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Mexico's ties to China at a crossroads

A little over a month ago, a broad group of thinkers and academics issued a lengthy paper to President Enrique Pena Nieto that said Mexico-China relations were “extremely tense and distant.”

It cited the “absence of a strategic agenda over the short, medium and long term with respect to China…”

This comes to mind in part because of my story yesterday on the opposition to construction of a huge expo center in the Yucatan, called Dragon Mart Cancun. Groundbreaking is to being on the center, which is to have 3,040 showrooms, next month. China has high hopes for the center, according to this story from the English-language China Daily.

Today, I see suggestions in the press that Pena Nieto will travel to China in the first half of April (link in Spanish). If the trip comes to pass, the Mexican leader will have his work cut out for him.

For one thing, earlier this month Pena Nieto postponed for one year a 25-40 percent reduction in tariffs on Chinese apparel and footwear imports, saying Mexican producers weren’t yet ready to compete.

Chinese President Xi Jinping certainly wouldn’t be happy about this. But Mexico also has its peeves.

As this IPS story from last week noted, China “turned its back” on Mexico’s bid to place its widely respected central bank chief, Agustin Carstens, as head of the International Monetary Fund in 2011.

Then on top of it all is the talk that Mexico is the new China. I wrote here last August about how the two countries were near parity on wages, and how this would mean more industries moving to Mexico.

Then last weekend a compelling column in the New York Times spelled out how one entrepreneur felt it was far better for him to bring manufacturing across the border to Mexico rather than keep it in China.

"The sense of possibility I felt when I first crossed from Hong Kong to Shenzhen in 1997 is what I now feel when I cross from San Diego to Tijuana," Chris Anderson wrote in the article.

This Foreign Policy blog also picked up on the Mexico-China debate.


Mexico's take on US immigration debate

A few moments ago, Mexico's Secretariat of Foreign Relations issued a statement about the intensifying debate in the United States about immigration reform.

This came within hours of President Barack Obama's speech in Las Vegas laying out his vision of immigration reform and a day after a bipartisan group of senators laid out their vision.

Let me know what you think of Mexico's posture on this. Here's the statement:

Mexico's government welcomes the principles that have been raised by U.S. President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators as a basis for a comprehensive reform of the immigration system in the United States. Also we watch with interest the valuable input in recent weeks offered by numerous civil society organizations and economic groups. 

The Government of Mexico recognizes the commitment shown by a growing number of actors in the United States to ensure that legal frameworks in North America reflect the demographics of the region, the complementarities between our economies, the need for a prosperous, competitive, secure and efficient border region, and family ties and shared values ​​between the two societies. The priority of protecting the rights of every individual, regardless of his or her immigration status, has been properly included in the center of this debate. 

Immigration policy is an internal matter of federal jurisdiction in the United States. However, it concerns millions of individuals living in this and other countries. Therefore, the Government of Mexico respectfully continues to promote informed discussion of the many dimensions of this issue to protect the rights of its citizens abroad.


Pena Nieto's first summit


It's possible to read too much in photos from a summit that took place half a world away. President Enrique Pena Nieto attended a summit of Latin and European leaders over the weekend in Santiago, Chile. But I must say, I was struck with the body language seen in some of the photos. Pena Nieto seemed completely at ease with Cuban leader Raul Castro in the photo above. Someone seems to have told a good joke.

BILATERAL MEXICO ARGENTINA 1These photos are handouts from the Mexican presidency.

In contrast, both Pena Nieto and Argentine leader Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner seem very formal and slightly uncomfortable in the handout photo. It's not like they don't know each other. Pena Nieto visited Argentina last fall before taking office as part of a swing through South America. Language is not a barrier for the two.

Language might be the reason why Pena Nieto and German Chancellor Angela Merkel seem rather ho-hum in this photo. Merkel looks like she knows she's meeting one of those Latin American presidents but can't quite place him. 


An appetite for Mexican oil

There’s a lot of interest in Mexico’s state-owned oil giant, Pemex, these days.

It’s getting talked about on the snowy slopes surrounding Davos, Switzerland, where the World Economic Forum is taking place.

The focus is on how Mexico will open up its oil industry to foreign investment, fulfilling a promise of President Enrique Pena Nieto before his inauguration last month. Both Pemex President Emilio Lozoya and Finance Secretary Luis Videgaray have talked about Pemex in public forums in Davos.

Videgaray said an energy reform would occur later this year despite opposition.

"It will not be easy to make but the need is there, the conditions are there and the opportunity is there,” he said, according to this report, noting that the government would “change the legal framework” around oil exploration and production.

Lozoya, for his part, seemed to be playing to the gallery back in Mexico, declaring that Pemex “will remain a public entity and oil resources will remain the property of the nation,” according to a blog on the website of Pena Nieto’s office.

Energy reform, crucial to increasing Mexican oil production, is not easy. It would require approval in both chambers of Congress and by more than half of the state legislatures.

The Eurasia Group consultancy in New York issued a report this morning saying that energy reform is finding opposition across the political spectrum, and won’t come up until “easier” reforms on telecommunications are debated and approved, showing the government can still maintain a consensus with the opposition.

“The fact that Pena Nieto is … delaying major reforms for the second half of the year suggests that approval will be difficult, and that he currently lacks the necessary support. Still, it seems unlikely that he would narrow down the scope of these reforms just for the sake of consensus, as some analysts now fear, having made such explicit promises (especially a constitutional reform on energy) and raised expectations.”


But there is certainly enthusiasm abroad for any possible opening of Pemex, which offered $2 billion of 10-year bonds on the international market this week.

A columnist for El Economista, Marco A. Mares, noted that the issuance was 4.3 times oversubscribed.

“And what do you think happened, my dear reader? The market devoured the paper …” he wrote.


The strange case of Florence Cassez

Mexico France Kidnapp_Nost
A couple of hours ago, Mexico’s Supreme Court accepted an appeal from Florence Cassez, a Frenchwoman, to free her from prison.

Parts of the court hearing were carried live on television, a sign of how the case had become a lightning rod in Mexico. Cassez, 38, spent the past seven years in jail, accused of being part of the Zodiacos kidnapping gang.

The imminent freeing of Cassez enraged those kidnapped by the Zodiacos, and victims’ rights advocates, too. One of the sign-carrying protesters is seen in the AP photo above. The sign reads: “Freedom for soldiers, not for Florence Cassez.”

Mexico France Kidnapp_Nost-1A Milenio television reporter interviewed a former kidnap victim, Ezequiel Elizalde, who was held for 60 days, and he sputtered in anger earlier today.

“I’m a Mexican but this is a rubbish of an institution,” he said of the high court. “In the United States, a kidnapper would get the death sentence.”

Cassez was arrested in 2005 at a ranch outside Mexico City where several abductees were found. Her former boyfriend, a Mexican, was involved in the kidnappings but she denied knowledge.

The investigation into her case was riddled with irregularities leading up to her conviction and subsequent 60-year sentence. It led to a diplomatic crisis between Mexico and France in 2011, when then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy sought to dedicate a "Year of Mexico" cultural event to Cassez. Mexico cancelled the event in anger. I wrote about it at the time.

French Prime Minister Francois Hollande hailed the court ruling: "France thanks all those who, in Mexico as well as here at home, have fought so that truth and justice prevail.”

The case has been an embarrassment to many, including TV journalists who tailed police on what they said was live coverage of the 2005 raid on the gang’s hideout. In fact, it was a re-enactment designed to burnish the image of the police.

"I did not realize that this was a sham,” Carlos Loret de Mola, one of Televisa’s star broadcasters, said this week.

One of the wisest pronouncements today came from Luis Gonzalez Plascencia, head of the capital’s human rights commission.

“We’ll never know if Florence is guilty or innocent,” he said.

Without that knowledge, victims say they have reason to be angry.


A mystery kidney disease and its toll

Across Central America, hundreds of sugar cane workers succumb each year to a mystery kidney disease that leads them to an agonizing death. This is a well-done Associated Press video about the disease that focuses on sick workers in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua. If you drink rum, sip sugary sodas or have candy bars, then you should be concerned about the how sugar cane is harvested. I first learned of this illness from this Center for Public Integrity investigative report. Since it came out a year ago, PBS has also reported on the issue, followed most recently by this AP report. A report in Nephrology Times says mortality from kidney disease increased tenfold between 1984 and 2005 in El Salvador, a sign of how severe this public health epidemic is. The most prevalent hypothesis is that sweltering heat and chronic bouts of dehydration cause the disease, rather than exposure to pesticides. But while this is a strong theory, experts aren't willing to rule out other causes. 


Migration of the Monarchs

If you've never seen footage of the Monarch butterflies filling the skies over the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, it's worth taking a look at this video (it's in Spanish but the images are what counts). Hundreds of millions of butterflies come from Canada and the eastern United States for the winter to the highlands of the states of Michoacan and Mexico. The cluster tightly on pine, oak and oyamel trees, sometimes even causing branches to sag. When they take wing, it can appear like a cloud lifting from the forest. El Universal reports this morning that there is a hitherto unknown nesting area but I can't navigate to the site to find out exactly where it is. 


Getting a buzz off electric taxis

A handful of Nissan electric taxis are now cruising the streets of Mexico City. I haven't actually seen any yet but am eager to ride one once I do. This Al Jazeera report says the meter rate on the taxis begins at about the equivalent of $2 US, so they are equivalent to more expensive taxi stands rather than those that cruise the streets looking for passengers. In any case, if it helps the air quality in my book it is worth the money.

I've never ridden an all-electric vehicle, only a hybrid. I'll report back on the experience.


Violence in Mexico, and the U.S. role

This is a very short video that attempts to explain the levels of violence in Mexico, its impact on the citizenry and the U.S. role in the violence. It notes that despite the high level of deaths in Mexico, the flow of narcotics northward hasn't noticeably declined. I spotted this from a tweet by Univision, the Spanish language broadcaster, that led me to this website, but don't know anything else about the makers of the video, which whether you agree or not is quite well done.


Mexico's new urban 'war correspondents'

Can one remain informed about a global hotspot even when traditional news media shy away from coverage? It’s a compelling question.

In fact, Twitter users in a number of Mexican cities serve as de facto urban war correspondents, according to a report by Microsoft Research.

“People often report, confirm, comment on, and disseminate information and alerts about the violence, typically as it unfolds. For example, the following Twitter message reports the time and location of blasts, along with a list of hashtags or keywords that both label and enable discovery of shared information resources:

“There are reports of blasts on Venustiano Carranza Avenue #Shooting #RiskMty #MtyFollow.”

The report notes that organized crime has threatened news media in various areas of the country, choking off the flow of information even as vulnerable citizens need trustworthy and timely information more than ever.

"Like other armed conflicts, the Mexican Drug War is also a conflict over the control of information," the report says.

So some citizens, acting partially from altruistic motives, as serving as social media “curators,” for lack of a better term, spending up to 15 hours a day posting and reposting information relevant on Twitter, often about roadblocks, gunfights and armed patrols. Through a winnowing process based on their past credibility, some of these Twitter users have huge followings. Some say they feel like they are part of a citizen network on public safety.

“Together, four curators in Monterrey have 115,678 followers, almost three times the followers of the governor @RodrigoMedina (40,822) and almost as many as the most popular news media organization @Telediario (139,919).”

The report quotes one Twitter user with a large following in Monterrey, “Claudia,” as saying: “It’s like if I was a news correspondent on social networks of the war we are living.”

To read the full report, click here, then click on the hyperlink for "The New War Correspondents: The Rise of Civic Media Curation in Urban Warfare."



This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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Read Tim's stories at news.mcclatchy.com.

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