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AMLO Shouldn’t Back Down

Trump is threatening a trade war if Mexico doesn’t fall in line with his depraved migrant policy. But a trade war might actually hurt the US more than Mexico. AMLO should call Trump's bluff and refuse to do his bidding.

President of Mexico Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks during a ceremony to celebrate his administration's first anniversary at Zocalo on July 1, 2019 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

On May 30, 2019, in a typical display of compulsive grandstanding, Donald Trump threatened to impose escalating tariffs on Mexico if it did not immediately stop illegal immigration from entering the US. Refusing to be baited, Mexican president López Obrador sent back a measured but firm response:

[S]ocial problems are not solved by taxes or coercive measures . . .  With all due respect, although you have the sovereign right to express it, the slogan “America First” is a fallacy because until the end of time, even above and beyond national borders, justice and universal brotherhood will prevail. Specifically, Mr President: I propose that we deepen our dialogue, seek substantive alternatives to the migratory issue and, please, remember that I do not lack courage, that I am neither a coward nor fainthearted but rather am guided by principles: I believe in politics which, among other things, was invented to avoid confrontation and war.

Over the feverish ten days that followed, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard was dispatched to Washington to sit down with Pompeo and Pence, ratings agencies took advantage of the uncertainty to continue their guerilla war against AMLO’s new government, and speculation was rife as to who would stand to lose the most from a trade war. In the US, Senate Republicans, the business community, and the conservative press openly undercut Trump’s position. In Mexico, AMLO called for a mass rally — the first of his presidency — in Tijuana on the Saturday before the measures were to take effect, warning of the prospect of retaliatory tariffs. Negotiations were stalled and the clock was ticking.

And then it was over. On Friday, June 7, officials from both countries announced that they had come to an agreement, which each side then set to spinning as a victory. Trump’s attempts to do so, however quickly unraveled when the New York Times revealed that his high-pressure negotiations had produced nothing new that hadn’t been agreed to months before. The president then took to claiming that a secret side agreement had also been made — which Mexico denied — requiring the nation to up its purchase of agricultural products. To complete the charade, he waved a folded piece of paper before the press, stating that he would “let Mexico do the announcement at the right time.” To date, it hasn’t.

“This Cannot Be”

Trump’s buffoonish brinkmanship aside, and regardless of whether the provisions were agreed to last week or months before, the deal is not a good one for Mexico. Although it has refused to be drawn into becoming a “safe third country” — which would have forced refugees to request asylum in Mexico before being able to do so in the US — it will allow even more asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their cases are heard, a fraught process with an average wait time of nearly two years.

In addition, over ten-thousand asylum seekers (Mexico claims the number is closer to eight-thousand) already in the US have been returned as part of a “Remain in Mexico” policy that, in the words of the former head of the National Institute of Migration, Tonatiuh Guillén, effectively amounts to human “dumping.” Mexico has further agreed to provide employment, healthcare, and education to the asylum seekers waiting on its side of the border: the right and just thing to do in human terms but which, in practice, amounts to an enabling of American malfeasance.

Worse still was Mexico’s acquiescence in militarizing its southern border with Guatemala by deploying six-thousand troops from its National Guard, a process completed this week. While AMLO has spoken in euphemistic terms about “accompanying” migrants back to the border and in eucharistic terms about treating them according to Biblical principles, there is no reason to believe that the presence of a newly minted militarized force — untrained in human rights and humanitarian crises — will do anything more than increase the appalling abuses, extortion, and depredation that fleeing migrants are already subject to.

Moreover, there are warning signs that AMLO’s new enforcement policy will antagonize migrants more than it will accompany them. On Wednesday, June 5, police arrested prominent immigration-rights activists Irineo Mujica and Cristóbal Sánchez on charges of human trafficking; although they were released to confront their charges in liberty, they face sentences of up to twenty-four years in prison. In a chilling evocation of the ICE raids on Greyhounds, bus passengers in Mexico will now be required to show identification before boarding. On June 20, Governance Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero stated that although Mexico has always welcomed asylum seekers, it cannot be a country for those passing through because “this cannot be” — as if the human freedom of movement only applied to people crossing directly from one country to another. Instead of fighting the tariff threat in international forums and the World Trade Organization, said pro-migrant activist Alejandro Solalinde, Mexico “accepted this game of submission, humiliation, and shame.” Speaker of the House Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, from AMLO’s own party MORENA, went so far as to call the measures “a betrayal of the history of Mexico.”

One of Mexico’s supposed victories is the US agreement to fast-track $5.8 billion in investment in southern Mexico and Central America as part of AMLO’s “Marshall Plan” for the region. Yet most of the money will come from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a government agency which, according to its own self-description, “helps American businesses invest in emerging markets” while also “advanc[ing] US foreign policy and national security priorities.” In other words, a combined corporate-government onslaught on an area with massive water resources and biodiversity, together with a multicultural indigenous tradition of culture and resistance. And while the Trump administration “gives” with one hand, it is also in the process of slashing foreign aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to the tune of some $550 million.

Free Trade and Imperial Power

Liberals on both sides of the border often seize upon the idea that trade issues are being wrongly conflated with the politics of migration. If only we could return to the commonsense of genuine free trade — as in the recently negotiated US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA), ratified almost unanimously by the MORENA-controlled Mexican Senate on June 19 — all would be right with the universe. “We are in favor of free trade,” AMLO said at a morning press conference in April. “We are not going to participate in any trade war, they don’t interest us, they don’t concern us, we’re not going to get involved in such things.”

As AMLO once knew, however, the terms of so-called free trade are not free; in a world of unequal states, they are always skewed toward those, like the US, which can make, rewrite, or — as in the case of tariff threats — ignore them virtually at will. Such deals, then, cannot be seen as existing in a separate universe when it comes to the assertion of imperial power.

If anything, the fact that we live in an imperialist system of competing, hierarchically organized nation-states has become even more pronounced in recent years as the US has attempted to reassert dominance in its Latin American “backyard.” Imperialism today is no longer based on the direct conquest of foreign territories. Instead it works to expand the territorial domain of capital through what David Harvey has called accumulation by dispossession (ABD). The latter involves such things as the commodification and privatization of land; dispossession of campesino and indigenous populations; the destruction of communal and collective forms of ownership and their replacement by private-property rights; and the appropriation and exploitation of resources.

In Latin America, force has always been preferred over consent when it comes to how the US has policed what it sees as its economic and political interests. The violent overthrow or isolation of regimes that are considered unfriendly to US interests is longstanding; since the turn of the last century, the US has intervened to overthrow Latin American governments on over forty occasions. While Trump was pressuring Mexico, the Pentagon’s Southern Command deployed three-hundred marines to Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to “conduct training and security cooperation engagements that are tailored to each partner’s needs.” (This is, sadly, hardly new: under Obama in 2012, for example, marines were sent to maraud around Guatemala in what was then called “the largest footprint we’ve had in the area in some time.”) The Mexican Navy has also acceded to Pentagon requests to participate in Tradewinds 2019 naval exercises in the Caribbean and Colombia, which will have the effect of putting pressure on the non-aligned governments of Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba.

A Continental Working Class

What does all of this mean in practical terms? In the short term — when and if the tariff threat rears its head again — Mexico could simply call Trump’s bluff. As José Luis Calva from the Institute of Economic Research at the National Autonomous University (UNAM) argues, Mexico could offset the effect of any tariff by accepting a corresponding depreciation of its currency; this would make Mexican goods in the US cheaper while increasing the revenues — in peso terms — for products sold in dollars. “A bleak picture was painted in case there was no agreement with the United States,” says Calva. “The population was frightened, the President was frightened . . .  In no way is this true, that must be made clear.” The strategy, however, would not be without risk: having been burned by drastic devaluations in 1982 and 1994, the Mexican public is wary of seeing its currency drop. For his part, analyst and commentator John Ackerman argues that the US in fact has much more to lose from any trade war. Considering that the US imported $347 billion in Mexican goods in 2018, a 25 percent tariff would have saddled American consumers with what effectively amounts to an $87 billion tax. Better for Mexico, then, to use the short-term pain as an incentive to diversify into alternative markets.

These strategies make sense as short-term responses designed to buy Mexico time and save it from assuming the undignified role of hatchet man for America’s depraved migrant policy. They remain caught, however, within the larger logics of North American capitalism. Resistance to that logic needs to start by acknowledging the unprecedented integration of the working classes of Mexico, Canada, and the United States.

As companies in all three countries have become increasingly reliant on low-wage, precarious, and ultimately disposable workers to fuel their profits, some 12 million Mexicans and 36 million Mexican-Americans, in addition to the 136 million citizens of Mexico itself, are now reproducing their labor on a continental basis. This fact alone should make it abundantly clear that a politics based on national solutions is a non-starter and that notions of “us” and “them” inscribed in the capitalist ideology of nation-states must be resisted. Neoliberal free trade deals like NAFTA and the USMCA themselves have foreclosed any possibility of a purely national path to economic and social development. Locating an alternative path for Mexico must begin with these hard truths.

During the presidential campaign, AMLO promoted the idea of turning Mexican consulates in the US into organizing centers for the defense of migrant rights; once in office, he launched a Migrant Protection Strategy with an initial budget of 3.29 billion pesos (US$170 million), including a plan for mobile consulates to go to immigrants where they are. However insufficient, the program has the merit of acknowledging the need to defend the rights of Mexicans no matter where they live.

A more likely source for building cross-border solidarity has come from the Mexican labor movement and recent struggles for migrant rights in the United States. In 2006, in a series of protests beginning in March and culminating on May Day, millions of migrant workers went on strike across the United States in their largest-ever display of political muscle. Over the past decade, the National Domestic Workers Alliance has campaigned successfully for a domestic workers’ bill of rights in New York, California, and Hawaii and is currently organizing migrant workers in the so-called gig economy. In Mexico, a new labor grouping called the International Confederation of Workers (CIT in Spanish) will bring together 150 national unions in the country. At its first assembly in April, headed by Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, the long-exiled leader of the national miners’ union and now a MORENA senator, representatives from the American and Canadian United Steelworkers and the British-Irish Unite the Union were also in attendance. In May, Gómez Urrutia also addressed a conference in Brussels of the IndustriALL Global Union, a federation uniting fifty million workers in 140 countries belonging to the mining, energy and industrial sectors.

Since January, a strike wave has swept through the maquiladora assembly plants in Matamoros, Mexico. Seventy-thousand workers from an initial forty-five factories — that then spread to double that — have gone on strike in a movement popularly known as 20/32. The strikers have not only taken on global companies like Samsung and Delphi, but also the notorious PRI-affiliated Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), which has quelled labor activism in the region for decades through no-strike “protection contracts.” At first, AMLO’s hands-off approach proved an improvement over the anti-labor interventionism of previous administrations. Then, in March, the Federal Conciliation and Arbitration Board (JFCA in Spanish) declared a knock-on 20/32 strike at a Coca-Cola bottling plant illegal; the two-month stoppage ended in April with a total of 154 workers fired.

From migrant rights to tariff threats — and with the prospect of a trade war back on the table in less than ninety days — Mexico must resist the temptation to blink in the face of US pressure. But over the long term, the potential for taking on the intertwined power of imperialism, racism, and capital lies in the continental reality of the Mexican (and Central American) working class. To succeed at that, much more cross-border solidarity will need to be built. And if the present government is unwilling or unable to assist, it will be left behind.