Donald Trump has a well-known low regard for Mexico and Mexicans. He has accused the country of sending drug dealers and rapists as immigrants to the United States and has vowed to build a “beautiful wall” on the border.
Trump has made himself almost as unpopular in Mexico as Mexico is in his talk on the campaign trail, and politician after politician south of the border have taken advantage of the public outrage against him to slam him. But the Republican candidate, who won Tuesday night’s Arizona primary partly because of his rhetoric about the U.S.-Mexico border, might be alarmed to learn he has a lot in common with his counterparts here: Trump’s style of politics has a close kinship to the one practiced in Mexico. They’re practically cousins.
For instance, the controversy over Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns could have been taken directly from coverage of Mexican politics. When asked, the GOP front-runner said he would do so “at some point, probably.” Trump was not only breaking with a long-established practice of transparency that other countries have always admired in the United States. The timing was eerie, too, because at the same time, a debate was going on in Mexico about the “3 of 3” initiative launched by civic organizations to push for a law that will force public officials and candidates to release information on their taxes, assets and potential conflicts of interest.
Fierce political resistance to subjecting public officials to such scrutiny is evident. In the year since the initiative was started by inviting elected officials to release their financial reports voluntarily, these are the results: No member of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s cabinet has released the information. Neither has Peña Nieto. Only a small fraction of most other elected officials have. Mexico’s political system simply does not favor transparency very much. This has been reinforced by the reaction in some quarters to the proposed law. Peña Nieto’s government has offered an alternative bill that does not sanction conflicts of interest or graft and does not require officials to disclose their financial information.
After years of other countries looking to the United States for cues on transparency and fighting corruption, now it turns out that one of the front-runners for the White House resembles one of those politicians south of the border who fight tooth-and-nail against any law aimed at putting their financial situation under scrutiny.
After the controversy erupted, Mitt Romney had a reasonable warning about Trump for Republican voters: His financial records could contain a “bombshell” that might hurt the GOP in the fall.
This was a warning that could also have applied in Mexico. In 2012 when Peña Nieto was a candidate, he did not disclose that his wife was buying a house from a company that had received public works contracts from Mexico state when he was governor. That would have saved him the embarrassment, two years after taking office, of seeing the whole affair revealed by investigative journalists. Now, Peña Nieto’s “white house” has become a symbol for corruption and conflict of interest in Mexico.
A lack of transparency is not the only feature the likely Republican nominee shares with his counterparts in Mexican politics, who are as notorious as he is bluster and bravado. From his rhetoric about protests at his rallies, Trump seems as if he would have felt very much at ease in the Mexican political scene circa 1960, the pinnacle of the authoritarian rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), when the practice of “roughing up” protesters — as Trump puts it — was very common. Workers, students and peasants who dared protest against the government were routinely beaten.
The author Gabriel Zaid has written about an episode in 1959 when then-President Adolfo López Mateos was about to give his first “state of the union” address to Congress. Word had reached the president that one of the few opposition legislators at the time was going to stage a protest in the middle of the speech. López Mateos called PRI representative José Ortiz Ávila and told him to prevent it. Before the president began to speak, Ortiz Ávila warned the would-be protestor not to try anything and reinforced the message by sitting next to him and aiming a gun at his colleague from under his coat during the speech. Later, López Mateos commended Ortiz Ávila and told him that politics should be done “with a lot of brains but also a lot of balls.”
This intolerance for dissent has survived to this day in Mexico. A Trump rally where protesters get “roughed up” is no different than, say, a rally in the state of Jalisco in 2012, where sympathizers of PRI gubernatorial candidate Aristóteles Sandoval beat up protestors. Sandoval is now the governor of Jalisco. Or the case of Veracruz governor, Javier Duarte, whose bodyguards once beat up a photographer who was trying to get some pictures at an event. In fact, public officials and members of political parties were responsible for about half of the attacks against journalists in 2015, according to a report released last week by Article19, an international nonprofit group that advocates for journalistic freedom.
It is worth recalling that one of Trump’s earlier clashes with the media was with a Mexican-born journalist, Univision’s Jorge Ramos, who was evicted from a news conference in Iowa by one of the candidate’s bodyguards.
In the following months, Trump kept attacking and insulting journalists as if he were living south of his proposed “beautiful wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Likewise, intolerance for minorities is a hallmark of many political systems, but Trump has taken it to a level seen for many years in Mexico, both with his rhetoric aimed here and with his call to ban Muslim immigrants. In Mexico, though, the nationalist spirit manifests itself differently: During its decades in power, PRI leaders routinely used the United States as a convenient enemy. One of the arguments made against the conservative National Action Party was that if it ever came to power, it would hand over the country to Uncle Sam and the Catholic Church.
So if Trump does become president next year, he isn’t likely to find Mexican politicians eager to pay for his border wall. But he may discover that he gets along just fine with them anyway.