Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Pomp and Circumstance, Mexican Style

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Mexico City residents rarely pay attention to visiting heads of state.  Except for foreign flags on light posts along Reforma Avenue and inside Chapultepec Castle, no one really knows, cares or feels the presence of any visiting leader—except when the president of the United States visits.

On his third visit to Mexico, President Obama was courted by Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto.  On display was Peña Nieto’s desire to re-set the clock with the U.S. and his administration’s continued focus on the economy.  Peña Nieto wants to reverse his predecessor’s policies, which allowed increased cross-border surveillance, and sanctioned an unprecedented increase in technical assistance in a number of important areas, including rule of law, money laundering, and intelligence-sharing.  This assistance, I would argue, is valuable and necessary.  

President Obama has never had a better partner in Mexico than Enrique Peña Nieto—for both good and bad reasons.  Nieto comes from the party that founded Mexico’s institutions and set the country on the international course it’s on today.  After 70 years in power, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party–PRI) lost the presidency to the Partido Accion Nacional (National Action Party—PAN) in 2000, and only recently re-took political reigns. 

Peña Nieto is a good partner for Obama because Peña Nieto is willing to work across party lines.  His first official act was to sign a political pact covering 95 points of interest with the main opposition parties, the PAN and the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution—PRD).  Unlike his predecessor, Peña Nieto is thus far willing to work with all political constituencies on critical issues.  This is a plus for the bilateral agenda.

Peña Nieto’s second order of business, while good for Mexico, reminds us of the PRI’s modus operandi.  The sudden arrest of national teachers’ union president Elba Esther Gordillo—for allegedly laundering $200 million in federal funds originally destined for the public education system—proves that the PRI may not have changed much since 2000.  While the arrest breathes life into corrupt and antiquated power schemes, it also shows the PRI will use all tools at its disposal to put away actors who refuse to play by PRI rules.  Bottom line: this PRI president does not share power or get pushed around.  Here, the bilateral agenda may hit a snag.    

At a press conference before a dinner in Obama’s honor, both leaders discussed their willingness and interest in developing a multi-thematic relationship that makes the North American region more competitive.  The Trans-Pacific Partnership, further integration of both economies, and the creation of a high-level bilateral economic development team overshadowed any talk of security or organized crime. When Mexico does well, the U.S. does well.  This was the gist of the press conference and the bible that will guide Obama and Nieto during their time in office.

Before departure, president Obama told an audience at the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City that he will do everything in his power to curve the southern flow of weapons and vowed to sign a comprehensive immigration reform bill that will allow illegal immigrants to live and work in the United States.  Both comments drew much applause.  As a proud immigrant who received U.S. citizen status through naturalization, my hope is that our elected leaders come to agreement on providing legal status to the millions who want nothing more than to support our system and help our economy grow.  The U.S. will benefit immensely from these future residents and citizens.

Peña Nieto learned through former president Felipe Calderón the dangers of devoting too much time to crime in public settings, and has decided not to allow crime to dominate his headlines or agenda.  Obama is willing to listen and help with this focal point.  With both leaders fresh and unable to run for a subsequent term, there is a window of opportunity for this framework to take shape and guide the bilateral relationship for generations to come.  Let’s hope this comes to pass.


Juan Manuel Henao is a consultant based in Mexico City and former Mexico Country Director for the International Republican Institute (IRI), a Washington DC-based not-for-profit democracy promotion organization.

Tags: President Obama’s trip to Latin America
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