As the Mexican economy takes off, new president Enrique Pena-Nieto has a shot at redemption
Sleek and telegenic, Mexico’s Enrique Pena-Nieto was sworn in as president for a six-year term on Saturday. It’s been five long months since Mr Pena-Nieto won the presidential elections amid allegations of fraud and protests. Critics describe him as a pretty face lacking substance; supporters say he’s the Mexican Kennedy while female fans have named him “the hunk of hunks”. But Mr Pena-Nieto is no fool; he’s managed to take Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party to the front line of politics after 12 years of exile and he’s surrounded himself with highly educated, ambitious aides.
Mr Pena-Nieto, 46, enters the presidential residency of Los Pinos at a time of growing enthusiasm and expectation in Mexico following a decade of disappointing economic growth- the Mexican economy was badly hit by the global financial crisis in 2008; largely due to its over-reliance on U.S. domestic demand, which accounted for approximately 80 percent of its exports. Mexico’s gross domestic product shrank by 6.3 percent in 2009- the sharpest decline in two decades- losing ground to Brazil as Latin America’s largest economy and the darling of investors.
But Mexico is riding a wave of optimism. Over the next decade, the Mexican economy is set to grow at an average annual rate of 3.5 to 4.5 percent, overtaking Brazil as the biggest economy in Latin America by 2022, bolstered by foreign direct investment and structural reforms according to Asia-based bank Nomura.
Mr Pena-Nieto has set a six percent annual growth target by 2018; he’s vowed to boost Mexico’s large but underachieving economy by opening up the energy industry to private investment- in particular, Petroleos Mexicanos “PEMEX”, the state-owned oil monopoly. Mr Pena-Nieto wants PEMEX to resemble Brazil’s Petrobras, which opened itself to private investment in 1997, but remains tight-lipped about the details behind the overhaul, except that PEMEX won’t be fully privatised.
Last week, Mr Pena-Nieto met President Barack Obama in Washington and pledged to rekindle Mexico’s ties with the USA on common issues such as immigration, security and trade. Historically, the US has played the role of the rich and powerful neighbour towards Mexico and former president Vicente Fox (2000-2006) was often criticised for being overly submissive to the Bush administration.
But the tables are turning: Mexico’s economy is growing faster than that of the US (3.9 percent vs. 1.7 percent in 2011); the number of Mexicans living in the states illegally has gone down to 6.1 million people from a peak of nearly seven million in 2007, according to the Pew Hispanic Center- and given the increase of China’s manufacturing costs and the US demand for labour-intensive products, “Hecho en Mexico” could replace “Made in China”.
This is a huge opportunity for both countries and Mr Pena-Nieto should capitalise on it by making Mexico more productive and competitive while narrowing the social class gap in a country that is home to the world’s wealthiest man -telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim- but also 52 million people who live in poverty.
Mr Pena-Nieto, who opposes the legalisation of hard drugs, wants a stronger economic to be the best weapon in Mexico’s drug war. The crusade against organised crime has resulted in more than 60,000 deaths since it was launched by former president Felipe Calderon in 2006. Violence among gangs has taken a brutal turn since Los Zetas went to war against the Sinaloa cartel led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman – Mexico’s most notorious drug lord and the country’s 10th richest man with a net worth of one billion dollars according to Forbes magazine. So far, the war on drugs has failed to stop terror, kidnapping and extortion- so it is no surprise that Mexicans are growing tired of it.
In a country where the principles of democracy have often been bruised by corruption and fraud, Mr Pena-Nieto said he wants his administration to be “efficient, honest, transparent and accountable”. However his victory was eclipsed by allegations of vote-rigging after runner-up Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador “AMLO” asked for a recount and accused Mr Pena-Nieto’s party of luring voters with gift cards in exchange for their support. Following a partial recount, Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute confirmed Mr Pena-Nieto’s victory with 38.2 percent of the vote compared to 31.6 percent for Mr Lopez-Obrador, who refused to recognise Mr Pena-Nieto as the legitimate winner in spite of the recount results.
Opponents have also criticised the relation between Mr Pena-Nieto and Grupo Televisa-Mexico’s number one TV station and the world’s largest Spanish-language broadcaster known for its tear-filled telenovelas (soap operas). Mr Pena-Nieto, once named Mexico’s most desirable bachelor and now married to Televisa’s soap opera star Angelica Rivera, has been accused of paying for favourable coverage since 2005. At that time, Mr Pena-Nieto served as governor of the state of Mexico and used Televisa celebrities to star in a series of TV commercials showcasing his administration’s success in improving roads, schools and hospitals.
Televisa has defended its coverage of the presidential campaign against allegations of biased reporting and unfair treatment to other candidates. The Spanish news giant also denied reports made by The Guardian and has made legal complaints over its reporting, stating that Mr Pena-Nieto may have paid for favourable coverage as part of a marketing campaign orchestrated by Televisa in the run-up to the elections. Instead, the broadcaster said it grilled Mr Pena-Nieto on issues like the anti-Pena protests and the PRI’s infamous legacy of corruption and quasi-authoritarism; and showed some of Mr Pena-Nieto’s gaffes ranging from not being able to name three books that influenced him to forgetting what his first wife died of.
Mr Pena-Nieto has inherited a different Mexico from the one his old party of dinosaurs-as the PRI is known-ruled for more than 70 years with an iron hand. Mexicans want a real democracy backed by a growing middle-class and a young generation of voters that is sick of corruption and dirty tricks. This should keep Mr Pena-Nieto in check.
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