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.

Mexico: No Country for Old Tourists?

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Here is a link to an article I publishd on AQBlog, titled “Mexico: No Country for Old Tourists?” on March 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.

Mexicans are used to hearing this: “in spite of the violence and insecurity, the Mexican economy is booming and attracting foreign direct investment.” After a recent visit to Monterrey, even Thomas L. Friedman wrote for The New York Times about this in “How Mexico Got Back in the Game,” providing a positive outlook on Mexico’s ability to compete in the global market. Then again, macroeconomics is just part of the story.

Yes, Mexico is becoming an attractive place for U.S. and Europe to invest. The commercial and technical factors to take advantage of are there. However, our current competitive position vs. China and other manufacturing countries should not downplay the fact that drug-related violence is directly affecting certain hotspots in the country. While the flow of foreign direct investment may continue and even flourish, both the reality and perceptions of violence in Mexico are damaging tourism. Brand Mexico is tail-spinning and losing value when it comes to vacation destinations. This should matter to a country that the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) called the eighth most visited nation in the world in 2007.

Cities like Guanajuato, Los Cabos, Manzanillo, Puerto Vallarta, Cancún, and Acapulco depend on capital influx from foreign and national visitors, especially during vacation seasons like spring break and summer. Yet, Acapulco is set to register an all-time low for tourism this season. Congresswoman and Tourism Commission Representative Karen Castrejón Trujillo recently told the press that up to 80 percent of Acapulco’s hotel reservations that had been blocked earlier in the year have been cancelled since six Spanish tourists were raped while vacationing there. Only 300 of the original 5000 foreign visitors forecasted for this season (already an all-time low), will brave the trip. Imagine the implications for local businesses there. And even worse, isolated but high-profile cases like the violence in Acapulco or the border town of Reynosa are hurting the whole country’s reputation, just like the Zapatista guerilla conflict (which was contained to a couple of cities in the southeast of Mexico) did in 1994-1995, when foreigners were afraid to travel anywhere in the country because “they’re at war.”

Now, the Tourism Ministry is doing an exemplary job of trying to sell the Visit Mexico brand all over the world, but no amount of marketing will overcome the bad press about a crime situation perceived as widespread and out of control. There is no way that a beautiful ad highlighting the rich culture, cuisine, landscape and many more things the country has to offer, will supersede warnings like the one the U.S. Department of State issued on November 2012, telling vacationers, “we won’t tell you not to go there, but if you do, you’re on your own.” It’s no wonder South Padre Island in Texas is recording an all-time high domestic tourist season this year.

Friedman may be right about our ability to attract FDI, but is it enough of a consolation prize if investors are willing to send their money into Mexico just as long as they don’t have to visit it?

Mexico’s Supreme Court Ruling a Step Toward Greater Tolerance

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Mexico’s Supreme Court Ruling a Step Toward Greater Tolerance“, published on March 8th, 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.

If there is one thing Mexico’s men are famous for, it is the celebration of being macho. We see this everywhere: In telenovelas, the butch and handsome male protagonist becomes the hero only after he conquers the lovely señorita by wooing her with his macho chivalry. It is common to hear traditional male fathers telling their sons “real men don’t cry.”

A number of consumer products also cater to this very innate part of the Mexican heterosexual male’s existence through marketing, which might be considered as sexist in other cultures. The macho element also permeates humor; viewed through the optics of U.S. culture it no doubt be deemed much more than politically incorrect. This is not a matter of right or wrong, but rather a plain and simple recognition of who we are as a culture today.

On March 6, however, Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN) took a decision that could lead to a shift in the way Mexican machos coexist with homosexuality, which today is regularly mocked. Mexican insults such as “maricón” or “puñal” (derogatory terms for “gay male”) are thrown around in colloquial talk with as much disdain as the word “pansy” in the English language. But the Supreme Court decided that such expressions are not protected by freedom of speech and can be subject to lawsuit on the basis of moral harm.

The split 3-2 judicial decision is probably an accurate proportion of how Mexican society would view the subject. Some view this as a step toward inclusion and tolerance. Others see this as unnecessary ruling and censorship of what has traditionally been acceptable humor.

The approved ruling states that “Homophobic expressions, that is, language consistent in inferring that homosexuality is not a valid option, but rather a condition of inferiority, constitute discriminatory manifestations. This includes the use of such terms in humorous use, given that through them, intolerance toward homosexuality is incited, promoted and justified.” The ruling goes on to acknowledge that these expressions are part of common use in Mexico’s culture by stating that, “while these expressions are strongly embedded in Mexican society’s language, practices by the majority of a population cannot validate violations to fundamental rights.”

As with most countries and cultures, gender diversity is slowly but surely (granted, more slowly than us progressive thinkers would like) moving forward.

The antigay sentiments and comments common in previous generations are less present with youth today, even if the male macho is still a predominant figure in our culture. But the SCJN’s ruling, if harnessed correctly, can be a powerful boost toward a more open and tolerant society. If really enforced, this ruling could create a huge shift in approved TV content for example, which is a powerful vehicle in our culture. Today, many humor programs make fun of LGBT individuals by portraying them as inferior and/or exaggerating stereotypical effeminate traits, thus teaching that these expressions are acceptable in society. With the ruling, this type of humor could hold TV companies liable and perhaps motivate them to change their content. In an ideal scenario, this would extend to TV companies that shield themselves from responsibility by stating, “we give people what they want to see.”

While enforceability of this ruling in everyday social interaction and situations proves complicated, the institutionalization of hate humor in printed media and television can be affected. This is, in a way, something similar to the shift made with regard to cultural acceptance of smoking. When did smoking stop being cool? Many would say it was when we stopped seeing it as acceptable in TV and later in social occasions. Even if it takes a couple of generations to accept, typifying homophobic slurs as hate speech is a celebratory step toward social inclusion and tolerance in Mexican culture.

*Arjan Shahani is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He lives in Monterrey, Mexico, and is an MBA graduate from Thunderbird University and Tecnológico de Monterrey and a member of the International Advisory Board of Global Majority—an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of non-violent conflict resolution.

A Window of Opportunity for Education in Mexico

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “A Window of Opportunity for Education in Mexico“, published on February 27th, 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 Monday February 25, having achieved the needed support in Congress, President Enrique Peña Nieto put into effect an education reform that will transform the public education system at its core. If enacted correctly, the reform will allow the country to take important steps forward and proactively tackle one of its most relevant social issues.

The reform calls for a new autonomous government institute to be created, with the sole purpose of strengthening and professionalizing the teaching profession by establishing a talent performance system that will ensure that teaching positions are awarded based on merit and not discretional criteria. The system includes periodical evaluations for the public system teachers, a change that undoubtedly will generate resistance from teachers who have become quite comfortable in mediocrity under the protection of a backwards thinking union that is too strong and powerful for its own good.

The new institute will also be responsible for ensuring that a trustworthy database comprising numbers of schools, teachers and students is created and kept up to date. This administrative responsibility also used to be in the hands of the SNTE (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación), who kept whatever data they had away from public scrutiny.

In what can only be interpreted as a strategy to hit them while their down, one day after Peña Nieto published the reform, the country was surprised with the arrest of SNTE’s controversial and powerful leader, Elba Esther Gordillo who is facing charges for fraud, money laundering and links to organized crime.

The case being built up by the Public Attorney’s office (PGR) highlights accusations of SNTE’s money being used to pay for purchases made by Gordillo from 2009 to 2012 in the upscale store Neiman Marcus, amounting to up to $3 million. This is not the first time questionable purchases have been made with SNTE’s money but it is the first time the government has moved against the union’s leader so decisively and surely, the only way they were going to be able to get rid of this influential character, whose position as leader of the union did not have an expiration date on it.

With the new educational reform put in place and the largest obstacle for its success removed and (at least temporarily) placed in a jail cell, the future for education in Mexico seems bright as it does for PRI and Peña Nieto, who up to now has not been able to gain public sympathy or project himself as having the capabilities to lead. If Peña continues on this path and ensures that the reform results in actions with tangible results for society, PRI will have taken a huge step toward rebuilding its political machinery and consolidating its power both at state and federal levels in future elections.

If that’s what it takes to start making much needed improvements in Mexico’s education, the nation will surely welcome the return of PRI’s perfect dictatorship. Let’s hope the trade-offs (because no question, there will be major ones) are worth it.

*Arjan Shahani is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He lives in Monterrey, Mexico, and is an MBA graduate from Thunderbird University and Tecnológico de Monterrey and a member of the International Advisory Board of Global Majority—an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of non-violent conflict resolution.

Monterrey, Mexico: Living amid the Rule of Fear

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Monterrey, Mexico: Living amid the Rule of Fear“, published on December 10th, 2012. 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.

For the past couple of years, people from all over the world have been asking me the same question: how bad are things in Monterrey, really? Obviously, they are referring to the drug-related violence and overall instability that have recently given the city unwanted international attention.

There’s a saying in Mexico: “cada quién cuenta como le fue en la feria, which roughly translates to “how the tale is told depends on what the narrator has been through.” Therefore, my experience will not resonate equally among some others who live in Monterrey, but I do hope it will provide a relatively objective conclusion and answer to the above question.

Since the underlying interest behind the question is learning more about the situation of violence, I will not get into details about how Monterrey has a buoyant economy, entrepreneurial society, growing industrial sector, or is the birthplace of the most important higher education systems in Latin America and the home of hard-working, committed individuals. What I will focus on is how daily life has changed for middle-class citizens as a result of the violence and how societal interaction today is less regulated by a rule of law and more so by a rule of fear.

For the most part, people are still able to go to work, attend restaurants, movie theaters and parks and lead normal lives. But a certain fear has now been engrained into the average regiomontano’s DNA and it has changed how we go about our daily activities:

  • Public places: There are certain restaurants and bars we don’t go to anymore. In fact, a whole area of the city known as Barrio Antiguo, which used to be the cultural, culinary and entertainment center of Monterrey, is practically abandoned now. Close to Barrio Antiguo, young male adults who used to flock to mens’ clubs and after hours bars late at night are doing this less and less because they fear these establishments to be controlled by the cartels and gangs. If a neighborhood is dangerous—or, more importantly, if it is perceived as such—then we simply avoid it. A lot of the nightlife has migrated and concentrated into San Pedro Garza García, the safest and highest income per-capita municipality in the metropolitan area.
  • Get-togethers: You still go out and see your friends. Nightlife is not dead, but there is an undeniable shift toward home get-togethers versus going to night clubs. People try to hang out with people they know and get away from those they don’t know. This can easily be measured by the changes in the sales of alcohol in supermarkets and retail stores in comparison to restaurants and nightclubs. Also, regiomontanos are turning in a lot earlier than they used to and on weekend nights, what used to be bumper to bumper traffic in the main streets of the city is replaced by the few brave enough to speed through on their way home.
  • Talking about it: The topic of insecurity, discussing drug cartels or even mentioning certain names, has become taboo in many public spaces because “you never know if one of these criminals or someone linked to them is sitting at the table next to you.” Just based on probability, the likelihood of this happening would be considerably low, but people prefer to just play at safe. It’s a really interesting phenomenon to see how when people are going to discuss the subject in public, they always look around and lower their voices first or just wait to be in a private space.
  • Going to school: When middle- and upper-class parents choose the private grade school for their children, the new variable of fear is brought to the table. A couple of the top grade schools in the Monterrey area have excellent curricula, staff, technology, and campuses but they are located in the Santa Catarina municipality and the roads that go to these schools go through some of the crime hot spots. Thus, parents’ choice for quality in education is being put in the balance against peace of mind and security.
  • Driving with others: Ironically, regiomontanos have become more polite behind the wheel of a car. Excessive honking has been replaced by an almost eerie silence in many of our streets. Most people have shifted toward using the horn only to avoid imminent accidents because “you never know if the guy who cut into you is a criminal or somebody linked to the drug cartels and you don’t want to draw attention to yourself.” People still cut each other off and they still turn left from the right lane. We’re still immensely bad drivers; we just don’t honk, yell and swear at each other for it anymore.

From reading some of these changes in daily lives, one could conclude that people who would not traditionally be considered criminals—the common folk—are actually behaving better than in the past. They are risking harm to themselves less. While that may be the case, the reason for it is rather unfortunate: it’s not that we abide by or respect a rule of law; we are restricted in our liberties because of a rule of fear.

Official sources reported that November presented a significant decrease in executions, house break-in and car theft but that has had little to no effect in society’s perception of the risks they may face in the city they live in.

So what is it like to live in Monterrey, really? The city continues to have several positive and unique aspects to it. But what has changed? We are not caught between crossfire, held at gunpoint or witness beheadings on a daily basis, but the difference from years back is that now is the presence of fear for these things actually happening and our conduct adapting accordingly.

Hopefully, we will be able to eliminate this fear in the near future, through projects and day to day actions which eliminate the reasons for our fear strengthen a culture of lawfulness, reclaim public spaces and harness the strength of an active and organized civil society and a committed private and public sector.

Censorship in Mexico: The Case of Ruy Salgado

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Censorship in Mexico: The Case of Ruy Salgado“, published on October 29th, 2012. 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.

Most people outside of Mexico may have never heard of Ruy Salgado. But during the most recent electoral contest here, that name not only became known throughout Internet circles in Mexico, but was arguably one of the most influential voices of opposition in the country.

Ruy Salgado, a pseudonym, has an online alias known as el 5anto. Salgado is a nonprofit video blogger whose notoriety increased during these past elections for his very critical view of both the transparency of the process and the role of the mainstream media in “manipulating the truth.” He was also one of the most vocal in denouncing what he referred to as institutionalized fraud in the results that will bring the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) back to power on December 1.

El 5anto’s modus operandi was to webcast himself live, wearing a blue luchador mask, providing news and opinion rarely present in mainstream media. This approach was part commercial flair, part self-protection. During the time his project was online, he attracted a growing audience whose members may not have all supported his beliefs, but who did attest to the professional way in which they are always presented: stating sources, structuring analyses and providing informed and argumentative opinion.

For his views and his attempts to “provide information”—always his prime objective—el 5anto became a target of multiple death threats. At one point he even fled the country and started streaming from an undisclosed location for fear of becoming yet another communicator permanently silenced by those who have made journalism an extremely dangerous profession in Mexico.

On September 8, people who would regularly tune in to Salgado’s website, http://el5antuario.org, were suddenly cut off from the feed and his video-blog (“vlog”) channel went silent. After a couple of days without news, collaborators from his site issued a recording stating that their spokesperson had disappeared and they lost contact with him. For more than a month both his collaborators and his audiences feared the worst. While most mainstream media initially ignored the case, the buzz of social media proved too powerful as the words “Where is Ruy Salgado?” became a trending topic on Twitter—leading some television networks, politicians and pundits to finally pay attention. Despite the demands, for more than a month there was nothing but silence from Salgado.

Finally on October 20, through a Skype connection with one of his now-former collaborators who livestreamed the call, el 5anto’s voice was once again heard over the Internet. Unfortunately this would be Ruy Salgado’s last broadcast and final goodbye. In a three-hour message, he explained that he could not go into detail about his victimization during the 42 days of silence “because there is no security that what happened to me will not happen again and I cannot put my family at risk” but he did refer to a “forced disappearance” caused by Mexico being “a failed narco-state.” He went on to reiterate that the free flow of information in spite of attempts from mainstream media to manipulate it, had not been enough to prevent an electoral fraud and that “Mexico will need a lot more than what el5antuario was able to do.”

The objective of his final message, he said, was to tell everybody that he was still alive but that he had decided to cease and desist in his civil disobedience broadcasting because he felt he could no longer provide a voice to el5antuario without putting his family in danger. In this decision el 5anto called himself “a repugnant coward” and asked others video-bloggers “to be very careful.”

The content of Salgado’s final broadcast is honest and factual; his case is yet another grave example of the censorship of free speech and free ideas through violence in Mexico. In sum, the good news is that Ruy Salgado is alive and the bad news is even through anonymity divergent ideas are not safe in today’s Mexico. This country is certainly far off from the idyllic words of  Voltaire: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Mexico is Flunking in Education

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Mexico is Flunking in Education“, published on July 25th, 2012. 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 July 22, the Mexican Education Ministry (Secretaría de Educación Pública, or SEP) published the results for the Knowledge, Ability and Teaching Skills National Exam, the annual test the Mexican government uses to award teaching positions in the country. The outcome paints a grim picture for children seeking quality education in Mexico.

A year ago, I wrote about the fact that the test in itself is not exigent enough and that the passing grade is a meager 30 percent. Back then I took a deep dive into the way the test is structured and concluded that it was practically impossible to fail. Well the results are in, and unfortunately, I underestimated the level of ignorance in the people responsible for preparing Mexico’s youth for the challenges of tomorrow. There’s something categorically wrong in Mexico’s education system when out of 134,704 people that took this simple test, over 70 percent don’t get half of it right and only 309 (0.2 percent) get a perfect score.

Of the over 18,000 teaching-position vacancies that will be filled this year, 309 applicants are up to par based on the already low standards SEP was able to negotiate with the National Educational Workers Union (SNTE). The rest of our new teachers present huge deficiencies in curricular content (actual subject matter), scholastic competencies, logic, and/or ethics.

This test was applied in all Mexican states except Michoacán and Oaxaca, where the teacher’s union is controlled by the National Educational Workers Coordinator (CNTE), a group which has opposed teacher evaluations in general and is even more radical than Elba Esther Gordillo’s SNTE. One can only imagine what the outcome of the test would have been in these entities. And if the teachers are flunking out, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what is happening with the students, which is good, because we apparently don’t have too many of them anyways (geniuses, not students).

Election after election, Mexico has heard the same story. In every race, candidates point to education as a critical issue and yet these promises seldom become more than empty political rhetoric. There are a number of reasons for this:

Amount of money is not the main issue. Contrary to popular belief, the education problem in Mexico has less to do with available federal budget resources and more to do with their allocation. About 5.3 percent of Mexico’s GDP goes to education. That’s more than Canada, Costa Rica and Australia and just under the United States. The problem is that while these countries actually invest in the quality of their teachers and improvements in infrastructure, Mexico’s education budget is funneled through depraved unions and very little actually seeps through to the schools.

There is no short-term incentive for long-term projects. Mexico’s federal projects and plans are created on a six-year window. Without reelection the president has no real reason to invest in a project that will not deliver tangible results during his tenure. The Minister of Education has little hopes for running for president (though Ernesto Zedillo did and won and recently Josefina Vázquez Mota had a run for the position but failed miserably) and even so, they can always blame the unions for the education having stagnated. Conversely, union leaders, which do not change every six years, have clear interests in maintaining control and power so it is in their interest to favor teachers above student development. The less that they have to hold their constituencies accountable for quality in the work, the more likely they are to continue reaping the benefits of leading the unions.

Our education system is based on memorization and not critical thinking. Students are “taught” to memorize dates and events, multiplication tables, etc. but going back to the question of quality in education, Mexico still has a long way to go. Here, the overwhelming role catholic religion plays in our children’s youth does not help at all. Mexico is not breeding thinkers or leaders; we’re raising followers and record players. We cannot keep pouring money into a system that’s broken in its core. A complete revamping of what is taught and how it is taught is needed for the system to evolve.

Myopically, low levels of education serve the political parties’ interests. It’s easier to get votes out of a dumbed-down constituency than a critical one. There is no clearer example of parties’ narrow-minded take on elections than the presidential race Mexico has just completed. Moreover, as long as our national economic projects continue to point toward cheap labor as Mexico’s source of competitive advantage, there is no real incentive to migrate to an economy of knowledge.

Literacy rates are can easily deceive. According to the CIA World Factbook Mexico has a 86.1 percent literacy rate but evidently, knowing how to read and understanding what it is that we are reading is not the same. PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) places Mexico’s reading comprehension levels second to last among OECD countries. Canada, which spends less of its GDP on education is almost on top of the list, only bested by Finland. It’s clear that having an over 85 percent literacy rate is in itself, nothing to brag about.

What’s the solution?

More important than “what”, “who” is the key to solving the education problem in Mexico. There are at least two specific groups that need to band together in order to pressure the government to deliver on education programs.

Organized civil society has to take a more active role in ensuring that governments are accountable for what they promise. We have to demand more from our elected officials. Hopefully the social mobilization momentum created around the recent elections can be proactively directed toward this endeavor. The second group that needs to take an active role in education is not surprisingly, the private sector. More businesses need to understand that by fostering, promoting and supporting better education programs, they are investing in more wealth creation capabilities in their consumers and thus, more business. It just makes sense for big business to partner with civil society and government in implementing effective education programs which will give them return on investment in the long run.