Mexico: Nationalism Alone is Not the Answer to Trump

By Gema Santamaría*

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In Mexico City, citizens mobilized against President Trump on his Inauguration Day with signs against U.S. imperialism (“Fuera Yankees”) and effigies of the U.S. President. / Adrián Martínez / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Mexican government hasn’t yet figured out how to react to U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed policies toward Mexico, which have already eroded trust and potential cooperation, but one thing is clear: Mexican nationalism alone will not help.  In terms of security cooperation, Trump has proposed a “great wall” and increased police and military presence to keep “bad hombres” outside U.S. territory without the consent or cooperation of his southern neighbor.  The notion of shared responsibility, which shaped the Mérida Initiative and informed most cooperation under past administrations, has been virtually abandoned.  Instead, Mexico has been presented to the U.S. public only as the source of security challenges – illegal migration, drugs, and common crime – and not part of the solution.

The Mexican government’s response has been, so far, equivocal at best.  President Peña Nieto and his administration have proven incapable of articulating a coherent message towards Trump’s provocations.  Responding to an erratic, Twitter-driven foreign policy poses challenges for any country accustomed to traditional diplomatic interaction, but Peña Nieto has an additional force to manage:  surging nationalism from the left, center, and right.  This revival includes disjointed appeals on social media for citizens to boycott “gringo” companies – notably Starbucks – and to consume “only national” products.  Many campaigns express solidarity with the Mexican government as well as repudiation of Trump.  The cover of Letras Libres, for example, carries an image that emulates Mexico’s national coat of arms – an eagle attacking a snake – but the snake being devoured by the Mexican eagle wears a blond Trump-style hairdo.

Nationalism, however, is not the answer.  Beyond its potentially chauvinistic nature, it can too easily translate into a call for political loyalty and suppress necessary criticism of the current government.  In moments of crisis, Mexican elites have long used anti-American sentiment to create consensus, overcome divisions, and even conceal a government’s lack of legitimacy – unhelpful in a moment that, like now, citizens need to hold their government accountable for its impunity, corruption, and human rights abuses.

  • Instead of making themselves feel good with nationalist slogans, Mexicans should assert their commitment to multilateralism and international cooperation, not only in trade (which at times seems to be the only issue on the agenda) but also on matters of security, human rights, and the rule of law. A critique of Trump’s militaristic understanding of immigration should include a critique of Mexico’s own failure to adopt a more integral migration policy south of its border – one protecting Central American migrants from the rampage of organized crime and capable of addressing the institutional and structural challenges behind the surge of Central American migration.  Mexican citizens should call into question their government’s resort to militarized border control on the southern border, a strategy that in many ways mirrors the U.S.’ short-sighted and unilateral response to migration.  By the same token, criticism of Trump’s reactive and militarized vision of security should also involve a close look at Mexico’s own militarized, short-term, and repressive response to insecurity and violence.
  • Some Mexican intellectuals have insinuated that an effective critique of Trump and his policies calls for a revival of national pride and honor. Letras Libres director Enrique Krauze, for example, tweeted that not attending protests to denounce Trump’s actions is a sign of “passivity, indifference, and even cowardice.”  Yet if Mexico proves incapable of articulating a sound critique and resistance vis-à-vis Trump the real cause will not be a lack of nationalist ardor, but rather citizens’ incapacity to move beyond nationalism and uncritical support for their government.  Mexico does not need nationalistic and “brave” citizens as much as it needs a citizenry committed to international cooperation, transparency, and critical engagement and that can call into question another government’s erroneous policies – like Trump’s – while demanding better of its own.

April 13, 2017

* Gema Santamaría Balmaceda is the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of International Studies at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM), and a participant in the Robert A. Pastor North America Research Initiative.

2017: Happy New Year in Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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Brazilian President Michel Temer surrounded by members of his party in mid-2016. His government will continue to face questions of legitimacy in 2017. / Valter Campanato / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The year 2016 laid down a series of challenges for Latin America in the new year – not the least of which will be adapting to a radically different administration in Washington.  Last year saw some important achievements, including an elusive peace agreement in Colombia ending the region’s oldest insurgency.  Several countries shifted politically, eroding the “pink tide” that affected much of the region over the past decade or so, but the durability and legitimacy of the ensuing administrations will hinge on their capacity to achieve policy successes that improve the well-being of the citizenry.  The legitimacy of Brazil’s change of government remains highly contested.  Except in Venezuela, where President Maduro clung to power by an ever-fraying thread, the left-leaning ALBA countries remained largely stable, but the hollowing out of democratic institutions in those settings is a cause for legitimate concern.  Across Latin America and the Caribbean, internal challenges, uncertainties in the world economy, and potentially large shifts in U.S. policy make straight-line predictions for 2017 risky.

  • Latin America’s two largest countries are in a tailspin. The full impact of Brazil’s political and economic crises has yet to be fully felt in and outside the country.  President Dilma’s impeachment and continuing revelations of corruption among the new ruling party and its allies have left the continent’s biggest country badly damaged, with profound implications that extend well beyond its borders.  Mexican President Peña Nieto saw his authority steadily diminish throughout the course of the past year, unable to deal with (and by some accounts complicit in) the most fundamental issues of violence, such as the disappearance of 43 students in 2014.  The reform agenda he promised has fizzled, and looking ahead he faces a long period as a lame duck – elections are not scheduled until mid-2018.
  • The “Northern Triangle” of Central America lurches from crisis to crisis. As violence and crime tears his country apart, Honduran President Hernández has devoted his energies to legalizing his efforts to gain a second term as president.  Guatemala’s successful experiment channeling international expertise into strengthening its judicial system’s ability to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials is threatened by a weakening of political resolve to make it work, as elites push back while civil society has lost the momentum that enabled it to bring down the government of President Pérez Molina in 2015.  El Salvador, which has witnessed modest strides forward in dealing with its profound corruption problems, remains wracked with violence, plagued by economic stagnation, and bereft of decisive leadership.
  • Venezuela stands alone in the depth of its regime-threatening crisis, from which the path back to stability and prosperity is neither apparent nor likely. The election of right-leaning governments in Argentina (in late 2015) and Peru (in mid-2016) – with Presidents Macri and Kuczynski – has given rise to expectations of reforms and prosperity, but it’s unclear whether their policies will deliver the sort of change people sought.  Bolivian President Morales, Ecuadoran President Correa, and Nicaraguan President Ortega have satisfied some important popular needs, but they have arrayed the levers of power to thwart opposition challenges and weakened democratic institutional mechanisms.
  • As Cuban President Raúl Castro begins his final year in office next month, the credibility of his government and his successors – who still remain largely in the shadows – will depend in part on whether the party’s hesitant, partial economic reforms manage to overcome persistent stagnation and dissuade the country’s most promising professionals from leaving the island. Haiti’s President-elect Jovenel Moise will take office on February 7 after winning a convincing 55 percent of the vote, but there’s no indication he will be any different from his ineffective predecessors.

However voluble the region’s internal challenges – and how uncertain external demand for Latin American commodities and the interest rates applied to Latin American debt – the policies of incoming U.S. President Donald Trump introduce the greatest unknown variables into any scenarios for 2017.  In the last couple years, President Obama began fulfilling his promise at the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago to “be there as a friend and partner” and seek “engagement … that is based on mutual respect and equality.”  His opening to Cuba was an eloquent expression of the U.S. disposition to update its policies toward the whole region, even while it was not always reflected in its approach to political dynamics in specific Latin American countries.

 Trump’s rhetoric, in contrast, has already undermined efforts to rebuild the image of the United States and convince Latin Americans of the sincerity of Washington’s desire for partnership.  His rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – more categorical than losing candidate Hillary Clinton’s cautious words of skepticism about the accord – has already closed one possible path toward deepened ties with some of the region’s leading, market-oriented economies.  His threat to deport millions of undocumented migrants back to Mexico and Central America, where there is undoubtedly no capacity to handle a large number of returnees, has struck fear in the hearts of vulnerable communities and governments.  The region has survived previous periods of U.S. neglect and aggression in the past, and its strengthened ties with Asia and Europe will help cushion any impacts of shifts in U.S. engagement.  But the now-threatened vision of cooperation has arguably helped drive change of benefit to all.  Insofar as Washington changes gears and Latin Americans throw up their hands in dismay, the region will be thrust into the dilemma of trying to adjust yet again or to set off on its own course as ALBA and others have long espoused.

 January 4, 2017

Cuba: Preparing for President Trump

By Fulton Armstrong

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Photo credit: Day Donaldson / Flickr / Creative Commons

Cubans are already calibrating their expectations for relations with the United States under President Trump – hoping the normalization process does not unravel but preparing for a return to a sanctions-based policy from Washington.  Conversations in Havana reveal deep concern that the President-elect’s tweets and statements about Cuba, Mexico, and Latinos in the United States will translate into efforts to slow, stop, or reverse normalization.  The past two years of dialogue have focused on mutual interests, without ignoring remaining differences between capitals but not allowing them to blot out hopes of mutually beneficial cooperation.  Cuba will interpret a return to bombastic rhetoric, exaggerated conditions to reach a “deal,” and the pressure tactics of the pre-Obama era as a sign of U.S. willingness to put bullying a small neighbor eager for improved ties ahead of its own national interests.

Cubans present the stiff upper lip in conversations and, not surprisingly, defiantly note that they’ve already survived decades of U.S. pressure, but their disappointment is palpable.

  • Most concerned are entrepreneurs in Cuba’s small but growing private sector, who depend on investment from U.S.-based relatives and friends. More than 100 Cuban private businessmen wrote a letter to Trump last week urging restraint.
  • Nationalism has precluded Cubans from saying that normalization would be a major driver of their long-promised economic reforms, but few deny that improving ties with the United States would eventually present Havana important opportunities. U.S. retrenchment will remove important incentives for the government to move ahead with its reform strategy.
  • Rumors about tensions between Cuban proponents of normalization and conservative opponents may have some merit, but Cubans across the spectrum will close ranks if Trump gets aggressive.

Cuba’s reactions to Trump’s election, including President Raúl Castro’s congratulatory message to him, so far suggest that it will hold its tongue and resist being provoked.  A U.S. return to full-bore Cold War tactics would not pose an existential threat to Cuba, even considering the country’s difficulties dealing with unrelated problems such as the crisis in Venezuela.  Popular reactions to the passing of Fidel Castro last month are being construed as evidence of residual political legitimacy for the government and support for it to deliver on promised improvements.  Moreover, Cuba’s progress in normalization; its effective contribution to the Colombia peace accord; its new political dialogue and cooperation agreement with the European Union; and the recent Havana visit of Japanese Prime Minister Abe have boosted the country’s international image – and blame for collapse of normalization will surely fall solely upon the United States.  However difficult it will be for the proud people of Cuba to resist rising to whatever bait the Trump Administration throws its way, showing forbearance in the bilateral relationship and moving “without hurry but without pause,” as Raúl Castro said, with its national reform plan would protect the investment that Cuba has already made in normalization.

December 19, 2016