Gerónimo Gutiérrez Fernández may very well have the toughest job on Embassy Row.
After all, what training prepares any ambassador to represent a country — an ally and neighbor of the United States, no less — whose people are continually insulted, ridiculed and dumped on by none other than the chief occupant of the Oval Office?
“It’s been intense. It’s been interesting,” the 47-year-old Gutiérrez said when we asked what his first eight months as Mexico’s top envoy in Washington have been like.
Talk about an understatement. Donald Trump’s hostility toward the land of “bad hombres,” as he himself put it, is legendary. It all began on July 10, 2014 — nearly a year before he decided to run for president — with this nasty tweet: “When will the U.S. stop sending $’s to our enemies, i.e. Mexico and others?”
In late February 2015, Trump tweeted: “The Mexican legal system is corrupt, as is much of Mexico. Pay me the money that is owed me now — and stop sending criminals over our border.” A week later came a further escalation: “Mexico’s court system corrupt. I want nothing to do with Mexico other than to build an impenetrable WALL and stop them from ripping off U.S.”
On June 16, 2015, Trump kicked off his presidential campaign at the New York tower he named after himself, warning his audience — in remarks that would be replayed over and over throughout the campaign — that “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Immediately after Trump’s election, the Mexican peso crashed by 11 percent, and within three days of his surprise victory, the country’s stock market had lost 19 percent of its value. Yet even after winning the presidency, Trump didn’t tone down his provocative Twitter feed one bit. In late August, he tweeted that “with Mexico being one of the highest crime Nations in the world, we must have THE WALL. Mexico will pay for it through reimbursement/other.”
Mexican officials have been far more restrained and diplomatic than the former real estate/reality TV star, although the country has essentially laughed off suggestions that it will foot the bill for Trump’s “big, beautiful wall.”
During our one-hour interview with Gutiérrez, this polite, extremely articulate Mexican official took pains to differentiate Donald Trump, the man, from the American people who voted him into office just over a year ago.
“President Trump is not the United States,” Gutiérrez told The Washington Diplomat from his embassy, which sits three blocks west of the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue. “Living for the past 15 years in the U.S., I’ve learned that the average American just wants a respectful, mutually beneficial relationship with Mexico. The average Mexican wants the same thing. There are different views within society here. I have to build on the positive ones, and persuade those who are skeptical about Mexico why it makes sense to have a good relationship.”
He added: “Mexicans have become more nuanced about the United States over time. So they understand that the views expressed by the president do not necessarily reflect the views of the majority of Americans — not even the views of government institutions like Congress, and not even the views of the administration itself.”
As such, Gutiérrez sees his role “not necessarily to paint Mexico as a rosy story, but simply to explain what Mexico is and what it’s not — and sometimes explaining what it’s not is a greater challenge.”
Gutiérrez: NAFTA Crucial to Mexican Economy
With just over 120 million inhabitants, Mexico ranks as the world’s 10th-most populous country. It’s also America’s third-biggest trading partner; its $525.1 billion in 2016 bilateral trade ranks just behind China’s $578.6 billion and Canada’s $544.9 billion.
Every day, the two countries trade more than $1.5 billion in goods and services. That’s largely thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which took effect in 1994 and which Trump vehemently opposed during his campaign. As president, he’s sought to renegotiate the free trade accord to reinvigorate U.S. manufacturing and bring jobs back to the United States.
“Since NAFTA was enacted, we’ve worked under two assumptions. The first is that it makes sense to have a free trade agreement as a means to integrate our economies further and take advantage of a globalized world. The second was that it makes a lot more sense to be talking to each other than to be pointing fingers at each other,” Gutiérrez told us. “It’s no secret that those assumptions have been questioned recently. The possibility of a major setback in bilateral relations is certainly there, but so is the possibility of having a much more mature, beneficial relationship. I see that as the central role of my mission.”
While many experts say the trade pact is in need of updating to reflect a 21st-century digital economy, Trump’s team seems determined to not only reform NAFTA, but also fundamentally remake it to America’s advantage — at Mexico and Canada’s expense.
The latest fifth round of talks in Mexico ended with little headway, as Canada and Mexico rebuffed U.S. demands to increase rules of origin so that more NAFTA-made cars and auto parts are manufactured in the United States — a requirement that even American automakers oppose because it would drive up costs and erode their global competitiveness. Other sticking points include trade dispute mechanisms and the awarding of government contracts, as well as a U.S. suggestion to implement a sunset clause under which NAFTA would expire every five years unless the three countries renew it — a nonstarter for Mexico and Canada.
NAFTA has linked the economies of the U.S., Mexico and Canada, making them a more competitive regional bloc, creating a highly connected supply chain and increasing trilateral trade to over $1 trillion (also see “NAFTA 2.0: Prodded by Trump, U.S., Canada and Mexico Prepare to Renegotiate Trade Deal” in the August 2017 issue). Economists warn that if NAFTA unravels, it would disrupt those supply chains, which in turn could cripple the U.S. auto industry and hurt American exporters by raising tariffs on a range of goods, from berries to trucks, thus raising costs to consumers.
Mexico, which is highly dependent on trade with the U.S., would be particularly hard hit. NAFTA forced the country to modernize its formerly protectionist, debt-riddled economy, helping it transition from agriculture to industrial manufacturing and become an automotive hub. But Mexico’s success led to accusations by Trump and others that NAFTA stole American blue-collar jobs and widened the trade deficit between the U.S. and Mexico.
While NAFTA did not precipitate the enormous American job losses that some economists feared, like any trade deal, it did produce winners and losers. U.S. farmers benefited from increased market access to Canada and Mexico, but many automotive jobs did indeed shift to cheaper factories in Mexico.
While economists concede that some sectors have been disadvantaged by globalization, they argue that in general, free trade has been a net gain. They also point out that automation, not trade, is responsible for the bulk of manufacturing job losses.
Nevertheless, Trump blames multilateral trade deals for hurting the American worker. On Aug. 27, the president took to Twitter again. “We are in the NAFTA (worst trade deal ever made) renegotiation process with Mexico & Canada,” he wrote. “Both being very difficult, may have to terminate?” That led Mexico’s exasperated Foreign Ministry to issue a statement saying, “Mexico will not negotiate NAFTA nor any other aspect of the bilateral relationship through social media or the media.”
Gutiérrez — who, like Trump, is also quite active on Twitter — says there’s no doubt NAFTA has boosted the economies of all three countries. Even if the United States pulls out, Mexico and Canada will remain in the pact, although the ambassador concedes that “the relationship is not going to be the same.”
“Over the last 25 years, we have built supply chains throughout North America. That is precisely what makes the three countries competitive, and that allows not only trade among ourselves, but also allows us to export,” he said. “If those supply chains are disrupted, all three countries will suffer.”
That’s why Mexico and Canada, while working with the U.S. to preserve NAFTA, are also hedging their bets. Both are part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping trade deal among 11 Pacific-Rim nations that is currently being reworked since Trump dropped out of it. Mexico is also reportedly eyeing trade agreements with the European Union and Brazil.
Rhetoric Rising, But Mexican Immigration Isn’t
As important as NAFTA is to Mexico’s relationship with the United States, issues like immigration, border security and the “war on drugs” have grabbed far more headlines. All of them were themes Trump relentlessly played on during the campaign.
Gutiérrez suggested that ignorance about Mexico allowed the GOP candidate to prey on voters’ fears and use his country as a scapegoat for their problems.
“Important regions and segments of the population here genuinely feel left out of mainstream social and economic development. If you look at history, when things get tough, people sometimes rely on alleged foreign threats or enemies to explain this,” he said. “People who are not doing well — for reasons that in my view are completely independent of Mexico — find it easy to blame Mexico.”
In addition, the number of U.S. Hispanics of Mexican origin has swelled over the last 30 years, further fueling tensions. In 2014, according to the Migration Policy Institute, about 11.7 million Mexican immigrants resided in the United States, accounting for nearly 28 percent of the 42.4 million foreign-born population.
While that constitutes the largest immigrant group in the country, Mexico is no longer the top origin country among recent immigrants. In 2013, China and India overtook Mexico for that title, and according to the Pew Research Center, more Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico than have migrated to the United States since the end of the 2007-09 recession.
“We have to recognize that the vast majority of Mexicans who have come here over the last 30 years have done so because they did not find opportunities in our country. That’s not the fault or responsibility of the United States. It’s up to Mexico to generate the best opportunities for its people.”
To that end, Gutiérrez pointed out, immigration to the U.S. is decreasing thanks to a recent series of economic reforms to improve living conditions in Mexico.
“In 2014, President [Enrique] Peña Nieto decided to take a very ambitious, courageous action, opening up our energy sector for the first time in 70 years,” he said, estimating $60 billion worth of investments in natural gas, electricity transmission and other sectors as a result — particularly as oil production has fallen from around 3 million barrels a day to just under 2 million. “I’m actually not of the president’s party, but the structural reforms he undertook are, in my view, the right ones.”
‘An Adult in the Room’
Gutiérrez, who’s been on the job since March 2017, is the fifth man to head Mexico’s mission to the United States since the retirement of longtime envoy Arturo Sarukhan in 2013; his predecessors include Eduardo Medina Mora, Alejandro Estivill (chargé d’affaires), Miguel Basáñez Ebergenyi and Carlos Manuel Sada Solana. The appointment of three ambassadors over the span of just two years may be a reflection of the confusion and uncertainty that Trump’s erratic presidency has caused in foreign ministries around the world.
Mexico has 50 consulates throughout the United States. From 2003 to 2006, as Mexico’s undersecretary for North American affairs, Gutiérrez supervised all of them. He then spent four years as undersecretary for Latin America and the Caribbean and finally six years in Texas as managing director of the San Antonio-based North American Development Bank.
Gutiérrez has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Mexico City’s Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) and a master’s in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
“I cannot think of a better, more effective and talented individual to be Mexico’s ambassador to the United States,” Ramiro Cavazos, CEO of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, told the San Antonio Business Journal earlier this year. “Now more than ever, his skills and experience should help bridge economic and immigration tensions between our countries.”
Mary Sanchez, writing Oct. 27 in the Kansas City Star, also praised Gutiérrez.
“Among the qualities any good ambassador must have are manners, dignity and grace. These are especially important for an emissary to an unruly and a less-than-respectful ‘frenemy’ power,” she wrote. “In Mexico’s relations with the U.S. government, Mexico needs to be the adult in the room. After all, it can’t be assumed that President Donald Trump will take the high road. Trump has far too much to gain with his base by picking at the wounds he opened during his campaign.”
Yet any poll that measures Mexican attitudes toward its northern neighbor shows the damage Trump has already caused. According to one major survey, about 11 percent of Mexicans distrust the U.S. — a figure that had been slowly declining throughout the years. But within a few months of Trump’s inauguration, that had jumped to 44 percent.
“On both sides of the aisle, there are people who are not in agreement with the way the administration has approached this relationship,” said Gutiérrez, suggesting tension with Mexico is the last thing Washington needs right now.
“The U.S. has a pretty difficult scenario worldwide,” he said. “The Middle East is in turmoil, you have a resurgent China challenging the United States for political, economic and military leadership. You have the EU and the NATO alliance under a lot of strain; some people even talk about a new Cold War with Russia. So it’s not a pretty picture. Why complicate things in North America?”
No to Trump’s ‘Big, Beautiful Wall’
Trump’s proposed border wall, which could end up costing well over $20 billion if it’s ever built, is at the center of a long-running immigration debate that has inflamed passions on both sides. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox summed up his country’s attitudes quite clearly in February 2016, when he told a TV reporter: “I’m not going to pay for that fucking wall.”
Fox later produced a four-minute, expletive-laden diatribe against Trump that has been watched on YouTube nearly 2.7 million times.
Gutiérrez, who unlike Fox isn’t given to theatrics, dismissed Trump’s January 2017 threat to slap a 20 percent tariff on Mexican imports to finance the wall’s construction. “We don’t think the wall is a good idea, we will not pay for it and we will continue to voice that whenever we have the chance,” he said flatly.
Apparently, the governors of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas don’t think it’s a good idea either. In late September, California sued the Trump administration to stop what Gov. Jerry Brown calls the “absolutely preposterous” plan.
Trump originally called for a wall 35 to 55 feet high to run across the nearly 2,000-mile border. He since revised the plan to include about 1,000 miles of wall, with the rest of the border protected by natural obstacles including deserts and mountains.
“The vast majority of federal legislators and governors of border states are not in favor of a wall,” Gutiérrez pointed out. “We all want border security. We understand it is not only the right, but the obligation, of any government to protect its borders. The question is how you do it. A security strategy is about identifying risks, assigning a probability that those risks could materialize and then using whatever resources you have to minimize that probability.”
To that end, he noted that “there are already over 500 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border and significant elements of infrastructure. In fact, the U.S. and Mexican governments work together on a daily basis to improve security. We don’t want drugs going north, as much as we don’t want cash and weapons going south.”
Even if the president never gets his wall — a likely political scenario — he has already succeeded in creating barriers, physical and otherwise, to curb immigration to the U.S. According to statistics released in early December by the Department of Homeland Security, the number of people caught trying to sneak over the border from Mexico has plummeted to the lowest level in 46 years. The drop in apprehensions began shortly after Trump’s election victory, perhaps a sign that his tough rhetoric was already dissuading immigrants from making the trek.
Trump has also beefed up border security and increased arrests of illegal immigrants. Between his inauguration and the end of September, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers made over 110,000 arrests of foreigners living illegally in the U.S., a 42 percent jump over the same period last year.
Beyond clamping down on illegal immigration, Trump is also targeting legal pathways to come to the U.S. He is working to shrink the pool of visas available for legal immigrants, especially for extended family members; he ended the so-called “Dreamers” program for 800,000 illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children; he has slashed the number of refugees allowed into the country; and he is ending Temporary Protected Status for countries such as Haiti and Nicaragua (also see story on page XX).
In October, Trump, who had already threatened a government shutdown to force Congress to fund construction of his wall, leaned on lawmakers to appropriate money for its construction in exchange for letting Dreamers avoid deportation.
In a joint statement, Democratic leaders called such demands unreasonable.
“This proposal fails to represent any attempt at compromise,” said their letter. “This list includes the wall, which was explicitly ruled out of the negotiations. If the president was serious about protecting the Dreamers, his staff has not made a good faith effort to do so.”
Offered safe haven by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — a legacy of the Obama administration — about 79 percent of these Dreamers are of Mexican origin; the rest mainly come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. If Congress doesn’t act by next March, CNN recently reported that as many as 983 undocumented people could lose their protected status every day.
“These people are more than welcome in Mexico. It would be our gain to have them back, because they are lawyers, doctors and engineers. By and large they’re resilient, and they’ve succeeded under very difficult conditions,” the ambassador told us. “But the fact is, they grew up as any kid in the United States. Mexico might be their birthplace, but they call the U.S. home. They don’t want to return — and the Mexican government has a moral and legal obligation to help them stay here.”
He added: “If people are given the opportunity to work here temporarily through a legal channel, then we can concentrate our resources better on true security threats.”
Are Trump’s actions all about undoing everything Obama did? “For me it really doesn’t matter,” he replied, “because the end result is the same.”
Mexico Has Elections, Too
Gutiérrez visits frequently with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, as well as state governors, mayors, business leaders and think tanks. “Many people on both sides have worked for decades to temper anti-Mexican and anti-American sentiment in our two countries,” he said. “To a large extent, these groups have been successful. But the possibility of a resurgence of anti-Americanism has always been there. It can happen.”
The real test may come in July 2018, when Mexicans go to the polls to elect a new leader. Peña Nieto’s approval ratings have plummeted, and a string of high-profile corruption scandals and rising homicide rates have tarnished the electoral chances of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. Recent polls show the early front-runner is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a fiery populist and leader of the leftist Morena party who has called Trump an “irresponsible bully.” The mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005, he left with an 84 percent approval rating. Often compared to Bernie Sanders, AMLO — as he’s known — has also been labeled a dangerous demagogue whose election as president would trigger an even worse deterioration of U.S.-Mexico ties, as if they’re not already bad enough.
Even so, Gutiérrez, who declined to comment on his country’s upcoming elections, says he prefers to remain optimistic.
“The relationship between Mexico and the United States is never going to be perfect. But it can be a very good relationship,” he said. “I wouldn’t have agreed to be the ambassador if I didn’t believe that.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is the Tel Aviv-based news editor of The Washington Diplomat.