‘Walls divide. We must build bridges,’ former Mexico President Vicente Fox tells University of Utah audience

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Mexican President Vicente Fox speaks on “Building Bridges: Fixing the Immigration Issue and Strengthening U.S.-Mexico Relations," as part of the World Leaders Lecture Forum at Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Building a border wall won’t solve problems, nor will focusing only on ways to put America first. But building bridges to help neighbors will improve everybody’s lives, former Mexico President Vicente Fox said Tuesday at the University of Utah.

“Walls divide. We must build bridges,” said Fox, who rose from a Coca-Cola deliveryman to head that company in Mexico. He became the first opposition party candidate elected president there in 100 years, and served from 2000 to 2006.

“The Chinese wall did not solve the problem,” he said. “What happened? The Mongols just crossed the wall and conquered China.”

Fox said the Berlin Wall also failed in its purpose to divide people from freedom. “People just jumped it … or tore it down.”

He also warned that Mexico will not pay for the border wall — as President Donald Trump had pledged during his campaign.

“We don’t have money, guys,” he joked, as he talked for an hour without notes, and answered many questions from the audience — including whether Mexico will pay for the wall.

“You [the United States] can build a wall, but [for us] to pay for a wall is a different thing,” he said. “You’re going to pay for the wall, so you better make sure it’s going to work. If it’s not going to work, you’re wasting your money.”

And he said a wall would indeed waste money.

“My solution to the problem of migration is go to the source,” and address the poverty and violence that lead many Central Americans to try to flee north to the United States.

He said he “almost convinced” former President George W. Bush to invest heavily in southern Mexico and Central America to address such problems and create jobs.

“If we had done that 18 years ago," he said, “maybe those Central Americans would not be coming to the United States as they are.”

He said past heavy illegal Mexican immigration into the United States has largely ceased, and he credits that to changes created by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — from which Trump says he wants to withdraw.

Fox said that before NAFTA, an average worker could make 12 times as much in the United States as in Mexico “by learning to swim or jump walls…. Who of you would not go for that incentive?”

He said NAFTA has created more manufacturing and other jobs in Mexico so that that margin has been cut by half to only a sixfold advantage now. He predicts that if NAFTA remains in place, in one generation workers in Mexico and the United States will have equal earnings opportunities — ceasing immigration problems.

“We have to stay on the path,” Fox said. “What better for the United States than to have a successful neighbor down South.”

Fox added, “We’re at full employment in Mexico now. That is why the immigration trend has reversed. Now we see more Mexicans going back to Mexico than those coming in. Why? … They love to be with their families, and they love to be in their homeland.”

Fox noted that his own grandfather was born in Cincinnati but immigrated to Mexico, where five generations of his family have lived — and he said more of that could occur if the United States seeks to follow a path of “compassion and love” to help its southern neighbors improve.

He said one way to help end ongoing violence would be to legalize marijuana, and perhaps other drugs. He said Mexico currently is caught between suppliers in Central and South America, and users in the United States. Legalization, he said, could end the cartels now smuggling drugs.

He said while Mexico produces some drugs, it is relatively minor. “California produces much more marijuana than we do in Mexico and, by the way, of much higher quality,” he joked. “We have the best jalapenos, but we don’t have the best marijuana.”

Fox added, “We don’t consume, we don’t produce,” but Mexico sits between those who do. “The way out of that trap is legalizing.” Such a move could end violence similar to how repealing Prohibition of alcohol in America helped put a halt to violence and crime associated with bootlegging.

In short, he said, to truly end problems in the long term, “It’s not building your wall, it’s not protecting your wall. It’s helping your neighbor.”

He spoke at the university’s Kingsbury Hall as part of its World Leaders Lecture Forum, sponsored by its Tanner Humanities Center.

Fox’s appearance attracted a handful of protesters outside, who held signs and banners that included, “We support border security. We support our president,” and “Build a wall, deport them all.”

“We just want to show support for our president,” said protester Wilhelm von Johansen, with a group called Support Border Security. “Fox has been using the f-word about our president, and we don’t like that.”