Mexico: Has AMLO Compromised on Human Dignity?

By Alexandra Délano*

Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard speaks during a meeting in 2018, during which U.S. Secretary Mike Pompeo was present

Mexican Foreign Secretary- designate Marcelo Ebrard participates in a bilateral meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo in Mexico City on October 19, 2018. State Department photo/ Wikimedia Commons

Mexico has always negotiated with the United States from a position of weakness – it depends on its northern neighbor economically and politically more than the other way around – but the recent negotiations, compromising its commitment to human dignity in exchange for avoiding tariffs, may be among the worst outcomes. Tariffs on Mexican products would surely be costly for Washington, as business leaders and Republican legislators have stated recently, but the much greater economic threat is to Mexico. As a result, Mexico has consistently sought to keep the issue of migration separate from trade and other priorities – a delinking that both countries have accepted for the sake of advancing economic integration.

  • Trump has destabilized that tacit agreement by asserting that maintaining the status quo in commercial relations will depend on new steps by Mexico to support expansion of barriers on its northern border, to better control its southern border, and to stop the flow of migrants from Central America. In addition to imposing the tariffs, Trump threatened to abandon the newly negotiated North American Trade Agreement (“USMCA”) and even to close the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has opted for a strategy of minimizing confrontation with Trump. This has implied concessions such as accepting the return of persons awaiting asylum hearings in U.S. courts. Even though this policy, called the Migrant Protection Protocols (or Quédate en México), is not in an official agreement, and even though it does not go to the extreme of establishing Mexico as a “safe third country” – which would obligate migrants to claim asylum in Mexico instead of having the option of continuing their journey to the United States – it is an attempt to appease Trump and maintain the fragile balance in the relationship.
  • AMLO has taken other steps to placate Trump. For example, Mexico and the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC or CEPAL) recently announced a development plan for Central America that, although limited in scope and without apparent funding, is an important step towards addressing root causes of migration in the region.

AMLO’s government negotiated to increase its control of the southern border and to continue to host asylum-seekers awaiting a court hearing in the United States. It did so in the absence of an integrated migration strategy, and without a commitment to invest resources, at a time when the budget of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) was just cut 20 percent. The Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) is also ill-positioned to assume a greater role without addressing its need for the resources and measures necessary to root out corruption and reduce its over-reliance on detention and deportation. Officials from these organizations were not even included in the negotiations – further reflecting the lack of vision and interagency coordination on the migration challenges. Not surprisingly, the INM Commissioner resigned days after the agreement was announced.

  • Mexico’s policies also appear to neglect the need to strengthen multilateral mechanisms to compensate for its weakness in the face of U.S. pressure. Mexico has traditionally been one of the most active promoters of multilateral agreements on cooperation on migration issues, including the Global Compact on Migration approved last year, but it appears unable to build on these accomplishments to either counterbalance Trump’s pressures or guide an internal policy on what to do. It has also failed to build support among G20 allies, including Canada – its second most important trading partner and a player in the extractive activities implicated in driving emigration and internal displacement in Central America and Mexico.

Mexico’s migration policy at this point is very far from the ideals laid out by López Obrador. His primary concern has been to pursue the impossible goal of containing Trump without harming other interests. Above nationalist posturing – claims that Mexico will never negotiate away its dignity – is the need to protect the dignity of persons. A migration policy that prioritizes migration control and that is based on the mood swings of the United States’ government does not meet this basic criterion. It leaves Mexico in the same weak, isolated position from which it cannot negotiate agreements on labor mobility, humanitarian protection, and economic development. Mexico seems to have made a strategic error in response to Trump’s most recent tantrum – one likely to reoccur under even more challenging conditions as the 2020 election nears.

June 25, 2019

* Alexandra Délano is chair of the Global Studies Department at the New School in New York City. This article is adapted from her essay in El País on June 5, Lo que está en juego en las negociaciones con Estados Unidos: la dignidad humana.

Elite Power and State Strength: A Timely Focus of Academic Studies

By Eric Hershberg

lapidim / Flickr / Creative Commons

lapidim / Flickr / Creative Commons

Insufficient state revenues are one fundamental reason that many Latin American governments fail to provide their citizens with adequate education, health care, public transportation, environmental protection and the physical and technological infrastructure needed to move their countries toward high-income country status.  As a whole, the region’s governments were able to spend only 14.8 and 15.25 percent of GDP in 2013 and 2014, according to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).  Rationalization of expenditures is a goal that can only be pursued in practice if there are adequate funds to begin with, and few Latin American states have that luxury.  (To be sure, even where states are well financed, as in Brazil and Argentina, governments typically fail to spend resources efficiently.)  Historically primitive and regressive tax systems have not evolved in a manner consistent with the development needs of the region.  During the second decade of the 21st century this remains a major obstacle for those who strive to build more effective and democratic states across Latin America.

Several ambitious new books in comparative political economy offer insightful and complementary analyses of the political conditions that perpetuate state weakness as well as the dynamics that offer hope of overcoming it.

  • Aaron Schneider’s 2012 Cambridge University Press volume on State-Building and Tax Regimes in Central America was an initial contribution to this emerging literature, linking that sub-region’s changing relationship to the world economy to aggressive efforts by different factions of the elite to fashion tax systems that reflect their narrow interests rather than a broader agenda of societal development.
  • A book that will be launched later this month in Guatemala City builds on this work by underscoring the importance of political contestation regarding the fiscal arena more broadly – encompassing state expenditure as well as revenue. That study, prepared under the auspices of CLALS and the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI), illustrates the ways in which Central American elites have exercised disproportionate influence to render states ineffective and regressive: they contribute little to state coffers and extract much from them, with consequences that diminish the life chances of a majority of that region’s population.
  • Tasha Fairfield’s conceptually ambitious and empirically rich comparative study of South American cases, to be published later this year by Cambridge University Press, is a landmark contribution to literature on elites and Latin American political economy. It consists of a thorough comparative analysis of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, revealing that strong business associations tied closely to the state augment elite capacity to block progressive tax reforms.  Conversely, she finds that social movement influence over the state can undermine elite capacity to resist the sorts of taxation needed to redistribute wealth.
  • Evelyne Huber and John Stephens demonstrated previously, in their 2012 University of Chicago Press book on democracy and the left, that there is a clear link between the capabilities of the political left in democratic regimes and the prospects for more equitable social policies in Latin America. Such policies, as this recent wave of publications make clear, will only come about if societies develop systems of taxation compatible with the emergence of effective states.

Scholarship on Latin American economic development has until recently devoted little attention to political power imbalances as drivers of state weakness and the consequent failure of societies across the region to forge pathways toward developed-country levels of income and opportunity.  These studies highlight the centrality of elite collective organization and behavior, as well as the political strength of countervailing forces in society, for determining levels of taxation across the region.  Taken as a whole, this welcome wave of social science research restores Latin American political economy to its rightful place as a domain of scholarship that speaks to the concrete challenges facing the region today and in the future.  Policymakers throughout the hemisphere who speak of democracy and economic growth need the clear analysis to progress that scholarly works such as these provide.

February 5, 2015