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Mexico, the Latin North American Nation: A Conversation with Carlos Rico Ferrat


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Carlos Rico Ferrat was interviewed at his home outside Mexico City in April 1998. I edited a transcript of the interview and invited him to make corrections and changes in December 1998 and sent a second revision in July 1999. He sent a revision of that revision in July 1999.
David Thelen

Carlos Rico Ferrat: We are rethinking part of our own national history in terms of its basic referents. At the same time that Mexico is, of course, a Latin American nation — a deeply rooted historical, cultural, and linguistic concept — its history has been shaped, in good measure, by its geographical location in North America. Present political and intellectual debates in the country reveal the complexity of that double identity: a Latin North American nation. We emphasize that we come from a similar colonial background and have a common history with the rest of Latin America that defines our national being. At the same time, we cannot deny the fact that we are also North American and that part of our history, especially during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has to do with developments that took place in the rest of North America. These two different notions interact as we try to come to terms with what we are now.

     The clearest way to see this is if you look, for example, at the development of such things as communications in Mexico. During the colonial era, when we had our basic external referent in Spain, a referent that we shared with the rest of Latin America, most of our communications went from the rest of Mexico to the center of Mexico, then from there to Veracruz, and then from Veracruz to Europe, because of the monopoly of trade that Spain had developed. If you start traveling today in Mexico, however, you would see that the main railroads and the main roads go north. They no longer go east to the coast. In the late nineteenth century Mexican railroad networks were in good measure outgrowths of the United States railroads and communication systems that were being built at that time. You look at the kind of railroad tracks that we had at that time, and you will see that it is very hard to even understand key developments in the Mexican Revolution without understanding that almost physical linkage to the United States.

     It is, in fact, very hard to understand the history of Mexico in the last twenty years without immediate reference to whatever was happening in the United States economy. Mexico is a Latin American nation, as Latin as any South American nation; Mexico is also the one Latin American nation located in North America. It shares the economic and social history of what came to be the giant of the Western world. That’s what makes trying to understand where Mexico is at this point so difficult.

David Thelen: Earlier you said something striking about the 1950s and 1960s: that the Mexican government set out to construct Mexico as a Latin American nation, while the Mexican people connected Mexico to the United States.

CRF: I was trying to point out the role of politics, on the one hand, and the market, on the other, in building the so-called decision to establish NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. And I say "so-called decision" because, by the time we decided to negotiate NAFTA, the process of the integration of the Mexican economy into the United States economy was fairly well advanced. And that was basically a result of the market.

     In the late 1950s, economic integration started to become a really significant phenomenon, first in Europe, then in Central and Latin America. These nations understood that they had to look for wider economic spaces. In many of them, including Mexico in the mid-1950s, economic development was inward looking. Mexico’s strategy of import-substitution industrialization confronted its first problems in the mid-1950s. Part of it was thought to be related to the relatively small size of the market. At the same time that this was happening in Mexico, initiatives were being developed in many other parts of the world to create wider economic zones. There was a discussion in Latin America organized around ECLA, the Economic Commission for Latin America, centered on the implications of building an economic zone that would encompass all the countries of Latin America. Mexico supported the idea, which, unfortunately, did not flourish in its original shape. What prospered was a relatively more modest initiative, pushed in particular by the Southern Cone countries, to establish a free trade area. It took a political decision at the highest level for Mexico to join the South American countries in this exercise. The Mexican president had to go to South America. We had a very interesting trip with President Adolfo López Mateos throughout Latin America, as a result of which we were invited to join what was being negotiated in the Southern Cone. Both Mexico and Venezuela joined as latecomers what was called ALALC, the Latin American Free Trade Association. In Mexico there was no question where Mexico would have to fit in the world, in a world of larger spaces. No one even questioned whether we should look elsewhere. We were a Latin American nation. It was natural that we decided to join forces with the other Latin American countries in establishing ALALC.

     When ALALC was established, Mexico had almost no contact with the rest of Latin America other than very friendly, cordial political contact. Initially ALALC brought significant changes. Mexico’s trade with the rest of Latin America increased quite significantly from the very little we had had with Brazil and Argentina. After a century in which we had not joined different initiatives by South American countries to construct Latin American unity, Mexico was able to develop some interesting links to Latin America. It’s true that Mexico participated in the 1820s in the Panama Congress proposals, but after that we actually didn’t have a lot of contact with South America. During most of the nineteenth century, the attempts to build larger political and economic units among Latin American nations were basically South American in nature. We were not involved, even though we always saw ourselves as a Latin American nation. It took a very long time, over a hundred years, for us to actually become involved, seriously involved, in integration projects.

     With the creation of the United Nations, we became a part of the Latin American group. In the early 1960s, for the first time, we joined a purely Latin American effort, and the Mexican government started a really significant effort to develop that tie. The effort to become economically integrated with the rest of Latin America took center stage in Mexican foreign economic policy. Mexico’s commitment was renewed in the late 1960s, when the free trade association was undergoing a very difficult moment. To deal with that difficult period, member countries decided not to cut back, but to launch an even more ambitious initiative: ALADI, the Association for Latin American Integration, aimed at integrating all of Latin America by the 1980s. Mexico participated very actively in this transformation of ALALC into ALADI.

     At the very same time this was happening, things were also happening to the north that were not consciously devised as instruments to increase our integration with the United States but that had that result. My starting point would be that the market, by which I mean decisions by nongovernmental actors, led Mexico to the north instead of the south.

     You can start by looking at migrants, for example. Mexican migrants did not desire to go work in Argentina or even in Guatemala, which is closer. They decided to go find work where work was not only available but also better paid than in Mexico. The wage differentials were such that a labor market was created. You did have some governmental influence in this, but it was not aimed at creating that. In 1942, we negotiated a program with the United States that was popularly known as the bracero program. It was ended in 1965. In a little more than twenty years, there were about 4.5 million annual contracts of Mexican workers in the United States. I’m not saying 4.5 million Mexican workers, because most of them were repeat workers. When the two governments made this agreement, they didn’t even consider that this might lead to the creation of a de facto labor market that would be pretty much integrated. The governments did it for other reasons; each one had its own reasons to do it. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, there were fewer contracts, and the numbers of undocumented workers went up. The original program helped establish the networks, establish the connections, that were then continued with documented or undocumented workers.

     Of course, you can go even further back in history. The first thing that migrated in United States – Mexican relations was the border, which cut off a very large number of families, in many cases not Mexican but Spanish in origin, on the United States side of the border. And that also helped develop some networks, too. The impressive number of 4.5 million contracts, legal contracts, helped create a situation in which a very large number of Mexicans became familiar with going to the United States in very dire circumstances. They established a circular pattern of migration that still remains to this day. So the governments helped establish the rules of the game, but then it was the migrants who decided that it was in their own individual interests to go for a few months of the year to California or Texas or Illinois or wherever. And they started getting together and helping one another get there.

     Other indicators point in the same direction. If you look at the number of long-distance telephone calls that Mexicans make, you’ll see that most of them are to the United States. Or take a Mexican who wants to export, he would find it easier in many cases to put the stuff on a truck and send it to the United States than to transport it to ports and export it by ship.

     In the mid-1960s, when the United States Congress ended the bracero program, the Mexican government was very concerned about potential unemployment along the border. So what did they do? They established what was called the border industrialization program. They did that in 1965, not thinking that through the maquiladora economy that was to be established as a result, we would be tied even more to the United States. The maquiladora program was public policy that helped shape the rules through which the two countries got together, but in the end it’s the private sector that assembled things. It’s true that United States customs legislation also stimulated the construction of maquiladoras. I’m sure that Congress did not write those customs regulations to further Mexican integration, but that’s what happened. You start adding up all these things, and in the late 1970s they are increasingly connecting the Mexican economy with the United States economy. Some people call that silent integration, but I like to call it inertial integration.

     By the late 1980s most of Mexico’s exports of manufactures, which by then had become the most dynamic element of the Mexican foreign sector, went to the United States. In the early 1980s it was oil, as you may recall, but then, after the 1982 oil crisis, the Mexican foreign sector started to diversify. By the late 1980s intermediate goods, parts and components, had become a critical part of our manufactured exports. Automobile parts became the most dynamic element of trade in both directions. Most of that integration reflected the manufacturing and shipping of parts to and from plants belonging to the same company but on different sides of the border. Again private actions, not public policy, shaped integration.

     Before NAFTA, in the late 1980s, some of us started looking at the facts. Some liked them, some didn’t, but the facts were there. It was very difficult to accept that what we had been attempting for twenty years, a very strong effort to become integrated with the rest of Latin America, was not having a lot of results. And yet without any specific policy of promoting integration with the north, the Mexican economy, and in fact Mexican society, became increasingly integrated with the United States economy.

     For example, I learned in 1980 – 1981 — when I was living in Boston — that I could call my family in Mexico City from the United States without going through the international dialing connection. There was an area code for Mexico City. And any time my wife or I made a trip from the United States to Mexico, we would pack suitcases with books. We had discovered that we could bring two pieces of luggage, instead of the international limit of twenty kilograms, which was great! You see, flights to Mexico were treated as domestic flights, telephone calls as domestic calls, by United States companies, not by the United States government. The companies did that for their own benefit; they didn’t do it because they found us very simpatico, but because their microeconomic rationality made them decide that this was the right thing to do.

     A lot of private people started going much more to the United States to study. That helped create a lot of connections. Even those who had studied in Europe started going to the United States to give talks, and, of course, it was much easier and quicker to travel to the United States than to, say, Argentina. It became a regular occurrence for academics to go to the United States and build very strong connections with United States institutions, with United States academics. That was also affected by the beginning of United States studies programs in Mexico, people who really started to take the United States as an object for analysis. So my point is that through the combined actions of all those nongovernmental actors making decisions because of their own economic microinterests, not through activities of the Mexican government, we became increasingly connected with the United States.

     So at the same time that the politics was looking southward, the market was looking northward. The very important change in the 1990s was that politics decided to stop fooling itself, to accept reality. The discussion was something like this: If integration with the rest of North America is so profitable to so many nongovernmental participants, then there’s very little that can be done to try to stop it; if we want to be full participants in a world of economic regions, it’s a good idea to join forces with the largest market in the world, it makes a lot of economic sense; if it is unavoidable, then what we have to do is to negotiate stable rules of the game so that this process is not vulnerable to unilateral decisions by anybody. And that’s the big, big change in terms of Mexico.

     Of course, you also have very big changes in the United States. In August 1971, President Richard M. Nixon announced that there would be a surcharge of 10 percent on imports. As you may recall, 1971 was the first time in recent history the United States had a trade deficit. For Mexico (and also for Canada), two-thirds of our trade was already with the United States, and we had a deficit in our trade with the United States. So we were not to blame for the United States deficit. The 10 percent surcharge was really very significant for us economically, as it was for Canada. It was not surprising, then, that Mexico and Canada, each one on its own terms (and we never touched base with the Canadians on this), went to the United States and asked to be exempted from the measure. "We’ve been told that you have a 'special relationship’ with us," Mexican authorities seemed to be arguing. "The 10 percent surcharge is very bad for everybody, but for us it’s really a killer." As is well known, the United States authorities denied the request. The United States had global trading rules. The United States was committed to a multilateral scheme, and they couldn’t conceive of any exceptions.

     By the late 1980s, however, the United States had already made some exceptions to the rules. It had already negotiated a free trade agreement with Israel for political reasons. It had already also negotiated the FTA (free trade agreement) with Canada. For the first time, the United States was developing trading schemes that were not global but regional. By the late 1980s, as we were approaching NAFTA, the Mexicans were facing a new reality; it opened interesting challenges and opportunities in the economic realm. But the United States had also changed its own approach, and that also helped.

     By the late 1980s, we started saying, "our most relevant economic partner is here, and our most relevant economic policy is here." It took a while for people to understand that we were not betraying Latin America. We cannot betray ourselves. We are Latin American. And what has given us a significant breathing space over the last few years is that at the same time that we announced the start of NAFTA negotiations, in 1990, President George Bush announced his Initiative for the Americas: "What we’re doing with Mexico, we’re willing to do with everybody, as long as you trade by certain rules." This had a tremendous impact on Latin America. At that time the United States didn’t have any framework agreements with other Latin American nations.

     For Mexico, what happened was that this opened a very interesting space, because we would be seen, not as traitors to the cause of Latin American integration, but as spearheads of the cause of hemispheric integration. We were just first in line. Everybody wanted to join. Of course, there were exceptions — the Brazilians, in particular, were never too convinced about this — they are, after all, the economic magnet of South America, just as the United States is in North America.

     In 1989, our new president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, made a tremendous effort to implement economic policies based on the basic rules of the market economy. But still the economy by late 1989 was not responding very nicely. He tried to expand trade with Europe, but in 1989 European leaders were distracted by events on that continent and ignored his initiatives.

     One should remember in this context that we were then just coming out of the 1982 financial crisis, with its deep impact throughout Latin America. A perception of inconsistency in Mexican economic policy had developed in some investment circles that raised concerns about the ability of the government to sustain over time the free market policies it espoused. Mexican exporters faced the same difficulties from the other side. The main cement exporters in Mexico, for example, started getting a very good chunk of the Texas market, and suddenly they faced United States antidumping and countervailing duty actions initiated by local producers interested in keeping Mexican cement out of their market. For Mexican exporters it was risky to fully commit themselves to the United States market, because once they became important participants in that market no one could guarantee that they would not be faced with an antidumping case and much higher import duties.

     If integration was by now unavoidable, giving the process clear rules was desirable, at least for the weaker participant in integration. To tie the hands of the stronger participant, however, it had to let its own hands be tied in exchange.

     In early 1990 Mexico was host to a Latin American Integration Association meeting. The rules of the game in ALADI were not very favorable to the change of strategy that was being contemplated by Mexican authorities because they required that you give your Latin American partners an additional discount beyond whatever the rest of the world — in this case the United States — would get. In order for us to start negotiating with the United States, we had already dramatically dropped our levels of protection. We were playing by different rules. When Mexico and Chile — Chile first and then Mexico — started changing the levels of protection dramatically, the old rules of the game no longer made sense. So in 1990 people from the Ministry of Trade started talking with their Latin American counterparts, trying to explain why it seemed not to make much sense for Mexico to continue with this. And they got very strong responses. I was invited as an academic to join the Mexican foreign minister in a four-day, three-country whirlwind trip through Latin America just trying to straighten things out. The possibility of focusing on hemispheric, and not only North American, free trade was raised at that very early stage. When we arrived in Argentina, for example, there was a very interesting front-page interview in one of the main dailies with the then minister for economic affairs who said, well, if the Mexicans will be getting this treatment from the United States, why can’t Argentina get it too?

     When the opportunity was opened with Bush’s Initiative for the Americas, everybody jumped at it. Mexico had not been forced to make a choice between those two dimensions of its very complex reality: North and Latin America; today we have free trade agreements with seven countries in the area. We have tried to break the dichotomy of North America / South America and to bridge the two by these agreements. Bridging the two is a way of staying with one foot in each of our realities, our Latin American reality and our North American reality.

DT: Can we move from economic integration and trade issues to other areas of United States – Mexican interactions, areas you have called "intermestic"?

CRF: The word intermestic shows that there are issues that are at the same time domestic and international. Most of the agenda in United States – Mexican relations is intermestic. The agenda links domestic and international politics. Maybe the best example is migration. Migration is clearly a United States policy arena in which domestic concerns are the most important. You don’t do your migration regulation because of international considerations. But the results of what happens in that domestic political arena have a tremendous impact on other countries, in this case on Mexico.

     For Mexico this is a matter of bilateral relations and foreign policy, an area in which we have had a series of very strongly held principles. For example, the principal of nonintervention as the cornerstone of Mexican foreign policy. We defend self-determination and nonintervention as the two really crucial elements of any decent international order, in good measure as a result of the well-known history of foreign intervention in Mexico.

     An awareness of the intermestic nature of key components of the bilateral agenda has brought a lively discussion not only of those principles but even of the notion of sovereignty itself, on which they are based. Look at what happened with Proposition 187 in California. That was really a key turning point for many Mexican observers and practitioners: a state-level initiative that had a tremendous impact on Mexican citizens. We’re not talking about five or ten people, we’re talking millions. Just in Los Angeles there are 2 or 3 million Mexicans, not Mexican-origin Americans, Mexicans. We are caught between, on the one hand, wanting to continue preserving the principle of nonintervention, and, on the other, protecting them. And we’re presented with an initiative that says that all these people, if they are not legal residents (and many of them are not — they don’t have the documents), won’t be given any sort of medical care, they won’t be given any sort of schooling. That really puts the two principles — protecting your nationals, on the one hand, and an extreme interpretation of nonintervention in another country, on the other — on a collision course.

     And so we started thinking of what is acceptable in the United States, because the United States defines as acceptable some practices that maybe we don’t. There are ways of participating in the political process that are acceptable in the United States and that fit in the legal and political rules of the game. And we started first to become familiar with those rules and then to use them to promote the interests of Mexican citizens in the United States, in this case. We were very harshly criticized by people who had often defended United States intervention elsewhere. But the end result was clear: Mexican authorities decided to bring their case directly to the relevant components of the United States public.

     Efforts to have NAFTA approved by the U.S. Congress constitute a second, and crucial, turning point. We made a tremendous effort to convince people in the United States that it made sense. For a couple of years the two governments had been on different sides of the table, but when the fight for legislative approval of NAFTA started, the two governments were on the same side. We had the same objectives. So it was easier. But still some people criticized us for spending a lot of money on the effort to pass NAFTA, to influence people and influence the way people looked at things.

     This effort to bring our case to public opinion has continued. Next week in Texas, we’re having a public forum in which we (from both the United States and Mexico) will try to present key facts about migration as they are described in the binational study, made public in 1997, in which the two governments have agreed on a common view of what the outline of the realities of migration is.1 We’re doing it because we don’t want consideration of new immigration legislation to go against the basic realities of the phenomenon.

DT: What realities did you want stipulated?

CRF: Well, for example, the fact that there are real labor markets that Mexican workers service in the United States. It is not necessarily so that, if they were not there, someone else could take their place. In some cases when there are no Mexican workers, processes become mechanized, and that may be very good for the United States. But in many other cases, if there are no Mexican migrants, that part of the production goes elsewhere, outside the United States. There is no way to retain it.

     We are also emphasizing that Mexicans put more into the Social Security system than they take out. Taxes are frequently collected from their paychecks but not used by the migrants. The costs and the benefits of such things may not be adequately distributed in the United States, because it is the federal government that gets those taxes, and it is the local authorities who have to pay for education and for health care and so on, and we understand that. And for them, the local authorities, it is really a very tough situation. But that does not deny the contribution of Mexican migrants to United States coffers.

     Changes in perception have also taken place in other key issue areas at the intergovernmental level. Take drug trafficking. Ten years ago we were in an impossible alley, in which we were saying, "This is a problem of demand." And the United States was saying, "This is a problem of supply." In the last two years we came to a joint diagnosis of the drug traffic, and we now have a joint strategy for dealing with it. For one example — three weeks ago we were in El Paso, at a very large conference where both sides reiterated their agreement regarding this issue. Both countries admitted they were sources of supply and demand. Each of us now has a more complex understanding of the other. We want to bring that understanding to both Mexican political figures and your political figures. That forces us to deal not just with the State Department. Before, when an extreme interpretation of the nonintervention principle was in full force, we didn’t even touch Congress, we went to the State Department. And they would do whatever they had to do; that wasn’t our responsibility. Now we go to Congress, we go to the local legislatures, we go to Sacramento, we go to Austin, we go to wherever we need to go within the accepted rules of the game in United States society.

     There’s still the need for a new concept of sovereignty — something that is already being thrown around in academic circles a lot. No one in government circles will touch this discussion. Principles such as nonintervention are so important that they were incorporated into the Mexican Constitution a few years ago, as the basic tenets of our foreign policy. As recently as ten years ago, we espoused a very constraining sort of interpretation of the nonintervention principle. Now we have a much more relaxed interpretation in which we have come to accept as valid activities that in the past we would have rejected.

DT: What are some directions you see in Mexican discussions of sovereignty?

CRF: In Mexico we have a very strong legal tradition related to the issue of sovereignty. Not very long ago we would discuss sovereignty only in legal terms. Our focus was on geographic space and jurisdiction and on the exclusive right of each country to protect its power to control the enforcement of laws and the pursuit of criminals within its respective territory. This is particularly relevant, for example, in the face of drug dealers and others who cross national borders. Behind the old legal arguments about sovereignty, however, there are differences in the nationalism of the two countries. We have been historically more adamant in asserting our legalistic perspective on legal sovereignty not only because our law is a major defense against a much stronger nation but also because that nation is on our border. If I were in Chile, I would worry less about insisting on our sovereign jurisdiction in preventing American policemen from coming into my country to pick someone up and bring that person to the United States for trial. It is not easy for United States policemen to do that in Chile, but in Mexico it can be a daily occurrence. So the defense of that jurisdictional sovereignty — "in this territory I am the authority" — is extremely important in a very concrete, real way for Mexico. Mexico is still a much stronger defender of that dimension of sovereignty than countries that are very far from you. We are extremely careful about jurisdiction in crime and law enforcement. It would be easier for countries in other parts of the world to question that aspect of sovereignty than for us to question it. Even as we look at other aspects of sovereignty, we are unlikely to question these jurisdictional elements of sovereignty.

     At the same time that we insist that jurisdiction presents very basic dimensions of sovereignty that are key to a country like ours that is so close to a very large, very powerful country, Mexicans are raising concerns about the meaning of sovereignty in economic terms. What about the multinational corporations that are actually able to influence the livelihood of Mexicans? Integration is not something that is controlled by Mexican authorities and Mexican nationals. It is not in the government’s power to decide whether we want to become integrated into the international market economy. The initiatives of corporations and individuals have impacts on Mexicans. Until very recently it would be anathema to say that the state cannot independently control the economy; now an increasing number of people agree that this is the case. We are affected by decisions made by the United States, Japan, and the rest of the world. This encourages us to look at the economic dimensions of sovereignty and to accept that there are limits and rules, loose but very clear limits.

DT: So transnational corporations, for example, have power over the lives of Mexicans . . .

CRF: Transnational corporations have ways of doing things that are beyond the control of the government. And you have to take that reality into account whenever you make your policy. For example, transnational corporations have all of this intrafirm trade in which the same company ships components made in one country to another plant of the same company to be assembled in another country. What is the price of anything that they trade among their own subsidiaries? And how does that price affect what taxes they pay? Very large transnational actors really have ways of avoiding traditional nationalist and governmental approaches to economics. It is not even a question of other governments doing things. Very large private actors do things that are beyond the control of public actors.

DT: Can you give me a couple of examples of how the Mexican government goes about trying to overcome its traditional constitutional reluctance to take part in what it traditionally regarded as the internal affairs of another country? In these activities you seem to be developing a different practice, if not content, of Mexican national sovereignty. For example, when you decided to become more involved in United States affairs, did you study what other states — Israel, for example — were doing?

CRF: There was a group of people involved in studying ethnic lobbies, but it didn’t get too far because our situation is different from that of other states. The Jewish lobby influences United States politics in order to affect United States policy in Israel-Arab disputes. Greeks take part in United States politics in order to influence United States policy in Greek-Turkish disputes. The issues in which Mexican Americans may be interested are mostly of a more clearly bilateral nature, which creates a very different situation for them.

DT: So how did you decide where and how to intervene?

CRF: I think two things happened. In the first place, we analyzed the relevant formal rules, legal rules, as to how a government may present its case in the United States. You have to have a registered lobbyist. You have to have a clear picture of what you are trying to do. And we decided that that was the most productive way for us.

     The second thing we learned was that it was not easy to decide in many cases who was us and who was them, in the sense that there were many transnational alliances and shared interests. What happened in California affected not only Mexicans; it affected Mexican Americans but also many other minorities as well in California. We were not trying to have anybody do something that would benefit only Mexico. It was Mexico trying to help promote the interests of people that shared the interests of Mexicans in the United States. See, it is very different from the Israelis trying to get something for their country in the foreign aid bill. We were saying, "Well, this benefits Mexico in a very general sense. The California initiatives are not about Mexico but about people being able to go to school and to have medical care and so on. It benefits us, because Mexican nationalism is offended by discrimination in California. But it doesn’t benefit us in the sense that it provides things, specific benefits, to Mexico as people living only on the Mexican side of the border." So, I think the second thing that has happened has been that we have slowly discovered that the best way to approach things is by assuming one of the results of integration, the fact that you have allies on both sides of the United States – Mexican border. And, of course, that’s a knife that has two edges.

     In many cases we simply show our view of things and our data to people who happen to share our interests. Let me give you one very specific example. When the 1996 immigration law was passed, it included a very interesting change. The United States was going to change the border-crossing cards that people along the border have for their daily crossings for a new document which was referred to as the laser visa. In fact, border residents would no longer have a border-specific document that would allow them into the United States for very specific reasons. Now all Mexicans wishing to enter the United States — in fact, all foreigners — would have to have laser visas. So the specificity of the border was lost to whoever did it in Washington.

     We had four and a half million Mexicans along the border who happened to have border-crossing cards and, under the new law, would have to change those border-crossing cards for something else. In the proposed new procedure, there was a very real possibility that the criteria for adjudicating a laser visa would be more stringent than the ones that had been used for the old border-crossing card. And that could have a very dramatic impact on border communities, as anybody who had been to the border would know. For the most part, however, the people in Washington involved in changing the rules had not been to the border. They did not know that there are legal commuter migrants that go almost every day to the other side and buy things to bring back. There is a very, very interesting symbiosis that has developed in that area in border communities. The new policy, if done right, could be very positive, but if done wrong, it could ruin the life on the border. For example, when you ask for a visa, you have to bring your passport. People on the border had never considered having passports. So if you have the same criteria for people in Mexico City and for people on the border, the maquiladora workers, for example, are going to find it harder in real terms to fulfill the requirements. For example, if you charge $45 per visa and you also have to have a passport, that’s 25 more dollars. So you’re talking about $70 for each one of the people that wants to have a visa. If you have a family of six, that’s over four hundred dollars, more than the salary of most maquiladora workers in the area.

     So what happened? We had to basically say, "We see this potentially as a positive program, but it has to be handled and implemented very carefully. It will, after all, affect not just Mexican citizens, but the reality of border life." So we asked North American communities, on the other side of the border, "Are you aware that starting in a month’s time this is going to happen: people who cross the border every day won’t be as easily allowed to come in and shop?" For many communities along the border, that’s really dramatic. There are communities along the border in which the Mexican side is larger, and the United States side is basically a big mall for the Mexicans. Once those on the United States side realized what might become of their communities, they started writing to their representatives and asking them, "Where were you when this action was approved?" People on our side of the border will find it harder to continue their daily commutes, but it will also deeply affect the other side.

     Talking openly with local authorities and influentials is something that we may not have done a few years ago, but I think that is something that is completely within the rules of the game. We’re not doing anything that is not acceptable by the normal standards of the United States.

     Ten years ago I was writing a piece on migration and United States policy, and I was trying to see whether the United States Congress had taken into account impacts on Mexico. The first question was how would Americans know what Mexican interests were. Someone would have to point out to them, say, "Well, these are Mexican interests so that they may be taken into account." So I went through the border to the consulates, and officials said, "I’m very sorry but we’re not allowed to talk about these things. I can tell you about what we’re doing in order to protect our nationals. But I cannot talk about how the United States has shaped migration policy in the legislature." So I asked, "But do you understand that whatever it is that you do here at the border will be affected by what they’re doing in Washington today?" "Of course we are, but if you want to talk about that, go to the Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, go to Mexico City." Some on the border even claimed they were forbidden to talk about these things. I was never able to find any regulation where it was forbidden for them to talk. The old way, however, was not to intervene. You do not try to have an impact on things that happen in the other country, even if they affect you. That is light years from where we are now. In my opinion, your question has a very direct answer: Yes, practices and ways of approaching things have been adapted very dramatically in the last ten years. So it’s all been part of the increasing connection between the two economies and societies.

     My view is that this is a positive-sum game in the aggregate for both countries. But there are very clear losers and winners within each one of the countries. There are a lot of losers in this game in the United States and in Mexico, and it is very natural that they become vocal and oppose this. And by losers, I don’t only mean in the economic sense but also losers in an ideological and many other senses. Increasing contact will also bring about a reaction by different political actors in both countries, not just in Mexico. Others are those on the United States side who don’t like to see their country associated with a Latin American nation, a poorer and racially different country.

     But my view is that the governments are behind in the game, very much behind in the game. Trade was already integrating our two economies before the governments even started talking. And my view is that we were becoming a de facto common market before they actually started discussing the possibility of any policy coordination. People say, "We are not a common market." And for Mexico it is important that, formally and legally, we are not even a customs union, because it gives us some freedom in our foreign external relations. Formally, we are not a customs union, and we’re not a common market, and at the same time we have a very large number of Mexicans working in the United States. The labor markets are de facto integrated. Here in my home, this guy that works with me for part of the year comes here and fixes things, but he decides that part of the year it is better to go to the United States. He has the United States labor market in his head, whatever his calculus is in whatever it is that he does — working construction, gardening. He perceives the United States as a real market option. Even if the governments did nothing, even if the governments decided to oppose what the market is doing, they would have a very tough time stopping it. And I’m not talking migration; I’m talking economics; I’m talking trade; I’m talking financial; I’m talking transnational corporations. So the governments have decided that if they are faced with this reality, they may as well not only join in but try to lead and try to shape whatever it is that the rest of the communities are doing. But that doesn’t eliminate the fact that within Mexico and within the United States there are losers and that they will become active politically. They are losers economically in some cases, but many in both countries just don’t like an increasing contact between the people from our two different countries. The racial component is very sharp for some actors, particularly on the United States side.

DT: Today, the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, I saw a huge parade of people from various trades, workers and farmers, who were protesting the Mexican government’s policies. Our readers will recognize American resistance to greater trade with Mexico, but help me to understand Mexican protests against greater trade with the United States.

CRF: These protests are not new. What they are more than likely protesting is the loss of strong state protection of the Mexican market and state regulation of the economy. What’s interesting is that this is not just a worker / capitalist division. Some segments of the union world in Mexico, the most economically advanced, have decided that what determines winners and losers in the game is basically who is in the game and who is out of the game. Those workers that are in sectors or companies that are hooked up to the whole process are winning. And those that are in sectors of the economy, or even regions of the country, that have been left out are losing. In the working class there are also very different situations in which the degree of workers’ participation in the free trade and integration game has very interesting impacts on their specific struggles. The real fight over salary for a Mexican autoworker may be increasingly related to Mexican autoworkers’ ability to get together with those other guys in Detroit, etc., in order to do something about their salaries. There is a very interesting union that has been around for many years. It is called Sin Fronteras (no borders). For Mexican unions to go from nationalism to Sin Fronteras, to organize with United States unions, is a long, long step. But that is what you see happening. It’s something that has sparked life in a country that still has a lot of needs unresolved. There are also regional differences between winners and losers: the north part of Mexico versus Chiapas.

     The fastest visit to Mexico makes clear that there are still a lot of things that governments could and should do in terms of the social distribution of the gains of this new game that we are all playing. The market, for example, has proven to be extremely limited in many regions.

     Now the nongovernmental activists and organizations are becoming important in their own terms. And thank God. There are, for example, so many environmental things messed up in this country that we need a decent environmental movement. But that is something that has started to develop only over the last few years. The real changes, again, came with the negotiation of NAFTA. Mexican activists discovered their counterparts in the United States, and the United States environmentalists discovered their counterparts in Mexico and fed them and helped to keep them warm. So, I think that’s the wave of the future.

     It was the market, it was the contacts of our societies and economies, that brought governments to promote basic new rules of the game, in fact, market-oriented rules. So the key actors are not the governments. At this point, we’re still dealing with the setting of the rules, but the nature of the rules themselves makes governments less important. Maybe in the future we will see a much more interesting set of connections develop at the NGO (nongovernmental organization) level between the two countries that will conceptualize whole new ways for people in the two countries to relate to each other and our common problems.

Carlos Rico Ferrat is Mexico’s consul in Boston, Massachusetts. Readers may contact Rico at cmexico@star.net.

1 Binational Study on Migration, Migration between Mexico and the United States: Binational Study (Mexico City, 1997).

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