NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. President Barack Obama travels to Mexico City today to preach co-responsibility, a very different message from the finger-pointing and fist-shaking that often accompanies communications across the Rio Grande.
Americans frequently blame Mexico for exports of drugs and illegal immigrants, which is true enough, but just as frequently overlook its status as our second-largest trading partner and second largest supplier of oil. Mexico is corrupt and impoverished, wracked by drug violence, all real serious problems, but experts say often exaggerated.
Today we want to talk with those of you with personal or business relationships with Mexico. What is your relationship with our southern neighbor like? How does it fit perceptions?
Our phone number 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, we'll talk about inter-generational strains of the financial crisis, as more and more parents find they can no longer support adult children the way they did. Ask Amy's Amy Dickinson will join us.
But first, changing relations with Mexico. We begin with Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy magazine, on the phone with us from his hotel room in Rio de Janeiro. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. MOISES NAIM (Editor, Foreign Policy): Hi, Neal. Thank you.
CONAN: And every U.S. presidency begins with promises of a new beginning with Mexico. Is this one going to be different?
Mr. NAIM: Probably, and essentially driven by the fact of Mexico's exploding in violence, and violence is spilling over into the United States. So it's going to be very hard to ignore Mexico.
CONAN: It's going to be hard to ignore Mexico, yet the problems that people focus on, you mentioned the violence. Obviously immigration is a major focus and has been for many years, yet there are also trade relationship that are extremely important.
Mr. NAIM: Very important. Mexico and the United States trade a billion dollars a month, I'm sorry, a day, $367 billion per year. That means that there are millions of Americans and Mexicans whose livelihoods depend on this trade relationship. It's very important.
CONAN: And one of the exports from the United States to Mexico recently has been a financial crisis, which has really caused major problems south of the border.
Mr. NAIM: In fact, not only to Mexico but to the world, but Mexico suffers especially because it's very integrated with the U.S. economy and also because a lot of Mexicans that work in the United States send money back to their families, and very often those Mexicans live in areas of the United States very hard hit by the slowdown in construction, for example. And their unemployment hits directly into what Mexican, a lot of Mexican families have to put on the table for dinner.
CONAN: We've also seen sharply reduced numbers of immigrants coming across the border, illegals. At that point, is that a result of better enforcement on the border? Is that the result of the financial crisis in the United States and fewer jobs?
Mr. NAIM: It's too soon to tell. It probably is a combination of all these factors. It remains to be seen what happens in the future. There's no doubt that there's more attention to the border and the fact also that there are less jobs, that the job situation in the United States is not as good as it was in the last decade.
CONAN: Secretary of State Clinton, I think a lot of people noticed last week, said the United States and Mexico have to take equal responsibility for the violence and the drug war. The United States is, well, the demand side of the equation. That's where the drugs are going. It's also the supply side in terms of the guns and ammunition that are used in the violence in Mexico. Of course, the Mexican drug cartels are responsible for a lot of it too.
Mr. NAIM: Yes, this is a very complex issue, and the United States is the biggest importer of drugs, but also is a very huge exporter of bad drug policy. It forces other countries to adopt the war on drugs that 76 percent of Americans believe is a failure. But yet there is a lot of resistance and reluctance to change it.
And yes, there is guns, and there is a lot of money laundering that goes on from the United States, and also Mexico is deeply penetrated. A lot of Mexican institutions have been essentially taken over by the cartels or their accomplices.
CONAN: To such a degree that this violence and the corruption convince a lot of Americans that Mexico is somehow on the verge of being a failed state.
Mr. NAIM: Yeah, that's an unfair characterization. You know, Mexico's a long way from being a failed state. I think more accurately we can call - describe it as a failed relationship.
There is plenty that can be done to improve the situation between the two countries, and it behooves the United States to do more because otherwise the consequences are not going to be felt in Mexico but in most of America's Main Streets.
CONAN: President Obama's stopping in Mexico City on his way to the Summit of the Americas, where indeed he will be having more problems that just with Mexico. But nevertheless, if this is largely a symbolic visit, what important symbols could be generated, do you think?
Mr. NAIM: It's a new relationship. It's a new beginning. A lot of American, of Latin American presidents are going to be quite strident in blaming the United States for this crisis, the financial crisis that is having major consequences in Latin America. But at the same time, some of them will be quite eager to develop a new relationship and try to get together with President Obama.
CONAN: In a strange way, does not this spread of the financial crisis illustrate to everybody all over again just how dependent the rest of the hemisphere is on the American economy?
Mr. NAIM: And the world, because the same points were made in the London meeting with the Group of 20, where you also had the Europeans and the Asians and the Africans also complaining about this U.S.-made crisis that is traveling the world.
CONAN: Well, Moises Naim, thank you very much for your time today, and enjoy your time in Rio de Janeiro.
Mr. NAIM: Thank you. Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Moises Naim is the editor of Foreign Policy magazine. And we're hoping to focus on Mexico today. What is your relationship with our southern neighbor? Do you have business, family? What kind of ties do you have? How do your experiences fit with perceptions?
Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com. And let's begin with Cham(ph), and Cham's with us from Tucson.
CHAM (Caller): Hello. Good morning, Neal, can you hear me?
CONAN: Yes. Good afternoon where we are, but nice to talk to you.
CHAM: I'm here at the (unintelligible) College of Management at the University of Arizona, and for the last five years we have been working with leading institutions in science and technology in Mexico to bring the innovation aspects of technology to them, which is how do you commercialize scientific ideas into business success.
And every summer, I go there and spend a few months in Mexico, and the (unintelligible) I get of Mexico, working with the intellectuals and working with the industrialists there is so different from the real general, in general portrait of Mexico here, which is we kind of blame Mexico for every problem we've got here, drugs or immigration or you name it.
But Mexico is a very vibrant economy full of very, very smart people. And they are a part of the G-20. That never gets mentioned around here. And I think they need a partnership rather than being blamed for everything.
CONAN: To be fair, Mexico sometimes blames all of its problems on its northern neighbor.
CHAM: I agree.
CONAN: So anyway, where do you go? Where is this university?
CHAM: We go to various places, like Ensenada has a top-notch optical institute. We go to Puebla, close to Mexico City. We go to Leon, which is west of Mexico City, and these are top-notch institutions. You could think of them as our national laboratories.
And we meet people who are absolutely top notch in their fields and recognized as such in the world scientific community.
CONAN: Cham, thank you very much, appreciate your time.
CHAM: Thank you.
CONAN: Joining us here in Studio 3A is Barbara Kotschwar, a research associate at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a professor at Georgetown's Center for Latin American Studies. And nice to have you with us today.
Professor BARBARA KOTSCHWAR (Georgetown University):
Thanks, Neal. It's a pleasure to be here.
CONAN: And you are an expert on Mexico, and the problem of perceptions of most Americans - how much of that is a problem for Mexico?
Prof. KOTSCHWAR: Well, when Americans see mostly - I mean, we've seen a lot of press about Mexico in the last couple of months, and we've seen, you know, severed heads in ditches and dangerous Mexican trucks threatening to flood the U.S. highways, and that's a problem for Mexico because the United States is its biggest trading partner. Eighty percent of Mexican exports go to the U.S. Sixty percent of Mexicans' foreign investment is U.S. investment, and tourists are a very important part of Mexican services.
So if these types of stories keep spring-breakers, for example, away from Mexico's beaches, then it becomes part of the economic problem of Mexico.
CONAN: But there's no denying that there is a lot of violence in Mexico and that there is a lot of corruption in Mexico and a lot of poverty in Mexico.
Prof. KOTSCHWAR: Sure. There is a lot of violence. There is a lot of corruption, and there is a lot of poverty. But if you remember 20 years ago, Washington, D.C. was the murder capital of the U.S., and that's not necessarily what characterizes Washington completely now or even at that point.
So yes, that is a problem of Mexico. But Mexico, it's really a stretch to say that Mexico is a failed state. Mexico is a state that's confronting a huge challenge and is doing so in a targeted way, and I think it's a great signal that the United States has decided to take some responsibility for that and to very explicitly enter into a partnership with that. Because as we've mentioned, you know, part of the problem does come from here.
CONAN: And just that last phone call we had, we don't think of Mexico necessarily as a center for either the creation or the exploitation of high technology.
Prof. KOTSCHWAR: Well, right, and it is, and Mexico is a country that can be seen as a developing country with poverty, with corruption, with all of the problems that you see in developing, what used to be called Third World states. But it's also a developed country. I mean, remember that Mexico is a member of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD.
CONAN: Isn't that the club of the rich?
Prof. KOTSCHWAR: Which is the club of the rich, which is, you know, the European countries, Japan, the United States. Mexico was accepted into this in the early 1990s because of the economic reforms that it undertook. Mexico has been growing.
Mexico now is very different from the Mexico that started off the Mexican debt crisis or the Latin American debt crisis, for example. Mexico has come a long way both in terms of economic growth, of getting its proverbial economic house in order, dealing with problems of poverty. I mean, all of those issues still remain, but I think that the news really doesn't give Mexico sort of fair play.
CONAN: We're talking with Barbara Kotschwar at the Georgetown Center for Latin American Studies. We want to hear from you. How does your experience of Mexico fit with perceptions? Give us a call if you do business there, if you family there, if you visit there, 800-989-8255. E-mail us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. President Barack Obama arrives in Mexico City today, his first visit to that country, which has been suffering from, among other things, increased drug violence that many fear will spill over the border.
The president will discuss that with President Felipe Calderon, along with the financial crisis and pervasive poverty amid a changing U.S.-Mexican relationship.
With us is Barbara Kotschwar. She's a research associate at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. We want to hear from you. If you have family in Mexico, do business there, what's your relationship with the country? How does it fit perceptions?
Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And you can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. And let's go to Susan(ph), Susan with us from Green Bay.
SUSAN (Caller): Well, hello. I've done business out of Wisconsin companies for many years: Mexico City, Monterrey, Pueblo, and many border towns. Many people don't realize that it's - under NAFTA it's not us or them, it's often a partnership.
For example, many Wisconsin companies are highly automated, make products and ship them to the border in Mexico. They cross the border and hand labor packages them into packages such as kits for operations. So we do the more highly sophisticated work, and they help with hand labor.
People also don't realize that under NAFTA things have happened that have disadvantaged the Mexicans, such as many farmers being put out of business by our corn shipping there at very low prices.
CONAN: And a lot of people think of NAFTA, and their lips curl as they think of American jobs moving south, what Ross Perot used to call that giant sucking sound.
SUSAN: Right, and it's not that one-way street that people think it is. We have a lot to gain.
CONAN: As far away as Green Bay?
SUSAN: Oh, yes. Several companies in Wisconsin send their, you know, items to Mexico to be packaged and so forth, and certainly Mexico is a lot closer than the Far East, for example, to do that.
CONAN: Susan, thanks very much, appreciate the phone call.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And Barbara Kotschwar, I wanted to ask you. The relationship with NAFTA, the most recent dust-up is this ban by Mexico of - what, I think 89 U.S. products from coming across the border, which has been described by some U.S. politicians as an outrage.
Prof. KOTSCHWAR: Right, and people have been very angry about this and very angry at Mexico, and you read in some reports that Mexico is touching off the new wave of protectionism that's going to send us into the Great Depression by doing this.
And I think we have to step back and remember that this is coming from a dispute that's 15 years old. Mexico's actually been a very patient and cooperative partner in this. In fact, Mexico had the right to impose those tariffs starting in February of 2001. It's now 2009. So Mexico's really waited and tried to work with U.S. authorities and tried to resolve this issue.
In February, when the spendings bill went through that basically killed the pilot project that would allow Mexican trucks into the U.S. - and vice versa, I might add - Mexico was painted into a corner. They really didn't have any other recourse.
CONAN: And this was part of the original NAFTA agreement.
Prof. KOTSCHWAR: Oh, sure.
CONAN: And if Americans, particularly the Teamsters Union, think it's unfair, their problem really is with Washington and not with Mexico.
Prof. KOTSCHWAR: Well, absolutely. This was negotiated. This was very clearly stated in the NAFTA. It's very easy to find the language that says this.
As of December 18, 1995, Mexican trucks were to be allowed into the four border states, and so basically our not doing this means that we're in violation of NAFTA.
CONAN: And we want to move on to other subjects, but quickly, the claim is that Mexican trucks do not meet the safety standards that are required for American trucks. We don't want them on the roads because they could be dangerous.
Prof. KOTSCHWAR: Despite the fact that Mexican trucks meet an additional 40 or so standards that neither American or Canadian trucks have to meet, and in all of the evaluations Mexican trucks come out better, actually, than American trucks.
CONAN: Let's get back to the phones and go to Tony, Tony with us from Mount Sterling in Ohio.
TONY (Caller): Yeah, I'm here.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
TONY: Yeah, I just wanted to call, and my opinion on Mexico and the U.S. relationship is that Mexico does get a bad shake on a lot of the things that go on in the media, especially with the drug wars going on right now.
I've traveled to Mexico extensively. I've actually driven to (unintelligible) over 30 times, and I was there last December and January with my family, and we found it to be always pleasant, the people always friendly, and always willing to do whatever they can for you.
CONAN: What's the attraction for you to go there so many times?
TONY: Actually, I'm - originally it was to explore caves, and I still am a cave explorer and do a lot of cave exploration in Mexico, and actually I'm an importer now. So I work with families and help in product development and mostly in the garden industry. We do a lot of clay and ceramic there.
CONAN: So you bring in pottery, that sort of thing?
TONY: Yeah, correct.
CONAN: And it sells well, and you don't have any problems shipping and that sort of thing?
TONY: No, typically not, no. I mean, it sells well, and you know, everything that we, you know, have coming out of Mexico is really a nice quality product, and we've been doing well with it.
CONAN: And when your customers in the United States get this stuff, do they ask any questions?
TONY: Oh yeah, we actually try to supply information on all of our products, whether, you know, it comes from Guanajuato or Oaxaca, a little bit of the history, how it's made, and a lot of time the pieces are signed by artists as well.
CONAN: So a fairly profitable margin there for you, I would think.
TONY: Yeah. I mean, there's a lot of work, you know. We move clay and pottery. So it's - you know, it's a heavy business and a lot of work, and we, you know, receive stuff damaged, and you know, not a lot but, no - we do well, but it is hard work, but it's better than our regular careers.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Okay. Well, Tony, thanks very much.
TONY: Thank you.
CONAN: Good luck to you. Here's an email from Mike. Mexico does truly look like a failed state and a feudal state. Mexico has vast resources, e.g., oil, but the mass of the people are so poor that millions have fled to the United States to find work. How can this inequality and lack of development be considered legitimate or modern? Barbara?
Prof. KOTSCHWAR: Well, that's certainly an issue, the issue of poverty in Mexico. Poverty in Mexico, though, has been decreasing. In 2000, about 30 percent or 40 percent of Mexicans were considered poor. That's decreased to about 30 percent.
Now, inequality is increasing in Mexico, but Mexico has done some things to try to alleviate poverty. One thing - and this is also a Mexican export, they've exported their social policy - they've implemented a program called Opportunidades(ph), which gives money to poor families to help deal with education, health and nutrition.
They basically give certain amounts of money to poor families to keep their children in school with the assumption that educated children will be better for the future, and that's recognizing that when you're poor, sometimes you can't afford to send your children to school because you need them to work to help earn income for the family to help feed all of the family.
CONAN: On terms of the immigration issue, we have seen evidence of some Mexican politicians claiming this is a right of Mexicans to enter the United States illegally, if necessary, and indeed some people say if you're sending your people, your youth, abroad to work, this can't be evidence of a thriving state.
Prof. KOTSCHWAR: Well, sure, and I think that those politicians are disingenuous. Obviously it's not the right of anybody to break another country's law.
What it does recognize is the integration between the two countries and the fact that there are better opportunities in the United States for some Mexicans than there are in Mexico, and that's something that needs to be addressed.
And probably at this point the best way to address that is to get the U.S. economy growing again so that we can keep buying Mexican goods and help Mexico improve their lot.
Now, Mexico has been doing much better in the last couple of years, and so the financial crisis is unfortunate for everybody. But you know, from our point of view it looks particularly unfortunate for Mexico, which probably would have been doing very well and would have been able to surmount some of these problems that we've seen.
With the crisis, hopefully Mexico will be able to recover. They have put into place - you know, their government budget is looking pretty good. They have put into place some programs, and so hopefully they'll be able to rebound.
CONAN: Let's go to Maria, Maria with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.
MARIA (Caller): Oh hi, I'm so excited that I could talk to you. I'm from Mexico City. I lived there all my life. Now I'm in Charlotte. But you're asking about what the portrayal of Mexico is in the news media and if it resembles what's happening there, and it is not.
My whole family's in Mexico, and they make it sound here like Mexico is on the verge of war, and it is not so, and it's hurting everybody in Mexico.
CONAN: Yes, that's true. Nevertheless, we also hear reports from Mexico City, a long way from the border, for sure, but there are reports that kidnappings there are a serious problem.
MARIA: It can be a serious problem, but I think it's greatly exaggerated. As I say, my whole family's there, and as one of your speakers commented at some point, Washington, D.C. was a very unsafe city at some point, but Mexico is a big country, and we cannot say that every area is going to be the same, keeping in mind Mexico City is one of the biggest cities in the world.
CONAN: And what are you doing in Charlotte, Maria?
MARIA: I live here. I work here.
CONAN: And work in what industry?
CONAN: Textiles? And are you planning to go home?
MARIA: I go there on a visit occasionally, and sometimes I used to go for business, but as you know, textiles also has been hurting up here.
CONAN: Indeed it has. Join the club.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARIA: Yes, exactly.
CONAN: And we wish you good luck.
MARIA: I can't believe I'm talking to you.
CONAN: Thank you very much. Bye-bye.
MARIA: Thank you, bye-bye.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go now to - this is, excuse me, Deborah(ph). Deborah with us from Portland, Oregon.
DEBORAH (Caller): Hello. This is Deborah.
CONAN: Hi, Deborah, you're on the air. Go ahead.
DEBORAH: Hello. Hi, I travel - I've been traveling back and forth to a little town Alamo, Sonora, for the last about 12 years, and I actually go by local bus, and I have had no problem. Sometimes I'm the only American on the bus. I've been treated fairly. I own a couple of houses in the town and hope to retire there. My main concern is the - that the Mexican people are selling their properties off and trying to move to the border towns and work in large fabricas and live in high-rise apartments, and that their actual standard of living is decreasing.
CONAN: Because they're moving from the countryside into more urban areas?
DEBORAH: Right, right. Now, they may have more money, but I'm not sure their quality of life is.
I've also seen where - there's a family across from us who owns a whole block of little homes and they rent them out. But the two moneymakers for two of the families - within their families are in jail for drugs.
CONAN: For drugs.
DEBORAH: Yeah. And I feel - it's really sad. These boys just - they couldn't work, they turned to drugs. And now, the families have to be supported by friends and relatives. But they do have real cohesive, extensive families, so that's really an advantage for them.
CONAN: I wanted to ask Barbara Kotschwar. What Deborah was saying about people moving from the countryside in Sonora, one of the northern states of Mexico, to the border towns, where there is industrial development, where there are jobs and factories operating, is this a problem or is this part of the solution?
Prof. KOTSCHWAR: It really depends. I mean, for some people, it's a greater economic opportunity, and for others it reduces the quality of life, moving from their extended families to a more urban place where they might have work, but they don't have the support system.
But another element that's interesting about the last caller is Americans who move to Mexico for retirement. There are a lot of Americans who go down to Mexico and they buy properties and they retire there. It's, you know, relatively less expensive than many parts of the United States. Also, they enjoy the quality of life.
You also have Americans who are going to Mexico in greater numbers for medical services. So, Mexico has a relatively sophisticated medical system and dentistry, and I believe that one of your first callers was talking about eye - optical services.
Prof. KOTSCHWAR: And so, there's a pretty large services trade there that also doesn't get talked to - about.
CONAN: A lot of the drugs are much cheaper on the other side of the border and available without prescriptions.
Prof. KOTSCHWAR: We're talking about legal drugs here.
CONAN: Yeah, legal, legal, legal drugs.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Okay. Deborah, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
DEBORAH: Thank you so much. Bye-bye.
CONAN: We're talking about America's changing relationship with Mexico and perceptions. What are yours?
I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go to Shaud(ph) in Minneapolis.
SHAUD (Caller): Hey, how are you?
CONAN: Very well. Thank you.
SHAUD: Well, it's a very interesting discussion that you're having. I travel to Mexico pretty often. I'm an immigrant myself in U.S. and my wife is from there.
So, we both have a good understanding of the perception, you know, from the immigrant point of view. I'd like to add the perception about the corruption is very real. And, you know, I myself has seen it firsthand.
CONAN: How did you experience it?
SHAUD: Well, you know, for example, I travel to Mexico by plane mostly. Once, just for the heck of it, we traveled by bus. And we saw the Mexican customs officers coming up to the bus and said, well, if everybody gives $10 per head, I would just let the bus go without any customs inspection. It was pretty brazen.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SHAUD: (Unintelligible). And although, you know, I didn't have anything to declare, I had to pay the $10 just because everybody is looking at me and saying, hmm, don't be a, you know…
CONAN: Don't be spoilsport, yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SHAUD: Things like that. And also, you know, my wife, she has some argument kind of supporting the stereotype. I mean, for her, it's like according - I mean, she is, you know, college educated, she worked in Mexico in professional level. And when she comes here and she say that, you know, some of the people that moved here illegally are not very much the, you know, educated part of the Mexico. And you know, they're being their culture, which is not very highly educated in the first place, and people see it and think that, okay, the rest of the Mexicans are like that.
CONAN: So, there are definite differences of class amongst Mexicans, as well.
SHAUD: Oh, very much. I mean, the class is very much institutionalized over there. You can, say, by last name or just by the way you talk, like, you know, which class you belong to and which part of the city you live in. And, you know, there's less mixing of class over there than here in U.S., as far as I can tell.
CONAN: All right. Shaud, thank you very much. Appreciate it.
CONAN: Mexico, as we've heard, Barbara, and as you've pointed out, not without its problems. The one most concerning to most people right now is the drug violence and the power of the cartels, which is totally tied into what he's talking about, about corruption, and totally tied into a lot of people's concerns about the political stability of the country as well. Is there going to be an effort to address that in this meeting between the two presidents?
Prof. KOTSCHWAR: Oh, undoubtedly. Undoubtedly, that will be on the top of the agenda. And I believe that Secretary Clinton has already talked to President Calderon about that.
The United States has made moves to recognize this problem. President Obama has offered to send more resources down to the border. And I think that in this meeting, they'll probably come up with some steps that they can start to take. I mean, this is going to be an ongoing issue. This is going to be an ongoing collaboration between the United States and Mexico. Both sides have such stakes in this.
CONAN: And the United States, of course, has - the Secretary of State told us last week - it needs to address the demand side of the equation, as well, that are on our side of the border.
Prof. KOTSCHWAR: Oh, absolutely.
CONAN: All right. Barbara Kotschwar, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Prof. KOTSCHWAR: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Barbara Kotschwar, research associate at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and an adjunct professor at Georgetown Center for Latin American Studies, with us here today in Studio 3A.
Coming up, you may have gotten your kid out of the basement, but in this economy, it's more important to get them out of your bank account. Ask Amy's Amy Dickinson is coming up next to tell you how and how to talk about it with your kid. Stay with us.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.