BY ERIC FARNSWORTH
AND MONICA GUEVARA
Soon after he was inaugurated in 2001, President Bush took his first foreign trip to Mexico and then-President Vicente Fox enjoyed the symbolically-important first State Visit to Washington of the new administration, underscoring to observers and foreign policy elites alike that henceforth, Mexico would be a new priority on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. On March 13, President Bush returned to Mexico. He met with a different Mexican President this time, under dramatically different circumstances, but the message was the same as seven years ago: we need to work together if we are to find solutions to problems that affect us both.
In the time between the first and most recent visits, of course, much has happened: 9/11 and conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, presidential elections in both the United States and Mexico, and Congressional mid-terms which brought new leadership to the US Congress, just to name a few. These events returned U.S. policy and political priorities to a more traditional security-oriented framework. Everyone knows this. But Mexico, too, has seen its priorities shift. Even though President Fox enjoyed a warm personal relationship with President Bush, nonetheless the perception in Mexico was, and is, that a personal friendship between leaders was not enough to produce concrete results toward achieving Mexican priorities, including comprehensive immigration reform. Some would argue, in fact, that since 9/11, the United States has taken steps backwards in promoting an enforcement alone approach to illegal immigration, leaving a wall on the border as the new symbolic face of the United States toward Mexico and the rest of Latin America.
The stakes are high. At a time when Latin American countries have largely followed democratic paths, but where democratic institutions are still fragile and, in some nations, deteriorating, it is now in the best interest of the United States that Mexico’s new President, Felipe Calderón, succeeds.
After a July 2006 election that took months to be officially recognized, winning by less than one percent against his closest, populist contender, President Calderón faces a significant populist current, both in Congress and in the national mood. Although he has been reaching out effectively to various domestic audiences to build consensus, President Calderon also needs to deliver early successes to show that, “Sí se puede” (it can be done). First on tap: building Mexico’s global competitiveness to create good jobs, attract direct investment, reduce income inequality and poverty, and, ultimately reduce the drain of ambitious, hardworking people who leave the country to look for better opportunities abroad.
These are fundamentally Mexican issues for Mexicans to address. But the United States can, and should, assist, in ways that Mexican leaders would find helpful. During their recent meeting, President Calderón implored the U.S. President to reduce the demand of drugs in the United States, which would reduce the throughput of illegal drugs from Andean producers to North American consumers. He also asked for U.S. assistance to control the illegal importation of handguns and other weapons from the United States to Mexico, weapons which have increased violence thoughout Mexico and directly contributed to the difficult security environment at the U.S.-Mexico border. And President Calderón suggested, not entirely jokingly, that a better way to reduce illegal immigration than building a border fence would be to build a highway in Michoacán to improve infrastructure and regional economic opportunities.
Mexican leaders have made clear that they are looking for concrete results. As Mexico’s Ambassador in Washington has said, we can be “buddies” in due course after progress has already been made, but expectations this time will not be allowed to run ahead of a practical ability for either nation to deliver results.
It is not a matter of labeling immigration, drug trafficking and security problems on the southern border of the United States as “Made in Mexico,” but rather of assessing existing challenges in both countries as the effect of supply and demand. Like it or not, strategies to address these issues within the bi-lateral agenda have to be seen through a prism of shared responsibility, and shared benefit.
Ironically, the Democratic takeover of Congress in November may have actually made immigration reform more likely, since the White House and Congressional Democrats seem to share a similar approach on many aspects of the immigration debate. But time is short. With the longevity of President Calderon’s political honeymoon uncertain, coupled with the fact that the United States is already heading into the presidential primary season, the window of opportunity is limited.
The President’s trip to Mexico was a success. But executive and legislative branch follow-up must be sustained, leading to concrete results. By once again elevating Mexico as a foreign policy priority, the United States can increase our own security and prosperity by helping to build a prosperous, pro-trade, neighbor and friend immediately to the south.
Eric Farnsworth is Vice President, and Monica Guevara is the Director for North American Affairs, with the Council of the Americas in Washington.
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