MEXICO CITY — The irritation is palpable and plainly justified: The risks of a Trump presidency for this country are obvious and his jibes at Mexico and the Mexicans, unacceptable. Nobody disputes this. The question for us is whether Mexico can have a hand in stopping Donald Trump and derailing his candidacy, without provoking an unforeseen backlash?
Our geography has granted us great economic opportunity, but we have not become a great political power. I don't think anyone will declare Mexico to be major regional power in Latin America. With that in mind though, and without underestimating our tarnished national dignity, the Mexican response to Trump cannot be visceral: We must act in such a way as to improve our options without raising the risks.
Changing the word "enemy" for "neighbor," nobody could say it better than the philosopher of war, Sun Tzu: "If you know your enemy and yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not your enemy, for every victory, you will suffer a defeat. If you know neither your enemy nor yourself, you will be defeated at every battle."
The little actor's strategy before a much bigger one has to be to contemplate the circumstances and possible consequences of his actions. For months now, the Mexican government has been acting with some presumption perhaps when promoting the naturalization in the U.S. of those Mexicans that meet the conditions, especially in "swing states" that are evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. The presumption is that their vote could make a difference on election day. While the numerical logic is clear, the political reasoning is not. Because we might then face not just the "wrong" president, but also his wrath.
Clearly, Mexico must do something that does not entail devastating risks. Many Mexican presidents have gone to the U.S. Congress in the past for some straight talking, and some have even gone beyond bilateral issues like migration or arms, to venture into sensitive issues like the Middle East or Vietnam. None managed to sway congressional opinion, and it would have been absurd to expect it when you think how vigorously Mexicans have rejected any U.S. interference in their internal affairs.
In Trump's case particularly, evidence suggests that his campaign ratings have improved every time a Mexican public figure, like the former conservative president Vicente Fox, criticized him on television. Trump's solid base of supporters fervently believes in his message and any help on our part is welcome! Quite simply, we mustn't stoke the fire.
Since the late 1980s, Mexican governments have had excellent ties with the United States. The interaction between the states is smooth, and any problems or complaints are given attention, if not always swiftly resolved. On two occasions at least half the Obama administration came to Mexico City to prevent an increase in tensions.
The problem is not one of relations with the U.S. government, but with its citizens. That is where the trust deficit lies, and at least part of the reason why Trump's anti-Mexican discourse is vigorous and eagerly heard.
The NAFTA free-trade pact opened a world of opportunities for investment in Mexico and of exports of manufactures toward our neighbors. The big cost was to turn us into a domestic affair of the United States. The Americans used to view Mexico as a key country until the 1990s even if debates were restricted to specialized agencies dealing with drugs or crime. The debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) changed this and created a stigma around Mexico for those hit by job losses with the transfer of firms and factories onto Mexican soil or beyond. The political reality is that Mexico has taken the blame for so many ills for which we were not responsible, but not that this matters in campaign politics.
What matters is that we did nothing to stop it. After NAFTA's approval, we forgot about the U.S. society as a whole, which we had courted so much before to win its approval. We are paying the price and have to think of a response.
Clearly, in the long term, we must conquer American society with those assets of ours that are exceptional: culture, history, people, service, vitality, humor. In the short term, there isn't much else to do but build contacts and bridges with both campaign teams, explaining the Mexican perspective and working to minimize future harm. And also (silently) hope that one bad scenario doesn't come to pass.