On December 1st, Enrique Peña Nieto will be sworn in as President of México, thus assuming command of a country with which the United States has one of the most important yet challenging relationships in the world. What kind of president will he be? The answer to that question is key to determining whether the U.S. and México can together resolve the many problems, and seize the opportunities, facing both countries, including: migration; money, weapons and human smuggling; drug trafficking, kidnapping and other organized crime; terrorism; pollution; water and energy cooperation; commerce, industry, finance; and many others. 

Failure to address the bilateral issues with México is not an option. For example, 20 million people legally cross the 2,000-mile border each year, the most crossings over one international border. The two countries must facilitate the lawful passages while simultaneously preventing boundary violations by terrorists and criminals. This concern is real: terrorists have been caught on both sides (as well as on the U.S.-Canada border) because it is the easiest form of entry into the U.S. 

With the rest of the world in such potentially dangerous turmoil, we need a stable, cooperative México, as México needs us to pursue an attentive and intelligent policy beyond our southern border

- Otto J. Reich and William Perry

Moreover, México is the second largest trading partner of the US; one billion dollars of merchandise moves each and every day between the two countries. The prosperity of many U.S. states, not only those along the border, is now tied to the Mexican economy, and vice versa. Decades ago México ceased to fit the caricature of the sleepy peasant under a sombrero resting against a cactus, if it ever did. After nearly 20 years of free trade with the U.S., México is now the 12th biggest global economic power, with a fast-growing and educated middle class that looks to the U.S. for technology, goods, services and inspiration, even if this latter is often left unsaid.

In spite of the closeness demonstrated by the shared bonds of geography, economy, ethnicity and modern challenges, relations with México have been some of the most antagonistic in U.S. history, boiling over from diplomatic quarrels to wars or armed incursions. Whereas Americans forget past enmities rather quickly (witness the U.S. reconstruction of Germany, Italy and Japan immediately after defeating them in WWII), Latin cultures retain memories longer, especially those of real or perceived offenses or injuries. Mexicans memorialize the loss of much of their original territory to the expanding United States in the mid-1800’s, even to the point of permitting that recollection, a century later, to block offers of cooperation by the U.S. To work in tandem with the Peña Nieto government is a challenge for any American Administration. The Obama team would be well advised to examine the political party that Peña Nieto rode to power, the Revolutionary Institutional Party, or PRI in its Spanish acronym, and its recent history. 

About one century ago, the winners of the Mexican Revolution established the PRI as their political vehicle; it was decidedly leftist and nationalistic by the standards of that era. The leaders of the Revolution created an essentially one-party state that carried out a far-reaching program of land reform, public education and organization of labor. But the state, through the PRI, controlled the voters far more than they controlled it. PRI Presidents were selected by the heads of the Party, elected with virtually no opposition, and ruled effectively unconstrained by the federal Constitution, the Courts, or the largely rubber-stamp Congress. To keep power in the hands of the PRI and the “Revolutionary Family” of civil institutions that revolved around it, however, and to preclude long-term dictatorship by a single individual, Presidents were restricted to one, six-year term.

As México’s population and economy developed over many decades, and PRI governments became less “revolutionary” and more corrupt, the old system proved increasingly inadequate. Attempting to mend its faltering, largely statist economy during the 1980s, PRI Presidents began making concessions to popular pressures for more genuine democratic rule. Thus, the opposition Partido Acción Nacional (Spanish for National Action Party, or PAN) emerged as a serious electoral contender to the PRI from the right (winning the first non-PRI governorship since the Revolution in 1989) and the Partido Revolucionario Democratico (PRD) from the left. This process of transition culminated in the landmark presidential election of 2000 with the election of the PAN’s Vicente Fox (peacefully, and with great credit due to outgoing PRI President Ernesto Zedillo, who resisted the PRI’s pressure to intervene dishonorably on behalf of his party’s nominee).

But the PRI remained divided between its modern, or reformist, wing and the old guard (also known as “dinosaur”) faction. In the subsequent 2006 presidential contest, the PRI experienced a humiliating third-place finish – well behind both the PRD’s leftist Manuel López Obrador and the triumphant Felipe Calderón, México’s second consecutive President from the PAN.

After 12 years in office, with a struggling economy and the tragic consequences of an overdue but bloody and seemingly endless war on drug-traffickers, it was unlikely any PAN candidate could have won in 2012. The PRD, presently fractured by López Obrador’s erratic conduct since his 2006 defeat, had no chance either. Conversely, the candidate of the PRI, the young, articulate, Enrique Peña Nieto, benefited from a charming personality and a reasonable political platform. Since he was the Governor of a state known for traditional, underhanded, PRI practices, however, the key question remains to what degree his administration will reflect the party’s Jurassic political past or, alternatively, what a “new PRI” may have learned about modern requirements of politics, domestic policy and international relations after twelve years in the wilderness. 

Some observers fear that the “old PRI” may respond to the current drug war by cutting back on costly law enforcement efforts in order to produce less violence and improve the international image of a country now known for decapitated bodies hanging from highway bridges. It is said that before the current drug war, associated with the outgoing Calderón Administration, the PRI governments in México City had a tacit understanding with the gangs in exchange for not attacking them: the traffickers could continue their illicit activities as long as they did not purposely kill civilians, only each other, maintained a low profile, and remained within regional geographic boundaries – no conspicuous gang violence was allowed. 

A similar concern could be expressed with respect to efforts of the outgoing Calderón government to cleanse and modernize México’s courts, police and prison system. An old-style PRI might lean toward populism, rather than continue to streamline the state bureaucracy and encourage new growth in productive activity by national and foreign investors. It might also be suspected of tending toward authoritarianism on the part of the President, and of corruption – both financial and electoral. It could be prone to bombastic expressions of nationalist sentiments (in part to hide its domestic sins) on sensitive and important issues like immigration and energy policy – rather than open to prospects for mutually beneficial cooperation with its neighbors – most particularly the United States.

Fortunately, incoming President Peña Nieto has professed the modern, reformist view on all points. He states that México must win its mortal struggle with the violent drug mafias, perfect the mechanisms of governmental authority and government and proceed with sound (read: free market) economic policies. Moreover, he seems to understand the need for close cooperation with the United States in all these regards, as well as on the aforementioned bilateral issues that confront our two countries.

Based on his pronouncements, on his inauguration we should proceed to take President Peña Nieto at his word and congratulate the Mexican people on another peaceful transition, the result of which may prove as important as that of the year 2000. Democracy presupposes periodic exchanges of executive power between or among political parties. The PRI may well emerge as a functional and ethically legitimate center-left alternative to the PAN. This is especially true at a time when, with the rest of the world in such potentially dangerous turmoil, we need a stable, cooperative México, as México needs us to pursue an attentive and intelligent policy beyond our southern border. But only time will tell. As an old sage for whom both authors of this piece worked once remarked in another context: “Trust, but verify.”

Otto J. Reich and William Perry are former officials of the US State Department and National Security Council. They hold advanced degrees in Latin American Studies, and work as consultants to US and foreign corporations in Latin America.

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