U.S.-Mexico Trade: The Numbers and the Real Issues

By Robert A. Blecker*

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Two maquiladoras in Tijuana, Mexico. The low percentage of Mexican value-added in Mexico’s exports is a key reason why the country has not gotten nearly as much employment growth as it hoped for when it joined NAFTA. / Anthony Albright / Flickr / Creative Commons

Officials in the Trump administration are proposing a new way of measuring the U.S.-Mexican trade deficit that, by making the deficit look larger than it currently appears, will likely be spun to support efforts to impose high tariffs or dismantle NAFTA.  According to press reports, the President’s senior advisors, including the head of his new trade council, Peter Navarro, are proposing to include only “domestic exports” (exports of U.S.-produced goods) in calculating bilateral trade balances with Mexico and other countries.  This would exclude “re-exports” – goods that are imported into the United States from other countries (such as Canada or China) and transshipped into Mexico – which are currently counted in total U.S. exports.

  • In spite of its political motivation, the proposed new accounting would render a more accurate measure of U.S. exports. In fact, it would make the U.S. deficit with Mexico look closer to what Mexico reports as its surplus with the U.S.  For 2016, the U.S. reports a deficit of $63.2 billion with Mexico, while Mexico reports almost twice as big a surplus of $123.1 billion with the U.S.  If the U.S. excluded re-exports, its trade deficit with Mexico for 2016 would be $115.4 billion, which is much closer to the Mexican number.

Nonetheless, this recalculation fails to correct for another bias, which makes the U.S. deficit with Mexico look artificially large.  Imports are measured by the total value of the goods when they enter the country, from the immediate country of origin.  But in today’s global supply chains only part of the value-added in imported goods comes from any one country.  A television, for example, can be assembled in Mexico with components imported from Korea and other East Asian nations.  As a result, the reported U.S. imports from Mexico (especially of manufactured goods) greatly exaggerate the Mexican content of those goods.  Although data limitations do not permit an exact calculation of the Mexican content of U.S. imports from Mexico, it is likely relatively low.  (My own estimates suggest it is on the order of about 30-40 percent for manufactured goods).  Indeed, the low percentage of Mexican value-added in Mexico’s exports is a key reason why the country has not gotten nearly as much employment growth as it hoped for when it joined NAFTA.

The Trump Administration’s aggressive rhetoric and action on other issues related to Mexico, including immigration and the wall, suggest a political motivation for the proposal to adopt a new measure of exports, regardless of its merits.  But the real problem is not the “correct” number for the U.S.-Mexican trade deficit; it is why NAFTA has not lived up to its promise of supporting high-value added exports and high-wage job creation in both countries.  This promise was based on the idea that the United States would export capital and intermediate goods to Mexico for assembly into consumer goods, which would then be exported back to the United States.  But especially since China joined the WTO in 2001, Mexico has increasingly become a platform for assembling mostly Asian inputs into goods for export to the United States (and secondarily Canada).  Even if “re-exports” are excluded, Mexico remains the second largest export market for the United States (after Canada) – and U.S. exports to Mexico are 65 percent greater than U.S. exports to China.  Focusing too much on measuring the U.S.-Mexico trade imbalance only distracts attention from the need to reform NAFTA so as to encourage more of the “links” in global supply chains to be produced in North America generally.  If the Trump administration is serious about making the U.S. more competitive vis-à-vis China, it should think about viewing Mexico as a partner instead of as an enemy.  In the larger context of Trump’s many objectionable policies on migration and in other areas, a long-overdue correction of U.S. export statistics is not worth getting upset over.  The real issue is whether Trump’s trade policies – with Mexico and beyond – will bring the promised gains to U.S. workers, or will further enrich corporate billionaires and Wall Street tycoons.

February 23, 2017

* Robert A. Blecker is a Professor of Economics at American University.

U.S.-Mexico Tensions: Harbinger for Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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The U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana and San Diego. / Tomas Castelazo / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

U.S. President Donald Trump’s unilateral actions on Mexico last week have precipitated the most serious crisis in bilateral relations in decades and threaten to further undermine U.S. image and interests throughout Latin America.  During last year’s campaign, in the face of Trump’s characterization of Mexicans as rapists and drug-traffickers and repeated pledges that he’d make Mexico “pay for the Great Wall,” President Enrique Peña Nieto adopted a strategy of patience and positive engagement.  He paid dearly in political terms for meeting with Trump in August – a misjudgment that worsened his already declining popular approval – but he continued to try to stay on the high road after the election.

  • Peña Nieto resurrected former Finance Minister Luis Videgaray, the architect of the Trump meeting last August, as Foreign Minister, and he replaced his ambassador in Washington with one having deep experience with NAFTA and a reputation for calm negotiation, in response to Trump’s repeated demand for a renegotiation of the 1994 accord. As opponents across the political spectrum egged him on to reciprocate Trump’s belligerent tone and strident U.S. nationalism, Peña Nieto – like all Mexican presidents for the past 25 years – tried hard to suppress the anti-Americanism that has lingered beneath the surface of Mexican politics even while the two neighbors have become increasingly integrated economically, demographically, and in governance.  Even after Trump’s first barbs following inauguration on January 20, Peña Nieto emphasized his preference for calm dialogue – “neither confrontation, nor submission.”  He declared that Mexico doesn’t want walls but bridges, and accepted the American’s demand to renegotiate NAFTA, although with a “constructive vision” that enables both sides to “win,” with “creativity and new, pragmatic solutions.”

Preparations for the summit meeting, scheduled for this week, crashed when Trump – without coordinating with his Mexican counterpart or the appropriate U.S. government agencies – issued executive orders putatively aimed at tightening control of the border.  One directed an immediate increase in efforts to deport undocumented Mexicans, and the other launched the “immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border.”  Trump initially abided by an informal agreement with the Mexicans not to repeat his harangue that he was going to make Mexico pay for the wall, but on January 26 he tweeted that “If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.”  His press spokesman followed up with a suggestion that Washington could impose a 20 percent tariff on imports from Mexico to cover the costs of construction, after which Peña Nieto, facing a firestorm at home, postponed the meeting.  The two presidents talked on the phone for an hour the following day and reportedly agreed to let things calm down, although the two sides presented different versions of the chat.

The speed of the trainwreck – in Trump’s first week in office – and the depth of the damage his unilateralism has done to bilateral relations have alarmed many in Mexico and the United States, including Republicans who worked hard to build the relationship.  (Only the Administration’s stunning decrees regarding immigration from other parts of the world have overshadowed the mess.)  Mexico is, of course, not without leverage and, as Trump stirs up long-repressed Mexican nationalism, Peña Nieto – whose popular support was recently in the garbage bin – is going to have to talk tough (at least) and could have to retaliate.  He could impose tariffs on the billions of dollars of Mexican exports that Americans have grown accustomed to having at low prices.  Mexico could also opt to diminish cooperation in counternarcotics and other law enforcement efforts, or to cease blocking Central American migrants seeking to reach the U.S. border – interests that the impulsive Trump policy team doesn’t seem to have considered.

Coming on the heels of Trump’s executive order totally withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the new president is presenting the image of a U.S. leader whose harsh policies and arrogant style serve neither the United States nor Latin America’s interests.  Having appointed as White House National Security Council Senior Director for Latin America a political scientist whose writings draw bizarrely on analytic approaches that have been rejected in the discipline for more than 30 years, and whose recent articles lament the Obama administration’s abandonment of the Monroe Doctrine, the region’s leaders will rightly conclude that Washington is voluntarily abdicating any plausible case for leading multilateral cooperation around common interests.  The United States and Latin America are inextricably linked, however, and a policy based on stale assumptions of big power unilateralism ultimately will run into insurmountable obstacles: however ignorant Trump and his team are proving themselves to be, we live in the real world of the 21st century, in which imperialist, mercantilist fantasy will be treated with the disdain that it deserves.

January 31, 2017

What Will Trump Do About NAFTA?

By Malcolm Fairbrother*

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U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and the flag of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). / Flickr and Wikimedia / Creative Commons / Modified

Despite his campaign rhetoric repeatedly attacking the North American Free Trade Agreement, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump probably won’t touch it, except in superficial ways.  He has called NAFTA the “worst trade deal ever,” and promised to pull the U.S. out unless Mexico and Canada agree to renegotiate it.  Last week, he suggested renegotiation of NAFTA will include provisions for Mexico to repay the U.S. government for the wall he wants to build along the border.

Dismantling or even significantly rewriting the accord is unlikely for a couple reasons:

  • First, the billionaires, chief executives, and friends he is choosing for his cabinet are hardly people inclined to dismantle an agreement whose contents largely reflect what American business wanted from the U.S.-Mexico relationship when NAFTA was being negotiated in the early 1990s. Corporate preferences weighed heavily against any big deviation from the status quo after the last political transition in Washington, in 2008.  Barack Obama too said that “NAFTA was a mistake,” though his criticisms were a little different.  He railed against lobbyists’ disproportionate influence over trade policy, and promised big changes to international trade agreements, including better protections for workers and the environment.  Even so, he didn’t touch NAFTA, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) he negotiated included – like NAFTA – shady provisions for investor-state dispute settlement.
  • It would be near-impossible, or least massively expensive, to get what Trump seems to want most: a big drop in imports from Mexico. In his eyes this would make NAFTA a better deal for America, though of course serious economists disagree.  Realistically, reopening the agreement would be very messy, and if he tried to throw up massive new trade barriers business leaders would strongly object.  NAFTA could include some additional measures to make it easier for goods and/or people to get around among the NAFTA countries, but that’s not what Trump has promised.

His economic nationalism makes the Republican Party establishment squirm, but it’s clear it also helped Trump win several Midwestern states, tipping the electoral college in his favor.  Insofar as agreements like NAFTA entrench rules friendly to business, and generate market efficiencies and economies whose benefits accumulate in the hands of the few, voter hostility is no mystery.  But economics is only part of the reason.  The bigger issue is what the backlash against globalization – embodied also by Brexit and the rise of neo-nationalist parties in Europe – means more broadly.  The average Democratic voter has a lower income than the average Republican voter, but Democrats are more supportive of trade agreements because they are more internationalist, more open to other cultures, younger, more educated, and more urban.  Throughout his presidency, Trump will therefore be squeezed between his working class rhetoric – appealing to the distrustful – and his business class milieu.  He is an extreme case of the politicians’ mercantilist thinking on trade, wherein exports are good and imports are bad, and “trade deals” like NAFTA are somehow like deals in the business world, where it’s possible to out-negotiate someone.  The reality is that this thinking – which flies in the face of basic economics – doesn’t point to any clear course of action.  This is why Trump won’t actually do much about NAFTA.

January 10, 2017

* Malcolm Fairbrother is social science researcher and teacher/mentor in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol (UK).  This article is adapted from a recent blog post for the American Sociological Association.

Does Trade Incentivize Educational Achievement?

By Raymundo Miguel Campos Vázquez, Luis-Felipe López-Calva, and Nora Lustig*

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A student walks around Preparatoria Vasconcelos Tecate. / Gabriel Flores Romero / Flickr / Creative Commons

Mexico’s experience with free trade has challenged one of the tenets of faith economists know well from reading early in their careers David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation: that “the pursuit of individual advantage is admirably connected with the universal good of the whole” and that “[trade] distributes labor most effectively and most economically.”  Under this principle, “wine shall be made in France and Portugal; corn shall be grown in America and Poland; and hardware and other goods shall be manufactured in England.”  Mexico reminds us that while these benefits exist in the abstract, there are trade-offs to be faced—that there are, potentially, social and individual costs induced by trade liberalization.

In a recently published paper entitled “Endogenous Skill Acquisition and Export Manufacturing in Mexico,” MIT economics professor David Atkin shows the ways in which individual people experience trade and how it affects their decision-making – sometimes in ways that may not necessarily be socially desirable.  It analyzes a time period (1986-2000) during which Mexico underwent major economic transformations, including a rapid process of trade liberalization after 1989 and the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.  Analyzing data for more than 2,300 municipalities in the country, the paper tells us that young Mexicans at the time faced a very basic decision: to stay in school and continue studying or to drop out and look for a job (among the many being created in the export-oriented manufacturing sector), most of which did not require more than a high school education.  Atkin found that, on average, for every 25 new jobs created in the manufacturing sector, one student would drop out after 9th grade.  (The World Development Report 2008 on Agriculture for Development had raised the question about “missing” individuals in this age group, but in relation to migration.)

  • While trade brought positive effects including a higher demand for low skilled workers and an eventual increase in their wages – consistent with David Ricardo’s basic notion – Atkin concluded that in Mexico it had the socially undesirable effect of preventing, or slowing down, the accumulation of human capital. The reduction in human capital investment is a trade-off which can have negative effects on the economy as a whole.
  • Factors other than free trade might explain this effect. First, young students may drop out if the returns to schooling are not high enough to compensate for the additional investment.  Second, a lack of access to credit and insurance for relatively poorer households might make it impossible for aspiring students to finance their investment and obtain higher returns by continuing to tertiary education or to cope with shocks and avoid abandoning school.  Finally, the result could be driven by a lack of availability of information about actual returns to investment in education, which could lead to myopic decision-making.

The movement of capital toward locations with lower labor costs is an expected, and intended, result of an agreement such as NAFTA, pursuing higher export competitiveness at the regional level.  David Ricardo would have said that TVs and automobiles shall be made in Mexico, while software shall be made in Silicon Valley.  What completes the story, however, is that because of distortions like the ones mentioned above – low educational quality, under-developed credit markets, or weak information that skews decision-making – free trade might lead to socially undesirable consequences.  And it did in the case of Mexico, as Atkin convincingly shows in his paper.  It seems that when Ricardo gets to the tropics, the world gets more complex.

November 7, 2016

* Raymundo Miguel Campos Vázquez teaches at the Centro de Estudios Económicos at el Colegio de México, and is currently conducting research at the University of California, Berkeley.  Luis-Felipe López-Calva is Lead Economist and Co-Director of the World Development Report 2017 on Governance and the Law.  Nora Lustig is Professor of Latin American Economics at Tulane University.

What does “Canada is back” mean in the Americas?

By Stephen Baranyi*

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Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the “Tres Amigos Summit” in Ottawa, June 2016. / Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau and his cabinet ministers’ statements following their election in October 2015 that “Canada is back” reflect a global strategy that is likely to give a boost to Canada-Latin America relations.  Canada never “left” the Americas during the decade of Conservative governments led by Prime Minister Harper, but the new administration is patching up its predecessors’ mixed record.  Building on the Americas Strategy launched in 2007, Ottawa signed new bilateral free trade agreements with Colombia, Peru and others; broadened its engagement in regional security affairs; and greatly increased its whole-of-government engagement in Haiti.  Canada played a major role at the Summit of the Americas in Panama (April 2015) and hosted the Pan American Games (July 2015).  Yet the revelation of Canada’s espionage in Brazil, visa restrictions on Mexicans, the poor reputation of some Canadian mining firms in the region, and its inability to reach a trade agreement with the Caribbean Community fed a growing desencanto in Canada’s relations with the region.

Through mandate letters issued to ministers in late 2015, the Trudeau government made clear that the Americas would remain an important priority, despite renewed emphasis on Asia and Africa, and that inclusive growth, the responsible governance of Canadian extractive activities abroad, and women’s and indigenous peoples’ rights would get emphasis in the region.  In June, Canada hosted the “Tres Amigos Summit” with NAFTA partners United States and Mexico.  Ottawa also announced that by December, Mexican citizens would no longer need visas to enter Canada, removing a big irritant in Canada-Mexico relations.  The government reaffirmed its partnership with Colombia by indicating its desire to make bilateral free trade more inclusive and announcing projects to support the implementation of peace accords.

  • Ottawa has opportunities for deeper involvement in these countries. In Mexico, Canadian interests will be served through a better balance between pursuing economic opportunities in sectors like petroleum and supporting Mexicans struggling to strengthen rule of law in a system compromised by corruption.  Colombia also requires a sophisticated whole-of-Canada engagement strategy, particularly since the failure of its referendum on the peace accords on Sunday.  Ottawa has signaled interest in continuing to support the rule of law and broader development in Haiti, but Trudeau’s ability to justify large expenditures there will depend on the completion of legitimate elections by February 2017.

Ottawa’s appointment of a new Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) and commitment to revitalizing it as “the premier multilateral organization of the Americas” points to broader engagement on a regional level.  The Trudeau administration could join the Latin American and Caribbean trend on drug policy by decriminalizing the sale of marijuana at home and supporting reforms to OAS and UN counterdrug programs.  Assisting the implementation of the UN Small Arms Treaty, which Ottawa is poised to ratify, could also contribute to rule of law and security in the Americas.  Canada will also find many partners (from Chile to Costa Rica) to promote gender equality.  With regard to First Nations, Ottawa may be tempted to focus on funding new aid projects; yet Canada’s credibility will remain suspect until it ratifies the American Convention on Human Rights and ensures that all Canadian mining firms respect the rights of indigenous communities to free and prior informed consent in large-scale extractive activities.  The Trudeau government will probably monitor the multi-dimensional crisis in Venezuela, the situation in Brazil, and other challenges in the region – over which it probably lacks the leverage to make a significant difference but can lend moral authority to solutions.  Given its clear commitment to a global, rather than regional, strategy, the current administration is wise to carefully select entry points on which its thematic priorities align with opportunities in particular countries.

October 5, 2016

* Stephen Baranyi is an Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of International Development and Global Studies.  He also chairs the Latin America and Caribbean Group (LACG) of the Canadian International Council.  The author acknowledges his LACG colleagues’ input into this blog, while taking responsibility for its limitations.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership: Early Reactions Mixed

By Luciano Melo*

Photo Credit: Bob Nichols, U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Bob Nichols (U.S. Department of Agriculture) / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreed to on October 5 is drawing both praise and criticism, but approval by legislatures in some signatory nations – particularly the United States – is not a foregone conclusion.  Negotiators representing the 12 Pacific-rim countries involved – including Mexico, Chile, and Peru – hailed the agreement as historic.  It is a far-reaching agreement that will expand countries’ access to a combined market that represents about 40 percent of global GDP, with 800 million consumers.  It seeks to reduce tariffs – including 18,000 on U.S. goods alone – and lower non-tariff trade barriers as well.  The negotiators claim the accord also creates a fair compromise framework for protecting intellectual property rights; adopts the strongest-ever labor and environmental protections; and in a novel feature, establishes assistance for small- and medium-sized businesses to navigate the complex regulations and red tape involved in trade.  Communist Vietnam is a party to the agreement.

Reactions in Latin America have been mixed:

  • El Comercio (Peru) wrote that the TPP will help companies to establish better partnerships with the U.S. and Canada, and to create value chains in which Peru will buy commodities from one country, process them, and sell the resulting product to another. How that long-sought and developmentally imperative objective would be achieved through TPP remains vague, however.
  • El Financiero (Mexico) similarly portrayed the agreement as a means to increase production and foster the specialization of economies. Other Mexican commentators, however, reminded readers that NAFTA and other agreements have not brought the expected results; previous accords have undoubtedly boosted Mexican integration into global and regional manufacturing networks but have actually hurt the agricultural sector – accelerating decades-long migration from the countryside to cities and to the U.S.
  • Mexican and Chilean experts on the pharmaceutical industry, along with Australian and Asian counterparts, claim that TPP provisions on intellectual property will hinder the generic medications sector. They are concerned the accord will allow large U.S. multinationals to expand into markets with products that cannot be replicated for extended periods time.  Chile had negotiated aggressively against Washington’s efforts to transplant its laws providing 12-year monopolies to manufacturers of biologic drugs – compromising on a five‑year period extendable under some conditions to eight.  The Fundacion Equidad Chile warned that the agreement could cost its health sector about $540 million year more due to such provisions.

Details of the agreement will be made public in coming weeks.  While criticism of the secrecy surrounding the accord will naturally fade, substantive debate on its provisions will almost certainly increase amid expensive campaigns by policy advocates on both sides pointing out flaws both real and imagined.  But opposition seems relatively weak in the three signatory countries in Latin America, and ratification there appears likely.  Chile has long been the region’s champion of free trade, and Mexican technocrats appear convinced that trade is key to the country’s eventual graduation to high-income status.  With the commodity boom waning, Peru is counting on TPP to open avenues into a broader array of industries.  In the U.S., however, the path seems rockier.  Congress gave Obama “fast-track” authority, which will allow him to submit the agreement to an up or down vote without congressional amendments that would rip it apart, but criticism of TPP persists.  Some argue that it strengthens ties with Asian countries with bad records in environment, human rights, and labor laws.  An odd twist to the domestic landscape came from presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton, who added her voice to the opposition – putting her on the same side, albeit for different reasons, with Republican opponents who have called TPP a “bad deal.”  President Obama will have to work hard to sell this new trade agreement to Capitol Hill and the nation. 

October 14, 2015

* Luciano Melo is a PhD candidate at American University’s School of Public Affairs specializing in comparative politics.

Mexico and NAFTA: Lessons Learned?

By Robert A. Blecker*

Photo credit: Alex Rubystone / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Photo credit: Alex Rubystone / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Twenty years after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, it is clear that the promises made by Mexican President Carlos Salinas and U.S. President Bill Clinton – that the accord would make Mexico “a first-world country” and halt the migration of Mexican workers to the United States – have not been fulfilled.  In Salinas’s famous words, Mexico would “export goods, not people.”  But the number of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States rose by a conservatively estimated 3 to 4 million during the first two decades of NAFTA, and millions more were apprehended at the border and deported.  The reasons why immigration flows accelerated post-NAFTA are not hard to discern.

  • NAFTA fostered integration of Mexican industries into global supply chains targeted at the U.S. market, accelerating Mexico’s transformation into a major exporter of manufactured goods.  Nearly one million manufacturing jobs were created there in the first seven years of NAFTA (1994-2000).  But this job growth was offset by similar job losses in agriculture, and manufacturing employment has fallen by about a half million since 2001.  The net increase in manufacturing employment from 1993 to 2013 was only about 400,000, less than half of the annual growth in the Mexican labor force.
  • Real hourly earnings in Mexican manufacturing were no higher in 2013 than in 1994, and Mexico’s per capita income has stagnated relative to that of the United States.  In 2012, typical Mexican manufacturing workers received only 16 percent as much per hour as their U.S. counterparts, down from 18 percent in 1994.  Even adjusted for the lower cost of living, workers without a college degree in Mexico still earn only about one-quarter to one-third of what they can earn by moving to the United States.

The benefits of NAFTA for Mexico have been attenuated by several factors.  First, Mexican export industries still largely follow the maquiladora model of doing assembly work using imported inputs, so their value-added is only a fraction of the gross value of their exports and they have few “backward linkages” to the domestic economy.  Second, the Mexican government has frequently allowed the peso to become overvalued, making Mexico less competitive and driving multinational firms to locate in other countries.  Third, the tremendous penetration of Chinese imports into all of North America (Canada, Mexico and U.S.), especially since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, has displaced significant amounts of actual or potential Mexican exports.  A revaluation of China’s currency, rising Chinese wages and increasing global transportation costs have recently led to some “reshoring” of manufacturing to Mexico, but employment in Mexican export industries has grown only modestly as a result.

The increased integration of North American industries through NAFTA has proved to be a mixed blessing for Mexico.  U.S. booms have helped Mexico grow, but only for temporary periods, and being dependent on the U.S. market has held Mexico back since the U.S. financial crisis of 2008-2009 and the ensuing “Great Recession” and sluggish recovery.  Of course, NAFTA is but one of Mexico’s constraints.  The country’s restrictive monetary and fiscal policies, frequent currency overvaluation, monopolization of key domestic markets and inadequate investments in physical and human capital have also held it back.  The Mexican economy still suffers from a profound dualism, in which only about one-fifth of all non-agricultural, private-sector workers are employed in large, highly productive firms, while the vast majority are employed in small- or medium-sized enterprises with low, stagnant or even falling productivity.  Mexico’s experience under NAFTA certainly argues against portrayals of international trade agreements, such as the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, as panaceas for the economic ills of Mexico or any other country.  Whatever one thinks of the “reform” agenda of President Enrique Peña Nieto – which is focused on areas such as energy, education, and telecommunications – these reforms are unlikely to help Mexico break out of its slow growth trap if the foundations of the country’s trade and macroeconomic policies remain untouched.

*Dr. Blecker is a professor of economics at American 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

Mexico: Peña Nieto’s big push

By CLALS Staff

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

President Peña Nieto’s reformist agenda wins kudos from the business and financial class, but both a recalcitrant leftist opposition and mass organizations previously aligned with his party are taking to the streets in protest – raising serious doubts about its prospects.  In his first state of the nation speech, delivered last week, Peña Nieto pledged to plow ahead with “transformational” reforms, giving flesh to the PRI’s slogan that it is Transformando a México. In education, he’s proposed a more rigorous system for hiring, evaluating, promoting and firing teachers who have resisted change despite evidence that the current system is not equipping Mexican youth for employment.  In the energy sector, he wants to open up the oil and gas industry to foreign investment, an idea that was strictly off-limits in the past even though lagging investment has caused production in Mexico’s leading export industry to decline steadily.  He is also pursuing tax reforms that, although watered down when announced on Sunday, entail political risk and, tellingly, raise marginal rates by 2 percent for higher earners and impose a levy on capital gains.  In June, he picked a fight with powerful business leaders over control of the country’s telecommunications industry, an oligopolistic structure that imposes excess costs on consumers and producers alike, diminishing Mexico’s economic competitiveness.

The teachers unions, whose symbiosis with the PRI in the past ensured cooperation, mobilized huge protests in Mexico City, forcing Peña Nieto to delay his speech by a day and then causing monstrous traffic jams during it.  The President cloaked his announcement of the energy reform in nationalistic rhetoric, and PEMEX, the oil company, followed it up with predictions of positive results – huge increases in oil investment and production that purportedly would help to create 500,000 new oil-sector jobs by 2018 and 2.5 million by 2025. But opposition to the reform has been strident, and tens of thousands filled the Zócalo on Sunday to protest it as a “covert privatization.”  Opposition leaders are already pledging demonstrations to oppose taxes, though the likelihood of this may be diminished because the long rumored reform unexpectedly left untouched the value-added tax exemption for food and medicines, which would have been a major rallying point for the Left.

Some Mexican commentators say Peña Nieto’s leadership is already losing its shine and that his Pacto por México, the loose coalition he engineered in Congress, is at risk of falling apart.  He prevailed in his congressional showdown over the long overdue education reforms, but success in transforming the underperforming education sector appears uncertain, as the teachers are threatening more protests.  The arrest of narco bosses from the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas have not given him a bounce on the security front; indeed, Mexican press reports indicate that kidnapping, extortion and other crimes that more directly affect citizens’ lives continue to rise. Further complicating Peña Nieto’s life is news last month that the economy is slowing down.  The first contraction in four years has forced the government to cut its 2013 GDP growth forecast in half, to 1.8 percent.  The administration will undoubtedly point to data showing that PEMEX production has fallen by about a quarter in the past decade because of low investment, and will emphasize that this makes modernization of the oil sector all the more imperative.  But Mexicans have heard promises before, during NAFTA debates and since, that economic reforms and greater openness to trade and investment will massively improve their lives.  Whether there is any fuel left in that rhetorical tank remains to be seen.

Will tensions over security spoil the Obama-Peña Nieto Summit?

By Tom Long

Military in D.F. Photo credit: ·júbilo·haku· / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Military in D.F. Photo credit: ·júbilo·haku· / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

The meeting in December between recently re-elected President Barack Obama and President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto was marked by cordiality and a desire to talk about anything but the often grisly drug-related violence in Mexico during the previous six years.  Since then, Peña Nieto has continued the changed emphasis, aided by headlines pivoting to positive stories.  Mexico has been recently hailed for its economic growth, particularly in export-oriented manufacturing, and for a series of political compromises that The Washington Post favorably compared with the U.S. Congressional stalemate.  Despite optimistic claims from the government, Mexican media reports indicate that drug-related violence continues at nearly the same pace as last year.  (Click here for a summary and analysis by our colleagues at InSight Crime.)  Moreover, pressure is growing on questions of human rights violations committed in the name of the war on drugs.  When Presidents Peña Nieto and Obama meet again in early May, holding back a renewed focus on security is likely to be a challenge.

Peña Nieto’s political incentives do not point to the same, high-profile cooperation with the United States that occurred under President Felipe Calderón, who had already begun shifting priorities last year.  Despite the major turnaround signified by the PRI’s signing NAFTA almost 20 years ago, Peña Nieto’s PRI still contains elements more skeptical of U.S. “intervention” than Calderón’s PAN.  Materially, moreover, most of the U.S. aid planned under the Mérida Initiative has been disbursed, and Congress exhibits little appetite for major new appropriations.  (Even at its height, U.S. spending was a fraction of Mexico’s contribution to the drug war.)  That reduction, coupled with growing awareness that the Calderón strategy actually fueled violence, diminishes the enthusiasm in and outside of government for continuing his policies.   Frustration from the left in both countries regarding persisting human rights violations and the slow pace of judicial reform could also grow more serious.

While these problems may be causing tensions between U.S. and Mexican police and military at the operational level, they seem to be manageable so far – and both Presidents are likely to emphasize intelligence-sharing and similar bilateral cooperation that does not require resources.  Upper echelons of the Obama administration seem to understand that Peña Nieto’s push to de-emphasize security and promise to focus on violence reduction over drug interdiction is politically necessary.  But the moral argument has not changed:  Mexicans suffer the violent consequences spawned by U.S. drug use and counterdrug policies.  Weapons sold on the U.S. side of the border continue to flow into Mexico, an issue now atop the U.S. political agenda for entirely domestic reasons.  If the two countries can manage to keep security problems at a lower decibel, they will better cooperate on issues that are just as vital but could pay larger dividends — immigration, transboundary energy, educational exchange, and infrastructure.