The United States and Mexico stand at a defining moment in their relationship that will either bring the countries together to form a united economic power or lead to socio-economic disaster, current and former ambassadors said Friday at a local conference.

"Facts and realities are regularly being tested by rhetoric," said Mexico's ambassador to the U.S., Martha Bárcena Coqui, at the 12th Annual Great Decisions Conference held at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management for some 250 high school and college students and others interested in foreign policy matters.

The conference was sponsored by the national Foreign Policy Association and coordinated by Global Minnesota, a nonprofit that leads discussions about international relations with the goal of connecting policymakers, students and CEOs.

Bárcena Coqui said few bilateral relationships have been as historically beneficial and carry as much potential as that between the U.S. and Mexico. "We have been the past. We are the present. We will be the future of the United States," she said.

Mexico became the main supplier of oil to the U.S. when the Atlantic Ocean was closed during World War II, she said. U.S. military troops were allowed to land in the Yucatán, she said. But then, she added, "Slowly we lost trust."

Bárcena Coqui described the U.S.-Mexico border, the busiest in the world, as a commonality. "The border is not synonymous with crime and violence," she said. San Diego and Tijuana as well as Juarez and El Paso, Texas, form indivisible metro areas, she said, much like Minneapolis and St. Paul.

She cited many reasons for cooperation while deftly avoiding criticism of U.S. policy under President Donald Trump, who has pledged to build an unbreachable wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border to keep out "racists and criminals."

The other keynote speaker, former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Jeffrey Davidow, was more blunt, faulting a "dismal lack of leadership" in both countries since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was established in January 1994. The pact created a trilateral trade bloc among the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

NAFTA's proposed successor, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), is pending in Congress. Both speakers firmly urged approval.

"Failure to pass [USMCA] will be perceived in all three countries and around the world as a tremendous failure," Davidow said. "We are obliged to act to not make things worse."

Supporters of the USMCA say it enhances long-standing concerns about worker protections, wage requirements and environmental standards. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said this week the House is making progress but needs more assurances.

The two ambassadors used facts to topple popular claims about the U.S.-Mexico relationship, including the belief that Mexico has stolen U.S. jobs. Davidow said the number of jobs that moved to Mexico in 25 years of NAFTA was 800,000.

"We live in a country that produces 175,000 new jobs a month," Davidow said of the U.S.

Bárcena Coqui said the jobs of 5 million U.S. workers depend on trade with Mexico.

Mexico has the 15th-largest economy in the world and ranks as the largest Spanish-speaking democracy. By 2050, it's projected to have the 8th-largest economy in the world, she said.

"If we see [the U.S. and Mexico] as a common integrated economy, we will be better able to compete with China," she said.

Despite the recent harsh tone from Washington, Bárcena Coqui said Mexico embraces U.S. citizens.

"We do not ask migratory status," she said, then added the applause line: "All Minnesotans are very much welcome in January, February and March."

Both she and Davidow concluded on upbeat notes. "We are here together. We are one family that can tackle challenges together for the future," she said.

Said Davidow: "We're going through a tough time now. That's not going to last. I wish you all luck."

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747 Twitter: @rochelleolson