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AMLO and Trump — The odd couple that could oddly narrow the US-Mexico gap

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Will NAFTA survive? Last week, by a very large margin, Mexicans elected as president longtime NAFTA critic Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (universally known as AMLO). He promptly had a cordial telephone conversation with longtime NAFTA critic President Trump, who remains U.S. president for at least the next 30 months and, if re-elected, for all of AMLO’s six-year term.

The cordiality may just have been a ritual. Not since the 1920s have Mexico and the U.S. had presidents as critical of the other’s country as they will upon AMLO’s inauguration Dec. 1.

It’s unclear whether the ongoing renegotiations of NAFTA with Mexico and Canada will result in abrogation of the treaty or just modifications, perhaps overdue after 25 years. But NAFTA is not just an economic agreement, even though it was sold to bipartisan majorities in Congress as that in 1993. For the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico, negotiated after the U.S. won the Mexican-American War in 1848, has not just been the world border separating the two most economically unequal neighboring nations. It has also been the line separating two profoundly different cultures.

The U.S. has an almost entirely European culture, leavened by other influences, whereas Mexico partakes heavily of its pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture. We have been “distant neighbors,” as the journalist Alan Riding entitled his 1985 book on Mexico. “I celebrate myself!” proclaimed the brash, exuberant nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman. Mexicans in contrast inhabit “a labyrinth of solitude,” wrote the introverted, fatalistic 20th century Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz.

The architects of NAFTA had personal exposure to the sharpness of the border and a desire to meld together the two dissimilar peoples — to make Mexico economically more like America, mostly, but also to make Mexico’s political and economic culture more like America’s.

NAFTA was a project of two Republican presidents who settled and made their fortunes less than 100 miles north of the border — Ronald Reagan in Southern California in the 1930s and George H. W. Bush in Midland, Texas, in the 1950s. Its chief Democratic advocate was Lloyd Bentsen, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee during the Reagan and Bush presidencies and Treasury secretary in Bill Clinton’s, who was born and raised in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, less than five miles north of Mexico. And the Mexican president who pushed NAFTA through was Carlos Salinez de Gortari, who grew up in Monterrey, three hours to the south.

Their combined efforts have changed Mexico’s political culture. From 1929 to 1999, one party won every national election. Outgoing presidents hand-picked their successors at the end of their six-year terms, then disappeared from public life and became scapegoats for lingering problems. It was a sort of Aztec system, with elaborate ceremony, calendrical regularity, and an element of human sacrifice.

That ended with the election of Vicente Fox in 2000, followed by a close election that AMLO narrowly lost in 2006, and a victory for the older ruling party in 2012. Competitive and rigorously honest elections, rotation in office — Mexico has developed something like a conventional Western political culture. AMLO’s victory Sunday, which came after he moderated his radical rhetoric, is more evidence of that.

Another such change is the abrupt end of outmigration. Like Japan and China 100 years before, Mexico was exporting millions of low-wage workers in the period between 1982 and 2007. That largely stopped when the U.S. housing bubble burst, and now Mexico is a transit point for Central American illegal immigrants — perhaps a negotiable issue between AMLO and Trump.

More disturbing is the gang violence raging in Mexico and threatening the U.S. Drug cartels have murdered some 113 election candidates since September, and have taken over previously uncorrupted governments in running up toward the U.S. border. Even northern Mexican cities like Guanajuato and Queretaro, whose modern infrastructure and clean local government attracted much post-NAFTA foreign investment, have suffered murder waves.

You might argue this is no more dangerous than the organized crime and violence in heavy-immigration zones in the U.S. a century ago — unnerving for some years but eventually a manageable problem.

And there’s endemic corruption in government and law enforcement — mostly invisible for years, the distinguished Mexican historian Enrique Krauze argues in the New York Times, but now out in the open.

In his just-published book Vanishing Frontiers, the Migration Policy Institute’s Andrew Selee argues that NAFTA has reduced the economic and cultural gap between the U.S. and Mexico. Will it be reduced further by the odd couple of AMLO and President Trump, or will it widen instead?

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