When the vessel Andrea Gail set sail from the port of Gloucester, Massachusetts, in a desperate act to participate in the last great fishing expedition of the season, its captain and crew did not have the least idea of what awaited them in what ended up as the 1991 “Perfect Storm”: all of the factors that could turn out wrong came together to produce a disaster of immense dimensions. Something like that could be happening in Mexico‒United States relations: perhaps no one seeks or desires this but, little by little, elements are accumulating that, on not being attended to, could produce the type of clash that seemed to have disappeared from the panorama more than three decades ago.
For nearly a century, the relationship between the two neighboring nations vacillated between violent and conflict to distant. The North American Invasion in 1846 reverberated in Mexico, giving rise to a nationalist reaction to which some historians attribute the true birth of Mexicaness. The two nations experienced highs and lows during the revolutionary period, with eventual crises due to the threat of non-recognition of a new president, with all of what that entailed. The Mexican post-revolutionary governments maintained a distant relationship, while simultaneously promoting national unity on employing the loss of territory as instruments of internal cohesion. All of this was feasible because Mexico had its sights trained on the interior of the country and its ties with the exterior were important but essentially symbolic.
The financial crises of the seventies and eighties obligated the redesign of economic policy and that led to a redefinition of the relation with the United States. Mexico began exporting increasingly more goods to the American market, which caused commercial conflicts: from accusations of dumping to tuna boycotts. For the first time since the War of Independence, Mexico began to see its neighbor as a potential source of the solution to its economic problems. Likewise, the United States was confronting problems whose attention required the cooperation of the Mexican government. Bilateral interaction grew, but the problems –old and new (from the war on drugs launched by Nixon with the closing of the border crossings to the death of DEA agent Enrique Camarena)- multiplied. Both nations ended up recognizing the need to establish mechanisms for a functional relationship.
At the end of the eighties, Bush and Salinas agreed to a set of principles, explicit and implicit, for the good functioning of the relation and for the solution –or, at least management- of the problems that are inherent in such a complex interaction, broad-ranging and dissimilar, in addition to asymmetrical, such as that of these two countries. The heart of that agreement resided in a basic principle: isolate the problems and deal with each separately. The objective was that, on not linking or mixing distinct matters, what was fundamental and quotidian could be worked out in a natural fashion.
Mixing unrelated issues (such as drugs and trade) produced constant crises and exacerbated moods. On agreeing not to contaminate certain themes with others, the two governments committed to seeing to each issue in its precise dimension, making it possible for the more explosive things –such as migration for the U.S. or arms for Mexico- not to impede the functioning of what had become natural, non-conflictive and inherent in the life of the two neighbors, such as trade. The agreement of Houston in 1988 conferred celerity on the bilateral relationship and eventually led to NAFTA. From then on, one government after another –of both sides- adhered to the established principle because it recognized the value of not cross-contaminating matters and, above all, the risk of doing so. It was well understood that a functional, conflict-free relationship was in both nations’ interest.
On breaking with the sum and substance of what was agreed to –by admixing migration with trade- President Trump had placed in doubt the foundations of the bilateral relationship. It is not only the fact of attacking Mexico and Mexicans rhetorically, but of that of making threats to the viability of the main engine of the Mexican economy (the exports) and putting the AMLO government up against the wall in one matter, migration, which is particularly sensitive for his political base and his legitimacy.
To date, the Mexican government has responded in two ways: on the one hand it had previously announced its decision to review the schema of cooperation with respect to security (the so-called Mérida Initiative of 2008); on the other, it has accepted, reluctantly, the terms of Trump’s demands with respect to Central-American migration. The two watersheds are contradictory and will, sooner or later, generate sparks.
Up until now, discussion within the U.S. has ignored the advantages which that country derives from cooperation on the part of the Mexican government in diverse matters that interest the U.S. and that constituted the incentive for their active promotion of the Houston agreement thirty years ago. The risk now is that its acting places pressure on an administration (which, in any event, would much rather return to distancing itself from its Northern neighbor), that would wind up destroying what has worked effectively for so much time, to the benefit of the two nations.