Continental Rift

When George W. Bush appointed him U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Brownsville native Tony Garza talked of strengthening our ties to our most important neighbor. Then came Iraq—and his best laid plans became another casualty of war.

October 2004By Comments

TONY GARZA, AWAY FROM HIS MARBLE residence in Mexico City, was learning about the “migration problem.” He strolled through the plaza in the little town of Altar, Sonora, and observed the men gathered everywhere. There were several hundred of them—dark-skinned, moonfaced men who had made their way here from throughout Mexico in worn-out tennis shoes. They carried their lives in small backpacks. Their hair stood up like it hadn’t seen water for days. Some of them wore knit caps and layers of sweatshirts and fleece jackets because they’d heard that at night the northern Mexican desert was freezing. The Mexican consul general traveling with Garza told him that this was where the migrants connected with the drivers who would shuttle them to Sásabe, which sits right on the border with Arizona some fifty miles down an unmarked dirt road. There they’d meet up with the polleros, their walking guides, and hit the trails into the mountains, dodging Mexican thieves, border cops, and scorpions as they went. In the serenity of this cold January afternoon, a few of the migrants disappeared into the old stucco church to say a last prayer, while groups of bright-eyed children purchased their own bottled water and snacks for the journey, which they carried in white plastic bags that hung from their hands like wilted flowers.

Garza, who is 45, stood in sharp contrast to them. He was tall, handsome, güero, americano. They had no idea that he was the United States ambassador, of course—that he was, in fact, the most important diplomat in Mexico. Nor did they know that three weeks before, he’d stood in Washington beside his close friend George W. Bush, the president of the United States, and watched him announce a sweeping new proposal for immigration reform. The plan, Bush had said, would acknowledge that the U.S. critically needs Mexican laborers to function. It would provide work permits for those who agreed to return to their countries after a yet-to-be-determined period. It would institutionalize legal, safe, orderly migration.

The discourse had excited the ambassador, who even before he’d taken office had insisted that immigration was the most important issue facing the U.S. Indeed, the timing had once seemed perfect for putting his own stamp on the subject. Bush had begun his presidency, in 2001, as a man whose vision was set south—who believed, like Garza, that Mexico was the country that most influenced the day-to-day life of the United States. And Garza, whom some observers view as a future Republican candidate for governor, seemed just the man to help usher in the new era of “convergence” that he felt was dawning nearly a decade after NAFTA. Think about it, Garza would say excitedly in conversations. The Latino story is written every day in the U.S., and the new age of democracy and change is written all the time in Mexico. He felt with conviction that the two countries needed to transition from being distant neighbors to strategic partners; their challenge would be figuring out how to manage the vast movement of labor north and the movement of capital south.

But during Garza’s first year in office, any rumblings about the need for migration accords had faded into echoes. September 11 had shifted the administration’s gaze to the Middle East, and after assuming his post, in November 2002, the ambassador was consumed with persuading the Mexicans to support a war. To the Bush administration, Mexico suddenly looked less like a migration partner and more like a key vote on the United Nations Security Council. Garza found himself finessing conversations at the highest levels of government to get that vote, and he failed soundly. He was working in a pacifist nation with a historic grudge against what it perceives as the United States’ penchant for telling others what to do. Less than six months into his new job, any talk about how the U.S.-Mexico relationship needed to change had ended in silence. And at least some observers posited that Garza was the right ambassador, but for a time that had already passed.

Garza is an optimist, however. He’s sophisticated but simple, philosophical but practical. Bush’s January announcement on immigration, coming after a year of paralysis, had at least brought the issue back to the table. Which is why, on this day, the ambassador was on the border, observing the “migration problem” firsthand—and witnessing how the grand rhetoric of neoliberalism and globalism can sometimes be deflated by the weight of broken spirits. No dollar dreams could have prepared the migrants for the austereness of the border, this part of their country that felt so strange and foreign. Garza watched as members of Grupo Beta, a federal Mexican border rescue team in hazard-orange jackets, stopped each of the shuttles on their way to Sásabe and made everyone get out for a lecture. Their litany of warnings would have been enough to dissuade some of the most tough-minded American campers: If a Border Patrol agent catches you, they explained, don’t resist, or he could use excessive force. If you get lost, start a fire so that someone will spot you. Beware of the scorpions and the tarantulas and the centipedes. If you don’t have grooves in your soles, you’re wearing the wrong shoes. If you don’t take at least three liters of water with you, there’s a good chance you won’t make it through all three days of the trek. Don’t let your guide abandon you for anything, even if he says he’s just going to the bathroom. The men listened silently with their heads cocked, feigning defiance. The women clutched their children by the shoulders and stared terrified at their inappropriate shoes. But none of them turned around.

One of the women was carrying a small bundle, and when the ambassador’s staff noticed that it was a baby, they gasped and went to coo over her. Juliana—the baby’s mother said with the hesitancy of someone revealing nuclear secrets—was only four months old. Garza reached out to touch her, and Juliana latched on to his index finger and refused to let go. The group laughed nervously. The baby clenched. When the Beta agent was finished with his lecture, the mother finally shook the baby’s tiny hand off of Garza’s finger and climbed back into the van, which lurched forward and vanished into the desert. The ambassador’s team boarded their white sport utility vehicles and followed, driving the same road that scenes from the movie Traffic had been filmed on.

That night, Garza slept at the Tubac Golf Resort, near Tucson, where another movie, Tin Cup, had been made. But he didn’t immediately fall asleep. As his fireplace crackled, the ambassador wondered whether Juliana had clenched his finger out of fear, out of some kind of intuition about what lay before her. He wondered how far she’d made it by then, where she was spending that frigid night.

IT SURE IS DIFFERENT COMING down to Mexico as ambassador,” Garza once told a group of American consulate employees. “The food is better. The drinks come quicker.” It was meant to be a joke, but there was a great amount of truth to it. To be an ambassador is to have everyone stand anytime you enter a room and remain standing until you take a seat or instruct them to do otherwise. It’s counting on an impeccably punctual staff and being escorted to the bathroom by a bodyguard. To be an ambassador is to see lunch and “free time” on trips get measured in increments of ten minutes, and to have motorcycle cops block intersections well before your armored vehicle pulls up to them. It’s being handed by seven-thirty in the morning a blue folder with all of the previous day’s press coverage of you.

After Bush’s election, in 2000, the press speculated that Garza, a former Texas Secretary of State and railroad commissioner, was in line for a Cabinet position, possibly to head the Department of Energy. But he says that the ambassador’s post was the one appointment he wanted. “It’s really the only thing that I think I knew I’d leave Texas for,” he says. An avid reader, Garza is familiar with everything from American popular culture to Gabriel García Márquez’s novels. He has a pronounced nose that tilts slightly to the right and fair skin that accents his brown hair and eyes. He is exceedingly charming and quick-witted. He laughs at his own jokes. He uses words like “tactile” and “magnanimous” in conversation, and his staff, who seem to glow in his presence, call him Top Gun and Big Guy.

There are ambassadors who are career foreign service workers and then there are ambassadors like Garza, who are appointed by the president to handle politically important or sensitive countries. Mexico is the largest non-military American diplomatic mission in the world, with 1,700 employees nationwide and 35 government agencies. It’s also a job that comes with the messy complications of history and the high expectations of a citizenry that feels that the United States forgets about its dependence on Mexico and treats the country as its own backyard. “If he expresses an opinion about Mexico, the people jump all over him,” Magdalena Carral Cuevas, the commissioner for Mexico’s National Migration Institute, said of the ambassador. “And if he doesn’t, we provoke him so that he’ll emit a position. So it’s a very delicate role he plays, and I think that up to now he has demonstrated intelligence in managing the relationship.”

In fact, the U.S.-Mexico relationship constitutes a whole field of academic study, with majors and experts and libraries. As ambassador, Garza has access to the best sources—the very politicians, intellectuals, and artists who are shaping the Mexican and binational agendas. One morning he’ll have breakfast at his residence with former Mexican Fulbright scholars who went on to serve in the Cabinets of presidents; the next day it might be a group of journalists or historians or members of the Foreign Ministry. “That’s the neat part about this job,” he told me as we snaked through Mexico City’s traffic-clogged streets in a spanking-new Cadillac. His curiosity is the one attribute that Mexicans most credit Garza with: In his eagerness to learn, he shatters the stereotype of the Ugly American. All of the Mexican government officials I spoke with also consistently complimented his humility, his accessibility, and his concern for the human cost of public policy.

Although Garza read up significantly on Mexico before moving there, he says that his real classroom was Brownsville, where he was born in 1959, the second of three children. He attended the University of Texas as an undergraduate and was only five years out of Southern Methodist University’s law school when, at age 28, he was elected to public office in his hometown. As a county judge for one of the poorest counties in Texas, he worked on policy issues involving wastewater management and international bridges and health centers. But he says the border was a laboratory for what awaited the broader U.S.-Mexico relationship. The economic integration that the two countries are seeing today was already in progress along the international boundary in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Border leaders had to confront challenges that now beset Texas writ large—poor health care, low incomes, and problems in funding public education. In this way, Garza views the ambassador’s job in Mexico as a natural extension of his life experiences. “There’s that great saying about home, that it’s not simply where you’re from but who you are,” he told me. “And part of what I see myself doing is trying to keep people focused on that sense of possibility between our two countries. That sense of possibility that I grew up just intuitively knowing was special.”

His trajectory, however, was shaped profoundly by something of a godfather. In 1988 Garza encountered George W. Bush campaigning in the Rio Grande Valley for his father’s presidential bid. Garza invited him to return to the Valley for his swearing-in ceremony as county judge—and, much to his delight, Bush showed up. Two years later Bush accepted another invitation from Garza, this one to help him raise funds for his reelection campaign. It was something the oilman said when he stepped off the plane that sold the county judge on his style: “All right, Garza,” he drawled, “let’s do battle.”

They stayed in touch, and when Bush began entertaining thoughts of running for governor, he included Garza in an intimate group that helped him explore the possibility. One of those conversations took place at a Texas Rangers ball game. “We’d gone beyond just that this was a guy who had supported me and that I liked a lot as a friend,” Garza recalled. “And as I watched him talk about the prospect of the campaign—he still hadn’t made a decision at that point—I remember thinking, ‘This is the guy that I want to see be governor.’ I’ll never forget it. It was one of those moments.” Bush’s 1994 victory over the Democratic incumbent, Ann Richards, is now a part of Texas history. Shortly after being elected governor, he made Antonio O. Garza Jr., who was then 35 years old and who had finished a low fourth in the Republican primary for attorney general that year, his first appointment. Garza’s new job as Secretary of State made him the chief elections officer; he was also the lead liaison for the governor on Mexican and border issues. Their friendship grew. Their birthdays are a day apart, and every year when July rolled around, Laura Bush threw the governor and the Secretary of State a joint dinner party. Garza became politically popular and began to turn heads as the Republican party’s rising Latino star. When the governor campaigned for his reelection four years later, Garza ran for railroad commissioner and won easily, becoming only the second Hispanic elected to a state executive office, after Dan Morales—and the first Hispanic Republican.

Garza is at ease when talking about both his ethnicity and his politics. “Look,” he said, “as a partisan, I’d like to see more Latino participation in the Republican party, and I encourage it. I campaign for it. As an ethnic, I think participation in the process period is important. And I think that if you look at the Latino community, we are growing rapidly, we are independent, we are drawn to individuals more than parties. And that’s not true of just Latinos. Increasingly, that’s the reality of American voters.” The son of a filling station owner and a woman who worked her way through college as a young mother, Garza says his political leanings probably have their seeds in his Mexican American family’s experiences, which centered on hard work and education. His mother, Lita, introduced him to the world of libraries, and until she died of cancer, when he was thirteen, she always attended his swim meets.

Today his conservatism is a moderate one that hinges on creating opportunity for everyone, through education and limited government. There are even ways in which Garza could be misconstrued as being left-of-center. As railroad commissioner, he advocated stiffening cleanup standards for oil spills, raising fines for oil and gas producers for failing to plug orphaned wells, punishing construction contractors who didn’t alert utility companies before excavating, and creating an ethics rule that would have forced commissioners to reveal conflicts of interest when doing commission business. Reminded of this, Garza was quick to couch his seemingly environmentalist and consumer-advocate attitudes in more recognizable conservative terms—through the prism of stewardship and property rights. “I’m pretty comfortable where I am,” he said. “I believe in markets. I believe in empowering individuals. I believe in capitalistic systems and respect of personal property rights. It doesn’t suggest that I am anti-government. I think government has a responsibility to educate. Public education is one of the things that’s fundamental to competitive societies. And so I’m very comfortable in my party.”

THE AMBASSADOR IS FOND OF ANALOGIES, and his favorite ones for describing the U.S.-Mexico relationship have to do with friends and flight. When President Vicente Fox took office in December 2000 and Bush followed the next month, the possibility for good relations seemed endless. The two ranchers had known each other when Fox was the governor of Guanajuato and Bush of Texas, and they professed more appreciation for each other’s countries than any two leaders ever had. Fox seemed unencumbered by the burden of nationality that had kept his predecessors from fully trusting the U.S. Unlike them, he was publicly concerned about his countrymen who migrated north. And he wasn’t just the next president either; Fox was the president who had inspired Mexicans to vote out 71 years of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) by pledging to usher in a new era of democracy, clean up corruption, and give Mexico a respectable place in the world. For his part, Bush carried a reputation as a politician who recognized the interdependence of the two countries. He had defended the education of the children of the undocumented when California governor Pete Wilson had advocated the opposite, in 1994, and had penned letters to members of Congress encouraging them to support a loan for an economically crippled Mexico that same year. Although some Americans criticized him for it, calling him unworldly, he pronounced at the beginning of his presidency that Mexico was the United States’ most important relationship. Only every twelve years do the new American and Mexican presidential administrations coincide, and so when Bush and Fox exchanged abrazos in Mexico on February 16, 2001, and then dined together in the White House on September 4, the meeting of the cowboy boot­wearing men made for a buoyant takeoff.

“I don’t think they appreciate in Mexico how our psyche changed after 9/11,” Garza said, and this is where his analogy applies: “I took my seat in Mexico right when the pilot said, ‘Buckle up. We’re about to experience some turbulence,'” he’s said in his speeches. Garza was sworn in as ambassador to Mexico on November 18, 2002. But only one senator attended his nomination hearing because the rest of the Foreign Relations Committee was receiving briefings about Iraq. The following January, the United States transferred responsibility for immigration to the new Department of Homeland Security. His priority became to persuade Mexico, which the previous year had returned to a seat on the fifteen-member U.N. Security Council for the first time in twenty years, to support the Americans’ resolution to enter Iraq by force.

Mexico fiercely resisted the thought of war, however. A poll by one of the country’s major daily newspapers found that 80 percent of its citizens opposed supporting the U.S. in Geneva. (Mexico had voted in favor of a U.N. resolution providing immediate unrestricted access to weapons inspectors in Iraq.) As ambassador, Garza remained a loyal soldier to the administration’s goal. In late February the papers quoted him suggesting that countries with close relationships had to help each other out in times of difficulty. “There is an old saying that in good times your friends find out who you are; in bad times you find out who your friends are,” he said. The Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes shot back, calling Garza a “meddling, inexperienced, and greenhorn” ambassador who “needs to learn.” On the other side of the border, President Bush told the Copley News Service that there would be “a certain sense of discipline” in Washington with regard to nations that weren’t supportive, while the Economist quoted an unnamed U.S. diplomat who hypothesized that a no vote by Mexico could “stir up feelings” against Mexicans in the United States.

“You have to take a step back and get some sense of the time,” Garza suggested to me in retrospect. He said he had first pressed the issue in countless private conversations with Mexican government officials, but, when it had seemed that Fox’s position wasn’t going to shift, he had had to rely on his judgment to make a more public case. “You have to recognize, I was a new ambassador, so there was no honeymoon per se,” he said. “I don’t think people knew me very well . . . I think now there’s some appreciation for the fact that because I was not a career diplomat, I didn’t engage in a lot of ‘diplomatese.'”

The issue became null when the Security Council decided on March 17, 2003, not to vote on the resolution. Just for good measure, Fox later told the press that he wouldn’t have backed it even if they had. Many Mexicans felt vindicated by his words. They believed that their firm opposition to war had played a symbolic role in affirming Mexico’s independence and that it had helped tilt the historic imbalance with the U.S. Bush, though, was brooding. The Iraq showdown, and Mexico’s refusal to acquiesce, was followed by a year-long period of public silence that the leaders from both countries now seem reticent to discuss. “There was, at the beginning, an unfortunate discourse that was experienced here as interference,” Alberto Fierro-Garza, who then worked at the Foreign Ministery, told me in the polite and roundabout language of Mexican government officials. “But I think the ambassador immediately had the sensibility to see that that offends Mexicans.” Gerónimo Gutiérrez Fernández, the country’s undersecretary for North America and a fan of Garza’s, turned the United States’ original analogy. “Even your best friend should tell you what he really thinks,” he said with the virtue of someone who feels he’s won the rhetorical debate. “Even good friends have to be able to disagree.” He credited Garza with fulfilling his role as ambassador and said the relationship had matured because of the experience.

Garza agrees, and he argues that even if the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico appeared to have chilled over Iraq, the myriad institutions that keep the two countries working together behind the scenes continued to cooperate daily, especially in keeping the border secure. “This is a relationship that’s more mature than whether President Bush and President Fox give each other a full abrazo or a half abrazo,” he said.

But at least one Mexican believes that the fallout after 9/11 has had more lasting consequences on Garza’s job. “The issues he works on are marginal,” Rossana Fuentes-Beráin, a political analyst and managing editor of Foreign Affairs en Español, said. “They’re not central for Mexico or for the United States.” She suggested that Garza hasn’t gotten to utilize the positive skills he brought to his job—and that he most likely won’t, as long as the current administrations remain in place. “I think Mexico doesn’t have the ability to change the relationship,” she said. “It’s an asymmetric relationship, and the partner with more weight is the one who gets to set the rhythm of the agenda. He’s an ambassador who was named for a different time. He was an ambassador selected to bring the two countries closer together, but after September 11, there’s been no interest in doing that either on the part of his country or on the part of Mexico. The relationship has simply stayed where it is. It didn’t crash, but it made an emergency landing.”

Whether it was only turbulence or a crash landing, the continued sluggishness of the relationship during Garza’s tenure will probably do little to diminish his future in politics. He insists that Bush is not going to lose the election. But if he does, John Kerry would almost certainly replace the ambassador, and Garza would have to return to Texas to figure out his options. In 2001, when U.S. senator Phil Gramm announced that he would be retiring after completing his term, Governor Rick Perry initially pushed his fellow Republicans to support Garza for the post. But Gramm favored U.S. representative Henry Bonilla, who ultimately decided not to run (Attorney General John Cornyn won the general election a year later). Now Garza can’t walk around without people asking him if he wants to be governor someday and pledging their support should he run. The feeling is widespread that Texas is finally ready to have its first Hispanic governor, and after Tony Sanchez failed to be that person in the 2002 election, some Republicans would love to beat the Democrats to it—suggesting in the process that their party represents the future for Latinos in the state.

Garza is noncommittal, at least in front of the press. The man whom the Associated Press once called a “consummate politician”—the label surprised him—insists that he’s not ready to take the proposition seriously. “I think about Texas a lot, and I love the state,” he said. “Right now I’m pretty passionate about what I’m doing. Bush as governor told me one time, “A lot of people are going to come at you throughout your career. Do what you’re doing. Do it well. When it’s time to decide, you can take a step back and there will be opportunities.'”

THE AMBASSADOR WAS THROWING A PARTY. It was a dinner party held on a drenching June evening, but it was, nonetheless, intimate and exciting. The guests ranged from a goateed priest with blue-framed Versace glasses to a 25-year-old Harvard-degreed lawyer who had already written three books, including a collection of poetry and a tome on Mexican-Chinese trade. There were photographers, painters, sculptors, magazine editors, foundation directors, hotel owners, and two exceedingly hip caterers who had designed the dinner menu. Because the ambassador is not married (“My dad always said it’s going to happen when you’re not looking, so I’ve spent a fair amount of time not looking,” he joked), the gathering was orchestrated by Abaseh Mirvali, a worldly Iranian American expatriate and career diplomat who made the rounds and kept everyone laughing. Garza sipped tequila and smiled too. He was wearing black pants, a white guayabera, and like a good Texan, his toes were tucked into black cowboy boots.

The soiree was a modest reenactment of a three-hundred-guest party that Garza had hosted two weeks earlier to inaugurate his art show. A recent fan of Mexican comtemporary art, he decided that the ambassador’s residence should exist as a testament to the longstanding influence that the United States and Mexico have had on each other through a display of works from both sides of the border. He hired Mirvali, whose passion after foreign service is art, and because they were working with a bare-bones budget, she set about soliciting pieces from wealthy foundations. A team of workers cleared out all of the dated, diplomat-style furniture that had stifled the foyer and living room for decades, and the stately home was transformed into an edgy art museum. The collection, titled “Formations,” includes 38 pieces by both American and Mexican artists, ranging from up-and-comers to legends like Robert Rauschenberg and Rufino Tamayo. Already something of a celebrity in Mexico City, Garza has gotten into the nation’s art magazines and on the cover of society pages because of the show.

“I doubt that there’s another American embassy in the world that has this spirit,” gushed Mauricio Maillé, the visual art director for the foundation run by television giant Televisa, which contributed a number of the pieces. He glanced about and marveled at the vast metamorphosis that the once stodgy, self-important residence had undergone. “It’s a spirit of liberation,” he mused delightedly. “Of takeover.”

It had been five months since Garza had visited Altar, but there was little the ambassador could say about migration these days. In the U.S., the press had pounced on Bush’s January proposal, suggesting that it was an election-year attempt to win Latino votes. And even while Garza insisted that the proposal was nothing of the sort because the Latino community is divided on the issue—that it was instead evidence of Bush’s genuine belief in the need for reform—he admitted that it would be all but impossible to pass such legislative changes before November. Meanwhile, for their part, the Mexicans seemed to have resigned themselves to the fact that migration is really not a bilateral issue, that it’s an internal policy that the United States has to change following national sentiment. Several Mexican government officials I spoke with even suggested that Fox had made a grave error by proclaiming migration his centerpiece policy concern at the start of his administration; they said he should have focused instead on what Mexico needs to do for itself. So for now, binational dealings on migration have been limited to a new program that will transport Mexicans safely back to their homes if they are apprehended by the Border Patrol, and another that allows legal Mexicans in the United States to benefit from various nutrition programs, such as food stamps.

The ambassador’s ability to push the broader American agenda with Mexico had been further diminished by the political stasis on both sides of the border. In Mexico, the nation’s pundits unanimously agreed that their president was a lame duck, and even members of Fox’s own party have been counting the days until the end of his administration. There is no doubt that the Mexicans now like Garza, even if he is American and speaks grammatically imperfect Spanish. They laud him for being politically efficient, discrete, persevering, humane. They are flattered that he is Bush’s intimate friend. But a few feel like Fuentes-Beráin, the magazine editor, who argues that while he does have close contacts where it counts—in the State Department, the Treasury, or the Department of Energy, where Mexico could use some help—there aren’t any high-ranking senior officials in Bush’s administration who are devoted to Latin America.

Garza still believes fiercely in Mexico. He seems content to leave a smaller mark on U.S.-Mexican relations, and he continues to behave as though his assignment is the most important in the world. “I throw myself into my jobs,” he told me the day after the party, “and part of that is actually feeling things. Part of that is sitting there in Sonora and having Juliana clutch my finger and say to myself, you know, you’re right about this migration problem. Not only intellectually and because it fits with the set of principles that are important to you and important to your president, but because you just got your finger squeezed.”

The trip to the Sonoran border had been the most life-changing of Garza’s diplomatic experiences. In June he’d returned with his friend Emilio Azcárraga Jean, the owner of Televisa, and persuaded him to produce several news reports and public service announcements warning Mexicans of the perils of crossing the border. The night of the party, though, the other face of Mexico needed attending. “We used to come to these things out of a feeling of responsibility,” Lulu Ramos Cárdenas de Creel, a gorgeous blonde who auctions art to benefit charities, told me. “Now you come to be around great art and have a good time and be surrounded by interesting people who leave you with something.” By the end of the evening, there was a group that was attending an all-day pool party that weekend, and another that was promised a private visit to the city’s cathedral to hear its majestic bells sing at night. If Mexico was bleeding at its borders, its soul was still intact. So Garza enjoyed the quick drinks, and he made his guests feel welcome, and he delighted in the swirl of ideas.

Related Content