Imagine "a Hugo Chavez-type leader" in Mexico, Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, posited during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which he chairs. Invoking the former populist leader of Venezuela was his way of suggesting what might happen if the U.S. fails to keep a good relationship with its neighbor.
"Right on our border," Rubio continued, "That's something we have never faced."
Mexico will hold a presidential election in 16 months. Rubio's worry, and that of both Democrats and Republicans on his committee, is that worsening relations between the U.S. and Mexico could push voters into supporting a populist candidate.
"As Mexico gears up for its own elections in 2018, paying for the wall has driven a growing movement of nationalism that could see political leaders emerge who harbor negative views of the United States," said Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey.
U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly promised to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and "make Mexico pay for it."
Testifying at Wednesday's hearing entitled "The U.S.-Mexico Relationship: Advancing Security and Prosperity on Both Sides of the Border," former Democratic New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said the relationship between the two countries is now "in tatters."
Richardson cited reasons for this: the proposed border wall, the Trump administration's declared intent to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the prospect of stepped up deportations of undocumented Mexicans living in the U.S.
"The Mexican people feel insulted," he said.
Urgency on NAFTA
"It is vitally important that members of the Senate speak out to explain the vast benefits of the relationship with Mexico," said Roger Noriega, a scholar with the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, who also testified at the hearing.
He pointed out that Mexico is the third-largest trading partner of the United States, and that while there is a $60 billion trade deficit in Mexico's favor, many of the goods that Mexico sells to the U.S. have American content.
And if NAFTA were to be nullified, Mexico might not fare so badly. While the U.S. has free trade agreements with 20 countries, Mexico has free trade agreements with 45.
"If we abandon NAFTA, they are all poised to take over," said Richardson, adding, "China will move in."
Richardson said there are good reasons to renegotiate NAFTA. The agreement, which was signed in 1994, could stand to be updated. There was no digital trade then and Richardson said some energy issues need to be brought up to date, as well as worker protections.
But he strongly urged that the clock on a 90-day consultation period be started "sooner rather than later" to minimize the negative effects of leaving the agreement in limbo with Mexican elections approaching and the U.S. losing leverage. "Mexico and the U.S. need each other," Richardson said. NAFTA "needs to be revitalized, but very soon."
The consultation period would be a prelude to renegotiating the agreement.
What can Congress do?
In answer to the question asked by Menendez, Richardson said, "I know the Senate and the House. There's great concern about funding the wall. I hope that is abandoned. I hope the import tax discussion ends."
In addition to its role in allocating money, Richardson said Congress can be an advocate. He suggested lawmakers use their influence to persuade Trump to invite Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto to the U.S. for a symbolically important visit.
And he suggested that the State Department or Department of Commerce take the lead on renegotiating NAFTA.
"Keep it out of the White House," he said, expressing concern about back-channel discussions between Mexico's foreign minister and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.
At the hearing's end, Menendez expressed hope that friends in Mexico get a sense that there is a "bipartisan different view" toward the challenges that confront the two countries in their relationship.