Mexico’s opposition vows to restore order to US relationship


Mexico is heading into 2024 bracing for a divisive election that could determine how business is conducted with the United States for decades to come.

And there will be one in the U.S. too.

Ildefonso Guajardo, the top foreign policy adviser to the opposition alliance’s presidential candidate, Xóchitl Gálvez, told The Hill his camp wants to restore key elements of the bilateral relationship that have been degraded under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

“Today, unfortunately, basically the channels of communication have been concentrated directly in the executive and using as a channel of communication the U.S. ambassador in Mexico,” said Guajardo.

Over the first five years of his term, López Obrador has systematically concentrated political power in the presidency, weakening the judiciary and independent agencies through structural reforms and budget cuts.

That centralized vision of power has made it more difficult for individual agencies on either side of the border to manage bilateral affairs, according to Guajardo.

“The work that has to be done in detail by every agency is displaced to a second place rather than be part of the everyday agenda that has to manage such a complex relationship. Therefore, nothing moves unless there is a commitment made by the executive and … it becomes a bottleneck,” he said.

From the mid-1980s until former President Trump came to power in 2016, U.S.-Mexico affairs had moved toward a doctrine of compartmentalization, where each issue was siloed and dealt with at peer-to-peer levels between each government’s agencies. So, for example, law enforcement issues would not bleed into trade disputes or talks on migration.

That paradigm was shattered in 2019 when, amid United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) negotiations, Trump threatened tariffs on Mexican goods “until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, STOP.”

López Obrador made a deal with Trump that allowed the implementation of policies such as the Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as “remain in Mexico,” and summary expulsions of migrants under Title 42.

Those two programs prompted the growth of refugee camps in northern Mexican cities, where humanitarian conditions quickly deteriorated.

Guajardo, who was Mexico’s lead USMCA negotiator and secretary of the economy under López Obrador’s predecessor, former President Enrique Peña Nieto, said a Gálvez government would return to compartmentalization, where a tariff threat would only elicit a reaction in the commercial space.

“I do believe that we will not get into this game of threats, in which you are threatening in one area of the relationship — call it migration, or call it security — vis-á-vis an action in a different area of the relationship,” said Guajardo.

“If the threat is against Mexican exports, well, we will lead with a response of the same magnitude that is allowed by our agreement against U.S. imports. I mean, in that hypothetical scenario, we will try to restore what we call the compartmentalization method of managing such a complex bilateral relationship.”

Though the U.S.-Mexico trade relationship is codified in the USMCA, and compartmentalization has allowed cooperation in other areas over the past 40 years, it’s still a profoundly asymmetric relationship.

That asymmetry has been made apparent by GOP presidential candidates, including Trump, who have threatened unilateral police or military action in Mexico to fight drug cartels.

Guajardo said both countries have complaints against the other in the fight against cartels, using the illicit smuggling of fentanyl north and of weapons and ammunition south as examples.

He added there’s a win-win scenario for collaboration against organized crime.

“But if there is a threat of using U.S. forces — it will not be accepted, never in Mexico, to allow a presence of U.S. military conducting direct operations, that’s impossible. But if that comes to that threat, we’ll respond with the specific same tools in the sector that the threat is being established.”

That scenario is unlikely, however, as it would crush the world’s largest country-to-country bilateral trade relationship, likely with deep repercussions in both economies.

And Guajardo said a Gálvez government will base its foreign policy on two “compasses” one focused on allying Mexico with global democracies and prioritizing human rights and personal liberties, and another embracing Mexico’s role as part of North America, politically and economically. 

“Mexico is a part of North America, the future and prosperity of Mexicans and the strength of their sovereignty is depending on our capacity to build trust, and to really make very clear who our allies are,” said Guajardo.

“Mexico will definitely keep working with the rest of the world, working with Europe, working with Asia to our best advantage, but there should not be anybody mistaken that we have to behave in terms of our best interest in North American integration.”

That North American alliance could look very different depending on the results of federal elections in either country in 2024.

Mexico is on track to elect its first woman president — so far the only two candidates registered are Gálvez and Claudia Sheinbaum, López Obrador’s chosen successor.

Guajardo said a victory by Sheinbaum would lead Mexico away from its democratic allies.

“Unfortunately, the government, the government coalition, the only message in the campaign is that there will be the continuation of the same government actions that we have today,” he said.

Guajardo cited López Obrador’s efforts to concentrate power in the presidency, weakening institutions like the independent electoral authority.

“So that by itself [is a] sign that should be very worrisome for our neighbors,” he said.

“We don’t have to imagine anything. The direction is government is taking is towards concentrating power in the presidency and destroying the building of institutions that it has taken us at least 30 years to build.”

The Trump administration welcomed López Obrador’s transactional, centralized approach, which allowed implementation of controversial migratory policies like Title 42 and the Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as “remain in Mexico.”

The Biden administration has followed suit, drawing little attention to labor, energy and environmental concerns that could elicit USMCA consequences, while holding direct talks with López Obrador on migration. In the lead-up to Christmas, Biden and López Obrador discussed upping Mexico’s immigration enforcement, and López Obrador asked Biden to soften sanctions on Cuba in return.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and White House Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall are scheduled to meet López Obrador in Mexico City Wednesday to continue talks on migration.

The Biden administration has largely stayed mum on the Mexican opposition’s warnings of democratic backsliding, instead prioritizing a working relationship with López Obrador.

Sheinbaum currently leads Gálvez in most polls, and opposition leaders have decried what they say is undue and illegal interference by the government in the early stages of the campaign as the opposition faces a steep uphill battle to dethrone López Obrador’s party.

Political pressures in both countries are rising as 2024 approaches. Mexico’s election will take place in June and López Obrador, who is constitutionally barred from seeking reelection to a second six-year term, is due to hand over power to his successor in September.

Guajardo said this election could determine whether Mexico returns to a single-party system with deep government participation in the economy — a system set in place after the Mexican Revolution that lasted until 2000 — or whether it will return to a democratic route.

“Unfortunately, the elections of both countries are running on the same year, every 12 years that happens. And unfortunately, decision making becomes very short-term decisions, looking at only the short term,” said Guajardo.

“But this time around, all the agents involved or everybody involved in this should be looking at the long term effects. And therefore I do believe that this election is not business as usual. In this election we are definitely making a very important decision to change the direction the country is taking today.”

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