Commentary: Why Mexico’s presidential election matters in the Trump era

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. Their rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” — Donald Trump

In an election and presidency filled with incendiary comments, Americans may have all but forgotten about comments like this made during Donald Trump’s campaign. Unfortunately, many Mexicans have not, and one man in particular — presidential frontrunner Andrés Manuel López Obrador — might do something about it.

As a populist wave swept through Europe, Americans breathed a collective sigh of relief as Emmanuel Macron declared victory in the French presidential election, seemingly ending the populist onslaught worldwide. However, in less than a year, America may once again be holding its breath as the Mexican presidential election takes place.

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As it stands, any association with President Trump has proven to be politically toxic in Mexico. In fact, when the current Mexican president, Enrique Peña-Nieto, invited Trump to meet with him in Mexico, his already low approval rating took an immediate dive. This means that any serious Mexican presidential candidate, especially a populist like López Obrador, has a large political incentive to advocate for hardline trade negotiations with the Trump administration.

López Obrador is known for his “Mexico first” approach — not too dissimilar to Trump’s “America first” approach — and it is easy to see how these two political ideals can turn U.S.-Mexico trade negotiations (should NAFTA be done away with or changed significantly) from a cooperative agreement into a zero-sum game. Though not always apparent, the idea underlying NAFTA was for all countries in the agreement to grow as a result of freer trade between nations. However, future negotiations between the two nations may become a race to the bottom to declare one side a winner and the other a loser to satisfy their political bases.

Nowhere is this sentiment more apparent than in the current struggle over corn. You might be wondering, “Just how important is exporting corn to Mexico for U.S. producers?” Well, with $2.6 billion in corn exports to Mexico in 2016 alone, it seems important.

Mexico is certainly aware of its role as a large importer of U.S. corn and has wasted no time showing us that it will use its importer role as leverage. Just months after Trump’s election, Mexico’s deputy economic minister released a statement revealing that Mexico is considering allowing duty-free corn imports from Argentina and Brazil. Further, there is the ever-present threat that Mexico may initiate a trade war over corn syrup imports from the U.S. to gain leverage in their negotiations over Mexican sugar.

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How might these tensions impact Texas specifically? Well not only is Texas home to almost 3 million acres of corn, it is also a state that went red in the 2016 election. This is relevant because the Mexican government is considering placing state-specific tariffs on states that went red in the 2016 election to gain leverage in the upcoming NAFTA negotiations. However, things could get worse if López Obrador is elected, since there is speculation that he may advocate for halting certain imports from the U.S. altogether.

Should a member of Mexico’s incumbent party, the PRI, win the presidency, it is likely that a significant portion of the cooperative sentiment President Peña-Nieto has shown will carry over. However, if López Obrador wins the Mexican presidency, it seems more likely that the U.S. and Mexico will see many more bilateral trade deals that are similar to the zero-sum gamesmanship being considered by the Mexican government and displayed in the corn negotiations.

Regardless who wins the Mexican presidential election, it is clearly in America’s interest for the Trump administration to bridge the gap Trump created with Mexico, so that the nations can grow together as opposed to continually playing their entire hand just to gain an inch from the other.

Garcia is a writer studying law at Harvard. Peña Ortiz is president of Desarrollo Integral de la Familia in Reynosa, Mexico.

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