An old friend returns to Mexico

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, July 3, 2012


The election of Enrique Peña Nieto as the new president of Mexico will bring the old Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) back to power after 12 years. Although its leftist and strongly nationalist rhetoric might lead some to believe that the PRI is also anti American, during the 72 years it was in power between 1928 and 2000, the PRI delivered stability in Mexico, fulfilling America's number one priority on its agenda with its southern neighbor.


For the U.S., having Mexico as its southern neighbor is both a blessing and a curse.  Washington can exercise influence over its neighbor without fearing military retaliation.  With its southern border secure, the U.S. has been able to use its military power elsewhere in the world. The vast supply of cheap labor from Mexico has increased the competitiveness of several economic sectors in the U.S. 


However, having an underdeveloped nation as a neighbor to the south has also produced negative externalities. As Mexican consumers have limited purchasing power, trade between both countries is negatively affected. Because millions of Mexicans are poor, illegal migration to the U.S. depends on the performance of the Mexican economy as much as on demand for cheap labor in the United States.   Institutional weakness in Mexico makes it difficult for the government to cooperate with the U.S. on controlling illegal immigration and limiting drug trade.


Because a developing economy can be potentially unstable and politically volatile, the main issue on the U.S. agenda with Mexico has always been securing stability. After the Mexican revolution (1910-1917), when instability was dominant well into the mid1920s, the rise of the PRI under the leadership of Plutarco Elias Calles in the late 1920s and Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) brought stability back to the country. The U.S. could not be more pleased.  Thus, even if the PRI embraced a nationalist rhetoric, nationalizing the oil industry during the Cárdenas government (1934-1940), the U.S. deemed those protectionist policies a reasonable price to pay to guarantee stability in Mexico. Despite the fact that democracy was a mockery under the PRI, Washington never criticized its southern neighbor precisely because stability was assured. From 1934 to 1988, elections were not held in a way that would let people decide their leaders. Instead, elections were carefully organized to ratify the Presidential candidate appointed by the outgoing president. The PRI was the only party that guaranteed stability in the country.


With the end of the cold war and the third wave of democracy of the late 80s, Mexico could not escape the trend. After a controversial election in 1988, filled with irregularities, the PRI was forced to liberalize the system. In 1994, Mexico held its first competitive elections ever. In 2000, the PRI lost the presidency for the first time.  Charismatic leader Vicente Fox, of the rightwing PAN, was welcomed by the U.S. as a market-friendly president who could guarantee stability and embark Mexico on a road of closer, friendlier and more cooperative relations with the U.S. In early September of 2001, President Bush warmly received President Fox in Washington DC, declaring that Mexico was the most important partnership in the world for the U.S. The September 11 attacks a couple of days later dramatically shifted priorities for Washington. Bilateral issues with Mexico were no longer priorities for the U.S. Free trade initiatives under the NAFTA free trade agreement stalled for security reasons. Because of American domestic policies, no progress was made on immigration reform. Fighting illegal drug trade from Mexico to the U.S. and illegal weapons trade from the U.S. to Mexico was the only area where cooperation was possible, but the results were disappointing.


In 2006, the election of Felipe Calderón, also from the PAN, opened a new chapter in U.S.-Mexican relations. President Calderón’s war on organized crime triggered an unprecedented period of violence in the country.  More than 60 thousand Mexicans have been killed in a conflict between the state and multiple drug trafficking organizations.  The weakness of Mexican institutions has been underlined by the fact that drug lords have infiltrated the very organizations charged with preventing crime.  To a large extent, the victory of the PRI—or the defeat of the incumbent PAN—can be explained as a rejection by Mexicans of the way President Calderón’s has fought the war on drugs.


Peña Nieto’s victory is expected to produce a change in the government strategy to fight the war on drugs. President-Elect Peña Nieto declared his intention to continue fighting organized crime, but underlined his objective of reducing the number of deaths involved.  If the strategy helps reduce instability, then the long-term objective of U.S. policy on Mexico will be fulfilled.


Peña Nieto has promised that the PRI has learned the lesson. He acknowledged that Mexico was giving the PRI a second chance.  He assured Mexicans that old party will not return because Mexico is already different.  For the U.S., if the new PRI can guarantee the same stability that the old PRI was well-known for, having the return of an old ally will certainly be good news.