Post-Trump, Mexico Won't Rush To Reconcile With Washington

Mexican President López Obrador has made it clear that he prefers keeping the United States at arm's length.

Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during a conference in October 2020
Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during a conference in October 2020
Luis Rubio


MEXICO CITY — When divorce is not an option, the parties must get on as best they can. That's the logic that Mexico and the United States have long followed over their shared border. And it isn't, as a quick look around the globe reminds us, the worst of arrangements.

Still, everything suggests the Mexican government, under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), wants a different relationship. What's not clear is whether it realizes that stirring the pot could lead to some nasty surprises.

It is no secret that the border presents complexities. And it's not just because of the multiple, interrelated issues involved, but also due to the different ways the dividing line is perceived.

The poet Octavio Paz wrote that this border was "political and historical, not geographical," to which he added the enormous cultural contrasts between the two nations. In fact, Mexico's main trait in the 20th century was its systematic attempt to keep its distance from the colossus to the north. As late as the 1960s, the Mexican economy's most successful period, some politicians here harbored fears still of a possible invasion.

It is no secret that the border presents complexities.

In the 1980s, during a seemingly unending economic crisis made far worse by political decisions (like expropriating banks), Mexico decided to change tack. There was a double logic to its decision, which stemmed first off from a rejection, finally, of the notion that a country could prosper with an economy isolated from the world.

Already in the 1960s the Mexican economy was beginning to show disconcerting tendencies that were covered up, but never overcome, with new sources of oil. That allowed the country to postpone for at least another decade the inevitable revision of its stabilizing development model.

The other reason that pushed the government closer to the United States was its search for an anchor. The Mexican economy had shrunk and become impoverished in the 1980s due to poor decisions taken in the 1970s and to the enormous distrust government decisions had generated.

Biden participating in a virtual bilateral meeting with Lopez Obrador in March 2021 — Photo: Adam Schultz/White House/ZUMA Wire/

Relations with the United States were meant to generate confidence, and attract savings and investments for the country's development. The two economies had moved closer by then, cross-border assembly plants (maquiladoras) were prospering.

In the meantime, though, security issues had become both more dynamic and contentious. Migration was growing as well. Within a decade, in other words, sources of possible conflict between the two states had multiplied.

Initiatives on both sides finally yielded a free-trade pact, which was an initial accord that preceded further trade negotiations but proved crucial in the decades that followed. In 1988, the two governments adopted two principles that have allowed them to solve problems and ease relations, opening unprecedented opportunities for interaction.

The first was a shared vision on the neighborhood's future, including growing economic integration, rejection of jingoism or use of history to sow animosities, and expanding student and scholarly exchanges. The second principle was to resolve matters impeding the relationship without letting them infect other affairs. This was the principle of compartmentalization, which allowed them, until Donald Trump's arrival, to administer this complex relationship without too many headaches.

In 1988, the two governments adopted two principles to solve problems and ease relations.

The two principles have weakened but not disappeared in the last four years. First, presidents Trump and AMLO did not share the earlier vision of the future of this bilateral relationship. In fact, both preferred to return to the distance that preceded the 1980s. Second, by linking migration to Mexican exports, Trump effectively put a lid on compartmentalization.

President Joe Biden may recover the two principles, but everything suggests his intention is not shared on the Mexican side. And that's because, in his eagerness to recreate his idyllic world of the 1970s, President López Obrador wants to restore a relationship of "respect and sovereignty." That, he imagines, was the stuff of bilateral relations in that period.

The logic of his actions since Biden's election shows this interest in a more distanced, less exclusive relationship. He has courted China and Russia to that effect. I am convinced the Mexican government doesn't want a divorce, but a redefinition of relations. The question is, at what cost?

The current relationship is not only extraordinarily complex, requiring very particular management, but also deep-rooted and indispensable to both nations. Their economic interdependence is enormous and so great indeed that while Trump and AMLO may have preferred to blitz NAFTA, centripetal forces obliged them to ratify a renegotiated treaty.

The big question is, how to manage a relationship without a shared vision of its dynamics and future, and without the key to resolving differences, compartmentalization of issues? Dreaming of distance is easy, but in real life it has disappeared.

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A Mother In Spain Denied Child Custody Because She Lives In Rural Area

A court in Spain usurps custody of the one-year-old boy living with his mother in the "deep" part of the Galicia region, forced to instead live with his father in the southern city of Marbella, which the judge says is "cosmopolitan" with good schools and medical care. Women's rights groups have taken up the mother's case.

A child in Galician countryside

Laure Gautherin

A Spanish court has ordered the withdrawal of a mother's custody of her one-year-old boy because she is living in the countryside in northwestern Spain, where the judge says the child won't have "opportunities for the proper development of his personality."

The case, reported Monday in La Voz de Galicia, has sparked outrage from a women's rights association but has also set off reactions from politicians of different stripes across the province of Galicia, defending the values of rural life.

Judge María Belén Ureña Carazo, of the family court of Marbella, a city on the southern coast of 141,000 people, has ordered the toddler to stay with father who lives in the city rather than with his mother because she was living in "deep Galicia" where the child would lack opportunities to "grow up in a happy environment."

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - October 25, 2021

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - Monday 25 October, 2021

La Voz de Galicia

Better in a "cosmopolitan" city?

The judge said Marbella, where the father lives, was a "cosmopolitan city" with "a good hospital" as well as "all kinds of schools" and thus provided a better environment for the child to thrive.

The mother has submitted a formal complaint to the General Council of the Judiciary that the family court magistrate had acted with "absolute contempt," her lawyer told La Voz de Galicia.

The mother quickly accumulated support from local politicians and civic organizations. The Clara Campoamor association described the judge's arguments as offensive, intolerable and typical of "an ignorant person who has not traveled much."

The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, has addressed the case, saying that any place in Galicia meets the conditions to educate a minor. The Socialist party politician Pablo Arangüena tweeted that "it would not hurt part of the judiciary to spend a summer in Galicia."

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