Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Laura Carlsen, who directs CIP’s Americas Program in Mexico City, writes that there is much that needs to be fixed in the U.S.-Mexico relationship, but border walls, hate speech and mass deportations aren’t the solution.
Surprisingly, Mexico has taken center stage in this year’s U.S. presidential elections.
While it has been cast mainly as the villain, the unexpected spotlight has sent politicians and activists on both sides of the border seeking to get their message out. If they’ve learned anything from the Trump playbook in the past months, it’s that negative attention is still free publicity.
The July 22 visit of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to Washington played up Mexico’s role in U.S. electoral politics. Since Republican candidate Donald Trump first launched his peculiar brand of invective against Mexico and Mexican migrants, he and his party have been mining an unexpectedly rich vein of anti-Mexican racism and xenophobia in U.S. society. Meanwhile, Democrats and Latino rights organizations have been thrown into defensive mode.
Mexico as an election-year wedge issue was the unspoken theme of Obama and Peña Nieto’s last meeting. In the joint press conference, The Donald was the elephant in the White House. Obama began with a direct reference to he-who-shall-not-be-named: “Let me start off by saying something that bears repeating, especially given some of the heated rhetoric that we sometimes hear: The United States values tremendously our enduring partnership with Mexico and our extraordinary ties of family and friendship with the Mexican people.”
The meeting sought to remind the U.S. public that it’s impossible to cut ties with Mexico — whether by building a wall, deporting some 11 million mostly Mexican immigrants, or canceling trade agreements, all of which Trump has proposed.
It also sought to woo the Latino vote, which could make the difference in this year’s elections — a fact that both Obama and Hillary Clinton are well aware of.
For Peña Nieto, the visit offered an opportunity to score some foreign policy points just as he’s he tanking domestically. The Mexican president’s approval ratings have hit an all-time low at 29 percent. His government’s involvement and cover-up in the case of the 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinapa, the restructuring of the education system that led to widespread protests from teachers and parents, the police killing of nine of those protesters, and the peso’s freefall have left his presidency battered with two more years to go.
Peña Nieto first saw Trump’s virulent anti-Mexicanism as a way to unite the country around something that wasn’t opposition to his presidency. Now, with the Republican candidate looking like a possible winner, he backed off earlier criticisms (saying his comparison of Trump’s tone to Mussolini and Hitler was taken out of context) and repeatedly stated his willingness to work with whomever the U.S. public elects.
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