The U.S. and Mexico: Profile of a Dysfunctional Relationship

Mexico and the United States have a twisted relationship.

Dysfunctional: Each country likes to blame the other for its problems, and neither is eager to accept responsibility. Making matters worse, history comes with hard feelings; the United States claimed it was “manifest destiny” to conquer half of Mexico in 1848. Since then, Mexico has been skeptical of U.S. foreign policy excursions such as the Iraq war, which it opposed.

Dangerous: Americans rationalize that predatory Mexican drug dealers, not bad parenting, get their kids hooked on drugs; Mexicans complain that it is American consumption, as opposed to corruption in Mexico, that keeps ruthless drug cartels in business. Thousands of automatic weapons flow each year from the United States to Mexico. Mexicans want Americans to stop exporting illegal guns just as Americans want Mexico to stop exporting illegal immigrants. Truth is, there's a market for both.

Dependent: As much as Mexicans and Americans complain about one another, they can't get enough of each other. They devour each other's food, culture and music. After crossing the border here, you see a Starbucks, a Costco and a T.G.I. Friday's; back home in North County, the neighborhood grocery store sells horchata, a rice milk drink popular in Mexico, and Mexican frozen treats in a variety of tropical flavors.

Plenty of Mexicans want to be like Americans, and lots of Americans have an appetite for all things Mexican. More Mexicans are skipping the traditional siesta if they want to do business in the afternoon. And more Americans are seeing the positive benefits of getting the family together at the dinner table, a regular occurrence in Mexican households.

U.S.-Mexico relations were on the menu when members of the Union-Tribune editorial board met here with José Guadalupe Osuna MillÁn, the governor of Baja California. Other topics included drug violence, tourism, energy, immigration and the newest Mexican commodity that Americans are devouring: affordable gasoline.

Osuna MillÁn trained as an economist after arriving here as a young man to work in a maquiladora. So he understands that his state's economic well-being depends on American tourists feeling comfortable enough to visit and spend their dollars, as well as on American and European investment in the region. In fact, Osuna MillÁn said, the U.S. economic slowdown has helped produce a situation where European investment in Baja exceeds that coming from the United States.

In office for almost eight months, Osuna MillÁn isn't shy about rattling off his concerns – from congestion at the border that hurts commerce on both sides to what he believes is an unfairly negative portrayal in the American news media of his border state as violently out of control. He wants more positive stories, and insists that they are here if only more U.S. reporters knew where to look.

“We're always going to be neighbors,” he said. “We're going to live together forever. Our intent is to highlight positive trends. We have to talk about our problems. But let's find solutions.”

What I didn't hear much of, however, was what the governor was doing on his end, either to improve the lives of the people in his state or to enhance the relationship between Mexico and the United States.

It is a relationship of convenience. American teenagers have long treated Tijuana and Baja California as their liquor store. Now baby boomers come here for prescription drugs and affordable dental work.

At the moment, there's another Mexican commodity that Americans are eager to get their hands on: cheap gasoline. With gas prices in the San Diego area approaching $4.75 a gallon, some residents are making the five-to 15-mile trip to Tijuana in order to save $2 a gallon. Mexican gas station operators complain that demand is so great they can't service their regular customers.

The Americans are clearly taking advantage. One reason the price of gas in Mexico is so low is that the government controls the petroleum industry and subsidizes the product. It does this to help Mexicans, not their neighbors. The issue has become such a sore spot that some angry residents of Tijuana are demanding that government officials do something – perhaps impose an additional tax on gas that gets pumped into foreign vehicles.

It's the kind of problem that a former maquiladora-worker-turned-border-state-governor had better try to solve. Or all the positive news coverage in the world won't be enough to save him.


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