Mexicans reacted with umbrage and bafflement Friday to President Trump’s announcement of plans to slap tariffs on all Mexican imports as their president insisted he would not be goaded into confrontation with the U.S. leader.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, clearly determined to avoid an economic war with his country’s most important trading partner, did not announce any retaliatory measures against the United States and appeared to be doing everything in his power to persuade Trump to change his mind. U.S. tariffs would exacerbate a difficult economic situation for Lopez Obrador, who already faces a weak peso and sluggish growth.
He dispatched a delegation of top diplomats to Washington on Friday, and at a news conference vowed to “act with prudence, with respect for the authorities of the United States, with respect for President Donald Trump.”
“We will not fall for any provocation,” he continued. “All conflicts in bilateral relations must be faced and resolved through dialogue, through communication. The use of coercive measures does not lead to anything good.”
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Twitter that he plans to meet with a U.S. delegation led by U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo on Wednesday. Ebrard said he will spend the coming days meeting with “allies of Mexico” in Washington who might be able to help convince Trump to abandon the tariffs, which are slated to begin taking effect in less than two weeks and are intended to pressure Mexico to stem the flow of undocumented migrants from Central America to the United States.
Trump said Thursday on Twitter that the tariffs will begin at 5% on June 10 and will escalate to 25% on Oct. 1 until “the illegal immigration crisis is alleviated through effective actions taken by Mexico, to be determined in our sole discretion and judgment.”
He has made similar threats in the past, including vows to close the border unless Mexico stopped so-called "migrant caravans" of Central Americans that traverse Mexico to try to reach the U.S.
Lopez Obrador has repeatedly sought to appease Trump — cracking down on migrant caravans and increasing deportations and detentions of migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Significantly, his administration also opted not to resist Remain In Mexico, a unilateral American policy that forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are being heard.
"At this point Mexico has done virtually everything the U.S. has requested on immigration enforcement," said Maureen Meyer, a researcher with the think tank Washington Office on Latin America.
That Trump has continued to criticize Mexico despite its cooperation on immigration issues has been a growing source of anger for many Mexicans.
"Any time Trump opens his mouth and talks about Mexico it has been in an offensive way," said Genaro Lozano, a professor of political science and international relations at Iberoamerican University in Mexico City. "It's like we're being the best neighbors and we have a neighbor who is angry at us for no reason.”
Many Mexicans have called on Lopez Obrador to stand up to Trump.
"Mexicans have always pushed for our presidents to be strong against the United States, and we haven't seen that since Trump won," Lozano said. "Ever since Lopez Obrador started, people have been asking him to be tougher and to respond to Trump's attacks.”
Carlos Gonzalez, who owns a newspaper and magazine kiosk in Mexico City, said he hopes Lopez Obrador stands up to Trump, whom he considers a bully.
"Trump is a shark and Lopez Obrador acts like a little fish," Gonzalez said. "I say to President Lopez Obrador: 'Face Trump, don't let him continue to offend you. Many Mexicans have your back.’"
Lopez Obrador did send an unusually strongly worded letter to Trump late Thursday, in which he denounced Trump's "America First" slogan as "a fallacy," and asked how the U.S. could shift from a country where immigrants were once welcome to “a ghetto ... where they are stigmatized, mistreated, pursued and expelled?”
But he referred to himself as Trump’s “amigo" in signing the letter, and repeatedly said he hoped the tariff issue could be resolved through dialogue.
Still, the letter struck the right tone for some Mexicans. "What a pleasure that Lopez Obrador has responded to Trump,” said Juan Alberto Cortes, a 21-year-old college student. “Now Trump knows that he doesn’t scare us.”
It may be Lopez Obrador’s disposition that makes him hesitant to go to battle with Trump. He is much more focused on domestic issues, and has frequently expressed a disdain for countries that seek to meddle in global affairs.
More than anything, Lopez Obrador is probably loath to start a trade war because he inherited a sluggish economy. Slow growth of 2% or less is predicted this year.
The new tariffs could have severe economic repercussions in Mexico, which is heavily dependent on trade with its northern neighbor, and the Lopez Obrador administration clearly wants to avoid a debilitating economic war that could hurt his presidency.
"It's a race to the bottom and a lose-lose situation for both countries," said Michael Camunez, a former U.S. assistant secretary for Commerce under the Obama administration who is now president of the consulting firm Monarch Global Strategies.
When Trump imposed tariffs one year ago on steel and aluminum from Mexico, Lopez Obrador’s predecessor, President Enrique Peña Nieto, responded with immediate retaliatory tariffs on U.S. imports including pork bellies, apples and grapes.
Unless Trump backs off this time around, Lopez Obrador will be forced to impose similar tariffs, Camunez said. “Undoubtedly it's going to hurt Mexico, but it's going to hurt the United States even more.”
Mexico exports more to the U.S. than it imports from its northern neighbor, which means U.S. buyers would be more greatly affected if costs of consumer goods rose. The tariffs would also hurt U.S. manufacturing companies who import parts from Mexico, he said. "The U.S. is hurting its own competitiveness.”
Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, said the timing of Trump's tariff news on Thursday was odd, since it came just as Lopez Obrador was seeking ratification of a new trade treaty that Trump pushed for, an updated version of the North American Free Trade Agreement — the quarter-century-old trade pact linking the United States, Mexico and Canada.
"It just seems that U.S. policy is running at cross-purposes here," Wilson said. "Mexico is cooperating, Mexico is at the table. It strikes me as odd and potentially very counter-productive that the president would say this now.”
One thing not addressed in either the old or the new version of the trade accord is the thorny issue of immigration, which has been a key sticking point with the Trump administration.
The past year has seen a surge in asylum-seeking migrants from impoverished and crime-ridden Central American nations — including large numbers of women and children — who transit Mexico en route to U.S. territory, then surrender to the Border Patrol. The increase has overwhelmed U.S. detention space and increased the backlog in immigration courts.
Some 300,000 U.S.-bound migrants, mostly Central Americans, entered Mexican territory between January and March, Mexican authorities say. While high-profile “caravans” made international headlines, most reached Mexico with the aid of professional smugglers, often working in cahoots with crooked cops and immigration agents.
Lopez Obrador has repeatedly emphasized the human rights of migrants, vowing to treat them with respect and give them work permits and residency status. In January and February, his government issued more than 15,000 “humanitarian” visas to migrants, many of whom planned to continue on to the United States, in a move that may have prompted a new surge of migrants toward Mexico. The action angered Washington.
But in recent months, Mexico has begun to crack down on migrants entering from Guatemala, installing immigration checkpoints on roads leading from the border in southern Mexico and breaking up one major caravan of Central Americans. Arrests and detentions of immigrants who crossed illegally increased substantially in April compared with the same period in 2018.