Dr. Gary Mounce
Dr. Gary Mounce

EDINBURG, RGV – A devastating hurricane swept the eastern Yucatan coast of Mexico a few years ago.

In my class, one young, Mexican-American student, quite concerned, moaned aloud, “oh, NO!” I believed him quite sympathetic. I answered: “yes, it is tragic.” Then he continued: “but do you think Cancún will be rebuilt in time for Spring Break?” Alas, he was concerned but not about his poor brothers in Mexico.

I was both amused and bothered. Now, I see it a bit differently. A blow to Mexico’s infrastructure is, indeed, a blow to us—not just to the planned fun and revelry of my student, but to Mexico’s tourism. It is their third leading source of foreign exchange. It affects both our economies. As Mexico goes, so goes the U.S.; as the U.S. goes, so goes Mexico.

We send them our Spring-breakers. They send us, in return, sun and fun (and mall) worshipers for Semana Santa (Holy Week) at Padre Island or elsewhere. The economic connection is constant. As much as 80 percent of local taxes come from Mexican shoppers. We know we are inter-dependent. Rejoice in this connection. Recent surveys show Mexicans, to be a relatively happy people. Now, many are talking about a happy, revived economy.

Thomas L. Friedman calls Mexico the “Come-back Kid.” One of the lessons of Mexico is “how irrepressible is the human spirit” (New York Times). But he is realistic; he asks: “is it sustainable?” But his focus on two Mexican policies—improved higher education and macroeconomic policy—justify his optimism. Add to that mix the new, energetic role of youth. He compares Mexico to us: while the “U.S. is growing slowly, Mexico is growing robustly.”

Comparing China and India, Friedman goes out further on a limb. He predicts Mexico will be “the more dominant economic power in the 21st century.” Now, our good neighbor can no longer be ignored. So, my countrymen, get a clue. Change your thinking. Many cynical (even racist) attitudes remain. Once in a while news of the reality of progress slips through. Mexico is a leader in globalization—largely on its own. “We always thought we should have the government work like the U.S.—no longer.” (Center for Citizen Integration, Mexico City).

Other observers demur. Questioning Friedman’s sunny predictions is pundit Tim Padgett. But even as he looks askance, he mentions the list of progressive changes. The years 2000-2011 saw only two percent annual growth. But growth hit four percent between the years 2011-2012.  Mexican manufacturing exports lead Latin America. Its trade (as share of GDP) tops China. Mexico is Number 53 in “ease-of-doing business,” outshining Number 126, Brazil (World Bank). Finally, it has concluded more trade agreements than any other country (Padgett, “Mexico’s New Boom: Why the World Should Tone Down the Hype,” Time World. 8.13).

Padgett concludes Mexico’s status is not the “economic version of Our Lady of Guadalupe.” There still exists horrific narco-violence;” e.g. 60,000 gangland murders in the last seven years. We on the border certainly are aware of recent shoot-outs in Reynosa (McAllen Monitor, 3.12.13). We read of travelers’ warnings from the U.S. Consulate in Matamoros, principally in the north (“Violence Shows No Signs of Abating,” Pharr Advance, 2.6.13).

Human Rights Watch counts 27,000 desaparecidos (“disappeared”), apparently at the hands of both cartels and government forces. It is one reason President Enrique Peña Nieto has halted use of the military (and, hopefully, its abuses). Instead, he is going after street crime, copy-cat crime, extortion, etc., rather than big drug kingpins. Actually, gun running and drug selling—both those pernicious forces aided and abetted by the U.S.–are very big business in Mexico. Yet, we continue our insane gun and drug policies. If we can’t help, why hurt?

So, Mexico is not an “Aztec Tiger” or the new “Chinese Lion.” Yet, Mexico is “the only Latin American country Washington and Wall Street feel they actually have to engage” (Padgett). This was not true in the recent past. The 1980s was, for Mexico, the “Lost Decade;” oil prices and production dropped. In the latter part of that decade, Salinas de Gortari became president and accelerated ties with the U.S. and policies of privatization.

But that period, highlighted by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), also witnessed the beginning of Indigenous uprisings in the South (Chiapas) and the Zapatista rebellion. It was in no way “communist,” though political illiterates in Mexico and the U.S tried to label it as such. Their goal was not “separatism.” Their battle cry was not ideological, but, rather, “techo, educación, y justicia” (homes, education and social justice).

Zapatistas opposed NAFTA. Padgett and many academic sources agree that Mexico was “sold a bogus Mexican Miracle” of overnight development. What followed were the peso crash and the need for a $50 billion loan from the U.S. They paid it back fully and quickly. However, prejudiced, anti-Mexican sources ignored their desire and ability to cooperate.

Many sources agree Mexico still suffers from a great deal of public and private corruption and from a “corrupt and incomplete judicial system” (Padgett). Domination by huge monopolies, often aided and abetted by the government, often stifles fair business growth. President Peña Nieto announced he will try to rein in those multi-billionaires.

Padgett’s mixed analysis is joined by Andres Oppenheimer. He claims “66 percent of Mexican citizens themselves to do not believe the hype” (Miami Herald). Other countries have made greater strides than Mexico in fighting corruption. President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil is one. She channels monies to aid middle size and small businesses. However, the Mexican government recently arrested, for fraud, the famous head of the national Teachers Union. This was to send a message to entrenched, often corrupt leaders of public and private fiefdoms.

It may not be enough. David Toscana, in “The Country that Stopped Reading,” claims there is now more, not less illiteracy in Mexico; if so, that bodes ill for the future. UNESCO places Mexico last on a list of 108 countries. He saw “warehouses filled with hundreds of books, gathering dust . . . not distributed.” Mexico pends five percent of its GNP on education (as does the U.S.,) so not all news is bad. And they are getting ready for the future. Mexico has the largest number of engineering graduates in Latin America. But it is still, in many ways, “floundering socially, politically, and economically” (Toscana).

Oppenheimer also believes the “hype” to be overblown, although he, too, credits the advances made. But, he suggests: “Everybody is upbeat on Mexico—except Mexicans.” He cites a Beltran poll showing only “46 percent of Mexicans believe the next five years will be better” (Miami Herald, 3.5.13). Poll results may be accurate about current opinion, but not about the future. Mexicans have long been known for their cynicism. They crack great, gallows-humor jokes about governmental will and capacity. That is a long tradition difficult to overcome.

My views fall somewhere between the extremes. Mexico is no “Aztec Tiger” but neither is it your Grandfather’s (not even your Father’s) Mexico. Changes are coming very fast. Not all of those changes are for the good. For example, most developing countries vigorously involved in “free trade” are going to pay the price. Their oil or other mineral wealth will be gone.

So, is the glass half full, or half empty? Who to believe? The pro-Mexico writers admit some negatives; the critics, in fact, list considerable positives. I lean toward the skeptical side, but not for the reasons cited by Friedman’s critics. This insight comes partly from one of my advanced political science students. From Europe, Rafael Calles (nom de plume), compiled research indicating many developing nations playing the globalization game are being used, perhaps akin to the days of colonialism.

My other reasons for remaining skeptical are as emotional as they are academic. I love Mexico. I have lived and taught and researched there. I love the culture; it is strong and vibrant. But I despair for the masses, the poor (one of the worse gaps between rich and poor in Latin America). I don’t see the current administration “getting it,” or really making a change.

In the future, a President Ebrad in 2018 (currently progressive Mayor of Mexico City), on the moderate, nationalist left, might help Mexico fulfill its destiny. Mexico could join the onda (wave) of people-oriented governments elsewhere in Latin America. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and, until the passing of President Chávez, Venezuela, are more protective of national patrimony and want to see a fairer division of the wealth. They eschew a slavish following of the U.S. and the current wave of nearly unbridled capitalist globalization.

Many of those made nouveau-riche by this current boom become powerful but may not develop a sufficient social conscience. Nevertheless, the U.S. (our government and our people) must stay up with the news and try to develop a whole new attitude toward Mexico, whichever way things trend. Would our leaders, please, take the first plunge?

Secretary of State John Kerry, would you please come back from Europe, Middle-East, Washington, and make your very next trip to Mexico and Latin America? His trip to Latin America during his first term by President Obama showed the enormous following our President has there. But it was symbolic, void of specifics.

Let’s get more serious. The signs are positive. Among other harbingers of change, there is now a new Latin American, Spanish-speaking Pope, Frances I. He has some familiarity with the poor masses, despite his otherwise conservative views. At this northern end of the Americas, it is now time for a political break-through in attitudes and actions toward Mexico, one of the leaders of a Latin American renaissance.

Spring break is over. Hope you went to Mexico to spend a few dollars? Come on! At least to Progreso? Perhaps go all the way down to San Miguel de Allende, which is safe, once again. To get there, the Ejecutivo, first class buses, allegedly pay cartels protection money not to bother them.

Semana Santa is coming. Mexicans are coming. Tourism is “la industria de Amistad.” Befriend a Mexican tourist or pilgrim. Thank them for spending some of their expendable funds here, to help stimulate our economy. We both know, by now, how we need one another, you, me, and Mexico.