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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Why U.S.-Mexican Relations Are On The Brink

Reprinted with permission from the Truman National Security Project.

Like so many previously held assumptions, the assumed alliance and cooperation between the United States and Mexico is being tested, if not toppled. Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto is confronted with an unapologetic Trump ready to tear up the 23-year old North America Trade Agreement (NAFTA), deport millions of illegal Mexican immigrants, and build his wall.  Indeed, Mexico faces a quandary in how to deal with a new U.S. President who intends to make good on his campaign promises.

Until recently, Peña Nieto has approached Trump with the old sense of cooperation, having received Trump for a meeting and photo-op in Mexico last August (despite the very obvious negative impact on his approval ratings at home) and stating that he seeks dialogue with Trump. He even listed his own goals for talks with Trump in Washington, including the humane treatment of Mexican migrants, preservation of free trade in North America, and building bridges not walls—all of which diverge dramatically from Trump’s agenda. But then Peña Nieto canceled his Washington visit in an extraordinary, high stakes move that publicly pits himself against Trump.

For his part, Trump has approached Mexico as a country he can steamroll. His campaign preyed on the prejudices and economic maladies of rural and Rust Belt Americans, who wanted a reason to explain why their America no longer feels like it’s theirs and an enemy to blame for the loss of jobs—no matter that many more American jobs have been lost to robots rather than to Mexico. But Trump believes he can mitigate their pain by targeting others, and in this case, Mexico has served as his piñata. He continues to claim Mexico will pay for the wall, without recognizing that Mexico poses multiple layers of economic and security challenges that extend far beyond any wall he could possibly build.

Tearing up NAFTA wholesale and imposing a 20% tariff on Mexican imports to pay for the wall would be disastrous for both the U.S. and Mexican economies. The United States trades approximately $1 trillion a year with Mexico and Canada, and the interconnectedness of the three economies since the implementation of NAFTA cannot be overstated. It is also worth noting that Canada and Mexico are the top two export destinations for the United States, and according to the U.S. Trade Representative, American exports to Mexico account for approximately $236 billion a year. If NAFTA is torn up, U.S. companies would lose out alongside the Mexican and Canadian companies.

Meanwhile, deporting millions of Mexican immigrants who have been living and working in the United States for years—for some of them, their whole life—would be logistically impossible, cost prohibitive, and inhumane. The cause and effect relationship of jobs and immigration must be highlighted as well: Trump cannot expect to dismantle NAFTA without causing a dramatic impact on the Mexican economy and security, and thus increasing the likelihood for a massive surge in illegal migration to the United States in the coming years.

Building a wall along the 2,000-mile border is equally untenable and unnecessary, particularly as many portions of the border cut through inaccessible terrain. Trump has already signed an Executive Order to begin construction on the wall, but it is also a poor use of funds that could go toward more modern and enhanced technologies for border protection, training and equipment for additional border patrol guards on both sides, and better intelligence capabilities. These advancements can more successfully thwart not just the illegal flow of migrants across the border, but also the illegal flow of drugs, weapons, and money.

All of these issues are roiling Mexico’s politics as well as its economy. Mexico has already endured the Trump effect with the fall in the peso, and with presidential elections in Mexico slated for 2018, there will be much ado about Peña Nieto and the ruling Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party’s handling of Trump and the economy. No doubt, a multitude of candidates will emerge in 2017 to tap into Mexican nationalism, leaving the possibility that an extreme left-wing candidate like Andrés Manuel López Obrador will gain widespread support.

We need to bring U.S.-Mexican relations back from the brink. The best case scenario moving forward would be a tough resolve to preserve and protect U.S.-Mexican relations and negotiate a way forward on trade, immigration, and border security, all without laying us bare to a major economic, political, and security crisis in Mexico. Modernizing and improving certain terms of the trade agreement, deporting those illegal immigrants who have committed criminal offenses, and enhancing the security technologies, mechanisms, and personnel along the border that both countries could work toward would be a win-win for both Trump and Peña Nieto. But more importantly, it would be a win-win for both the United States and Mexico.

Amanda Mattingly is a Senior Director at The Arkin Group and a Truman National Security Fellow. She previously served as a foreign affairs officer at the State Department. 

IMAGE: U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference at the Los Pinos residence in Mexico City, Mexico, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Henry Romero

Obama, Our Man in Havana

Good for you, Mr. President. The announcement that President Obama will travel to Cuba in March is welcome news and a bold step in the advancement of his policy of engagement toward the island that began in earnest on December 17, 2014.

The President’s strategy is to empower the Cuban people and pressure the Cuban government for economic and political change through engagement rather than isolation. U.S. policy previously sought to isolate Cuba and force a collapse of the Castro regime and its communist system, but 54 years is a long time to pursue a failed foreign policy. Instead of bringing about regime change, the old approach to Cuba and the U.S. embargo have given the Cuban government a rallying point and an easy excuse for their lack of growth and development. It is past time to change course.

President Obama’s decision to re-establish diplomatic relations, to include Cuba in the Summit of the Americas, to negotiate the re-opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana and the Cuban Embassy in Washington, DC, and most recently, to negotiate a commercial airline travel deal between the two countries are all significant steps in a powerful new approach to Cuba. Despite what critics say, these steps are designed to help the Cuban people, bringing them back into the fold so that we can start talking about human rights, political opening and democracy, civil society, economic policy, trade, and security.

Ultimately and over time, American change in policy and the eventual lifting of the U.S. embargo by Congress will help the Cuban people. Cuba ceased to be a national security threat years ago. Therefore, the objective should be to help the Cuban people and to empower them to seek political and economic change on the island for themselves. President Obama’s change in policy is a good first step to helping the Cuban people realize it is up to them to grow their economy and make the structural adjustments – both economically and politically – that will keep young Cubans in their country and incentivized to reach their potential.

Having been to Cuba, I have seen firsthand that the Cuban people are ready and eager for change that is happening already. Cubans today are hopeful about the future in ways that they have not been in years, and they are quick to tell you that the agreement between President Obama and Raúl Castro to re-establish diplomatic relations has given them this hope. Despite years of anti-American indoctrination, the Cuban people are embracing Americans and are eager for more American tourists, investment, and opportunities that expanded trade and travel will bring. They are giddy that Obama’s shift in policy will eventually lead to the lifting of the embargo. One Cuban went so far as to say, “If Obama could be president in Cuba, he would be elected to succeed Raúl.”

Yes, the Cuban government wants to calibrate the rate of change and reform on their own terms. Yes, they want to maintain the benefits of the Revolution, which they consider to be education, health care, the social safety net, and cultural heritage, while carefully choreographing the succession from the “historical leadership” to the next generation of Cuban communists. But make no mistake – the tsunami of change is coming to Cuba. Indeed, time has chipped away at the fear the regime has over the Cuban people, and the forces in favor of change are great and growing. The desire for freedom is strong, the entrepreneurial spirit is palpable, and the groundswell of support for a new era in U.S.-Cuban relations is evident on the island.

There is no symbol more powerful than President Obama traveling to Cuba to demonstrate America’s commitment to and solidarity with the Cuban people in their quest for change and greater economic and political opportunity. With all eyes on his visit, he has the chance to call out the Cuban regime for its human rights abuses, to call for freedoms of expression, assembly, and the press in Cuba, and to be the champion for change that the Cuban people want. In going to Cuba, President Obama is not just making history; he’s on the right side of history.

Amanda Mattingly is a senior director at The Arkin Group and a Truman National Security Fellow. She previously served as a foreign affairs officer at the State Department. Views expressed are her own.

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro meet at the United Nations General Assembly in New York September 29, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque