How will the US-Mexico relationship unfold in the Peña Nieto era?
Peña Nieto has promised to strengthen economic ties with the U.S. Experts are also keeping an eye on his approach to the ‘war on drugs’.
Enrique Peña Nieto’s election as Mexico’s next president represents a shift back to the party that autocratically ruled the country for over 70 years, sparking some fears in the U.S. that tensions could fray with its southern neighbor on key issues.
But experts say those concerns are largely unfounded, arguing that the U.S.-Mexico relationship has changed dramatically since the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) last held power in 2000.
Peña Nieto, who is relatively unknown in the U.S., quickly sought to assure Americans that he won’t govern like the PRI leaders of the past. He penned an op-ed in the New York Times designed to tamp down speculation that he would govern like past PRI leaders, who struck bargains with organized crime syndicates and who shunned democratic principles.
“To those concerned about a return to old ways, fear not. At 45, I am part of a generation of PRI politicians committed to democracy. I reject the practices of the past, in the same way I seek to move forward from the political gridlock of the present,” he wrote. “My generation’s objective is not ideology or patronage, but measurable success at liberating Mexicans from poverty.”
Peña Nieto made several visits to Washington, D.C. before the campaign kicked into high gear and he has built a relationship with Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), whose district contains a portion of the U.S.-Mexico border, to help introduce him to official Washington.
Despite the fears, experts say that the U.S.-Mexico relationship will remain fundamentally unchanged with Peña Nieto taking power.
Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Washington, D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson Center, said that deep ties between the United States and Mexico on issues such as trade and security that developed over the last decade mean that the PRI isn’t likely to revert to its past mistrust of the U.S.
“The biggest thing is that the interests between the two countries are so significant at this point that it’s hard to shift policies,” Selee said in an interview with Univision News.
Multiple experts pointed out that Mexico’s largest trading partner by far is the U.S., with over 80 percent of its exports going north. More that $1 billion in products crosses the border every day. And Mexico is the third-largest trading partner for the U.S., which recently invited its southern neighbor to join a new round of trade talks with Asian nations called the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Jeffrey Davidow, a U.S. ambassador to Mexico under President Clinton, said that Mexico’s persistently high poverty rate could be driven down with more private investment and foreign investment in the economy, particularly through cooperation with the U.S.
“Mexico has done a good job in recent years, but in reality the number of people who are living in poverty or near poverty is still high,” said Davidow, who now works as a senior counselor to the Cohen Group, an international business consulting firm. “That has to be attacked.”
And the two countries cooperate extensively — from intelligence sharing to law enforcement training — in the battle against drug cartels, which has claimed nearly 60,000 lives in Mexico since President Felipe Calderón of the PAN took office in 2006.
Peña Nieto has indicated he would focus more on tamping down street violence and has said he eventually wants to phase out the use of the country’s military fighting the cartels, replacing it with a special militarized police force, similar to Colombia’s National Police.
In the last weeks of his campaign, Peña Nieto announced he would hire Oscar Naranjo, the retired chief of Colombia’s National Police, to serve as his top security adviser.
Naranjo will not lead Mexican military operations and is only slated to play an advisory role. Some analysts in Mexico speculate that he was brought on the Peña Nieto team to help the new president gain the trust of US law enforcement officers,as Naranjo is highly regarded by top level officials in the CIA, the State Department and the DEA.
“There can be neither negotiation nor a truce with criminals,” Peña Nieto wrote in the Times. “I will continue the fight, but the strategy must change.”
But some in the U.S. fear that Peña Nieto would revert back to the PRI’s old strategy of making deals with organized crime (the party has long faced accusations of making corrupt bargains to keep big-time criminals under control).
“In the backdrop of all this is the PRI itself and their history,” Texas Rep. Michael McCaul (R) told the Texas Tribune this month. “Traditionally, the PRI has been the party that has played nice with the cartels.”
But other observers have seen no evidence that PRI would fundamentally alter Mexico’s posture against the cartels.
“I don’t anticipate any major backwards steps in terms of collaboration with the United States in combating organized crime,” said Eric Olson, an associate at the Wilson Center.
Tony Garza, U.S. ambassador to Mexico under President George W. Bush, agreed.
“I don’t know how you address street violence without taking on the transnational criminal organizations,” he said. “There will be some rhetorical and tactical pivots and adjustments, but I think the overall goals remain clear. And you can’t accomplish those goals without your allies.”
Davidow, who served as ambassador at the end of the PRI’s seven-decade reign, added that Mexico’s civil society and middle class has strengthened dramatically since the party last held power, dramatically reducing the likelihood that the PRI would revert to its old ways of doing business.
“A political party that was in power in 70 years obviously has a lot of baggage. But I think one has to take into account the changes in the economy, the outlook, the interconnectedness of Mexico with the rest of the world to realize that it’s a different Mexico,” said Davidow. “The party may have the same name, but it’s a different world.”
But challenges still lay ahead.
It could take time for the new Peña Nieto government to find its footing and develop ties with U.S. leaders. Complicating that effort is the fact that Mexico and the United States are holding presidential elections in the same year for the first time since 2000, meaning that it’s possible that Peña Nieto will be dealing with a new administration soon after he takes office on Dec. 1. That could prolong the amount of time it takes for the countries’ leaders to develop a relationship.
Peña Nieto spoke on the phone with President Obama on Monday and the two leaders “reaffirmed the close bilateral partnership the United States and Mexico enjoy,” according to the White House.
Despite the deepening ties between the U.S. and Mexico since the turn of the century, there have still been points of friction.
The U.S. ambassador to Mexico resigned last year after diplomatic cables were made public by WikiLeaks in which he complained about the Mexican security forces’ conduct in combating drug cartels.
And Operation Fast and Furious, the botched anti-gun trafficking operation that lost track of over a thousand guns purchased in the U.S. and that ended up in Mexico, also served as a black eye. Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhan said in June that the incident “poisoned the well-spring of public opinion in Mexico as it relates to the cooperation and engagement with the United States.”
The dual missteps have not fundamentally altered ties between the two countries, but they underscore two long-term issues dogging the relationship: a tradition of anti-Americanism in Mexican politics and a nagging desire there for the U.S. to crack down harder on gun-trafficking.
“The scandals themselves are speed bumps but they speak to underlying truths that challenge the relationship,” Selee said.
Although it was not a front-line issue in this year’s campaign in Mexico, immigration reform in the U.S. has remained a sticking point. Like his predecessors, Peña Nieto has said he would like the U.S. to achieve comprehensive immigration reform, but multiple proposals have failed to pass Congress and it’s unclear whether that stalemate will break in the near future.
Despite those problems, Peña Nieto has demonstrated that he will continue to hold the line on security cooperation and would work to deepen economic ties. The newly-elected president has said he wants to allow private investment in the Mexico’s government-controlled oil industry, for example.
Peña Nieto isn’t necessarily framing himself as a leader who will change Mexico’s goals, but instead that he will accomplish more reforms than past presidents have. The question is, like it is for any politician, whether he can deliver on those promises.
“There will be more bang for the buck: I think that’s the message,” Selee said.
(Photo: Flickr, Angelica Rivera)