Happy Thanksgiving a la mexicana

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Desde hace algunos años mis hermanas viven en Estados Unidos y dentro de su asimilación cultural, han integrado la celebración del “Thanksgiving”, traducido al español generalmente como Día de Acción de Gracias.

Como dicen los mismos gringos, “haters gonna hate” y siempre existirán críticos y detractores que descalifican el hecho de que mexicanos asuman celebraciones que nada tienen que ver con su historia y con su cultura. Son éstas las mismas personas que denuncian el satánico y aparentemente reprochable acto de disfrazarse, salir a las calles a convivir y divertirse y obtener dulces en el proceso “porque no es una celebración mexicana.” Son los mismos que como bien dice el meme ya “han de creer que la navidad nació en Oaxaca.”

En términos puristas, la celebración de Thanksgiving es igual de cuestionable y criticable que muchas otras (entre ellas el Día de la Raza en México), ya que muchos relacionan dicha celebración con la matanza de pueblos indígenas dentro del proceso de colonización del territorio estadounidense. Se respeta la visión y no, honestamente no creo que hace años los amigos de los sombreros chistosos se hayan sentado con los amigos de las plumas en la cabeza a echarse su pollo Kentucky y jugar a la bebeleche pero habiendo dicho esto, el significado práctico y real de Thanksgiving trasciende a su supuesto origen y es en ello en que existe mucha riqueza. Hoy, Thanksgiving más que un momento para honrar a los pilgrims y a los compadres de Pocahontas, es la excusa que se dan los estadounidenses para una vez al año,  darse el tiempo y espacio para promover la unión familiar y tener un espacio de reflexión y agradecimiento por todo lo positivo que tienen en sus vidas. Es esta práctica la que creo que rebasa religiones y nacionalidades y no veo una sola razón por la cual no debiera adoptarse, no sólo por gente como mis hermanas que no necesariamente asimilan su residencia con patriotismo yankee, sino por todos.

Habiendo dicho esto, desgraciadamente hoy no tengo la capacidad para reunirme con mi familia así que dejo este componente en pendiente (lo bueno es que los mexicanos tenemos más oportunidades de esto) pero aprovecho el espacio y el momento para hacer mi Thanksgiving a la mexicana y por esta vía de expresión, por la que creo llego a la mayoría de las personas que en este mensaje estarían involucrados, les comparto mis razones de agradecimiento:

Gracias a mi familia. En sus distintas capas y niveles, gracias porque ustedes son mi más fuerte línea de soporte y de sentido. Gracias por todo el amor, cariño, paciencia, tolerancia y hasta por las mentadas de madre que me dan con la intención de que mañana sea mejor. Sin ustedes, nada importa y nada tiene sentido.

Gracias a mi esposa y mis niños que todos los días me dan miles de razones para salir a tratar de hacer las cosas mejor que el día anterior. Ustedes me hacen la persona que hoy soy. Son mi infinita fuente de felicidad, esperanza y diversión. Me permiten cada día volver a conocer el asombro y me tienen la paciencia para dejarme ser y quererlos a mi manera. Son increíbles.

Gracias a mis papás, hermanas, cuñado y sobrino por todos los momentos increíbles (ojalá pudiéramos hacer que fueran más) que me tocó pasar con ustedes. Tengo una familia como pocas y son demasiadas las cosas que he recibido de ustedes y que he hecho propias en mi ser.

En especial gracias a mi Abuelita, por todos los años que me regaló y de quien este año me tuve que despedir con todo el dolor de mi corazón. Gracias por enseñarme tanto de cómo debo de ser y tantas aspiraciones que me quedan por conquistar. Gracias a toda la familia Moreno que me permitió un espacio privilegiado para darle un último adiós. No saben lo mucho que valoro haber podido hacerlo y dedicarle unas palabras buscando honrar su memoria.

También gracias a mi familia política. A mis suegros, a mis cuñados y sus familias, porque me han bienvenido en su familia con brazos abiertos, sin prejuicios ni limitantes… y eso se dice fácil pero debo reconocer que no siempre soy la persona más fácil de tragar.

Tengo la increíble dicha de contar con un puñado de amigos y amigas a los que considero también mi familia. No necesito listarlos por nombre ya que ustedes saben quiénes son y espero se sientan aludidos en estas líneas. Gracias por todos los momentos que vivimos juntos (en persona y a distancia) este año. Gracias por ser mucho más que amigos, por darme la confianza de saber que aunque no haya línea de sangre de por medio, somos como hermanos y cuento con ustedes en todo momento. Es en verdad un privilegio que ojalá todos pudieran tener.

Gracias por las amistades. También cuento con la suerte de estar rodeado de gente que a diario o regularmente me brinda una sonrisa. Estas son mis amistades y están en muchísimos rincones del mundo. Conforme las sumo en número, me hacen volver a creer en el potencial de la raza humana porque cada uno(a) tiene muchísimas cosas positivas que aportar al mundo y en cada momento y decisión lo hace. Gracias por estar a un paso, una llamada, un mail, un tiro de piedra o una simple memoria de mi alcance. Este año ha sido más fácil por sus contribuciones a mi vida.

Gracias a la calle. Por estar siempre dispuesta y dejarme recorrer sus kilómetros en pro de mi salud este año. Por tratarme bien y no darme demasiadas lesiones. Ojalá me trate así de bien en el 2014.

Gracias por el trabajo. Tengo mucha suerte al dedicarme profesionalmente a algo que me encanta. Mi trabajo es más que satisfactorio… es divertido. Esto es un lujo. Lo que hago todavía me reta y por ende, me permite desarrollarme y crecer. Adicionalmente, mi ambiente de trabajo es productivo y laboro en un equipo en el que sin tapujos ni reservas puedo decir lo que pienso y actuar en consecuencia. Mis funciones me permiten sumar y agregar valor a los objetivos de mi empresa. Ojalá todos supieran lo que eso se siente.

Gracias por mi no-trabajo. Fuera de la oficina, tengo el gusto de poder contribuir en otras tareas que muchos pudieran considerar “trabajo” pero no lo son para mí porque son iniciativas en las participo pro-bono. Las hago con gusto porque además de alimentar mi ambición y mi necesidad nativa de contribución, servicio y trascendencia, son espacios alternos para compartir y rebotar ideas; llevar a cabo diálogos y acciones que me parecen importantes. Afortunados quienes podemos abrir nuestra esfera de impacto más allá de nuestra familia y trabajo. Gracias a mis compañeros en organizaciones e instituciones con las que colaboro y en especial gracias a quienes en el 2013 fueron vigías de mis palabras como editores de las mismas.

Gracias a quienes fueron sujeto de mis artículos este año. Especial reconocimiento a Enrique, Andrés Manuel, Elba, Angélica y muchos otros en la política, que generaron las razones para mi denuncia y evidenciaron todas las cosas que quedan por hacer y mejorar en nuestro país. Sus contribuciones a la vida pública pintan un claro roadmap para todos aquellos que queremos construir un mejor país y nos enfrentan directamente a todo lo que tenemos que cambiar. No se preocupen, no les vamos a dejar la chamba a ustedes.

Gracias a mis lectores y a quienes retaron mis ideas. Gracias a cada persona que este año ayudó a que mi blog personal rompiera record de hits, a cada persona que visitó Americas Quarterly para leer mis ideas y en especial a aquellos que se dieron el tiempo de retroalimentarlas y/o confrontarlas con otras. No hay nada más satisfactorio para quien escribe, que ser el responsable y detonador de una conversación e intercambio de ideas.  Espero poder seguir explotando estos espacios de dialogo y comunicación por muchos años más.

Por último, gracias a todos los buenos mexicanos. Necesitamos más de ustedes. Muchos más.

Cerrando changarro: gracias por leer estas líneas y por compartir conmigo, un Thanksgiving a la mexicana. Ahora sí, a falta de pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce y stuffed turkey, ¡¿Ontá mi pollo con mole y mi cheve, carajo?!

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Never fear: an explanation to my blogging

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I am part of the sharing generation. A number of changes in recent history have allowed everyone to have a voice and access to those willing to hear. Yesterday’s ideas were bound by vehicles and arenas which made it harder to disseminate them. This is not to say that I am celebrating and claiming that cyberspace access has made us free; after all immediate and open publishing has come hand-in-hand with incredible empowerment of surveillance actors, championed by the U.S. government (and specifically NSA), as Snowden, Manning, Assange and many others have shown us.

We now know that Facebook and Google are some of the largest information providers (willing or not) for the powers that be, who’ve taken advantage of a culture of fear to obtain never before seen entitlement over monitoring not just suspects and would-be criminals, but all of us. All of you.

Today, your personal data, religion, purchasing tendencies, ideology, sexual preference and many more tidbits of information which you used to consider private, are likely periodically and systematically filtered and analyzed by the U.S. government (and who knows who else). This is screwed up, even if it is true that I have nothing to hide from the U.S. government and I doubt they would find me remotely interesting. Even so, when personal information becomes public, when your cell phone is inherently also a perfect personal tracking device (thanks to GPS), it is easy to succumb to that same culture of fear that allowed legislation such as the Patriot Act to pass.

I live in Mexico. And I blog in Mexico. I blog about all types of things, stemming from comedic tidbits that could be catalogued as “brain farts”, to analytical and challenging pieces about the sociopolitical and economic status quo in my country.

I like to share and I like to say things I feels need to be said. Some of them go unnoticed; others get viral status and reach millions of hits. More than once, people close to me have asked “aren’t you afraid of saying X?”, usually after writing pieces which are critical of the political elite or organized crime.

Statistically, I live in one of the most dangerous countries for journalists to work in, so I can understand my friends’ concerns. The good news is, I’m not a journalist. As an Op-Ed blogger, I am lucky enough to choose what I write and how I write it and because of this, NO, I AM NOT AFRAID.

Institutional, traditional media is easy for anyone to measure and follow. It is thus, an easy and attractive target because EVERYONE has some understanding of the scale reached by say, a national or local newspaper. With most e-media only the analytics owners (and potentially hackers and the U.S. government) know for sure if your words have become relevant to a few or millions of people. Then again, if they become viralized, they will likely fall in the hands of people susceptible to your ideas and words and they might want to do something about it. That risk is always there.

Saying that I am not afraid does not mean that I am reckless. There is a distinction between being afraid and being cautious… and again, not having an institutionalized agenda allows me to take certain precautions which deflect would-be retaliators.

  1. I have complete control of what I say, how I say it and to a large extent, when I say it. This is extremely powerful. I can manage the intensity with which I approach certain topics, the form and the periodicity. If I gauge that the timing is not right for discussing a certain subject, I stay away from it even if it would have been popular to talk about. Does this mean I am not 100% free? ABSOLUTELY. It also means I am not stupid.
  2. I don’t do investigative reporting and I don’t publish otherwise privileged, confidential or secret information. This is not to say that I have not had access to it; it just means that I maintain my “opinion-blogger” status. I am not a reporter, I am not a detective and I certainly am not anything close to Wikileaks. My objective is not to publish something before media outlets have already made it public. I provide commentary and opinion on facts and news which have previously been published and/or I put together pieces of a puzzle that were already out there, accessible to anyone with a web browser and the capacity to find the connections between them.
  3. I don’t pick fights, especially with bullies that carry automatic weapons. I am critical but unless I make the conscious decision to take that risk, I avoid pointing too many fingers on specific individuals, particularly if I am making accusations or evidencing a problem. This goes back to the liberty of choosing how it is I say things. Public political figures, like the President or a governor are used to newspapers talking about them, not always (actually rarely) in friendly terms. As long as it does not cross a certain line, they can take it and in is their job to take it. Now, if I had access to a specific drug dealer’s personal address (which I don’t), would I publish it on my blog? Of course not. I don’t pick fights with bullies. Again, I am not afraid but I am also not stupid.
  4. Commenting on a digital vehicle and basing my commentary of referenced, previously published pieces makes me less relevant and attractive to reaction than the original media that covered the story. I may be still at risk, but certainly less than others… and I keep it that way intentionally. I’ve been offered to write for a couple of local/national newspapers in my time as a blogger. Thanks, but no thanks. If I were a real journalist in Mexico, I would be afraid.

Now if I have to take these types of precautions, you might ask “why write at all?” And why take that risk, small as it may be?

Maybe it’s because I like helping others translate fact into opinion and use my words as a springboard for their own internal dialogue. That’s certainly part of it. It would be incorrect and arrogant of me to say that I like being a thought leader. I don’t consider myself one; I’ll settle for possibly being, at times, a thought catalyst.

Also, I love the satisfaction I feel when someone tells me “you put it together in a way that it finally makes sense to me” or “you said it the way it needed to be said.” I recently wrote a piece on women in the workforce in Mexico; it was extremely fulfilling to get feedback from women saying things like “thank you for really understanding women’s reality in the professional realm. Not too many men take the time to do it and it makes all the difference for a guy to actually say this publicly.” I’m happy to be THAT guy.

There are at least two other reasons that explain my drive for putting ideas out there.

The first one has to do with doing what I feel is a service to my community, my readers and the country I love. I try to write pieces which highlight a problem that needs fixing, celebrate and recognize positive actions and/or motivate and inspire others to learn more and hopefully make a difference.

The other reason is greedy, self-interest and an innate need (dare I say addiction) to transcend. No, I don’t want to live forever but I do want to leave behind a testament of my journey through life and writing is an easy and enjoyable way I’ve found of doing that. I will not likely be remembered by entire nations and my name will never reach Larry King status, but that’s ok. I don’t want to transcend for all of mankind, not even all of Mexico.

I want to transcend in a way that my children have tangible proof of their father’s principles, ideals and ideas. I want them to know that they should never fear about having ideas and putting them out there for the benefit of others and themselves, even if they are ideas that break away from the status quo. Especially if they are ideas that break away from the status quo.

We are not fully free, but I’ll be damned if fear keeps my words locked up in a cage forever. I hope my children eventually read these words and they get to live in a world where they never have to fear for letting others know what they think. Just like their father did.

My deepest appreciation and gratitude. Thank you for reading and letting me share my ideas with you.

Syria: Too many questions

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Next week, the powers that be in Washington DC will decide whether or not to instruct their Congress people on payroll to support Obama’s request to bomb Syria “because they crossed a red line.”  There are already signs which would point towards the fact that POTUS will get enough legislative support to initiate what is grotesquely referred to as “surgical strikes”, as long as he doesn’t put boots on the ground.

There is no honor or moral ground for this American trigger-happy strike. Let me be clear that by saying this I am not establishing a supportive position towards the Bashar Al Assad government nor justifying the alleged use of chemical warfare in the civil conflict in Syria. Having said this, here is a list of reasons for which the U.S. should not unilaterally attack Syria.

  • First and foremost, the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against combatants and/or civilians has not been (yet) verified or “evidenced” by anyone except the U.S. government. John Kerry’s recent declaration on the subject does not present any evidence whatsoever. He references that this needs to be “discussed directly with the American people” but creates a case for buy-in based on questionable data. Of course, he references the already famous Syria YouTube videos because it is easier to shock and awe via video than presenting actual research and showing real proof… but these videos’ authenticity has been more than questioned even by mainstream U.S. media. Allegations of actors being used to stage attacks and crisis scenes, videos showing staged gun shots to enhance dramatic effect, etc. are flooding the internet and putting huge question marks on how the propaganda war is being fought vs. the war on the ground.
  • The 9-page report that has been declassified in order to generate public support on the attack provides as much real PROOF as that Powerpoint presentation Powell showed the world with Iraq’s WMDs. See the document for yourself… hell, they didn’t even bother to use little fun graphics this time!
  • In that same declaration, Kerry states that Syria should respect the U.N.’s mandate and allow its’ inspection team to draw effective conclusions on the alleged chemical warfare program (min. 7:40) . The level of irony in that is just off the charts! If the U.S. respects the U.N. mandate and the inspection team’s research so much, they should not act preemptively. They should wait for the U.N. inspection team’s report to be published before drawing conclusions on whether or not a strike would be justified (in their own eyes, let alone those of the international community). The report is due to come out within the next three weeks.
  • THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A “SURGICAL STRIKE.” There is nothing “surgical” about bombing another country with questionable evidence and questionable intelligence. If we’ve learned ANYTHING from recent incursions in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is that this “surgical strike” rhetoric is just that. Rhetoric.
  • Today, there is no international community support for a strike against Syria. This is not just a U.S. vs Russia and China in the Security Council discussion. The only relevant country willing to stand by the U.S. on this one, with very questionable motives, is France. The world is sending the U.S. a clear signal: WAIT for the U.N. report and THEN let’s have a real discussion based on FACTS as to how to deal with the Syrian crisis.
  • The “red line” argument has no real bearing in international law. Obama set this standard in order to later justify the incursion by saying “we told them not to cross the line, now they’ve done it and if we don’t attack, we lose face and credibility.” No, Mr. President, a faster way to lose face and credibility is to act irresponsibly and take unilateral decisions in order to look like a badass. Leave that type of behaviour for fourthgraders. You are the leader of the free world. Start acting like it.
  • Whodunnit and who has the authority to respond? If in the end, the conclusion is that chemical warfare was used by insurgents and not the government, then this continues to be a domestic issue, another chapter in a horrible and tragic civil war and the U.S. has no authority to intervene. If it is proven that it was Bashar Al Assad who used chemical weapons, this action needs to be denounced by the international community in international forums within and outside of the UN system but the only one empowered to authorize the use of force, per Chapter VII of the UN Charter, is the United Nations Security Council. I know that the excuse now is that you will never be able to circumvent Russia and China’s veto power BUT if the UN inspection team (and not the U.S.) provides sufficient proof of state use of chemical weapons, enough pressure COULD be put on the superpowers in order to react responsively and responsibly. The U.N. system was created with complex checks and balances for a reason. It SHOULD be hard for countries to attack other countries. That’s the only way to keep hope for peace alive.
  • What’s the hurry, Mr. President? Use of chemical weapons or no use of them, people have been dying and suffering because of this conflict for more than two years. Now that the U.N. says they will publish a report on their inspection you’re in a hurry to bomb before they do? I’m sure your real constituents, those who voted for you, would want you to wait. Hell, I don’t have to say it, Americans are saying it themselves! Congress, THESE are the people you are supposed to work for, not the handful that pour millions of dollars into your campaigns or the Saudi government. Listen to your constituency.      

THERE IS NO INTERNATIONAL WAR SOLUTION FOR THE SYRIAN CONFLICT. A road to peace in the country and the region NEEDS to be political. Mr. Obama: DO NOT UNILATERALLY BOMB SYRIA. There are too many questions unanswered and you’re in too much of a hurry to push the red button.

Dear reader: unfortunately most of us do not have access to make a direct impact or difference in the matter but if you agree with the points herein stated, please circulate this post. Share it with friends and contacts and maybe, just maybe, it will reach the hands of someone with more influence than a concerned citizen of the world and a member of the majority of us who side with the ideal of peace. 

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.

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 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.