Commentary: Mexico: Time to Get over the Anti-Gringo Grudges

The former leaders of the U.S., Mexico, and Canada met in Washington on Dec. 9 and 10 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement. At the reunion, George H.W. Bush, Carlos Salinas, and Brian Mulroney toasted the landmark free-trade pact, which has nearly quadrupled commerce between the three countries.

But there were no celebrations in Mexico City. There, angry farmers are protesting the imminent removal of NAFTA's remaining tariffs on agricultural trade, a move they say will bankrupt thousands of Mexican pork and chicken producers. Mexican intellectuals have promoted a favorite theme on editorial pages: NAFTA has turned Mexico into a colony of low-paid worker bees for American industry. "People are very disillusioned because huge promises were made about the great things that NAFTA was going to achieve," says Lorenzo Meyer, a historian at the Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City. "It's not surprising that Mexicans still harbor anti-American feelings, because they don't feel they've benefited at all."

True, NAFTA is far from perfect, and Washington can be a tough partner. But Mexico's anti-NAFTA mood is part of a deeper, historic resentment of the gringos. It's a grudge that Mexico has to give up if it is to move on to a more productive relationship with the U.S.

Some sectors of Mexican society already have. The country's business class already has learned to deal as equals with American investors. Some have even invested in the highly competitive U.S. market. Mexican government officials, who in the past blamed Washington for many of the country's ills, have abandoned that rhetoric. Now they meet regularly with U.S. counterparts to air such issues as Mexico's proposal for ambitious immigration reform, discussed during a recent visit to Mexico City by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. And Mexico's leadership has shown increased self-confidence in its dealings with Washington by banding with France at the U.N. to force the U.S. to moderate its threat of force against Iraq.

Yet more than 150 years after Mexico ceded more than half of its territory to an invading U.S. army, the nation's political and intellectual elite still can't shake its anti-Yankee feelings. It's time for a major attitude shift, argues Gastón Luken, chairman of GE Capital Mexico: "We've been fighting the war of 1847 for far too long. If Japan, which was bombed to kingdom come, now has a magnificent relationship with the U.S., why can't we do the same?"

Indeed, there's a risk that Mexico is letting its past get in the way of its future. Mexico has modernized its economy, ushered in a multiparty democracy under President Vicente Fox, and forged a close economic relationship with the U.S. that's the envy of many of its Latin American neighbors. Festering resentments, however, can still cripple that progress. Mexico urgently needs to open up its aging energy grid to foreign investment, for example. But legislators have balked for fear that Americans and other foreigners will seize control of strategic assets. That sentiment could block needed billions from flowing to the utility sector.

These attitudes flow directly from a perception that Mexico has been shortchanged by NAFTA. Yet by most measures the pact has been a success, yielding increased trade and investment, lowering inflation, and cementing Mexico's adherence to sound macroeconomic policies. True, wage gains for most Mexicans have been negligible, but that stems more from the 1994 peso crash than the trade pact. But Mexican officials have done little to correct the overwhelming perception that NAFTA has been a bust.

When Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda suggested recently that it was time for Mexican intellectuals to discard their "obstinate nationalism," he set off a political firestorm. Igniting a debate would be better--on how Mexico can build a more mature relationship with the U.S. based on mutual trust.

By Geri Smith

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