Secretary of State Rex Tillerson touched down in Mexico Thursday and many Mexicans were not happy about it. Tillerson headed out into the land of “rapists and thieves”, according to his boss, to talk about the central themes of Trumpism in the region: the war on drugs, NAFTA and immigration.
Tillerson is making a grand sweep of Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Jamaica with a focus on a country he won’t visit–Venezuela. Besides the attempt to isolate Venezuela, the general purpose of the tour seems to be to convey two messages — 1) no, the Trump government is not just a bad joke, and 2) yes, I am still Secretary of State.
There will also be the behind-the-scenes messges to open up Latin American natural resources without restrictions to U.S. investors, expand U.S. military presence and interests and keep people at home–even after the devastation caused by the first two points.
The representative of the most unpopular U.S. government in Latin America in decades, if not ever, Tillerson brings with him on this trip his baggage of general opprobrium, plus a carry-on of indignation generated by his remarks just the day before setting off in which he warned the region of Chinas economic influence and Russia’s sale of “arms and military equipment to unfriendly regimes who do not share or respect democratic values”, adding the United States stands in vivid contrast.”
In the speech at the University of Texas, née Sonora, Tillerson stated:
“Latin America does not need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people.”
Not surprisingly given the history of the region, Latin Americans understood that as ‘Just shut up and be happy with the old one’. The one that goes around the world spouting”America First” (and doesn’t mean “America” as a continent).
His statement was so inadvertently revealing that it provoked irate responses in the Latin American press. The Mexican daily La Jornada wrote (translation mine):
The affirmations cited are an unmistakable show of cynicism and ignorance–characteristics of the Trump administration–given that if any superpower has been characterized by its predatory trade and economic practices and its military support of dictatorial Latin American governments, it’s the United States…”
Tillerson’s speech was the latest version of the “us vs. them” vision of the world the Trump administration espouses at home and abroad. Here in Mexico nothing could be more tone-deaf than to portray an image of Trumpian United States as a moral ally against other countries “who don’t share our values.” Apart from the long history of U.S. intervention, Mexicans have watched with growing outrage as the current administration proclaimed them the “other” that threatens U.S. values and way of life.
It’s also a very delicate moment in Mexico. The political climate is tense and getting tenser by the day in this presidential election year. Smear campaigns have begun before candidates are even registered. The country is severely fractured by partisan politics and run by an authoritarian government becoming increasingly desperate as it watches its candidate for continuity fizzle. Many expect fraud, dirty tricks and acts of repression in these elections. A recent poll shows Jose Antonio Meade of the ruling PRI party in third place with only 16% of the vote, the rightwing candidate Ricardo Anaya in second with 26% and the frontrunner center-left Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador leading with a healthy 32%.
President Enrique Peña Nieto and Tillerson, who also met briefly with Canadian foriegn minister Chrystia Freeland, emphasis on beefing up the security relationship after Mexico’s bloodiest year on record inthe decade-long drug war. The plea for military cooperation on the eve of an opposition-led election, the government-controlled media’s use of the visit to feed its tendentious and unsubstantiated obsession with Russian electoral intervention in Mexico, and Tillerson’s open differences with Trump on NAFTA stirred a sense of disquiet among Mexicans instead of repairing a badly deteriorated binational relationship. Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray’s over-the-top obeisance to the former ExxonMobil chief didn’t help either.
The Secretary of State’s tour passes through the Latin American countries with governments favorable to U.S. interests, to consoldiate supportfor what’s finally shaping up to be the Trump agenda inthe region. Tillerson is seeks to assure their loyalty in following US actions against the Venezuelan government, to promote a hardened war on drugs strategy, to seal borders and to further private-sector interests. That could spell trouble for the chances of free and fair elections in Mexico July 1, where the leading candidate has called for defense of national sovereignty and the vote, more state programs for equitable distribution of wealth and national control, and migrant rights.
In Texas, Tillerson laid out three pillars for Latin American policy. Washington has a penchant for “pillars” to describe policy– the Merida Initiative, which defines U.S. policy toward Mexico, has four– when it becomes clear that the policy is failing, they change the pillars. As any architect knows, the problem with this kind of pillar construction is that if the foundation is rotten no kind of pillars can hold up the structure.
Tillerson’s pillars of “economic growth, security and democratic governance” add nothing new. Pillar One-economic growth- continues to ignore issues of who reaps the benefits of growth or what happens to nonrenewable resources, sustainability and environment. On economy, Tillerson focused on NAFTA, seeking to assuage Texan and Mexican fears by insisting that the Trump administration merely wants to update the agreement. In Texas he stated:
I’m a Texan, former energy executive, and I’m also a rancher. I understand how important NAFTA is for our economy and that of the continent. But it should come as no surprise that an agreement put into place 30 years ago, before the advent of the digital age and the digital economy, before China’s rise as the world’s second-largest economy – that NAFTA would need to be modernized.
It is not good news that Tillerson views NAFTA from the point of view of a U.S. “Texan, former energy executive and rancher.” With Peña Nieto viewing it from the point of view of a rapacious politician and representative of the Mexican transnational elite, that begs the question of who is viewing it from the point of view of the good of the people of the nations involved.
Predictably, Tillerson emphasized energy resources:
We see a future where energy connectivity from Canada to Chile can build out and seize upon energy integration throughout the Americas, delivering greater energy security to the hemisphere and stability to growing economies. South America is blessed with abundant energy resources. Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Guyana, and Argentina all have significant undeveloped oil and natural gas. The United States is eager to help our partners develop their own resources safely, responsibly, as energy demand continues to grow.
His phrase “seize upon energy” rang ominous to many Mexicans, who zealously guarded their oil reserves from U.S. interests up until Peña Nieto finally privatized them. The outgoing Peña administration just auctioned off the largest block of offshore drilling contracts to date the same day Tillerson arrived.
Building a “post fossil-fuel economy” is clearly not a language Tillerson speaks. As John Saxe Fernandez noted, Tillerson’s oil interests are reflected in his Latin American itinerary, which centers on opening up the Hemisphere to U.S. companies like his own under the “Maximum Extraction Principle”, with the Mexican government lockstepping alongside. Saxe Fernandez warns:
…this energy entreguismo (a Spanish word for surrendering resources to a foreign power) creates an extremely high risk in terms of the climate and of the possibility of war for our region in relation to the United States.
On security, Tillerson called “transnational criminal organizations” the worst security threat in the region and again employed the U.S.’s undeniable responsibility for cartel violence as a justification for further intervention and militarization. “Shared responsibility” has been the catchword for intervention since the Obama administration joined George Bush’s joint drug war in Mexico and Central America. The Pentagon and US arms manufacturers have been eager to help Mexico fail at confronting vioence, reaping millions in tax dollars to train and equip Mexican and Central American police and armed forces. According to Tillerson, this militarist and interventionist model that has led to 150,000 deaths and more than 40,000 disappearances in Mexico will continue to be U.S. policy:
We acknowledge our role as the major market for illicit drug consumption and the need for shared approaches to address these challenges. The opioid epidemic we are facing in this country is a clear, tragic representation of how interconnected our hemisphere truly is. Violence and drugs do not stop at our southern border. That is why we continue to employ a coordinated, multilateral approach to diminish the influence of these groups. It is time we rid our hemisphere of the violence and devastation that they promote.
No expert has pointed to any evidence that this strategy works and many have shown how it increses violence. The opioid epidemic is demonstrably demand-driven, not supply driven, and is overwhelmingly dominated by prescription drugs produced and distributed in the United States rather than foreign heroin. Mexican heroin poses a serious health risk for Mexicans in growing and trafficking areas and for U.S. consumers, but the roots of the problem are in U.S. communities and pharmacies, and in its contradictory prohibition and enforcement regime. If dealt with there, the size and power and violence of Mexican groups will wither.
But Tillerson believes that the current course is just fine. Ten years of a drug war violence–much due to Mexican security forces–, corruption and erosion of rule of law with no reduction in the availability of prohibited drugs appears to be insufficient reason to change course. Human consequences don’t enter into the equation– Tillerson talks about the Merida Initiative as if it were a (very expensive) package of good intentions, rather than a policy that has already racked up a decade of bloodshed and failure:
Through the Merida Initiative – a partnership between the United States and Mexico focused on improving security and the rule of law – the United States is providing assistance to build the capacity of Mexican law enforcement and judicial institutions. By providing inspection equipment, canine units, and training, we equip law enforcement officers with tools to eradicate opium poppy production, tighten border security, and disrupt trafficking activities – not just in drugs but in trafficking of humans. By improving cross-border communications, we make both sides of the border safer.
It’s spin-off, the Alliance for Prosperity in Central America, gets the same treatment. He refers to the Kelly-sponsored meeting on Central America at SouthCom last June where:
The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, along with our Mexican counterparts, cohosted the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America. Through many productive conversations with public and private sector leaders across the region, opportunities were identified to help Central American countries grow their economies, strengthen their institutions, and better protect their people. More opportunities for Central Americans will weaken the hold of transnational criminal organizations, address the underlying causes of legal and illegal immigration, and result in less violence.
This sounds reasonable, but the same policy, which has been going on for years, has actually played a major role in expelling people through megaprojects and land grabs and increased inequality, increasing violence through militarization of public safety and decreased rule of law by propping up repressive and corrupt governments in the name of battling organized crime, to which they are often tied. The U.S.-supported fraudulent election in Honduras is the latest example.
At Friday’s press conference in Mexico City, Tillerson said he discussed with Freeland and Videgray following up on the Central America conference last June on the Northern Triangle countries, stating, “Success there will better protect all of our countries and provide opportunities for the citizens of Central America.” With no mention of the election in Honduras that even the OAS deemed too dirty to call, “success” came across as the consolidation of the U.S. agenda in the region regardless of the democratic aspirations of the people.
The bulk of the press conference consisted of the three affirming their good relations, Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray rambing obsequiously, Canada’s Freeland mentioning the importance of “advancing democracy, especially in Venezuela” without saying a word about Honduras and Tillerson returning to his favorite theme of the need “to promote market-based energy development”.
In response to questions, Videgaray said that they did not discuss DACA, but said if young migrants return to Mexico “it will be a win situation for Mexico and a lose situation for the United States”. He did say Mexico would not support any decision on Venezuela that involved violence, while Tillerson said the US would “prefer” a peaceful solution, but that it depends on Maduro.
Videgaray stated that “the ([U.S.-Mexico] relationship today is more fluid, it’s closer than it was with previous administrations, which might be surprising to some people, but that’s a fact of life. And I want to highlight the role that – and leadership of Secretary Tillerson, who has been instrumental to achieving this, and to bring our countries closer.”
Tillerson went into a drawn-out attempt to justify Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. He also revealed that they had a working dinner with the Mexican armed forces on disrupting transcriminal (sic) organizations, meaning the drug war will continue, more miltarized than ever since Mexico passed the Internal Security Law and Donald Trump took office.
The Red Herring of Russian Meddling
A Mexican reporter asked Tillerson, “Is there evidence that there is going to be an interference by the Russian Government in Mexico as there was in the United States?”
Tillerson predictably ignored the reference to the deepening scandal of the Russian government’s actions to favor Donald Trump in the US elections and Trump’s Russia dealings, and went straight to the Mexico part. What he said in the official transcription was this:
You asked about Russian interference in Mexican elections. All I could say to you is we know that Russia has fingerprints in a number of elections around the world. We hear this from our European counterparts as well. My advice would be – to Mexico would be: Pay attention. Pay attention to what’s happening.
This is a slick but fairly measured answer. He did not answer the question of evidence and he said to pay attention. It wasn’t easy for the Mexican press to twist this into an ominous warning of Russian intervention, but they did their best. Front pages the next day read “Tillerson: ‘Beware of Russia!’” and other alarmist titles based only on this response to a planted question. Tillerson’s comment, to “pay attention”, of all the speeches and answers on real issues of security, economy and diplomacy, was the front page of at least three Mexican newspapers and was even the title of the Reuters and El País articles on the visit.
There’s a subtext here, as there usually is in what passes for news in Mexico. The accusation that Russia is involved in the elections comes straight from the Karl Roves at work on the Mexican election attempting to undermine Lopez Obrador. Their problem is that they are constructing this offensive on the basis of no evidence whatsoever.
The advantage they have is control of much of the press. The accusation that the Russians support Lopez Obrador has become standing joke among Lopez Obrador’s followers, with social networks using the hashtag #AndresManuelovich and with banners like “The Russians of Tuxla Chico for Andres Manuelovich!” in villages throughout the country. It came as no surprise that the Mexican press controlled by the government used Tillerson to further the meme. But the international press falling into line is a bad sign.
As they were screaming “The Russians are Coming” in Spanish, the press did not even ask about the private meeting between Tillerson and Mexican military and intelligence services. This happened at a Thursday night dinner, with no information except that it was to measure progress on a joint security plan Tillerson said was developed in his early 2017 visit. This could be where the real threat to Mexican elections lies. U.S. military support of the armed forces in the drug war has been a major factor in the rise in deaths and human rights violations. The role of the traditionally nationalist institution will be critical in the elections.
Breitbart, the white supremacist, ultra-right media group founded by Steve Bannon, heralded Tillerson’s visit, the Merida Initiative and the warnings about Mexican criminal organizations. For the U.S. alt-right, transnational crime stops at the border, with all the criminals on the southern side and the victims on the northern side. Despite their hatred of everything Mexican and America First campaigns, they promote spending billions of the U.S. budget to support often corrupt security forces in a failed war on drugs because it perpetuates the myth that criminal organizations are genetically and geologically Mexican.
Tillerson increased suspicion not of Russia meddling but of U.S. meddling with his visit to Mexico. Foreign Minister Videgaray, now thought to be running the succession, put himself in the no-win situation of attempting to show a united front with a despised foreign government. He should have learned from the fiasco of the August 2017 reception of Mexico-bashing candidate Donald Trump. Now as he lavishly praised Trump’s representative, his message seemed to be, “Don’t worry, we don’t like Mexico either”.
Tillerson’s visit stirred the already muddied waters of Mexican politics. It did nothing to repair the binational relationship and increased, rather than allayed fears regarding the Trump administration’s policies against Mexican migrants, the border wall, the failed drug war or possible plans to block the center-left in the upcoming elections. The contradictory and partial positions put forth and his emphasis on business failed to increase his creds as a statesman and served to consolidate his reputation as an oil executive dressed up like a diplomat under a president who has no concept of diplomacy.