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: Mexico’s Presidential Election Results: What do they mean for the United States?
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Mexico’s Presidential Election Results: What do they mean for the United States?

Political Reform and Poverty Top U.S. Concerns

12:00 - 1:30 PM EDT

The close and contentious results of Mexico’s recent presidential election should help cast a spotlight on the importance of the United States’ relationship with its southern neighbor. The Americas Project at the Center for American Progress convened a panel of experts to discuss its impact and implications for U.S.-Mexico relations.

Jorge Castañeda, former Foreign Minister of Mexico, gave the keynote address that sparked a lively exchange. Panelists included Arturo Valenzuela, Director of the Center for Latin American Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and James R. Jones, Co-Chairman of ManattJones Global Strategies and former Ambassador to Mexico. Joining them were Joy Olson, Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America, and Armando Guzmán, Washington bureau chief for TV Azteca. Dan Restrepo, head of The Americas Project at the Center, moderated the exchange.

Castañeda began by addressing the results of the election. “I don’t think there is any doubt,” he said, “nor should there be any doubt, that [Felipe] Calderón won,” an assessment echoed by the other panelists. He pointed to the already twice recounted votes and the strength of Mexico’s electoral system as reasons for considering the election results final. Valenzuela supported that assessment, calling Mexico’s electoral system “one of the best in the world.” 

Castañeda used the controversy surrounding the election, particularly the protests of second-place candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to make a case for a fundamental change in Mexico’s political system. The other panelists supported him in his analysis. “The problem,” he said, “is not the size of the mandate. The problem is the nature of the institutions.” He pointed out the inherent tensions in a non-parliamentary system that has three parties, as well as the difficulties of a weak president working with a divisive legislature that has little institutional incentive to cooperate with the executive branch. Castañeda also observed the absence of a run-off system, which would help immensely in building national consensus in the face of such a split election. Most importantly, he emphasized that the outcomes of the official electoral system must be respected because building the rule of law is critical for Mexico’s future.

Overhauling Mexico’s democratic institutions is important, Castañeda said, because without a better governance structure the crucial questions facing the country cannot begin to be answered effectively. Like the others on the panel, he said that poverty is the most pressing issue facing Mexico, but in the current system potential solutions are lost in a swirl of political infighting. “It’s not enough to do it with just good intentions,” Castañeda said. “The country cannot be governed under these circumstances.”

For the short term Castañeda said that, “Calderón’s victory will mean a great deal of continuity with U.S. relations.” For the long term, as the other panelists emphasized, the lessons for the U.S. to take away from the election point to a broader shift in U.S.-Mexican relations.

“The U.S. has vital interests with Mexico,” said Valenzuela, as evidenced by its status as the second largest trade partner and oil supplier. This election was the most recent step in what he called Mexico’s “complex and difficult transition” from a rural economy to an industrial power. Yet despite these forces at work, Valenzuela said, “We don’t think about Mexico strategically.” Rather than a comprehensive framework with Mexican stability and growth as a foundation, the U.S. tends to engage Mexico haphazardly over particular domestic and economic issues.

To that end, the panelists called for U.S. strategic interest in an improved, functional Mexico. Olson pointed out that the election controversy and López Obrador’s strong showing, along with elections in other Latin American countries, illustrate “incredibly divided societies” and the need for “hearing the voices of the people.” Poverty, it was agreed, should be a strategic priority for the U.S. because it is at the root of so many other issues, including immigration, trade, and political stability.

U.S. leadership in regional growth was emphasized by Jones. “Canada and the U.S. have a big obligation,” he said, “to have a serious development fund” that would be tied to needed political reforms. Observing that too many people in Mexico have not seen tangible benefits from free markets and democracy, many of whom voted for López Obrador, he said that “a system of hope has to be built in” if those economic and political institutions are going to succeed.

Political leadership and increased awareness are necessary to remaking U.S.-Mexico relations. Right now, as Guzman observed, “You don’t hear about Mexico at all,” except in regards to immigration issues. As the election reminded us, however, a broader and more comprehensive approach is needed for the U.S. to develop a strong and productive partnership with its neighbor.



Note: All video provided in QuickTime (MPEG-4) format.


Jorge Castañeda is the former Foreign Minister of Mexico and a renowned public intellectual, political scientist, and prolific writer, with an interest in Latin American politics, comparative politics and U.S.-Latin American relations. Born in Mexico City in 1953, Dr. Castañeda received a B.A. from Princeton University and a B A. from Universite de Paris-I (Pantheon-Sorbonne) an M.A. from Ecole Pratique de Hautes Etudes, Paris I, and his Ph.D in the History of Economics from the University of Paris. He has taught at Mexico's National Autonomous University (UNAM) Princeton, Berkeley, and (since 1997) at NYU, where he is a Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Among his many books are Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War (Knopf, 1993), The Mexican Shock (New Press, 1995), Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara (Knopf, 1997), and Perpetuating Power: How Mexican Presidents Were Chosen (New Press, 2000). Dr. Castañeda is a regular columnist for the Mexican daily Reforma, The Los Angeles Times, and Newsweek International. Dr. Castañeda's work as Foreign Minister (appointed by President Vicente Fox in 2000) focused on diverse issues in U.S.-Mexican relations including migration, trade, security, and narcotics control; joint diplomatic initiatives on the part of Latin American nations; and the promotion of Mexican economic and trade relations globally.

Arturo Valenzuela is Professor of Government and Director of the Center for Latin American Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He has been a Visiting Scholar at Oxford University, the University of Sussex, the University of Florence, the University of Chile and the Catholic University of Chile and a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. During Bill Clinton's second term in office, Dr. Valenzuela served at the White House as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. In that role he advised the President and the National Security Adviser on foreign, defense, intelligence, economic and other policy issues concerning the Western Hemisphere, managed the formulation and implementation of multilateral and bilateral foreign policy initiatives in the Americas. As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs in the first Clinton Administration, his responsibilities included global issues (democracy, environment, human rights, migration and refugees) for the Americas and the formulation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy toward Mexico. He is fluent in English, French and Spanish.

James R. Jones is Co-Chairman of ManattJones Global Strategies, where his practice focuses on international trade, investment and commerce, business-government relations and financial services. Ambassador Jones currently provides business development advice and consulting for clients primarily in Mexico and Latin America. Prior to joining Manatt, Ambassador Jones served as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico from 1993 to 1997, demonstrating leadership during the Mexican peso crisis and the passage and implementation of NAFTA, developing new, cooperative efforts to combat drug trafficking, and assisting U.S. businesses with commercial ventures. As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Oklahoma (1973-1987), he was Chairman of the House Budget Committee and ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, where he was active in tax, international trade, Social Security and healthcare policy. Ambassador Jones was only 28 years old when President Lyndon Johnson selected him as Appointments Secretary, the position presently titled Chief of Staff. He was the youngest person in history to hold this position. Ambassador Jones also is a partner with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP.

Joy Olson is the Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a 30-year-old non-governmental organization that uses research, education and advocacy to promote human rights and social justice in Latin America and in U.S. policy toward the region. Prior to moving to WOLA, Joy was the Director of the Latin America Working Group, a coalition of 60 non-governmental organizations that work together to promote a more peaceful, just and humane U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America. Joy has performed numerous consultancies that included research and writing, advocacy and workshops for a variety of organizations including the MacArthur Foundation, Amnesty International USA, the Academy of Educational Development, Creative Associates International and the Lutheran Office on Government Affairs. Joy has also lived, worked, and studied in Central America and Mexico. She earned and M.A. in Latin American Studies from the National Autonomous University of Mexico and worked for two years in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, as a community development worker.

Armando Guzmán is the bureau chief of TV Azteca and Azteca America in Washington, D.C., a post he has held since 2004. Born in Puebla, Mexico, Armando studied in Quebec, Canada, and received a BS in business administration and post graduate studies from the University of San Francisco. Since the mid 1980s he has been the lead correspondent  reporting on every major news story from Washington, first with Univision and later for TV Azteca. Guzmán is recognized with great credibility in Mexico and Latin America, where he has become the most trusted and popular Latino news personality covering the U.S. capital. Guzmán has interviewed the last four U.S. presidents and vice presidents, as well as figures throughout the hemisphere and the world. During 10 years as senior anchor and producer of “Temas y Debates,” a weekly political program similar in format to “Meet the Press,” Guzmán has interviewed many American political figures and heads of state. He has won numerous awards and recognitions in the United States and Mexico, including being a member of the Univision team that in 1996 won the prestigious Edward R. Murrow award, presented for the first time that year to an American Spanish-language television network.

Dan Restrepo is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Center for American Progress and the Director of The Americas Project. In his role, Dan is responsible for the Center's work related to the United States and its place in and relationship with the rest of the Americas.

The Americas Project at the Center for American Progress is focused on the United States' relationship with and place in the Americas. The United States is in the midst of dramatic changes that will profoundly affect its future and are manifest both in the rapid growth of its Latino population and the ever-increasing interconnections with its neighbors throughout the Americas. Through rigorous research and open collaboration, The Americas Project seeks to more fully explore and understand those changes, the relationships among them, and their implications for progressive policy abroad and at home. The America Project endeavors to formulate innovative policy recommendations to address those changing realities and, through active engagement of all forms of media, effectively communicate its proposals to a wide range of audiences