President Barack Obama has just left Mexico City after a little less than 24 hours in the city. He spoke publicly on two occasions and held two private sessions with President Enrique Pena Nieto, including a working dinner Thursday night.
In his public remarks, Obama was quite effusive about changes here, describing a “new Mexico,” one that “has lifted millions from poverty” and with a “courageous press” and “robust civil society.”
A “majority of Mexicans now call themselves middle class,” Obama said Friday morning at the National Museum of Anthropology. Here’s the text of the prepared speech although he departed from text several times.
The visit certainly pleased the Pena Nieto government, which is eager to change the tone of US-Mexico relations away from an emphasis on public security and fighting crime into what Pena Nieto called “a multi-thematic” relationship that embraces trade and other issues as well.
Pena Nieto wants to get crime off the front pages, and Obama certainly offered a vote of confidence in his still-ill-defined strategy of prioritizing a reduction in violence over the busting up of drug cartels and the capture of their leaders.
As Adam Thomson of the Financial Times noted, the Obama visit was successful in broadening the bilateral agenda:
Peña Nieto, who has wowed international investors thanks to his apparent determination to push through an ambitious economic reform agenda, wants to promote trade and investment as the two guiding missions of his country’s relationship with its northern neighbor.
Mexico-US trade is already about $1.4bn a day – almost US$1m a minute for the nerds out there – but there is little doubt that it could grow significantly in the coming years. Thursday’s announcement of a joint working group to be populated by Mexican cabinet secretaries and their US counterparts was a clear step in the direction of refocusing the agenda.
But some of the coverage was far more skeptical about what Obama said and the reality of life in Mexico. Here’s an excerpt from the Los Angeles Times story that moved this morning after Obama’s speech at the museum:
Obama described a Mexico that many Mexicans do not recognize. He praised a growing middle class when, in fact, economists say the middle class in Mexico has been stagnant for years, and violence has hurt the pocketbooks of many of those who barely emerged from poverty.
Obama lauded a courageous press that holds authorities accountable, when in fact violence and intimidation has silenced most newspapers outside of Mexico City; they do not report on drug trafficking and other issues because of threats or bribes from criminals or local authorities.
His discourse, however, fits in with efforts by both Washington and the Pena Nieto administration to change the image of Mexico, regardless of the facts on the ground.
The Proceso newsweekly magazine was even harsher. It’s story (here in Spanish) said Obama hailed Mexico for lifting millions from poverty “without providing any evidence.”
This gets into tricky terrain because there is no “go to” source. Rather Mexican government agencies even disagree among themselves, and the United Nations and World Bank take sharply different tacks.
First off, Mexico’s population is about 113 million people. According to the Social Development Secretariat, 13 million of them live in “extreme poverty.” Coneval, the agency that measures poverty, said in 2011 that 52 million Mexicans live in poverty.
A U.N. agency, the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean, says 40.8 million Mexicans live in poverty while another 14.9 million are indigent (see page 14 of this study which expresses percentages rather than numbers).
Measuring the middle class is less easy, and the World Bank is the one that has touted its expansion in Mexico, saying that 17 percent of the population joined the middle class between 2000 and 2010. It describes middle class as people who make between $10 and $50 per day, so it places the bar low, too low in my opinion. Can someone making $300 a month in Mexico be considered middle class? If so, then maybe Obama wasn’t offering “happy talk” on Mexico. I’m not so sure myself.
A couple of months ago, Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald noted in a column that everybody is upbeat on Mexico – except Mexicans themselves. That jibes with my experience as well. So maybe what Obama said was meant more as a pep talk than as a description of reality on the ground.