Obrador no Chavez: CFR Election Preview

Part Two: No Reason to Worry about the Leftists

Whoever wins the July 2006 presidential election will likely face a divided Congress, political parties that continue to be separated by profound programmatic and personal disputes, governors struggling to expand their still limited autonomy, and uni*ns and business leaders working to preserve their traditional privileges. The task of transforming this political raw material into a governing coalition will not be easy for any of the three leading presidential contenders—Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN), and Roberto Madrazo of the PRI. Each candidate has a different strategy for building a governing coalition and for exploiting the nonlegislative powers of the presidency. Each also has a very different set of policy preferences that he would pursue with governing capacity. But they all agree that Mexico must sustain democratic practices, invest in human and capital infrastructure, increase energy production, create jobs and enhance economic competitiveness, and preserve a good relationship with the United States. [Here the author reviews how the USA president got angry at the Mexico president when the latter failed to support the former’s UN campaign for war in Iraq, and how Mexicans as a whole have been insulted by the Congress of the USA for its recent exploitation of the immigration issue.]

The sobering effect of these experiences suggests that Mexico’s next president will move the country away from Fox’s tight embrace of the United States, rekindle efforts to build ties with the rest of Latin America, and renew its reliance on the principles that have traditionally guided Mexican foreign policy: self-determination, nonintervention, and the peaceful resolution of disputes.

This does not mean, however, that Mexico will become hostile to the United States, embrace the Latin American left, or end its participation in international institutions. Mexico realizes that its future is inevitably intertwined with its northern neighbor. Mexico obtains two-thirds of capital flows into the country and virtually all of its $20–25 billion in annual migrant remittances from the United States. It also sends nearly 90 percent of its exports to the United States, and more than 80 percent of tourists visiting Mexico are Americans. Mexico cannot afford a profound alienation from the United States. The Mexican population is also largely supportive of a warm relationship with the United States.

Indeed, behind the scenes the relationship has become increasingly institutionalized and stable regardless of who occupies the U.S. and Mexican presidencies. The NAFTA dispute resolution mechanism (as well as the World Trade Organization [WTO]) provides a formal framework for resolving trade disputes, and cooperation on security matters and efforts to combat drug trafficking are increasingly close and institutionalized. Regardless of who is inaugurated president on December 1, 2006, Mexico is unlikely to embrace Latin America’s radical left. There is little support for such a policy at home and a clear understanding that it would be of little practical advantage, especially given the damage it would cause to Mexico’s all-important relationship with the United States.

López Obrador is also very unlikely to embrace Hugo Chávez. To the contrary, he is the only Mexican presidential candidate in memory from the left who has not employed anti-American rhetoric.

Although López Obrador is not a great fan of free trade treaties, he is unlikely to pull Mexico out of its existing trade agreements with the European Uni*n, Japan, Chile, and other countries. But a López Obrador presidency is not likely to continue its predecessors’ support for a Free Trade Area for the Americas. Finally, López Obrador’s nationalism, his sensitivity to criticism, and his tendency to speak his mind freely will make him a prickly partner who is susceptible to perceived slights by the United States or its representatives, a historically common source of tension in the bilateral relationship.

All three candidates agree that although migration is a dominant foreign policy concern, it should no longer define Mexico’s dealings with the United States as it did under Fox. They also accept—in principle—Mexico’s responsibility to help manage the migrant flow by creating more and better jobs, helping to administer a temporary worker program, and recognizing U.S. security concerns related to migration. And they all accept the fact that controlling the border is a U.S. sovereign right. But the three candidates also insist that the United States has the responsibility to protect the human rights of Mexican nationals who cross into U.S. territory. They also uniformly favor amnesty for Mexicans living and working illegally in the United States. But they disagree over the weight each of these issues should have in Mexican migration policy. Calderón would sustain Mexico’s current migration policy but with an added emphasis on policing the northern border. Madrazo has proposed a new, more vigorous office for migrant affairs in the foreign ministry to symbolize his promise to aggressively protect the rights of Mexicans in the United States. López Obrador argues that the recent growth in migration flows is a national tragedy and a direct consequence of the “neoliberal” economic strategy’s inability to generate employment opportunities for the majority of new entrants into the job market. López Obrador would encourage the United States to support his effort to slow migration pressures by creating jobs in Mexico while actively protecting the rights of current migrants.

All of these permutations of Mexican migration policy, however, share two limitations that have affected this policy for years. First, Mexico has not explicitly considered what it is willing to give the United States in exchange for continued access to the U.S. job market. Mexicans firmly believe the U.S. economy is far too dependent on migrant labor for Washington to seriously limit the flow. They find it difficult to comprehend that U.S. security concerns and domestic political pressures could override this perceived economic need. Mexicans tend to interpret congressional efforts toward restriction as racist posturing, which the U.S. business community will prevent from becoming law, rather than as a real reflection of public concern over the fiscal and security implications of large migrant flows. This perception has prevented Mexico from thinking seriously about what it can do to prevent a substantial reduction in its access to the U.S. job market, despite the knowledge that this eventuality would be catastrophic for Mexico. Second, Mexico’s vague promises to contribute to a comprehensive migration agreement by policing its borders and creating jobs are not credible.

Although López Obrador appreciates the importance of public security, he firmly believes that the best anticrime strategy is one that emphasizes fighting poverty and inequality. Investing more in policing strategies is important, but clearly plays a supporting role. As mayor of Mexico City, for example, López Obrador hired the security firm run by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to design an anticrime strategy for Mexico City, yet never implemented its recommendations.

The outcome of Mexico’s 2006 presidential election also matters greatly to the United States because of its impact on Mexico’s political capacity to deal with the domestic economic challenges discussed earlier in this report. Mexico’s ability to create more and better jobs is critical to any long-term migration solution and to its role as an important trading partner of the United States. Mexico’s ability to reform its petroleum sector is an essential prerequisite to ensuring Mexican oil exports to the United States in future decades. Eq

ually important but often overlooked for its impact on the United States is Mexico’s ability to improve its future economic competitiveness. U.S. companies rely heavily on low-cost production facilities and suppliers in Mexico to enhance their international competitiveness. About 80 percent of U.S. trade with Mexico is intra-industry trade designed to increase the global competitiveness of U.S. firms. In a global economy populated by the low-cost, yet increasingly sophisticated production, of countries like China and India, the integration of U.S. technology with lower-cost Mexican production will continue to be an important tool for sustaining the United States and North America’s international competitive advantage in the future.

Although the United States justifiably felt let down by Mexico’s delayed and tepid statements of sympathy after 9/11 and its lack of support for the Iraq war, U.S. officials seem to have underestimated the depth of Mexican disappointment at having fallen off the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Mexico feels underappreciated by the United States and now further disrespected by the tone of the migration debate in the U.S. Congress. Hurt feelings and wounded pride on both sides of the border have inevitably limited policy cooperation. The United States should take the lead in changing the tone of the relationship by reaching out to Mexico’s new president as a valued policy partner, and Mexico should reciprocate by thinking realistically about migration and attacking its pending domestic economic and security agenda.

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