After decades of outward socio-cultural differences and political animosity, North America’s two United States—north and south of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo—are becoming more socially homogenous than some would care to admit.

Mexico’s economic disparity has been the most extreme in all of Latin America, a social stratification described by George Baker as “equivalent to the dimensions of the caste system of India.”  The turn of the millennium has brought Mexico to the crossroads of change, vacillating between the First and Third Worlds.  The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) offered the possibility of expanding productivity, manufacturing, and exports.  An end to the 71-year political monopoly of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (institutionalized, but hardly revolutionary) and the overwhelming election of Vicente Fox Quesada to the presidency heralded the possibility of substantive political and socioeconomic change in a country hampered by inefficiency, corruption, nepotism, ineptitude, indifference, and unaccountability.

Whereas the first round of globalism saw the flight of U.S. manufacturing to its southern neighbor (and, with it, the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of working Americans and the destruction of local and regional economies), Mexico is now experiencing the same flight—to the East.  One economist commented that the maquiladora (assembly) sector was “all but dead” in Mexico, as an overvalued peso and a lack of sound government economic policy, coupled with security concerns and quality-control problems, drove foreign firms to seek better conditions elsewhere, particularly in China.  Mexico has negotiated more free-trade agreements than any other country.  NAFTA could have led to a boom in foreign investment in local production and allowed Mexico to use legal and technical loopholes to act as a backdoor to NAFTA markets in the United States and Canada.  Yet, rather than seize the opportunities presented by preferential trade status, a unique geographic position as a regional gateway, and the northward flight of Latin American capital from drowning Argentina, Mexico’s economy has stalled at the intersection, blocking traffic.  In 2002 alone, the foreign business ventures that are downsizing or pulling out include Daimler-Chrysler, Volkswagen, Phillips, and Guess. 

The reasons for Mexico’s current dilemma are varied: the effects of global recession, the inheritance and failings of the current administration, and the limitations of multiparty democracy.  The overwhelming victory of Vicente Fox was based, in no small part, on his sweeping campaign promises of better government and an improvement in living standards for the poor and the shrinking middle class.  “The promise of change by Fox impacted the majority of the populace,” commented Ariel Gonzalez Jimenez, a leading political columnist for the newspaper Milenio and editor of Milenio Weekly Magazine, “but the injustice, impunity and corruption remains exactly as it was before.  Mexico is not changing.”

The first half of Fox’s term yielded few, if any, tangible results across the socioeconomic spectrum.  Fox’s appointment of (Princeton- and University of Paris-educated) “ex-communist” Jorge G. Castaneda as minister of foreign relations has made Mexico a vassal of the U.S. State Department, after years of neutrality.  Some observers believe that Fox’s administration would rather throw its lot in with the single global hegemony than manage the complexities and uncertainties of neutrality and independence.  After the events of September 11, Castaneda was quoted as saying that “The U.S. has the right to act in revenge in whatever way they feel like”—a comment that quite possibly qualified Mexico as fair game for U.S. adversaries and that led to calls for his resignation across the domestic political spectrum.  

A highly visible example of the Fox administration’s political floundering is the stalled project to build an international airport in San Salvador Atenco, outside the capital.  The existing airport serves the world’s largest city with only one functioning runway (the second is kept on permanent reserve for the presidential jetliner).  The residents of San Salvador Atenco are overwhelmingly poor campe-sinos.  Instead of launching a publicity campaign to explain the potential benefits (particularly jobs) of the new airport to the residents, the government orchestrated a heavy-handed land grab—initially offering one dollar per square meter of land and, after opposition, raising it to a mere seven dollars.  No relocation compensation, no alternative housing—nothing.  In the resulting violent stand-off, local residents barricaded the zone with commandeered fuel trailers, dug trenches, and battled government security forces with rocks, machetes, and Molotov cocktails (made from looted Coca-Cola bottles, a poignant symbol, since Vicente Fox is a former director of the beverage company).  The local rebellion was met with police and military repression, which worsened the violence.  “The government couldn’t even negotiate with campesinos,” remarked Gonzalez Jimenez.  “Nobody even bothered to explain to the locals the potential benefits that they could derive.  This presidency has no political ability, not for dialogue”—not even to construct an airport.  

That said, President Fox cannot be held accountable for all of Mexico’s current shortcomings.  He has faced continuous stonewalling in the Mexican Congress on his economic, political, and social reforms.  In addition to partisanship from the PRI and PRD, representatives from Fox’s own Partido Accion Nacional have opposed his legislation, exacerbating the “divid-et-empir” of his political rivals.  Mexico City’s populist chief of government, Lopez Obrador of the PRD, rules the world’s largest city with such incompetence, myopia, inefficiency, and corruption that his tenure could only be described as Perónistic.  Many Mexican public officials and legislators would rather sacrifice the national interest for their own short-term benefit and pass the blame to the opposition.

The case of former president Carlos Salinas Gotari is itself proof of the continuing impunity of power, hidden behind the façade of a multiparty democracy.  While Salinas is accused by various sectors of looting state assets, he has never been officially indicted.  When asked by a Mexican journalist in the United States what he did with all the money, Salinas evaded the question with Clintonian panache.  Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda—formerly a virulent critic of Salinas—dined with him in Brussels in May, which Castanada first denied and then was forced to admit under scrutiny from the press.  Some analysts have concluded that the rendezvous was a scouting probe by the Fox administration to seek a political alliance with the still-powerful Salinas.  The former president comes and goes at will from the nation he robbed, under protection of state bodyguards, with full pension, and, apparently, with little justice to fear.

As happens in the United States of North America (as the United States is known here), changes in administration in Mexico bring changes in social policy, bureaucratic processes, and budgets—but at a burro-cratic pace.  As Gonzalez Jimenez noted, “before, with the PRI, you paid a bit under the table, and the job got done.  Now, the officials make you get down on your knees to beg—and it still doesn’t get done.”  In Harvard’s Global Competitiveness Report 2000, Mexico ranked last out of 75 nations for the amount of bureaucratic procedures required to start a small business (ten) and the number of days required to complete the procedures (90).  Under the current regime, “burocracia modernizada” has gone from inefficiency to paralysis and resulted in a shadow economy.

While the Fox administration has had victories in the regional fight against narcotrafficking (including the arrest and death of leading traffickers from the Tijuana and Juarez cartels), Mexico’s human-rights record remains poor.  Political executions (perhaps drug related) and a blurred line between police and criminals in kidnapping-for-ransom, armed robbery, and drug trafficking have continued to sully Mexico’s image as a stable business environment.  Mexico now ranks behind only Colombia in commercially motivated kidnappings worldwide.  As President Fox is discovering, ingrained cultural and social attitudes and systems cannot be changed merely by changing executive leadership.  A year after Mexico’s top human-rights investigator, Digna Ochoa, was found shot to death in her office, law-enforcement investigators are still prominently circulating the hypothesis of suicide—even though she was killed by two bullets.

The new millennium has hardly brought an age of enlightenment to U.S. social or foreign policy, either.  The last several presidential administrations have been wracked by government and corporate corruption, from the savings-and-loan bailout to Enron, WorldCom, Halliburton, and the eternal War on Terrorism.  Big government, united with corporate interests, has slowly eaten away at the inheritance of the nation, converting richness to untenable debt and making a mockery of “American values.”  Baby boomers often note with indignation that Made in the USA is no longer an assurance of quality; “customer service” has become infuriatingly automated and unaccountable; and corporate loyalty—in both directions—no longer exists.  Does this sound a bit like Mexico?  At least in Mexico, the family is still paramount, and quality of life holds precedence over macroeconomic indicators.  In Mexico, people work to live, not vice versa.  In the United States, family and community take a backseat to corporate expedience.  No wonder the social fabric is as fragile as a mummy’s bandages.

The much-polarized debate over U.S. immigration policy—specifically, Mexican immigration, legal and illegal—has raised questions concerning the definition of American society, its cultural make-up, and its moral responsibility to protect its citizens and resources.  Unfortunately, the polarity of the debate has left policy at a virtual standstill.

Uncontrolled immigration is a serious problem for the United States; Mexicans may not be.  The Mexican migrant workforce makes a significant contribution to the economy of America, and the benefits to Mexico in both economic and cultural terms cannot be overestimated.  Leading strategic analyst Ben Works has raised the issue of the socioeconomic benefits to both Mexico and the United States of normalizing immigration procedures, and he believes that U.S. involvement in regional economic and social development could actually increase U.S. security:

Under the present system, illegal immigrant workers infiltrate the US and take the bottom-rung jobs that citizens disdain . . . we get motivated people, the risk-takers who will bust their guts at our least-desired jobs, in order to build a future for themselves, to build families and to help the folks back home.  And they are social conservatives, rooted in religion, family ties, and tradition.  And it is time to formalize those functions. . . . a “guest worker” status will spread prosperity and order. . . . I suspect that if we frame development . . . and controlled immigration as a simultaneous equation, [some] will be more disposed to consider a reasoned view of developing our backyard.

Regularizing immigration policy—not necessarily by “legalizing” undocumented immigrants, but by standardizing the procedure to regulate, control, and tax—would eliminate the expenditure of a hermetically sealed border; stop the human suffering, exploitation, and deaths of undocumented immigrants; add to the economies and cultural strengths of both nations; and, ultimately, bolster U.S. national security.  Whether corporate and governmental America chooses to follow Mexico’s example in preserving the cultural richness and family values that sustain a society, or whether American society will continue to be eroded by its own failings and slide further toward the Third World, remains to be seen.  No one, however, can say that we haven’t been forewarned.  And we will not be able to blame our problems on the Mexicans.