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Can Mexico's President-elect Peña Nieto and Obama set a new tone?

Peña Nieto travels to Washington today ahead of his inauguration. With Mexico’s growing economy and falling homicide rate, some see an opportunity to bolster US-Mexico ties.

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Of course, Peña Nieto might have a hard sell to his US audience. According to a survey conducted in October by the advertising firm GSD&M and the consultancy Vianovo, 59 percent of Americans surveyed see Mexico as a source of problems for the US, compared with 14 percent who say it’s a good neighbor and partner. Only 17 percent say they view Mexico’s economy as modern. And when asked to describe Mexico in three words, almost half chose the word “drugs.”  

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Still, the US government seems more inclined to embrace a prosperous Mexico. Some analysts feared that the ties between Mexico and the US would be unbounded by the return of Peña Nieto’s former ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which is widely accused of tolerating the drug trade. 

The White House said in a press release prior to Peña Nieto's visit: “The United States remains committed to work in partnership with Mexico to increase economic competitiveness in both countries, promote regional development, advance bilateral efforts to develop a secure and efficient 21st Century Border, and address our common security challenges.”

Despite the rhetoric, Alejandro Schtulmann, head of research at the Emerging Markets Political Risk Analysis consulting firm in Mexico City, says that if Mexico is going to set an agenda with the US, it must first solidify its position as a global player. “If it expands trade ties … especially with China … it could improve its arguing position,” Mr. Schtulmann says. Right now, “if Mexico says it wants the US to pass immigration reform, it doesn’t mean anything.”

For many, it’s time for the US to pay greater attention to Mexico, not as a problem but as a partner, especially after the decisive role that Americans of Mexican descent played in the reelection of President Obama.

Legal expert John Ackerman, however, says that close ties between Obama and the PRI is not the way forward. Writing in the Huffington Post he does not mince words. “President Barack Obama's embrace of Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto ... is the wrong way for him to appeal to this growing sector of the electorate,” Mr. Ackerman writes.

“Peña Nieto hails from the old guard (PRI) ... which ruled the country for 71 years and represents the worst of Mexico's authoritarian past. By cozying up to this new face of reaction in the region, Obama sends a clear message that his Latin America policy will be equally as shortsighted in his second term as it was during his first.”

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