Episode 07: Ambassador Antonio Garza

The Strategerist Podcast

Former Ambassador to Mexico Garza discusses trade and immigration with our southern neighbor, having grown up along the Texas-Mexico border the grandson of Mexican immigrants.

Former Ambassador to Mexico Antonio Garza joined us to discuss trade and immigration with our southern neighbor. Having grown up along the Texas-Mexico border and the born the grandson of Mexican immigrants, Ambassador Garza brought passion and knowledge to an in-depth discussion.





Read the episode transcript



Read the episode transcript


01:01 Andrew Kaufmann: What happens when you cross the 43rd President, late night sketch comedy and compelling conversation? The Strategerist; a podcast borne from the word strategery, which was coined by SNL and embraced by the George W. Bush administration. We highlight the American spirit of leadership and compassion through thought-provoking conversations. And we’re reminded that the most effective leaders are the ones who laugh. I’m honored to welcome former United States Ambassador to Mexico, Antonio Garza, to The Strategerist. Antonio, thanks so much for joining us today.


01:37 Antonio Garza: You bet, Andrew. My pleasure.


01:38 AK: And we’re also joined by managing director of the Bush Institute SME Economic Growth Initiative, Matthew Rooney, our expert on all things economics. Matt, thanks for joining us.


01:46 Matthew Rooney: Thank you Andrew. It’s a pleasure to be here.


01:47 AK: So I’d like to start a little bit at the beginning. In that, I don’t want to assume people know what an ambassador does, because I’m not entirely sure I know what an ambassador does. You were Ambassador to Mexico from 2002 to 2009. What does that mean? What was your role?


02:01 AG: Well, you represent the US interest abroad in that country, in the host country, in my case, Mexico. For me, it was a tremendous honor. I guess the only thing that I had ever… Where I ever felt I might have as much pride in doing, was as a young attorney walking into the federal courthouse. I always kind of envied the US attorneys who could stand up and say, “Your Honor, on behalf of the United States of America.” And as an ambassador, I had the opportunity to do that. It’s a great job, a wonderful opportunity. I had the good fortune to represent the 43rd President, George W. Bush and he and I had been talking about Mexico and my own personal history with the country, since the mid to the late ’80s. And then when he was elected Governor of Texas, he asked me to join his administration in Austin and serve as Secretary of State of the state, and included in those responsibilities Mexico. So having grown up along the border, I had grandparents from Mexico, a then friend, later governor, who was clearly interested and fascinated with the relationship we had. It was an extraordinary opportunity to represent my country abroad in the land of my grandparents, for a man that felt strongly about the relationship that we enjoyed, so it was really quite special to be able to say not, “Your Honor,” not as an attorney but, “Yes, Mr. President, I’d love to represent the United States abroad.”


03:27 AK: I can imagine that must, standing up and saying that’s gotta be a really special moment that few have gotten to experience.


03:33 AG: It really is. You do it in the public forum. Serving in Mexico during the period that I was there was quite interesting. Obviously, it was in the wake of President Fox’s election. They had come out from one party rule of nearly 70 years of the PRI, which was the old party. Things were opening up a bit. Historically to be the United States Ambassador to Mexico meant you had a relationship with the Foreign Minister, the Interior Minister what they call, Gobernación and the Minister of Foreign Relations. And that was the three really key touch points. By the time I arrived, Mexico was opening up a bit, the legislature was playing more of a role, the media was becoming more stood up; civil society… So, rather than simply have the traditional touch points, there were days when you were the brand manager for the US, broadly. There were other days when you were the attorney for a very specific interest. There were other days when you were the legislative director for a policy that you saw winding its way through the Mexican legislature that might be harmful to US interests.


04:45 AG: So I think it became a much more challenging job. A lot of this was in the wake of NAFTA and the trade agreements that we had. But a lot of it was just Mexico was opening up, both to trade and their democracy was starting to take root. So it was really, 2002, to well January 20th, 2009 was a great time to have served.


05:10 AK: With that as a backdrop now, everyone today is talking about the US-Mexico border, for better or for worse. What’s your take on the US-Mexico border today? Where do you think we stand?


05:21 AG: Well, first of all, I think the border’s really expanded. And by that I mean by virtue of 20 plus years of trade with Mexico you have much more of a convergence. And interestingly, that’s a word that I heard used much more in Mexico than the United States in 2002, which suggests kind of a natural set of market flows that brought two countries more together. So things that traditionally were simply along the border, like the twin plants, or the el maquiladora are now broadly across the United States, you see significant Mexican investment in Flint, Michigan, for example, and significant US interest in investment in places like Puebla and Zacatecas. So the notion of border has expanded. The border itself is still… I think, if you ask me what I’ve seen, physically I’ve seen a hardening of the border, in terms of security, but I’ve also seen a border that is more fluid and efficient and more important to the economic health of both countries. I think in terms of the security, what we’re starting to do better is actually break down the border and have freer flow of information and intelligence so that we can coordinate our efforts on the transnational front, whether it be the trafficking of humans, drugs or people seeking to get into the country for more nefarious reasons. So, the border’s evolved. It’s hardened in some ways, but it’s also a much more expansive concept in my mind.


07:06 MR: I was happy to hear Tony talk about being a brand manager for the United States. My own perspective on this is driven by my career as a career foreign service officer. I wasn’t ambassador, I supported many ambassadors, including a number of politically appointed ambassadors in major countries. And in my work later in my career working on US-Mexico relations, what struck me was the process that was started, I don’t know if it was started, but it was certainly kicked into high gear by NAFTA, and then later on in President Bush’s administration, 10 years later. But there’s actually been a significant change in the way Mexico thinks of its relationship with the United States, and the way that Mexico things of its place in the world. And that is a result, I think, of good brand management and good relationship management. I think of an ambassador as an embassy, as a relationship management mechanism, as you might have in a major bank or something like that. And the relationship management that that series of administrations did with Mexico, I think coaxed Mexico to think of itself differently in the world and think of its relationship with the United States differently.


08:13 AG: I think that’s true. I think we’ve squandered a bit of that in the last handful of years, ’cause prior to NAFTA we had, or prior to that kind of broader trade agreement and trade engagement with them, we had kind of a formal-ish relationship. There was certainly a recognition that we shared a border, but we weren’t doing a tremendous lot together and we were still in many respects trying to get over our history, the United States-Mexican War, the loss of large portions of what was then Mexican territory. I think, in a sense, I was a little bit removed from that personally by virtue of the fact that I was a Texan. And I think Texas has typically enjoyed a very healthy relationship with Mexico, and I was first and foremost, I think, I was seen as President Bush’s appointee and friend, which was really important to Mexico, but also as a Texan, and one that had grown up along the border. But it took a tremendous amount of effort to build a goodwill between the two countries. And I do think we’ve squandered a fair amount of that in the last, certainly in the last couple of years.


09:28 MR: And I think the border, if you think about the border as a kind of a political phenomenon, in addition to being a geographic phenomenon, my sense has always been that one of the major shifts in Mexico’s view of its relationship with the United States, is that in the past, Mexico has never taken any particular responsibility for the border. It’s almost like, you guys put that line there, that border was your idea, you take care of it. And Mexico had never really conducted meaningful inbound inspections. For example, if there was any inspection of southbound traffic it was by US authorities before the traffic left the United States. And the fact that we’ve brought Mexico to the point where it’s taking formal responsibility for the border in conducting meaningful southbound inspections, that’s a big change.


10:12 AG: Matt, in part, I think we’ve brought them there, but in part they’ve gotten there by virtue of their own development and things that have happened within the country. If you look at the migratory phenomena of the day, the people coming to the United States without documents are largely not Mexican.


10:31 MR: Correct. Yeah.


10:31 AG: And they’re coming through Mexico. So working more closely with the United States on these sorts of issues means securing their southern border. Because if you go into different parts of the country they are as concerned about the outflows of people from that Northern Triangle, from Honduras, and we’re all seeing that play out almost in realtime today. So their sense of what their responsibilities are aren’t entirely driven by, what can we do for the US? Although I think that’s part of it, but to a large degree, driven by the reality that they have a challenge as people come through their own country and they have a southern border that needs securing.


[overlapping conversation]


11:23 AG: It’s one of those… The good news is you’re starting to develop and emerge as a much larger player in the economic sort of world and the bad news is that means there are certain challenges that come with this growth and that’s… You’re a more attractive country. Well, I’ll concede that most people coming out of Central America are not destined nor is their objective stay in Mexico, but Mexico has to deal with their movements now. And some will, some will.


11:50 MR: No, I think that’s absolutely true. I think that sense of partnership with Mexico, there is actually…


11:55 AG: Yeah, it’s very different.


11:56 MR: It’s significantly a product of the Bush administration.


12:00 AG: Oh, without a doubt.


12:00 MR: Beginning with the Merida initiative and so on to encourage Mexico to take full responsibility in terms of security.


12:04 AG: Let me tell… I’ll try to tell two quick asides on that because I do think one of the things that 43rd grasped almost intuitively was the notion of shared responsibility and shared partnership. And in 1996, as governor, when he was in Monterrey and he made the comment that drugs were supplied because drugs were demanded and it was an applause line and he looked at me kind of funny, he said “Why are they applauding that?” I said, “Because you’d be surprised how few US officials will come down to Mexico and acknowledge that we’re part of the problem.” And I think that was one of the… The tone that was struck was one of shared partnership, shared responsibility, and that was an important tone because what the Mexican here was hearing was this is somebody that understands and is gonna be respectful of a real partnership.


12:50 AK: Do you think that partnership has seen a little bit of a renewed life now with the new US-Mexico-Canada Agreement or is that… Where are we on that?


13:00 AG: Well, let me tell you, I think that’s kind of interesting. I was talking to a group the other day and everyone was very sedate about this in retrospect. But I think that when a trade agreement is met largely with a sense of relief as opposed to a sense that every opportunity was seized… I think everybody is happy that it got done, but it was the by-product of a process that was far more contentious than probably would have been necessary given the relatively modest changes that were made. And it still got a little ways to go in terms of our own congressional approval and that’ll be after some mid-term elections. And in Mexico, they’ve had a change of Congress as well and in Canada. So it’s no time for high-stepping and high-fiving, it’s not quite into the end zone so I think we’ve gotta acknowledge that. But it was largely met with more relief than a sense that every opportunity to upgrade, update, and leverage this phenomenal partnership that we have was really taken advantage of.


14:14 MR: So here’s my thumbnail summary, tell me what you think about this. To me, USMCA is TPP 1.1 plus NAFTA 0.8. So that doesn’t quite add to two so it’s not NAFTA 2.0.


14:28 AG: That’s a fair assessment, yeah. [chuckle]


14:33 AK: How do you think the US and Mexico should be working together on border issues? What do you think we should all be doing together to improve the situation?


14:42 AG: Well, first, I think we need to acknowledge that the large threats out there are transnational and I alluded to this a moment ago. Whether it’s the transnational movements of people, of drugs, or to individuals seeking to do harm to the United States. And if it’s a transnational threat, the only way that you are truly going to be able to address it is through transnational cooperation. And that is everything from the coordination of intelligence to the coordination of… Operational coordination, to almost a day-to-day that implies a level of trust particularly on intelligence that I think is squandered when there’s too much finger-pointing. So one is acknowledge the nature of the problem, recognize the approaches that are necessary to confront it, and then build the trust, not squander the trust, necessary to make that operational. So I would characterize it that way.


15:44 MR: Yeah, if I might offer another thought on that question, one thing that I think we need to do better is work better with Mexico and also with Canada on the other border in terms of infrastructure, cross-border infrastructure and infrastructure planning. It strikes me as extraordinary that 25 years after NAFTA, we still don’t really talk with either of our partners about infrastructure questions and we build highways that affect the way traffic flows to and across the border and we don’t really consult each other when we do that. And then there’s the particular challenge of the cross-border infrastructure which is always a financing challenge.


16:22 AG: Well, you know, Matt, you’ve probably heard me tell a story, but I guess nearly 30 years ago, 20 some odd years ago, I was a county judge in South Texas. And in Texas, the counties build infrastructure. And so we went through an elaborate permitting process to get a couple of international bridges built. But there was one point in the bridge in the San Benito, Harlingen area where the coordination wasn’t exactly what it should be and half of that bridge was built and it was the US half and I was standing out on the end of it with a then county commissioner who’d been there 26 years, a good old boy from A&M, his name was Dolph Tolmay, and we’re standing there with our hands in our pockets and he says, “Judge, what do you think?” I said, “Dolph, I don’t know what to think.” He says, “We sure built ourself one damned expensive diving board.” [laughter] And then he looked down and he says, “And there’s not even any water in there.” And he said, essentially, “We’re gonna look like the biggest fools in the world.” And as it turned out, Mexico got with the program and they really… They finally got their half of the bridge out there. But that was just rudimentary, a bridge, the coordination you’d need just so that you’d meet at the center. But you’re right, we don’t do enough coordination.


17:40 AG: And we don’t do enough… I think one of the things that the… George W. Bush, President Bush the 43rd, was real smart about was just the safe secure initiatives. If there’s technology that can be used at the border, let’s do it, if there’s ways to do things away from the border, off-site inspections, let’s do it. If there’s ways that we can drive enormous trucks through these big X-ray machines, let’s do it, as opposed to having them going to lots and then… So it was just smart stuff that it still took a lot of work to get the coordination on things that appeared obvious. But you’re right, we don’t do enough of just the basic smart stuff that simply communicating at the border would allow us to do better.


18:27 MR: You know why the Mexican side of the bridge wasn’t built on schedule?


18:32 AG: Well, [chuckle] they were going through some issues at the state and local level trying to reconcile ’em with the federal. It may have been a series of accommodations not fully attended to in a timely manner.


18:46 MR: So one reason why is the federal government, the Mexican federal government, took the funds that were supposed to be used to build that bridge… Their side of that bridge, and in San Diego and Tijuana were in the process… We had been for 10 years in the process of expanding the port of entry there. And the plan is the United States is gonna reroute Interstate 5 so that it hits the Mexican border about five miles west of where it currently does, and Mexico’s gonna build a new port of entry there. At the moment, that’s just a wall with a shopping mall on the US side, and on the Mexican… So the reason why the Mexicans delayed their side of the bridge was they took the money that was supposed to build their side of the bridge and they built their port of entry in Tijuana ahead of schedule. And so they built a port of entry that faced a blank wall on the US side. And they did that because they were afraid the US was gonna welsh on the agreement to reroute the freeway. And they weren’t that fortunate.


19:41 AG: And this is all in relationship to the bridge in Harlingen in San Benito?


19:44 MR: The only relation was that they needed the money, and the money was [chuckle] ready to go for the bridge, and they were afraid that we were gonna not build the freeway, and so they wanted to force us to build the freeway by building that port of entry first. So they built their port of entry five years ahead of schedule, and they were several years behind schedule on the bridge.


20:00 AG: Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s there now, and we’re… And you can’t go wrong building bridges. If we give…


20:04 MR: And we still haven’t rerouted I-5, but we will.


20:06 AG: Right. [chuckle] Particularly given the increase in traffic, so it’s there now.


20:11 AK: Matt, is the core issue then trust? It sounds like that story is one that’s based on a lack of trust, why… Where does this lack of trust come from?


20:18 MR: There’s some lack of trust there, and I think it has to do with the history of the border and the history of…


20:23 AG: Yeah. Plus transparency…


20:24 MR: Yeah.


20:26 AG: And look, if you’ve ever been involved in a permitting issue that is international, even on the US side, where I think we do a reasonable job coordinating local, county, state, and federal is a real challenge because even at the federal level there are multiple agencies that have to sign off, it can be everything… Fish and Wildlife to the International Boundary and Water Commission to… And even within those agencies, they don’t all have the same view of whether or not something should be built. And so you take that and then you compound it by including another country that has a different sort of set of processes, and even in the best case you’re gonna have some challenges. And we weren’t always working in the best case.


21:18 MR: Yeah. And also, frankly, anywhere in the world in any country, cross-border infrastructure is always a problem because half of the people that benefit from it are not your constituents, so it’s always hard to do. And it’s compounded in the United States by the fact of how we appropriate those funds. So in Mexico, the Mexican Ministry of Transportation and Communications controls those funds, and the federal government decides where to put those funds. In the United States, those funds are appropriated through the federal highway money to the states, and so the states control those funds. And so that rerouting of I-5 that I mentioned is competing with other priorities in California for that pool of money. And so the fear on the Mexican side that we might find it inconvenient to build that project was actually not completely unjustified, because if a county commissioner some place up north was able to make a case for that money, then the state of California might well have decided to put that money somewhere else.


22:12 AK: Well, we touched on trade a little bit earlier when we were discussing the USMCA. What is the state of trade today versus what it was when you were ambassador? Are were moving in the right direction, are we going the wrong direction, where are we?


22:24 AG: Well, I’ll let Matt hit some of the highlights on the numbers, but I don’t think you can say anything but that NAFTA’s been a success, that we’re trading more, that we are… As a platform the United States, Mexico, and Canada are far more competitive than any one of us could have ever been alone, that we compete in a world effectively against areas that form much larger blocks. That the word I used a second ago, convergence, in terms of labor and investment is very real, that our supply chains are very integrated, that we have three stable and growing democracies. So I don’t know that there is really a standard by which you would judge it, that you can’t say it hasn’t been successful, which is really the history of trade in the world. When you look at kind of the post-World War II architecture of trade, it has moved more people out of poverty, it has moved more people towards opportunity everywhere in the world. And that has been the case I think right here in our own region.


23:39 MR: Yeah, couldn’t really say better than that. Just to observe that there’s not one of our major allies, not a NATO ally, not Japan, nor Korea, who wouldn’t trade their neighbors for ours in a heartbeat. The neighborhood that the United States enjoys partly as a result of those relationships with Mexico, that has made Mexico into a more prosperous, more stable neighbor, more democratic, it puts us in a great neighborhood. And our German friends, two days tank drive from Moscow, our Japanese friends that wake up every morning looking across the strait at North Korea and China, they’d much rather be in North America.


24:12 AK: Is there anything that can be done on the PR side to make the relationship really hit home as a strong one across the country?


24:21 AG: I think we, at times, just need to take a step back and a deep breath and appreciate the relationship. I think it’s been good for so, so good for so long that we kinda started to take it for granted and then when it was challenged and… I think this last year and a half or two years, it has been challenged. Not only did we question the relationship we enjoyed with Mexico, but the whole notion of trade and free trade generally. And so I think sometimes we need to do a bit better job about educating ourselves about how important trade has been to the United States. We don’t trade with others because it makes them stronger, we trade with others because it makes us stronger. And it makes us more of a beacon in the world, have a much more robust geopolitical presence because we trade. I think sometimes we forget that in our rush to wanna blame somebody for whatever malady we might be facing that day or whatever challenge we might have in our life, we’ve taken on the boogie people of trade and immigration. And we’ve kind of conflated those and say, “Those are the source of all our problems,” when in fact they are the source of all our strengths. So I think sometimes reminding ourselves of what the sources of our strengths are.


25:53 AK: So what… On totally different topic, what is something that as a nation we’re not talking about that gets no headlines, gets no attention that we should be talking about?


26:06 AG: I think I just said it. In the sense that I don’t think we are talking enough about the source of our strengths, which has been a very vibrant and healthy democracy that stood for something in the world. An ability to trade and compete in a way that allowed not only ourselves, but others to prosper. And an ability to take kind of the best of what was out there, E pluribus unum, and turn it into something uniquely American. And in our rush to find fault, we’ve forgotten to remind ourselves of our strengths. And I think that’s what I would focus on. It’s almost as though we have failed our own class of civics. We failed our own civics class by not reminding ourselves of what our strengths are.


27:03 AK: Learn more from Ambassador Garza at or follow him on Twitter @aogarza. Ambassador Garza, thank you so much again for all your time.


27:12 AG: My pleasure, thank you.


27:14 AK: You can learn more about the Bush Center’s work on immigration at


Hosted by
Learn more about Andrew Kaufmann.
Andrew Kaufmann
Director, Communications and Marketing
George W. Bush Presidential Center
Produced by
Learn more about Ioanna Papas.
Ioanna Papas
Director, Communications
George W. Bush Institute