On the eve of visits by the U.S. secretaries of State and Homeland Security, many in Mexico are calling on their leaders to take a harder line with an administration in Washington that is widely viewed as hostile to Mexico.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly — key Cabinet representatives of President Trump — begin a two-day visit to Mexico Wednesday at a tense time for the two nations.
While outraged with Trump, many Mexicans have been equally upset at what they see as an anemic response from Mexico City to a U.S. administration that has threatened to erect a border wall, step up deportations and impose a big tax on goods imported from Mexico, among other actions.
Mexican officials have generally responded to the provocative words from the north with a relatively conciliatory approach, though President Enrique Peña Nieto canceled a planned visit to Washington last month amid a simmering dispute about Trump’s insistence that Mexico pay for a massive wall he hopes to build along the border.
That public display of pique won the embattled Mexican president a small uptick in otherwise historically low approval ratings as he nears the last year of his six-year term.
But many here still view the government’s response to the broadsides from Washington as feeble and dispirited. They want Mexico to fight back.
“We need a president who stands up to Trump and his policies,” said Antonio Aguilera, a businessman who was one of more than 20,000 people who marched in a largely anti-Trump demonstration in the capital this month. “We do not need to put up with this constant indignity.”
In a column in Reforma newspaper labeled “Wake Up,” columnist Carmen Aristegui argued that Mexico should signal to the visiting U.S. Cabinet secretaries that scrapping the “undignified and absurd” border wall plan is a precondition for any negotiations.
The talks this week are expected to encompass a wide scope of issues, including border security, trade, law enforcement and immigration.
Commentators here generally anticipate that the U.S. envoys will attempt to smooth over the incendiary rhetoric toward Mexico that has emanated from Trump since before he took office last month. Mexican officials will probably stress the many benefits to Washington of Mexican cooperation on an array of concerns.
Yet they must walk a fine line: appeasing get-tough calls from an irate domestic audience, while not further alienating the leaders of Mexico’s key trading partner at a moment when the nation’s economy is already shaky.
In general, Mexican citizens have been focusing their ire on the Trump administration and have not unleashed much anger at the American public. Several generations of pragmatic Mexican leaders have shunned the reflexive anti-U.S. polemics that have long been a staple of certain political movements in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, especially on the left. But anti-U.S. rhetoric seems on the rise.
The era of free trade that took off in the 1990s with the North American Free Trade agreement — involving Mexico, the United States and Canada — has cemented economic relations between the two nations. Trump, however, has assailed the tri-national accord as siphoning off U.S. jobs to Mexico and has called for a renegotiation.
The large-scale emigration of Mexicans to the United States in recent decades has also inevitably drawn the two nations closer in social, cultural, economic and other terms. Mexican leaders who once ignored the millions of Mexican expatriates living to the north now routinely make a point of advocating on behalf of their compatriots across the border.
That made it especially provocative when Trump kicked off his presidential campaign implying that many Mexican immigrants were criminals, and promising large-scale deportations.
Mexican authorities have lately been stressing that the relationship with the United States is far from a one-way street: Mexico, too, has leverage.
The United States, Mexican officials note, benefits from cooperation on a range of fronts, including bilateral trade, efforts to stop drug trafficking and deter illicit migration of Central Americans via the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexico, meanwhile, suffers from an illegal influx of arms across the border from the United States.
In congressional hearings Tuesday over Mexico’s new ambassador-designate to Washington, one lawmaker, Sen. Gabriela Cuevas, questioned why Mexico should continue its policy of deporting U.S.-bound Central American migrants on behalf of Washington.
“If the United States wants dialogue on immigration matters, they should sit at the table like equals,” said Cuevas. “Otherwise, what Mexico should do is leave the table and change its migratory policies with Central America.”
Mexican officials have clearly taken note of the widespread public disquiet about what is perceived as an anti-Mexico agenda in Washington. The mandarins of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party recognize that going into presidential elections next year while being viewed as a punching bag for Trump is not a winning strategy.
In an interview this week with the Milenio news outlet, Mexican Economic Secretary Ildefonso Guajardo hinted that a complete rupture of the North American Free Trade Agreement could prompt Mexico to rethink cooperation with Washington on a number of issues, including security and immigration.
But Guajardo, like other Mexican officials, refrained from issuing direct threats to end cooperation with the United States. Still, Mexican authorities will be sure to remind the visiting U.S. Cabinet secretaries this week of the two-way nature of the U.S.-Mexico bond.
“We have been cooperating with United States for many years on these issues, because they asked us to, and because we have a friendly, trustful relationship,” former Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge Castañeda recently told CNN. “If that relationship disappears, the reasons for cooperation also disappear.”
Special correspondent Cecilia Sanchez contributed to this story.