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Gutiérrez talks history of U.S.-Mexico relationship

Former Mexican Ambassador to U.S. discusses trade, migration, security

Following leadership changes in both countries, the United States and Mexico may be moving into a new phase of their relationship, said former Mexican Ambassador to the United States Gerónimo Gutiérrez Fernández P’22 in a talk Oct. 28.

Gutiérrez, who served as ambassador from 2017 to 2018, walked audience members through the historical and current state of the relationship between the United States and Mexico as part of the Watson Distinguished Speaker Series. He focused on current barriers that the two countries face in finding common ground, especially over issues like trade, migration and security.

Because the U.S.-Mexico relationship is “bound by geography but separated by history,” Gutiérrez said that the history is crucial to understanding today’s state of affairs. Gutiérrez separated this history into three phases and suggested a fourth could be beginning.

First, during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the relationship between the two countries was adversarial as the United States pushed an expansionist policy and Mexico worked to establish its independence. This phase was marked by episodes of violence, including the Mexican-American War, Gutiérrez said.

Following this era of conflict, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated the second period with his “good neighbor policy.” During World War II, Mexico and the United States were brought closer through fighting together and providing labor for the war effort, Gutiérrez said, adding that about 250,000 Mexicans reportedly fought under the American flag during World War II. During the Cold War, these closer economic ties created a period of “benign neglect” from the United States because Mexico maintained a tacit agreement against the spread of communism.

Then, in the 1990s, the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada shifted the countries’ relationship as Mexico began viewing itself as part of North America for the first time, Gutiérrez said. The United States and Mexico transitioned from distant neighbors to strategic partners, especially with the 2000 election of Mexican President Vicente Fox, who promoted democracy in Mexico, Gutiérrez added. He also acknowledged that moments of tension still existed, such as heightened immigration restrictions after the 9/11 attacks and Mexico’s decision to remain uninvolved in the United States’ invasion of Iraq.

“We began to understand how interdependent we are” in this third phase of the relationship, Gutiérrez said. “We began also to understand the challenges with a notion of shared responsibility, meaning we have to deal with a lot of things together because if not, it’s very difficult. And, to some extent, we stopped pointing fingers at each other.”

This phase lasted until very recently, but the relationship may be shifting again to reflect recently elected administrations in both countries, Gutiérrez said. For instance, Gutiérrez told The Herald that the way President Trump referred to Mexicans during his 2016 campaign was “a misconception of what Mexico is and what Mexicans represent.” The Trump administration was also unsupportive of NAFTA, an agreement that Gutiérrez told The Herald he saw as “positive for the three countries.” Nonetheless, Gutiérrez played a key role in developing a new agreement — the United States of America, Mexico and Canada Agreement — over which both countries compromised. “I’d like to think that after engaging for two years with Mexico as a president, (Trump’s) view of Mexico became a little bit more nuanced and better informed,” Gutiérrez told The Herald.

Though he is not fully satisfied with the agreement, Gutiérrez said that USMCA is a good option within the context of global shifts away from free trade. “It keeps access open to our respective markets,” he added. “It also keeps basically the same provisions that protect investments and cross-investments in our countries. It maintains a balance in the  agriculture sector.”

Additionally, Gutiérrez told The Herald that the USMCA incorporates considerations of modern industries like energy and e-commerce, strengthens labor and environmental standards and introduces new provisions regarding small and medium businesses.

Migration and security also characterize the current phase of the relationship between the United States and Mexico, Gutiérrez said. “I think that for decades now, Mexico has not done enough to make sure that its nationals are not forced into immigrating into the United States, and that’s on us,” he said. “For decades, also, the United States has not fully recognized that people from Mexico come here because there is a demand for them.”

To solve these issues, Gutiérrez proposed that the United States and Mexico collaborate to address the root causes of immigration, offer more legal opportunities to move between the countries and develop better and more humane border enforcement. The two countries must cooperate on security issues, especially in combating terrorism and the illegal flow of people, drugs and money, he added.

Looking forward, the countries should focus on ratifying USMCA, addressing Central American immigration and ensuring access to reliable and safe energy, he said.

Gutiérrez closed with hope for the U.S.-Mexico relationship. “The relationship is about two things: finding areas in which our interests converge, and, when we need to differ from one another, doing so carefully because there is a lot at stake,” he said. “If we accomplish those two things, I think we’ll be just fine, irrespective of who is president of the United States and who is president of Mexico.”

Katarina Fernandez ’22, who attended the lecture in part because her uncle was an undocumented immigrant to the United States from El Salvador, said that she wished Gutiérrez had talked more about drug cartels’ role in U.S.-Mexico relations. “Something I learned a lot about was the history of the relationship,” she said. “It was different to hear it from more of a middle source who knows both the Mexican side of the history and the American side of the history.”

Juan Pablo Ramos Barroso ’22, who went to the lecture because he is from Mexico City, said that he appreciated learning from someone with diplomatic experience. “Since I’m so far away from home, you hear about what’s going on, but you always hear it in passing,” he said. “But hearing the actual numbers of immigration and trade and being able to magnify and add a certain value to the stuff that you hear is game-changing.”


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