We talked to Christopher Landau, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico from August 2019 to January 2021, during which time he became a protagonist not only of the high diplomatic process but even of social media in Mexico. He has undoubtedly been one of the most appreciated American ambassadors in Mexico during the last decades.
Here is a summary of our dialogue:
When you were notified that President Trump decided to nominate you as ambassador to Mexico, what were your expectations regarding the country and the position? How much did they resemble or differ from reality?
Look, the relationship between the United States and Mexico is a complex relationship, we have several challenges, such as migration and drug trafficking; but also many opportunities especially in the economic framework. I knew it was not going to be diplomatic management of receptions and champagne, it was going to be hard work, but also very important work because I believe that this relationship between our two nations is the most important diplomatic relationship in the world.
I believe that for the United States and for Mexico there is no other country that has such a direct influence on the domestic well-being and prosperity of the country. So I knew it was going to be a big challenge, but we never imagined what was going to come with the pandemic. I had been in Mexico for only seven months when the pandemic started, which changed all of our lives completely, and that complicated relations quite a bit; things like, for example, protecting the value and supply chains of our economies, suddenly became very critical.
As you said very well, I think that the year and a half that I was ambassador in Mexico was very dramatic and I think we put more or less 10 years of drama in this year and a half: with the pandemic, the ratification of the free trade agreement, the entry into force of this agreement or the visit of the President of Mexico to the United States, in addition to some security issues, such as the massacre of the American family near the border, there in Sonora. Those were very, very dramatic moments.
When you accept a position like this, you never know what is going to happen. I always say that the relationship between the United States and Mexico is like a family relationship, that we are on the same team even though we obviously have differences, but these are things that we have to resolve as a family resolves them.
How did Trump and his administration view Mexico? Because from Mexico the vision that certain media was promoting was that there was a rejection and contempt on his part towards the country. However, during 2019 (which was the first year in which you served as ambassador) Mexico managed to become the main trading partner of the United States and during this time the free trade agreement was achieved.
For President Trump national sovereignty comes first, that’s why his campaign said “America First” and he believes that all nations should have the same interest in promoting themselves. So he totally respected Mexico’s sovereignty. He was not interested in telling Mexico what Mexico had to do within its borders. He was very respectful and said, “we are going to do our thing in our territory, you do your thing over there.”
President Trump had very good relations with the Mexican Government, that is why I believe it is not an accident that the only international visit so far of President López Obrador has been precisely to the United States to meet with President Trump in the White House. I believe that President López Obrador recognized that President Trump was not trying to tell him “look, you should do this, there is something else over there in your country”.
I want to emphasize that Trump recognized the great importance of Mexico for the United States within the international framework. I think that for many years U.S. presidents have focused a lot on other parts of the world (in the Middle East, above all) and I think that closer to home we have to solve the problems we have here in the first place.
For Trump the relationship with Mexico was something absolutely fundamental within his foreign policy and that’s exactly why I wanted that position of ambassador to Mexico under President Trump. And yes, as you said, it bothered me a lot that in various sectors (in the United States and in Mexico) many things were said about President Trump that were not true.
There was a whole false narrative about President Trump. When President Trump says “America First” it is not to disparage other countries, but as an American, as a nationalist and patriot he is obviously going to put the interests of his own country first.
However, that does not mean that he cannot have good relations with other countries or that he is not interested in that, on the contrary, but he stays always within the framework that he is the president of the United States and therefore he always has to think about the interests of the United States, that is natural.
I believe that recognizing everyone’s sovereignty is the best way to negotiate at a diplomatic level and that is why relations between Mexico and the United States reached their best levels in many decades during Trump’s term.
When the 2018 campaign was underway in Mexico, the majority of the Mexican society feared that when López Obrador became president there would be a train wreck with Trump. However, contrary to what many people would have expected, there was a good relationship of understanding and respect. How is this relationship with the Mexican government built and lived and how does it resist the attack, let’s say, or the bad faith of certain media that literally sought to “pick a fight”?
You are absolutely right, President Trump and López Obrador felt very good because both had fought against the elite in their countries and both are nationalists who put their own country’s interests at the forefront. They both recognized that it was important for their own country to have a good relationship with each other.
When I presented my credentials to President López Obrador the first time we met, he told me, “I recognize the importance of the relationship with the United States. Geography and history have brought us together”. The entry into effect of the free trade agreement was very important for all of us because that puts us on the same team and for both of us, it is very important to recognize that we are on the same team.
As you said very well, there were many people who wanted to promote a conflict between the two, but both said: “No. We want good relations” and I think that for many people this relationship was a great surprise. For me not really, because as I told you from the beginning, I had seen that they had things in common, they understood each other very well when they talked to each other and they are both very direct people.
Another thing is that President López Obrador and President Trump do not feel bound by the past. There had been for many decades a dynamic in Mexico-U.S. relations where Mexico (especially in international forums) kicked the U.S. around, only to distance itself from time to time. López Obrador said “enough”, he did not feel tied to the way things had been before.
This gave us an opportunity to create a new relationship without, let’s say, all the theatrics of the past.
What do you consider to be your two or three main learnings from this period with respect to Mexico in terms of the bilateral relationship? What do you take away from this year and a half?
One very important thing for me is that countries have to cooperate. My role as ambassador to Mexico was always to try to explain to the Mexican government and society the challenges we face and try to coordinate our responses to those challenges, but one thing I learned is that at the end of the day each nation has to do, what it has to do, within its own borders and it is much easier to do it yourself than to ask another country to do things for you.
For example, in terms of drugs, I think there is a lot more that we have to do in the United States. Obviously, we have to cooperate with Mexico, but we can’t outsource and leave the issue to Mexico, after all, it’s our problem. We always want to demand and ask for Mexico’s support, because it is also a problem for Mexico, but at the end of the day, each country has to have its own strategy to combat these problems.
The same with migration issues. [Regarding] irregular migration (which is not only a Mexican issue, because now there are people from all over the world coming from Central America, from Africa, from Asia, it is a global issue) it makes me very sad when we are always talking about: “well we are going to give money to this country or this other country to fix their problems”. At the end of the day, we are not going to solve the problems in other countries; we have to first see what we can do here. If we don’t enforce our laws here, especially against companies that hire undocumented people with impunity, we are not going to solve the problem.
That was something I realized very quickly. Yes, we need Mexico’s cooperation, but Mexico is not going to solve our problems for us.
Another learning was the great integration of our economies. When the pandemic started last year and both countries shut down quite suddenly during the month of March, we had different definitions of [which] essential industries could continue to operate, and we also have very important supply and value chains for both economies. A U.S.-made product can and does receive components from Mexico.
For me, it was really interesting because some industries in the United States that were considered essential and continued to work had very serious problems at the beginning because they were not receiving components from Mexico. They would call me and say: “we are going to have to close in 4 days if we don’t receive these components”.
So it is really incredible how our economies have been integrating. I was told that if we had closed the land border to international trade when the pandemic started, the United States would have gone into recession in about five days. Our economy really depends on Mexico, and vice versa. I don’t think many people understand the great economic importance of both countries to each other.
What do you think about the current situation at the border? It has already reached dramatic proportions the increase of people trying to cross, overcoming the infrastructure. How do you see this situation at the border and how do you think it could be resolved?
It is really a huge tragedy because there are so many poor and desperate people in Central America and around the world, especially now with COVID-19. It’s a tragedy to give people false hope or incentivize them to take this very dangerous journey. The violence against people coming from Central America and crossing Mexico to try to enter the United States is terrible. It can’t be like this.
I just wrote an article for the New York Times on this issue [arguing] that we have to show our commitment to the rule of law and enforce our immigration laws. If we say to these people, “Well, if you come, yes, maybe we’ll let you in,” that incentivizes these poor people to pay everything they have and go on this very dangerous journey; and then come to the United States and work undocumented, without legal protection, without social security, without being part of our society.
What we need is to streamline the programs that allow people to come to work, to earn money, we also need the labor, but all in a legal way and the worst thing for me has been to see the current U.S. government encouraging this wave of undocumented migration which is not good for anyone, especially during a pandemic.
It is terrible that these poor people are put in trailers as if they were animals because really the control of many of these routes is in the hands of the criminal elements in Mexico (the coyotes, the polleros) and these people are not interested in human life, they are only interested in money and it is a really serious abuse of our asylum laws and above all, it is an exploitation of these people.
The choice we have is whether we are going to have controlled and legal migration, or uncontrolled and illegal. Unfortunately, the current administration is encouraging illegal and uncontrolled migration. Frankly, the worst thing for the families is that they are sending their sons or daughters. I don’t know if you have seen the images of people, well, throwing children over the wall. It is a huge tragedy and absolutely totally caused by the actions of the Biden Administration.
We during the Trump Administration had achieved the lowest levels of irregular migration in many decades, and so it should be because one thing that makes the United States great is just respect for the law and law enforcement.
It is very distressing for me to see these images of the border and to know that this is a crisis created by politicians, and I don’t know where it ends, because the current administration in the United States is talking about helping Central America and other countries economically. We have been doing that for many years and I wish it would work, but that is a very long-term project and it is not going to solve the current crisis.
If you tell people, “Look if you come to the United States undocumented, we’re going to let you in, we’re going to give you free education, free health care,” they’re going to come. So it really seems to me that the current policy of the American government, which is encouraging this, is very cynical; that it is not in Mexico’s interest either, especially during a pandemic, to unleash a wave of migrants from all over the world.
This is something quite new, that the migratory phenomenon is not Mexican. We are seeing people from all over the world who want to enter the United States illegally and use Mexico as a doormat. I don’t think that helps the United States or Mexico, that’s why I think we have common interests.
This is nothing against migrants, on the contrary, it is to prevent the mistreatment of migrants and tragedies like the ones we are seeing now. We are a country of migrants, my own parents are migrants. I recognize the great contributions of migrants to our society, especially Mexican and Hispanic migrants, but it must be a legal, controlled migration, and that is why we have to apply our laws and not just let anyone in at any time, and that is the problem we have now.
Yes, the stories that are told on the way to the border are truly dramatic. In Mexico, one hears stories of real horror, and they have certainly multiplied with the Biden Administration, generating expectations that are not going to be fulfilled.
One of the worst issues is the abuse of the asylum system. Asylum under our law is a privilege created after World War II for people persecuted by their own government. The idea was to create a system for people persecuted by the communists, by Hitler. It is not a program for people who are in poverty or living with widespread violence in their society.
That has been abused. People are told, “Well, if you say this or that,” they’re already given entry into the United States, even though that really has nothing to do with our asylum laws and it’s a total abuse. Until we have a reform of this law, I see the situation at the border as very complicated. The worst tragedy is for the migrants themselves. I remember I was in Veracruz a few months ago, at the end of last year, and the governor told me at that time that they had found a trailer with a hundred or more people on board, abandoned by the polleros.
The other day I wanted to see exactly what that information was, I looked it up on the internet and found that since my visit to Veracruz they had already found three or four other abandoned trailers, one even with 233 people on board. This cannot be so. I hope everyone understands that these people who say they want to do things in a humane way, are doing the least humane thing and I think they understand that very well, that is why this has not been a surprise to anyone.
I knew very well that the first crisis of the Biden administration was going to be precisely this crisis because there is a lot of desperation in many parts of the world and a lot of interest in coming to work in the United States. And if you send a message that people, even if they come illegally, are going to be welcome, you are giving all the wrong incentives, and that is not good for anybody, much less for the people who work in the United States.
I was just reading the story of Cesar Chavez, who in the ’70s organized most of the Mexican-American workers here in the United States and he understood that an uncontrolled migration was very difficult for the people who were already working here. It has to be controlled migration for the good of all, there is no other alternative and well, we are going to see what happens now, but I really feel very sorry for him, because this should not have happened.
Yes, it is an absolutely unnecessary crisis and absolutely the result of misleading people with mixed messages.
The only ones who benefit from this are the polleros, for them, it’s the best days of their lives. I guess they all have Biden’s picture in their homes; for them, he’s a genius, but for all these poor people [migrants] it’s going to be a nightmare.
Finally, how does Christopher Landau envision the future of the relationship between Mexico and the United States? There were those in academia who even talked about a European Union-type monetary integration; there are those who say that on the contrary, the relationship has to be increasingly separate and each country has to be on its own. How do you see the next 15 or 20 years for the relationship between the two countries?
The relationship between the two countries will grow stronger in general. It is very positive that we have signed this new trade agreement, which is good for both countries, and also for Canada.
Relations are already deep enough and will continue to strengthen regardless of who is in the White House or in the National Palace, because they go far beyond the presidents. There is always a tendency to think of relations between countries in a very personal way and say: “Who is the ambassador? Who is the president?”, but really, ambassadors are all of us. It is all of us who are interested in what happens on the other side of the border, those of us who have family there, those of us who work on one side of the border or the other, those who invest in each country.
I am optimistic that relations have become much more decentralized over the years and I believe that this is a positive thing because family, cultural and economic ties have deepened and this is a very good thing.
As far as integration is concerned, I believe that we have quite different cultures, we speak different languages, we also have a lot in common; but I believe that for me national sovereignty comes first and I doubt that Mexico or the United States would enter, let us say, into an agreement to surrender part of their national sovereignty and create a supranational structure, as they have done in Europe.
Now we are seeing that the European Union also has many problems and I do not really see that possibility. What I do see is a deepening of economic, cultural ties, but not a different paradigm.
Any final message for the audience of El American?
I want to thank the Mexican people for having welcomed me and my family so warmly during my stay in Mexico. Despite the pandemic, they were the happiest years of my professional life.
I loved getting to know the great country of Mexico. I had already studied the history of Mexico and spoke Spanish, but I really enjoyed traveling throughout the country. Mexico is a very rich country, very diverse, and thank God I had the opportunity to know all the states of Mexico, to know the great variety of its people, its geography, its gastronomy, its culture.
I hope that the people of both countries can get to know each other better. I think that in Mexico and in the United States there are stereotypes of each other, and the most important thing is to know the reality of the other country.
I know, Gerardo, that you know the United States very well, but I hope that more Mexicans get to know them and also that more Americans get to know Mexico better. And not only the Mexico, let’s say the Mexico of the mariachis and the beach, but also the Mexico of the 21st Century economy and all of Mexico, because like the United States, are very large countries with a great diversity of people, which is our wealth at the end of the day.