Mexico: Migrants Getting Political but Not Driving Reform

By Michael S. Danielson*

A large group of people gathers in an airport.

Returning Mexican migrants are greeted upon their arrival in Mexico by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. / Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Mexican migrants who currently live in the United States or have returned home after spending many years abroad have become an important social and political constituency in the Mexican polity, but they do not uniformly enhance local democracy.  A growing body of research indicates that migrants affect the politics of their home towns and home countries through both direct and indirect channels.  Their departure releases pressure on prevailing authorities to reform, and the prospect of future migration causes citizens to disengage from the political process.  Friendships, alliances, and other contacts allow migrants to become intimately involved in their home communities from abroad as they communicate their attitudes and ideologies among themselves and friends and relatives back home.  Returning home with accumulated social, political, and economic capital also enables them to become influential leaders there.

  • Analysis of the municipalities to which U.S.-based migrants provide financial support, for example, shows that migrants are more likely to contribute where migrant civil society has become more deeply institutionalized at the state level and in municipalities and states with longer histories of migration.
  • A survey of more than 400 mayors in Oaxaca shows that migrants returning to their home communities who become mayors are more likely to be members of the popular classes than their non-migrant counterparts, suggesting that migration might be a pathway to power for non-elite individuals. But the same data also show that migrant mayors are just as likely to align with dominant political groups as with opponents of the status quo, suggesting the limits of their transformative and democratizing potential.

Field research shows different outcomes in different states.  In Oaxaca – where the exclusion of migrants from influence has alienated them from the governing party (an attitude further fueled by their experiences of exploitation and resistance as migrants in Mexico and California) – returnees tend to enter the political fray in opposition to dominant powers.  In contrast, the returning migrants who have been most influential in the states of Guanajuato and Zacatecas have tended to be mobilized by and act in support of the dominant parties in their states.  The institutionalization of the state-migrant relationship in these states facilitates migrant social and political engagement with governing parties.

  • Ethnographic data in 12 high-migration municipalities in Oaxaca, Guanajuato, and Zacatecas indicate, moreover, that the political engagement of returning migrants resulted in increased political competition that, in all but one case, caused factionalism and a divided opposition at best and deep, violent social conflict at worst. In the remaining six municipalities, dominant political actors either incorporated migrants into the prevailing system by establishing neocorporatist equilibria or successfully blocked the influence of migrant actors all together, despite high levels of migration.

Returning migrants’ political influence will only increase.  The historic flow – some 16 million Mexicans entered the United States in the 50 years since 1965 – has been reversed, as more migrants are returning to Mexico than entering the United States.  The economic, social, cultural, and political ties forged between communities on both sides of the border are growing, and the futures of the two countries are more intertwined than ever.  The economic and social importance of migration in some municipalities helps migrant political actors gain influence back home, and it can open up a pathway to local power for historically excluded social groups, even if – as in the cases that I have examinedthis influence has only rarely translated into fundamental changes in the way that politics are done.  The engagement of millions of Mexican migrants in their home towns has not resulted in thousands of political earthquakes, but rather the Mexican political system is incorporating these new actors without instituting fundamental changes to the way that politics are done.

 January 4, 2018

*Michael S. Danielson is CLALS Research Fellow and Visiting Professor at the University of California Washington DC Program.  His new book, Emigrants Get Political: Mexican Migrants Engage Their Home Towns, was published by Oxford University Press.  He has also participated in CLALS’ North America Research Initiative as a Pastor Scholar.

Canada and Mexico Face Uncertainty of NAFTA Renegotiation

By Daniela Stevens*

Two men stand at podiums with Mexican and Canadian flags behind them

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gives a presentation with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto during an official visit to Mexico in October 2017. / Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Facing the growing possibility that the Trump Administration is walking away from the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico and Canada are beginning to look for trading partners beyond the United States.  The interdependencies binding the three are strong.  Both Mexico and Canada have deep commercial ties with the United States, which imports about 80 percent of Mexico’s exports and about 70 percent of Canada’s.  Both have significant leverage vis-à-vis the United States as well.  U.S. auto and agriculture industries have a major stake in free trade with Mexico, which also provides important cooperation on security issues and controlling Central American migration.  Liberalization measures within the energy sector by the current Mexican administration make Mexico a strategic partner in terms of energy security.  Canada buys about 19 percent of U.S. exports.

But these ties are fraying as conversations drag on.  Trump Administration proposals are hurting the talks; especially contentious are changes in the “rules of origin” (since the United States proposed increasing the U.S. content of autos to 85 percent from the current 62.5 percent) as well as the inclusion of a “sunset clause” that would make NAFTA expire unless it is renegotiated every five years.  NAFTA’s Article 2205 lets either of the three member countries announce its withdrawal from the accord with six months’ notice.  Canadian and Mexican trade officials have not given such notice yet, but they show signs of heading in that direction.  Both have held high-level meetings with counterparts from South America and Europe, according to official and non-government sources.

  • Mexican President Peña Nieto’s administration has expressed a preference for leaving the negotiations over accepting “a free trade agreement that ceases to promote free trade.” President Trump has said that his administration would be willing to negotiate a free trade agreement with Canada alone if the NAFTA talks fail.  However, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau’s government has stated a preference for keeping the trilateral alive rather than resorting to bilateral agreement, since the terms of the U.S.-Canada deal were more outdated than the NAFTA’s.  The two presidents have been reluctant to take these actions because they apparently believe, as do many experts, that dismantling NAFTA would inevitably create uncertainty and inefficiencies for the three economies.  For example, the auto sector relies on three-way product flows that move several times across borders to be assembled into finished products.  Canadian and Mexican auto parts makers have a direct stake in each other’s dealings with the United States.  Even small duties would add up.
  • Nonetheless, some increased trade and a bilateral free trade agreement between just Mexico and Canada is possible. The two countries originally joined NAFTA to protect their access to the U.S. market, not to obtain access to each other’s.  Canadian public opinion and media reflect continued disinterest in Mexico, which is viewed as unstable due to drug-related criminality and corruption.  However, as the completion of a satisfactory NAFTA renegotiation is unlikely, Canadians are exploring deepening the bilateral link.  Mexican interest in Canada is also growing, according to some specialists.  Beyond North America, moreover, Canadians and Mexicans are exploring trade and investment diversification.  Canada is looking for increased cooperation with Latin America, in particular within the Pacific Alliance, a free trade partnership that includes Mexico, Chile, Peru and Colombia, and of which Canada is already Associate Member.  Mexico started a renegotiation last January of its free trade agreement with the European Union, which parties hope to finalize in the next few days.  It has begun warming up neglected ties with the Southern Cone and has already pledged to deepen ties with China.

Trade experts convened recently within the framework of American University’s Robert A. Pastor North America Research Initiative (NARI) were unanimous that that a trilateral agreement that protects the interests of all three partners would be the optimal outcome, but few observers of the NAFTA talks are confident that the Trump Administration will soften its position.  Canada’s commitment to a trilateral renegotiation should exert more pressure on the U.S. to compromise while strengthening both Canada and Mexico’s negotiating positions.  In the event of U.S. withdrawal from NAFTA, however, the two can expand their trade and investment relationship by lowering barriers further through modernization and e-commerce.  In addition, trade can potentially expand between the two since they have similar approaches to achieving various commitments of the Paris Accord involving energy projects and greenhouse gas emissions reductions.  Pastor Scholars concluded that both countries will have to carry out public campaigns to explain to their constituencies the benefits of continued cooperation, either trilateral or bilateral, if the United States significantly alters or abandons NAFTA.  Mexico and Canada have options outside North America in the quest for trade and investment diversification – even though their preferred scenario is a stronger NAFTA.  China, South America, and the European Union arise as the most readily available partners.

December 21, 2017

*Daniela Stevens is a Ph.D. Candidate in the American University School of Public Affairs and a Pastor Scholar.  Her research focuses on national and subnational policies that put a price on carbon emissions.

U.S. Immigration Policy Propels an Invigorated Sanctuary Movement

By Alexandra Délano Alonso*

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A new logo for the sanctuary movement. / Public Domain

The Trump administration’s expansion of an already enlarged deportation apparatus and its attempt to establish a ban against immigrants from targeted countries has intensified the Sanctuary Movement and driven it to explore new ways of protecting undocumented migrants and other groups that are under attack.  The new policies have generated a wave of protests and institutional responses from activists, lawyers, and immigrant-serving organizations as well as in higher education across the country.  Just days after the November election, hundreds of thousands of students, faculty, and staff at over 190 schools, colleges, and universities supported petitions calling on their respective administrations to declare their campuses sanctuaries.  The campaigns want schools to commit to withhold information from immigration enforcement authorities and disallow the presence of those authorities on campus without a court order or warrant, as well as establish institutional support to ensure that students with precarious migration status have access to the resources they need.  At the same time, there are almost three hundred sanctuary cities, counties, and states, which are at the center of Trump’s promises to cut federal funding to any local or state government that adopts this stance of defiance.  Republican Members of Congress in January introduced a bill (HR 483) to cut funding to universities that declare sanctuary.

  • The Sanctuary Movement has historical roots. In the 1980s, 400 religious congregations around the United States helped refugees from Central American wars enter the country.  In addition to challenging discriminatory U.S. immigration practices, the movement condemned U.S. support for the governments prosecuting those wars.  Years of effort led to legislation granting Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Central American refugees.
  • More recently, a New Sanctuary Movement emerged in 2007 in response to mass deportations of undocumented immigrants. It emphasized raising public awareness about the individual lives at stake and pressing for legislative reform.  Today’s resistance is an outgrowth of the George W.  Bush and Barack Obama Administrations’ raids, deporting almost 3 million individuals, and the massive immigrant detention system that they expanded.

Many cities, universities, and NGOs have backed away from the concept of sanctuary in response to Trump’s threats, arguing that the risk of losing federal funding or of putting themselves in the spotlight is too high, or that the sanctuary concept promises more than it can really offer.  As Lewis and Clark College Professor Elliot Young has written, “Sanctuary is an aspiration, a statement of values rather than a statement of fact.”  Indeed, one of the arguments against the proclamation of sanctuary by universities is the misunderstanding of the term:  The undocumented community and its defenders have varied interpretations of what it means in practice, whereas the legal limitations on what can be done in the face of a court order are very clear.  Yet, the ambiguity of the term leaves a space for creative interpretation and should be seen as an opportunity rather than a limitation.

  • Most universities, including my own, The New School, have issued a standard statement that they will not share information or cooperate with immigration authorities without a court order, but they have shied away from using the term sanctuary – even though the term is a significant form of resistance to unjust policies, a moral stance, and a message of solidarity to the larger university community.

Reviving the concept of sanctuary in this political context provides an opportunity to open a debate about the rights and protections that marginalized groups need, and how universities and other institutions that have joined the sanctuary movement in the last months (restaurants, art spaces, among others) can support and extend it.  The time we are living in requires us to reexamine existing frameworks and concepts and mobilize them in effective ways when the principles and values we stand for are under attack.  Declarations of sanctuary campus send a clear message of support to vulnerable individuals within the community.  They also nurture transnational networks of solidarity – not just through churches, shelters, and civil society groups – but also including universities in Mexico, Central America, and other countries, to help individuals returning to their origin countries (deported or voluntarily) live better lives, including overcoming significant barriers to continuing their education. Migrants’ need and right to protection and education does not end when they cross the border, and universities’ ability to help them begins by taking a stance and making our campuses accessible, safe and open; in other words, making them sanctuary.

April 18, 2017

* Alexandra Délano Alonso is an Assistant Professor of Global Studies at The New School.  She is the author of Mexico and Its Diaspora in the United States: Policies of Emigration since 1848 (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and co-editor of Borders and the Politics of Mourning (Social Research, 2016) with Benjamin Nienass. She is also a participant in the Robert A. Pastor North America Research Initiative.

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.

U.S. Immigration Policy: Not Just Getting Rid of “Bad Hombres”

By Eric Hershberg, Dennis Stinchcomb, and Fulton Armstrong

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An agent from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)./ Department of Homeland Security / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The immigrant deportation policy that the Trump Administration announced last week is among the most aggressive in U.S. history and promises to create tensions between Washington and Latin America and disrupt communities across the United States.  Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly has told agencies under his aegis to “use all authorities to the greatest extent practicable” to remove undocumented immigrants from the country.  President Trump called his new initiative a “military operation” – which an embarrassed Kelly denied during meetings in Mexico City intended to control damage from other Trump statements.  The White House said the measures will “take the shackles off” the enforcers, and U.S. media reported enforcement officers’ celebratory comments that they “can finally do their job.”  The Administration will also ask Congress to authorize a large expansion – another 15,000 – of enforcement positions.

  • The rationale repeatedly refers to deporting “criminals” – whom Trump calls “bad hombres” and “bad dudes” – but the new policy will exempt no classes or categories of “removal aliens,” including non-criminals. U.S. press already report roundups of individuals with no criminal records who are being expelled from the country within 72 hours.  Fear among immigrants is pervasive, and there are many reports (such as here and here) of families hunkering down in their homes, withdrawing children from school, and setting up contingency plans for protecting U.S. citizen kids should their undocumented parents be grabbed by the authorities and sent abroad.
  • The policy weakens protections from “expedited removal” that the Obama Administration put in place, which allowed immigrants caught after they had been in the country for 14 days or more to be released pending proceedings to determine their eligibility to remain in the United States. (Details remain murky but supposedly will be announced soon.)  Individuals facing expedited removal are not entitled to appear before a judge.
  • It increases efforts to press local police to help federal agencies find and deport undocumented immigrants, blurring the line between local and federal forces. Legal experts say this commingling of forces violates the Constitution, and many local police chiefs lament that it reduces the willingness of immigrant communities to help them fight crime.
  • It removes privacy protections for people who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents, putting their personal information in the hands of vigilantes, blackmailers, and others who have no need to know it. Trump previously threatened to withhold federal assistance from “sanctuary cities” in the United States, which he accuses of causing “immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our republic” because they are reluctant to implement his deportation policies.

Two new measures suggest a long political campaign against undocumented immigrants.  DHS will create an office – with the acronym VOICE – to collect information from victims of alleged crimes.  It will be funded with “any and all resources that are currently used to advocate on behalf of illegal aliens” (most of whom have never committed a crime).  The Administration will also “identify and quantify all sources of direct and indirect” assistance to Mexico, obviously to evaluate U.S. leverage against the Mexican Government if the Administration is not pleased with compliance with Washington’s wishes.

Deporting all 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be in the United States will be impossible, but the new measures will push unprecedented numbers of Mexicans and Central Americans back into societies that have no jobs and no security for them.  That burden and the loss of immigrants’ remittances will cause those countries incalculable harm.  The Administration’s rhetoric hammering on “criminal immigrants” is deceptive:  DHS admitted in 2014 that most of the “criminals” it deported were guilty only of their undocumented presence (31.3 percent) and traffic violations (15 percent), and it would be foolish to expect that the Trump government will be more judicious.  The insinuation that immigrants commit more crimes than do native-born citizens, moreover, has been debunked; they are incarcerated at a rate half that of native-born.  These polices may enjoy the support of Trump’s political base, but the attacks on the defenseless; subversion of traditional values such as the right to legal counsel and the right to privacy; coercion of local police and civilian authorities; and the deportation of countless friends and neighbors whose everyday contributions enrich community life in the United States will have a profound impact extending far beyond its immediate victims.

 February 27, 2017

U.S.-Mexico Trade: The Numbers and the Real Issues

By Robert A. Blecker*

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Two maquiladoras in Tijuana, Mexico. The low percentage of Mexican value-added in Mexico’s exports is a key reason why the country has not gotten nearly as much employment growth as it hoped for when it joined NAFTA. / Anthony Albright / Flickr / Creative Commons

Officials in the Trump administration are proposing a new way of measuring the U.S.-Mexican trade deficit that, by making the deficit look larger than it currently appears, will likely be spun to support efforts to impose high tariffs or dismantle NAFTA.  According to press reports, the President’s senior advisors, including the head of his new trade council, Peter Navarro, are proposing to include only “domestic exports” (exports of U.S.-produced goods) in calculating bilateral trade balances with Mexico and other countries.  This would exclude “re-exports” – goods that are imported into the United States from other countries (such as Canada or China) and transshipped into Mexico – which are currently counted in total U.S. exports.

  • In spite of its political motivation, the proposed new accounting would render a more accurate measure of U.S. exports. In fact, it would make the U.S. deficit with Mexico look closer to what Mexico reports as its surplus with the U.S.  For 2016, the U.S. reports a deficit of $63.2 billion with Mexico, while Mexico reports almost twice as big a surplus of $123.1 billion with the U.S.  If the U.S. excluded re-exports, its trade deficit with Mexico for 2016 would be $115.4 billion, which is much closer to the Mexican number.

Nonetheless, this recalculation fails to correct for another bias, which makes the U.S. deficit with Mexico look artificially large.  Imports are measured by the total value of the goods when they enter the country, from the immediate country of origin.  But in today’s global supply chains only part of the value-added in imported goods comes from any one country.  A television, for example, can be assembled in Mexico with components imported from Korea and other East Asian nations.  As a result, the reported U.S. imports from Mexico (especially of manufactured goods) greatly exaggerate the Mexican content of those goods.  Although data limitations do not permit an exact calculation of the Mexican content of U.S. imports from Mexico, it is likely relatively low.  (My own estimates suggest it is on the order of about 30-40 percent for manufactured goods).  Indeed, the low percentage of Mexican value-added in Mexico’s exports is a key reason why the country has not gotten nearly as much employment growth as it hoped for when it joined NAFTA.

The Trump Administration’s aggressive rhetoric and action on other issues related to Mexico, including immigration and the wall, suggest a political motivation for the proposal to adopt a new measure of exports, regardless of its merits.  But the real problem is not the “correct” number for the U.S.-Mexican trade deficit; it is why NAFTA has not lived up to its promise of supporting high-value added exports and high-wage job creation in both countries.  This promise was based on the idea that the United States would export capital and intermediate goods to Mexico for assembly into consumer goods, which would then be exported back to the United States.  But especially since China joined the WTO in 2001, Mexico has increasingly become a platform for assembling mostly Asian inputs into goods for export to the United States (and secondarily Canada).  Even if “re-exports” are excluded, Mexico remains the second largest export market for the United States (after Canada) – and U.S. exports to Mexico are 65 percent greater than U.S. exports to China.  Focusing too much on measuring the U.S.-Mexico trade imbalance only distracts attention from the need to reform NAFTA so as to encourage more of the “links” in global supply chains to be produced in North America generally.  If the Trump administration is serious about making the U.S. more competitive vis-à-vis China, it should think about viewing Mexico as a partner instead of as an enemy.  In the larger context of Trump’s many objectionable policies on migration and in other areas, a long-overdue correction of U.S. export statistics is not worth getting upset over.  The real issue is whether Trump’s trade policies – with Mexico and beyond – will bring the promised gains to U.S. workers, or will further enrich corporate billionaires and Wall Street tycoons.

February 23, 2017

* Robert A. Blecker is a Professor of Economics at American University.

U.S.-Mexico Tensions: Harbinger for Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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The U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana and San Diego. / Tomas Castelazo / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

U.S. President Donald Trump’s unilateral actions on Mexico last week have precipitated the most serious crisis in bilateral relations in decades and threaten to further undermine U.S. image and interests throughout Latin America.  During last year’s campaign, in the face of Trump’s characterization of Mexicans as rapists and drug-traffickers and repeated pledges that he’d make Mexico “pay for the Great Wall,” President Enrique Peña Nieto adopted a strategy of patience and positive engagement.  He paid dearly in political terms for meeting with Trump in August – a misjudgment that worsened his already declining popular approval – but he continued to try to stay on the high road after the election.

  • Peña Nieto resurrected former Finance Minister Luis Videgaray, the architect of the Trump meeting last August, as Foreign Minister, and he replaced his ambassador in Washington with one having deep experience with NAFTA and a reputation for calm negotiation, in response to Trump’s repeated demand for a renegotiation of the 1994 accord. As opponents across the political spectrum egged him on to reciprocate Trump’s belligerent tone and strident U.S. nationalism, Peña Nieto – like all Mexican presidents for the past 25 years – tried hard to suppress the anti-Americanism that has lingered beneath the surface of Mexican politics even while the two neighbors have become increasingly integrated economically, demographically, and in governance.  Even after Trump’s first barbs following inauguration on January 20, Peña Nieto emphasized his preference for calm dialogue – “neither confrontation, nor submission.”  He declared that Mexico doesn’t want walls but bridges, and accepted the American’s demand to renegotiate NAFTA, although with a “constructive vision” that enables both sides to “win,” with “creativity and new, pragmatic solutions.”

Preparations for the summit meeting, scheduled for this week, crashed when Trump – without coordinating with his Mexican counterpart or the appropriate U.S. government agencies – issued executive orders putatively aimed at tightening control of the border.  One directed an immediate increase in efforts to deport undocumented Mexicans, and the other launched the “immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border.”  Trump initially abided by an informal agreement with the Mexicans not to repeat his harangue that he was going to make Mexico pay for the wall, but on January 26 he tweeted that “If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.”  His press spokesman followed up with a suggestion that Washington could impose a 20 percent tariff on imports from Mexico to cover the costs of construction, after which Peña Nieto, facing a firestorm at home, postponed the meeting.  The two presidents talked on the phone for an hour the following day and reportedly agreed to let things calm down, although the two sides presented different versions of the chat.

The speed of the trainwreck – in Trump’s first week in office – and the depth of the damage his unilateralism has done to bilateral relations have alarmed many in Mexico and the United States, including Republicans who worked hard to build the relationship.  (Only the Administration’s stunning decrees regarding immigration from other parts of the world have overshadowed the mess.)  Mexico is, of course, not without leverage and, as Trump stirs up long-repressed Mexican nationalism, Peña Nieto – whose popular support was recently in the garbage bin – is going to have to talk tough (at least) and could have to retaliate.  He could impose tariffs on the billions of dollars of Mexican exports that Americans have grown accustomed to having at low prices.  Mexico could also opt to diminish cooperation in counternarcotics and other law enforcement efforts, or to cease blocking Central American migrants seeking to reach the U.S. border – interests that the impulsive Trump policy team doesn’t seem to have considered.

Coming on the heels of Trump’s executive order totally withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the new president is presenting the image of a U.S. leader whose harsh policies and arrogant style serve neither the United States nor Latin America’s interests.  Having appointed as White House National Security Council Senior Director for Latin America a political scientist whose writings draw bizarrely on analytic approaches that have been rejected in the discipline for more than 30 years, and whose recent articles lament the Obama administration’s abandonment of the Monroe Doctrine, the region’s leaders will rightly conclude that Washington is voluntarily abdicating any plausible case for leading multilateral cooperation around common interests.  The United States and Latin America are inextricably linked, however, and a policy based on stale assumptions of big power unilateralism ultimately will run into insurmountable obstacles: however ignorant Trump and his team are proving themselves to be, we live in the real world of the 21st century, in which imperialist, mercantilist fantasy will be treated with the disdain that it deserves.

January 31, 2017

What Will Trump Do About NAFTA?

By Malcolm Fairbrother*

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U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and the flag of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). / Flickr and Wikimedia / Creative Commons / Modified

Despite his campaign rhetoric repeatedly attacking the North American Free Trade Agreement, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump probably won’t touch it, except in superficial ways.  He has called NAFTA the “worst trade deal ever,” and promised to pull the U.S. out unless Mexico and Canada agree to renegotiate it.  Last week, he suggested renegotiation of NAFTA will include provisions for Mexico to repay the U.S. government for the wall he wants to build along the border.

Dismantling or even significantly rewriting the accord is unlikely for a couple reasons:

  • First, the billionaires, chief executives, and friends he is choosing for his cabinet are hardly people inclined to dismantle an agreement whose contents largely reflect what American business wanted from the U.S.-Mexico relationship when NAFTA was being negotiated in the early 1990s. Corporate preferences weighed heavily against any big deviation from the status quo after the last political transition in Washington, in 2008.  Barack Obama too said that “NAFTA was a mistake,” though his criticisms were a little different.  He railed against lobbyists’ disproportionate influence over trade policy, and promised big changes to international trade agreements, including better protections for workers and the environment.  Even so, he didn’t touch NAFTA, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) he negotiated included – like NAFTA – shady provisions for investor-state dispute settlement.
  • It would be near-impossible, or least massively expensive, to get what Trump seems to want most: a big drop in imports from Mexico. In his eyes this would make NAFTA a better deal for America, though of course serious economists disagree.  Realistically, reopening the agreement would be very messy, and if he tried to throw up massive new trade barriers business leaders would strongly object.  NAFTA could include some additional measures to make it easier for goods and/or people to get around among the NAFTA countries, but that’s not what Trump has promised.

His economic nationalism makes the Republican Party establishment squirm, but it’s clear it also helped Trump win several Midwestern states, tipping the electoral college in his favor.  Insofar as agreements like NAFTA entrench rules friendly to business, and generate market efficiencies and economies whose benefits accumulate in the hands of the few, voter hostility is no mystery.  But economics is only part of the reason.  The bigger issue is what the backlash against globalization – embodied also by Brexit and the rise of neo-nationalist parties in Europe – means more broadly.  The average Democratic voter has a lower income than the average Republican voter, but Democrats are more supportive of trade agreements because they are more internationalist, more open to other cultures, younger, more educated, and more urban.  Throughout his presidency, Trump will therefore be squeezed between his working class rhetoric – appealing to the distrustful – and his business class milieu.  He is an extreme case of the politicians’ mercantilist thinking on trade, wherein exports are good and imports are bad, and “trade deals” like NAFTA are somehow like deals in the business world, where it’s possible to out-negotiate someone.  The reality is that this thinking – which flies in the face of basic economics – doesn’t point to any clear course of action.  This is why Trump won’t actually do much about NAFTA.

January 10, 2017

* Malcolm Fairbrother is social science researcher and teacher/mentor in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol (UK).  This article is adapted from a recent blog post for the American Sociological Association.

The Impact of Falling Oil Prices on the Western Hemisphere

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

L.C. Nøttaasen / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

L.C. Nøttaasen / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The sharp drop in the benchmark Brent crude price of oil from just under US$115 per barrel in June 2014 to its current perch around US$50 has important ramifications for the Western Hemisphere.  For Venezuela, which earns some 95 percent of its foreign exchange from petroleum exports, it is a potential disaster.  Underlying political tensions will be exacerbated if there is no money to continue funding social welfare programs or heavily subsidizing gasoline.  It probably also spells the end of PetroCaribe’s generous repayment holidays and what are in essence below-market interest loans for Caribbean and Central American nations.  Sharply lower oil prices also put at risk major energy projects such as the development of Brazil’s pre-salt reserves, which require a minimum price of $50 to $55 to be economically viable.  Equally tenuous are Argentine efforts to regain energy self-sufficiency by exploiting its vast shale oil and gas reserves and Mexican plans to attract foreign investors to participate in deep-water oil exploration and drilling.  The minimum price for a barrel of oil below which new investment projects in Canada’s oil sands are no longer attractive is around $65.  Shale oil producers in the United States are also being squeezed by low petroleum prices.

On the other hand, net energy importers such as Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay benefit from sharply lower oil prices.  Although being weaned off  PetroCaribe will be painful for the Caribbean and Central America in the short term, they will be able to seek oil at the lower prices elsewhere.  The pressure on the Obama administration to lift the ban on U.S. crude oil exports, in response to a glut of domestic shale oil production, could also redound in favor of the Caribbean and Central America by lowering international oil prices further through increased global supply.  Already, 2015 began with U.S. companies authorized to export an ultralight crude called condensate.

In hopes of rallying OPEC to stabilize oil prices, Venezuelan President Maduro last weekend rushed off to lobby Saudi Arabia, which just two months ago refused to decrease production in order to raise prices, but oil industry sources say there’s little chance of a policy change.  Meanwhile, the environment may turn out to be among the biggest beneficiaries of lower oil prices.  Less investment in shale oil production reduces the risk of leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as well as decreases flaring.  Similarly, slowing down oil sands production in Alberta and Saskatchewan means that the very high levels of greenhouse gas emissions associated with extracting crude oil from bitumen (not to mention the negative impact on water resources) is diminished.  Although lower fossil fuel prices traditionally have undermined incentives to move to greater reliance on renewable and non-traditional energy resources, this may no longer be true.  For one thing many governments around the world are now embarked on ambitious efforts to reduce carbon emissions by, among other things, raising the costs associated with petroleum usage through cap and trade regimes that force companies to buy government-issued pollution permits.  Still others have enacted outright carbon taxes on utilities and large factories per metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions.  In addition, the heavy initial capital investment that was previously associated with things like wind, solar and geothermal power are falling.  For example, a combination of technological advances and Chinese overproduction have resulted in much lower prices for solar panels so that the cost of generation from a large photovoltaic solar plant is now almost 80 percent less than five years ago.  Geothermal energy may be the renewable that most benefits as drilling rigs idled by lower oil prices are now available at a lower cost for geothermal projects.  

*Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and teaches at the Villanova University School of Law.

January 13, 2015

Drug Dealing in Costa Rica: A Perverse Path toward Social Inclusion

By Rodolfo Calderón Umaña*

Antonio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Antonio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Central America’s emergence as a principal transit route for illicit drugs from South America to the U.S. has given rise to local retail markets supplying users within the region.  A study of three Costa Rican communities – one in greater San José and two along the Caribbean coast – highlights several factors that determine the scale and consequences of these local markets.  Among the most important are the high levels of social exclusion experienced by households in these localities and residents’ motivation to become involved in the business because it offers resources (money, power and prestige) that cannot be achieved through the legitimate channels of education or quality employment.  Other factors include the proximity of the communities to drug trafficking routes and the extent of previously existing demand from local consumers.

One of the most significant characteristics of local drug markets in these communities, as elsewhere, is that they are socially and territorially bounded because trust is the key factor shaping relationships between suppliers, sellers and consumers.  Some local suppliers maintain direct ties to cartels, but they operate their businesses independently.  Youth are assigned the most vulnerable tasks and are thus disproportionately represented among those arrested and convicted of crimes.  Violence serves as the principal instrument for controlling and regulating the drug trade, and the result is that for youth in these settings violence becomes normalized as a routine form of behavior.  This spawns a generalized climate of fear and insecurity, and the typical response of community residents is to retreat from public space and to isolate themselves inside their homes.

These findings support calls for new responses to the drug trade at the community level.  Central American governments, encouraged to a significant degree by U.S. programs, have tended to emphasize repressing and “combatting” the scourge of drug trafficking, yet where this approach has been implemented – particularly in Central America’s Northern Triangle — social problems have only gotten worse.  In Costa Rica, it’s not too late to undertake a comprehensive strategic review of policies in this domain and to bolster programs to stabilize affected areas.  Particularly if designed and implemented from the bottom up, programs can identify and reach out to vulnerable residents before they are drawn into drug micro-markets as vendors, consumers, or both.  Vocational training programs matched to real employment opportunities are absolutely fundamental – to reduce residents’ social exclusion.  Our research findings indicate that enhancement of public spaces where community residents can congregate and initiatives focused on building trust between communities at risk and representatives of the state can also be highly productive.  Costa Rica is at a critical juncture: it can either sustain and expand the participatory policy frameworks that buttress community cohesion and resilience or run the risk of falling into the devastating spiral of delinquency and violence that has plagued its neighbors in the Northern Triangle.

*Dr. Calderón Umaña is a researcher at FLACSO-Costa Rica.  The study is being conducted by FLACSO-Costa Rica with funding from the International Development Research Centre.