Preparing the West Indies for the Demise of PetroCaribe

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

ariwriter / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

ariwriter / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The English-speaking Caribbean nations – whose heavy dependence on imported diesel and fuel oil to generate electricity has placed them among the most heavily indebted countries in the world (on a per capita basis) – will face massive headaches if PetroCaribe collapses.  They eagerly signed up for the Venezuelan initiative, which sells them petroleum with one- or two-year grace periods and long repayment schedules ranging from 15 to 25 years at 1 or 2 percent interest.  Participating countries can even pay with products or services in lieu of hard currency.  In the case of Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, and the Eastern Caribbean mini-states, PetroCaribe’s financing scheme represents an estimated 4 to 7 percent of their annual GDP.  The worsening economic turmoil in Venezuela, however, raises serious concerns about PetroCaribe’s future.  According to recent media reports, PdVSA, the Venezuelan national petroleum company, is shortening repayment periods and increasing interest rates.

No doubt this is one reason why the Obama administration launched the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative (CESI) in June.  CESI seeks to diversify the Caribbean’s energy matrix away from its current heavy reliance on fossil fuels by using Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) loans and credit guarantees to encourage private sector investment in renewable energy.  It is premised upon the Caribbean’s huge potential to generate energy from the sun, wind, geothermal sources, and maritime currents.  In the past, the principal bottlenecks to harnessing these abundant resources have been hefty startup costs and small populations that make it difficult, if not impossible, for the private sector to recover profits within a reasonable period of time.  Although the initial capital investment for solar- and wind-based technology has dropped considerably in the last few years, it is unrealistic to expect Caribbean nations to make a full switch to renewable energy resources anytime soon.  A more realistic, short- to medium-term alternative is to make greater use of natural gas.  Although still a fossil fuel, gas is more efficient – and therefore the generated electricity is less costly – than fuel oil and diesel.  Moreover, electricity generated from natural gas emits 70 percent as much carbon dioxide as oil, per unit of energy output.

The shale gas boom in the United States generated by innovations in hydraulic fracturing has led to calls to lift restrictions on U.S. natural gas exports to those countries with which it does not have a free trade agreement.  The Caribbean is potentially a major target market of this natural gas in liquefied form (LNG), but this would be a big mistake.  Lifting restrictions on exports will inevitably raise natural gas prices in the U.S., thereby hurting consumers and putting the nascent revival of domestic manufacturing at risk.  It would also require building expensive LNG offloading and regassification facilities in the West Indies, which would run up against the same economies of scale limitations (except in Jamaica and Hispañola) that have undermined a mass transition to renewable energy.  A more realistic alternative is to revive plans to build a natural gas pipeline from Trinidad and Tobago to Barbados, and then up through the Eastern Caribbean.  Proposed back in the early 2000s, it was scuttled with the appearance of PetroCaribe in 2005.  Trinidad and Tobago has ample reserves of natural gas; at one point before the shale gas revolution it was the largest source of imported LNG in the United States.  The pipeline would link islands with populations of under 100,000, where LNG is economically unviable, with the more densely populated French dominions of Guadalupe and Martinique.  It would also help revive the floundering Caribbean Common Market and Community (CARICOM).

* Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.

Prospects for Energy Integration in Latin America

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*
  Embed from Getty Images

South America’s presidents began discussing energy integration years before UNASUR made it one of its central initiatives, but these efforts have been hobbled by differences on what role the private and public sectors should play.  One tangible project that has emerged from UNASUR seeks to interconnect the electricity grids of Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.  While the Colombian, Ecuadorian, and Peruvian grids (as well as that of Venezuela) are already linked, cross-border transmission of electric power is relatively insignificant.

Since the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena in April 2012, the UNASUR project has become part of a wider hemispheric agenda called “Connecting the Americas 2022,” which includes Panama and potentially – once the long-delayed Electrical Interconnection System for the Central American Countries (SIEPAC) becomes fully operational – all of North America.  The idea was promoted by the Colombians as hosts of the last Summit and emerged as one of the key mandates.  It seeks universal access to electricity through enhanced electrical interconnections, power sector investment, renewable energy development, and cooperation.  By focusing on electrical interconnections, the hope is to allow countries with excess power to export electricity to those facing deficits as well as permit greater integration of renewable energy resources and exchanges among countries with varying climate and seasonal needs.  Interconnection also expands the size of markets, creating economies of scale that can attract private sector investment, lower capital costs, and reduce electricity costs for consumers.  A separate initiative focuses on Brazil and the River Plate countries as well as the Caribbean.

A number of unanswered questions about “Connecting the Americas 2022” raise doubts about its viability.  For one thing, including Chile and Bolivia means that huge swaths of relatively empty territory will have to be traversed, which inevitably leads to losses of electrical power transmitted over long distances.  (The Chilean grid itself is not integrated, but divided into three separate systems.)  Furthermore, electricity generation in the Andean countries relies heavily on hydropower sourced from high mountain glaciers that are gradually disappearing as a result of climate change.  If “Connecting the Americas 2022” is to succeed, the regulatory frameworks of each participating nation must also be harmonized to facilitate long-term cooperation and network development.  Nationalistic concerns that have plagued the integrated Central American electricity network since it first came on line in the late 1990s must also be overcome.  The actual amount of electricity traded among the Central American countries has, to date, been minimal and is actually declining, as national governments have been reluctant to permit long-term contracts for the international sale of electricity that might put access to domestic electricity supplies at risk.  Such obstacles must be overcome to fulfill any vision for Latin American energy integration.

*Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and teaches at Stanford University.

What does the New Year hold for Latin America?

We’ve invited AULABLOG’s contributors to share with us a prediction or two for the new year in their areas of expertise.  Here are their predictions.

Photo credit: titoalfredo / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Photo credit: titoalfredo / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

U.S.-Latin America relations will deteriorate further as there will be little movement in Washington on immigration reform, the pace of deportations, narcotics policy, weapons flows, or relations with Cuba.  Steady progress toward consolidating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), however, will catalyze a shared economic agenda with market-oriented governments in Chile, Mexico, Peru and possibly Colombia, depending on how election-year politics affects that country’s trade stance.

– Eric Hershberg

The energy sector will be at the core of the economic and political crises many countries in the Americas will confront in 2014.  Argentina kicked off the New Year with massive blackouts and riots.  Bolivia, the PetroCaribe nations, and potentially even poster child Chile are next.

– Thomas Andrew O’Keefe

Unprecedented success of Mexico’s Peña Nieto passing structural reforms requiring constitutional amendments that eluded three previous administrations spanning 18 years, are encouraging for the country’s prospects of faster growth.  Key for 2014: quality and expediency of secondary implementing legislation and effectiveness in execution of the reforms.

– Manuel Suarez-Mier

Mexico may be leading the way, at least in the short term, with exciting energy sector reforms, which if fully executed, could help bring Mexico’s oil industry into the 21st Century, even if this means discarding, at least partly, some of the rhetorical nationalism which made Mexico’s inefficient and romanticized parastatal oil company – Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) – a symbol of Mexican national pride.  Let’s see if some of the proceeds from the reforms and resulting production boosts can fortify ideals of the Mexican Revolution by generating more social programs to diminish inequality, and getting rid of the bloat and corruption at PEMEX.

– Todd Eisenstadt

Brazil is without a doubt “the country of soccer,” as Brazilians like to say.  If Brazil wins the world cup in June, Dilma will also have an easy win in the presidential elections.  But if it loses, Dilma will have to deal with new protests and accusations of big spending to build soccer fields rather than improving education and health.

– Luciano Melo

Brazilian foreign policy is unlikely to undergo deep changes, although emphasis could shift in some areas.  Brazil will insist on multilateral solutions – accepting, for example, the invitation to participate at a “five-plus-one” meeting on Syria.  The WTO Doha Round will remain a priority.  Foreign policy does not appear likely to be a core issue in the October general elections.  If economic difficulties do not grow, Brazil will continue to upgrade its international role.

– Tullo Vigevani

In U.S.-Cuba relations, expect agreements on Coast Guard search and rescue, direct postal service, oil spill prevention, and – maybe – counternarcotics.  Warming relations could set the stage for releasing Alan Gross (and others?) in exchange for the remaining Cuban Five (soon to be three).  But normalizing relations is not in the cards until Washington exchanges its regime change policy for one of real coexistence.  A handshake does not make for a détente.

– William M. LeoGrande

A decline in the flow of Venezuelan resources to Cuba will impact the island’s economy, but the blow will be cushioned by continued expansion of Brazilian investment and trade and deepened economic ties with countries outside the Americas.

– Eric Hershberg

In a non-election year in Venezuela, President Maduro will begin to incrementally increase the cost of gasoline at the pump, currently the world’s lowest, and devalue the currency – but neither will solve deep economic troubles.  Dialogue with the opposition, a new trend, will endure but experience fits and starts.  The country will not experience a social explosion, and new faces will join Capriles to round out a more diverse opposition leadership.  Barring a crisis requiring cooperation, tensions with the United States will remain high but commerce will be unaffected.

– Michael McCarthy

Colombia’s negotiations with the FARC won’t be resolved by the May 2014 elections, which President Santos will win easily – most likely in the first round.  There will be more interesting things going on in the legislative races.  Former President Uribe will win a seat in the Senate.  Other candidates in his party will win as well – probably not as many as he would like but enough for him to continue being a big headache for the Santos administration.  Colombia’s economy will continue to improve, and the national football team will put up a good fight in the World Cup.

– Elyssa Pachico

Awareness of violence against women will keep increasing.  Unfortunately, the criminalization of abortion or, in other words, forcing pregnancy on women, will still be treated by many policy makers and judges as an issue unrelated to gender violence.

– Macarena Saez

In the North American partnership, NAFTA’s anniversary offers a chance to reflect on the trilateral relationship – leaving behind the campaign rhetoric and looking forward. The leaders will hold a long-delayed summit and offer some small, but positive, measures on education and infrastructure. North America will be at the center of global trade negotiations.

– Tom Long

The debate over immigration reform in Washington will take on the component parts of the Senate’s comprehensive bill. Both parties could pat themselves on the back heading into the mid-term elections by working out a deal, most likely trading enhanced security measures for a more reasonable but still-imposing pathway to citizenship.

– Aaron Bell

The new government in Honduras will try to deepen neoliberal policies, but new political parties, such as LIBRE and PAC, will make the new Congress more deliberative. Low economic growth and deterioration in social conditions will present challenges to governability.

– Hugo Noé Pino

In the northern tier of Central America, despite new incoming presidents in El Salvador and Honduras, impunity and corruption will remain unaddressed.  Guatemala’s timid reform will be the tiny window of hope in the region.  The United States will still appear clueless about the region’s growing governance crisis.

– Héctor Silva

Increased tension will continue in the Dominican Republic in the aftermath of the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision to retroactively strip Dominicans of Haitian descent of citizenship.  The implementation of the ruling in 2014 through repatriation will be met with international pressure for the Dominican government to reverse the ruling.

— Maribel Vásquez

In counternarcotics policy, eyes will turn to Uruguay to see how the experiment with marijuana plays out. Unfortunately, it is too small an experiment to tell us anything. Instead, the focus will become the growing problem of drug consumption in the region.

– Steven Dudley

Eyeing a late-year general election and possible third term, Bolivian President Evo Morales will be in campaign mode throughout 2014.  With no real challengers, Morales will win, but not in a landslide, as he fights with dissenting indigenous groups and trade unionists, a more divisive congress, the U.S., and Brazil.

– Robert Albro

In Ecuador, with stable economic numbers throughout 2014, President Rafael Correa will be on the offensive with his “citizen revolution,” looking to solidify his political movement in local elections, continuing his war on the press, while promoting big new investments in hydroelectric power.

– Robert Albro

Determined to expand Peru’s investment in extractive industries and maintain strong economic growth, President Ollanta Humalla will apply new pressure on opponents of proposed concessions, leading to fits and starts of violent conflict throughout 2014, with the president mostly getting his way.

– Robert Albro

Iran in Latin America: An Exaggerated Threat

By Aaron Bell

Former Presidents Hugo Chavez and Mahmud Ahmadinejad / Photo credit: chavezcandanga / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Former Presidents Hugo Chavez and Mahmud Ahmadinejad / Photo credit: chavezcandanga / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

During his campaign for the U.S. presidency, Republican Mitt Romney referred to Russia as the United States’ number one geopolitical foe, but in the Latin American context he and his fellow conservatives have focused much more on another perceived competitor – Iran. Alongside China and the EU, Russia has indeed taken greater interest in Latin America in the past decade, investing in energy, selling military hardware, and even offering an alternative to Washington’s counternarcotics programs. But Romney and major elements of his party have given more attention to the newer, more enigmatic go-to threat of Iran and its former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The 2012 Republican Party Platform warned that Venezuela had become “an Iranian outpost in the Western Hemisphere,” issuing visas to “thousands of Middle East terrorists” and providing a safe haven to “Hezbollah trainers, operatives, recruiters, and fundraisers.” This past spring, former Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega told a Congressional committee that Hezbollah was working alongside the Sinaloa Cartel to fund and organize terrorist activities. He claimed the organization had infiltrated the Venezuelan government so the Iranian government could launder money through Venezuelan banks to avoid international sanctions.

Relations between Iran and some members of ALBA expanded during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, during which he spent more time in Latin America than either Presidents Bush or Obama. He shared the stage with Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega in denouncing the United States and its policies toward both Iran and the ALBA nations, and he pledged to invest in Venezuela, Bolivia, and other countries. The warmth of that contact gave credibility to rumors that Iran has used elite Quds soldiers and Hezbollah agents to create a web of Latin American agents available for terrorist strikes in the United States.  As required by the Republican-sponsored “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act,” the State Department released a report this summer analyzing Iran’s regional activities. While it expressed concern over Iran’s political and economic links, it concluded that Tehran’s regional commitments had largely gone unfulfilled. Nonetheless, a handful of U.S. Congressmen and the media continue to warn of the looming Iranian threat along what conservative commentators call the “‘soft belly’ of the southern border.”

The Obama Administration has not dismissed entirely the negative impact that a country like Iran can have in Latin America, if nothing else by encouraging political leaders to sustain their anti-U.S. rhetoric campaigns. But the Administration has not subscribed to the right wing’s exaggerations about Iranian activity and indeed is seeking pragmatic agreements with Iran to resolve a series of concerns about its activities, particularly its nuclear program. A handful of members of Congress led by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), former Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have accused the Obama administration of putting politics over national security by failing to challenge Venezuela and other Iranian allies, though the political advantage the president supposedly achieves with such a policy is unclear. Some xenophobic nationalists on cable TV believe the Iranian activities are part of Islamic imperialism, which poses a threat to Western civilization. Others see the threat as being embodied by Barack Hussein Obama, accusing the administration of hyping the Iranian issue as a pretext to justify the expansion of a U.S. military presence in South America. Today’s paranoia about Latin America is different from during the Cold War years, but only in the identity of the villain. Latin America’s role in the new narrative remains unchanged: it exists primarily as a base of operations for foreign enemies of the United States that must be monitored and pressured to ensure U.S. national security. While the rhetoric of ALBA leaders and their efforts to establish friendly relations with regimes like Iran fuel such paranoia, Washington would be wise to respond to actions rather than empty rhetoric. Fortunately, the Obama administration appears to be doing just that.

Replicating the U.S. Shale Gas Revolution in Latin America

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Photo credit: Energy Information Administration / Foter.com / Public domain

World Shale Gas Map / Photo credit: Energy Information Administration / Foter.com / Public domain

The shale gas revolution in the United States promises not only to soon make the country energy self- sufficient but also serve as the catalyst for a major revival of manufacturing.  Similar high hopes have been raised for Latin America, where some of the planet’s largest reserves of shale gas are found.  According to U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates, Argentina is said to have the world’s second largest reserves of technically recoverable shale gas (China is first).  The United States is currently in fourth place, followed by Canada and Mexico.  Brazil is in tenth place, with Chile and Paraguay not far behind.  The possibility that Latin America can pursue a successful shale gas strategy, however, is tempered by a number of important legal and/or geological differences that can serve as important bottlenecks.  In addition, the region’s tumultuous politics often get in the way of implementing policies that boost investment and encourage a highly productive energy sector.

The most important legal difference is that subsoil rights belong to the above ground property owner in the United States, while everywhere else in the Western Hemisphere the government (national, state or provincial) is the owner.  Developers have had an easier time purchasing access to shale gas deposits from individual landowners throughout the United States.  This explains, in great measure, why Canada’s significant shale gas reserves have not been as extensively exploited as in the United States, despite a hydrocarbons regime receptive to private-sector investment.  In addition, environmental protection legislation that impacts the shale gas industry is fractured among Federal, state, and local government authorities in the U.S.  That has facilitated developers extracting waivers and more lenient treatment in the United States that would be harder to obtain in most Latin American nations, where environmental protection is the exclusive or predominant prerogative of the central government.  Furthermore, current technology for extracting natural gas from shale reserves demands huge amounts of water, a resource that is scarce in those regions of Mexico, for example, where most of its extensive shale gas reserves are located.

Political realities are the most crucial (and often overlooked) factor that can easily undermine any effort to develop Latin America’s extensive shale gas reserves.  On paper, Argentina should be a regional energy powerhouse, supplying not only its own energy needs but those of its neighbors. However, the country has for years pursued policies that have scared off private-sector investment, heightened Argentine dependence on foreign energy imports, and led to a steady hemorrhaging of hard currency reserves.  To outsiders these policies appear illogical, but they make perfect sense to Argentine political leaders trying to consolidate their power base.  Mexico is an example of a country constrained by its Constitution from developing its extensive off-shore hydrocarbon resources.  Any political party that tries to make major amendments to those constitutional provisions, however, risks annihilation at the polls.  Brazil’s recent adoption of nationalistic legislation to encourage the domestic manufacturing of hydrocarbon-related technology could well impede exploiting its shale gas reserves if similar mandates are created for the highly specialized and capital-intensive hydrofracking equipment the industry utilizes.  In fact the only Latin American country where the stars seem aligned to repeat the U.S. shale gas success story is investor-friendly, politically-stable, energy-starved, and free-market oriented Chile, whose shale gas reserves are concentrated in the remote, under populated (and very wet) far south of the country that desperately seeks new opportunities to promote local economic development.  

*Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is the President of San Francisco based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and teaches at Stanford University.

ALBA’s Future: Continuity or Break Down?

By Marcela Torres

ALBA Emblem | public domain

ALBA Emblem | public domain

The death of Hugo Chávez last March and the increasingly severe economic dislocations inside Venezuela have raised serious questions about the sustainability of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of the Americas (or ALBA).  Born out of an agreement between the Venezuelan and Cuban governments in 2004, the alliance was intended as a response to the U.S. goal of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), as well as a vehicle for Chávez to project his Bolivarian vision for Latin American solidarity around a socialist project.  The regional bloc won its first symbolic battle at the Fourth Summit of the Americas in 2005, where Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay definitively halted negotiations led by U.S. allies to create a single hemispheric free trade area (excluding Cuba, of course).  Over time, ALBA and its oil-based extension, Petrocaribe, have had a significant impact on economies in the region, providing crucial underpinning for presidents who signed on to Chávez’s vision for ideological or pragmatic reasons.  Among the greatest beneficiaries have been the Castro government in Cuba and the Ortega government in Nicaragua, which have received petroleum in exchange for food, in the case of Nicaragua, and doctors and teachers, in the case of Cuba. Ecuador and Bolivia, along with several states in the greater Caribbean, have also become key players in the ALBA network.

Venezuela’s leadership of ALBA, frequently described as “petro diplomacy,” has repeatedly come under fire from the country’s political opposition and from government critics in other ALBA-friendly nations.  The critiques in Venezuela rarely acknowledge the degree to which petro diplomacy has been a recurring feature of that country’s foreign policy, most notably during the governments of Carlos Andrés Pérez in the 1970s and 1980s.  Critics inside Venezuela and beyond frequently accused Chávez of building dependent clientelistic networks with countries desperate for energy resources. However, ALBA activities have transcended ideological divides, a fact demonstrated by Misión Milagro in Colombia, where Cuban doctors indirectly supported by Venezuela provide medical services in conflict zones.  If Chavez’s oil and charisma initially defined ALBA’s possibilities, the alliance has also fostered economic ties and investments among member countries, independent from Venezuela.

Though the election of Nicolás Maduro as Chávez’s successor might appear to guarantee political continuity, lacking Chávez’s charisma, Maduro might not be able to continue Chávez’s level of oil-fueled investment in ALBA.  Public spending in Venezuela continues to increase dramatically, with the fiscal deficit at 9-12 percent, inflation exceeding 40 percent, and the scarcity of dollars contributing to shortages of basic consumer goods.  To sustain its financial backing for ALBA, Maduro will have to stabilize the economy at home lest he lose the  popular legitimacy — no simple challenge.  Following the Twelfth Presidential Summit of ALBA in July, the presidents of Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua joined Maduro in reaffirming their shared commitment to a socialist project in the region and a desire to maintain the international exchanges initiated by Chávez, suggesting that the alliance will not disappear at least in rhetoric in the medium term.  It is possible, however, that Maduro’s leadership will be challenged.  After the airplane in which Bolivian President Evo Morales was traveling was not allowed to land in France and Portugal this summer,  he proposed creating an ALBA army and convening another anti-imperialist summit.  Recently re-elected Rafael Correa of Ecuador has also hinted he might want to lead ALBA.  Without Venezuelan oil and sweeteners like Petrocaribe, it’s hard to see how ALBA will amount to more than a platform for personalistic agendas.

 

Obama and Peña Nieto: Turning the same page?

By Tom Long
CLALS doctoral research fellow

Official White House photo by Pete Souza | public domain

Official White House photo by Pete Souza | public domain

On Saturday, Mexico’s new president Enrique Peña Nieto took office and the country’s oldest party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, returned to power. After six years dominated by an exhausting and bloody war against drug cartels, Mexico seems ready to turn the page on outgoing President Felipe Calderón. During the last few months, Peña Nieto has tried to steer the attention of the world—and the United States—away from a disproportionate focus on drug violence. In a recent article published in The Economist, the new president downplayed drug cartels, focusing instead on plans for the economy and to “recover our leadership in Latin America.” Security was just one of thirteen proposals in his inaugural speech. In part, Calderón has given Peña Nieto a head start as he begins his term, leaving behind strong economic growth and a dip in violence. Although Calderón himself started the switch to a violence-reduction strategy, his name is likely to remain closely associated with the frontal military assault on the cartels launched at the beginning of his administration and recalibrated only in his final year; Peña Nieto is positioned to gain credit for a return to normalcy.

This desire to turn the page also marked Peña Nieto’s s pre-inaugural meeting with President Barack Obama. Both leaders seemed to be playing the same tune.  Mexico has become the front line in the war on drugs, and the U.S. has spent billions on military, police, and other projects lumped under a “Merida Initiative” label. After their meeting, Obama and Peña Nieto promised to expand the bilateral agenda to include an expansion of trade, cooperation on energy, and discussions of immigration that go beyond border fences. Obama spoke effusively of Mexico’s importance as a partner, while Peña Nieto said the two had a “shared vision” of how to create jobs in both countries. On the stage with Obama as elsewhere, Peña Nieto reiterated calls for the United States and Canada to build on NAFTA and further regional integration to improve competitiveness.

It would be a healthy change if the two presidents could restore balance between economic and security aspects of U.S.-Mexico relations. Image matters – and the deterioration of Mexico’s brand has undermined both investment and tourism. The military approach to drug trafficking has inflicted enormous costs in economic and human terms with questionable payoffs, but Mexico cannot go back to old patterns of accommodation. Domestically, the new president needs to attack the culture of impunity by building a stronger and more independent judiciary in order to reduce the frightful percentages of crimes that are never investigated or prosecuted. Accountability remains weak, especially at state and local levels; improving it would require Peña Nieto to take on powers in his own party. Placing all these objectives under a “Merida plus” framework would counterproductively squeeze broad reforms into the drug-war box. If the two presidents are sincere about rebuilding a balanced partnership, they need to take action quickly on immigration and commerce. Otherwise, the gravitational pull of the war of drugs will again consume bilateral ties.