An end to NAFTA is not a free ride for the left

I don’t know if it was Trumps’s election, but ever since November 2016, I have come to develop a healthy sense of skepticism regarding experts in international politics. So, coming across a post by (regularly on-point) Ian Bremmer, I couldn’t help but challenge his assumptions.

In short, the president of Eurasia Group argues that if NAFTA negotiations break down, anti-Americanism will somehow flourish and leftist Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (commonly referred to as AMLO) will capitalize on the sentiment and win the upcoming election.

Here is the original post.

For me, it seems a bit simplistic. Here’s why:

Animosity towards the U.S. is so 2017

The feeling of anti-americanism (and animosity towards Trump) is basically priced in since the day the President of the United States called us “rapists and drug dealers”. We can see this simply in running polls. The percentage of Mexicans who view their northern neighbor unfavorably shot up since 2015, reaching almost 2/3 in september of last year.

Other local polls have pegged the number higher, near the mid 80’s.

Let’s face it: the U.S. election was one of the most watched spectacles of 2015 - 2016 and Trump had a lot to say about Mexico. In the process, we’ve all seen the peso take a dive and it hasn’t been fun.

Further, I would be very hard pressed to find a single Mexican who basically said: “I really like the United States, unless they end NAFTA”.

So, why would ending NAFTA suddenly spike anti-American sentiment? It would basically be only a confirmation of bias for many people.

Politicians are chameleons

Mr. Bremmer’s argument also rests on the idea that AMLO will be the only (or best) candidate to ride the anti-American wave.

I wouldn’t underestimate the rest of the politicians. So far, apart from AMLO we have two independent candidates (one of which can’t seem to get more Mexican), a rightist proposing universal basic income and a centrist riding the bus to work. Any one of these characters can credibly claim (although maybe the rightist PAN less) to be anti-American if they wish. They could all propose visas for Americans, ending cooperation with immigration, legalizing drugs, alignment with China. To promise is free!

On the other hand, AMLO hasn’t been particularly anti-American during his career in the same way Chávez or Castro were. Thus, he would also have to play a very delicate game of balancing, being anti-American but toning down the socialist speech, lest he alienate the middle class that he needs to win. Experience shows this is not easy: Mexicans also despised Bush but AMLO lost the election (to a rightist) when he was in office.

It’s a management election

Finally, why do we assume that being anti-American is what Mexican voters really want?

As far as most polls show, Mexicans are far more concerned about crime and corruption. In fact, 2 out of 3 Mexicans cite crime as their biggest concern according the official statistics agency. This issue is not some “top of mind” guesstimate. Homocide data put this presidential tenure as the most violent in decades, including the last one.

Worst still, current politicians seem, to the general electorate, to not care. Corruption from governors in the PRI party have caused anger and frustration with the party.

Thus, it can be argued that the Mexican electorate is simply looking for the most competent manager they can find. A strong-armed crime-fighting and efficient candidate probably has more odds of appealing to the current concerns than one focused on blaming the U.S.

I would argue that if NAFTA goes, it will do little to change the perception that crime and corruption are more important to root out than Americans.

In short…

To follow the hypothesis that a NAFTA retreat will cause AMLO’s victory, one must prove all of these conditions; a) that there are Mexicans who like the US but would change positions if NAFTA goes under, b) The best candidate to be “anti-American” is AMLO, and c) the Mexican electorate will vote mostly on their animosity towards the U.S., ignoring a host of other issues like soaring crime rates. For me, it just seems too far fetched.

This does not mean that AMLO could not win the elections (today he is ahead by 11 points), but I hypothesize that it is mostly because he is relatively untainted by corruption scandals, independent on what happens with NAFTA.