With the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement looming on the horizon, Mexico's Ambassador to the United States Gerónimo Gutiérrez called upon San Antonio leaders and businesses to be vocal about the benefits of free trade and become champions for the agreement at a national level.
"San Antonio can position itself as one of these voices when negotiations start, and San Antonio today could hardly be understood without NAFTA in many ways, so there's a calling ...," Gutiérrez said Wednesday, joining Consul General of Mexico in San Antonio Reyna Torres Mendívil and local entrepreneur Lionel Sosa for a panel discussion on trade relations at the Mexican Cultural Institute.
"When NAFTA was negotiated, San Antonio took a leadership position and decided to be vocal about it," he said. "Now we’re building NAFTA 2.0, and I hope that San Antonio takes a very active role."
The discussion, attended by members of the 42nd class of Leadership San Antonio – a leadership development program that prepares individuals to support San Antonio's growth and development – was sponsored by the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.
"Are we going to have an honest negotiation? Let me be optimistic," Gutiérrez told the crowd. "The last six months in the bilateral relationship have been [challenging], but we’ve reached a point where both sides think and believe that the other guy is trying to reach a deal, and that’s not a small thing."
The first round of negotiations on the three-nation pact will be held Aug. 16-20 in Washington, D.C., according to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. President Donald Trump threatened to pull out of NAFTA during his campaign for the presidency, but in April said he had instead decided to renegotiate the agreement.
"NAFTA is crucial for the Mexican economy," Sosa said. "We’re family – Mexico and the U.S. – Somos familia. There are 55 million Latinos living here, mostly Mexicans."
Back in February, Gutiérrez said the U.S.-Mexico relationship was at a "critical juncture," but on Wednesday he said despite officials having made their differences public, they've endeavored to find common ground. Among other objectives, Trump said his focus will be on lowering the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico, which was about $63 billion last year, according to CNN. His administration has pegged the trade deficit as a main reason for factories closing in U.S. manufacturing towns.
"What does worry me is this issue of having deficit reduction as an overarching objective of whatever we do," the ambassador said. "It's not the right metric and we need to keep trade, yes fair, but free – we can't mess up the first principle. 'First, do no harm,' and that will be difficult if the only effort is to reduce the deficit.
"A deal needs to be a deal in order to work for everybody, and we are striving to get to that point."
Around 14 million U.S. jobs depend on trade with Canada and Mexico and more than $1 billion in commerce crosses the southern and northern borders of the United States every day, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Torres, who arrived in San Antonio four months ago to take her post as the new consul general, said she has noticed incredible potential to strengthen the San Antonio-Mexico relationship.
"There are trade and investment [opportunities], but also the human area," she said. "Over 60,000 jobs have been created directly through NAFTA, so what can we do to increase that? This is not something just benefitting this area, but the entire state of Texas."
Officials emphasized that Texas and Mexico need to rebuild trust in one another to foster a strong trade relationship. Some Mexicans perceive Texas negatively due to issues such as the so-called "sanctuary cities law," which is slated to take effect on Sept. 1, but also currently engulfed in a legal battle. Likewise, studies have shown that some Americans associate Mexico with drugs, corruption, and poverty.
Torres said the law would discourage Mexican nationals from traveling and spending money in Texas, but most importantly, Gutiérrez added, it would be conducive to racial profiling, cause abuse of power by law enforcement, and create distrust in the immigrant community.
"There is this nervousness and not only in undocumented people," Gutiérrez said. "I've gotten calls from concerned legislators saying that sales and tourism is down 30% from the last year."
Some political leaders in Mexico are calling for Mexicans to boycott Texas, he added, which jeopardizes a mutually beneficial relationship decades in the making.
"This negative image about Texas ... we should also do a good job on the other side in Mexico to talk of the benefits of the bilateral relationship," Torres said. "The sense of respect we expect from our community has to come from real things, like the [human smuggling] tragedy we saw last week– we are talking about human lives."
Torres said citizens on both sides of the border should emphasize the value of immigration to and from the United States, "to the immigrants opening a new shop all the way to the immigrants working in the fields, we have to be outspoken about their contributions."
"Friendship needs to endure hardship in order to be worthy of its name. When in times of hardship, we need to be clear and vocal," Gutiérrez said. "We need to present a better image of what Mexico is and isn’t about, and we need to clear about our challenges, not present a rosy picture like everything is wonderful. The central point is if you believe that a strong Mexico is in the interest of the U.S. and vice versa, talk about it in your own experience."