Early in the last U.S. presidential debate, Governor Romney made a brief reference to Latin America and its economic opportunities. After that isolated incident, the region disappeared from the presidential campaign all together. While this dismissal might have been excusable during election season, newly re-elected President Obama cannot afford to continue down that path, particularly in regards to Mexico.
On December 1st, Mexico’s newly elected president Enrique Peña Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), takes office. The fact that the two countries’ presidential cycles coincide should be taken as an opportunity to revitalize the relationship. The United States cannot afford to neglect its relationship with Mexico, especially when it comes to the war on drugs, bilateral trade, and immigration.
First, since the outgoing President Felipe Calderon launched a war against drug trafficking organizations, violence has escalated to horrifying levels, with an estimated death toll as high as 100,000 people since he took office. To secure the region and stem the flow of narcotics to the north, the U.S. will have to increase its involvement and investment in the region. The 1.6 billion dollars appropriated by Congress for the Merida Initiative is a pittance compared to what the U.S. government has spent on conflicts in farther regions of the world.
Mr. Peña Nieto has vowed to continue the fight against organized crime while focusing on reducing violence at the same time. The United States can help by reinstating the ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004, to reduce the flow of weapons heading south across the border. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Mexican authorities have seized more than 68,000 weapons in the last five years that can be traced back to the U.S.
Furthermore, although the market has grown by a large margin in Mexico, the U.S. is still the largest market for drugs produced in Mexico. The U.S. must intensify its efforts to reduce consumption. Despite the recent marijuana legalization for recreational use in Colorado and Washington, the U.S. government has continuously and vehemently opposed even discussing legalization in Mexico and Latin America. In light of the failure of the current strategy, the U.S. should at least be open to discussing legalization as a possible solution. The war against drugs is not just a Mexican problem; a successful approach must be based on shared responsibility.
Second, the United States does not appreciate how important Mexico is for the U.S. economy. Since the enactment of the NAFTA agreement, trade between the United States and Mexico has grown exponentially, reaching half a trillion dollars in 2011. Mexico is the United States’ third largest commercial partner, and second largest market for U.S. exports. Texas, California, Arizona, New Hampshire and New Mexico all count Mexico as their number one export market, while another seventeen states count it as their second biggest export market. With the recent inclusion of Mexico in the Transpacific Partnership, economic links between the two nations will only increase. Yet, far from acknowledging Mexico’s importance to its economy, the United States is on the verge of igniting a trade war with Mexico.
In September, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced its intention to end a sixteen-year-old tomato agreement with Mexico, which, producers in Florida say, gives Mexican tomato producers an unfair advantage in the market. The truth is that Florida growers have not been able to keep up with the innovation and quality of the Mexican product. If the agreement ends, the Mexican government plans to raise tariffs on U.S. products, which would hurt a number of U.S. states and aversely impact trade between the U.S. and Mexico, argues Mickey Kantor, former U.S. Trade Representative during the Clinton Administration. Now that election politics are behind us, the Obama Administration should recant its decision and keep the program in place.
The final issue of bilateral importance is one that attracts plenty of attention but few sensible solutions: immigration. It is high time American policy makers recognize that immigration is integral to the U.S.-Mexico relationship. While Mexican authorities will continue to advocate for immigration reform, only the U.S. Congress can solve this issue. President Obama and congressional leaders must take advantage of the growing bipartisan consensus on the need for immigration reform that has emerged from the election. President Obama’s comprehensive immigration reform plan would not only boost security and economic development, but also send a sign of good faith to a Mexican people that are tired of being neglected by their northern neighbor.
President Obama met with President-Elect Enrique Peña Nieto on November 27, and they pledged to collaborate on issues important to both countries. Hopefully, the two new Presidents will seize this opportunity to take action on these three priority issues and revitalize this critical partnership.