Skip to main content
Review by Ted Wilkinson

Dolia Estévez, U.S. Ambassadors to Mexico: The Relationship Through Their Eyes, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2013, ISBN: 978-1-938027-09-3, 152 pp., Download Free of Charge at:

Shortly before my assignment in Mexico City thirty-some years ago, I met with an Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, who said that part of his job was to get annual approval from Secretary Vance of a list of key issues, on which he would prepare talking points for the Department’s principals. The list went up with the usual: SALT, Middle East peace negotiations, the Cold War, etc. The list came back from the Secretary with only one notation: “Add Mexico.”

The Assistant Secretary didn’t have to look far to find the specific Mexican burrs under the Secretary’s saddle.  There was always something: drug-smuggling and extradition issues, oil supply and pricing, Mexico’s refusal to turn its back on Castro, Mexico’s vote for the “Zionism equals racism” resolution in the UNGA, constant needling from everywhere about regularizing the status of undocumented Mexicans in the U.S., etc.

Given our complex agenda with Mexico, loaded with irritants, one might have thought that there would be a careful and institutionalized process for selecting ambassadors, with a long period of preparation. To the contrary, Dolia Estévez’s study of the last nine US ambassadors to Mexico, all living, shows how disparate their backgrounds were, how little preparation some of them had, and how short-term political considerations motivated the appointments of several of them. Her study also shows the growing challenges over the years from 1977 to 2011 of managing the largest or next-to-largest U.S. diplomatic mission in any foreign country while a host of US agencies increasingly pursued their own bilateral agendas with their counterparts in Mexico.

The author herself conducted interviews with eight of the nine living former US ambassadors. (Only James Pilliod was not up to being interviewed.) After covering US-Mexico relations for twenty years, and having drawn frequently on Embassy cables, Dolia Estévez wanted to get the ambassadors’ personal reflections on the issues in the cables. The interviews are short and focused, and in some cases elicited remarkably frank answers. The result is a refreshingly straightforward survey of 30 years of US-Mexican relations.

One theme runs through all the interviews. Why is it, Ms. Estévez asks each of them, that the United States tolerated the PRI’s 70 plus years of corrupt and autocratic government (1928-2000), and only seemed to care about maintaining “stability” next door (i.e., stemming communist penetration)? The question illustrates a prevailing article of faith among Mexican journalists; the U.S. government is omnipotent and can manipulate the Mexican government like a puppet-master. At times Estevez even asks the ambassadors if the incumbent Mexican presidents checked out their “destapes” – their nominations for their successors – with the US Embassy. In a country that has a Museum of Intervention (three American, two French, and one Spanish), most of the ambassadors gave the obvious answer. The most dangerous trap that any U.S. envoy can fall into is to appear to be meddling in internal Mexican politics. Amb. Jones agreed that the U.S. had seen Mexico through a Cold War optic before his time, but not any more. During his tenure the U.S. had provided encouragement and technical assistance to raise the transparency of Mexican elections to the high level that has prevailed beginning in 1994.

To what extent were the ambassadors prepared for the immense management challenges they could expect to face? Four of the nine, possibly five (not clear in the case of Pilliod), all “political” appointees, were caught almost completely by surprise by being nominated. In Wisconsin Governor Patrick Lucey’s case, newly elected President Carter apparently wanted to enlist a trusted colleague from outside the Washington establishment, and asked him to leave before his term was over. Lucey was deeply involved in a state judicial reform effort and reluctant to leave, but acquiesced if he were allowed a couple of months to finish his work in Madison.  Getting ready for Mexico was secondary. Strangely, Californian academic Julian Nava, son of a Mexican immigrant from Zacatecas, said that he was contacted out of the blue to succeed Lucey by an anonymous caller, who said that Nava was on a short list of three candidates picked by a 13-member committee of party and labor union representatives, chambers of commerce, and members of Congress.   James Jones was serving as president of the American Stock Exchange, and had already turned down several offers including being ambassador in Japan, when President Clinton called him to offer Mexico.

There was an overriding short-term purpose in two of these nominations. In Nava’s case, the early 1980 nomination was widely seen as a move to boost Latino support for President Carter in the 1980 elections. In Jones’ case, the President told him that the NAFTA agreement was in trouble in Congress, and that he needed Jones’ help in getting it passed.  Jones had plenty of experience in government but struggled to master Spanish.

John Gavin was surprised to be nominated too.  Although he had Mexican roots and had even starred in the film version of a Mexican classic (Pedro Paramo), Gavin had virtually no experience in government. To make up for it, he spent several months in Washington briefings. Even then, his ability to control the government agencies he had to manage was tested when DEA agent Enrique Camarena was kidnapped by drug capos and killed in 1985. The law enforcement agencies pressured him to give President De la Madrid a memo with the names of senior government officials that they considered to be corrupt. Against his better judgment, Gavin acquiesced and Gavin’s relations with the Mexican president went downhill from then on.

The remaining four ambassadors – three career officers and one “political” nominee – had Spanish and plenty of background knowledge for their jobs, but their career tracks and the origin of their nominations were very different.  John Negroponte had been serving in the White House as deputy to Colin Powell, then NSC chief. Powell asked him where he’d like to go as ambassador afterwards, and Negroponte gave started to give him a list. “Just one,” Powell said, and Negroponte chose Mexico. He considers Mexico to have been his best assignment, and his role in the NAFTA agreement to be his greatest accomplishment.

Jeffrey Davidow was a second choice for Mexico City. The White House wanted to send a Republican – former Governor William Weld of Massachusetts – as a bipartisan gesture, but Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms would have none of it. Davidow as assistant secretary of state for the region was the next logical candidate, and got the word from NSC Advisor Sandy Berger. At no point did he have a close association with President Clinton, but that may have turned out to be fortunate. When administrations changed, Davidow was recognized as a genuine professional, and asked to stay on for two more years. His experience with two administrations of two different parties in both the US and Mexico was unique; he tells it with great wit and insight both in his interview with Estévez and in The Bear and the Porcupine, published in 2007.

Antonio Garza came with strong qualifications of an entirely different sort. Although he had never served in the federal government, he had over a decade of Texas government jobs, including as secretary of state for Texas, charged with the Texas-Mexico relationship. His grandparents were all Mexicans. He had known President George W. Bush since the 1980’s, and the two had a relationship that other ambassadors might well envy. They had long discussions before Garza left for Mexico. He stayed at the White House on return visits. When Garza thought it would be helpful “to move something along”, the president would pick up the phone and call people on his behalf.  When President Bush was reelected, it seemed natural for Garza to stay on, and he ended up serving six years in Mexico City – longer than any other U.S. ambassador except Josephus Daniels under FDR.

From the standpoint of management, perhaps the best qualified of all was President Obama’s first appointment to Mexico, FSO Carlos Pascual. Pascual attributes his nomination to Secretary Clinton’s appreciation for his work on government-wide issues both in State at Brookings. The Secretary thought he had the talent and experience to bring the U.S. agencies in Mexico together, and he coordinated the subsequent preparation of a four-part strategy for implementing US civilian security assistance under the Merida Initiative. The irony of his tenure was that the job implicitly required trying to organize and manage the Mexican government too. When Wikileaks publicized these efforts, an embarrassed Mexican President Calderon complained publicly, and Pascual resigned after only 19 months in Mexico City.

While all of the U.S. ambassadors in Mexico felt honored to be chosen, none had unbroken smooth sailing. Several ran into storms even before they arrived. Nava caused controversy because the U.S. had been warned against sending Mexican-Americans as envoys. Gavin was seen as a less than serious appointment at the outset because he was appearing in TV advertisements for Bacardi rum. As a former ambassador to Honduras, Negroponte was accused of being “point man” for earlier Reagan Administration policies that were unpopular in Mexico. And the local press interpreted Pascual’s earlier service as director of the Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization in State as a sign that the U.S. now considered Mexico to be a “failed state.”

None of these superficialities proved to be lasting problems, but the bitter legacy of mistrust after the Camarena murder did last through the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, and troubled the tenures of Gavin, Negroponte, and even Davidow. The nadir may have come in 1997, when the Mexican counterpart to U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey was exposed as on the take from the leader of the Juarez cartel. The law enforcement agencies and 39 U.S. Senators urged removing Mexico from the list of countries providing anti-narcotics cooperation. Davidow argued that such a step would be self-defeating, and President Clinton agreed.

The third millennium began better for US-Mexican relations with the election of an opposition party in Mexico and the elimination of the narcotics “certification” requirement by the U.S. Congress, but U.S. ambassadors soon faced new problems brought on by the rising tide of organized crime violence. The decision to face them jointly through the Merida Initiative has alleviated the strains in the relationship, but if anything, it has added to the US ambassador’s workload. As Pascual noted in his interview, “I worked 80 to 90 hours a week …and the security agenda took half my time…”End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

Ted Wilkninson’s first Foreign Service assignment was to Caracas, Venezuela. Later assignments included Tegucigalpa, Mexico City, Brasilia, Stockholm, Brussels (USNATO), and Geneva. Since retirement after nearly 40 years of US Government service, he has lectured frequently at George Washington University, the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, and various civic organizations. He is a contributing author of “Terrorism and Peacekeeping: New Security Challenges,” published by Praeger in 2005. From 2005 to 2011 he served as chairman of the editorial board of the monthly Foreign Service Journal.

Comments are closed.