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What do you do when a U.S. presidential candidate makes bashing your country a centerpiece of his campaign? Try to set the record straight. Given Donald Trump’s anti-Mexico rhetoric, that’s what Agustín Barrios Gómez, president of the Mexico Image Foundation, is working to do. The former federal congressman from Mexico City talked with AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis about just how integrated U.S.-Mexican relations are and the risks of damaging that relationship.
"Trump is potentially an apocalyptic black swan event for the economy of North America."
“To be very specific and to be very blunt, U.S. national security and prosperity directly depend on Mexican cooperation,” said Barrios Gómez, pointing out that despite 350 million border crossings a year there has never been a documented case of a terrorist getting into the United States from Mexico.
"You keep humiliating people and there will be a backlash…and that is extremely dangerous for both countries."
He also explained why Trump’s pledge to build a border wall faces physical and legal challenges that would make it difficult for the presumptive Republican nominee to deliver. “The wall in general is a big red herring,” said Barrios Gómez, warning that a Trump victory threatens to destabilize the Mexican economy and set off a refugee crisis.
How do you offset the message? Barrios Gómez said it’s crucial to get out the word that 14 million U.S. jobs depend on North American trade to show that Mexico is fundamental to the U.S. economy.
Elizabeth Gonzalez contributed production support to this episode.
Carin Zissis: How does anti-Mexican rhetoric in the US election threaten national security? I spoke with a former congressman in Mexico City who’s working to set the record straight about how close ties are between the two countries, as well as why Donald Trump might not have such an easy time delivering on that border wall.
This is Carin Zissis with AS/COA online and I’m here with Agustín Barrios Gómez. Thank you very much for talking the time to talk with me today.
Agustín Barrios Gómez: Thank you, Carin.
CZ: You’re the president of the Mexico Image Foundation.
ABG: That’s right, yes. I was termed out of Congress in September. I was a federal congressman for a borough in Mexico City, which is called Miguel Hidalgo, and I was very active in the foreign affairs committee, and specifically in the interparliamentary working group, which is the group of legislators on our side and in the U.S. House of representatives. So we would get together, one year it would be in Mexico City, the other year it would be in DC.
CZ: Since you termed out in September, you’ve become the president of the Mexico Image Foundation, which in Spanish is Fundación Imagen de México.
ABG: Right, Fundación Imagen de México and I’m also very active with the Asociación de Empresarios Mexicanos [Association of Mexican Businesspeople], which is an organization of Mexican expatriates. There is like 3,600 members with 22 chapters around the U.S. We do have a chapter in Mexico City, because Mexico City ends up being a very important focus for everything that goes on in the continent in general, it’s a little bit like New York.
CZ: Great. Can you explain a little bit exactly what the Mexico Image Foundation is?
ABG: Sure. I’ve been realizing over my many, many years, after having graduated from Georgetown, and actually having been in DC during the time that the NAFTA negotiations were going on in 1993, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to this, and paying a lot of attention to the narrative with respect to Mexico. So, I grew up as the son of an ambassador, Mexican ambassador to Canada, Mexican ambassador to Switzerland, consul general to New York City, that was my father. And so that basically meant I was hypersensitive to Mexico’s image abroad, and actually one thing that I learned over the years also is Mexico’s image at home. So we’ve got Simon Anholt, for example. Simon Anholt was the guy who created the concept of “nation-branding.” And Simon has worked with 52 countries, and he worked extensively with Mexico, and he said, “Mexico is the country where I saw the largest difference between the reality and the perception.”
So you’ve got this middle income power with the eleventh, or thirteenth economy, depending on how you measure it—an economy almost the size of Russia’s, a power within the trading environment, truly integrated into the global economy, 120 million people, all of these statistics. And then you suddenly get into the perception, and you get the perception of this banana republic that’s always messing things up and all that.
But now, what I believe, is that Mexico’s poor image is now an issue of national security for North America, because now you’re getting a lot of political falsehoods that use all of these caricatures of what Mexico is to turn, in this case, the American public against Mexico. And Mexicans, having not made the transitions themselves, in other words we ourselves don’t have a proper narrative, right? So you get a lot of people who still have this idea from the 1950s, back when Mexico was a relatively small, rural country, and not a 120 million, urban country--that idea that Mexico was ultra-centralized still permeates the popular belief about what Mexico is, and in reality that’s no longer true.
CZ: I want to talk a little bit more about that, about the disparity between reality and imagined, both outside of the country and in, but first, let’s go back to what you were talking about how it’s become an issue of national security in the past year. When I hear you say that, I instantly think of what’s happening in the U.S. elections and a lot of negative language and negative discussion about Mexico. Can you talk a little bit about that, and why do you think it’s a matter of national security, in particular?
ABG: Ok, first of all, just to make the point clear, because I don’t think it’s been made enough: it is unacceptable, what has been said, from any perspective. I try to put this in context for Americans. Imagine if one or two of our main presidential candidates were saying, “Americans are a bunch of child molesters, and we’re going to round up the million Americans that live here,” because we do have them, and we’re actually the number one destination by far for American expatriates, “so, we’re just going to round them up like dogs and we’re going to basically throw them over the border.”
So I use that because I think we’ve become too accustomed, as if this in any way was acceptable, and it’s not, it really just it’s not.
CZ: And to be clear, we’re talking about language that Donald Trump has used about Mexico.
ABG: Yes, of course. Leveraging on the ignorance and this concept of “you’re miserable, and there’s a reason why you’re miserable, and it’s the ‘other.’”
One of the things that has been astonishing about this entire process in the United States, is that we all knew there was this underlying racism and xenophobia that was there, and that’s everywhere, every country has it. And suddenly you have this large population—10 percent of the US population, 10 percent of the citizen population of the United States is of Mexican descent. And then you have, of course, the immigrants, of which Mexican immigrants number about 11 to 12 million, out of which half are undocumented. But 80 percent of the Mexican presence, in general, in the United States, of the 35 million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, 80 percent are U.S. citizens, which is by far the majority, or legal residents.
So the Mexican experience in the United States is not an undocumented experience. Of course, if you’re stoking up hatred and if you’re trying to leverage that four your own political gain, then that’s not something you’re going to say. You’re gonna pretend that the entire undocumented population in the United States of 12 million is Mexican, which is not true, and you’re going to pretend that all Mexicans are somehow undocumented scum, right?
And if you denigrate Mexico enough, then you are debasing one of the most fundamental, the most important relationship the United States has. I mean, no other country in the world has as much of a daily impact on the lives of Americans as Mexico does, from the most-crossed border in the world, to the 540 billion dollars worth of trade that goes on between the two countries. Three hundred and thirty ports of entry, I mean, it’s astonishing the amount of integration between the two countries. And, of course, the governments know, the people who need to know, they know. But if you’re ignorant of that, so you become sort of a bull in a china shop, you have no idea what you’re talking about, and so you start doing things to damage that relationship. And to be very specific and to be very blunt, U.S. national security and prosperity directly depend on Mexican cooperation and stability.
So it turns out that Mexico has the strictest visa policies, among the strictest visa policies in the world, and that’s because of the United States. I mean, it’s unbelievable: The only time, the only documented case of a terrorist trying to cross into the continental United States, in terms of a land border, was through Canada—not through Mexico. And so, like a told this guy who came with a delegation with the mayor of San Antonio the other day, who was harping once and again on border security, and I was like “dude, you should be kissing the ground you’re standing on.” Three hundred and fifty million border crossings a year, even statistically it’s amazing how little happens on our border. Our border is safe. And my former colleague, Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who’s from El Paso, he says it very clearly: “El Paso,” which is right across from Juárez, “El Paso is the safest city of its size in the United States, number one.” And he says: “We are the safest city not in spite of the border, but because of the border.” But you keep humiliating people and there will be a backlash. And it’s extremely dangerous, because these things escalate very quickly. So suddenly, you know, we’re no longer on such good speaking terms, suddenly we’re not cooperating at the level we were cooperating, and that is extremely dangerous for both countries, extremely.
CZ: Donald Trump constantly talks about the wall that he would build.
ABG: Yeah, he’s riding it to the White House.
CZ: It’s constant discussion, right? He’s not the only one who has talked about this idea of the wall, of course.
ABG: Well, for people who are listening, who are paying a little bit of attention, let’s repeat: It is the most-crossed border in the world and there are 330 ports of entry along the 2,000 miles. And what they did, ever since the Clinton administration, actually, they used the surplus metal from the first Gulf War to start fencing off that part of the wall—it started in Tijuana and San Isidro and all that, which actually broke circularity. These two countries were born together: New England, New Spain, and actually New France, which is Canada, these countries were born together. The U.S. dollar sign is actually the Mexican peso sign. A third of the United States actually was once Mexican territory, and so there was a lot of movement and there has traditionally being, hundreds of years, since they were born, these countries, there was movement of people, right? And so, people from Mexico used to come up, do the work that they wanted to do, that they needed to do, and then come back. That was called “circularity.” When the physical barrier started coming up during the Clinton administration, that circularity was cut off; it became much more difficult and much more expensive to cross the border without documents. And so what happened was that it created an incentive for these men to bring up their families. Cutting off circularity actually increased significantly the Mexican presence in the United States.
So, all of the parts of the border that are easily fenced off, have already been fenced off. The parts that have not been fenced off are actually—most of it is the river. The U.S.-Mexico border, according to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848, establishes that the border is in the middle of the river, and the treaty also establishez that the river has to stay navigable, because of course that’s the lifeblood of that entire area. The Rio Grande, on our side known as el Río Bravo, is actually a very important waterway for all of the communities on Texas and on the Mexican side of the border, and it’s massive. It’s almost half the border, if I remember correctly, it’s a good thousand miles. So, like the mayor of Laredo Pete Saenz once told me “we’re going to build a wall, it has to be built on dry land, it has to be built on U.S. territory, so what does that mean? So you’re going to fence off my river? We live off that river.” You’re going to give the Rio Grande back to Mexico? It’s so stupid, right?
And also, another particularity with respect to Texas is that the land that is on the U.S. side, immediately adjacent to the river, most of that land is private land, and so there’s been huge issues when the U.S. government has tried to build a physical infrastructure on that property, because it’s private property.
CZ: It’s going to be a very complicated idea if someone were to want to undertake it. And let’s say that they can get through all of these challenges we’re talking about – dry land, rivers, private property…
ABG: …Endangered species. The whole environmental thing is huge as well.
CZ: Let’s say a wall was built, what would the effect be?
ABG: To be frank, the wall in general is actually a big red herring. At the end of the day it’s really silly, it’s downright stupid if you look at it from the Texas standpoint, but at the end of the day that’s not what’s most important. Like I said, most of the border already has a physical barrier, and because we’re already seeing that net migration south, such that there used to be 6.7 million, according to Pew Research, 6.7 million undocumented Mexicans in the United States. Now there’s 5.3, this is in the last something like seven years, as far as I remember. So you’ve lost more than a million, more than a million net has come back to Mexico.
And actually, if Mexico were to grow above 5 percent, you would see the entire undocumented immigration problem would disappear. We’re at that point, where people are deciding to come back. Right now, the one thing that’s holding back Mexico from going from 2.5-3 percent growth to 5-7 percent growth is the rule of law. And the Mexican government actually taking that role seriously. So, what you’re seeing now is, yes, a government that is certainly not paying anywhere near enough attention to issues of corruption, but at the same time, it’s not a benefit to anybody to disqualify the government and not to have a serious discussion.
CZ: To go back to the point you made, the economic point you made. One thing we’re seeing discussed more and more is the fact that, as people get concerned about a Trump victory, or it seems to become a possibility, it’s weakening the peso. So, if we’re saying that we need to get 5 percent growth to resolve this issue, what’s going to happen economically in terms of this relationship, and in terms of what it’s going to mean for the currency?
ABG: Trump is a potentially apocalyptic black swan event for the economy of North America. If we see candidate Trump with good poll numbers in August, we could very well see a massive economic crisis. It is a black swan event. The possibility of having an antagonist in the White House to the entire North American system—to the entire world system, to be perfectly frank—first of course you are going to have an economic crisis in Mexico as country risk goes through the roof. The peso, you know I’ve already caught banks saying that one play to protect against a Trump presidency is to short the peso, which is catastrophic, of course, and that’s actually one way to guarantee that there will be a massive influx of Mexicans to the United States. There’s no wall in the world that could stop that sort of movement. I mean, if you destabilize Mexico, you would be in for the biggest refugee crisis in modern history. It’s 120 million people, who have means. By international standards it’s not a poor country, and it’s attached to the entire American Southwest. It’s five times the size of Syria. And it doesn’t have a Mediterranean, or a Turkey between it.
CZ: So thinking about all of this. And you talked about what are the realities, what’s the misinformation that gets spread, how do you get the message out? It’s one thing to talk within groups, with people who agree with the message, who understand the message—
ABG: Preaching to the choir.
CZ: —Preaching to the choir. How do you get beyond the choir?
ABG: The one thing that I think is low-hanging fruit: You’ve got 14 million people, according to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Study, 14 million people in the United States that have a job related to North American trade. These are people everywhere.
I was invited to the Republican primaries in New Hampshire, so I brushed up on my New Hampshire. It turns out that New Hampshire, which is in the middle of nowhere, for Mexico, it’s as far away as you can get, 1.3 million New Hampsherites sell $460 million worth of goods go to Mexico. It’s the second-most important—just behind Canda, the difference is not large. Canada, which actually has a border with New Hampshire. So, here we are, Mexico on the other side of North America, and yet, even New Hampshire has this massive stake in bilateral, a massive economic stake in the bilateral relationship. So I think the low-hanging fruit in one of the things that we’ve ignored at our peril is making sure that the people who have a job, who have a livelihood, that’s directly linked to North American trade are aware of that.
I couldn’t believe candidate Clinton, Secretary Clinton, when she debated Bernie Sanders in Michigan. Secretary Clinton did not turn around to Bernie Sanders when he was spouting off his spiel and say: “You know, Bernie? There are a good quarter of a million Michiganders who depend on NAFTA. When you destroy NAFTA, as you obviously want to do, how are you going to face these people? Are you going to tell them ‘boy, I think that there are going to be some really cool jobs, just give me a minute, I’d like to subsidize some other jobs, these fantasy jobs that are going to suddenly arise.’?”
Take the situation of Carrier. Carrier has been this poster child after they closed a plant saying that they were going to move production to Mexico. Carrier’s main competitor is Samsung, ok? Samsung produces in China. And so Carrier has this huge operation and supply chain in North America. And for them, they can still be competitive by moving some of their production to Mexico. And so, by moving their production to Mexico and not China, they are actually keeping jobs, in terms of suppliers, within North America. So, you have this villain, this cartoon villain, all these strawmen that are being created, left, right, and center, you have this cartoon villain of this company. But what you don’t understand is the way global supply chains work, is that if Carrier does not do this, they will cease to exist, and their suppliers in North America will cease to exist, and the market will become Samsung’s. And Samsung is a Korean company that produces in China and, by the way, out of every dollar that the U.S. imports from China, four cents are U.S. content. Out of every dollar the U.S. imports from Mexico, 40 cents are U.S. content. So, who’s your real partner here?
CZ: What role do you think the Mexican government has in sharing this message as well? What do you think the Mexican government could do to spread the message? There has been some discussion, you know, Peña Nieto compared Trump’s rhetoric to Hitler.
ABG: Yeah, that’s not helpful.
CZ: So what would be helpful?
ABG: The Mexican government has been too obsessed with the political process. It’s not about the political process in the United States, it’s about telling the truth. The Mexican government’s job is not to say “vote for Hillary,” or “vote for whatever.” The Mexican government job is to say “Mexico is this.” And curiously enough, they keep asking me, “Oh, at the Mexico Image Foundation you’re talking up Mexico.” I’m not talking up anybody, I’m telling people what it is, I’m not saying Mexico is good, bad or regular. What I am saying is that Mexico is fundamental, and that is much more profound because there’s no value judgement in that. What I am saying is that U.S. prosperity and national security directly depend on a cooperative and stable Mexico.
I did 15 interviews with some of the most “conservative” radio commentators in New Hampshire. Everybody got it…everybody. I actually expected some blowback. I did not get one single argument against the fact that American prosperity and national security depend directly on Mexico. So what that means is that when you say it, when it’s out there, people accept it, because it’s so obviously true.
And so that’s the Mexican government role, to get away from this dilemma about whether they should intervene in the U.S. To begin with they have no way to intervene, let’s just get that out of the way. They just need to say the truth about their country—that’s their responsibility.
My experience is actually, when you get the information out there, the shoe drops, people actually get it. That’s the gospel that we’re trying to spread.
CZ: Alright, so I want to thank you for your time.
ABG: Thank you, Carin.