Mexico, NAFTA and Election 2016

Though it is not the first U.S. election that has really mattered to Mexico, there may be more at stake this time than ever before.


The 2016 U.S. presidential election really matters to Mexico. As North American Free Trade Agreement partners and bordering countries, the United States and Mexico are linked through trade, investment, immigration and shared natural resources, as well as security and law enforcement challenges.

We share a 2,000-mile border through which hundreds of thousands of people cross daily. Two-way trade between the United States and Mexico is valued at about $1.4 billion a day. Mexico is our top tourist destination, and the United States is theirs. The population of Hispanics of Mexican origin in the United States reached 33.7 million in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center, including 11.4 million immigrants born in Mexico and 22.3 million born in the United States.

NAFTA, illegal immigration and securing the U.S.-Mexican border are major issues in the campaign. Donald Trump’s sound bites on these issues have provoked consternation and indignation in Mexico. A poll published by Mexico’s Reforma newspaper in May showed that 83 percent of Mexicans prefer Hillary Clinton, compared to 3 percent for Donald Trump as the future U.S. president.

Both candidates are skeptical about free trade agreements. In this period of slow economic growth, critics in the United States argue that NAFTA is to blame for job losses and wage stagnation, driven by low-wage competition from Mexico and a $60 billion bilateral trade deficit. Donald Trump called for “a total renegotiation of NAFTA, which is a disaster for our country. If we don’t get a better deal, we will walk away.” Hillary Clinton also expressed reservations: “I have said repeatedly that I would like to renegotiate [the agreement]. I think there were parts of it that did not work as hoped for.”

Donald Trump’s hyperbolic comments about the U.S.-Mexico border and Mexican immigrants generated even more indignation in Mexico. In March, President Enrique Peña Nieto declared that his country will not pay for Trump’s proposed wall, and condemned his “strident” tone. After Trump’s nomination, Peña Nieto took a different tack when he spoke to the press at the White House on July 22: “To Mrs. Hillary Clinton and Mr. Donald Trump, I want to express my highest respect.” He pledged a “frank and open dialogue” with the winner of the election, and declared: “The Mexican government will be observing with great interest the electoral process, but it will not give its opinion—it will not get involved.”

Then, in a surprise initiative, Peña Nieto invited both candidates to visit him. Hillary Clinton declined the invitation. Trump met with the Mexican president on Aug. 31 and spoke of his respect for the Mexican people and their president. Later that evening, Trump gave a hard-line policy speech on immigration in Phoenix in which he again insisted that Mexico will pay for the wall.

In 1992, the U.S. electoral campaign went into full swing as the NAFTA negotiations were nearing completion.

Responding to public indignation over his cordial meeting with the Republican candidate, Peña Nieto tweeted that he told Trump during the meeting that Mexico would not pay. Former Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda called the visit Peña Nieto’s worst public relations disaster. With polls showing that 85 percent of Mexicans disapproved of the visit, Peña Nieto accepted the resignation of his finance minister, who had reportedly proposed the idea.

The Mexican president’s unprecedented invitation to both presidential candidates to visit him before the election reveals the depth of Mexican concerns over the future of their partnership with the United States. Whatever the outcome, the two countries will have to find ways to preserve and advance this crucial relationship.

Not For the First Time

This is not the first time that vital Mexican interests have been at stake in an American presidential race. In 1992, the U.S. electoral campaign went into full swing as the NAFTA negotiations were nearing completion. Mexico’s President Carlos Salinas de Gortari linked his economic reform program to expanding trade and attracting foreign investment through NAFTA. Salinas staked his political reputation on a successful conclusion of NAFTA, and pressed for the treaty to go into force by early 1993. His term was ending in 1994, and he hoped to reap the political and economic benefits of an early boom, according to Jorge Castaneda, now a professor at New York University. Salinas portrayed NAFTA as an opportunity to transform the Mexican economy so that it would “export goods, not people.” Mexico’s approval of NAFTA was a foregone conclusion, but would it be approved in the United States?

NAFTA figured prominently in the campaign debates involving President George H. W. Bush, Governor Bill Clinton and billionaire businessman Ross Perot. Bush staunchly defended the NAFTA negotiations, but Clinton was somewhat ambivalent, citing the need to include labor and environmental protections in the agreement. Independent populist candidate Ross Perot made opposition to NAFTA his signature issue. Perot predicted that if NAFTA were approved, there would be a “giant sucking sound” as American manufacturing jobs were siphoned into Mexico to take advantage of much lower labor costs and less regulation. Furthermore, he argued, Mexico was governed by a one-party system that neither respected labor rights nor enforced its own environmental protection laws. Perot attracted support from labor unions, environmental groups, consumer advocates and economic nationalists.

While refraining from public comment, Salinas and his circle initially counted on President Bush’s re-election. Bush was a strong advocate of NAFTA and his negotiating team, led by Special Trade Representative Carla Hills, had established excellent relationships with their Mexican counterparts. The Mexican public, too, having lived under one-party rule for more than 60 years, expected a Bush victory. Early in the campaign, the Mexican embassy’s economic minister counselor, Manuel Suarez Mier, alerted Pres. Salinas that Bill Clinton could win the election. According to Suarez Mier, Salinas scoffed: “Are you crazy? How could Bush fail to get a second term in a country where re-election is permitted?” Salinas scolded Suarez for “going native” after living outside of Mexico for too long.

NAFTA was so vital to Mexico that its government launched an unprecedented, massive lobbying and public education campaign to influence members of Congress to approve the treaty.

Clinton’s position on NAFTA was initially an enigma to Mexican officials. In 1991, Suarez Mier had met with Governor Bill Clinton in Arkansas. Clinton said he was not opposed to NAFTA, but if he ran for president and won, he would need to satisfy his union supporters on labor protection. Once the Clinton campaign started to gain support, Democratic members of Congress advised Mexican officials to start making connections with the Clinton team. Pres. Salinas chose Hermann Von Bertrab, a Mexican businessman and professor whom he had appointed to head Mexico’s Washington NAFTA office, for the task.

Every week, Von Bertrab sent the Clinton team a highly confidential memo on the main points of Mexico’s discussions with the American and Canadian negotiators. Once Mexico’s government decided it could accept Clinton’s condition that side agreements on labor and environment be negotiated, Mexico was prepared to work on NAFTA with either a Bush or Clinton administration.

An Unprecedented Lobbying Effort

After the election, Perot campaigned vigorously against congressional approval of NAFTA, stepping up his media offensive against the agreement. Unconcerned that Ross Perot would win the presidential election, given that he did not represent a major political party, Mexican leaders nevertheless believed Perot was a threat because his anti-NAFTA arguments could influence members of Congress who were undecided about the agreement.

NAFTA was so vital to Mexico that its government launched an unprecedented, massive lobbying and public education campaign to influence members of Congress to approve the treaty. Mexico’s NAFTA office in Washington hired several prestigious Washington public relations, lobbying and law firms. Mexican private-sector executives met with visiting American congressional and business delegations to advocate for NAFTA. Mexico’s 42 consulates in the United States conducted a grassroots campaign, particularly in districts whose congressmen were undecided, urging American citizens to write to their representatives in support of NAFTA.

Von Bertrab estimated that the Mexican government spent roughly $10 million in 1993 and some $18 million during 1991 and 1992 on NAFTA-related activities. Suarez Mier recalled that Mexico spent more, about $50 million throughout the U.S., in an effort to improve Mexico’s image and persuade undecided members of Congress to support NAFTA. Perot criticized lobbyists for influencing congressional decisions on free trade agreements that cost American jobs. He denounced the “revolving door” of former U.S. officials who left the U.S. government to work with lobbying and public relations firms contracted by Mexico.

Mexico’s lobbying effort in support of NAFTA was conducted in cooperation with the U.S. administration. Von Bertrab recalled that in the run-up to a vote in the House of Representatives, most letters to members of Congress opposed the agreement. Concerned, Von Bertrab thought another high-profile public debate was needed. Vice President Al Gore agreed to debate Perot. Mexico’s NAFTA office provided Gore with data that exposed Perot’s inconsistencies and highlighted his business interests in Mexico.

Whatever the outcome of the 2016 election, the United States and Mexico must find ways to maintain their constructive and essential partnership.

On Nov. 9, 1993, Gore smoothly outperformed an irritable Perot in a televised debate on the controversial agreement. Before the debate, polls indicated that only 34 percent of Americans supported it. Immediately following the debate, support surged to 57 percent. The House of Representatives approved NAFTA on Nov. 17 by 34 votes (234 to 200), and three days later the Senate approved it by a margin of 61-38.

The NAFTA negotiations raised the level of trust between the two governments. Mexico has long upheld the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states and has insisted that other governments, especially the United States, refrain from intervening in Mexico’s internal affairs. Mexico’s sensitivities on that score were evident in 1984 when Ambassador John Gavin held a meeting in the northern state of Sonora with leaders of the opposition National Action Party (PAN) and a Catholic archbishop. Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the local press were outraged, citing the meeting as an example of U.S. interference in Mexico’s internal electoral process. Gavin’s pointed reminder that the Mexican ambassador in Washington frequently held meetings with Democratic members of Congress did not convince his critics that they were upholding a double standard.

A Tested Partnership

The relationship between the United States and Mexico improved dramatically during the early 1990s. Mexico’s lobbying campaign in the United States to advocate congressional approval of the agreement could not have been successful without the cooperation of the Bush and Clinton administrations. The joint effort to attain NAFTA ratification transformed the United States and Mexico from “distant neighbors”—the title of Alan Riding’s excellent study—into trusted partners.

Many Mexicans now see this partnership, which has been through other crises since NAFTA came into effect in 1994, threatened by the rhetoric of the U.S. presidential campaign. Jorge Castaneda asserted that the Mexican government should openly state that Donald Trump’s statements are not conducive to the type of relationship Mexico wants with the United States. Suarez Mier, now an independent consultant, suggested that the Mexican embassy in Washington and its consulates across the country meet with Hispanic groups to persuade them to motivate their people to vote. According to Bloomberg News, Mexican consulates in the United States—in partnership with community organizations—hosted citizenship workshops this year for permanent residents. Many hope to vote in November as new U.S. citizens. Consular officials, reaffirming the principle of non-intervention, underscored that how U.S. citizens vote is entirely the decision of each individual.

Mexican private-sector leaders Guillermo Güémez and Alberto Dana expressed concern that Trump’s anti-NAFTA campaign rhetoric is not supported by economic analysis and instead appeals to voters’ emotions. They urged Americans to analyze the economic benefits of the agreement to the U.S. economy and the potential costs of exiting. On the positive side, regional trade surged over the treaty’s first two decades, from roughly $290 billion in 1993 to more than $1.1 trillion in 2016. Canada and Mexico are the two largest destinations for U.S. exports, accounting for more than a third of the total. U.S. foreign direct investment in Mexico increased in that period from $15 billion to more than $100 billion. Some manufacturing jobs have moved to Mexico—but if the U.S. were to opt out of NAFTA, those jobs might move to Asia instead of the United States.

Whatever the outcome of the 2016 election, the United States and Mexico must find ways to maintain their constructive and essential partnership. President Peña Nieto declared that the next U.S. president would find in Mexico “good faith in strengthening relations.” With so much at stake, Mexico will be watching our elections on Nov. 8 with passionate interest.

Xenia Wilkinson is a retired Foreign Service officer. She served twice in Mexico City, from 1981 to 1984 and from 1991 to 1994.