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Will the Odd Couple -- AMLO and Trump -- Narrow the U.S.-Mexico Gap?

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Friday, July 06, 2018

Will NAFTA survive? Last week, Mexico elected as president longtime NAFTA critic Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (always called "AMLO") by a wide margin. He promptly had a cordial telephone conversation with longtime NAFTA critic President Donald Trump, who remains U.S. president for the next 30 months and, if re-elected, for all of AMLO's six-year term.    

The cordiality may have just been a ritual. Not since the 1920s have the two neighboring countries had presidents as critical of the other's country as they will have on AMLO's inauguration Dec. 1.    

For it's unclear whether the ongoing renegotiations of NAFTA with Mexico and Canada will result in abrogation of the treaty or just modifications, perhaps overdue after 25 years. NAFTA is not just an economic agreement, though it was sold as that to bipartisan majorities in Congress in 1993.    

For the boundary between the United States and Mexico, negotiated after the U.S. defeated Mexico in 1848, has not just been the world border separating the two most economically unequal nations; it has also been the line separating two profoundly different cultures.  

For the United States has an almost entirely European culture, leavened by other influences, while Mexico partakes heavily of its pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture. We have been "distant neighbors," as the journalist Alan Riding titled his 1985 book on Mexico. "I celebrate myself," proclaimed the brash, exuberant 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman. Mexicans, in contrast, inhabit a "labyrinth of solitude," wrote the introverted, fatalistic 20th-century Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz.    

The architects of NAFTA had personal exposure to the sharpness of the border and a desire to meld together the two divergent cultures -- to make Mexico economically more like America, mostly, but also to make Mexican political and economic culture more like America's.   

NAFTA was a project of two Republican presidents who settled and made their fortunes less than 100 miles north of the border -- Ronald Reagan in southern California in the 1930s and George H. W. Bush in Midland, Texas, in the 1950s. Its chief Democratic advocate was Lloyd Bentsen, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee during the Reagan and Bush presidencies and treasury secretary during Bill Clinton's, born and raised in the lower Rio Grande Valley, less than five miles north of Mexico. And the Mexican president who pushed NAFTA through was Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who grew up in Monterrey, three hours to the south.   

Their combined efforts have changed Mexico's political culture. From 1929 to 2000, one party won every national election and outgoing presidents hand-picked their successors -- and then disappeared from public life and became scapegoats for lingering problems after their single six-year terms ended. It was a sort of Aztec system, with elaborate ceremony, calendrical regularity and an element of human sacrifice.   

That ended with the election of opposition-party President Vicente Fox in 2000, a close election AMLO narrowly lost in 2006 and a victory for the older ruling party in 2012. Competitive and rigorously honest elections, rotation in office: Mexico has developed something like a conventional Western political culture. AMLO's victory Sunday following the moderation of his radical rhetoric is more evidence of that.   

Another such change is the abrupt end of outmigration. Like Japan and China 100 years before, Mexico was exporting millions of low-wage workers from 1982 to 2007. That largely stopped when the U.S. housing bubble burst, and now Mexico is a transit point for Central Americans migrating illegally -- an issue that is perhaps negotiable for AMLO and Trump.    

More disturbing is the gang violence raging in Mexico and threatening America. Drug cartels have murdered some 113 election candidates since September and have taken over previously uncorrupt governments in running up toward the U.S. border. Even in northern Mexico, cities like Guanajuato and Queretaro, whose modern infrastructure and clean local government attracted much post-NAFTA foreign investment, have suffered murder waves.    

You might argue this is no more dangerous than the organized crime and violence in heavy-immigration zones in the United States a century ago -- unnerving for some years but eventually a manageable problem.   

And there's endemic corruption in government and law enforcement -- mostly invisible for years, the distinguished Mexican historian Enrique Krauze argues in The New York Times, but now out in the open.   

In his recently published book, "Vanishing Frontiers," Migration Policy Institute President Andrew Selee argues that NAFTA has reduced the economic and cultural gap between the United States and Mexico. Will it be reduced further or widened by the odd couple of AMLO and Donald Trump?    

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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