The following contribution comes from Lisa Pinely Covert, assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston and author of the forthcoming book San Miguel de Allende: Mexicans, Foreigners, and the Making of a World Heritage Site (June 2017).
U.S.-Mexican relations have become headline news again for all of the wrong reasons. From President Trump’s January 25 Executive Order, “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements,” to the tariff proposal and the Twitter kerfuffle between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, the flurry of activity followed by significant backpedaling revealed an astonishing degree of ignorance about the history of U.S.-Mexican relations. On a basic level, these diplomatic fumbles demonstrate a failure to grasp a simple principle: that nothing brings Mexicans together like a perceived threat from the United States. Peña Nieto, whose presidency has been plagued with allegations of corruption, unabated violence, and, most recently, nationwide protests of rising gas prices, suddenly found his popularity soaring after the public row with Trump. And even though Mexican and U.S. officials have denied claims that Trump threatened to invade Mexico, the rumor alone was chilling in a country that knows such threats would not fall outside the realm of possibility.
The chaotic diplomatic maneuvers seem to have retreated behind closed doors for now, but those of us in the United States would do well to keep this on our radars. Beyond the threats and rhetoric about walls, “bad hombres,” and trade wars lays a long, complex relationship that we ought not take for granted. In the past few decades, as observers have pointed out, Mexico and the United States have developed a fragile partnership, albeit an unequal one. From trade, to security, to immigration, the two countries have closely collaborated, even when much of the rest of Latin America turned away from the United States in the so-called “pink tide.” But Mexican officials clearly learned lessons from their southern neighbors. Over the years Mexico has pursued deeper economic ties with other nations in an attempt to reduce its dependence on the United States. Although these efforts have been ongoing for quite some time, they escalated in the wake of the United States’s 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession. The effects permeated the entire Mexican economy, from a downturn in investments, decreased demand for Mexican exports, and fewer tourist dollars, to the dramatic reduction in remittances being sent from the United States. Mexico responded to this crisis, in part, by diversifying its portfolio.
This strategy is most evident in cities like Querétaro, which has seen an explosion of foreign investment in recent years. Located just a couple of hours north of Mexico City, with easy highway access to the United States, but relatively unaffected by the drug-related violence that pervades most of the country, Querétaro has one of the fastest growing economies in Mexico. Companies from all over the world have invested there, from large plants manufacturing Hondas and Lear jets, to smaller firms developing packaging for cosmetics. When I traveled to the region in 2015, I was surprised by the increasing number of flights between the United States and the small Querétaro airport, and even more astounded to see the array of international business executives in the terminals. In my brief time in the airport I encountered executives, consultants, and engineers from Japan, Germany, India, and China. The staggering economic growth, while terrific for Querétaro, should serve as a cautionary tale for the United States.
We need to abandon oversimplified notions of a bilateral trade relationship with Mexico and understand that the manufactured goods that cross over into the United States are not simply the products of American companies fleeing south of the border, but rather the result of robust foreign direct investment from around the world. Just this month Mexico announced a new deal to assemble tens of thousands of cars for the Chinese firm JAC Motors. Our relationship with Mexico must reflect this complexity. Walls, tariffs, and Twitter wars will not do the trick.