Published November 28, 2012
President Obama's meeting with México's president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto seemed a bit like a high school homecoming coronation: two "pretty" people --both with unremarkable records when it comes to Latin America-- putting on a great show.
President Obama's intentions seem genuine, but good intentions are not enough. He recently pointed out that “there have been times when the United States took this region for granted.” He's right. In fact, historically, the record is even worse, with past administrations creating or conspiring with unsavory caudillos at the expense of citizens.
President Obama, who rarely mentions México as a partner in his policy speeches, and not once in any of his debates, must change both the vehement rhetoric, as well as U.S. trade policy and regulations when it comes to México.
Why? Because even though recent studies show that 65 percent of Americans view México as "a dangerous and unstable country," it is now the world's 13th biggest economy and ranks 11th in buying power, according to the World Trade Organization.
And though the drumbeat from the U.S. media is incessantly negative, indicators for 2012 show México is actually on the rise with crime down and trade and manufacturing way up. Who knew, right?
México is an enormous opportunity --one that President Obama needs to understand, appreciate, and act on accordingly. It's his bully pulpit moment, and he must not disappoint.
As for Peña Nieto, he too has much work to do, first and foremost because of his party affiliation. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ran México through most of the 20th century, but their governing method can best be described in a single word: corrupt.
He's being given a good hand and shouldn't blow it. He will lead a country with a booming manufacturing base. If you use a Blackberry, chances are it was made in México. If you drive a Cadillac, a Ford, Chevy or Toyota, same. Oh, and the flat screen TV where you get your negative, non-fact based stories about México, where it was made? You guessed it... México.
More jobs in México means fewer Mexicans crossing the border. The so-called immigration crisis, often apoplectically described as a "wave" by some on the far right is actually now more like a trickle.
According to the U.S. Border Patrol, border crossings are down to the lowest levels since the Nixon era.
All of this is impressive, but for Peña Nieto it's not about where the country is as much as where it's going. Lower crime statistics and a boom in manufacturing is his starting place, but it will quickly turn to his demise if he governs as other PRI leaders have in the past.
He must lead as he campaigned: as a populist. And that means he must tackle both the cartel leaders and the oligarchs who control México's telecoms, media, construction and food industries. He must force competition both in private industry, as well as in the state run
energy monopolies that run México's vast oil and gas reserves.
The two C's of cronyism and corruption by which the PRI has come to be known should and must be replaced by cooperation and compassion for the people of México, not just the big wigs. This is Peña Nieto's own bully pulpit moment, and he must not disappoint.
Both leaders should begin by reworking their Free Trade Agreement. "It must be re-launched and re-founded," says Florida International University professor and author Eduardo Gamarra. "It is the oldest of the FTAs and simply put, it needs to be modernized and brought up to date for the sake of both sides."
U.S.-México relations are at a stage that could result in inconceivable promise to the citizens of both nations. It's up to President's Obama and Peña Nieto to make this more than a high school homecoming scene, and to seize the significant opportunity before them.