Panel Discussion
Sergio Aguayo, Denise Dresser,
and Antonio Villaraigosa
"THE U.S. AND MEXICO: Neighbors in a New Era"

April 12, 2002

At table from left: Sergio Aguayo, Denise Dresser and Antonio Villaraigosa discuss the future of the U.S.-Mexican relationship on April 12. Harley Shaiken, Chair of the Center, sits to the left.

RealAudio recording of the panel
(warning: very large - 12.2 mb file)

The U.S. and Mexico: Neighbors in a New Era
Lydia Chávez, Department of Journalism

In the first of a series of public conversations, two Mexican academics and a U.S. Latino political leader engaged over the possibilities offered by Mexican President Vicente Fox's insistence on a new era in U.S. - Mexico relations.

"We are in the middle of a fundamental transformation in the way we Mexicans see the United States, how we perceive the U.S. and how we have decided finally to defend our interests with a different and more assertive attitude," said Sergio Aguayo, a founding member of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights and a professor at the Center for International Relations at El Colegio de México.

"The United States treated Mexico with disdain and indifference in the 19th Century and then took us for granted, and that is over," he said. "It is not going to be possible to take Mexico for granted, for good or for bad."

Denise Dresser, a columnist for Reforma and Proceso in Mexico City who also teaches in the political science department at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, and Antonio R. Villaraigosa, California Assembly Speaker Emeritus and former Los Angeles mayoral candidate, agreed.

However, it quickly became clear that domestic politics in the United States complicated Fox's efforts.

Antonio R. Villaraigosa and Harley Shaiken meeting at the Center for Latin American Studies prior to the panel discussion.
The conversation, "The U.S. and Mexico: Neighbors in a New Era," is part of a larger effort by the Center for Latin American Studies to contribute to the debate on U.S.- Mexico affairs by asking prominent Mexican and U.S. academics, officials and public intellectuals to consider the shape and character of a new policy. To that end, the Center invited Dresser and Aguayo to teach month-long seminars at Berkeley.

The panel on April 12 was one of several discussions-private and public-in which U.S.-Mexico relations have been addressed.

"This is a new program that the Center will be sponsoring to explore the U.S. Mexican relationship--where it is today and where it might be able to go in a way that improves the relationship and improves the lives of people on both sides of the border," said Harley Shaiken, the chair of the Center.

In a sense, the discussions have flirted with a central question that Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda described in a private conversation with California educators about California - Mexico relations: "Either there is a special relationship or there is not."

And if there is, he said, it means cooperating to greater degrees and in ways that initially are likely to make both parties slightly ill at ease.

Mexico is clearly ready to test the possibilities.

Unlike former Mexican leaders, President Fox went to Washington in early September with a message and, Dresser said, a marriage proposal: "Think different."

That meant moving beyond the North American Free Trade Agreement to a "true North American identity pattered on the European Union," she said.

To get there, she added, Castañeda had in hand the talking points of a prenuptial agreement, including amnesty for Mexicans already living in the United States, the negotiation of a guest workers program, and bilateral border cooperation.

Not only was Mexico willing to be more aggressive, it correctly assumed that President Bush, a Texas Republican well aware of the need to court the American Latino vote, would be more receptive.

Villaraigosa credited the growing political power of the Latino community for this change. "Two years ago under a Democratic president, all of the dialogue around U.S.-Mexico relations centered on drug enforcement and Mexico's failure to address drug interdiction issues," he said. "Neither party is talking about that anymore."

In 10 to 15 years, Villaraigosa said, the American Latino community will have the impact on U.S. - Mexico relations, "as you see Jews having an impact on U.S. Israeli relations."

While U.S. Jews have been closely aligned with Israeli interests, however, U.S. Latino and Mexican government interests sometimes clash. September 11 stalled any new accord with Mexico, but it's clear that when negotiations resume, they will be complicated by these differences.

The proposed guest worker program is a case in point. Dresser said that this was probably the only concrete proposal the Bush Administration was likely to succeed in pushing forward. The guest worker program satisfies the Republican Party's business interests to provide low-cost labor and the Mexican interests to provide any jobs at all.

It is precisely, however, the program that many Latino politicians dislike. "There is without question a very strong bias among Latino leadership against a guest worker program," Villaraigosa said. "I don't know how they make a program like that work in a way that it respects the rights of workers to organize."

Mexicans coming in on any guest worker program would compete head-on with Latinos already in the United States.

Amnesty for Mexican immigrants already in the United States, a program the right wing of the Republican Party hates, has a better chance, Villaraigosa said. "I think we will revisit that issue and sooner than people think, " he said. "I think there is a lot of momentum and support for an amnesty or regularization."

Although he acknowledged that there is still a strong nativist and anti-immigrant bent in the right wing of Republican Party, he said, "at the end of the day, both Republicans and Democrats are going to be supportive of regularization." Latino leaders, he said, would play an important role in what that policy will look like.

Maybe, but disagreements between Latino leaders and Mexican leaders slow progress, Dresser said. "The Fox Administration perceived the importance of the Latino community and that is why when he first came into office he said, 'I am going to be the president of all Mexicans,' and so on but I think he and those around him perceive many Latinos as a community to be catered to and seduced, but not to be listened to," she said. "If you speak to many Latino leaders they will tell you that they have not been listened to in this debate and that they have been underestimated and underappreciated."

"Well put," said Villaraigosa, who maintained that the two groups still had much more in common than not.

Meanwhile as Mexicans and Latinos wait for U.S.-Mexico relations to re-emerge as a priority in Washington, it is the Fox Administration that is suffering most, the panelists said.

"Mexico's president gambled on improved relations with the U.S.," said Dresser. "And he is now beginning to incur significant political costs for having done so. Opposition politicians in Mexico are arguing that the president should have known better than to place his bets on an unreliable neighbor to the north. They are beginning to say it's been too much pain and too little gain; that the Fox vision is just another mirage."

While not disagreeing, Aguayo offered a slightly different assessment. The revolution in how Mexicans view their role in the world, he said, would have far greater long-term effect on U.S.-Mexico relations than any temporary setbacks or policy failures. The new attitude, he said in a discussion later in the month, is "very complicated." "It's how we are going to incorporate the U.S. in our ethos. It goes very deep."

And Dresser agreed that over the long run, a new paradigm would prevail: "Despite the waffling that's taking place north of the Rio Grande and the wiggling south of it, I think ultimately greater convergence and integration, whether it's negotiated or not, between the two governments is here to stay."

A group of Berkeley scholars engage Villaraigosa and Aguayo at a luncheon meeting before the evening discussion.


Profile of Antonio Villaraigosa (Berkeley Magazine, 1999)
• Sergio Aguayo: Democracy in Mexico (from Journal of American History, 1999)
• Denise Dresser: Mexico: From PRI Predominance to Divided Democracy (paper presented at the Center for Latin American Studies, November 2001)





CLAS Events
by semester

© 2012, The Regents of the University of California, Last Updated - August 18, 2003