A series of recent polls show the extent of fear and pessimism emerging in Mexico as the inauguration of Donald J. Trump becomes imminent. Sixty-five percent of Mexicans fear a Trump administration will be somewhat to very harmful to U.S.-Mexico relations (36 percent “very”; 29 percent “somewhat”). Another poll shows 72 percent of all Mexicans 18 and older believe Mexico will face harder times after Mr. Trump’s inauguration.
Behind such perceptions of future U.S.-Mexico relations are echoes of Mr. Trump’s speeches bashing Mexico during his campaign for the Republican nomination and as a GOP presidential candidate. His comments in Mexico City at the Los Pinos presidential manor during his impromptu meet-and-greet in August with President Enrique Peña Nieto did not help.
Servando Ortoll, a professor at the Baja California Autonomous University at Mexicali (and a graduate of New York’s Columbia University), believes much of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric is just that. However, he is worried all the same about the impact of Trump talk on the attitudes of U.S. citizens of the border region.
He sees a risk of people there becoming more aggressive toward non-residents. “I expect life to become more difficult for migrants in terms of their daily lives,” he said. “For Mexicans, [a Trump administration] will mean a constant fear of worsening economic and political conditions.”
The gloom has only been deepened by some of Mr. Trump’s cabinet appointments and by the sense that, however Mr. Trump may affect conditions in Mexico, the Mexican government already lacks the ability to address the country’s main issues. Most polls on Mr. Peña Nieto’s performance give him less than 30 percent approval ratings, the lowest of his term and the lowest since the late 1980s.
Ethel Betancourt, a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Mexico City, reports that her patients are already talking about the financial implications of Mr. Trump’s victory. The Mexican peso has lost almost a quarter of its value since September, with no sign of relief in the horizon. Her clients and students “talk about their fears, their worries about Trump; some of my clients think Trump is a madman, spreading fear and distrust in us Mexicans.” Although she declares herself unable to figure out where the character created by the campaign’s political marketing ends and the real person begins, she dismisses Mr. Trump as an “arrogant, conceited, impulsive showman.”
“I do not think he is good for the U.S.-Mexico relations because he is more of an entrepreneur and a product of commercial TV than a politician.”
In Mexico Mr. Peña Nieto’s promises of economic improvement have been shattered by the abrupt fall of oil prices. Now the foundational tenets of Mexico’s economic reforms, pushed since the late 1980s, are being challenged by frustrated Mexicans. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, Mexico has signed 11 other free trade agreements. Some improvements over the last 22 years, such as suppressing most monopolies, have been accomplished, but poverty rates remain stubbornly high since the 1990s. Violence throughout the country is rampant and shows no signs of letting up, while two out of three Mexicans work outside the formal economy in the gray or black markets.
Moreover, perception of corruption runs deep. Transparency International ranks Mexico a seven out of a possible 10 in their 2011 Bribe Payers Index, and even if most Mexicans still favor NAFTA and friendly relations with the United States, another recent poll found that 31 percent of Mexicans think NAFTA has hurt the average Mexican, while 68 percent think U.S. consumers have benefited from the agreement. Forty-eight percent of Mexicans think NAFTA should be reformed—as does Mr. Trump. Of course he believes NAFTA has been unfair to U.S. workers.
Aurora Loyo, a sociologist and researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico sees in Mr. Trump a hatred of Mexican people “reminiscent of Hitler’s hatred of Jews” and “an attempt to humiliate Mexico.” On her Twitter account on Nov. 10, she wrote: “my non-exclusive but very emotional nationalism is coming alive again thanks to Trump.” As many in Mexico note, Dr. Loyo believes the frailty of the Mexican peso in the aftermath of Mr. Trump’s victory indicates “how weak and dependent Mexico is.”
One measure of that economic dependency on the United States can be tracked to a staple of the Mexican diet: corn tortilla. The average Mexican eats almost 200 pounds of corn tortilla each year. Now almost half of the corn used in Mexico in the last five years comes from the United States. In 1990, before the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect, Mexico imported less than than 10 percent of its corn from the United States.
The perception of the potential damage that Mexico will face from a Trump presidency is shared across Latin America. Alicia Bárcena, the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, was quick to point out at a press conference in Santiago, Chile, on Dec. 14 that Mexico is at risk of falling in an economic depression if Mr. Trump follows through on his campaign threats to scrap NAFTA. Two days later, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, similarly noting the potential impact of the Trump administration, adjusted its forecast of Mexican GDP growth for 2017 from 2.6 to 2.2 percent. Absorbing thousands of deported former residents and losing critical remittances from workers in the United States to family back home in Mexico are also significant economic worries.
Manuel Gómez Granados, the former head of Cáritas México, sees Mr. Trump’s presidency as a challenge and an opportunity: “On the one hand, Mexico must reaffirm its sovereignty in the face of Mr. Trump’s threats.” But the incoming administration could lead Mexico “to rethink the role of the local markets.”
He also finds challenges and opportunities for the Catholic Church. “It needs to find new ways to help and defend the human rights of migrants on both sides of the Rio Grande,” he says.
Rodolfo Soriano-Núñezis a sociologist and journalist living in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter: @rsnunez.