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Sheinbaum’s American experience offers clues to her approach to US relations

Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico’s newly elected president, celebrates at a rally in Mexico City, early in the morning of June 3, 2024. Sheinbaum’s years as a young scientist living in California may provide insight into how she will handle the relationship with Washington. (César Rodríguez/The New York Times)

By Natalie Kitroeff

In the early 1990s, a young scientist named Claudia Sheinbaum moved with her family from Mexico City to Northern California, where she studied at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

She lived in housing provided by Stanford University with her two small children and her husband, who was pursuing a doctorate there. For four years, Sheinbaum immersed herself in a new life as an immigrant academic in the United States.

She audited a class taught by a future Mexican foreign minister. She landed on the front page of The Stanford Daily student newspaper for protesting the North American Free Trade Agreement. She found friends who missed Mexico as much as she did. And to people who knew her, she seemed entirely at ease in California, navigating the world of American academia.

“They could have been professors, they could have made their lives here,” said Alma González, a close friend of Sheinbaum’s in California. “But they decided to return.”

Now, three decades later, she has been elected the next president of Mexico and is on the verge of becoming the first woman to lead the country. She takes office in October. The next month, Americans will vote to either keep a president who has stabilized relations with Mexico, or return to office a leader who has threatened and disparaged the country.

At such a decisive moment, Sheinbaum’s time in the United States and her dealings with U.S. officials throughout her career offer crucial clues about how she will handle the biggest issues in the relationship with Washington.

Here are five things to know.

Sheinbaum lived comfortably in California.

From 1991 to 1994, Sheinbaum lived in the Bay Area doing research on energy use in Mexico. She, her husband and their two children lived in a modest home, where their neighbors were students from various countries, according to Sheinbaum’s biographer and two people who knew her at the time.

“She told me it was a beautiful time in her life,” said Arturo Cano, a journalist who wrote a biography of Sheinbaum. “Her back doors opened onto a common area and her kids played with kids from all over the world.”

At the time, Mexican leftists like Sheinbaum had reasons to be wary of the United States. The George H.W. Bush administration had just invaded Panama, part of a history of U.S. interventions in Latin America. Bush also backed Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who was widely accused of fraud in his 1988 election victory over a leftist challenger.

But the lab was just up the hill from the campus at Berkeley, an institution known for its social activism, giving Sheinbaum a window into a different side of American life.

“Being at Berkeley, it’s being at the place where the free speech movement began,” said Harley Shaiken, who was the chair of the Center for Latin American Studies at Berkeley from 1998 to 2021. “She appreciates aspects of U.S. culture that have shown the side of popular participation and social movements.”

She protested NAFTA.

While at the lab, Sheinbaum audited a class at the University of California, Berkeley, on U.S.-Mexican relations, according to Jorge Castañeda, who taught the course. Castañeda later became foreign minister in the center-right government of President Vicente Fox but said that at the time, he was close to Sheinbaum and her husband.

“They enjoyed the Bay Area,” Castañeda said in an interview. “At the same time, they were typical Mexican leftists who were not happy with the United States.”

In class, Sheinbaum and her fellow students examined the “tensions, differences and conflicts” as well as the “tightening of economic links” between the two countries, according to a copy of the syllabus provided by Castañeda.

The most pressing controversy of the moment was the negotiation of NAFTA, which was criticized by Mexican leftists because they believed “it would bring an end to Mexican industry and agriculture,” Castañeda said.

When Salinas de Gortari gave a speech at Stanford, the university’s newspaper published a photograph of Sheinbaum protesting with a sign that said, “Fair Trade and Democracy Now!!”

The trade deal, which went into effect in 1994, was revised under the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and is set to be reviewed during Sheinbaum’s term. The president-elect expressed skepticism this year about the long-term benefits of the original agreement, telling a group representing U.S. private interests in Mexico that “development was based on low wages, cheap labor,” local media reported, saying that the pact “didn’t generate the well-being we wanted.”

But it does not appear that Sheinbaum plans to torpedo the deal she protested two decades ago. In April, she said publicly that it was “feasible to do this review without major problems.”

She understands the immigrant experience.

One of Sheinbaum’s best friends in California, she told her biographer, was Alma González, an educator who had migrated to the United States to find better paying work.

Now, González is a clinical researcher at Stanford University, but then, she was cleaning houses for a living. Sheinbaum and her husband “didn’t act diminishing or belittling in any way,” she told The New York Times.

The two women shared a nostalgia for home. They sang boleros together and spent afternoons hunting for authentic Mexican food in immigrant communities across the Bay Area, González said.

“She understood well the whole thing of being here and longing to be in Mexico,” said González, who had family members at the time who were living in the United States without legal permission. “I think it weighed on her that people had to come here to work and couldn’t go back to see their families.”

The two lamented “the policies that don’t exist to allow people to come and go legally,” González said, “that we could have if it was a priority for both countries.”

The experience may be part of why Sheinbaum “sees the fate of Mexican migrants in the United States as the most important migration issue that she needs to deal with,” said Andrew Selee, the president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based nonpartisan research organization.

‘Cautious optimism’ about her security strategy.

In recent years, criminal groups in Mexico have expanded their dominance across the country, experts say, smuggling large quantities of synthetic opioids across the U.S. border while killing Mexicans at will.

U.S. officials say privately that they believe security coordination could improve with Sheinbaum. As mayor of Mexico City, she took a different approach than López Obrador, pouring money into the civilian police force, while he relied heavily on the military.

She raised police salaries, and her administration collaborated well with U.S. law enforcement agencies to confront criminal groups, according to U.S. officials and experts. Homicides and other violent crimes declined precipitously.

“They have, in fact, cooperated very well with U.S. agencies in terms of security in Mexico City,” said Lila Abed, the acting director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, who said there was “cautious optimism” about Sheinbaum’s strategy for combating violence.

Juan Ramón de la Fuente, who was just named foreign minister in Sheinbaum’s future administration, said in an interview that he saw a potential for more security collaboration with the United States under Sheinbaum.

“We all acknowledge that we need to collaborate and we need to work together more effectively,” de la Fuente said.

She speaks English.

When Sheinbaum took her first call with President Joe Biden this month, the translator unexpectedly dropped off the line, according to two officials with knowledge of the call who were not authorized to speak publicly.

So Sheinbaum decided to address Biden in English — and from then on, the two leaders spoke directly, without relying on translation.

It was a notable departure from her mentor, López Obrador. A nationalistic leader, López Obrador developed a smooth working relationship with President Donald Trump and with Biden largely because of his help securing the border.

But López Obrador has also relied on interpreters to communicate with U.S. officials, traveled abroad infrequently and bashed Washington’s “interventionist” foreign policy.

“The U.S.-Mexico relationship is so deep and so multifaceted that being able to communicate directly, not through interpreters, can really matter,” said Shannon O’Neil, a Mexico specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Having a close personal relationship really matters and it starts with language. “

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