Elite Perceptions of the US

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As neighbours we tend to believe we know each other well, but all too often we take each other for granted


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I was born and raised in a Mexican state that shares a border with the United States. For our elites, ‘the other side’ was a place where we would go to splurge. In our Mexican history books we learned to both love and hate the United States. It was the country of rock music and Hollywood flicks - little did we know how these would become instruments of Washington’s global soft power. But we also learned that it was the country that in its relentless territorial expansion took half of Mexico’s territory in the 19th century, turning the local population into foreigners in their own land.

When I was an exchange student in Minnesota in the 1970s, almost no Spanish was spoken in this region that had been colonized by Scandinavian pilgrims. There was a vast middle class, and a much more homogeneous, urbane, tolerant and eco-friendly society than Mexico’s.

I later realized there was a deep class divide in how Mexicans travelled to the United States. I am part of a minority that holds a 10-year United States nonimmigrant visa and I have also joined the trusted traveller programme known as Global Entry, allowing me hassle-free entry into the United States in less than 60 seconds. At the other extreme, roughly 200,000 undocumented Mexican workers try to enter the United States every year, through the desert, across the river or along the coast, and one person a day dies attempting to cross the border.

The United States and Mexico are trade partners that have aimed to achieve the free flow of goods and services, of capital and investments, and yet human mobility is not part of the agreement. I have heard many US government officials, business leaders and academic experts say that the United States has a competitive edge over Europe and Asia thanks to its ability to leverage migration and human capital in Mexico and Central America.

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States prided itself on being the world’s largest economy, accounting for half of global economic output, the foremost military power, and a society built on the premise of an ever-expanding middle class. However, Ronald Reagan changed this social contract by redistributing wealth upward; he changed the political and economic rules for the American middle and working classes as he built entrenched privileges in favour of corporations and those at the very top of the income distribution pyramid.

The United States is no longer the country of the middle class.

However, I do not share the views of those who believe in the demise of the United States as a superpower. I think it continues to be the pre-eminent nation in a multi-power world. It has an unparalleled technological advantage over China, Europe and other regions.

President Barack Obama has improved not only the image of and trust towards the United States in Mexico, but also the possibilities for cooperation between the two countries

As much as I admire the United States as a global superpower, I am also puzzled by two characteristics of their society: the readiness to sacrifice human lives for religion, profit, and/or the sacred right to use weapons; and the racial and electoral divide that prevails 150 years after the Civil War ended.

These two violent traits of the United States are more often than not intertwined in racially-motivated massacres. As Howard Zinn put it in A People’s History of the United States, there is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States.

Jon Stewart summed it up perfectly on the day after a racially motivated massacre left nine dead at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015: ‘I honestly have nothing other than just sadness once again that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal yet we pretend doesn't exist.’

A Center for Research and Teaching in Economics survey, ‘Mexico, the Americas and the World 2010 - Foreign Policy: Public Opinion and Leaders’, found that Mexicans long for a special relationship with the United States. We would prefer a bilateral agreement with the United States rather than having to coordinate with other countries and regions that may have common interests based on geographical proximity or cultural bonds, such as Canada or Latin America.

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has improved not only the image of and trust towards the United States in Mexico, but also the possibilities for cooperation between the two countries. I believe his 2012 speech ‘Remarks to the people of Mexico’ was a great exercise in public diplomacy, as he discussed the consolidation of a robust civil society as an essential means to strengthen Mexican democracy. He remains very popular in Mexico.

In sum, Mexicans favour close relations with the US and also look towards our northern neighbour with admiration. However, this relationship is not without certain limits and reservations – hate crime and racial discrimination still affect dark-skinned Mexicans in the United States, as in Mexico.

It is ironic that there are not that many research centers focused on the study of the United States in Mexico. As neighbours we tend to believe we know each other well, but all too often we take each other for granted. One way to strengthen our bilateral relationship would be for us to acquire a better knowledge of Latinos and especially Mexican-Americans’ long struggle for inclusion in American society, becoming political actors in their own right. Although we share ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic characteristics, we still know too little about each other.

Jorge Ramos of Fusion News has said: ‘Latinos are in a transition from reaching large population figures to having a little bit of power. This is new for everyone’. We will certainly see interesting times ahead in US-Mexico relations.