American Troops and Mexican Politics: Are We Underestimating Our Neighbor?

A shadow from a U.S. Air and Marine Operations helicopter passes along the U.S.-Mexico border fence on February 21, 2018 in McAllen.

John Moore/Getty

A shadow from a U.S. Air and Marine Operations helicopter passes along the U.S.-Mexico border fence on February 21, 2018 in McAllen.

This is a guest columnist. The views expressed below do not reflect the opinions of Texas Monthly.

I admit to taking it personally last week when President Donald Trump announced that he was ordering the American military to fortify the border with Mexico. After all, I am someone with family on both sides of the border. By contrast, my Mexican cousins in the business world hardly seemed fazed by Trump’s move. That’s because a decade earlier, they had begun shifting their business contacts away from the United States and toward China and the Middle East.

Trump’s border threats reinforce Mexican distrust of American political motivations at precisely the moment when building trust has never been more possible and more desirable. While the United States continues to be Mexico’s largest trading partner, Mexicans have increasingly sought to engage the global economy beyond its northern neighbor. One cousin in Monterrey is as likely to have a meeting in Beijing as in St. Louis. In short, more Mexicans are beginning to look beyond the United States for Mexico’s economic vitality.

Over the past decade, China has expanded its trade and investments in Mexico and Latin America looking to fill the void left by American negligence and arrogance and a xenophobia that kicked into overdrive after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Trump’s attempts to poke Mexico in the eye play well with his base. But most Mexicans have long grown used to such slights, having heard about the history of American neocolonialism since grade school.

The latest salvo from Washington has resulted in a rare moment of unity among Mexican presidential candidates immersed in the early stages of the campaign season for the July 1 election. Perhaps even more extraordinary was their unanimous agreement with the highly unpopular Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto in condemning Trump’s move. Peña Nieto gained a reputation as a Trump enabler, welcoming candidate Trump in his only foreign visit during the American elections in 2016. Trump’s refrain that he would build a wall and Mexico would “pay for it” frames the current border debate with Mexico. Peña Nieto responded to the call for increased military in a video stating that “nothing and no one stands above the dignity of Mexico.”

Self-determination has been the central aspect of Mexican national identity, and Trump’s rhetoric is only strengthening that impulse. Mexicans experienced defining invasions by United States and France in the nineteenth century. Porfirio Diaz’s two sins fueling the Mexican Revolution were declaring himself president for life and turning over Mexico’s bounty to foreign investors. To remedy the first sin, Mexican presidents now only serve one term. As to the second sin, the most visible…

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