Echoes of Blame Against Mexico in U.S. Elections

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By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 4, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- The United States and Mexico reached a historic milestone this week in their ongoing journey toward trade integration. As established 15 years ago by NAFTA negotiators, this New Year's Day was the deadline to eliminate the final export-import barriers between the two nations -- specifically those that protected the most contentious products such as corn and sugar.

But you can't be blamed if you missed this momentous occasion, especially if you live in the United States. This week also marked the long-awaited start of the presidential caucuses and primaries -- do-or-die time for U.S. presidential hopefuls.

But distraction doesn't explain why full trade integration was not part of many New Year's celebrations. If you believe everything the candidates are saying, the United States has seen little or no benefits from deepening relations with its southern neighbor.

On one hand, the idea that free trade has cost U.S. jobs is nearly a given in the campaign. Democrats such as John Edwards decry more than a million jobs lost due to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Even Hillary Clinton, whose husband signed the agreement that he said would "harness the energy (of globalization) to our benefit" and lead to a "new era," now calls for a "trade timeout" and promises to review all U.S. trade deals. Even some Republican candidates can't resist linking current economic anxiety to expanded trade.

On the other hand, immigration -- particularly from the south -- is blamed for just about everything bad happening in this country. Republican contender Mike Huckabee tried to connect the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan with concerns over security at the southern border. Most Democratic candidates dare not oppose building a bigger wall to separate the United States and Mexico.

The tone has turned so anti-Mexico that Mexican President Felipe Calderon called last month on his diplomatic representatives in the United States to "neutralize this strategy of confrontation." When he arrives for his first presidential visit to the U.S. later this winter, Calderon is expected to combat the "worst mistake" he believes Mexico or the United States can make -- that is, to have citizens in either country "feel that the other nation's people are the enemy."

While the presidential candidates' rhetoric might be excused as the excess of political posturing, it is an indication of how little comfort U.S. voters find in closer relations with their southern neighbor. Or as Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, U.S.-Mexico relations expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, put it, the candidates' rhetoric reveals "more than anything how much work there is still to be done to deepen people's knowledge on the issues."

Take Iowa, for instance, the first state to vote. As the main corn producer in the United States, the lifting of all restrictions on corn exports to Mexico should certainly be more a cause for celebration than anxiety. Yet it was in Dubuque, Iowa, where Edwards last week promised "no more NAFTAs."

Also, as a state that ranks fourth in the country for its percentage of people over 65, immigration inflow should be a welcome rather than a threatening development. Yet it is in Iowa where Republican candidates have been flooding mailboxes with images of "a Mexican flag fluttering above the Stars and Stripes, (or) the Statue of Liberty presiding over a 'Welcome Illegal Aliens' doormat," as The Washington Post reported this week.

And the worst may be yet to come. Political analysts predict the tone will turn even nastier if immigration becomes the spearhead Republican issue against the Democratic nominee during the general election campaign. How Mexicans react will help determine how much or how little lasting damage the political rhetoric will have on bilateral relations.

My hope is that Mexicans won't take the bombast seriously. Or better yet, that they will follow the advice of former Mexican diplomat Ricardo Pascoe Pierce, who wrote in Mexico's El Universal some weeks ago, "we must face this juncture with a modern and objective approach, and avoid giving free rein to our own basic nationalistic passions."

More to the point, a constructive response would be one that shows Mexico taking some responsibility in encouraging Mexicans, including those affected by free trade, to stay in their own country. Calderon's announcement of a new program, supported by Mexican businesses, to provide temporary jobs and shelter as well as food and medical treatment to the increased number of Mexicans being deported by U.S. authorities, is a start.

Whoever becomes U.S. president should come around by next year and find in Mexico a partner doing much more than demanding the "whole enchilada," the phrase that became both symbol and millstone of Calderon's predecessor's desire for a closer relationship.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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