Mexico prefers to export its poor, not uplift them

At this week's summit, failed reforms under Fox should be the issue, not US actions.

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At the parleys this week with his US and Canadian counterparts in Cancún, Mexican President Vicente Fox will press for more opportunities for his countrymen north of the Rio Grande. Specifically, he will argue for additional visas for Mexicans to enter the United States and Canada, the expansion of guest-worker schemes, and the "regularization" of illegal immigrants who reside throughout the continent. In a recent interview with CNN, the Mexican chief executive excoriated as "undemocratic" the extension of a wall on the US-Mexico border and called for the "orderly, safe, and legal" northbound flow of Mexicans, many of whom come from his home state of Guanajuato.

Mexican legislators share Mr. Fox's goals. Silvia Hernández Enriquez, head of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations for North America, recently emphasized that the solution to the "structural phenomenon" of unlawful migration lies not with "walls or militarization" but with "understanding, cooperation, and joint responsibility."

Such rhetoric would be more convincing if Mexican officials were making a good faith effort to uplift the 50 percent of their 106 million people who live in poverty. To his credit, Fox's "Opportunities" initiative has improved slightly the plight of the poorest of the poor. Still, neither he nor Mexico's lawmakers have advanced measures that would spur sustained growth, improve the quality of the workforce, curb unemployment, and obviate the flight of Mexicans abroad.

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Indeed, Mexico's leaders have turned hypocrisy from an art form into an exact science as they shirk their obligations to fellow citizens, while decrying efforts by the US senators and representatives to crack down on illegal immigration at the border and the workplace.

What are some examples of this failure of responsibility?

• When oil revenues are excluded, Mexico raises the equivalent of only 9 percent of its gross domestic product in taxes - a figure roughly equivalent to that of Haiti and far below the level of major Latin American nations. Not only is Mexico's collection rate ridiculously low, its fiscal regime is riddled with loopholes and exemptions, giving rise to widespread evasion. Congress has rebuffed efforts to reform the system.

• Insufficient revenues mean that Mexico spends relatively little on two key elements of social mobility: Education commands just 5.3 percent of its GDP and healthcare only 6.10 percent, according to the World Bank's last comparative study.

• A venal, "come-back-tomorrow" bureaucracy explains the 58 days it takes to open a business in Mexico compared with three days in Canada, five days in the US, nine days in Jamaica, and 27 days in Chile. Mexico's private sector estimates that 34 percent of the firms in the country made "extra official" payments to functionaries and legislators in 2004. These bribes totaled $11.2 billion and equaled 12 percent of GDP.

• Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization, placed Mexico in a tie with Ghana, Panama, Peru, and Turkey for 65th among 158 countries surveyed for corruption.

• Economic competition is constrained by the presence of inefficient, overstaffed state oil and electricity monopolies, as well as a small number of private corporations - closely linked to government big shots - that control telecommunications, television, food processing, transportation, construction, and cement. Politicians who talk about, much less propose, trust-busting measures are as rare as a snowfall in the Sonoran Desert.

Geography, self-interests, and humanitarian concerns require North America's neighbors to cooperate on myriad issues, not the least of which is immigration. However, Mexico's power brokers have failed to make the difficult decisions necessary to use their nation's bountiful wealth to benefit the masses. Washington and Ottawa have every right to insist that Mexico's pampered elite act responsibly, rather than expecting US and Canadian taxpayers to shoulder burdens Mexico should assume.

George W. Grayson, who teaches government at the College of William & Mary, is the author of "Mesías Mexicano," forthcoming, a book about Mexican presidential front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

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