When U.S. President Barack Obama travels to Mexico this Thursday for his first summit with new President Enrique Peña Nieto, he's going to hear a lot about the country's uptick in international portfolio investment, its recent discovery of vast new petroleum reserves, and its new political grand bargain, called the "Pact for Mexico," in which the leaders of the three largest political parties have gone behind closed doors to hammer out deals on tax, education, energy, banking and telecom reform, among other areas.
But instead of giving priority to the interests of Wall Street and of Mexico's discredited political class, Obama should turn his gaze to Main Street and listen to the voices of the Mexican people on both sides of the Rio Grande. Otherwise, he risks committing the United States to a highly risky political game run by Latin American cronies that could soon end in disaster, with an impact that could be felt across North America.
According to the hype, Peña Nieto has already transformed the political landscape in Mexico after only four months in office. Time magazine has named him one of its "100 Most Influential People in the World," claiming that he "combines Reagan's charisma with Obama's intellect and Clinton's political skills." The Financial Times raves that with the death of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Peña Nieto may now take up the torch of Latin American leadership and revive the "Washington Consensus" that predominated in the region during the 1980s and called for drastic restrictions in social spending and the implementation of "trickle-down" neoliberal economic policies. The Washington Post editorial board suggests that "Washington should be cheering Mexico's gridlock busting -- and taking it as an example." Meanwhile, Thomas Friedman, of the New York Times, has called Mexico the "Comeback Kid" and Shannon O´Neil argues in Foreign Affairs that Mexico has now "made it."
Such exaggerations have no basis in reality. Even after months of an expensive, high-profile media blitz, Peña Nieto has begun his administration with the lowest public approval rating of any Mexican president over the last two decades. Only 50 percent of Mexicans approve of his presidency today, much less than the 70 percent who supported the first non-PRI president, Vicente Fox, at the beginning of his term, according to Reforma newspaper. Peña Nieto's approval rating is even lower than that for presidents Ernesto Zedillo and Felipe Calderón at the disastrous crisis-ridden beginnings of their terms, according to the same source.
A recent poll also shows increased public skepticism in Peña Nieto's, "Pact for Mexico," Today, only 21 percent of the population believes that this pact will benefit them while 31 percent are convinced that it will harm them. This same independent poll reveals that the majority of the population perceives the agreement to be in the interests principally of the political parties and big business. Only 35 percent think that the country as a whole will benefit.
It is important to remember that Peña Nieto only received 38.2 percent of the vote in the 2012 presidential elections and that the voting base of his party (Party of the Institutional Revolution-PRI) is principally located in the poorest, least educated, and most isolated rural sectors of the population. All of the most "modern" and "middle class" sectors of the population voted overwhelmingly against bringing the PRI and its pretty-boy candidate back to power, according to independent exit polls and demographic surveys. For instance, the only time Peña Nieto dared to hold a campaign event with college students during last year's presidential race, he was aggressively run off the campus amid shouts that he was an "assassin" and a "thief."
Peña Nieto's strategy has been to compensate for this weakness in public support by co-opting the old political opposition and turning his back on his critics in society. But this approach has recently come up against a brick wall.
For instance, in their haste to demonstrate quick legislative results, the politicians forgot to consult with civil society before pushing through a controversial education reform at lightning speed last December. As a result, today thousands of teachers are on strike throughout Mexico's poorest southern states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Michoacán in protest against a reform which they correctly claim threatens to drastically reduce job security, introduce excessive standardized testing, entrench inequality between schools in wealthy and poor areas, and privatize public education. In the state of Guerrero, local citizen militias, parents, and youth groups have even joined with the teachers in a broad-based coalition against Peña Nieto's broader neoliberal economic agenda.
Indeed, the Pact for Mexico itself may soon entirely break apart. A new scandal involving the use of Peña Nieto's federal social programs to purchase votes has led the two leading opposition parties, PAN from the right and PRD from the left, to threaten abandoning the pact altogether unless the president takes action against his own top officials. This will be an important test of political will for Peña Nieto to see whether he is able to prioritize accountability over political expediency.
Meanwhile, Peña Nieto has continued with the time-old tradition of using the justice system as an arm of political control. He has jailed a significant political adversary, Elba Esther Gordillo, a leader of the teacher´s union well known for her corrupt and illegal practices. But he has simultaneously freed Jesús Angeles, an army general who had links to Peña Nieto´s presidential campaign but was jailed on corruption charges by Calderón shortly before the 2012 elections.