By José de Córdoba
MEXICO CITY — President Trump made Mexico a political piñata from the first day of his presidential campaign. Now, the historically fraught relationship has suffered another major blow.
A last-minute deal on Friday stopped Mr. Trump from imposing tariffs that would have devastated Mexico’s economy. But his attacks have changed the atmosphere between the two countries from one of active cooperation and friendship back toward the frosty coexistence that prevailed before the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994.
"It sets us back 25 years and can be seen as an attempt to expel Mexico out of North America to a time when we were neither a business partner nor a strategic ally," says Carlos Heredia, a political-science professor at Mexico’s CIDE university. "We are still a neighbor of the U.S. — because we can’t physically go anywhere else."
Geography is still destiny. Mexico shares an almost 2,000-mile-long border with the U.S., the world’s largest economy and the market for 80% of Mexican goods. Mexico, whose capital was occupied by U.S. troops for nine months and lost more than half its territory in 19th-century wars, has little choice but to get along with its powerful neighbor.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador made this clear in a speech he gave in the border city of Tijuana on Saturday.
"We are not distant neighbors," he said at a rally attended by dozens of political, religious and business leaders. "I’m not raising a clenched fist, but an open and frank hand," he said, addressing Mr. Trump.
The U.S. president has a 5% approval rating in Mexico, according to a poll by El Financiero newspaper taken at the beginning of the month.
Mr. López Obrador, a leftist nationalist, was elected in 2018 with 53% of the vote — the highest of any president since Mexico became a full democracy in 2000. Some 72% of Mexicans approve of the way he is handling his job, while a full 84% back him against Mr. Trump, according to the same poll.
The Trump tariff shock gives ammunition to Mexican economic nationalists who believe the U.S. can’t be trusted, and therefore, for example, Mexico should develop its own natural-gas resources in case the U.S. decides to close its pipelines to the south, as Russia did to Ukraine, said Duncan Wood, the director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute in Washington.
Mr. López Obrador has against all expert advice ordered the financially strapped state oil company Pemex to build a billion-dollar refinery to reduce U.S. gasoline imports.
Lorenzo Meyer, a renowned historian and longstanding supporter of Mr. López Obrador, says the threatened tariffs are proof that he and others who opposed Mexico’s embrace of free trade and the U.S. in the 1990s were right.
"Whatever happens, Mexico must distance itself from the U.S." said Mr. Meyer. "The U.S. is not a partner Mexico can trust. It insults us, it spits at us, it does whatever it wants, and Mexico can do very little."
Another prominent historian, Enrique Krauze, who has been critical of Mr. López Obrador, said relations between the two countries are at their worst point in almost a century. He has repeatedly called on Mr. López Obrador to resist Mr. Trump, no matter the cost.
"Trump is a tyrant who you can’t appease," says Mr. Krauze. "One must confront him."
Jorge Guajardo, a former Mexican ambassador to China, worries that Mr. Trump’s México bashing is becoming a winning strategy in the U.S. "If what positions politicians in the U.S. to win elections is to dominate Mexico, humiliate Mexico and have Mexico with a boot on its neck, then what Mexico must do is re-evaluate its relationship and strengthen its economy to better bear these attacks," he said.
While the tariff threat from Mr. Trump has temporarily abated, many in Mexico fear Mr. Trump will be back with more threats as the U.S. presidential campaign heats up. Under the terms of Friday’s deal, Mexico’s progress in stemming Central American migrants will be reviewed on a 90-day basis — and more measures taken if results are unsatisfactory.
The last-minute deal will be costly for Mexico, which agreed to send 6,000 troops of its nascent National Guard to patrol the border with Guatemala in a bid to stop illegal migration. The deployment risks weakening the fight against organized-crime groups that plague the country at a time when homicides are at record levels. Weaker security will aggravate a slowing economy, analysts say.
The image of the U.S. among Mexicans has also taken a pounding in recent years. According to a separate 2018 Pew Research Center poll, only 32% of Mexicans hold a positive view of the U.S., compared with 66% near the end of President Obama’s time in office.
"The damage has been done, independently of how this turns out," said Mr. Heredia.
Write to José de Córdoba at email@example.com