The world of politics and U.S.-Mexico relations have taken a strange turn when Mexico’s reclusive billionaire Carlos Slim calls a press conference to praise President Donald Trump’s negotiating skills, quote from one of his ghost-written books, and chide him for outdated and wishful thinking.
“The best wall is investment, development, and employment opportunities,” said Slim, speaking to reporters at a rare press conference in Mexico City on Friday. “People leave Mexico in search of opportunities, not because they’re tourists.”
Slim has said what many political and business leaders in San Antonio are thinking, but few are saying publicly, perhaps fearing their words will reach Washington and invoke the wrath of administration officials.
No one wants to be on the wrong end of a Trump tweet.
Slim takes a more nuanced approach in his media relations: he usually stays in the shadows, emerges only when it serves his purposes, and usually chooses discretion over disputation. Where Trump has something to prove – be it the size of his fortune or the size of his crowds – Slim figures the less we know about him, his wealth, and his business dealings, the better.
Slim complimented Trump as a formidable negotiator in his remarks Friday, but he also said Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign will not succeed if Trump hopes to return “to a glorious past of American industry that made them the world leader in the 20th century.”
Slim, who thumbed through a well-worn copy of Trump’s book Great Again during his press conference, could serve as a model for San Antonio’s elected officeholders here and in Washington, as well as local business leaders. Few have spoken out since Trump signed executive orders to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, restrict immigration, send thousands more Border Patrol officers into action, and renegotiate or tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Even fewer have spoken publicly since Trump officials declared their intentions to impose a 20% import tax on all goods flowing from Mexico into the United States, a punitive move that could send Mexico’s economy into recession, and harm the Texas economy with a sudden shrinkage in cross-border trade.
The Slim-Trump relationship has been a melodrama, but the way Slim has worked it offers some insight into how others might try to influence the course of events.
Slim, a major player in the telecom and media world, canceled a television deal with Trump after the then-presidential candidate’s incendiary remarks about Mexican immigrants in June 2015. In 2016, Trump fired back, blaming Slim, a major shareholder in the New York Times, for the disclosure of damaging audiotapes that captured Trump boasting of his ability to sexually exploit young women.
Yet the two somehow ended up dining together at Mar-a-Lago, the president’s Palm Beach, Fla. estate, in December after Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. The invitation demonstrated Slim’s ability to find a connection with the President-elect, who afterwards described the evening as “a lovely dinner with a wonderful man.”
Fast forward to Friday and Slim’s press conference: It seemingly was staged so Mexico’s richest man could defend Mexican honor and President Enrique Peña Nieto, gently criticize Trump, and perhaps, lay the groundwork for some backroom diplomacy that could preserve important trade relations and cool populist tempers north of the border.
Trump, said to be worth $4 billion or more, undoubtedly respects Slim and his fortune which is estimated to exceed $70 billion. San Antonio leaders can’t match Slim’s wealth, but they can draw two lessons from the Trump-Slim experience and other such relationships with Trump that veer from public confrontation to finding private common ground.
One lesson is that Trump rarely means exactly what he says. Reporters and others who take his statements literally miss what so many Trump supporters understand: it’s the sentiment underlying his words that offers a more accurate barometer of his feelings and intentions. Two, Trump, like other individuals with bullying tendencies, respects strength in his adversaries.
That’s why staying silent in the face of ill-conceived notions like slapping a 20% import tax on all goods crossing the border is a really bad strategy. A response that relies on data, forcefully presented, to refute or at least blunt Trump administration actions likely will prove more effective.
Walking away from NAFTA would spell disaster for Mexico and it would inflict real damage on cities like San Antonio. Patiently renegotiating the treaty and bringing it into a new century could prove mutually beneficial and still give Trump the space to say he fulfilled his campaign promise.
No one really expects to return to a world where all consumer goods are “Made in the USA” anymore than anyone really believes Trump will resurrect the coal country economy.
Trump’s anti-Mexico rhetoric has been mostly words with few facts. San Antonio can play a vital role in bringing balance and decency to the national conversation by injecting some real numbers on the U.S.-Mexico relation.
Numbers don’t tell the deeper story about our human connections to Mexico, but that can wait for later. What matters more now is preventing time-proven economic blunders that have been the hallmark of populists seeking strength at home by targeting outsiders.
The U.S.-Mexico relationship is a complex one and always will be, but it also is a mutually beneficial one that should be preserved and protected. That doesn’t make for an explosive tweet or sensational headline, but it happens to be factual. No one knows it more than those who live and lead in San Antonio.