MEXICO CITY — A visitor to this capital from afar, or another planet, might think President Donald Trump had been elected president of Mexico. Nearly everything he does or says about immigration, a promised border wall or the North American trade arrangement dominates Mexican media. Even on the car radio in a cab stuck in a Mexico City traffic jam, the passenger keeps hearing talk of President Trump.
But the American president — so focused on how the media reports his presidency — would hardly like the coverage. “El Magnate,” the tycoon, as one newspaper calls him, has been depicted in a newspaper cartoon in a strait jacket; the headline “El Fascistoid Trump,” a play on the word fascist, appears under a magazine cover photo. A recent newspaper poll put his favorability rating in Mexico at 3 percent.
Beneath the public venting is deep concern in Mexico’s governing class about the future of this country if economic and political relations continue to crumble with its northern neighbor and largest trading partner.
“He is single-handedly destroying a relationship that has been building for 25 years,” said former diplomat and analyst Andres Rozental.
Like others here, Rozental has been at the center of decades-long efforts to shift Mexico’s once protectionist and inward looking economy towards globalized trading. Key to that change has been normalizing and deepening relationships with the United States, a country many Mexicans traditionally looked at with a mix of anger and suspicion.
Current developments and the unpredictable future both distress politicians, analysts and academics. They see what one called “a daily hammering” of insults and slights since the U.S. presidential campaign, perhaps culminating in reports that Mr. Trump told Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in a phone call that American troops might be needed to help Mexico combat its drug cartels. (The drug wars, while gaining less attention, still kill thousands of Mexicans every year. The lucrative drug market is among American consumers, and is likely to grow as even more states legalize marijuana, and the so-called “Iron Highway” of weaponry comes from American stores continues south).
Among Mexicans, it is all but impossible to find any who see an optimistic outcome or light at the end of the tunnel. If anything, they worry about a continued deterioration that could revive recently quiescent Mexican nationalism and lead to the election of a left-wing populist, nationalist president in the 2018 elections. The candidate waving that banner, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has been running ahead in early polls. He’s come close to the presidency before: Nearly winning in 2006, and more than 30 percent against Peña Nieto in a three-way race in 2012. Even among some of the million-plus American expatriates living in Mexico, at least half with no documentation, there is growing worry about local hostility and tit for tat retaliation, such as Mexico could start demanding documentation from the U.S. citizens and retirees living there.
“Things could easily spin out of control,” warned one analyst.
Already, there is behind-the-scenes pressure on Peña Nieto to take a tougher stand against the U.S. administration and to realize the futility of trying to smooth Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and actions by quiet diplomacy between Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray Caso and Trump counselor (and son-in-law) Jared Kushner. Those efforts have twice led to what former Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhán labeled as “ambushes,” quiet diplomacy exploded by anti-Mexican Trump tweets or speeches.
The proposed border wall, much less Mr. Trump’s promise that Mexico will pay for it (be it up front or later), and deportation of undocumented Mexicans from the United States provoke the most emotion (though Mexico acknowledges it deported 143,000 Guatemalans and other Central Americans from its territory last year). But the critical issue for the country’s economic future lies in the future of the two decade-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), so often denounced by Mr. Trump in the campaign.
More than half a trillion dollars worth in goods and services passes across the border every year. Mexico’s emergence as a manufacturing nation has helped it move closer to middle class status, even if its per capita GDP is barely a fifth of its U.S. and a quarter of its Canadian trading partners. Income inequality is among the world’s highest; and income levels vary between the more prosperous north and the poorer south. Mexico City’s modern and colonial architecture, its buildings in vivid colors, make it among the world’s most visually interesting cities. The country seems hover between first world, with more and more cars and even canine beauty parlors, but struggling with developing world sanitation and water.
Increasingly, there is talk, public and private, that Mexico should be prepared to walk away from NAFTA if the U.S. presents it with a bad set of proposed revisions. Talk of Mexico diversifying its economic and trade relations with China, Europe and Latin American countries such as Argentina and Brazil (the latter in a steep recession) sound a bit illusory when 70 percent of Mexico’s exports are a truck ride away from the world’s largest economy.
But such decisions are months away as both governments are just starting to prepare their negotiating positions.
Meanwhile, the embattled President Pena Nieto, whose popularity rating has dropped since Mr. Trump became president, constantly returns to the themes of Mexican dignity and unity. Yet even unity is often hard to come by. Last weekend, there were demonstrations in Mexico City and other urban centers drawing tens of thousand of protesters. But the Mexico City marchers were divided into two groups; one supporting Mexican unity, the second rallying to the cries of anti-Trump and claiming the other rally only served as a cover to support the current government.