Mexico has changed. Only a decade ago, it seemed that the country’s economy would slide into oblivion as it became increasingly exposed to the pressures of globalisation. Instead, Mexico has embraced globalisation and in doing so, has established itself as a powerful manufacturing economy. Mexico now has free trade agreements with 44 separate nations (twice as many as China and four times as many as Brazil) and has utilised them to great effect. Billions of dollars in foreign investment have poured into the country as companies now see Mexico as a springboard to produce and sell their products to the rest of the Western Hemisphere. The unemployment rate, in spite of recent disruptions, is now holding at 5 percent and the economy as a whole has seen thirteen consecutive quarters of growth. In addition, net migration to the United States slowed to zero in 2010 and has stayed there seeing as economic opportunities at home have improved. In sum, Mexico is now enjoying a stable and increasingly competitive economy that has already outpaced Brazil in terms of GDP growth.
Of course, as far as America is concerned, Mexico is still just their poor neighbour to the south. Indeed, the 2012 presidential election has only highlighted just how divorced from reality America’s perception of Mexico has become. In spite of the fact that Mexico is enjoying a manufacturing boom and is becoming increasingly important to the US economy, America’s politicians continue to discuss Mexico as if it were purely a law enforcement issue. Mr. Obama, whenever he deigns to have an opinion on Mexico, has restricted his rhetoric largely to immigration issues both in terms of deportations and granting a degree of clemency to those who entered the country as children. Mr. Romney has not been any better and has also kept his vision of Mexico narrowed to his own views on immigration. In their foreign policy debate, neither candidate mentioned Mexico as a foreign policy issue, despite both the current drug war and Mexico’s growing economic clout. In short, rhetoric about Mexico has focused almost entirely on immigration and border issues, in spite of recent changes that should have rendered the former point moot and the latter secondary to wider economic concerns.
Much of this can be attributed to a problem of perception. When asked why Mexicans were so despondent about their country compared to the Brazilians, Carlos Slim, the world’s wealthiest man, had only this to say: “It’s simple. They are Brazilians. We are Mexicans.” Mexico is a country that has long been troubled by its own domestic problems as well as foreign interference. Indeed, much of that has often been tied to the domineering influence that the United States has held over the country. From the Mexican American war, which saw the US seize half of the country’s territory, to the more recent migrations of the late 20th century, America has long seen itself as the superior partner in this relationship. This has arguably resulted in a disconnect between the pre-existing perception of Mexico as an immigration problem and the current reality of an economically strengthening country. As time goes on, however, America will need to adjust its perception.
America can no longer afford to pretend that the only important aspect of its relationship with Mexico is how much cheap labour it should allow in this year. That demographic trend has already ended and what is now before the United States is a decidedly more complex situation. Mexico is America’s third largest trading partner, a growing global manufacturing economy, and an increasingly important investor in American business. Instead of the condescending attitude that much of the press and public have traditionally taken towards Mexicans, it will soon become crucial to recognize the importance of American ties to Mexico, the necessity of expanding those ties, and the need to create a healthier political relationship between the two neighbours. The alternative would be to ignore the important economic transition taking place and to continue acting on the delusional worldview of Mexico held by too many American politicians. If these delusions persist, then the future of the American-Mexican relationship is all but guaranteed to deteriorate as the twenty-first century proceeds.