U.S. has a stake in Mexico’s fragile democracy

As Mexico’s new president, Felipe Calderón, took office last December, his predecessor’s political epitaph took the form of a joke making the rounds: “Vicente Fox was a great president. He created millions of jobs. Unfortunately, they were all in California.”
In a country where the median age is 25 and 40% of the population lives below the poverty line, it was no surprise that the defining issue in the race was how best to expand economic opportunity for all Mexicans.

The campaign offered Mexican voters starkly different visions of how to address the nation’s chronic maldistribution of wealth.

Calderón, the candidate of the incumbent conservative National Action Party, is a Harvard-educated technocrat. He campaigned on his party’s market-oriented approach that has yielded respectable growth and low inflation, making Mexico more attractive to foreign investors. He offered voters assurances that by staying the economic course, this tide would eventually lift all boats.

His main opponent was Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the popular mayor of Mexico City, who ran as the candidate of a coalition of left-wing parties. López Obrador positioned himself as the champion of those left behind by the Fox administration’s free market policies. A vociferous critic of NAFTA and the free trade movement, he pledged to end the status quo, which he characterized as “a rich government and an impoverished people.”

His message resonated with many Mexicans, and he led by as much as 15 points in polls just 100 days before the election.

Ultimately, however, Calderón and the outgoing president, Fox, were able to use this populist rhetoric against him. In the final weeks of the race, they painted López Obrador as a dangerous ideologue, an autocratic fellow traveler with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who would undo democratic reforms and bankrupt the nation with short-term giveaways.

In the end, amid charges of fraud and denied recount requests reminiscent of the 2000 election in this country, Calderón was elected by a margin of 0.5%.

Unlike Al Gore, however, López Obrador refused to concede, launching a “parallel government” complete with an unofficial inauguration ceremony attended by 100,000 people in Mexico City. He urged continued action against “neo-fascist reactionaries” in the new administration, whom he vowed to “keep on a short leash.”

Whether motivated by a sincere desire to empower Mexico’s poor or a more cynical quest for power, López Obrador’s continuing struggle has seismic implications for Mexico. The polarization reflected in the election, coupled with political violence in recent years in Mexico’s impoverished southern states, should raise alarm bells for policy-makers in Washington.

Some analysts worry that after seven decades of one-party rule that ended just six years ago, Mexico’s fragile democracy is at risk. In a December 2006 report, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington-based think tank, fretted that “the possibility of a new Mexican revolution cannot be ruled out.”

For Americans who associate Mexico primarily with package tours to Cancun, the fate of Mexican democracy may seem of little consequence. However, the aftershocks of a meltdown of Mexico’s political system would quickly be felt in the United States.

The bombings in Mexico City last fall connected to unrest in the state of Oaxaca provide a glimpse of the nightmare scenario if economic inequities are not addressed. A foreign-owned bank was among the buildings hit.

In a larger civil conflict, American assets would almost certainly be targeted, prompting calls for a U.S. response. Border states would likely experience a flood of refugees far in excess of current migration levels. Drug cartels, already a source of horrific violence, would use the political vacuum to expand their activities.

Energy security is another important aspect of the U.S.-Mexican relationship. Mexico provides roughly the same amount of oil to the U.S. as Saudi Arabia, where we take stability very seriously.

Under the Fox administration, Mexico’s government embraced an American-led market-oriented model. The new Calderón government seems poised to continue on this path even as internal pressures for a more populist approach continue to build.

When President Bush visits Mexico next month, his goal should not, as some have suggested, be to set Calderón up as Latin America’s chief defender of global capitalism, a counterweight to Chavez. He should rather seek to understand the legitimate grievances of Mexicans for whom the system is not working and help Calderón bring about a more equitable distribution of wealth and transparent political system.

By promoting economic justice and democracy in Mexico, we enhance our own security. It is an opportunity to lead that we ignore at our peril.

Douglas Savage is assistant director of the Institute of World Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Douglas Savage is assistant director of the Institute of World Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.