Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Mexican Consul General Héctor Velasco Monroy took up his duties in San Antonio with a headline-making speech delivered at the Frost Bank Plaza Club on June 23. He condemned then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s anti-Mexican campaign rhetoric and his plan to erect a border wall.
“The eventual construction of a border wall…forget that,” Velasco said at the time, setting aside the normally restrained language of diplomacy. “The Mexicans who want to keep coming back are just like you: well-educated, well-trained entrepreneurs…but more importantly, decent people.”
Seven months later on Jan. 28, Velasco was quietly recalled to Mexico City without a word about his withdrawal for a “special commission” issued by Mexico’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, according to individuals familiar with the surprise development. His departure came one day after granting the Rivard Report an interview for this article.
“It’s called a ‘special commission’ and it is supposed to last for 10 days, but everyone knows he is not coming back,” one official told the Rivard Report last week. This week Mexican consular officials finally confirmed that Velasco’s diplomatic posting in what he fondly called the “northernmost Mexican City” had come to an abrupt end.
Before his departure, Velasco used his interview with the Rivard Report to urge local civic and business leaders to speak up about the important bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Mexico amid Trump’s order for the construction of a border wall and his call to renegotiate or scrap the North American Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
“Héctor is still the Consul,” spokesperson Nuria Olascoaga told the Rivard Report on Wednesday. “On Feb. 17, he will return to announce that he is leaving. He and Gerónimo Gutiérrez will both officially say goodbye to San Antonio then at a reception at the IBC Bank.”
Gutiérrez, the current managing director of the San Antonio-based North American Development Bank (NADBank), is expected to be confirmed as Mexico’s new ambassador to the United States between now and the Feb. 17 despedida, or farewell party, for the two diplomats.
Gutiérrez’s surprise appointment, in turn, follows the equally abrupt recall of the current Mexican Ambassador to the United States Carlos Sada Solana, who was appointed to that position in April 2016 and then recalled to Mexico City in late January following the inauguration of Trump. Sada has been appointed as a deputy secretary of foreign relations overseeing all consular operations in the United States and Canada. Sada served as Mexican consul general in San Antonio in the mid-1990s and is generally regarded as the most effective diplomat to have held that position in the last 25 years.
Taken together, the three unplanned diplomatic moves appear to reflect the political uncertainty at play in Mexico as President Enrique Peña Nieto and his cabinet consider how to respond to Trump’s executive orders and declarations issued in the first weeks of his presidential term.
The Rivard Report asked local consular officials if Velasco, a close friend and political ally of Peña Nieto, was fired from his post or recalled to take on new duties after an unexpectedly short-term of service in San Antonio. Olascoaga said Velasco’s recall was a decision made by the Mexican president.
“The president decides this,” Olascoaga said. “Due to the current situation, he needs people to help him, and to send others here … We don’t know who or if they are going to send someone [to San Antonio].”
Political turmoil abounds in Mexico City. In an effort to prepare himself for a complex relationship with Trump, Peña Nieto has met with political advisors and continues to move around key players abroad as Mexico prepares its response to any actions actually taken by the U.S. government in the way of acting on Trump’s orders.
On Jan. 4, the Mexican president designated former finance minister Luis Videgaray as the country’s new foreign minister, replacing Claudia Ruiz Massieu. Videgaray and Gutiérrez will be Peña Nieto’s two key associates in dealing with Trump. One Mexican official described Gutiérrez as a younger, tougher negotiator and thus better suited to represent Mexico than the soft-spoken Sada.
For San Antonio, Velasco’s departure is a setback of sorts. In the space of months he had re-established the consul general position as a high profile one in the city after a two-year vacancy. Velasco was a frequent presence at civic and cultural events, and under his colleague and fellow diplomat, Mónica del Arenal, an architect and arts director, the Instituto Cultural de México at Hemisfair has experienced a significant revival with well-curated and well-attended exhibitions and cultural events.
José Antonio Larios served as interim consul general prior to Velasco’s arrival last year and now will resume that position. Staff members at the downtown consulate building are waiting to learn whether Peña Nieto will appoint a new consul general here.
Last week Peña Nieto stated that he is channeling around $500 million to Mexican consulates in the U.S. to reinforce the protection, freedom, and rights of Mexican nationals.
San Antonio has always served as a bridge between the two countries, something that has not gone unnoticed among local leaders, several of whom reacted with concern last month after Trump proposed a 20% import tax on Mexican goods as a way for Mexico to pay for the multi-billion border wall.
According to experts, such a tariff would have negative consequences on both sides of the border, and would negatively impact Texas consumers. International Trade Administration data shows that sales to Mexico made up one-quarter of San Antonio’s $16 billion in exports in 2015. If the tariff were to become a reality, products like crude oil sold to Valero, auto parts that end up on Toyota trucks, and produce at H-E-B stores would become more expensive.
Elected officials stressed that both countries benefit from NAFTA, an agreement initialed in San Antonio in 1992 that went into effect in 1994. On Thursday, Trump said he wants to speed up talks regarding NAFTA, calling it “a catastrophe to our country.”
“Together Canada, Mexico and the United States make up one of the most competitive and successful economic regions in the world,” stated 130 agricultural organizations in a letter sent to Trump at the end of January. “… The market integration provided by NAFTA has increased competitiveness in the face of a rapidly changing global economy. Although some important gaps in U.S. export access still remain, increased market access under NAFTA has been a windfall for U.S. farmers, ranchers and food processors. U.S. food and agriculture exports to both countries have more than quadrupled, growing from $8.9 billion in 1993 to $38.6 billion in 2015.”
Mexican government officials have said they are open to renegotiating NAFTA and will begin a series of consultations with the private sector to “guide the revision and strengthening” of the agreement, according to a statement released last week by Mexico’s Foreign Ministry. The formal consultation process with Mexico’s business community will last for 90 days.
“The consultation in Mexico begins simultaneously with the one that the United States Government will carry out internally for its own purposes,” the statement continues. “The consultation process is essential to achieve a modernization of NAFTA that serves the national interest.”
Peña Nieto has argued NAFTA negotiations must also accompany talks on other issues, including border security and immigration.
“The message is that we want to have a good integral relationship in all areas,” Videgaray told reporters in Mexico last week. “… We want to reach an agreement, but we have to be prepared for all scenarios.”