Josh Huskin for the Rivard Report
Shortly after Presidents Donald Trump and Enrique Peña Nieto concluded their one-hour telephone conversation Friday morning, the Mexican president’s friend and Consul General in San Antonio Héctor Velasco Monroy paused to take stock of the deteriorating bilateral relationship.
“It’s a crisis driven by rhetoric rather than facts,” he said. “Both countries benefit enormously from the relationship, yet the words coming out of Washington misinform people and make them believe otherwise.”
San Antonio, Velasco noted, seems removed from any war of words. The city that serves as an open bridge between two countries isn’t clamoring for new protections and restrictions with the U.S.’s second largest trading partner.
Some of San Antonio’s political and business leaders who voted for Trump, Velasco said, have told him privately that they oppose the administration’s targeting of Mexico, which threatens to unravel decades of increasingly interdependent trade ties.
Velasco spoke with the Rivard Report in an interview conducted in his modest office at 127 Navarro St. A few feet away, the consulate teemed with consular officials meeting with Mexican citizens seeking services such as help with visas, legal issues, and other matters. It was business as usual, with no sense of the larger drama playing out in the two nations’ capitals.
Tensions between the two nations began to build with Trump’s June 2015 declaration of his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination when he declared in a speech, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Within days of taking office, Trump acted on his campaign promises, signing executive orders to begin construction of a border wall he insists Mexico will pay to build, new immigration restrictions, and the hiring of thousands more Border Patrol agents. He again called for the renegotiation or dismantling of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
A current and credible measure of the impact of cross-border trade and cultural ties on the San Antonio economy is not readily available, but no one doubts the growing importance of that international business. Velasco said his office is responsible for more than 1 million Mexicans living in the region, and while Los Angeles has more Mexican citizens than any city other than Mexico City, he said San Antonio is the city whose history and culture places it closest to its neighbor to the south.
“The historical context of San Antonio and Texas in relation to Mexico is very different compared to other areas in the U.S.,” said Velasco, who looked ahead to the city’s Tricentennial celebrations planned for 2018, noting that 115 years of that time occurred under Spanish and then Mexican rule.
Several San Antonio elected representatives and civic leaders expressed opposition to a Thursday proposal floated by the Trump administration to impose a 20% import tax on all Mexican goods to fund the border wall. More local leaders here and in Washington, Velasco said, need to take a stand and make themselves heard, even if they harbor fears of angering administration officials.
“That $60 billion trade deficit that Trump cites is not correct,” Velasco said, responding to Trump’s claim that NAFTA has allowed Mexico to gain an unfair advantage over the United States. “They are just comparing hard numbers of exports and imports, but they don’t compare the percentage of parts and manufacturing that Mexico buys from the United States.
“The United States has a trade deficit with China five times greater than the one with Mexico,” Velasco added, “and I don’t see that they are declaring a trade war on China.”
Here in San Antonio, Trump’s proposed tax would negatively impact the price of products sold in H-E-B stores, the crude oil sold to Valero, and parts and systems assembled in Mexico and shipped north to assemble Toyota trucks, among others.
The automotive industry is able to maintain competitive prices in the world market, Velasco said, because of lower labor costs in Mexico, and many other cross-border manufacturing operations reduce U.S. inflation and the cost of goods and services.
“The rhetoric right now is hot, but there is little correct information out there,” Velasco said. “We need to decontaminate two things: the discourse and the figures. If we do that, I am sure that we will come to the understanding that is longed for.”
In the months leading up Trump’s presidency, local leaders like former Mayor Henry Cisneros and UTSA President Ricardo Romo have sat down on Velasco’s couch in the consular office to talk about the importance of the bilateral relationship between both countries.
“Don Henry [Henry Cisneros] is a third generation Mexican-American,” Velasco said. “His grandfather would still take him down to Mexico for el grito. A lot of times Mexico looks to L.A., Chicago, and New York because the Mexican communities are immense there, but there is no one as Mexican outside of Mexico than San Antonio.”
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-23) told Velasco a few months ago that while he is in favor of increasing border security, he wants to foster San Antonio and Mexico’s symbiotic relationship in commerce, trade, and culture.
“The facts have not changed: Building a wall is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border,” Hurd stated in a press release following Trump’s signing of the executive order. “… A wall is unnecessary and would negatively impact the environment, private property rights, and economy.”
“Hurd told me that he defends Texas first and then his political party,” Velasco told the Rivard Report.
Velasco said he is counting on San Antonians who have been recognized by the Mexican government for their contributions to the close relationship over the decades to now stand up for preserving those ties.
Several prominent San Antonians have received the Aguila Azteca, or Aztec Eagle Award, Mexico’s highest honor awarded to foreign citizens. Attorney and prominent Democrat José Villarreal was the latest in 2015. Other recipients include former Mayor Henry Cisneros; Tom Frost, chairman emeritus of Frost Bank; H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt; former San Antonio Express-News Publisher Charles O. Kilpatrick and his wife, Margie; author Americo Paredes; and Blandina “Bambi” Cárdenas, UTSA’s former education dean.
“There are so many Tom Frosts in San Antonio … a generation of Texans with a deep sense of allegiance to their state, but who have a very comprehensive and objective view of Mexico,” Velasco said. “It’s not the romantic vision of an American who went to Acapulco once, it’s the vision of an American who understands the defects and virtues of the Mexican people in all of their complexity.
“Of these I can can count hundreds … leaders in finance, universities, artists, businessmen … that truly understand the historical context [of San Antonio],” Velasco added. “Even the Republicans that sit on the board of the San Antonio-Mexico Friendship Council (SAMFCO) and voted for Trump have told us, ‘I voted for Trump and I am preoccupied with what’s happening.'”
Velasco likened current events to WWII, when Germany attributed many of its problems to Jewish and minority communities, and the similarities frighten him.
“Look at what happened during WWII, now who are they [Trump officials] trying to blame here?” he said. “A group that has a majority presence in the United States.”
While many Mexican nationals were angered by Peña Nieto inviting Trump to Mexico last year, Velasco said less attention has been paid to the fact that Hillary Clinton also was invited to meet with Peña Nieto in Mexico City, but declined.
“In this I will defend President Peña,” he said. “He has been extremely gentlemanlike, and this has cost him a lot of popularity in Mexico. He invited both candidates to participate in a dialogue about how important Mexico is to the United States.”
If Peña Nieto were to adopt Trump’s level of aggression, Velasco said, Mexican immigrants in the U.S. and Mexican-Americans could suffer the consequences.
“He understands that his political correctness will affect how all Mexicans are treated in this country,” Velasco said. “A lot of Mexicans are here because we didn’t know or couldn’t give them what they came to find here – get out of poverty, flee violence – and we have to recognize that the U.S. has helped them do that.”
What lies ahead? The two presidents could abide by Friday’s agreement to take a more diplomatic approach to addressing bilateral issues, or the firing off a ill-conceived Twitter message could escalate tensions.
“I don’t think our role will change, but I do think our work will increase,” he told the Rivard Report. “The consulate will continue to defend Mexicans as far as the law and international treaties allow us.”
This role may require the consulate to hire more lawyers who can guide Mexican nationals through the legal system.
“A lawyer from the consulate can’t go to court to defend a Mexican,” Velasco said. “[This is where] American lawyers come in. But international treaty allows us to monitor due process.”
Looking back at the chapters of history where Mexico and the U.S. were at odds, Velasco said that many Mexicans still suffer from a “national trauma” due to the loss of some of the country’s territory to the U.S.
“There are those that continue to long for ‘what was ours,'” Velasco said. “But new generations who look back at that history of conflict need to overcome this.”
The friendship that both countries share stems from a complex history between both countries, Velasco said, and what is happening today could undo decades of progress.
“We don’t want to return to a history of conflict,” Velasco said.