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Guy Farmer: Mexico-U.S. relations on the back burner

By Guy W. Farmer

With national media attention focused on the coronavirus pandemic and continuing unrest in the nation’s biggest cities, the media paid scant attention to the first face-to-face meeting between President Trump and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (“AMLO”) in Washington about 10 days ago. It was AMLO’s first official trip outside Mexico.

The respected Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that the two presidents “proclaimed their friendship and pledged to work together on migration, trade and efforts to counter drug trafficking.” That was the good news.

The bad news was, as a WSJ editorial warned, “Trouble is brewing south of the Rio Grande for whoever is the next U.S. president” because AMLO’s “policies have reduced (economic) growth and caused domestic and foreign capital to flee,” the editorial continued. “Mexico’s per capita GDP fell 1.2% in 2019 … and foreign direct investment declined to $29.6 billion from $38.7 billion in 2018,” a 23.5 percent drop due to AMLO’s left-wing, nationalistic economic policies.

“Mr. Lopez Obrador has governed like an old-fashioned caudillo, a strongman who dictates economic decisions rather than unleashing the genius of the Mexican people,” the editorial concluded, and I concur. Having visited Mexico regularly for more than 50 years and having lived and worked there for two years in the 1970s, I’ve observed firsthand how an oppressive, socialistic central government stifles entrepreneurship and economic activity. AMLO is Mexico’s Bernie Sanders.

A personal example: In the mid-1980s, when a strong earthquake hit Mexico City, causing extensive damage, the government threatened to condemn and seize my late Mexican brother-in-law’s thriving neighborhood barber shop rather than helping him rebuild his business. My wife and I chipped-in to help Miguel rebuild and avoid government seizure of his property. That’s how it works in Mexico.

Returning to the recent AMLO-Trump meeting in Washington, the Mexican president flew commercial coach and didn’t show up at the White House hidden inside a 20-car motorcade. How refreshing!

The presidents praised each other with AMLO saying he came to the U.S. “to express to the American people that your president has treated us with kindness and respect.” In return Trump declared that “the relationship between the United States and Mexico has never been closer than it is right now,” and thanked AMLO for helping to stem the tide of illegal immigrants flowing across the border into the U.S. Of course neither president actually said the words “illegal immigration.”

The presidents then signed a joint declaration pledging cooperation on security, their economies and fighting coronavirus. The official purpose of the White House meeting was to celebrate the recent signing of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA), which replaced the 1994 NAFTA agreement earlier this year. Trump had criticized NAFTA as “the worst trade deal ever.”

Two-way trade with Mexico totaled more than $614 billion last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, making Mexico America’s most important trading partner for the first time. But while U.S.-Mexico trade thrives, AMLO faces serious problems at home. In late June drug cartel gunmen ambushed and wounded Mexico City’s police chief, who was tough on drug traffickers. The Wall Street Journal described Jalisco’s New Generation Cartel as “the biggest criminal drug threat to the U.S.” I hope it was more than words in a joint declaration when the presidents pledged cooperation to combat drug trafficking between Mexico and the U.S.

I’ve been following Mexico-U.S. relations for a long time and have seen many such high-sounding declarations. Now I’d like to see some real follow-through for a change — action, not words. Viva Mexico!

Guy W. Farmer, a retired diplomat, has had a family relationship with Mexico for more than 50 years.