proud of Mex­ico, and I love my coun­try,” said Ser­gio Pacheco, 56, a me­chanic who works for Amer­i­can Air­lines. “He can have his wall if he’ll give us our ter­ri­tory back.”

Pacheco was tour­ing the Mu­seum of In­ter­ven­tions for the first time. There were gi­ant 1840s maps show­ing Mex­ico’s bor­ders reach­ing into the Pa­cific North­west.

Pres­i­dent James K. Polk wanted that land. Mex­ico wasn’t sell­ing, and fight­ing broke out. The United States de­clared war in 1846.

U.S. troops sailed down from New Or­leans a year later, then marched up the old con­quis­ta­dors’ trail and brought Mex­ico to its knees. They stayed a year, forc­ing the coun­try to sign away half its ter­ri­tory.

Later came the oc­cu­pa­tion of Ver­acruz by the U.S. Navy in 1914, and the 1916 in­va­sion by thou­sands of U.S. sol­diers chas­ing Fran­cisco “Pan­cho” Villa, the pro­to­typ­i­cal “bad hom­bre,” who had raided the bor­der town of Colum­bus, N.M.

The re­sult of these en­coun­ters, ac­cord­ing to Mex­i­can his­to­rian Lorenzo Meyer, is that the two coun­tries devel­oped vastly dif­fer­ent forms of na­tion­al­ism. Mex­ico’s is a “de­fen­sive” one, he said, steeped in a sense of in­jus­tice and in­dig­nity, un­like the more bel­liger­ent north­ern ver­sion, of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism and mil­i­ta­rized Man­i­fest Des­tiny.

Pacheco never thought about this his­tory much. But the diplo­matic clashes of the past few weeks have left him “shocked.” He is a fan of Amer­i­can mu­sic and movies and the Su­per Bowl. For most of his life­time, the two coun­tries have been steadily grow­ing closer.

“We’ve al­ways looked up to the United States,” he said. “Now, af­ter all this time, we’re re­al­iz­ing that you don’t re­ally like us.”

New re­al­ity

Pres­i­dent En­rique Peña Ni­eto has mostly tried to ac­com­mo­date the new re­al­ity, chal­leng­ing Trump’s pro­pos­als in re­strained, diplo­matic lan­guage. He has of­fered a more force­ful re­sponse only when he felt he had no choice, such as when he can­celed a trip to Wash­ing­ton af­ter Trump tweeted that the Mex­i­can leader should stay home if he wouldn’t pay for the wall.

Mex­i­cans, too, are di­vided about what to do. This month, pro­test­ers held two marches in the cap­i­tal. Both were an­tiTrump, but one was also a de­mon­stra­tion against the deeply un­pop­u­lar Peña Ni­eto, whom or­ga­niz­ers view as a Trump-en­abler. Oth­ers, in­clud­ing ty­coon Car­los Slim, are call­ing on Mex­i­cans to close ranks be­hind their pres­i­dent, be­cause the coun­try is un­der at­tack.

An irony of the spat with Peña Ni­eto is that he has al­ready paid a steep po­lit­i­cal cost for en­act­ing con­tro­ver­sial en­ergy changes fa­vored by Amer­i­can com­pa­nies. He has opened Mex­i­can oil and gas de­vel­op­ment to greater for­eign in­vest­ment, but that has led to higher prices for an­gry Mex­i­can con­sumers and lower poll num­bers for him.

The last time the coun­try was so open to U.S. in­vest­ment, dur­ing the Gilded Age dic­ta­tor­ship of Gen. Por­firio Diaz, Mex­i­can re­sent­ment of the govern­ment boiled over into rev­o­lu­tion. The coun­try even­tu­ally adopted steep tar­iffs that lim­ited trade for decades.

Mex­i­can Pres­i­dent Lazaro Car­de­nas na­tion­al­ized the hold­ings of Stan­dard Oil and other for­eign com­pa­nies in 1938, in­fu­ri­at­ing the firms but de­light­ing Mex­i­cans. In a show of pa­tri­o­tism, thou­sands of Mex­i­can women came to a cen­tral square in Mex­ico City of­fer­ing money, wed­ding rings and live­stock to pay the com­pa­nies back.

“I grew up in a coun­try where you were taught in oblig­a­tory his­tory text­books that the United States was the en­emy, the coun­try that stole half our land and the coun­try of the ‘Ugly Amer­i­can,’ ” said Denise Dresser, a prom­i­nent Mex­i­can po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist whose fa­ther was a U.S. cit­i­zen.

She helped or­ga­nize the march this month that was also against Peña Ni­eto and his In­sti­tu­tional Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Party (PRI), which ruled the coun­try from 1929 to 2000 and cast it­self as the heroic de­fender of Mex­i­can dig­nity.

Mex­ico was a rel­a­tively closed, in­su­lar so­ci­ety for most of those years, but as more and more Mex­i­cans came into con­tact with the world through tele­vi­sion and mass mi­gra­tion to the United States, na­tion­al­ism was trans­formed.

Mex­i­can work­ers re­turn­ing home also broke down the old di­vi­sions. “They brought back a view of the United States as a tol­er­ant, up­wardly mo­bile place, and be­gan to de­mand rights back home that they saw in the United States,” Dresser said.

“That cre­ated a vir­tu­ous cy­cle, and a new sense of iden­tity con­structed not in op­po­si­tion to the U.S., but in fa­vor of North Amer­ica,” she said.

But in Trump’s taunts many Mex­i­cans hear con­fir­ma­tion of their deep-seated sus­pi­cion that Amer­i­cans still don’t value and re­spect them.

A re­think­ing

Trump’s com­ments are forc­ing a re-ex­am­i­na­tion of Mex­ico’s re­la­tion­ship with the United States, from its in­tri­cate com­mer­cial and in­dus­trial ties to deep­en­ing co­op­er­a­tion with U.S. law en­force­ment. New leg­is­la­tion in Mex­ico’s se­nate would halt im­ports of Amer­i­can corn, which have grown from $390 mil­lion to $2.4 bil­lion an­nu­ally since the ad­vent of NAFTA, in 1994.

NAFTA is not the nat­u­ral, de­fault set­ting of U.S.-Mex­ico re­la­tions. It is an at­tempt to tran­scend the mis­trust and bit­ter­ness of the past.

The agree­ment took an as­pi­ra­tional view of U.S.-Mex­ico ties. It rec­og­nized the two coun­tries were sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent. But it treated Mex­ico es­sen­tially as an equal part­ner, along with Canada, in cre­at­ing a pros­per­ous, demo­cratic and col­lab­o­ra­tive place called “North Amer­ica,” qui­et­ing the skep­tics who in­sisted Mex­ico didn’t be­long there.

Since NAFTA took ef­fect, an­nual U.S.-Mex­ico com­merce has in­creased from $80 bil­lion to $550 bil­lion. And as trade bar­ri­ers fell, Mex­ico’s de­fen­sive na­tion­al­ism did, too.

But as Amer­i­can fac­tory jobs moved south, NAFTA dealt a blow to the la­tent no­tions of U.S. na­tion­al­ism built on post­war-era in­dus­trial pride.

Trump’s “Amer­ica First” world­view re­stores the idea of in­dus­trial prod­ucts as ves­sels of pa­tri­o­tism. But it has left Mex­i­cans baf­fled by the claim their coun­try is tak­ing ad­van­tage of the United States through NAFTA. Mex­i­can work­ers earn a small frac­tion of what their Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts make, and the trade part­ner­ship is over­whelm­ingly driven by U.S.-based For­tune 500 com­pa­nies. Mex­i­can cities have filled with U.S. chain stores and restau­rants, not the other way around.

In the chants of “Build the Wall!” An­to­nio Garza, a for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to Mex­ico, sees the re­turn of the “an­i­mal spir­its” that once soured re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries. But Garza, who served from 2002 to 2009 un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush and now works as an at­tor­ney in Mex­ico City, said he’s seen some­thing dif­fer­ent in the resur­gent na­tion­al­ism on Mex­ico’s streets.

This time, it has a sin­gu­lar fo­cus. “It’s di­rected at Trump,” he said, “not the United States.”


The Mex­i­can pres­i­den­tial cam­paign of An­drés Manuel López Obrador, cen­ter, in Los An­ge­les for a meet­ing this month, has ben­e­fited from out­rage over Pres­i­dent Trump.


A woman car­ries an ef­figy of Trump dur­ing a march in Mex­ico City this month to protest the U.S. pres­i­dent’s pro­posed bor­der wall and call for unity. Pro­test­ers marched in a dozen cities this month.

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