Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas
"The Future of U.S.–Mexico Relations"

March 2, 2006

Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas takes a question from the crowd on March 2.

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An interview with Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas by Cathy Cockrell is now available in English and in Spanish.

The Future of U.S.–Mexico Relations: Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas
By Susie Hicks

Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, Mexican politician and mayor of Mexico City from 1997–99, sees a roadblock in the current U.S.–Mexico relationship. While the Mexican Senate reached an agreement on migration in February based on a shared migration agenda with the U.S., two very different bills on immigration await passage in the U.S. Congress. Whether or not they are passed, these bills define the contemporary U.S. political debate on immigration. One bill, passed in the House of Representatives in December, would further attempt to tighten the border and criminalize, as felons, the 8–11 million undocumented migrants living in the United States. “Is it even possible to expel the millions of workers already here?” asks Cárdenas. “How would you do it? How long would it take? How would they be substituted?”

In his talk, Cárdenas stressed that U.S.–Mexico political relations are currently hampered by an inconsistent agenda and an unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of crisis in three areas: migration, energy and water. The future of U.S.–Mexico Relations depends on a bilateral approach to all three issues with “real and comprehensive solutions,” said Cárdenas, as well as a serious reevaluation of NAFTA, the free trade agreement between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico enacted in 1994.

Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, Mexico’s ambassador to the U.N., once said that the U.S.–Mexico relationship would go beyond integrated labor markets to the formation of overlapping societies. While a free trade agreement has encouraged the further integration of their economies, Cárdenas said it must be acknowledged that “the most valuable exchange between the two countries is people.” Mexico and the United States, he pointed out, need to focus on “common security” issues at the border, understand the causes and effects of migration and reform immigration laws and temporary worker agreements. Cárdenas envisions Mexican and American citizens gathering data and jointly discussing migration trends. “The academic community needs a better understanding of Mexico and Mexicans,” said Cárdenas. “The U.S. and Mexico share a common border, diverse relations and a lasting friendship even if the relationship has not always been comfortable.”

Cárdenas described the labor relationship between the two countries as “one of the most important migration flows in the world.” Yet in both Mexico and the U.S., comparisons of the U.S. border wall system to the Berlin Wall have emerged. Cárdenas suggested that U.S. citizens should acknowledge the substantial contributions that undocumented workers, who often do pay some form of taxes, give to the economy and culture of the U.S. “I am convinced no real solution to the problem we share will be solved by erecting higher border walls” and further enlarging the Border Patrol, he said. “The fight against terrorism and immigration are different and separate problems.”

Cárdenas suggested that “facing reality” in both countries means understanding the problems posed by both current and past migration. Nearly 500,000 migrants cross the border yearly, in part due to NAFTA and job losses in Mexico. They join millions of immigrants already living in the U.S. He argued that NAFTA should include “mechanisms for social development and reducing inequalities, which in turn could reduce the rate of migration. The Mexican workers already in the U.S. cannot feasibly be expected to leave. NAFTA erased every limitation to investment, noted Cárdenas, and while trade has increased in volume, much of this has been internal transactions that benefit transnational corporations and their maquiladoras on the border. In Mexico, producers of agricultural staples have been affected negatively, resulting in an increase in poverty and migration. Three million Mexicans have migrated to the U.S. since NAFTA’s enactment in 1994.

Inside a packed Andersen Auditorium, more than 300 people listened to Cárdenas speak about such varied topics as the effects of Nafta and Cafta, border violence and the upcoming Mexican presidential election.

“We must revise [NAFTA]… it is exhausted and gave what it could give,” said Cárdenas. “We need an addendum to NAFTA with the goal of social development, reducing inequality.” For Mexico’s part, he added, the government “has not done its homework” over the last decade. It should seek to modernize, become more competitive and reduce reliance on exports in trade, as well as increasing the consumption capacity of Mexicans. An alternative agreement to NAFTA and to Bush’s current FTAA (Free Trade of the Americas) proposal would focus on human development; sustained economic growth; the creation of investment funds as in the EU; and issues of health, social security and the environment. Addressing a question about Mexico’s future relationship with Latin America, Cárdenas said that Mexico had to have closer interactions with Latin American and Caribbean countries. He also pointed out that Mexico has “supported the FTAA [proposed by the U.S.] among Latin American nations even though there are more viable, rational projects for Mexico such as Mercosur.”

While immigration does emerge periodically in U.S. politics and debate, energy policies have not been considered part of a joint U.S.–Mexico agenda. For Cárdenas, the pending oil crisis in Mexico — it is estimated that current reserves will last 11 years — and oil’s role in the “highly aggressive” U.S. foreign policy means that energy policies should be considered “one of the most important challenges in our bilateral relations.”

Both countries have ignored the water crisis facing the U.S. and Mexico, Cárdenas added. Water distribution along the border is a recurrent problem, said Cárdenas, because it has not been addressed “at its roots.” Mexican irrigation policies, dating from a 1926 modernization program, are based on data that overestimates the flow of the Rio Bravo. According to Cárdenas, both countries should carry out studies to determine the yearly flow and decide on a fair distribution policy to end water disputes in the region.

Understanding and reconsidering flows of people and resources between the two countries and emphasizing the development of human capacity, then, is essential to “strengthening a fruitful relationship in the future,” said Cárdenas.


Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas is one of the founders of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) and served as mayor of Mexico City from 1997-99. He spoke at UC Berkeley on March 2, 2006.


Susie Hicks is a graduate student in the Department of Geography.

Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas signs an autograph for a student at the event.


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