Ever since the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, Juan Pardinas, a Mexican academic, has been thinking back to his childhood.
Specifically, the Cold War era, when his days as a young boy were filled with a medium-grade anxiety that the Russians might incite a nuclear war that could devastate North America.
“It’s the same feeling of uncertainty,” said Pardinas, a graduate of the London School of Economics whose work on anti-corruption legislation has been roundly praised in Mexico. “The feeling that politics has become a source of bitterness, anguish and uncertainty is really sad.”
Clouds have descended over Mexico, miring it in a state of anguish and paralysis after the election of Trump to the highest office in the world. They are clouds of uncertainty and fear, of self-doubt and insecurity. There were even actual storm clouds hanging over the capital in recent days, a literal echo of the nation’s state of mind.
“This may not affect people on the top of our country, but it can only mean bad news for us merchants and lower, working-class people in Mexico,” said Claudia Rivera, a street vendor who owns a food cart in Mexico City.
Outside of concerns about the election, violence has been soaring to levels not seen since the start of the drug war a decade ago. And corruption and a loss of faith in the political leadership had already plunged the nation into a state of gloom. Now, the loss for many is external, too.
“A lot of people see the U.S. as a beacon of freedom, as something to aspire to,” said Pardinas, who works on legislation and economic competitiveness. “But what happens when you lose a role model, the role model of a nation? Now all of us who admired the U.S. are having second thoughts.”
For most Mexicans, the American election has been a grim exercise in self-perception. Trump, a candidate who called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and criminals, vowing to deport millions and build a wall to keep others out, has stoked long-held insecurities in Mexico over sovereignty and respect from its northern neighbor. And his victory was seen by some as validating the perception that Americans, or at least half of them, see Mexico through a knot of stereotypes.
Never mind that Mexico’s rich culture and cuisine, its art and film, are having a global moment, Mexicans say. Or that a wall between the two countries these days might actually keep more Mexicans in the United States than out, given the recent research showing more Mexicans are returning home than leaving to seek opportunity in the U.S.
“We are really in need of some reassurance,” said Pardinas, echoing the sentiment of dozens interviewed in the wake of Trump’s election. “But you need political leadership for that, and we are short on those attributes.”
President Enrique Peña Nieto and his administration have adopted a diplomatic and hopeful posture toward Trump’s presidency.
In a statement after the election, Peña Nieto said the results “open a new chapter in the relationship between Mexico and the United States, which will imply a change, a challenge, but also, it’s necessary to say, a big opportunity.”
He was sure, he said, that the relationship would be one of “trust and mutual respect” that would “build prosperity” for both countries. He also recounted that he had congratulated Trump by phone earlier and that the men had discussed the possibility of meeting again in the coming months “to define, with total clarity, the course that the relationship between the two countries will have to take.”
However, behind the scenes, there was a deep worry regarding the transition, most immediately the possibility of mass deportations of Mexicans living in the United States.
The Foreign Ministry called back all the Mexican consuls general serving in the United States for meetings to discuss how to respond to the incoming administration. Other consular offices issued requests for Mexicans to report harassment or assaults, as anger stirred by Trump’s ascendance has turned into racial threats and violence in parts of the U.S. Meanwhile, the government has already expressed a willingness to renegotiate parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But to some, Peña Nieto’s statement seemed a missed opportunity to address the injury that many Mexicans still feel by Trump’s anti-Mexican stance and the broad concerns about his threats regarding trade between the two nations.
Armando Ríos Piter, an opposition senator representing the state of Guerrero, said that after enduring Trump’s hostile discourse for a year and a half, Mexicans deserved a more robust response from their president.
“It was a very light response to a very dangerous threat,” he said.
As Trump prepared to take office, he continued, Mexico needs to establish its position regarding the United States wall with “firmness, clarity and dignity.”
Instead, “we are left with a politically light position that doesn’t say anything,” he said. “We can’t settle for a statement that says, ‘I spoke with Trump.’”
In September, in anticipation of a possible Trump victory, Ríos submitted bills that would strengthen Mexico’s hand. The bills, which have languished in the Senate, would allow the government to penalize U.S. investments in Mexico should Trump follow through on his promises to tax or block remittances by Mexicans in the United States to finance his proposed border wall.
The legislation would also make it explicitly illegal for the Mexican federal government to finance anything that could be interpreted as a border wall, and it stipulated that if the United States decided to pull out of NAFTA, as Trump has threatened, the Mexican legislature would review the dozens of agreements and treaties that govern the bilateral relationship.
In truth, the Mexican government is in a difficult place. Some Mexicans say their leaders must be careful not to antagonize the new president of the United States with their own incendiary comments, given the economic importance America holds in Mexico.
“It is worrying and frightening to know that the loud guy holding a stick in his hand, saying he is coming to get you, to beat you up, is actually in power to do so now,” said Leticia Vega, a Mexican lawyer.
Business leaders, meanwhile, have begun the process of normalizing Trump’s presidency. Though most executives have adopted a wait-and-see approach, they are continuing with business as usual.
“Sometimes the rhetoric is very different from the actual business of governing,” said Alejandro Ramirez, the head of the largest business consortium in Mexico and the chief executive of Cinépolis, which runs movie theaters across the Americas. “When you have to face the reality of governing you have to look much deeper into the facts, to see whether what you are proposing makes sense.”
Ramirez buys $40 million worth of goods from the United States every year to run his cinemas, from popcorn and nacho cheese to audio equipment. If free trade were upended, those purchases might be made from other countries, he said.
Few thought a Trump presidency was possible. Now most are banking on a stark difference between Candidate Trump and President Trump, meaning that he will not be as harsh on Mexico as promised. Business consortiums and trade interest groups have taken a proactive stance on engaging the president-elect.
“If the Mexican government is smart about this, if they anticipate correctly the concerns of the incoming administration, they can build an agenda to which the Trump administration can respond,” said Duncan Wood, the director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, which promotes relations between the United States and Mexico through research. “The immediate reaction I got from board members is that this is the moment for us to actually engage.”
For some, though, Mexico’s own problems loomed larger than a Trump presidency.
“The problems that we have generated here, in Mexico, ourselves are far more worrisome and immediate,” said Juan de la Vega, 42, a lawyer who has a brother living illegally in San Francisco. “Those are the ones I worry about the most because they affect my life directly, like the stagnant economy, corruption and insecurity.”
“In the grand scale of things, we as Mexicans know how to accept, assume and transcend this Trump thing,” he added.