Mexico's Wasted Chance

Mexico's Wasted Chance

Mini Teaser: How Vicente Fox squandered his revolution and what it means for the future.

by Author(s): Fredo Arias-King

This is not the first time hopes have been dashed. The "reforms" imposed by Salinas that culminated with the signing of NAFTA seemed to herald a coming of age for Mexico. Even the PAN was divided as to how to respond to these "neoliberal" reforms--before it became evident what they were mostly about--but most people remember instead the closeness of the American and Mexican political classes during that process and even before, making democracy activists suspicious of Washington's intentions.

As the Fox Administration winds down, how should Washington conduct itself toward Mexico now and in the future? Former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Jeffrey Davidow argues that there is a genuine desire in the United States to see Mexico develop, but those overtures are received with suspicion and self-defeating behavior south of the border. Most other pundits, however, tend to say the reverse: that the United States ignores and mistreats Mexico. In reality, Mexico receives disproportionate attention when considering other U.S. commitments worldwide. One could even make the case that Mexico receives too much positive attention. Ironically, most of the greatest breakthroughs in the country's economic reform and democratization in recent history occurred after the government leadership felt ignored or even insulted.

For example, hearings in the U.S. Senate in 1986 by Jesse Helms on the PRI's abuses provoked a predictable outcry in Mexico. But over time, those hearings caused an underground debate that in the end probably contributed more to Mexico's democratization than all the chummy speeches by hundreds of U.S. politicians flying down over the decades. President Miguel de la Madrid (1982-88) began to expel the drug barons that had infiltrated his government only after the Reagan Administration temporarily but visibly closed the border. De la Madrid in his autobiography pussyfoots around the thorny bilateral relationship, in contrast to his attitude as president, when he was more confrontational (once accusing Reagan of having "permitted" the Washington Post to criticize him). President Salinas proposed NAFTA only after attempting to form an alliance with the Europeans but finding they were distracted with the newly opened east.

Fortunately, there is a growing rapprochement that transcends governments and blunts the politicians' missteps--such as booming bilateral trade and increasing social integration. But the old structural irritants remain, and some may worsen. For example, Mexican illegal immigration to the United States under Fox has actually increased and is likely to continue at the present levels for at least twenty years more. There is also a growing sense that Mexico should play an assertive (read, whiny and anti-American) role in the world, which led to frictions with the United States during the Iraq conflict. One thing is certain: U.S. politicians should think twice before embracing an authoritarian figure again in Mexico.

Fox will be remembered as yet another liberator who missed a golden opportunity to reinvent a long-suffering country, guarantee its future democracy, and improve the lives of its average people. Sadly, it was probably the last chance in a while to reform Mexico. An unexpected force may yet appear to give the country a push, as sometimes they do. But if not from outside, the elites or the population, where will this impetus come from?

Fredo Arias-King is founding editor of Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization. In 1999 and 2000 he handled international relations and worked as speechwriter for Vicente Fox's presidential campaign.

Essay Types: Essay