SALT LAKE CITY — "Walls divide. We must build bridges," Vicente Fox, former president of Mexico, told an enthusiastic audience at the University of Utah on Tuesday.
Throughout history, walls have not worked, said Fox, citing the Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China as examples.
What's needed at this time in the world are "bridges of understanding" and "compassion," Fox said while speaking at Kingsbury Hall as a guest of the Tanner Humanities Center.
It is more productive for world leaders to help their neighbors prosper, Fox said.
Since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, for example, the earnings gap between Mexicans and Americans has been cut by half. That has reduced migration out of the country as Mexico has become a world leader in manufacturing.
It has 11 "state-of-the-art" automobile manufacturing plants that produce American, European and Asian brands.
"Why? Because we are competitive," said Fox, who was president of Mexico from 2000 to 2006.
"Mexico's not the little guy in the backyard. Mexico's economy is the 12th largest economy in the world. We're 130 million people and most of us are middle class," he said.
Under NAFTA, free trade has prospered, he said.
"What better for the U.S. than to have a successful neighbor to the south?" he said.
NAFTA has worked because the United States, Mexico and Canada each have resources that the others don't.
"By working together, we become very strong," he said. Trading is a "win-win situation."
"I don't know why some government leaders today think erroneously that trading is a zero gain. … That is not true," Fox said. Instead, all trading partners benefit, he said.
One of Mexico's challenges is that it is physically located between a nation that is a "leading drug consumer nation," referring to the United States, and Latin America, where migration has "doubled and tripled" as people attempt to escape poverty, unemployment, crime and violence.
The United States has historically attempted to legislate away substance abuse, he said, referencing alcohol during Prohibition and strong federal and state laws on narcotics use, possession and sale.
Over time, it has become evident that prohibitions imposed by governments haven't worked.
The United States has become the world leader in legalizing the use and possession of cannabis for medical and recreational uses, he said. In the United States, laws vary by states and local governments.
Other nations are following suit, he said. Last fall, Canada permitted legal consumption of recreational marijuana nationwide. Mexico is in the process of legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational use, he said.
"This is a world trend and moving pretty fast," he said.
While some people may believe Mexico is a leading grower of marijuana, California is the industry leader "and by the way, of much higher quality," he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
It is a growth industry that helps relieve people's pain and helps support medical research, he said.
While much has improved in Mexico in the past 25 years, it needs to get in front of its high homicide rate and continue to fight corruption.
"We all have our swamps. We must solve our swamps," he said.
As the audience of university students, high schoolers and community members listened to Fox in the performance hall, a smattering of protesters stood outside.
Two men held a banner that said "We support border security. We support our president."11 comments on this story
When asked if Mexico will pay for the border wall championed by President Donald Trump, Fox took note of recent developments in Congress, a bipartisan deal that would authorize a portion of the funding the president seeks.
"I think it's nonsense," Fox said.
"You're going to pay for the wall, so you better make sure it works because if it doesn't work, you've wasted your money," he said.
Then-President Fox visited Utah in May 2006, accepting the invitation of then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. He addressed the Utah Legislature during the visit. It marked the first time a Mexican president visited the Beehive State.