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.

Eduardo Verdugo/AP
Mexico's President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto delivers a speech during an event in Mexico City, Nov. 14. Nieto visits President Obama today in Washington and will try to set a new tone for the US-Mexican relationship that expands beyond drug war violence.

As Mexico’s incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto visits newly-reelected United States President Obama today in Washington, he will try to set a new tone for the US-Mexican relationship that expands beyond drug war violence.

His predecessor, Mexican President Felipe Calderón, has been hailed in US government circles for taking on drug traffickers, a decision that moved the two countries closer than they’ve ever been in an era of “shared responsibility” of the drug war.

But, while Mr. Peña Nieto will attempt to reinforce his commitment to tackling organized crime, he will also highlight the growth and potential of Mexico today – much of that may surprise many Americans – which has occurred while grisly headlines of drug violence have captured the news.

In the opinion pages of The Washington Post on Nov. 23, Mr. Peña Nieto wrote:

It is a mistake to limit our bilateral relationship to drugs and security concerns.…  We must build a more prosperous North America, on the basis of an alliance for a further competitive and productive integration of our economies.

“Peña Nieto is signaling that …  he is not going to stop confronting organized crime, but that he wants to add the economic relationship with the world and the US in particular to the priority list,” says Eric Olson, the associate director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center For Scholars.

In many ways, Peña Nieto is in a strong position to push for a new agenda that goes beyond the perennial topics of drugs, immigration, and random but explosive trade conflicts. Mexico’s economy is growing robustly, there is a falling homicide rate after years of mounting deaths, and Mexicans are opting not to migrate to the US, with some experts putting cross-border flows at “net zero” (as we detail in this cover story here).

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.”  

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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