Searching for Mexicos Future

First there were three. Now there is one. Felipe Calderón is to be the next president of Mexico. After a tumultuous process of post-election negotiation, partial ballot recounting and seemingly endless demonstrations, a winner has been announced. How he governs will be a matter of great importance to the United States, for disturbing questions remain unanswered. Can this Catholic candidate of the liberal, free-market right govern? Will he be able to address the two critical issues that confronted all the presidential candidates: Mexico’s intractable, seemingly ineradicable poverty and the deep inequality of income that divides Mexico’s small ruling class from its vast majority of campesinos and urban slum-dwellers? Calderón, like his two principal rivals, pledged to create jobs, eliminate corruption and deal with immigration. The question is how?

Events of the last few months have highlighted the difficulties that lie ahead. We remember the images that appeared in the press and the electronic media: the Paseo de la Reforma blocked with tents; tens of thousands protesting the presidential election’s outcome in the Zócalo, the main plaza of the capital; and President Vicente Fox being prevented from giving his State of the Union speech. Was this the breakdown of Mexico’s young democracy or the beginning of a new awakening of popular participation after generations of political manipulation by political parties of right and left? Does it matter? Should we in the rest of North America care? The answer is clearly yes.


No country is more important to the future of the United States than Mexico. One might ask how that can be. At a time when headlines focus on the war on terrorism, on conflict in the Middle East, on nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, and the failures of democracy in Russia, surely other issues appear more critical to our national security. Yet what kind of a society we wish to become, what kind of nation we intend to defend and what our vision of our country’s future should be will depend on Mexico.

Changing Demographics

Demographers inform us that whites will soon be in the minority in 35 of our 50 largest cities. Where will the new majority come from? In significant degree from Mexico. While there are, of course, important increases in the United States’ Asian population, and many Hispanics come from Central and South America to seek their fortunes among us, the single most important group of immigrants comes from Mexico. That fact is unlikely to change whether or not new immigration legislation succeeds in building a longer and higher wall along our southern border, or whether or not a path for citizenship is created for most of the thousands already here.

It is in that context that Mexico’s election last July 2 takes on a singular importance. For the result of that election will determine the direction in which Mexico will go over the next six years and more. In that election three visions of the future were competing.

Luis Rubio and Jeffrey Davidow, writing in the September 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs, assert that the choice Mexicans faced was between the past and the future, between state-led growth and private sector innovation, between the P.R.D. (Democratic Revolution Party) of Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the conservative, free-market liberalism of the PAN (National Action Party) of the now officially declared winner, Felipe Calderón. In their view, the P.R.D. was doing little more than espousing a refurbished version of the policies of the PRI (Institutional Revolution Party), which had ruled Mexico for over 70 years and whose candidate, Roberto Madrazo, finished a poor third behind López Obrador.

The names of the various parties appear to represent a certain political convergence, promising change either through revolution or action. Although the idea of institutionalizing revolution is an evident oxymoron, even the PRI promised in its election manifesto to bring about a transformation of Mexico and significant improvement in the lot of Mexico’s lower classes. So too did the PAN and its business-oriented leader.

Mexico’s Bishops Weigh In

Behind the scenes the Catholic Church sought to play a significant role. On May 17, in the run-up to the election, the Mexican bishops issued an important press statement praising a “healthy pluralism,” but warning against a democracy that could be converted into a visible or covert totalitarianism. The bishops called for full and active participation of Mexicans in the electoral process, and, like the bishops’ conference in the United States, outlined some of the criteria that voters should use in evaluating candidates. There were few surprises. They explicitly called for full respect for life from start to finish, defense of the family and the promotion of justice and peace. They also included some exhortations, however, that might have pointed the electorate toward the eventual winner—notably their endorsement of free enterprise and private property and their call for a president with a capacity for dialogue and social and economic understanding. On the other hand, López Obrador might have taken comfort from their explicit recognition of the need for “a better distribution of wealth” and for a more profound understanding of the situation of the poor. López Obrador’s principal campaign slogan was “For the Good of Everyone, the Poor First.” The bishops’ formulation certainly harkened back to what elements of the Mexican church had long demanded: a preferential option for the poor.

The final point the bishops made may, in fact, have carried more weight. They called for constitutional reform to make possible religious freedom. Mexican history throughout much of the 20th century was marked by systematic, constitutionally mandated anticlericalism and anti-Catholicism. For many years priests could not appear in public in clerical attire. The PRI’s own revolutionary ideology supported this restriction on church power and influence. López Obrador, from his leftist perspective, was also known for his deep skepticism of the church’s role in Mexican society and politics. Only Calderón seemed to be fully in sympathy with the bishops’ views. As a daily Mass attender with strong and publicly held views about abortion and the right to life, Calderón was clearly the candidate closest to the bishops’ views. It is not surprising that the church, only three days after the vote and in the midst of considerable political turmoil, quickly called for acceptance of the election of Calderón.

Facing the Challenges of Governing

It will not be the church, however, that calls the shots in the Calderón government when it takes office in early December. The internal reality of Mexico’s economy, the pressing immigration agenda with the United States and important disagreements over trade and investment will be critical. U.S.-educated though he is, Calderón clearly cannot assume an easy ride. He faces a range of challenges. The first is the seemingly relentless opposition of both the P.R.D. and PRI, which together will dominate the national legislature. The six years of President Fox’s tenure have made it abundantly clear how difficult it is to reform Mexico’s institutions when the legislature is reluctant to go along. Even though all parties agree in general terms on what needs to be done, they do not agree on the specific steps that should be taken. Calderón is committed to free-market policies and opposed to state-led intervention in the economy to create jobs, provide social services and favor the disadvantaged in Mexican society. Only a little more than a third of Mexico’s voters embraced the ideological orientation of Calderón; two-thirds did not. Creating a new consensus will be difficult.

Complex Agenda

Equally problematic is the challenge of managing relations with the United States. The agenda is complex: immigration, drugs, trade and investment, energy cooperation. In many respects the promise of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) remains unfulfilled. (Mexican trucks, for example, still cannot move freely outside of a narrow border zone in the United States.) Extradition of Mexican drug traffickers raises difficult questions of sovereignty. The now almost certain extension of the wall separating the two countries stands as a symbolic statement of estrangement. Mexicans of all political stripes are reluctant to accept Robert Frost’s assumption that “good fences make good neighbors,” but the Mexicans have important cards to play in terms of cooperation with the United States on migration and energy supply, two subjects high on the U.S. national and homeland security agenda. To the extent that Calderón can put in place polices that restrict migration and enhance its energy supply, there is good reason to hope for a positive evolution in the bilateral relationship. In the long term, however, it will be the internal dynamic in Mexico that will either tie Calderón’s hands or free him to move forward. There, alas, the prospects are far from bright. The deep personal antipathy between López Obrador and Calderón, and between their respective parties, makes legislative cooperation unlikely, even if the manipulation of popular demonstrations and emotions subsides.

The United States clearly favored a victory by Calderón. We could not support what we saw as the institutional corruption of the PRI. We were deeply suspicious of the leftist rhetoric of the P.R.D., fearing a rising tide of anti-Americanism and populist policies spreading from Venezuela and Bolivia and Peru up the Central American isthmus to Mexico. Helping Calderón to succeed will require more than rhetorical and symbolic support. It will also necessitate policies that transfer resources and make clear to the Mexican populace at large that we understand the urgent need not merely to enhance our own security, but also to help them solve the deep underlying structural problems of poverty and income inequality. These must be faced if illegal immigration is to be brought under control and if Mexico is to become the viable and cooperative partner that all Americans hope it will be.

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12 years ago
The two cover stories on Nov. 27 and Dec. 4 were fascinating. But they seemed to have a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” theme. Would Mexico (12/4) be better off adopting the policies that led Ireland out of comparative poverty into relative prosperity? Or would Ireland (11/27) have been better off if it stayed in a Mexico-like economic situation?

Mexico is a country blessed with substantial natural resources, including energy supplies, a warm climate, fertile lands, wide access to the sea for trade and a population that works diligently, as demonstrated by their performance when they come to the United States. So how can they fail to be prosperous? Comparing Mexico to Ireland, one would expect Mexico to have a much better chance at prosperity.

But then, reading the Nov. 27 issue, I wonder whether America has reservations about a country reaching Ireland-like prosperity.


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