65% of the over 50 million Latinos who live and work in the United States are of Mexican origin. But President Barack Obama's embrace of Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, in their meeting this Tuesday, November 27th in Washington, DC is the wrong way for him to appeal to this growing sector of the electorate. Peña Nieto hails from the old guard Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) which ruled the country for 71 years and represents the worst of Mexico's authoritarian past. By cozying up to this new face of reaction in the region, Obama sends a clear message that his Latin America policy will be equally as shortsighted in his second term as it was during his first. It also estranges the millions of Latino voters who were forced to leave Mexico because of the gross economic mismanagement and authoritarian politics of Peña Nieto's predecessors from the PRI.
The July 1st, 2012 Mexican presidential election was a far cry from normal democratic politics. Independent civil society groups reported that at least 28% of the voters were illegally pressured to vote for a particular candidate, 71% of those for Peña Nieto, and the secret ballot was violated in over 20% of the voting booths. The day after the election, mobs of people inundated local supermarkets to cash in on the rebate cards they had been given in exchange for their votes. Television news coverage has for years been strongly biased towards Peña Nieto. Hugo Chávez most definitely received far more criticism from the local media during his most recent presidential campaign than did Peña Nieto during his.
Peña Nieto and the PRI are under investigation by the authorities for possible gross violations of Mexico's strict campaign spending limits. They triangulated enormous amounts of cash to their political operatives by using debit cards issued by little known financial institutions. There is widespread suspicion that a significant portion of these resources were funneled off from government budgets and may have even come from money-laundering operations. Official observers from the European Union have condemned the Mexican electoral authorities for their insufficient efforts to prevent fraud and assure a level playing field. Mexico's Chamber of Deputies has just opened up a special inquiry into the possible use of illegal funds for Peña Nieto's campaign.
Nobody has taken to the streets to celebrate Peña Nieto´s victory or the return of the PRI to the presidency. To the contrary, immediately after the election, tens of thousands of youth protested throughout the country demanding the election be annulled due to overspending, media bias and favoritism from electoral authorities. This December 1st, Peña Nieto will be greeted at his inauguration by thousands of angry protesters.
Polls show that at least 40% of the population is convinced that Peña Nieto's election was not free and fair. In general, Mexican confidence in public institutions and in democracy has plummeted in recent years. Today, independent studies show that only 32% believe that Mexico has "strong institutions" and 47% think it is a democracy, down from 51% and 59%, respectively, only six years ago. According to LatinBarometer, 73% of Mexicans are "dissatisfied" with the functioning of democracy in the country, putting Mexico in a tie with Guatemala for last place in the region.
Peña Nieto only earned 39% of the popular vote and does not have a mandate for change or more honest government. Exit polls show that only 32% of those voters who said they were looking for a "change" and 20% who were looking for more "honest" government voted for him. In addition, academic studies show that the lion's share of the protest vote against the violence caused by President Felipe Calderon's "drug war" did not swing towards the PRI but towards leftist candidate, Andres Manuel López Obrador.
Peña Nieto was most popular among voters in poor rural areas, those who have not studied beyond elementary school and those over the age of 50. Independents, youth, the wealthy and the better educated urban "middle-class" all voted overwhelmingly against the return of the PRI. Access to internet, even while controlling for socioeconomic variables, had a strong negative correlation with votes for Peña Nieto. The President-elect's previous job was Governor of the State of Mexico, where the PRI and its predecessors have ruled for over 80 years without interruption. This is a region where democratic politics and the division of powers have not yet taken hold. Poverty, violence and corruption all worsened during his administration.
Peña Nieto was born in the heartland of Mexican mafia-style politics, Atlacomulco, a region which is home to an entire generation of the most authoritarian and corrupt politicians in the country. The late Carlos Fuentes decried Peña Nieto´s "ignorance" after the politician infamously drew a blank when asked publicly to name his three favorite books.
The new president has already started to translate his worrisome background into dangerous policy. Last week he sent bills to Congress which would eliminate both the federal government's anti-corruption agency and the federal police secretariat. Peña Nieto wants to return to the old days in which both corruption control and law enforcement were under the direct political control of the President. His party has also moved to make space for Peña Nieto's cronies by cutting thousands of top public servants out of the national civil service. These moves would lead to even more profound institutional decay than is already the case. Today, already only 5% of all crimes receive punishment in Mexico and the country consistently fails on all international measures of corruption.
Mexicans are already highly distrustful of Washington. The BBC World Service Country Rating Poll consistently places Mexico at the level of Pakistan and China with regard to citizens low opinion of the "the influence of the United States in the world". Instead of deepening this anti-US sentiment by pandering to Peña Nieto, Obama should take advantage of his second term to put forth a bold new vision of US-Mexico relations. The new approach should involve both actively engaging with civil society and the political opposition in Mexico and supporting immigrants and controlling arms trafficking on the US side of the border. This would simultaneously court latino votes in the next election and help bring peace and development to North America.