Beyond Walls: Watching Donald Trump from Mexico

By Madeleine Wattenbarger. I watched the November 8 election returns with several other foreigners in Mexico City, where I’d moved just a few months before, at the end of August. The results left me, like so many others, numb and in denial for a few days. When I talked with other people from the US, we repeated to each other our shock. I considered myself fairly politically savvy; I liked to think I didn’t harbor too many utopian illusions about American exceptionalism or the Obama era. Still, I felt that the election ushered in a change not just of degree, but of kind, with respect to discrimination, xenophobia and exploitation. To my surprise, though, many people around me in Mexico beheld the Trump era as merely a dropping of the façade, an extension of business as usual. Some met my post-election malaise with a sort of fatalistic humor. “Now you have a president as bad as ours,” several different Mexicans joked to me.

Donald Trump is a familiar figure to Mexicans disillusioned with their political system. To Trump’s inauguration-day approval rating of 37%, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, according to a January poll by Grupo Reforma, has an approval rating of as low as 12%. Between the 2014 disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, the recent spikes in gasoline pricing and the dramatic increase in violent crime under his presidency, Peña Nieto’s government has become the face of disaster. Additionally, it’s no secret that a wealthy, elite and largely white political class has long ruled the country. Many Mexicans regard their government as corrupt and self-interested as a matter of course.

Peña Nieto’s capitulating to the US hasn’t done much to improve his public image, either. When Peña Nieto met with Trump in Mexico City this September, after the candidate publically called the Mexican people rapists and criminals, his act was widely seen as a humiliating betrayal of the Mexican people. Here, Trump plays into what Mexican progressives have long considered one of the government’s original sins: its capitulation to US interests. Peña Nieto showed himself to be on the side of the wealthy class who could potentially benefit from trade deals with the US, rather than, say, rural communities devastated by NAFTA or Mexican immigrants in the US. In late January, Peña Nieto finally stuck up to Trump by cancelling the January 31 meeting about the wall. But, to the anger of many Mexicans, he’s refrained from speaking more openly against the US president.

We don’t have to go too far, then, to see that the dichotomy of Trump versus Mexico is over-simplistic. The wall has become a symbol of US-Mexican relations under Trump, but Trump’s xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments run rampant here, too. The wall on Mexican’s northern border already mostly exists, and in the deportation process, US migration authorities work closely with their counterparts in Mexico. Particularly during the 2014 wave of child migration from El Salvador, Peña Nieto has worked with the US government to curtail migration from Central America. He implemented the 2014 Programa Frontera Sur, which tightened control on the southern border with Guatemala and security around La Bestia, the train that hundreds of thousands of migrants use each year to cross the country.

1405585049086_wps_2_central_american_immigranThe war against undocumented immigration is continuous between the US and Mexico. Trump’s xenophobia, in which all Mexicans are delinquents, appears here, too. Here, migrants from the Southern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—are stigmatized as gang members and criminals. In 2015, the Mexican government deported 165,000 migrants from Central America. So while the proposition of the wall seems a humiliating proposition for Mexico, it’s not for its novelty.

Last Sunday, on February 12, several thousand Mexicans joined in an anti-Trump march that resonated with anti-Peña Nieto sentiment. Among the signs were slogans proclaiming Peña Nieto’s complicity in Trump’s elite agenda: “the threat is in Washington, but the enemy is in Los Pinos,” read one, referring to the Mexican president’s residence. Another referred to a separation between the Mexican people and their government: “Support Mexico, not Enrique Peña Nieto.” As I’ve witnessed the actions of the Trump White House from Mexico, I’ve learned all the more that the Mexican and American people share a common adversary: classism, xenophobia, racism, neoliberal exploitation of people of color and the poor. Resistance and repression in the US shares distinguishing features with its Mexican counterpart. Here, as there, we see the government targeting indigenous people, migrants or the working-class. Our problems aren’t restricted to our country alone, and neither are their solutions. This, if anything, should urge Americans to take our resistance beyond the simplistic patriotism of US exceptionalism, building a resistance movement as globally connected as our afflictions.

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