Mexico’s New Boom: Why the World Should Tone Down the Hype

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Henry Romero / Reuters

Pilgrims hold images of the Virgin of Guadalupe outside Basilica's square before attending a mass during a pilgrimage to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City February 21, 2013.

I couldn’t be happier that Mexico’s economy is rebounding. After barely 2% average annual growth between 2000 and 2010, the country’s GDP expanded almost 4% in 2011 and 2012. Investment is booming and the middle class is enlarging. Mexico’s manufacturing exports lead Latin America, and its trade as a share of GDP tops China’s. Its No. 53 spot on the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business rankings far outshines the No. 126 grade of its main regional rival, Brazil; it has signed more free trade agreements (44) than any other country, and it’s enrolling more engineering students than any south of the Rio Grande. As I noted a year ago, it’s a trend well worth applauding.

But I emphasize: it’s a trend. It’s not the miracle, the economic version of the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe, that so many Mexico cheerleaders from government officials to foreign investors to embassy diplomats are insisting we call it. Yes, good news from Mexico is more than welcome after a decade overshadowed by horrific narco-violence; a more positive conversation about the country is a relief. But no matter how loudly the enthusiasts scold the media for dwelling on Mexico’s mayhem, the cartel killing hasn’t stopped, and many of the socio-economic ills that help breed the brutality persist. The media didn’t just make up the 60,000 gangland murders of the past seven years, or the relentless massacres and beheadings, or reports like the one released last week by Human Rights Watch about the 27,000 Mexicans who have disappeared during the drug war.

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So as someone who has covered the country for almost 25 years, I tend to be wary when I see the blood-soaked headlines yielding all of a sudden to rose-colored banners hailing Mexico as “the Aztec Tiger” or “the New China.” Or when eminent columnists like the New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman rather hastily assert that Mexico will become a “more dominant economic power in the 21st century” than China. To his credit, Friedman points out that “crime syndicates, government corruption and weak rule of law hobble the nation.” But I worry about the emergence of an overweening boosterism that forgets what happened two decades ago—when belief in another Mexican miracle helped lead to one of the worst financial disasters in the country’s history.

This latest episode of It’s Always Sunny in Mexico evokes a familiar pattern. Because Mexico is attached to our southern border, it’s the only Latin American country that Washington and Wall Street feel they actually have to engage. Even so, they engage it grudgingly, and they get irritated when the media focus on its dysfunction—as was the case in the 1980s, Mexico’s Lost Decade of epic debt crisis. After Harvard-educated President Carlos Salinas de Gortari took office in 1988 and called for capitalist reforms that included a North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, word came down to us Mexico-based journalists from U.S. officials and business executives: All is transformed south of the border. Get with the program.

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Salinas and his Armani-clad technocrats sold that bogus Mexican Miracle of overnight development remarkably well. So effectively, in fact, that few in the U.S. took notice when Mexico’s Potemkin façade, cracked by an indigenous uprising and a spate of political assassinations, started collapsing in 1994, culminating in a calamitous peso crash that required a $50 billion U.S. bailout. So forgive some of us if, almost 20 years later, we’re a bit reluctant to declare another fast-track Mexican Miracle and set aside our concerns about Mexico’s lingering dysfunction. Not just the mafia bloodletting, but the nagging failure to modernize a corrupt and incompetent judicial system. Not just the social inequality, which is still too vast, but the shameless business monopolies that exacerbate it by choking off competition and inflating prices.

And we’re sorry if a lot of the new Mexican Miracle math doesn’t add up for us, either. The World Bank says 95% of Mexicans today are either in the middle or upper class. Really? Last I saw, Mexico’s official poverty rate was 45%. No wonder Mexicans themselves tend to chuckle when they hear these claims, as Puerto Vallarta construction worker Efraín Sánchez did last spring when I suggested that, according to World Economic Forum leaders visiting his city, he should consider himself part of the middle class. “Mexico’s definition of ‘middle class,’” I was told by Sánchez, 35, who was putting off marriage because he feared he still couldn’t afford a family, “is exaggerated these days.”

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Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer heard much the same skepticism in Mexico recently. In his March 2 column, “Everybody Is Upbeat on Mexico—Except Mexicans,” Oppenheimer cites a new survey by the Mexico City polling firm BGC that finds 66% of Mexicans feel their country’s economic situation is either “regular” or “bad.” “If Mexicans are not convinced,” he concludes, “Mexico’s moment will not last long.”

Oppenheimer also points out that much of the It’s-Morning-Again-In-Mexico wave is a Newtonian consequence of the It’s-Twilight-Now-In-Brazil consensus—the feeling that it’s time to knock the South American giant down a notch after a 2000s boom that made it the world’s sixth largest economy. Brazil is indeed faltering; its growth came in under 1% last year, and it has its own glaring structural flaws yet to fix, from lame infrastructure to onerous taxes. But Boom Brazil won global kudos in large part because it started tackling many of the core development challenges that Mexico keeps avoiding, such as steering credit and capital not to monopolies but to small- and medium-sized businesses that employ most of the workforce.

Brazil, at least under President Dilma Rousseff, likewise looks more serious about battling corruption. Mexico’s new President, Enrique Peña Nieto, sought to signal his own anti-graft bona fides last week when his government arrested the head of Mexico’s quasi-omnipotent teachers union, Elba Esther Gordillo, for allegedly embezzling some $200 million. It certainly adds to Mexico’s positive trend. But it hardly constitutes a miracle.

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