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Despite Election-Year Bashing, Envoy Says U.S.-Mexico Ties ‘Excellent’
The Washington Diplomat / March 2016

By Larry Luxner

When presidential candidate Donald Trump rants at campaign rallies — as he frequently does — about building a “great wall” along the nearly 2,000-mile U.S. border with Mexico to keep immigrants out, his supporters cheer wildly. “And who’s gonna pay for that wall?” he goads them. “Mexico!” they gleefully shout back.

Scare tactics, bullying and Mexico-bashing (not to mention Muslim-bashing) have all helped propel Trump to the top of the pack of candidates hoping to secure the GOP nomination this year. Last June, the billionaire businessman inflamed Hispanics with his diatribe that Mexico is “sending us their criminals, drug smugglers and rapists,” and further claimed that “the Mexicans are killing us economically. They are not our friends.”

Yet Miguel Basáñez Ebergenyi, Mexico’s new ambassador to the United States, is matter of fact when it comes to the real estate tycoon/reality TV provocateur who could become the next leader of the free world.

“Some people who are ignorant of history talk about building walls, but that makes no sense,” he said. “Why would you build walls when migration is negative?”

Basáñez was referring to the fact that more Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico from the U.S. than have migrated here since the 2008 recession; President Obama has also ramped up enforcement and deportations, sparking anger among the Democratic president’s own Hispanic base.

Trump’s threats have infuriated former Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who preceded the ambassador’s boss, current President Enrique Peña Nieto.

“We are not going to pay a single cent for such a stupid wall. And it’s going to be completely useless,” Calderón, Mexico’s leader from 2006 to 2012, told CNBC on Feb. 6. “The first loser of such a policy would be the United States. If this guy pretends that closing the borders to anywhere either for trade [or] for people is going to provide prosperity to the United States, he is completely crazy.”

Basáñez, 68, wouldn’t criticize The Donald directly — perhaps out of an abundance of caution that next year, a victorious Trump might actually move into the White House, only three blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Mexican Embassy, which would then have to face an administration hostile to everything his country stands for.

But that nightmare scenario is unlikely, the ambassador said, given prevailing U.S. attitudes toward Hispanics.

“In my past life, I was a public opinion pollster, and one of the things I’ve been doing is running polls all over the world,” Basáñez told us. “What we found, since we first began conducting polls in the U.S., is that the negative stereotypes of Latinos exist only among Americans who have never been in touch with Latino people. The minute an American has been in touch with Mexicans, this image shifts 180 degrees.”

The ambassador added that the vast majority of Americans see Mexicans as hard workers and gentle people who place family above all. Only “those people who have not had enough exposure to foreigners” think otherwise.

For that reason, Basáñez insists he’s “not really concerned” that, come November, Trump will be elected the 45th president — even though polls have consistently showed him to be ahead of his Republican rivals, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

“The number of voters who support mainstream attitudes recognizing the contribution of Mexicans and Hispanics in the U.S. is much bigger than the very few who could be considered extremists or xenophobics,” said Basáñez. “When you look at the numbers supporting Mr. Trump and then the percentage of Republicans in the general public, Trump could attract 7 to 8 percent of the total electorate. So maybe one in 10 would support these kinds of ideas, meaning nine out of 10 would not.”

Basáñez, interviewed in early February by The Washington Diplomat, is not a career diplomat, and before his current appointment was barely known within Mexico (his immediate predecessor in Washington, Eduardo Medina Mora, left in March 2015 to become a justice to the Mexican Supreme Court).

Basáñez’s experience lies mainly in academia and political polling. Prior to his current appointment, he was a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and was the author or editor of 14 books.

Basáñez is also closely linked to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party and Peña Nieto’s inner circle. In the mid-1980s, he served as the attorney general of Edomex — the state of Mexico — under Gov. Alfredo del Mazo, who is Peña Nieto’s second cousin. And during Peña Nieto’s 2005-08 term as governor of Edomex, Basáñez was his chief pollster and trusted adviser. During the 1988 presidential election, Basáñez introduced the country’s first-ever public opinion polls.

Given his lack of diplomatic credentials, it’s little surprise, then, that his August 2015 appointment as envoy to Washington raised eyebrows, especially considering President Obama’s decision to name veteran diplomat Roberta Jacobson as U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

“The appointment of Basáñez is without a doubt business as usual,” John Ackerman, a law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told the Guardian last year. That article claimed Basáñez had “established links to the powerful Atlacomulco — a secretive group whose members and their allies have dominated political and economic life in Mexico for the past 50 years.”

“Atlacomulco is not just about public funds; it’s about having people to watch your back,” Ackerman claimed. “Peña Nieto wants someone in the U.S. who won’t go against the grain and will defend him.”

Basáñez, who was born in Tuxpan in the state of Veracruz and holds a Ph.D. in political sociology from the London School of Economics, declined to respond to questions about his political background or what special qualities he brings to the table as ambassador of Mexico, a nation of 122 million that now ranks as the world’s third-largest U.S. trading partner after China and Canada.

But he did say bilateral relations are “excellent,” despite the incendiary campaign rhetoric. To counter the election-year posturing, Basáñez urges Mexican-Americans to use their growing influence at the ballot box.

“When I began this job, I thought of listing 10 priorities, then I reduced it to five, then to three, then to one in each of the important dimensions,” the ambassador explained. “In the social dimension, it’s empowering the Mexican community to become the most powerful minority in the United States. In the political dimension, it’s to show Mexican-Americans the importance of political participation and voting. And in the economic dimension, it’s to strengthen bilateral trade.

“Since my appointment, I have found an extremely cooperative attitude, a very good level of communications and understanding from both from the Mexican and American sides,” Basáñez continued. “There’s been a change from finger-pointing to the concept that we have a shared responsibility to solve our shared problems.”

Yet those problems persist, ranging from poverty and corruption to drug trafficking and rampant violence. In early February, 49 inmates were killed — most of them beaten or stabbed to death — during a riot in an overcrowded prison near Monterrey.

And last October, the Mexican government said it would reopen its investigation into the September 2014 disappearance of 43 students after relatives disputed the government’s claim that police in the town of Iguala handed the students over to a drug cartel, which killed them and incinerated their bodies. Many of the families have accused nearby soldiers of being involved in the disappearances, which ignited a firestorm against both narco-trafficking and Peña Nieto’s claims that he had turned the tide on drug-fueled violence in the country.

On that note, at the top of the list of shared problems between Mexico and the U.S. is drug trafficking — an issue that suddenly returned to prominence with the headline-grabbing capture of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in January after a daring escape through a mile-long tunnel last summer. The breakout was the second for El Chapo, whose profits from running the world’s largest drug cartel run into the billions of dollars. The first was in 2001, when El Chapo fled a maximum-security prison while hiding in a cart of dirty laundry pushed by a bribed guard; he was recaptured in Mazatlán after 13 years on the lam.

Basáñez refused to characterize El Chapo’s latest escape as an “embarrassment” for the Mexican government, retorting that the June 2015 escape of two convicted murderers from a high-security prison in upstate New York — who, incidentally, had planned to flee to Mexico — was also embarrassing.

Assuming Mexico agrees to extradite El Chapo to the United States to face drug-trafficking charges, he would likely be tried in federal court in Brooklyn, the New York Times reported Feb. 10. But U.S. authorities would “almost certainly have to agree not to seek the death penalty,” said the paper, because Mexico does not have capital punishment and won’t extradite defendants to other countries where it is in force.

Politics aside, Basáñez said most Mexicans agree that El Chapo should be sent north to the United States to face multiple drug-smuggling charges.

“The extradition process is moving along,” he told us. “Of course, his lawyers are going to oppose it, so this procedure could take from six months to a year or so.”

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said that despite lingering bad blood over thorny issues such as drug trafficking and immigration, the U.S. relationship with Mexico is its most important in the world.

“In Washington, the continuing violence, insecurity and human rights abuses in Mexico are of great concern. At the same time, the El Chapo case illustrates the opportunities to pursue even deeper collaboration between both countries, provided there is a will to do so — and politics does not get in the way.

“It is hard to overstate how interconnected both countries are. Every conceivable issue has a place on the bilateral agenda,” Shifter told The Diplomat.“Over the past two decades, in the post-NAFTA era, the relationship has deepened and become remarkably institutionalized. At a working level, relations are smooth and impressive progress has been made.”

The problem, he said, is politics — especially in an election year such as 2016.

“The rhetoric coming from some Republican candidates on immigration has been unexpectedly virulent, and Donald Trump’s language about Mexicans has been particularly offensive, with racial overtones,” Shifter said. “One of Basáñez’s main tasks is to make sure this charged political environment does not damage and set back the well-functioning bilateral relationship.”

Politics has already gotten in the way of Roberta Jacobson’s confirmation as the next U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

President Obama nominated Jacobson — a career diplomat, Latin America expert and fluent Spanish speaker — to the post last June, but Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio has stalled her confirmation even after it was approved by the Republican-led Senate Foreign Relations Committee (his objections center around Obama’s outreach to Cuba, which Jacobson helped implement).

“It is really shameful and severely undermines U.S. interests in Mexico,” said Shifter. Eric Olson, associate director of the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center, told the Los Angeles Times that “the failure to complete her nomination sends a bad signal to our Mexican partners and all those Americans whose livelihoods and well-being depend on maintaining a good and balanced relationship between neighbors.”

And one of the most important issues in that relationship is immigration.

Of the 54 million Hispanics living in the United States, two-thirds of them — about 35 million people — are of Mexican descent.

“The Mexican community in the U.S. is now the largest minority. The good thing is that we have huge numbers of well-educated people, but they still need to become more engaged in civic activities,” Basáñez said. “One of my priorities is to show the Mexican community the benefits of becoming civically engaged. We are encouraging people to get U.S. citizenship. In the past, you couldn’t hold dual citizenship, and many people still think that if you become a U.S. citizen, you will lose your Mexican citizenship.”

Asked how many of the 35 million Mexicans living in the United States are here illegally, Basáñez quickly responded: “Zero. They are undocumented but not illegal.” Undocumented immigrants account for roughly 6 million of the total, said the ambassador, “but the thing is that for the past four or five years, more Mexicans are leaving the U.S. than arriving here. Today we have a negative migration rate. The reason is a combination of the economic crisis in the U.S. after 2008 and good economic performance in Mexico.”

Statistics bear him out. Between 2009 and 2014, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, some 1 million Mexicans and their families left the United States for Mexico, while during the same period, an estimated 870,000 Mexicans crossed the border northwards into the United States. In fact, the overall flow of Mexican immigrants between the two countries is at its smallest since the 1990s.

Those numbers have led Thomas J. Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to denounce Trump and other Republican presidential candidates who advocate “walling off America” against immigrants.

“This is morally wrong and politically stupid,” said Donohue, whose pro-business chamber enthusiastically supported the “Gang of Eight” immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013 but died in the House. Progress on immigration reform is unlikely in 2016, however, given that this is an election year.

One reason Mexican immigration across the Río Grande has dropped off is more stringent border enforcement. But the main factor slowing the human tide is simply that fewer Mexicans want to make the arduous trip because their own country is doing much better economically these days.

In 2015, Mexico’s real GDP grew by 2.3 percent, and it is projected to increase by 3 percent in both 2016 and 2017. By 2050, Mexico will rank as the world’s sixth-largest economy behind China, India, the United States, Indonesia and Brazil — in that order — according to a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report.

Basáñez said shocks to the Mexican economy in 1968, 1976, 1982, 1987 and 1994 actually strengthened his country and built up resistance to global financial swings that served it well during the last crisis.

“We had a devaluation, nationalization of banks, a stock-market crash and huge capital flight. Over a 30-year period, we had what in the U.S. you lived in 30 months. So in a way, the benefit of those five crises was that it inoculated the system, and Mexico was much better prepared than the United States was in 2008,” he said.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, established in 1994, has also helped Mexico considerably, according to both Basáñez and Arturo Sarukhán, Mexico’s envoy here from 2007 to 2013. Now a private consultant in Washington, Sarukhán said his country’s experience with NAFTA suggests that the highly controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) linking the United States, Mexico and 10 other Pacific-Rim countries could actually turn out to be a win-win for the region.

“If you look at Mexico when we negotiated NAFTA and look at Mexico today, it’s a radically different country,” Sarukhán said during a panel on TPP hosted by the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. “The reason why it changed is that Mexico knew that for it to get the votes it needed on Capitol Hill, it would have to enact a host of economic reforms. It prodded Mexico to become a less inward-looking country than it had been in decades.”

The present level of trade between the United States and Mexico comes to $1 million per minute, or more than $1 billion per day. Some 692,000 jobs in California alone depend on that trade, with Texas, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio following closely behind. Not surprisingly, Mexico also has more consulates in the United States (50) than any other country, including 11 in Texas and 10 in California.

“In the polls we conducted in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, people would say NAFTA was very good for the other two countries, but not for them. That’s a common complaint,” said Basáñez. “But if you look at the numbers, NAFTA has increased the amount of trade among the three countries and has boosted GDP. What we face today is an upgrade of NAFTA’s power. That is what TPP is.”

Yet Trump has called TPP a “disaster,” and both Democratic contenders for president — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — oppose the trade pact that Obama formally signed Feb. 3 with the support of many Republicans and some Democrats. Even House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) conceded that the treaty doesn’t have enough votes to pass Congress at this time.

Meanwhile, Mexico has plenty of other headaches to deal with — ranging from falling oil prices and their impact on Pemex, the national oil monopoly, to the dreaded Zika virus, which is spread by mosquitoes and is frightening people throughout Latin America. But those problems pale next to Mexico’s biggest threat: a decade of drug-fueled violence that has left an estimated 100,000 people dead or missing.

Ending that violence was a major theme during the recent visit of Pope Francis, who spent six days in mid-February traveling throughout Mexico, home to the world’s second-largest Catholic population. The Argentine-born pontiff began his visit at Mexico City’s National Palace with Peña Nieto by his side. He also stopped in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, as well as Michoacán — the birthplace of Mexico’s drug war — and ended the historic trip by celebrating mass in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, once known as the world’s murder capital.

“Experience teaches us that each time we seek the path of privileges or benefits for a few to the detriment of the good of all, society becomes a fertile soil for corruption, drug trade, exclusion of different cultures, violence and also human trafficking, kidnapping and death,” Francis told tens of thousands of devout Catholics who gathered to hear him speak. He called drugs a “cancer” that was devouring Mexican society.

In 2010, more than 3,000 people were killed in Juárez, a city of 1.5 million just across the Río Grande from El Paso, Texas. Last year, Juárez recorded 538 murders, giving the city roughly the same per-capita homicide rate as Detroit or New Orleans, two of the most violent U.S. cities.

While that’s certainly nothing to crow about, city officials — buoyed by the end of a turf war between the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels that fueled much of the violence — now feel so confident, they’ve even launched a PR campaign to bring tourists back.

“A few years ago, Ciudad Juárez was a horrible place. That produced a reaction from Mexican civil society. Local and state authorities really worked hard, and just last week I was in Juárez. It’s amazing how the social fabric has been re-established. A few years ago, it was the same with Tijuana,” Basáñez told us. “What you see is an upsurge of violence and insecurity, then society mobilizes and corrects the problem.”

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