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Can twin elections spell change along Rio Grande?

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2012-06-27

Parallel presidential elections in Mexico and the United States often signal an opportunity for better relations, but reversing the tide on soured ties between the two countries could prove difficult.

Voters in Mexico head to the polls to pick a new president on July 1, only four months before voters in the United States choose their head of state. The twin 2012 elections are critical tests for political camps within each country, but their outcomes could also prove decisive in improving soured relations between the two neighbours.

The two countries share a 3,200-km border and a long and complicated history. However, their partnership in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - worth around 500 billion euros annually - has closely bound the two nations commercially.

“The adage says that when the US sneezes, Mexico gets a cold,” said Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky, a Latin America scholar at France’s Institute for International and Security Relations (IRIS) in Paris.  “Mexico depends entirely on the health of the US economy.”

But the US also has much to lose - or win - economically in Mexico. American companies have invested 116 billion euros in Mexico since 2000, according to the US State Department. And with around 224 billion euros, Mexico was the second destination for US goods and services exports in 2011.

This year’s synchronized ballots have served to highlight the important historic and economic ties between the two countries, but also bilateral relations damaged over immigration and security problems.

Expectations dashed

Four-year presidential mandates in the US and six-year terms in Mexico mean that every 12 years the two countries hold parallel ballots.

In December 2000, Vicente Fox made history by winning presidential elections that ended 71 years of uninterrupted rule by the nationalist PRI party in Mexico. Later that year George W. Bush Jr. became America’s 43rd president.

Fox, a US-trained businessman, was the former chief of Coca-Cola Mexico in charge of the company’s entire Latin American operation. Bush, a former Texas governor who liked to show off his knowledge of Spanish on the campaign trail, had virtually no foreign policy exposure, except with regard to Mexico.

According to Stephen Donehoo, who heads the northern Latin America division of McLarty Associates, a Washington-based international strategic advisory firm, there were high expectations in 2000 for improved relations, especially among Mexicans who longed to be treated as equal partners.

Bush broke with the tradition by marking Mexico, and not Canada, as his first stop-off as president.

“Those hopes were shuffled off by the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent emphasis on border safety: difficulties in getting visas, the build up of border security and mistrust,” Donehoo explained.

Bush pushed to deport more undocumented Mexican and Latin American immigrants starting in 2004, a policy that was continued and even expanded under President Barack Obama.

Another victim of the drug war

The hard-line offensive launched by President Felipe Calderon against Mexico’s powerful drug cartels in 2006 did not help matters. Since then, over 60,000 people have been killed as a result of the drug war, tarnishing the country's image abroad. Moreover, Mexicans critical of the war criticise the US for not doing more to help end the violence.

In March 2011, US ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual resigned amid anger over a leaked diplomatic cable in which he blasted the inefficiency and infighting among Mexican security forces in the fight against the cartels. A new ambassador was named a few months later, but with little improvement to US-Mexico ties.

“Relations have gotten worse in the past few months, especially after the Obama administration refused to help investigate arms trafficking into Mexico,” said Ulises Corona, a National Autonomous University of Mexico professor, in reference to the botched gun-tracking operation known as Fast and Furious.

“In Mexico, people often say ‘The United States provides the guns and Mexico provides the dead bodies,’ said Corona. The political science professor said the latest contentious case reflected years of problems. “To summarise, Mexico has become more dependent [on the US], has enjoyed little help and displayed mediocre diplomacy.”

The negative sentiment over immigration in the US has not been lost on Mexico’s presidential hopefuls, all of whom have spoken about Mexico’s special place alongside the US and pledged to improve the fates of Mexican residents living in the US.

Looking elsewhere

The presidential poll in the US promises to be a close race, but in Mexico the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) seems poised to cry victory. While the PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto will no doubt continue his party’s market-friendly policies if he becomes president, his party also has a history of staunch independence in the diplomatic arena.

“While all the countries lined up behind the United States to isolate Cuba in the 1960s, Mexico under the PRI always refused to do so,” remembered Kourliandsky. The French researcher said the PRI could once more show it is not willing to play "follow the leader".

Knowing its economy depends on favourable trade with the United States, but also aware of the limitations when dealing with the northern superpower, Mexico has already worked to expand its horizons and political reach.

“Mexico has grown as an international player,” said McLarty Associates’s Donehoo. “This is partly because of NAFTA, but also because it’s been working hard and remained serious about establishing and maintaining other meaningful trade relations.”

Mexico has found a home in the G20 group of leading world economies, hosting the latest summit in Los Cabos in June. It is a member of the new Pacific Alliance, which includes Chile, Peru and Colombia, and is targeting higher trade with China. Mexico is also tipped to join the Trans Pacific-Partnership, expected to become the largest free trade agreement on the globe.

“If, as expected, Peña Nieto becomes the next Mexican president, he will ask America’s leader some tough questions. Like how can we treat Mexican Americans and Mexicans at the border better? Or what can we work together on besides trade?” said Donehoo. “Both Obama and Romney would be smart to visit the Mexican president before elections in November.”

Date created : 2012-06-27


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