Julian Nava, former United States ambassador to Mexico (May 1980-April 1981), said that U.S. diplomatic activity with his southern neighbor was very difficult and that, unless the history of the bilateral relationship was properly known and understood, its mission could not be successful. 

Nava was right. Relations between Mexico and the United States are complex, facing several challenges, but they also have enormous potential to develop in a respectful manner, accommodating, as far as possible, the interests of each of the nations involved. The opposite is also true: it is relatively easy to suffer a quick deterioration for whatever reason. Thus, the ambassador who represents each country is very important, since he/she is the first link in the political management chain of the bilateral relationship.

Ambassadors can be career officials, that is, explicitly trained in the arts of diplomacy, or they can be political appointees. Rivers of ink have been dedicated to elucidating the most suitable professional profile: there are those who think that diplomacy must be left to diplomats. On the other hand, there are opinions that suggest that persuasion and political management is not/should not be exclusive to those who were trained in diplomatic academies.

In the U.S.-Mexico relationship there is a well-known story of American ambassadors whose tenure has been controversial, marked by attitudes and decisions beyond the “politically correct.” There have also been ambassadors who have certainly sought to redirect the relationship through less conflicting paths. Yet, these are neither as prominent nor remembered – in contrast to those who pursued interventionist policies in Mexico.

Mexicans’ memories of interventionism from the United States include figures such as Henry Lane Wilson, appointed ambassador of the U.S. to Mexico by President William Taft. Wilson presented his credentials to Porfirio Díaz on March 5, 1910. Faced with the revolutionary winds and the fall of Diaz, Wilson became directly involved in the events that resulted in the assassination of President Francisco I. Madero, Vice President José María Pino Suárez and the advisor and brother of the President, Gustavo A. Madero, as well as Victoriano Huerta’s rise to power. Years later (1924-1927), James R. Sheffield represented the U.S. in Mexico. He actively got involved in Mexican internal affairs, criticizing the Mexican foreign policy due to the support provided to the revolutionary movement of César Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua – despite the fact the United States got directly involved as well against this movement.

Recently deceased John Gavin – whose real name was Juan Vicente Apablasa, Jr., who had a Mexican, Spanish and Chilean background – he died on February 9, 2018 – is the best example of a person unaware of the arts of the diplomacy. Gavin was appointed ambassador to Mexico by President Ronald Reagan, with whom he had a close friendship, both having been Hollywood actors and leaders of the actors’ gild. Gavin arrived in Mexico on June 5, 1981, where he remained until June 10, 1986, when Reagan had to put him aside amidst the enormous deterioration of the bilateral relationship.

Gavin, head of the U.S. embassy, ​​was noted for exalting historical disagreements between the two countries, inscribing his name in history as the “Henry Lane Wilson” of the 80s. His relationship with the press was bad. Amidst neoconservatism and the second cold war of Reagan, Gavin did not miss the opportunity of disapproving Mexican foreign policy in Central America due to the activism of the Contadora Group – which included as well, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama. After the murder of the DEA agent Enrique Kiki Camarena at the hands of, presumably, agents of the Federal Security Directorate (DFS) in 1985, Gavin filled his mouth talking about the prevailing corruption and the incompetence of the Mexican authorities. In his view, there was a fear that the economic deterioration suffered by the country – within the framework of the so-called lost decade – added to the guerrilla effervescence existing in Central America, could spread into Mexico. He thus believed Mexico could turn it into an unstable neighbor, which is why Gavin strongly pressed the Mexican authorities in political and even economic terms. Needless to say, the former Hollywood actor created many problems, which is why he was “excused” by President Reagan who sent, instead, a businessman from the tire industry, Charles Pilliod, as Gavin’s successor.

During the presidency of the George Herbert Walker Bush, the U.S. diplomatic representation was headed by John Dimitri Negroponte (1989-1993), another controversial figure, whose time as ambassador to Honduras included his involvement in the Iran-contras scandal. Once in Mexico, Negroponte was expected to improve cooperation to fight drug trafficking. He was also a key voice during the negotiation and ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 

It was the post-Cold War era, when, after the fall of the USSR, and the United States seemed to have the key for the promotion of its interests in the world without any counterweight. Then came the new century and with it, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, 2001, which damaged the bilateral relationship once more. The U.S. ambassador on duty was Jeffrey Davidow, who arrived in the country in 1998. He witnessed the fall of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), that ruled the country for almost 70 year; the rise of Vicente Fox and the challenge of a migration negotiation between Mexico and the US, sought by Bush Jr. and Fox, but impossible to develop due to the complexity of the issue and the political environment post 9/11. Davidow finished his term in 2002 and wrote a memoir about what he witnessed as the head of his country’s embassy in Mexico. Davidow characterized the bilateral relationship as similar to that which exists between a bear and a porcupine: the United States is the bear, a large, corpulent and clumsy animal, which can harm even by mistake. Mexico is the porcupine, a frightened animal, on permanent alert, resentful, who assumes the bear wants to harm him.

Davidow, besides serving the interests of the United States, was highly professional, despite misunderstandings about the frequently damaged bilateral relationship. For example, Fox’s late response in sending his condolences to the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His successor was the Texan businessman Tony Garza, a friend and ally of George W. Bush and who led the U.S. embassy from November 2002 until January 20, 2009. In 2005 he married María Asunción Arambuluzavala, one of the wealthiest women in Mexico – whom he subsequently divorced in 2010. Conflict of interest? Compared to what his replacement, Carlos Pascual faced, Garza was lucky and quietly retired with the distinction of the Aztec Eagle in his pockets granted by Mexican authorities.

In contrast, Pascual faced one of the most difficult episodes of the bilateral relationship. He was appointed as ambassador by President Barack Obama, arriving in Mexico on August 9, 2009 and leaving on March 19, 2011. His credentials included expertise on failed states. Thus, his designation was considered insulting by President Felipe Calderón, who assumed that Washington’s opinion was that Mexico was, indeed, a failed state or on the way to becoming one. Pascual began dating Gabriela Rojas, daughter of Francisco Rojas, leader of the PRI fraction in the Chamber of Deputies. Gabriela was also the ex-wife of Calderón’s chief of advisors, Antonio Vivanco. Therefore, the Mexican President, upset with this engagement, saw Pascual increasingly suspiciously.

During his term as ambassador, Pascual was very unlucky since the disclosure of confidential cables that he periodically sent to Washington – as part of his diplomatic duties – were publicly disclosed through Wikileaks. His cableswere very bad received by President Calderón. In the classified documents, Pascual questioned the fight against drugs endorsed by Calderón. He complied about corruption in the country. These leaks were considered a major blow to U.S. relations with various countries around the world. However, in the case of Mexico, the problem escalated to the point that President Calderón asked both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama for Pascual’s head. Obama had to concede and sent Anthony Wayne, an experienced diplomat from the State Department, in his place. Wayne had previously served as his country’s ambassador to Argentina. When Wayne finished his term and retired on July 31, 2015, Obama nominated one of the most important experts in hemispheric affairs at the State Department, Roberta Jacobson. She is credited for being the architect of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. A very skillful diplomat, with an extensive knowledge of Latin America, Jacobson arrived in Mexico on May 5, 2016, after a winding ratification process that took about a year – precisely because Republicans did not like her contribution to the establishment of diplomatic relations with Havana. Her time as ambassador was brief, since she was appointed the very same year that Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. Trump’s negative rhetoric towards Mexico generated friction between the Oval Office and Jacobson, with Jacobson having a hard time excusing the offenses of the American President. Thus it was that in May 2018 she left Mexico and retired, after a 30-year career in the foreign service of his country. Jacobson, despite his brief time at the U.S. embassy, was popular, well-liked and received much recognition for her work, even though the political context was very difficult.

After this, the U.S. embassy fell vacant and Donald Trump sought a replacement for Jacobson from within GOP ranks. He initially favored Edward Whitacre, former president of General Motors and AT&T, and a personal friend of Trump. His designation seemed appropriate – even though he knew little about diplomacy – due to his experience in economic and commercial negotiations, in addition to having been a partner of Carlos Slim, one of the wealthiest men in Mexico and the world. The negotiation and needed ratification of the United States-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement (USMCA) made Whitacre a good option. Unfortunately for Whitacre, his appointment as ambassador to Mexico did not materialize, due to the departure of Rex Tillerson – on March 31, 2018 – as head of the State Department.

It was then that Christopher Landau, a lawyer with no diplomatic experience, emerged as a strong candidate for the job. Son of George Landau, who was an American ambassador to Chile, Peru and Paraguay, Christopher was born in Spain and studied law at Harvard. After that he made a respectable career with private law firms, having had clients such as the government of Puerto Rico, British Petroleum, biotechnology companies, and so on. Also, upon graduating from Harvard, Landau worked in the Supreme Court under the orders of two prominent conservative judges: Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.

Ratified by the U.S. Senate on August 1, it is expected that Christopher Landau will arrive in Mexico in the coming days. Landau will face one of the most critical moments in the bilateral relationship, due to the migration crisis – the ratification by the U.S. Congress of the TMEC binational trade agreement. It is a treaty Mexico has already signed. And he will have to contend with the fallout from the so-called “hate crimes” perpetrated in El Paso, Texas last weekend, when at least two dozen Mexicans lost their lives. The Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SRE) considers these mass killings an acts of terrorism against Mexico. With such an agenda, Landau is expected to use all the bargaining power he has to mediate between Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric and the López Obrador government. Although Landau does not seem to have the profile to manage such an agenda, one may want to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, it is good news that, since Roberta Jacobson’s departure more than a year ago, Trump has apparently decided to distinguish Mexico with the attention it deserves, by sending an ambassador – which is better than a chargé d’affaires ad interim. 

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Christopher Landau appearing before a Senate committee in April, 2019.