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Economy & Trade

In U.S.-Mexico Relations, a Shift from Security to Economy

WASHINGTON, Apr 30 2013 (IPS) - Ahead of President Barack Obama’s trip to Mexico and Costa Rica, experts here are expecting that security will take a back seat to issues of economic cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Credit: cc by 2.0

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Credit: cc by 2.0

But some Washington advocacy groups are sounding alarms about shifting away too soon from critical security and rights concerns.

“A lot of the focus is going to be on economics,” President Obama told reporters Tuesday. “We’ve spent so much time on security issues between the United States and Mexico that sometimes I think we forget this is a massive trading partner responsible for huge amounts of commerce and huge numbers of jobs on both sides of the border.

“We want to see how we can deepen that, how we can improve that and maintain that economic dialogue over a long period of time,” he continued.

This shift is notable, as issues of security, law enforcement and combating crime formed the backbone of U.S.-Mexican relations during the previous Mexican administration.

“Even before [former Mexican President Felipe] Calderon took office, it was part of the discussion with the U.S., and the U.S. and Mexican administrations went on to develop a close and complex relationship on security matters,” Eric Olson, associate director of the Latin America programme at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, told IPS.

President Obama is slated to meet with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto later this week before meeting with Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla.

“President Obama having a visit [early in his second term] symbolises the importance of Mexico to the U.S.,” Chris Wilson, an associate at the Mexico Institute, a think tank here, told IPS.

The United States is Mexico’s largest trading partner, and the two countries engaged in nearly 500 billion dollars worth of trade in 2012. Much of that trade is in what are known as intermediate inputs, referring to semi-finished U.S. goods that are finalised with Mexican resources, a process seen as increasing the competitiveness of both countries.

Remittances sent home from Mexican immigrants living in the United States are also a substantial factor in the countries’ economic ties, totalling more than 20 billion dollars last year.

The upcoming summit’s focus on economics squares with a narrative gaining traction in media coverage and academic circles in recent years that paints a picture of an economically booming Mexico.

“During the administration of Calderon, the perception of Mexico in the media was largely one of drugs and violence – the headlines about Mexico were about drugs and trafficking, organised crime, gruesome violence,” Wilson recalls.

“But the new [Mexican] administration has come in at a time when economic growth is pretty robust. They are trying their best to shift the narrative of Mexico by talking more about these economic issues: the reforms that are happening in Mexico that will promote growth, new investments coming into Mexico that will promote growth.”

Development’s Achilles heel

Still, for a country like Mexico that is still struggling with issues of citizen security and rampant crime, many suggest that economic growth would have to start from the bottom, with more robust social programmes and safety nets, before the international community becomes too optimistic about economic and trade booms.

Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America programme at the Wilson Center, calls Latin America “far behind” in developing policies that might leverage inclusive growth.

“There is not a sense of shared responsibility … when your social policy is remittance, when your lack of social policy is permitted,” she told reporters on Friday. The region, she said, needs “a widespread recognition of the role the private sector needs to play in paying taxes, improving government … [and] institutions.”

In a telephone interview with IPS, she noted that the U.S. relationship with Central America is likely to remain more focused on security concerns.

“There is a growing consensus in the development community that sustainable growth can’t and will not happen unless levels of violence are brought under control,” she told IPS.

The World Bank recently called citizen insecurity the “Achilles’ heel of development” in Latin America.

Members of the U.S. Congress and advocacy groups here are also wary of turning a blind eye to human rights concerns in Mexico.

“The dire human rights situation in Mexico is not going to solve itself,” Maureen Meyer, a senior associate for Mexico and Central America with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), an advocacy group, said in a statement.

“As the bilateral agenda evolves, it is critical that the U.S. and Mexican governments continue to focus on how best to support and defend human rights in Mexico.”

In a press release issued last week, WOLA expressed agreement with a letter from 23 members of Congress to Secretary of State John Kerry that stressed that “[t]he human rights crisis will not improve until there are stronger legal protections, increased human rights training for Mexico’s security forces, and more government agents held responsible for the human rights violations they commit.”

Even as the focus of U.S.-Mexico relations turns to economics, there is no broad agreement on how exactly a shift toward trade relations will strengthen the “economic competitiveness” of both countries.

“Part of the challenge is that we have this term, but we have a laundry list of issues that could fit into that term,” the Mexico Institute’s Chris Wilson said.

“What we still don’t have is a coherent agenda or a way in which the leadership from the top level can engage the public or business community or civil society … and create something more [meaningful],” he told IPS.

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