Mexico’s big moment – and one for the US, too

The July 1 election in Mexico may result in a rejection of the political status quo – which calls for the US not to upset this special relationship.

Leftist front-runner Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) addresses a campaign rally in Patzcuaro, Michoacan state, Mexico May 31.

Mexicans are preparing to vote in elections that carry big implications for both their country and the United States. They will choose a new president and thousands of other officials on July 1.

With the two countries entwined as never before, the vote – as well as recent decisions by President Trump – calls for special care of a special relationship.

The front-runner in the presidential campaign is Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador, commonly known as AMLO, a former mayor of Mexico City. He is a well-known leftist who ran unsuccessfully for president twice before. He has so far focused his campaign on rooting out corruption and standing up for the less well-off.

Much of his popularity is also based on a widespread perception that the past two presidents and their political parties – the right of center National Action Party (PAN) and the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – were not able to control unprecedented levels of criminal violence or generate sufficient economic growth to benefit most Mexicans.

AMLO proposes to replace the “mafia of power” with a government working for the “good people.” The 25,000 violent homicides in 2017, the highest number recorded in the past 20 years, have convinced many of the need for change. Polls show AMLO’s lead holds across all demographics, including the well educated.

Compared with his closest rival, AMLO has much less experience in dealing with the US. This leaves his potential management of US-Mexican relations unclear. He and aides have rebutted criticisms that he might follow the path of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. He has dispatched aides to Washington and New York in an effort to reassure influential Americans about his intentions.

This shows that the election will not only determine Mexico’s direction but will affect the US. What happens in and with Mexico touches more US lives daily than events in any other country because of a combination of trade, family ties, and other connections. An estimated 35 million US citizens are of Mexican heritage. More than a million legal crossings take place each day along the 1,990-mile border. Mexico is America’s second largest export market, and the US is by far Mexico’s largest trading partner.

At the same time, studies estimate that some 5.5 million Mexicans are in the US illegally, though the number may have dropped over the past 10 years. Illegal drugs and unauthorized immigrants (now mostly from Central America) still head north across the border, while arms and billions of dollars from drug sales head south to criminal groups.

Since 2007, US-Mexican security cooperation has deepened on fighting drug trafficking, illegal immigration, and terrorism, becoming critical to US security. In 2017, Mexican and US cabinet members agreed on a strategic plan for going after transnational organized crime involved in drug trafficking. In recent testimony to Congress, US officials described bilateral security cooperation as unprecedented. 

The massive improvement in the relationship stems from the growing commercial ties built since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was negotiated 25 years ago. Since then, US-Mexican trade has multiplied by six, with substantial investments flowing from both sides. Some 5 million US jobs depend on business with Mexico, compared with an estimated 700,000 in 1993.

Today, the two countries build things together. Mexico’s finished manufactured exports to the US, for example, contain the highest levels of US parts and supplies by far compared with those of any other trading partner. Many economists argue that the relationship has made both economies stronger and helped many US companies fend off competition from low-wage countries in Asia while keeping prices lower for US consumers.

On May 31, Mr. Trump applied tariffs to steel and aluminum from Mexico (as well as from Canada and the European Union), which many interpreted as a step to increase pressure on those countries to reach new trade agreements on US terms. Mexico announced a list of US products to which it will apply reciprocal retaliatory tariffs. These moves threaten not only the ongoing renegotiation of NAFTA but also the $600 billion in yearly trade and Mexico’s cooperation on security.

So far, the Mexican presidential campaign has largely focused on domestic issues rather than the country’s ties to the US. Nevertheless, the tariffs and frequent anti-Mexico tweets by Trump are perceived as unfair. Many Mexicans also view US demands in the NAFTA negotiations as unreasonable and threatening. Not surprisingly, critical opinions of the US among Mexicans are well over 50 percent compared with 29 percent three years ago. Mexico’s government will not want to be perceived as yielding to US pressure tactics.

No matter who wins the presidential election, it is not in the interest of the US to jeopardize an important relationship. For decades, the economic well-being and security of both countries have improved when they seek “win-win” solutions. During these critical next few weeks in Mexico, the US must find ways to mend its ties with a close neighbor.

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