A Border Between Worlds


LIMITS TO FRIENDSHIP: The United States and Mexico by Robert A. Pastor and Jorge G. Castañeda. Knopf, $24.95.
“WE, IN MEXICO, we definitely be lieve that we want to speak English, but only as a second language.”Thus did Jesús Silva Herzog, Mexico’s former Finance Minister, speaking in eloquent English, summarize in a radio interview an aspect of the complex relations between Mexico and the United States. The forces of integration that pull Mexico to the United States are powerful—increasingly so—and go well beyond economics. And yet Mexico’s understandable enthusiasm for preserving its national identity continues to place important limitations on that relentless binational integration. These “limits to friendship" are the central theme of this remarkable and thoughtful book—a book that acknowledges that the ties that connect Mexico to the United States bind these countries as much in hope as in fear, as much in cooperation as in conflict.
This is a work of peaceful coexistence. The authors—Castaneda, a leading Mexican intellectual who has spent much time in the United States, and Pastor, who was a staff member of the U.S. National Security Council in the Carter Administration and is now a prolific author who has spent much time in Mexico—agreed to have their words bound within the same book, but each has written his own book. They engage each other’s arguments respectfully but vigorously.
Each chapter of each of the book’s four parts contains two sections, each written by one of the authors. The first two parts are “Barriers" and “Frictions,”and while the other two are called “Connections" and “New Configurations,”they could just as well have been called “The Return of Barriers” and “The Return of Frictions.” Under “Connections,”for example, the authors discuss the drug traffic, and under “New Configurations" two of the main sections are “The Fear of Americanization” and “The Fear of Mexicanization”—hardly rallying cries for a new North American accord. Fortunately for us, the authors argue articulately and in graceful prose, although the book’s organization at times leads to repetition and often makes it difficult to follow the chronology of U.S.-Mexican relations.
Mexico and the United States matter enormously to each other. One symbol of Mexico’s importance to the United States is the sheer size of the U.S. diplomatic presence in Mexico—it is the largest such U.S. presence in any country. Countless agencies of the U.S. government have a “desk” in the U.S. embassy, including not just the Department of Agriculture, the Internal Revenue Service, and the FBI, but also the Social Security Administration (looking after the large community of U.S. retirees) and the Graves Registration Service (looking after U.S. citizens buried in Mexico). To put it bluntly, Mexico some time ago stopped being merely a matter for U.S. foreign policy. Instead it has become one more dimension of U.S. domestic politics, economics, and society.
The fear of Mexicanization to which Pastor refers addresses Mexico’s silent reconquest of much of the Southwest— what had once been the northern half of Mexico and was seized by the United States in 1848 after victory in war. Immigration has become a principal source of U.S. population growth, and legal and illegal flows from Mexico are a major component of overall immigration. Mexicans make up by far the largest group of those amnestied under the provisions of the U.S. Immigration Act of 1986.
Mexico has become the third most important trading partner of the United States—more important than any country in Europe. Mexican petroleum has been the mainstay of the U.S. strategic petroleum reserve. Tasty Mexican tomatoes, picked red on the vine, compete all too effectively with Florida tomatoes, picked green and gassed for color. The U.S. auto industry is attempting to meet the Japanese challenge by having a large and growing part of the manufacture of purportedly U.S.-made cars carried out in Mexico. Enormous capital flight from Mexico, many of whose citizens have lost confidence in their nation’s currency, has helped to finance parts of the U.S. budget deficit and has contributed to economic growth in Texas and California.
It is hard to find an issue in Mexico’s national life, or a theme of its cultural psyche, that is not profoundly affected by the United States. Putting together trade in goods and services, including tourism, about three quarters of all Mexico’s international transactions are with the United States. Mexico’s new and immediately past Presidents, and a great many of the Ministers in both their Cabinets, received a substantial part of their professional training in the United States. U.S. films, TV programs, publications, and consumer hopes have reshaped the minds and feelings of a great many Mexicans.
Precisely because the two countries matter so much to each other, irritations are bound to arise. The United States benefits from the contributions of most migrants from Mexico—even if they enter the United States illegally—but U.S. immigration policy has turned increasingly restrictionist. Mexico benefits from remittances that its citizens send back from the United States but worries that it is the risk-takers who migrate (Mexican migrants to the United States tend to be better educated and to have been better employed in Mexico than the average Mexican citizen). U.S. consumers may benefit from Mexican tomatoes, but Florida producers fear the loss of business. Mexico must sell petroleum to the United States but fears an excessive economic dependence that might diminish Mexican sovereignty. Mexicans have long been suspicious of private direct foreign investment—a feeling of unease that many U.S. citizens, now faced with growing Japanese investments in the United States, may at last understand.
THE RELATIONS BETWEEN the governments mirror this complexity. It may be that U.S.-Mexican relations have never been worse, and never been better, than under Presidents Ronald Reagan and Miguel de la Madrid. Mexico finally joined the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade in 1986, the last of the world’s significant economies to do so. Since 1985 Mexico and the United States have devised effective bilateral trade agreements. The United States played a key role in helping to rescue Mexico from its three recent financial crises (in 1982, 1986, and 1987). Mexico has systematically changed its policy toward Central America since 1982, in part to accommodate the U.S. government. And yet most Mexicans would argue that John Gavin, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico for nearly six years in the 1980s, was the worst U.S. ambassador to their country since the beginning of this century—Gavin was accused of relentless and highly visible meddling in Mexico’s internal affairs. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Elliott Abrams, has been quoted as saying comparably nasty things about Mexico’s Foreign Minister of the past six years, Bernardo Sepúlveda. The U.S. government has considered Mexican policy toward Nicaragua to be unhelpful—and in private most U.S. officials associated with U.S. policy toward Nicaragua have used much harsher language. In 1985 the U.S. government for a few days virtually shut off the border with Mexico, slowing to a snail’s pace the daily legal border crossings, to coerce the Mexican government into cooperating more fully on drug interdiction. At 1986 committee hearings chaired by Senator Jesse Helms, Reagan Administration officials denounced specific Mexican government officials as corrupt.
In both countries the public, too, reflects these many-sided feelings. Polls conducted since 1978 by Gallup for the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations indicate that U.S. citizens have a consistently positive view of Mexico but that they also worry about the protection of vital U.S. interests in Mexico—a worry that can readily justify U.S. interference in Mexican affairs.
On the other side, polls conducted by various organizations since the mid1950s (and most recently by Gallup) indicate that Mexicans have a consistently positive view of the United States but that a growing number of Mexicans have concluded that the “basic interests" of the two countries are quite different. By the late 1980s an overwhelming majority of Mexicans believed that their economy was run to serve U.S., not Mexican, interests. And, in a possible harbinger of things to come, in 1986 Japan tied the United States as the country Mexicans admire the most; by 1988 Japan had taken the lead. Mexico’s new President, Carlos Salinas, has enrolled his children in a Japanese school in Mexico.
The very rhetoric of U.S.-Mexican relations exemplifies the two countries’ myriad differences of opinion. In the United States officials often speak about “joint interests.” In Mexico their counterparts speak of independence. As Robert Pastor notes, U.S. officials often take a problem-solving approach to everything. As Jorge Castaneda notes, Mexicans pay more attention to the intractable problems that stem from history. For example, the U.S. government believes that it must be involved in Mexico’s affairs in small ways in order to forestall a crisis in Mexico that would warrant a larger U.S. intervention later. Mexico, for its part, fears both sorts of intervention. There is also frustration at the “United States’ lack of a sense of history" that makes it necessary for U.S. interlocutors in “every negotiation, conflict, tension . . . [to] start over every time.”
The very heart of U.S.-Mexican differences, however, is gently, briefly, but explicitly addressed in the opening pages of this book. Robert Pastor notes, To understand whether American perceptions of Mexico’s problems are accurate or merely projections of the U.S. national experience, I have sometimes had to analyze those problems. I must also acknowledge that I have consciously tried to reflect the approach of the United States, which is stronger and more assertive of its interests in Mexico than Mexico is in the United States. My trespassing in this book, however, had the same effect on my co-author as U.S. policy generally has on Mexico: it made him suspicious and angry with U.S. arrogance.
Indeed, Jorge Castañeda responds,
He has chosen to express openly and frequently his opinions about my country; I have chosen to rarely do so about his.... In contrast to my coauthor, who has strayed over the border, I have limited the scope of my analysis to the Mexican side of the bilateral relationship.
Pastor’s argument for writing as he did will surely make sense to a U.S. reader. His position is quite logical, for the main U.S. interest in Mexico is Mexico itself. That is, the United States seeks safety from revolutions, chaos, or war on the southern border of the United States— the only land border anywhere on the globe between a Third World country and an industrial democracy. And yet the Castañeda response gets to the point without making it explicitly: for Mexico, the imperial vocation of a United States that strays over the border makes living next to it difficult.
These problems are even more poignant now. In July of 1988, in the same speech in which he claimed victory in Mexico’s hotly disputed presidential elections, Carlos Salinas said, “The age of what was practically a one-party system is over. A new political era is beginning.”
THERE IS LITTLE reason to think that this “new political era” in Mexico will improve U.S.-Mexican relations, even though most people in the United States would hail the deepening of Mexican democracy. The collapse of the near monopoly of power that the Institutional Revolutionary Party long held is explained in part by the resistance of many Mexican politicians, and of a substantial portion of the public, to the policies pursued by the Mexican government in recent years, including the very programs that brought the U.S. and Mexican governments closer together.
President de la Madrid’s administration let “foreigners take over our fundamental decisions,” Mexico’s leading opposition figure, the presidential candidate Cuauhtémoc Cardenas, has argued. “This means it has been acting not in the interest of the country but in the interest of foreigners who are acting against Mexico.”
In a Gallup poll conducted nationwide in Mexico in May of 1988, however, the political views of supporters of Cárdenas, or Cardenistas, did not differ markedly from the views of other Mexicans. From a U.S. government perspective, many of the views of Cardenistas were very reasonable. Consistent with current Mexican government policy, for example, a majority of Cardenistas believed that their country should continue paying its foreign debt, and looked favorably on foreign investment in Mexico. And yet Cardenistas were the least supportive of the relevant Mexican government policies; were Cardenas to win the presidency in a future election, he would be more likely than Salinas is to adopt policies at odds with the preferences of the U.S. government.
Even leaving aside the Cardenistas, the blossoming of democracy in Mexico may force Salinas to slow down his country’s integration with the United States. A substantial minority of Salinas supporters (almost as high a proportion as among Cardenistas) opposed the servicing of the foreign debt, had a negative view of foreign direct investment, and would curtail a Mexican policy that has liberalized imports.
In Carlos Salinas, Mexico may have its most able President in decades. He is keenly intelligent and analytical, personally vigorous, broadly and deeply trained in technical matters, experienced in politics, and conscious of the need for Mexico to modernize and also become more fully democratic. And yet the more responsive he is to his people, the more difficult it will be for him to conduct truly intimate and cordial relations with the United States. And in order to cooperate with the United States on some significant issues, including drugs, Salinas may need to differ publicly and vigorously with the United States on others—Mexico’s debt, for example—thereby creating the political room at home for the cooperative efforts.
The old cliché is now accurate: Mexico is at a turning point. Under most scenarios the future is not likely to bring easy U.S.-Mexican relations, but even the most dramatic departure from present circumstances now foreseeable— an opposition victory in 1994 and a Cárdenas presidency—should not throw relations into turmoil. U.S.-Mexican integration is so far along that it will require of any Mexican government many acts of cooperation with the United States. Even Cardenistas want only to remold, not to rend, U.S.-Mexican relations. Who might be Cardenas’s Foreign Minister? Jorge Castañeda was an important adviser to Cárdenas in the 1988 presidential campaign. To judge by his past work and this book, his appointment as Foreign Minister would be an act of statesmanship. And plainly Robert Pastor would make a talented and sensitive, if occasionally imperious, U.S. ambassador to Mexico. The future may wind up looking a lot like the present. □