Why you should care
Because this is what comes after “Build the wall.”
On November 3, Larry Rubin, the official voice of the U.S. Republican Party in Mexico, was telling anyone who would listen that he would not be voting for Donald J. Trump. Two days later, his was one of the few voices north or south of the border saying that the president-elect would win. That means two things about the man who may be Trump’s ambassador to Mexico: He spots what others may miss, and he’s not afraid of his potential boss.
There are many candidates for the ambassadorship, but none possesses Rubin’s intimate knowledge of both Mexican and American culture or his Rolodex, fat with the names of Mexico’s top politicians and businesspeople. Last week, Rubin told OZY he met with representatives from Trump’s transition team about the position two weeks ago, and he’s scheduled to return to D.C. shortly to continue the conversation. Harley Shaiken, who focuses on economic and political integration in the United States and Mexico and chairs Berkeley’s Center for Latin American Studies, suspects Rubin is “a strong contender for the position.”
If Rubin takes over, he will be replacing Roberta S. Jacobson, who has only been in office since May 2016 — and before that short-lived stint, the seat was empty for nearly a year, largely due to Marco Rubio’s opposition to Jacobson. Experts guess the ambassador’s key role in a Trump administration will be keeping hot heads cool amid several policy lurches and unfair, untranslatable rhetoric. Personally, Rubin is interested in arriving at a fair solution to the illegal-immigration problem — the current confusion of which, he says, creates problems on both sides of the border — and hopes the countries can collaborate to prevent organized crime in Mexico. He wouldn’t vote for Trump because he felt Trump’s Mexico-bound rhetoric was bad for the relationship between the two countries, though he never confirmed whether he would vote for Clinton.
Rubin has wavy, black-gray hair, a warm, avuncular voice and a crooked beach boy smile. We chat in English, in which he is fluent. Born and raised in Mexico City to a Clevelander father and Mexican mother, Rubin was educated at an American school and grew up spending summers and even weekends in the U.S. His parents worked in the travel industry, and he got his start at U.S. Airways, where he rose from baggage agent to general director of the Mexican branch in six years. In 2005, he left U.S. Airways to become CEO of the American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico, which represents American-run businesses in Mexico.
I consider myself first and foremost a loyal soldier — whomever I work for — but being loyal means speaking your mind.
By 2004, Rubin sat at the power center of American businesspeople in Mexico. Which is why the Republican Party called him up that year, in the middle of George W. Bush’s campaign for reelection, to ask if he might help them promote the GOP to the some 800,000 Americans then living in Mexico — a figure that’s now estimated at over 1 million, the largest American population outside of the U.S. “I never thought I was going to do it,” he says. But, after searching to no avail, he was asked to try the position out “for just a little while.” It’s been 12 years.
Despite Rubin’s professed lack of political ambitions, he’s always been hard-set on success. His chief hobby since he was 13, he says, is reading autobiographies, to see “how great people accomplished what they did.” Early teenage favorites included Zig Ziglar and Og Mandino, who wrote what he calls “you-can-do-it” books about how to succeed in the business world.
And Rubin certainly possesses the confidence of a businessman. He wasn’t afraid to speak out against Trump during his campaign, despite his conviction that he was speaking about the next president. Now, he points out that “the policies of a candidate are different from the policies of a president.” Rubin simply doesn’t believe Trump will try to pull American businesses out of Mexico, despite his November 15 threats to withdraw from NAFTA and stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Accepting Trump’s concern over trade balance, Rubin explains that Mexico imports a lot of raw material from the U.S. and that many American businesses, such as Walmart, Citibank, Colgate and Kellogg’s, do more business in Mexico than in any other country outside the U.S. He cuts Trump some slack: “These stories,” he says, “are not as widely known in the U.S.” — and he feels confident that he’s the man to make the clarifications, or perhaps to dole out the slack.
Jill Metcalfe, who has worked with Rubin for 17 years at the American Society of Mexico — six as the veep to his president — describes Rubin as a natural diplomat. “He’s so good at bringing people together and helping people understand each other’s points of view [and] guiding [diverse] groups … toward one result,” she says — whether through serious, policy-driven discussion or through casual social gatherings. And indeed, this Friday, Rubin met with left-wing Mexican politician Miguel Barbosa, whose smashing of a Trump piñata at a Christmas party a few weeks ago received ample press, to discuss more productive modes of multiparty communication. Barbosa’s subsequent tweets promise that the conversation went very well. Still, as Shaiken points out, this kind of conflict resolution would be no easy feat in this position: “He would have to work with an increasingly agitated Mexican government and even more agitated Mexican public opinion.”
That is, if he gets appointed. Trump’s shown himself willing to work with people who’ve given him less than full support, but Rubin’s opinions will certainly not help him. Perhaps most prominent among the other candidates for the position is Al Zapanta, a Californian of Mexican heritage who has supported Trump throughout the campaign and has a lifetime of experience in diplomacy that rivals even Rubin’s.
But if Rubin gets the job, he says he’ll occupy it with a kind of fealty. “I consider myself first and foremost a loyal soldier — whomever I work for — but being loyal means speaking your mind,” he says.