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7-10-2015, 00:21


For six Mexican presidential terms after the Second World War, the United States did not publicly meddle in Mexican affairs. Officials in Washington showed unusual flexibility concerning the notion of democracy. Stability was preferred over the more unpredictable consequences of political reform. U. S. policy makers viewed Mexican stability as essential for national security and protecting U. S. investment in Mexico. In 1972, a secret U. S. government document stated, “It is important to our security that there be in Mexico a friendly, cooperative, and politically stable government and that no hostile power have access to the territory of Mexico.”2

The ambassadors each country sent to the other highlighted an inescapable reality—the asymmetry of power. Mexican ambassadors in Washington were unimportant political figures with rare access to the White House, while the U. S. ambassador to Mexico dominated the local diplomatic scene and frequently met with the Mexican president. While few Americans ever learned the name of the Mexican ambassador to the United States, Washington’s choice of ambassador to Mexico was viewed as a barometer of U. S.—Mexico relations and he, for better or worse, was constantly in the news. When President Reagan appointed as his ambassador, John Gavin, a former actor who was best know in Mexico for his TV spots advertising Bacardi rum, Mexicans felt slighted by the presence of such a lightweight. Some Mexicans quipped that the appropriate response to Gavin’s appointment would be to send movie comic Cantinflas to Washington as Mexico’s ambassador.3

President Echeverria (1970—1976) sought to diversify Mexico’s international political and economic relations. His administration played a leading role in formulating the proposal for a new international economic order that was endorsed by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. The Mexican president stridently proclaimed Mexico’s “victimization” at the hands of the “colossus of the north.” He also irritated U. S. policy makers by warmly embracing and exchanging visits with Chilean president Salvador Allende. Echeverria’s taking up the cause, on a rhetorical level, of a more egalitarian distribution of the world’s wealth served more to aggravate Washington than to actually redistribute wealth. His policies did cause U. S. Ambassador Robert H. McBride to move from the usual acceptance of incumbent Mexican regimes to open criticism when he declared:

Let me say candidly that I have noted an attitude, not with alarm but with a certain degree of preoccupation. Many are no longer certain if Mexico wants foreign investment or if it has changed the rules, not only concerning new investment but already established firms.4

During Echeverria’s term, his rhetoric about sovereignty and independence notwithstanding, Mexican reliance on the United States, as measured by foreign investment, external debt, foreign trade, and the role of American banks, increased. Ironically, the United States, rather than Echeverria’s Third World allies, bailed him out of his end-of-term financial crisis by providing a $600-million loan to support the peso.5

During both Echeverria’s term and that of his successor, Central America emerged as a thorn in the side of U. S.—Mexican relations. For U. S. policy makers, conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador were part of the Cold War fomented by Cuba and the Soviet Union. This led them to view each Central American nation as a potential domino that could spread revolution and endanger the United States.

Mexican policy makers viewed the violence in Central America not as falling dominos but as an attempt to right social injustice and end political oppression. They felt conflicts there were a prelude to political modernization that the United States and local oligarchies sought to thwart. Mexicans felt that U. S. policy was not only destabilizing Central America by buttressing the status quo and preventing needed change but also threatening to plunge Mexico into a refugee crisis.

Despite Lopez Portillo’s attempt to set a more independent foreign policy, U. S. economic domination of Mexico increased during the years of the oil boom. Between 1977 and 1980, U. S.—Mexico trade increased by 42 percent a year. U. S. investment likewise increased. In 1981, as two-way trade between the two nations exceeded $26 billion, Mexico became the third largest U. S. trading partner.6

U. S. influence over Mexico increased still further after the 1982 debt crisis, since the U. S. and the IMF (in which the United States exercised strong influence) conditioned their loans on certain financial behavior. At the time, the United States became seriously concerned about the collapse of the Mexican economic and political system. International investors, the U. S. media, the U. S. Congress, and U. S. officials began to express concern about the lack of democracy in Mexico, due not so much to deeply felt democratic convictions but to a sudden awareness of the danger a chaotic situation in Mexico augured for the United States.7

In 1986, doubts that many Americans held concerning Mexico were most conspicuously aired in congressional subcommittee hearings chaired by Senator Jesse Helms, a Republican senator from North Carolina. The hearings highlighted corruption, poor administration, election fraud, and Mexico’s lack of will to combat drug trafficking. These hearings broke with the long-held U. S. government policy of not publicly criticizing Mexico.8

Most Mexicans, who automatically assumed the United States government was as centralized as Mexico’s, concluded that the hearings, as well as sharply increased negative media reports on Mexico, represented U. S. government policy. The hearings produced an upswelling of Mexican nationalism and made it very difficult for anyone, especially those from opposition political parties, to challenge the government without leaving themselves open to charges of being a tool of the United States. A few Mexicans, however, publicly welcomed open discussion of Mexico’s problems. Pro-democracy activist Sergio Aguayo, for example, commented on the United States failing to criticize undemocratic practices for so long:

I believe that the PRI’s capacity to survive has been greatly enhanced by the support of the international community, and in particular the United States. Neither the amount and timeliness of the financial aid provided, nor the massive indifference toward Mexico’s pro-democracy movements have any precedent or comparison in the world’s recent history.9

As the Reagan administration’s dissatisfaction with the Mexican incumbents increased, it abandoned the long-held U. S. policy of ignoring opposition to the PRI. It also had to decide if the PAN should be considered as politically significant. Answering this question took time. In the early 1980s, no consensus existed concerning the PAN’s future. In 1981, the U. S. consul in Monterrey sent a secret cable describing the PAN as “a fly biting the rump of the state.”10

Once the PAN showed its mettle, the Reagan administration established contact with it in various highly visible ways since the PAN shared Reagan’s views on Central America and on the desirability of privatizing government-owned corporations and reducing the size of the state. In 1984, U. S. Ambassador Gavin met with Hermosillo Archbishop Carlos Quintero Arce and PAN regional director Carlos Amaya Rivera. This unprecedented meeting with the political opposition was widely denounced as U. S. intervention into Mexican politics. The opening to the PAN was again highlighted when that party, but not the PRI, was invited to send representatives to the 1984 Republican Party convention in Dallas.11

In 1986, the Reagan administration began to back away from its flirtation with the PAN. It returned to supporting the PRI since that party was more strongly committed to paying Mexico’s foreign debt than the PAN. In 1988, as leftist candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas emerged as the main political challenger to the PRI, the United States strengthened its embrace of the incumbent De la Madrid administration. Political scientist Denise Dresser noted: “Mexico’s successes in economic stabilization and restructuring (along with the fears awakened by the neartriumph of a perceived leftist [Cardenas] in 1988) dramatically reduced interest in political change in Mexico.”12

The U. S. embrace of the Mexican incumbents tightened with the meeting of Carlos Salinas de Gortari and George H. W. Bush in Houston, when both were presidents-elect. They established a rapport, and during their terms the cordiality of U. S.—Mexico relations was described as reflecting “the spirit of Houston.” The spirit of Houston indicated U. S. awareness that, as the 1988 Mexican election showed, Salinas had a weak political base, which could easily result in instability. Other factors contributing to improved U. S.—Mexican relations were the 1980s crisis forcing Mexico into adopting economic policies that won U. S. approval and the demise of the Soviet block, which ended confrontation over Central America. As Lorenzo Meyer noted in 1989:

From the rabid right to the moderate left—not to mention the big banks and corporations— almost everyone agrees, for now, that the U. S. national interest requires real, open support for the Salinas government because there are few options, and all the others are worse.13

The marked improvement in U. S.—Mexican relations provided tangible results for both nations. The Clinton administration invested considerable political capital to secure the passage of NAFTA and then went out on a limb to arrange a massive economic bailout early in 1995. The U. S.-sponsored Brady Plan reduced the amount of debt and the amount of payments due to the nearly 500 participating banks. Finally, the United States did not allow specific issues, such as drug trafficking or immigration, to cast a pall over U. S.—Mexican relations in general.14

The United States gained as Mexico ceased its traditional gringo-baiting. As analyst (and later foreign minister) Jorge G. Castaneda noted:

It made no sense, on the one hand to put all of Mexico’s eggs in one basket (namely the one that held foreign financing, business confidence, and U. S. support) and then proceed to kick and quarrel with the owner of the basket.

Mexico also refrained from promoting a Latin American debtors’ cartel when many saw that as an attractive option and muted its protests when the United States invaded Panama to oust Manuel Noriega. Mexico increased oil shipments to the United States by 100,000 barrels a day after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Mexico also dropped its long-standing ban on extraditing Mexican citizens to the United States for trial.15

Presidents Zedillo (1994—2000) and Clinton met at least once a year and continued their predecessors’ efforts to develop a cooperative bilateral relationship. Several indicators show the depth of the relations that had developed by the end of their terms. The U. S. embassy in Mexico City employed roughly 1,000 people, making it the largest U. S. embassy in the world. Some fifty different bilateral commissions addressed problems concerning agriculture, transportation, NAFTA rules of origin, health standards, customs cooperation, labor matters, and the environment. The number of NGOs, media outlets, and corporations linking the two nations soared. By the end of the 1990s, roughly 600,000 U. S. citizens lived in Mexico.16

In February 2001, President George W. Bush emphasized both the cordiality and importance of U. S.—Mexican relations by making his first foreign presidential trip to President Vicente Fox’s ranch. Fox later commented, “You cannot imagine what a sensation it caused in Mexico when the president of the United States chose our family ranch in Guanajuato for his foreign state visit.”17 On the occasion of President Vicente Fox’s September 5, 2001 state visit to Washington, Bush declared, “The United States has no more important relationship in the world than our relationship with Mexico.” Even the most critical press in Mexico was forced to acknowledge that never before had a Mexican president been received as well in the U. S. capital.18

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 interrupted the rapprochement between the United States and Mexico. In the wake of the attacks, some officials in the Bush administration felt the Mexican government failed to sufficiently manifest public support for the United States. U. S. concerns shifted from relations with Mexico to securing its borders against terrorists. Relations were further chilled as the Bush administration invoked the doctrine of preemptive war—a concept that provided an unwelcome reminder of prior unilateral U. S. interventions in the western hemisphere. The refusal by Mexico, which at the time occupied a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, to endorse the U. S. invasion of Iraq was seen as a betrayal by the Bush administration. During the rest of the Fox administration, U. S.—Mexican relations never again resumed their pre-9/11 cordiality, as the U. S. stand on the International Criminal Court, drug trafficking, and immigration concerns constantly irritated relations.19

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Mexico and the United States were becoming increasingly important to each other. In 1990, 60 percent of Mexico’s trade was with the U. S., while by 2002 that figure had reached 78 percent. The links were also demographic, environmental, musical, and gastronomic, to name just a few areas. Hollywood movies and pop music inundated Mexico, while at the same time hundreds of Spanish-language newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV stations flourished in the United States. Prosperity on one side of the border increased prosperity on the other, just as economic decline on one side inexorably led to lost jobs in the export sector of the other partner.20

Increased ties between the two nations produced a major social cleavage in Mexico that transcended region and wealth. It divided those who were linked to the U. S. economy and those who were not. Castaneda referred to this as “the most significant rift in Mexico’s society.” Mexicans linked to the United States worked in export industries and the tourist industry, and included business people, their employees, accountants, and lawyers working for firms in these sectors. Other groups with economic links to the U. S. economy included Mexicans working in the United States, those receiving remittances from family members working in the United States, and those who smuggled drugs and unauthorized immigrants into the U. S. Even though these links undoubtedly benefited millions, as Castaneda noted, Mexico

Is simply too populous for all those excluded from this cross-cutting cohort to be embraced by it within any reasonable time frame. Many in the United States and Mexico do not yet grasp a fundamental demographic constraint: there are simply not enough tourists from Chicago, export firms in Monterrey, or low-skill jobs in California to go around.21