Biden and the Mexican Midterms

Mexico Institute
By  Luis Rubio

As the midterm elections draw closer, Mexico’s broken politics are beginning to take their toll. The independent electoral authority (INE), one of the country’s greatest institutional achievements after decades of fraudulent elections, is under fire by the AMLO and his party, which are also undermining the Supreme Court’s authority. The few remaining vestiges of the intentional, albeit still weak, institutional buildup that took place from the 1990s on is being subverted by a president who won a majority thanks to the existence of those institutions. The question is what the ongoing process of institutional destruction might bring with it, particularly if the president’s party ends up losing the coming June 6 contest.

Up to now, the Biden administration has done all it can to avoid addressing the increasingly chaotic situation in Mexico. Concerned with their own domestic priorities, the new US government appears to have taken for granted that López Obrador can and will maintain the lid on his country’s problems so that they do not spill onto the US, a dubious assumption at best as waves of mid-age Mexican migrants join with younger Central Americans, creating havoc along the border. Paraphrasing Trotsky, Biden may not be interested in Mexico, but Mexico’s troubles are likely to come back to haunt him.

In the 1980s, the United States and Mexico learned to cooperate and work together on the issues that inevitably spring from such a complex border between two nations as different as these two are. The foundation for that cooperation stemmed from an agreement on two basic principles: The first principle was a shared vision regarding the future of the relationship among the two neighbors. This included greater economic integration, an agreement not to let historical grievances be used to distance the U.S. and Mexico, and the opening of greater student exchange between the two countries.

López Obrador and Trump shared a vision of the bilateral relationship that had nothing to do with what was agreed to in 1988. Two inward-looking nationalists, both wanted to distance their nations from the other and, in this, they found common ground. López Obrador responded to Trump’s threats, in exchange for which he got Trump not to focus on López Obrador’s ever more destructive domestic policies causing domestic disarray and ever greater organized-crime-related violence.

The second principle was agreeing to solve the bilateral issues that afflicted the US-Mexico relationship without them contaminating each other. The countries adopted the principle of compartmentalization, which allowed managing this complex relationship without too much fuss. This worked well until Donald Trump’s arrival to the White House in 2017.

With both the shared vision and the agreement to compartmentalize gone, the two nations have little to anchor the relationship on and to address the daily issues that regularly emerge without advance notice. And yet, with about two billion dollars of daily trade between the two nations, and a border that becomes more complicated by the hour, the two governments will soon find they cannot avoid dealing with each other. But it’s not clear how they can address the looming issues in the absence of a basic set of rules of coexistence.

The midterms are likely to provide ample incentive for the US to change its approach. Odds are that the president’s party, Morena, will, at best, get a flimsy majority in the Chamber of Deputies, nothing to do with the artificial overrepresentation it garnered back in 2018. It is even conceivable that the opposition parties might steal the majority out of Morena’s jaws. Nothing is guaranteed at this stage but, whatever the outcome, the one certainty is that neither scenario -a big win nor a big loss, however, the latter is defined- will satisfy López Obrador, who sees himself as the nation’s savior.

López Obrador is certain that he will change the course of Mexican history and is thus willing to entertain any action or policy that might make that possible. Therefore, he is likely to radicalize his policies in both political and judicial terms: incarcerating emblematic people without proper judicial authority and regardless of whether there is merit for such an action; attacking the few remaining independent institutions, such as the National Electoral Institute (INE); further undermining the Supreme Court’s authority, and further dividing Mexicans. Inevitably, the spillover will hit the United States. What is coming will not be enticing for both countries, but it will demand their close attention, for Mexico is the US’s weakest border. Much more transcendent, the deeper the chaos in Mexico, the dearer the bill and consequences for the American people.

Luis Rubio
Mexico Institute Advisory Board Member; Chairman, México Evalúa; Former President, Consejo Mexicano de Asuntos Internacionales (COMEXI); Chairman, Center for Research for Development (CIDAC), Mexico