Four days before taking over in Los Pinos, Mexico’s president-elect paid a visit to the White House. Enrique Peña Nieto’s November 27 meeting with President Barack Obama comes amid a flurry of attention on how Mexico has changed over the past six years and—in line with those changes—calls for the United States to refocus on what its neighbor has to offer. Obama commented on the timing of the meeting with the president-elect, saying: "We meet early with the president of Mexico because it represents the close relationship between the U.S. and Mexico."
Ahead of his U.S. visit, Peña Nieto penned an opinion piece for The Washington Post calling to redefine relations and hone in on economic ties, arguing: “It is a mistake to limit our bilateral relationship to drugs and security concerns.” In fact, U.S.-Mexico trade ties broke new records in recent years, hitting $500 billion in goods and services traded bilaterally last year. U.S. exports to Mexico grew more than 20 percent in 2010, and 375 percent since 1993, before the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Moreover, Peña Nieto’s December 1 inauguration takes place at a time of glowing reports about Mexico’s economy. The latest issue of The Economist includes a 14-page special report on Mexico, bearing the optimistic headline “From darkness, dawn.” The insert notes that Mexico holds free-trade deals with 44 countries, “more than any other nation.” Soaring labor costs in China along with the transportation savings involved with Mexico’s proximity to the U.S. market could give the Latin American country a leg up in the long run. The Economist calls Mexico a “Brazil-beater,” becoming the latest in a series of media outlets hyping Mexico’s economy over Brazil’s. A recent HSBC report on Mexico’s trade outlook calls it “the most confident country in Latin America.”
But it appears the American public may not have read the good news. A November 20 Vianovo and GSD&M survey found that half of Americans have an unfavorable view of Mexico, with “drugs” being the word most frequently associated with it. As many as 59 percent of those surveyed viewed Mexico as a source of problems compared to just 14 percent considering it a good partner. This perception persists, even as signs indicate a turning tide in terms of the drug-related violence that marked the six-year term of outgoing President Felipe Calderón. An AnimalPolitico analysis (translated into English by InSight Crime) reports that 20 of Mexico’s 32 states saw fewer homicides between January and October in 2012 compared to the same period last year. Areas associated with high rates of violence saw notable drops, with homicides decreasing by 32 percent in Chihuahua, 25 percent in Nuevo Leon, and 23 percent in Sinaloa. Last month, Ciudad Juarez logged fewer homicides than Chicago. “[A]re we still in a security crisis?” asks the article’s author, Mexican security expert Alejandro Hope. “I would say no: crime and violence continue (and will continue for a while) at unacceptable levels, but it can no longer be so easily argued that the situation is escalating out of control.”
Whether Peña Nieto’s government oversees a period when U.S. perceptions change remains to be seen. Before his North American tour, the president-elect set economic issues first and security last in his list of priorities for the White House meeting, reflecting his calls to refocus the nature of bilateral relations. Peña Nieto will also meet with U.S. congressional leaders and stop in Ottawa to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and members of Parliament. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will lead Washington’s delegation to Peña Nieto’s December 1 inauguration. COA’s Eric Farnsworth points out in an AQ blog post that this is “an important symbol of respect for the new president,” given that Biden represents the top U.S. official who would travel to the inauguration of a foreign leader.