Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Five Myths About Mexico

by Shannon K. O'Neil
May 2, 2013

People cross from the US to Mexico at the international border station in Calexico, California, adjacent to the Mexican border town of Mexicali, November 3, 2009 (Lucy Nicholson/Courtesy Reuters). People cross from the US to Mexico at the international border station in Calexico, California, adjacent to the Mexican border town of Mexicali, November 3, 2009 (Lucy Nicholson/Courtesy Reuters).

As President Barack Obama meets today with his counterpart, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, he is navigating one of America’s broadest and most complex bilateral relationships. In this op-ed for the BBC (that you can read here and below), I argue that it is important for Obama and his team to take into account the fundamental transformations that Mexico has undergone over the past thirty years—since it is these new realities that will shape both the substance and nature of U.S.-Mexico relations far into the future.

President Obama’s visit to Mexico is part of a long tradition of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and its neighbor to the south. But while many Americans feel that they understand the basic economic and social forces that drive Mexico, the realities are much more interesting. Here five myths about Mexico, that have a direct impact on American foreign policy, are debunked.

Mexico is no longer a poor country

Though many Americans think of Mexico as a country of either wealth or poverty, by most accounts it is now a middle-class country. A majority of Mexican households—incorporating roughly sixty million people—now have disposable income. Half of the people in Mexico own their own car, and one-third own a computer. Nearly everyone has a television and mobile phone.

These new urban middle-class Mexicans are also investing in their children’s education. There are now 45,000 private schools, comprising nearly a third of all Mexico’s schools. Student enrollment in universities and beyond has tripled in the past thirty years, from under a million in 1980 to almost three million today.

The rise of the middle class has affected Mexico’s politics, too, with this segment pivotal in voting out the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 2000, and then voting it back in to Los Pinos, Mexico’s White House, last year. This crucial voting bloc is increasingly up for grabs, rapidly joining the ranks of Mexico’s proclaimed political independents. They mirror the U.S. middle class in their concerns, paying close attention to economic opportunities and security, two important issues in U.S.-Mexico relations.

Mexican manufacturing doesn’t harm U.S. workers

For Mexico, the biggest issues in the U.S.-Mexico relationship are economic, and President Enrique Peña Nieto is hoping to deepen commercial ties between the two nations.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama praised Ford Motor Company for bringing jobs back from Mexico as part of a strategy to make “America a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing”. Yet this statement, at least with regard to Mexico, is mistaken. It isn’t that globalization doesn’t lead some jobs to foreign lands. It does. But by expanding abroad, companies become more competitive, supporting and creating jobs at home.

Ford increased its U.S. workforce (and plans on adding thousands more jobs by 2015), but it hasn’t stopped hiring in Mexico. It is expanding a plant in Hermosillo and adding over 1,000 positions in the last few years in the state of Sonora. A study by two Harvard business professors and a University of Michigan colleague shows that for every ten people hired overseas by American corporations, two new jobs are created in the United States.

Mexican immigrants are not going to keep flooding the U.S.

The net migration from Mexico to the U.S. is zero, due to many factors. The U.S. has cracked down on undocumented immigrants like these Mexican men being held by Border Control. The images of hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants illegally entering the United States each year, chased down by border patrol agents on foot, horseback, or truck, resonates widely. But this reality has changed.

The estimated numbers coming north each year are down to levels last seen in the 1970s. In fact, a 2012 Pew Hispanic Report noted that the net immigration for Mexicans in and out of the United States was “zero”. In other words the same numbers of Mexicans entered and left.

This can in part be explained by the U.S. recession, but it also reflects changes within Mexico. Mexico has undergone a major demographic shift in the last generation. In the 1970s, women were having an average of seven children, but today that number is closer to two—the same as the U.S. With fewer citizens coming of age each year relative to the overall population, the decades where Mexico’s “extra youths” headed to the U.S. are over.

Mexico’s democracy is not weakening

Although many feared that the 2012 return of the PRI would push Mexico back into its authoritarian past, checks and balances now exist and constrain whomever wears the presidential sash.

In Mexico’s Congress, the three major political parties must negotiate to get any bill passed, and the nation’s Supreme Court has increasingly exercised its autonomy to restrain both political officials and vested interests.

The country’s media and civil society groups more generally are beginning to play an important watchdog role, questioning policies and exposing bad behavior. And finally, Mexico has reached a relatively enviable space, ranking in the upper tiers of nearly all relative international measures of democracy.

Mexico is not at risk of becoming a failed state

Over the last six years, some 70,000 Mexicans have been killed in drug-related violence, and tens of thousands more have disappeared. Mexico’s police have often been unwilling or unable to stem the bloodshed, and the judicial system too has failed—with just 2 percent of all crimes ending in convictions.

But while Mexico faces a serious security threat from organized criminal groups, the country continues to collect taxes, build roads, run schools, expand social welfare programs and hold free and fair elections. Its economy has grown steadily, if somewhat slowly, and Mexico maintains an important presence in multilateral groups and summits. It has also begun the long and arduous path of professionalizing its police forces and transforming its courts to create a democratic rule of law.

One thing about Mexico that remains true is the deep and now permanent economic, political, security, and personal links between Mexico and the United States. For Presidents Obama and Peña Nieto, there is much to gain from a better understanding of each other’s country.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Michael Skol

    A very welcome, and accurate, corrective. Policy, especially foreign policy, based on myth is dangerous. In the case of Mexico, given its proximity in every way, we have everything to gain by understanding how much has changed over recent decades. Mexico is in fact more mature, politically and economically, than any number of European and other countries we normally think of as relatively advanced. Woe to the policy maker or the politician who thinks he/she knows otherwise.

  • Posted by Marcia Parrino

    “the nation’s Supreme Court has increasingly exercised its autonomy to restrain both political officials and vested interests.”

    Ms O´Neill really believes that? Would love for her to cite examples.

  • Posted by ion

    @ M Skol

    Please name these “European and other countries we normally think of as relatively advanced” that are less “mature” than Mexico.

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