Y yo que pensaba que López Obrador no era el Presidente…

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Acabo de leer el Paquete Económico para el ejercicio Fiscal 2014 que el Ejecutivo entregó al Congreso (el cual probablemente ni leerán los Diputados, votarán por bloque y aprobarán). En resumen esta propuesta es populista, provocará efectos inflacionarios no necesarios y una vez más, cargará la mano a los cautivos en lugar de hacer lo que sería justo: expandir la base para que seamos TODOS los que pagamos los impuestos que mantienen al gobierno.  Seguramente saldrá AMLO a las calles a protestar también este paquete (porque el señor no pierde excusa para tratar de mantenerse vigente y seguir chupando del sistema como lo ha hecho por mucho tiempo) pero el paquete parece inspirado en la lectura a profundidad de su libro “La mafia que se adueñó de México… y el 2012” (Sí, sí lo leí), plagado con recursos para atacar a las clases productivas de México y exentando de responsabilidades a los acarreados que llenan las plazas cuando hay mítin político y sí, suman MUCHOS votos.

Estoy de acuerdo en:

  • El chicle no es alimento.
  • Gravar las bebidas saborizadas con azúcares añadidas es una idea a considerar en un país que sufre de diabetes, sobrepeso y obesidad (aunque le van a sacar la vuelta cambiando la fórmula y ya).
  • Establecer impuestos mayores a combustibles que hacen más daño.
  • Medidas para desincentivar el consumo de cigarro y la entrada de cigarros “pirata” al país.

Pero las burradas de este paquetito por mucho superan a los aciertos:

  • Dice que promueve la equidad del sistema tributario. Pero ataca a la clase media, media alta y alta sin tocar a la clase media baja y baja que es la base de la pirámide.
  • El cine es cultura. Un concierto no.  IVA a conciertos… por alguna razón. Exención de IVA al cine pero pongámosle IVA a una presentación artística en vivo (con excepción del circo por alguna razón). En resumen, a Peña Nieto le gusta mucho el Circo Atayde y la saga de Scary Movie. Odia cuando viene Yanni.  
  • Eliminación del IDE.  Supongo que hay que facilitarle el lavado de dinero a los amigos… La verdad es que un IDE a depósitos de más de $15,000 sí es ridículo pero la solución no es eliminar el impuesto sino elevar la base de $15,000 que es una transacción bastante común a un monto mayor (por ejemplo $100,000)
  • ¿Tienes casa? ¿La quieres vender? Hazlo antes del 31 de diciembre porque en el 2014, si la vendes 16% se va directo al gobierno. Así que pagas por tener casa (predial) y pagas por deshacerte de ella (eliminación de exención a la compra, renta y pagos de hipoteca de casa habitación). ¡Es más, pagas por pagarla! (pagos de hipoteca). El tema de pagar impuestos por renta seamos honestos, todos los renteros e inquilinos le van a sacar la vuelta a través de arreglos informales… y pues sí, ¡que viva la irregularidad!
  • ¿Quieres tener a tus hijos en una escuela decente? ¡El gobierno quiere tu lana! Así es, si ya de por si te partías la madre por tener a tus hijos en una escuela privada (con colegiaturas altas, aportaciones, costos de uniforme, materiales y todo lo demás), ahora te la van a poner más difícil: ¡IVA para las escuelas privadas! Aquí hagamos una pausa especial porque el tema lo amerita: tus impuestos ya pagan por la educación pública del país y a tasas mayores que muchos países desarrollados. El porcentaje del PIB que se va a educación en nuestro país es mayor que el de Canadá, Costa Rica y Australia pero todos sabemos que ese dinero nunca llega a los salones de clase y por ende, la calidad de la infraestructura y de los maestros en el sistema público están del nabo. Por eso muchísimos mexicanos literalmente nos partimos la madre para buscar una mejor oportunidad de desarrollo para nuestros hijos. Mis impuestos (y los tuyos a menos que vivas en el DF) le pagan la escuela a muchos que evaden o simplemente porque forman parte de la economía informal, no declaran ni pagan impuestos. No nos quejamos porque entendemos la necesidad de contar con un sistema público, a pesar de que el mismo esté plagado de vividores (SNTE, CNTE y miles de “servidores públicos” de la SEP). No nos quejamos y buscamos que nuestros impuestos se destinen a MEJORAR al sistema público pero hasta que esto no suceda, hasta que no hagan una limpia completa y arreglen su desmadre, no me pidan que sacrifique el futuro de mis hijos. No me dejen sin opciones y no me roben más de lo que ya lo hacen. No sean descarados y desalmados.
  • ¿Tienes mascota? ¡No le compres pareja y no le des de comer! Mientras que en los países desarrollados la gente que tiene mascota recibe incluso incentivos fiscales para prevenir que sus calles se llenen de perros y gatos callejeros, en México te van a cobrar IVA por adquirir una mascota y por alimentarla. Yo no tengo mascota. No me gustan las mascotas y no quiero una… pero no entiendo la necesidad de joder a la gente que sí la tiene.
  • Mayor tasa si tus servicios de gas no son de Gas Natural. Las tranzas de Gas Natural Fenosa hacia consumidores no requieren mayor escaparate que el que ya muchos conocemos y sin embargo, el paquete fiscal promueve una mayor tasa impositiva si en tu casa o industria consumes gas butano. La excusa es medioambientalista. La razón real es política.
  • Adiós al Secreto Fiscal. La SCHP se atribuiría en este paquete, el derecho a publicar tu nombre, denominación, razón social y RFC y calificarte como “riesgoso para celebrar actos mercantiles o de comercio” si considera que no cumples con tus obligaciones fiscales. Esto en papel suena decente PERO el problema es que los registros de la SCHP están plagados de errores. Durante dos años estuve dando clases en una universidad y trabajando como empleado en una empresa. En la universidad bajo un programa estaba por nómina y en otro por honorarios. Mi declaración por ende, era complicada y por ello, siempre me apoyé con contadores para emitirla correctamente y asegurar que cumplía con todo lo requerido por el SAT. A pesar de haber cubierto todas mis obligaciones fiscales, a la fecha me llegan notificaciones que dicen que les debo dinero. Cuando me he acercado a Hacienda para buscar clarificación, nunca han podido encontrar lo que según ellos les debo PERO me siguen llegando notificaciones. Quienes me atienden me dicen “seguro es un error del sistema porque no nos debe nada”… y año con año, las notificaciones siguen llegando. ¿Van a publicar mi nombre a raíz de su ineficiencia?
  • Si ganas más de 500,000 pesos al año, tu ISR de 30 a 32% y si eres un pequeño empresario, también te van a torcer.  El ISR está conceptualmente mal. Entiendo perfectamente la lógica y justicia colectiva detrás de “el que más gana, más debe de pagar” PERO eso no quita que el sistema escalonado del ISR que existe en México es una estupidez. Explico:El que gana más YA paga más sin tener que ponerle diferentes tasas porque su base gravable es mayor. Es decir, el sistema escalonado jode dos veces al que más gana: le quita más porque su base gravable es mayor Y porque le aplica una tasa mayor. Y si por alguna razón (inexplicable para mí) estás a favor de un sistema escalonado, como quiera el ISR en México está mal, ya que aplicará la misma tasa impositiva del 32% a quien gana 42,000 pesos al mes, que la que aplica a los multimillonarios del país.
  • Y quitarle el tratamiento especial a los Repecos, desincentiva a los emprendedores de México. Gracias, Peña Nieto… sólo eso nos faltaba.
  • ¿Querías deducir impuestos? ¡Lástima Margarito! “Se propone limitar el monto máximo de las deducciones personales realizadas por una persona física al año a la cantidad que resulte menor entre el 10% del ingreso anual total del contribuyente , incluyendo ingresos exentos, y un monto equivalente a 2 salarios mínimos anuales correspondientes al área geográfica del Distrito Federal”.

¿Algún país que acepte a un mexicano errante que ya no quiere darle un peso más de impuestos a su gobierno? Ahí me avisan… porque yo ya no quiero aportar valor en un país que no lo valora. Es bien triste llegar a esta conclusión porque de verdad que quiero, es más adoro a mi patria pero todos tenemos nuestros límites. Si mínimo viera que mis impuestos trabajan a favor del país, otra cosa sería pero ya estoy harto de llenarle los bolsillos a los “servidores públicos” y sus amigos. Su descaro me desmoraliza. 

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Peña Nieto’s Challenges: From Teacher Strikes to Energy Reform

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Peña Nieto’s Challenges: From Teacher Strikes to Energy Reform“, published on August 29th, 2013. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

The first nine months of Peña’s administration have kept the press busy and all of the country’s eyes and ears focused on what will happen next. He’s been characterized as bold, action-oriented and dynamic but clearly, not a team player.

He was celebrated by many (yours truly included) in February when he presented an ambitious and much needed education reform but disappointed just as many after having this effort easily thwarted by militant and disgruntled unionized teachers from the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE), which has taken Mexico City hostage in the last week to avoid needed secondary laws to enact the reform passing through Congress.

The inability to prevent and the lack of resolve to disperse a non-justified blockage of Congress as well as a blockade of the city’s main arteries—including those giving access to the airport and the Zócalo—has proven once again that political leaders are taking decisions not based on the greater good, the rule of law or the citizenry’s interests, but on a political agenda serviced by interest groups holding more power than they should and unable to cooperate with each other.

Mismanagement of this situation could soon spark violence and create a larger-than-ideological divide. The affected citizenry in Mexico City will only stand so much. In a recent poll by BCG-Excelsior, 52 percent of Mexicans stated that they are so fed up with the CNTE’s irrational resistance to the education reform and their militant actions that they would justify use of public force to disperse the picketers.

And while the teachers take to the streets, both Peña Nieto and the city’s government cower out of taking necessary action because of the political cost it would imply. Mexico City is not the only thing that’s paralyzed because of this—a broken education system puts the nation’s future talent pool at risk.  

The other current hot topic in the president’s agenda is energy reform. As recently described by Christian Gomez on AS/COA, “the proposal includes constitutional changes that would open up Pemex, the 75-year-old state oil monopoly, to profit-sharing contracts and foreign investment.”

This new notion of natural resources no longer belonging exclusively to the nation poses a huge shift in paradigm. Reactions from the nation’s Left include accusations related to autonomy, national patrimony and the role of government vs. private investors in extraction and having access to revenues from one of the nation’s most important sources of income. The opposition understands that PEMEX’s inefficiencies and the plague of corruption need to be addressed but they propose that a problem should not be fixed by creating another one.

One of the most respected voices from the Left, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, has recently stated that both PEMEX and CFE (federal electricity company) can become highly productive without having to edit the Constitution and without allowing foreign and/or private hands in the nation’s riches. If national patrimony is challenged due to reforms to articles 27 and 28 of the Mexican Constitution, Cárdenas has warned he would call for nationwide protests and he would even take to the streets along with López Obrador’s Morena (National Regeneration) movement.

Given its current party composition, Peña can easily get approval for the energy reform in Congress but he would be naïve to think that this is the only hurdle he needs to jump and he is doing a terrible job at trying to get public buy-in to this proposal through vague infographics on TV.

If there is possibility for effective energy reform, an open and inclusive debate needs to take place. This topic is not one that his team should be discussing behind closed doors and the hard questions will require real answers, not 20-second TV spots.

Peña’s government has been characterized by a “my way or the highway” attitude which is an easier temptation to fall into than trying to build consensus in a country as complex and fragmented as Mexico. This dictatorial style is only possible because of the fact that PRI has a stellar position both in Congress and in the State governments to push its agenda forward, something neither former Presidents Fox nor Calderón had. However, Peña would do well in understanding that his constituency is not limited to the political parties or even the power elites.

Organized teachers have already proven what they can do in Mexico City given enough motivation. Sparked by national patrimony rhetoric, larger, non-organized social mobilizations could easily flare up in different key cities in Mexico and cause larger havoc. As former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza recently wrote, “these red flags, so to speak, are especially relevant given the influence and disruptive potential of many of today’s social movements. The eruption of mass street protests in Brazil is just one recent example of a government being forced to change direction on a policy initiative and find a way to rapidly and constructively respond to the desires, often inchoate, of a newly emboldened and empowered population. It’s a cautionary tale that begins with frustration and finds expression in mass action.”

Even when theoretically, Peña could powerball his reforms forward, both him and the PRI need to wake up and understand that they cannot be the only voice to determine the nation’s destiny. Vargas Llosa sarcastically called the previous PRI era “the perfect dictatorship” but today’s Mexico will not stand for a return of that so-called “perfect” model. Peña needs to learn to play well with others.

Safety in Mexico – Get the facts

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You’ve heard the hype… you know about the insecurity story in Mexico. I’ve even written a bit about it on Americas Quarterly. Now, invest a couple of minutes to get a reality check and understand that there’s a lot more to Mexico than what gets to sensationalist press.

Get the facts: http://howsafeismexico.com/ 

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Por un México sin excusas

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He sido participante o testigo de muchas causas e iniciativas, todas ellas enfocadas a buscar mejorar algún aspecto de nuestro país. Es común escuchar lemas como “Un México sin drogas” o “Por un país sin violencia”, etc. Todas ellas son válidas y no pretendo minimizar ni descalificar los esfuerzos para pelear por estos ideales.

Sin embargo, ayer me tocó vivir una serie de situaciones cuasicotidianas que al sumarse me hicieron reflexionar respecto a la manera en que los mexicanos hemos hecho de inventar pretextos nuestro pan de cada día. Así que hoy quisiera abogar por algo mucho más cercano a cada uno de nosotros que los ideales que arropan las causas sociales normalmente. Creo que no me equivoco al decir que todos hemos sido víctimas y a su vez criminales de lo que hemos vuelto un arte en México: la vil, llana y descarada excusa.

Somos un país cuya actividad económica cada vez más se centra en el sector de servicios y aunque los ofrecemos sin duda de mejor manera que algunas otras naciones, nos distinguimos por darlos siempre con la excusa de frente por no haber logrado el objetivo en tiempo o en forma acordada. Las excusas han hecho de nuestra economía de servicios, un mar de mediocridad e irresponsabilidad.

En México el tipo que iba a venir a instalarte el internet el día que pediste permiso de la oficina para estar en casa “no llegó porque la cuadrilla tuvo un accidente imprevisto”, el oficinista llegó a la junta 20 minutos tarde porque (aparentemente a diferencia de todos los demás días) “el tráfico estaba pesadísimo”, el estudiante de universidad no sube la tarea al servidor “porque se cayó la red”, la imprenta entrega los trabajos tarde porque siempre “nos falló una pieza de la máquina”, el plomero no pudo llegar a tiempo porque tenía mucho trabajo, era del otro lado de la ciudad y los microbuseros están de huelga y a las empleadas domésticas se les mueren a cada rato sus diecinueve abuelitas.

¿Por qué? ¿Por qué no podemos tomar responsabilidad y honestamente aceptar nuestras fallas y limitaciones? ¿Por qué no podemos por otro lado, perseguir hacer nuestro trabajo con tal esmero y orgullo que logramos superar las expectativas de quienes reciben nuestros servicios y entregables?

Somos una nación increíblemente creativa pero enfocamos dicha creatividad en actividades que erosionan nuestra capacidad de ser grandes. Si la mitad de las neuronas que destinamos a que se nos ocurran historias épicas para no decirle a nuestro jefe “me quedé dormido” , las dedicáramos a innovar, podríamos destacar internacionalmente en inventiva.

Creo que tememos demasiado y malentendemos la importancia de la opinión de los otros. Creemos que si alguien nos ve fallar o equivocarnos, estaremos marcados de por vida y destinados al fracaso.

No puedo llamarla una máxima irrefutable ni decir que siempre funciona, pero puedo hablar por mi experiencia y compartirles que desde muy temprano en mi vida he buscado eliminar las excusas y reemplazarlas por la verdad, honesta y directa.  He buscado poner empeño en lo que hago porque además eso me permite sentir orgullo por los resultados (en lugar del alivio de decir “por esta ocasión la libre porque no me cacharon en la mentira). Poniendo las cosas en la balanza (porque no siempre funciona), puedo decir que favorecer la honestidad me ha sido más benéfico que detrimental.

¿Acaso no respetarías más a un proveedor de un servicio que te dijera “disculpas, cometimos un error y por ello ofrecemos X en retribución” que uno al que siempre se le atraviesa un tren, se le poncha la llanta o se pierde en camino a la entrega?

Ojo, no estoy diciendo que nos volvamos mártires y andemos por el mundo recogiendo culpas de otros ni queriendo quedar bien con la gente agachando la cabeza y diciendo “tienes razón, todo es culpa mía.” Estoy hablando de tomar responsabilidad por lo que nos compete y por nuestras acciones. Hablo de dar la cara en lugar de resguardarse en una excusa que te exima de tener que pedir que vuelvan a confiar en ti a pesar de haber fallado.

Somos seres humanos. No se puede ni debe de esperar de nosotros la perfección. Es evidente que en algún momento nos vamos a equivocar o vamos a fallar. Como jefe prefiero a un colaborador que trae a mi atención un error con el tiempo suficiente para buscar resolverlo que otro que solapa sus limitaciones escondiendo la falla o transfiriendo la culpa a “causas fuera de su control” como el hecho de que los aliens invadieron su casa el día antes del deadline y le borraron el disco duro de su computadora. Ahora, la clave del juego es equivocarse pero no es cometer el mismo error miles de veces y ser honesto al respecto… está bien que no seas perfecto pero si eres incompetente, tienes mayores broncas que las excusas.

Creo que lo que deberíamos hacer mucho más es (1) al cometerlo, aceptar el error eliminando la excusa, (2) honestamente comunicarlo, (3) generar opciones para reparar o resolver el daño y (4)recoger los aprendizajes necesarios para evitar la misma falla. No es física cuántica… Vivir sin excusas es simple y sólo cuesta la voluntad de hacerlo.

Así de fácil: la honestidad genera credibilidad y la deshonestidad hace que la pierdas. Y una persona que no tiene credibilidad, simplemente tiene muy poco valor que ofrecerle al mundo. No digo que seamos honestos porque es un ideal loable. Digo que lo seamos porque nos conviene.

¿Quién se apunta para eliminar del salón de clases “el perro se comió mi tarea” y así construir un país de gente honesta? ¡Vamos por un México sin excusas! ¿O estás bieeeeeeeeeeen ocupado porque justo este fin de semana que ibas a ser honesto estás muy ocupado porque viene tu tía de fuera a visitar y no va a volver en tres años así que no puedes enfocarte en nada más?

Human Trafficking in Mexico

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Human Trafficking in Mexico“, published on June 14th, 2013. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

On June 4, the Mexican Army raided a house in the border town of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Tamaulipas and rescued 165 people being held against their will by a 20-year-old identified as Juan Cortez Arrez. Testimonies from some of the victims show that they had been kidnapped for nearly three weeks.

News of their rescue has drawn praise for Mexico’s armed forces, which responded to an anonymous call and implemented an operation that resulted in zero casualties and one arrest.  However, this event should also serve to bring attention to a problem which has become graver in recent years: trafficking in persons (TIP).

The group rescued comprised 77 Salvadorans, 50 Guatemalans, 23 Hondurans, one Indian, and 14 Mexicans, all of whom had contacted a supposed “pollero” (a person who assists unauthorized immigrants in crossing the border) in the hopes of reaching the United States. The pollero was really a member of a criminal gang who had other plans for the group.

After the rescue, the Mexican  government’s spokesperson for national security, Eduardo Sánchez Hernández, stated that many aspiring migrants end up “being delivered to the hands of criminal organizations,” rather than taken safely across the border. These criminal groups then use their captives for sexual trafficking and prostitution, forced labor, as drug mules, and—as the narcofosas (clandestine mass graves) tragically show—execute kidnapping victims in initiation rituals of new gang members.  In 2011, 236 bodies were discovered in narcofosas  in the border town of San Fernando, Tamaulipas. Granted, there is no proof that all of the victims were  intended migrants and some might have been killed in other gang-related activities, including inter-cartel wars, but the problem remains.

Human trafficking is not new to Mexico, but it was not until 2004 that the first anti-trafficking in persons law was passed, making this activity a crime punishable by up to 18 years of incarceration. In 2008, the Attorney General’s office created the Fiscalía Especial para los Delitos de Violencia Contra Las Mujeres y Trata de Personas (FEVIMTRA), a special prosecutor’s team designated to work on crimes against women and human trafficking and whose members have received training from international outfits specializing in these matters. And last year, then-President Felipe Calderón passed a new law  making femicide a crime punishable by up to 60 years in jail. Some radio ad campaigns have been launched at a national level to focus on prevention.

These are important steps toward addressing the TIP problem, but clearly more needs to be done to put a dent in this very lucrative business of human exploitation. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), human trafficking is a $32 billion a year business.

According to the U.S. State Department’s TIP Office, there are three “p’s” to tackle to effectively combat human trafficking: protection, prevention and prosecution.

Protection

The legal framework for protection is more or less in place in Mexico, and the aforementioned laws protect victims. However, putting the laws in place is only the first step, and local institutions treating victims are a long way from providing proper care to address the problem effectively. The 2012 U.S. State Department’s TIP report notes that Mexico has relied heavily on NGOs, international organizations, and foreign governments “to operate or fund the bulk of specialized assistance and services for trafficking victims.” The message is clear: Mexican authorities need to invest more in building local capacity instead of depending on non-sustainable foreign aid.

There is also a huge amount of work to be done to properly habilitate shelters and migrant houses and  to train staff how to properly identify and treat victims. According to the State Department report, victim services are often inadequate and some shelters for migrants and domestic abuse victims are reluctant to house trafficking victims “due to fear of retribution from organized crime.” Anonymous anecdotal testimonies of people working in some of these shelters also tell the story of migrant houses actually hosting traffickers who pose as victims.  

Prevention

On the prevention track, educational campaigns need to hit home through better and more effective channels than a few superficial TV and radio spots. Unfortunately, the Mexican government’s budget allocation has shown other priorities: in 2011, the government reduced the anti-trafficking budget from $4.2 million to $313,000.  

Prevention is not just about making sure people understand the crime of trafficking, but also about addressing its causes.

In this regard, immigration reform in the United States is crucial. Robust temporary worker programs that disincentive illegal work would allow the U.S. to meet its demand for certain types of labor and protect those who are willing to fulfill it. Addressing the TIP problem in Mexico without strengthening bilateral cooperation with the U.S.—which draws migrants to their dangerous journey—would  be futile.

Prosecution

Prosecution against human trafficking has made some progress in Mexico, but still falls drastically short. In 2011, 14 sex traffickers were convicted, a massive difference from the one conviction achieved the previous year. But effective prosecution is impeded by a lack of law enforcement and embedded corruption.

Effective prosecution also has a long way to go with regards to training public attorneys on the differences between trafficking, prostitution and other related crimes. There is not enough transparency to provide effective statistics on convictions vs. dropped cases in Mexico, but in a conversation with a former employee of the American Bar Association working on anti-TIP projects in Latin America, I learned that most traffickers who are caught go free because of procedural errors during prosecution.

So kudos to the 165 rescued in the first week of June. But if these 165 victims were found just in one location, it does paint a grim picture of the dimensions of the problem in Mexico and of the lack of adequate resources allocated to address it.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Visit to Mexico

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Visit to Mexico“, published on June 5th, 2013. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

In 2002, former Mexican President Vicente Fox was recorded telling Cuban leader Fidel Castro over the phone, “You’ll eat and then you’ll leave” (“comes y te vas”) days before the UN Financing for Development Conference was held in Monterrey. Fox was referring to an evening dinner for heads of state hosted by the Mexican government and the reason for his request for a quick departure was to avoid George W. Bush and the Cuban leader crossing paths.  

These four words became symbolic of the National Action Party’s (Partido Acción Nacional—PAN) abandonment of the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (Partido de la Revolución Institucional—PRI) long-standing diplomatic tradition, which positioned Mexico as one of the leaders in the non-aligned movement during the Cold War and promoted self-rule through what became known as the Estrada Doctrine.

A recently-retired member of Mexico’s foreign service, who asked not to be identified, stated in an interview for this article that “during the 12 years the PAN was in power, both Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón led a bilateral diplomatic agenda which brought the country closer to the U.S. but farther away from its own independence and from the rest of the world. Both presidents directly intervened in the SRE [Mexico’s foreign affairs ministry]; they did not allow us to operate in what we considered to be Mexico’s best diplomatic interest.”

Barack Obama’s recent visit to Mexico is the first hint that with the PRI back in power, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government will not shun its important relationship with the United States. But it does intend to diversify Mexico’s international agenda and change the rules by which the country will play in the global arena. Washington can expect more resistance on a number of bilateral issues than during the Fox and Calderón years—including the ability of U.S. police forces and drone planes to operate within Mexican borders.  

Slowly but surely, from a diplomatic standpoint, Mexico is taking steps to reestablish itself as an outspoken, independent and active player, and is engaging emerging and established world powers beyond its neighbor to the North.  In April, Peña Nieto’s participation in the conference of the Boao Forum For Asia—a China-based forum similar to the World Economic Forum—and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Mexico this week are a clear example of Mexico’s global pivot. President Xi’s visit, foreshadows a stronger bilateral commercial and diplomatic relationship.

Fox and Calderón did very little to maintain the strategic alliance that the PRI had built with China, and Calderón angered the Chinese government in 2011 when he received the Dalai Lama at the presidential residence.

But now, officials from the federal government and representatives from the private sector involved in President Xi’s visit are predicting the launch of a strategic, integral and functional alliance between China and Mexico. They are not exaggerating: as agreements reached during the visit show, this is much more than Xi making a courtesy call.

Amapola Grijalva, vice president of the Mexico-China Chamber of Commerce, told journalist Darío Celis in a June 3 radio interview that “agreements reached between the two delegations will help narrow the commercial balance gap between the countries, will open up a huge market for Mexican exporters, and will allow China to provide financing for important heavy infrastructure projects in the near future.” Grijalva estimates that “during Peña’s administration, up to $81 billion coming from China could go into financing new industrial naval port complexes, airports, telecom projects, and railway transportation systems.” 

A joint declaration signed and issued by Peña Nieto and Xi on June 4 summarizes the amount of work already invested in the renewed Mexico-China relationship. The two leaders signed memorandums of understanding to formally establish cooperation in energy, mining, emerging industries, infrastructure, private sector collaboration, university alliances, trade, banking, and even the oil industry. In addition, it was announced that sanitary measures have been met to reopen the Chinese market to pork from Mexico, and an agreement was reached to allow all forms of tequila into China.

Additionally, to promote tourism in both countries, Peña Nieto and Xi expressed their mutual interest in expanding international flights connecting Mexico and China and in establishing a working relationship between their tourism ministries.

In the political arena, Peña Nieto took the opportunity to amend Calderón’s diplomatic gaffe by ratifying the “One China” principle. Peña Nieto stated that it is Mexico’s position that both Taiwan and the Tibet are part of Chinese territory and Tibetan affairs are an internal issue for China.

In the statement, both parties declared that “given the improvement of diverse mechanisms in the bilateral cooperation, the conditions are such that Mexico-China relations can be elevated to a new level of benefit to both nations.” They also established a calendar of working visits from high-level government officials to implement the agreements and scheduled future meetings during upcoming international forums including the UN, APEC and the G20.

As President Xi’s visit shows, the coming years are certain to bring Mexico and China diplomatically closer and to catalyze economic growth, trade and development in a mutually beneficial way—while breaking Mexico’s trade dependency on the U.S. market.

Mexico’s Response to the San Pedro Xalostoc Highway Accident

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Mexico’s Response to the San Pedro Xalostoc Highway Accident“, published on May 15th, 2013. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

It was 5:30 am on Tuesday, May 7, when a “full trailer” truck (which can carry loads up to 75.5 tons) transporting LP gas skidded off the Mexico City-Pachuca highway, exploded and caused a horrific tragedy, resulting in over 20 deaths and structural damage in the settlement of San Pedro Xalostoc, Ecatepec.

Initial investigations from authorities have determined that the cause of the accident was human error on the driver’s part. They’ve also stated that both the company and the transport unit involved were registered and verified and met maintenance and security standards. The gas company involved has already declared it will fully cooperate with the government’s investigation and, if deemed responsible for the tragedy, will pay damages.

Unfortunately, for a federal government concerned more with appearances than substance, this is not enough. Vast coverage on national media has urged President Enrique Peña Nieto’s team—through the Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Transportes (Ministry of Communications and Transport—SCT)—to seem like it is on top of things by pledging to prioritize reforms that will prevent accidents like this one in the future, no matter the collateral damage of those reforms.

Anyone who has driven down U.S. and Mexican highways can attest that Mexican highways are inferior and more dangerous. The materials used in Mexico are substandard and make roads slippery. Road development and maintenance are also terrible: highways have too few guardrails, too many potholes, poorly planned intersections, terrible signaling, and sharp inclines on dangerous curves. Many of our highways have tolls, but you wouldn’t know it from their disrepair. Moreover, there is no effective urban planning. In many cases, highway speed limits are set without consideration for residential areas near the road. Houses built within 165 feet (50 meters) of a non-protected high speed highway are normal in Mexico.

But none of these shortcomings, which cause close to 30,000 accidents a year on Mexico’s highways, have influenced the SCT’s populist response to the tragedy. Here’s why: first, mentioning them could be interpreted as an acceptance of co-responsibility in the San Pedro Xalostoc tragedy. Second, addressing these situations is hard work and would demand additional government spending. Instead, the SCT has resolved to revise NOM-12-SCT-2-2008—the norm that allows 75.5 ton trucks to transport goods throughout the country. Revisions to the regulation are expected to be in place by May 31 and will likely prohibit what are commonly referred to as “full trailers” on Mexico’s highways.

If this does happen, the federal government will have made yet another populist decision; common folk hate full trailers. They are a nuisance to drivers and are slow and hard to pass. They are also harder to control and to drive than a normal sedan. Yet, prohibiting the 75.5-ton truck will cause more damage rather than actually solving the problem.

According to SCT, full trailer trucks are involved in 3 percent of registered accidents and 2.2 percent of fatalities on highways. This is partly because drivers of any 75.5-ton vehicle need special training and certifications; on the contrary, the process to get a normal driver’s license in Mexico sometimes doesn’t even require a road test and renewals are done through simple paperwork. Experts drive trailer trucks, amateurs drive everything else.

As the Xalostoc tragedy shows, trailer truck drivers are not immune from having accidents, but the numbers put the frequency of trailer truck accidents in perspective. Outlawing full trailer trucks will not make highways significantly safer.

Moreover, given their cost efficiency, 75.5-ton trailers are used by practically all of Mexico’s large industries to transport raw materials and finished products. Changing NOM-12-SCT-2-2008 could double logistics costs for companies such as Soriana, Bimbo, FEMSA, and others. Companies will only have two options to offset cost increases: raise the prices of consumer-goods and/or cut other fixed costs (financial business jargon for massive layoffs). Neither option is good for Mexicans, but it is unlikely that many will draw the parallel to equate the SCT decision with higher prices and/or layoffs.

The suffering and loss from the Xalostoc tragedy is no small thing. Emotions are high and people want to point fingers. The Mexican people have an impulse to find someone to blame and make them pay; that’s understandable. But to solve the real problems we face, Mexico does not need a government that opts for populist decisions to put out media fires and appease its constituents. It needs a government that creates and implements effective solutions.

At a time when economic slowdown is set to burst Peña Nieto’s miracle bubble, the government should be looking for ways to catalyze industrial growth and performance, not hinder it in exchange for a positive news headline.

Obama and Peña Nieto Focus on the Economy Over Immigration and Security

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Here is a link to my latest article on Americas Quarterly, titled “Obama and Peña Nieto Focus on the Economy Over Immigration and Security“, published on May 7th, 2013. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other articles, etc. Thanks for visiting my blog!

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Building up to their meeting in Mexico City on May 2, the administrations of both U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto hinted that economic ties would be the focal point of their one-on-one meeting. In an interview with Americas Quarterly prior to the trip, Obama reiterated this, saying that he would “be discussing with President Peña Nieto how we can continue to reduce barriers to trade and investment.”

With commerce and economic cooperation pushing immigration and security to the backburner of the agenda, the two leaders made a strategic decision to avoid some of the more difficult issues gripping each country.

It comes as no surprise that the two leaders would want to play it safe. There is just too much at stake in the countries’ economic interdependencies: Mexico is the United States’ third-largest trading partner, while the U.S. is Mexico’s largest trading partner. These ties have grown stronger (and Mexico’s asymmetrical dependence on the U.S. economy has grown larger) since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was put into place, and pave the way toward even greater cooperation under the auspices of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which could be completed by the end of this year.

Moreover, there would be no political gain for either Obama or Peña Nieto with a focus on security and/or immigration.

On immigration, President Obama does not have the leeway to promise anything or deliver on that promise as comprehensive immigration reform will depend on the extent to which the U.S. Congress can continue to work in a bipartisan manner in the months ahead.

In Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto has not been as vocal as his predecessors about the urgent need to tackle the immigration problem perhaps because he understands that a vocal push for reform from the Mexican president may be seen as foreign meddling in what is often seen as a domestic issue. Like all Mexican presidents, he has used the scripted language about defending our countrymen’s rights outside of our borders. But he has not committed to steps such as requiring proper documentation for travelers along Mexico’s southern border that would help reduce the number of Central Americans who illegally cross into Mexico on route to the United States.

At the same time, agreement and mutual understanding on how to improve security is not the same as when the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party—PAN) was in power. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón was more willing to work hand-in-hand with U.S. authorities on security issues, with U.S. drone planes often flying over Mexico’s national borders and information exchange and training common between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials. These practices are now under scrutiny by Peña Nieto. His administration has recently announced plans to reevaluate Calderón’s war on drugs strategy, including an intention to “restrict U.S. involvement in [Mexico’s] security efforts.”

Peña Nieto’s stated reason for reassessing Mexico’s security strategy is to focus on reducing violence rather than continuing a head-on war against the cartels. However, for a president still struggling with establishing legitimacy, and aware that the largest stain in Calderón’s legacy was the close to 70,000 deaths related to the war on drugs, it is also an intelligent political choice to throw a disappearing cloak over the issue of security. His priority is to focus the public’s attention on quick wins and success stories.

Obama, for his part, faces few domestic pressures when it comes to Mexico’s security issues and must justifiably focus his attention on Syria, North Korea and domestic challenges. When Obama was asked about security collaboration after his meeting with the Mexican president, his statement that “the nature of that cooperation will evolve” and that Mexico and the U.S. would “cooperate on a basis of mutual respect” is no coincidence. This is definitely a step back from what Obama referred to as “a shared responsibility” in 2009.

During their photo-op after Thursday’s meeting, Obama tried to focus on the commitments that he and Peña Nieto made for economic development. “Too often, two issues get attention: security or immigration,” he said. Unfortunately for both Mr. Obama and Mr. Peña Nieto, there is a reason for that: these issues are closer to constituents’ hearts than the promise of better macroeconomic levels, which may or may not trickle down and actually improve their daily lives.

The promise of a closer trade relationship, joint investment on competitiveness and a forecast of economic growth for both countries should positively affect the security environment in Mexico and the future flow of undocumented immigrants to the United States. But bilateral agreements on how to frame a common strategy to tackle both of these critical issues will have to wait for another day.

Mexico’s First Lady among the best dressed… and that’s about it for now

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Mexico’s First Lady among the best dressed… and that’s about it for now“, published on March 22nd, 2013. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

In a recent online article, Vanity Fair mentioned Angélica Rivera –wife of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto–among the top-10 best dressed first ladies in the world. The piece was innocent enough and not unlike the lighthearted articles usually included in this publication. And yet, the article caught wildfire and was highlighted in Mexico’s mainstream media and newspapers, as if making the list was an incredible achievement and a coveted award.

Why is this? My best guess is that since Ms. Rivera has been out of the spotlight since she married and campaigned with Peña Nieto, the President’s PR team grabbed ahold of what they could to give her some sort of national print exposure. If this is the case, staying true to her past as a telenovela star, it seems the most we should expect from her in the coming years will be a pretty face in a pretty dress and a lovely TV smile.

The first 100 days of Peña Nieto’s presidency have come and gone and any political analyst would likely conclude that, whether you agree with his politics or not, the President’s team is doing a good job of portraying him as a hands-on leader who gets the job done. In recent weeks he’s made headlines by pushing forward a much-needed Education Reform, a Victims Protection Law and new Telecom policies.  Getting rid of Elba Esther Gordillo, the leader of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (National Teachers Union—SNTE), certainly boosted Peña Nieto’s numbers as well.  And while I would not argue that the first lady’s role should be as relevant as the elected official’s, a look back at Rivera’s track record after the first 100 days in the Presidential residence of Los Pinos, reveals a blank slate and missed opportunities.

Traditionally, Mexico’s first lady is awarded the honorary position of president of the Sistema Nacional para el Desarrollo Integral de la Familia México (Integral Family Development National System Advisory Board—DIF).  Rivera accepted the role just a couple of weeks ago, having remained in the shadows up until then.

In Mexico’s history, the role of first lady has had its ups and downs, but in general, civil society does not expect the wives of Mexican presidents to be protagonists. In fact, most people tend to forget them a couple of years after their husbands’ terms end. But Rivera is not your run-of-the-mill first lady and if Peña Nieto’s team is intelligent, they will know that this time different rules apply.

Unlike other Mexican first ladies, Rivera was famous long before she became Peña Nieto’s wife, due to her career as a Televisa actress. Her nickname, “La Gaviota,” refers to a character she played in the telenovelaDestilando Amor.” When she married Peña Nieto, the public perceived it as an arranged marriage, thought out by the big heads in the PRI party and the telecommunications giant Televisa, to create the perfect candidate to return the PRI to power. After series of public gaffes, the public perceived both Rivera and the President as incompetent, shallow (but very handsome) puppets of the powers that be. After their marriage, social media went crazy, portraying Rivera as a bimbo who’s only positive attributes where her looks. Old pictures of her wearing a bikini inspired a series of jokes and memes.

As a former pop celebrity with a Barbie doll façade, Rivera is and will be under much more pressure and public scrutiny than her predecessors. Selling her to the Mexican public and the world as “one of the best dressed” just makes it easier for PRI detractors to continue accusing the couple of being a PRI-Televisa precooked dish, served specially for a dumbed-down, but hungry for junk food, citizenry.

In its article, Vanity Fair placed Rivera among good (and very stylish) company, including Queen Rania of Jordan and U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama. But whereas Obama has taken a leadership role in the U.S. by advocating healthy living and exercise and Queen Rania’s education and social work has arguably made her even more popular than King Abdullah II himself, La Gaviota’s past as a model, actress and failed singer, is not something a lot of first ladies would brag about.

If harnessed correctly, Rivera’s stardom could actually catapult her to a new role as a promoter of Mexico’s social well-being. Look at Shakira’s and Ricky Martin’s incursions in nonprofit causes in the region. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that fame is a great catalyst for driving the social agenda in Latin America—and arguably the world (greetings, Bono). But it seems that with Rivera, the PR team that created the Presidential match-made-in-heaven has not yet picked up on this potential.

If the Atlacomulco and Azcárraga puppet-masters want to ensure their investment works and the PRI remains in power longer than six years, their strategy has to be bullet-proof. Among other things, if they really want to make sure that people buy this “new” PRI that’s got its act together, they can’t allow Mexico’s low expectations of Rivera’s performance as first lady to come true. A pretty dress will only get you so far.