The neighbor Americans believe they have to the south, and the Mexico that has developed over the last 20 years, are two different places. As Mexico's incoming president Enrique Pea Nieto meets with President Obama this week, the biggest challenge facing relations today may be our skewed perceptions.
In Americans' psyches, drugs dominate. When advertising firm GSD&M and Vianovo strategic consultants asked Americans to come up with three words that describe Mexico, nearly every other person answered "drugs," followed by "poor" and "unsafe." Other questions reveal Americans see Mexico as corrupt, unstable and violent, more problem than partner. Americans had more favorable views of Greece, El Salvador and Russia.
These perceptions reflect the Mexican reality that dominates headlines: soaring crime rates and gruesome murders in a war against drug traffickers. But this window into Mexico overlooks an economic transformation and deepening ties with the United States that reflect a dramatically different country.
Canada on the Rio Grande
In the past two decades, Mexico has become one of the most open and competitive economies in the world, with trade to GDP (a common measure of openness) reaching 63%, surpassing both the United States and China. This trade is dominated by manufactured goods (not commodities), leading to a stronger and more diverse economic base than many of its emerging economy competitors.
Though the poll found that over half of Americans still see Mexico as a developing country, it is now a middle-class nation. Over the last 15 years, Mexico's middle class has grown to encompass roughly half the population. These families own houses and cars, send their two children (on average) to the best schools they can afford and buy the newest products.
This transformed economy is also now profoundly integrated with the United States. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that imports from Mexico are, on average, 40% "made in America," far more than the 4% in Chinese imports. This back-and-forth of parts and products across the U.S.-Mexico border through the expansion of North American supply chains has been good not just for Mexico but also for the United States, revitalizing companies and supporting the jobs of some 6 million U.S. workers.
Mexicans are us
With all the recent focus on illegal immigration, people forget that there is a lot more linking Americans and Mexicans. In addition to some 5 million legal Mexican immigrants, there are 30 million more Americans who claim Mexican heritage. The Latino political heft, pushing President Obama over the top in many swing states, is largely Mexican.
If there is a silver lining in the poll results, its skewed view stems from the fact Americans do not know much about their neighbor. And we know it. Just as many of us admit we don't know when asked questions about Mexico as venture a positive or negative opinion. That acknowledgment from Americans provides an opportunity for newly elected and re-elected presidents, policymakers and businesses to fill that void with a fuller understanding of Mexican realities and the importance of our nations' growing together.
Shannon O'Neil is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the forthcoming Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead.
(c) Copyright 2012 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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