In My Opinion

Everybody is upbeat on Mexico — except Mexicans

During a visit here last week, I couldn’t help being surprised by the scornful reaction of many Mexicans to the growing consensus in the world media that this is “Mexico’s moment” in the global economy.

Over the past few weeks, there has been a flurry of glowing headlines around the world announcing that Mexico will eclipse Brazil, and perhaps even India and China, as the world’s most promising economic star.

Last week, Foreign Affairs magazine ran a story titled Mexico makes it, and New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a column titled How Mexico got back in the game.

In January, The New York Times ran an opinion piece by former Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson titled Mexico: the new China. A few days later, The Financial Times published a story under the headline Mexico: Aztec Tiger.

Late last year, The Economist magazine had published an article, The Rise of Mexico, and I wrote a Miami Herald column titled Mexico’s (President Enrique) Peña Nieto has luck on his side.

Until only a few months ago, most international media had been carrying hair-raising headlines about Mexico, focusing on the estimated 60,000 deaths in drug-related violence over the past six years. Some even speculated that Mexico was becoming a “failed state,” like Somalia, where the government can’t control its entire territory.

How can one explain this sudden turnaround? Mexico may have become an overnight media darling by default: With Brazil’s growth fizzling, the economies of China and India slowing down, and Europe in recession, Mexico is shining by default. Mexico’s economy grew by 4 percent last year, compared with Brazil’s 0.9 percent growth.

Also, we journalists are like birds sitting on a telephone wire: Once one of them takes off, all of them take off. We tend to have a pack mentality, whether we admit it or not.

During my visit, I found widespread skepticism in the local media, and among Mexicans in general, about the sudden international love affair with Mexico.

“After so many years of mediocre economic growth, there is a lingering mood of frustration,” pollster Ulises Beltran, head of the BGC polling firm, told me.

According to Beltran’s latest poll, released in early February, only 46 percent of Mexicans believe the next five years will be better, compared with 56 percent when the previous government started a six-year term in 2006.

People’s confidence has risen somewhat since Peña Nieto took office in December, but 66 percent say Mexico’s economic situation is “regular” or “bad,” the poll shows.

When I asked an audience of about 500 people during a panel in Mexico City last week whether they were optimistic about Mexico’s future, only half of the people raised their hands.

And most political analysts react with a mixture of caution and humor to the upbeat forecasts from abroad.

Commenting about the Financial Times’ Aztec Tiger headline, columnist Sergio Sarmiento of the daily Reforma wrote that “when it comes to metaphors, we have to keep in mind that the tiger is an animal that doesn’t exist in our country.”

My opinion: Mexico is not a “new China,” nor a tiger economy, at least not yet. But there is no doubt that there is a constellation of positive factors working in Mexico’s favor — and we haven’t seen such developments in decades.

The U.S. economic recovery is likely to help Mexico’s exports, a likely U.S. immigration reform may legalize millions of Mexicans who would get better-paying jobs and send billions of extra dollars back home in family remittances, and soaring wages in China are driving growing numbers of multinational manufacturing firms to relocate to Mexico.

Just as important is an unprecedented agreement signed Dec. 2 among Mexico’s three biggest political parties that may lead to much-needed education, energy and telecommunications reforms.

And last week’s passage of a constitutional amendment to allow teachers’ evaluations and other far-reaching education reforms, along with the much-publicized arrest of almighty teachers’ union leader Elba Esther Gordillo, may signal that Peña Nieto is serious about pushing his various reform plans.

But for Mexico’s rise to become a reality, Mexicans will have to start believing it themselves.

So far, the Peña Nieto government has done a great job convincing foreigners that Mexico is on the rise, but it will have to start doing something to help boost Mexicans’ self-esteem at home, as has happened in Peru and Colombia in recent years, in coordination with opposition parties.

If Mexicans are not convinced, Mexico’s moment will not last long.

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

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