After enduring months of hostile rhetoric in the U.S. primaries, Mexico has had enough. In a diplomatic and strategic shakeup, officials have announced a new strategy to polish the country’s image abroad. They shouldn't have a hard time finding material, given our broad and fruitful bilateral relationship. But if Mexico really wants to change its image, it needs to start at home.
Americans’ concerns regarding Mexico began long before the current primary season. The recent incidents of bilateral bullying inflame emotions, especially when tied to sensitive domestic issues such as undocumented immigration or border security. Yet Americans’ pervasive perception of Mexico as corrupt, violent, or overridden by cartels also stems in large part from the country’s very real challenges.
This means that if Mexico is serious about improving its image abroad, the first step is recognizing that the problem isn’t just one of public relations but also of content.
There are many places to start, but the easiest and quickest move would be to embrace and strengthen the anti-corruption legislation that is currently languishing in Mexico’s Congress. This legislative bundle is part two of last year’s sweeping anti-corruption reforms, which changed 14 constitutional articles and established the National Anti-Corruption System (to coordinate national, state, and local efforts), among other welcome changes.
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However, this first wave of reforms created the framework and the secondary bills were supposed to put meat on the legislative bones. Now with the end of the most recent congressional session and just days before the legislation’s self-imposed deadline, only five of the seven necessary bills ever appeared on the floor.
Even more disappointing, the citizen-designed Ley 3de3 — which demands that Mexican officials publicly declare three things: wealth, conflicts of interest, and tax records — has also disappeared. In its place is a government-proposed law that would require officials to make the same declarations, but have their full publication be merely optional.
These disappointing results stem from congressional jockeying, a void in political leadership, and a dogged (and somewhat perplexing) focus on the economy at the expense of almost everything else. Even as President Enrique Peña Nieto’s popularity rating has fallen to a low 30 percent — presumably influenced by the ongoing concerns over the country’s rule of law and recent uptick in violence — there has been little deviation in the administration’s strategy and messaging.
It should be no wonder then that Mexico is in a “bad mood,” as Peña Nieto recently remarked. And by this same logic, it’s also no wonder that many Americans (and Mexicans) doubt that Mexico’s government is committed to pushing and implementing any real reforms for the country’s toughest challenges.
Of course, no piece of legislation will be enough to fully tackle Mexico’s rampant corruption or security challenges. Good laws are a requirement, but they are paper tigers without enforcement and funding — areas where Mexico is often found to be lacking.
Take the anti-corruption unit within Mexico’s Attorney General’s office as an example.
In 2015, it had only twelve employees and a $1.5 million budget to root out corruption across a country — an especially Herculean task given that an estimated $100 billion is sliced off the country’s GDP each year from corruption-related activities.
Peña Nieto and the rest of the government should be championing anti-corruption and other rule of law initiatives and reforms first and foremost for Mexicans and their country’s future. Alleviating Americans’ concerns should be nothing but a happy byproduct of these efforts.
Yet without politicians that listen to Mexicans and adjust their priorities as realities evolve, the government is unlikely to project a better image either at home or abroad. And, unfortunately, no public relations campaign will be able to fix that.
Antonio Garza is a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico.