Watching the Election, South of the Border

Letter From Mexico City

A newspaper clipping from Obama's first trip to Mexico. (Ron Mader / flickr)

Every 12 years, the U.S. and Mexican political calendars sync up and both countries hold their presidential elections. The last time this happened, in 2000, Mexicans voted in Vicente Fox, ushering out of power the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which until then had been one of the longest-ruling political parties in the world. Meanwhile, the United States said good-bye to President Bill Clinton and hello to the George W. Bush administration.

Twelve years later, power in Mexico has once again changed hands with the presidential victory of Enrique Peña Nieto, who is head of the rebuilt PRI. And this week, the United States has a choice between granting Barack Obama another four years in the White House and pushing him out in favor of the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. When the electoral scuffles are over, Mexico and the United States will have an opportunity to reboot their bilateral agendas and improve relations as they work on perennial challenges such as migration and drug trafficking.

There is no question that cooperation between the two countries has deepened in the past 12 years, especially under Obama and the outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who took office in 2006. In particular, both countries have recognized that the war on drugs should be a shared endeavor. This common understanding -- bolstered by the United States' financial commitment to defeating the drug cartels through the Mérida Initiative, a $1.4 billion multi-year assistance program to Mexico and several Central American countries -- marks a major turning point in the relationship. Continuing this cooperation is seen as a must in Mexico; many Mexicans contrast the United States' active involvement and financial commitment in the Middle East, which is thousands of miles away, to its meager activity in Mexico, its next-door neighbor.

Although trade has deepened since NAFTA came into effect in 1994, the bilateral trade relationship has been increasingly left to the private sector or, worse, to inertia. For his part, Obama has focused mainly on security cooperation. When commerce or the economy have come into play, it has been during multilateral meetings, such as the G20 Summit, which was in Mexico this fall. Furthering the economic relationship now will require renewed energy on the part of both governments to strengthen, for example, technology partnerships in northern Mexican cities such as Juarez and Tijuana, Mexico’s manufacturing sector, where almost 60 percent of U.S. investment in Mexico lands.

On immigration, cooperation between Mexico City and Washington has not improved over the last decade. The Obama administration paid lip service to fixing a broken system that includes more than 12 million Mexicans living in the United States. Obama's actual progress on the issue, though, has been limited. In June, he announced that his administration would stop deporting many young undocumented immigrants. But the total number of deportations conducted during his tenure has been historically high; according to figures compiled by the Department of Homeland Security, there have been about 400,000 deportations each year, 30 percent more than during George W. Bush's second term. Further, although the Obama administration has staunchly opposed the efforts of some U.S. border states, most notably Arizona, to build bigger walls and pass stricter laws against undocumented migrants, those measures have prevailed.

Mexico shares democratic values, economic beliefs, and, as the U.S. Hispanic population grows, even a culture and language with the United States, so it views itself as a special ally of its neighbor to the north. It should not be surprising that Mexicans want that relationship to be recognized and strengthened. Mexicans will be trying to figure out which candidate will more likely treat their country with the respect they feel that it deserves.

Despite some notable failures in his first four years as president, Obama is the clear favorite in Mexico. According to one poll by Consulta Mitofsky, the Mexican chapter of the survey research company Mitofsky International, 36 percent of Mexicans want Obama to be reelected versus only six percent want Romney to win.  Obama's huge margin can be explained in part because more Mexicans have heard of him. But it also means that what Mexicans have heard and seen they like. Those who have family living in the United States, moreover, feel that Obama has a more humane approach toward immigration.

At the same time, Romney has not presented himself as a better option. Mexicans do not believe he would be a more attentive partner in the war on drugs. Like most other Republicans, he is seen as a steadfast supporter of the National Riffle Association and therefore unwilling to control arms sales. Many weapons find their way from the United States into Mexico, where they fuel the violence that has claimed both Mexican and American lives.

On immigration, Romney has defended aspects of Arizona's immigration law, known as SB-1070, which calls on police to check the immigration papers of anyone whom they suspect of being in the country illegally. During the primary election, he spoke on more than one occasion about self-deportations for undocumented immigrants. Of course, self-deportation is  a viable option for undocumented immigrants only when life without papers in the United States is too miserable to bear. Romney has consistently used the term “illegals” to refer to undocumented immigrants, lumping together immigrants who cross to the United States to work jobs no one else wants with those who come to the United States and commit crimes.

Where the economy is concerned, Mexico hasn't heard much from Romney about commerce and trade. But there is reason to expect that his administration will be of little help in deepening U.S. cooperation with Mexico. This summer, on a visit to Israel, he compared the Israelis and Palestinians to Americans and Mexicans. He suggested that cultural differences explain why the Israelis are so much more economically successful than Palestinians. To make his point clear, he said that the same dynamic has played out between the United States and Mexico.

No wonder, then, that Romney seems uncomfortable with his Mexican heritage. During his long political career, Romney has neglected to mention his Mexican roots until after the primaries, when he started to court the Latino vote. Then, he found it expedient to mention that his great-grandfather, Miles Park Romney, came to Mexico during the first decade of the twentieth century to escape U.S. laws prohibiting polygamy. Mitt Romney´s father, George, was born in northern Mexico, and for that reason alone, Romney is eligible for Mexican citizenship.

His recent courtship of the Latino community has featured television ads targeting Hispanic voters that feature Republicans such as U.S. Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, both Cuban-American politicians from Florida. Even they know that Romney’s stance on immigration is too extreme to play well with Latino voters. "I don’t agree with Governor Romney’s position on immigration,” Ros-Lehtienen said at a Romney rally last November, “but I agree with him solidly on the economy, and for me, that’s the driving force in this election.” This demonstrates that his courtship of the Hispanic community is limited to economics. No new, better, or brighter ideas for fixing the broken immigration system are on the horizon.

Perhaps Romney’s strategy is a good one: Rather than focusing on any particular approach to drugs, trade, or immigration, Mexicans may find resolve in believing that their best option is for the United States to elect a president who can fix the country’s economy. When the U.S. economy booms, so does Mexico’s. The problem is, however, no one knows who that person might be.

Mexicans know that when they something from the U.S. government, they must be the ones to propose it. So whoever wins will be meeting with Mexico’s president-elect as soon as November, when Peña Nieto is scheduled to make a trip to the United States and Canada. The first order of business is still to be determined, but the encounter will surely set the tone for the neighbors, and hopefully closer allies, over the next four years.

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