Should the Obama Administration take Mexico for Granted?

Why is the US Congress always occupied with east-west issues such as with Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Ukraine, while practically ignoring its neighbors south of its borders (i.e. Mexico)? To place it into perspective, consider the number of times Secretary of State, John Kerry or even President Barack Obama have met with Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto. …maybe once or twice per year which barely compares to the hundreds of stops made in the Middle East alone.

The term ‘shuttling between capitals’ to negotiate trade deals and peace treaties with the US seems never to apply to Mexico or Central/South America, and yet Mexico is the US’s second largest trading partner moving over USD$500 billion in goods and services across its borders. With so much hanging on the balance, especially with immigration reform and border security between both countries, is it prudent for the US to take its neighbors south of the border for granted? …and what can Mexico say differently to place its agenda on a priority list for high level officials in Washington?  

Foreign Affairs Forum
At a recent forum at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City called, Mexico as a Global Player sponsored by the Foreign Affairs publication as part of a series on Mexico titled, Mexico’s Muscle, Revealing the Strength, the Minister of Economic Growth for the State of Mexico, Adrian Fuentes Villalobos, along with a cadre of supporting experts from both countries, sat on various panels where they proposed the idea of a NAFTA Version 2.0 (North American Free Trade Agreement). This enhanced version of the 1994 NAFTA agreement would seamlessly combine Canada, US, and Mexico into a North American partnership, one based on shared job creation and prosperity building.

Over the past twenty years, NAFTA used up most of its political capital in Washington and depending upon who you ask has rendered mixed results. The Huffington Post, for example, underscores the net loss of 1 million American jobs plus a net US trade deficit of USD$181bn, while Mexican-sponsored research groups show a contrasting view that highlights the creation of 6 million jobs between both countries along with a 500% increase in trade capacity. Despite their differences of opinion, one indisputable benefit was the development of a manufacturing hub for heavy industry located in the center of Mexico.

What was once a sparsely populated territory has now been transformed into a series of industrial parks that when viewed from 30,000 feet high appear organized like the floor of a modern plant. Top multinationals such as GM, Chrysler, GE, BMW, Boeing, Nescafe, DuPont, and Embraer, to name a few, have established a presence in the region with their key suppliers located nearby. As testimony to their commitment and confidence in its future prospects, many companies are continuing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to accommodate their imminent rapid growth. Foreign investors including global banks have had a key role in boosting Mexico’s FDI (Foreign Direct Investment), which has doubled to USD$35.2bn in 2013 when compared to the year before.

For a country that has carefully mapped this massive expansion and has been responsive to the strategic needs of global manufacturers, one would expect that by all reasonable standards, Mexico’s achievements thus far would have earned it international recognition, and yet, when it comes to members of the US Congress, nothing could be further from the truth. For a slew of political reasons, elected US officials have conveniently stuck to two key issues when discussing US-Mexican relations, immigration reform and border security. With good reason, members of the panel spoke of their efforts to change the dialogue with the US but have done so with little success. The US Ambassador from Mexico to the US, Eduardo Medina Mora, described his personal hidden frustrations as he described his daily reminders to members of Congress on the many potential benefits Mexico can offer to the US. Clearly, the two pending bills have greatly polarized US-Mexican relations, which has resulted in a decoupling between Washington politics and the multinationals operating in Mexico.

The newly elected President Enrique Peña Nieto recognized his country’s political shortcomings early on after being sworn into office and in a series of extraordinarily bold moves pushed through four noteworthy bills to help bring his country closer to a US framework. These include:

  1. An energy reform bill that for the first time allows foreign direct investments to improve the country’s energy portfolio and infrastructure.
  2. A telecommunications bill that has broken a long-held monopoly among cell phone and television operators.
  3. An education reform bill that among other challenges will reward teachers on the basis of merit.
  4. A labor bill that makes it easier for companies to hire and fire employees.

In each case, President Enrique Peña Nieto had to take on powerful labor unions and business tycoons to successfully dismantle their influential centers. His efforts won him praise both domestically and internationally. His ingenuity and leadership earned him the respect from his country peers at the G-20 economic meetings. However, despite President Peña Nieto’s notable achievements, Mexico still has never been recognized as a priority by either the Obama Administration or members of the US Congress. Not all was lost. In response to Mexico’s relentless requests to gain access to high level officials in Washington, the White House finally acquiesced in May of 2013 to form the HLED platform, which stands for, you guessed it, High Level Economic Dialogue. Truly an unimaginative acronym and more than likely a US stalling tactic, the HLED limits Mexico to one annual meeting with cabinet-level officials in Washington.

According to one of the panelists, what Mexico needs is a revised narrative, one that addresses key mutual benefits that elected US officials can pitch to garner the support of their constituents. Just asking the US to change their dialogue away from immigration reform and border security, may not be enough. I believe something more is needed and have taken the liberty to lay out a few suggestions below (see appendix) that could help a Mexican delegation send the same intended message to the Obama Administration but, hopefully, in a more compelling manner.

I would be remiss not to mention the current threat from drug cartels in Mexico and the illegal immigration of Central and South Americans that travel through Mexico to reach the US border. No doubt it is one of the key concerns that weigh on elected officials’ minds and the American people. However, as history has shown us repeatedly, a strong economy is a far greater deterrent than an over-extended border protection scheme. By boosting medical tourism along the US-Mexican border, expanding the State of Mexico’s manufacturing hub, and educating both US and Mexican youth to meet increasing STEM job demand, drug cartels will be forced to circulate elsewhere.  As for non-Mexican immigrants, they should find employment in their own respective countries caused by a spillover effect triggered by NAFTA Version 2.0.

Hopefully the acronym HLED will some day soon be changed to read The North American Partnership or TNAP – (NAFTA Ver. 2.0). There members would agree to meet at least monthly with US cabinet officials. Maybe then, Mexico will know it is no longer being taken for granted.

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 (APPENDIX)

A Revised Narrative for the Mexican Delegation

In an effort to change the narrative presented at the event, I have listed three key strategic points that on their own merits should help gain the attention of US political leaders.

I. Establish tiered industrial zones within Mexico’s manufacturing hubs that focus on a balanced trade-off between a range of country content ratios of finished products (i.e. US versus Mexican content) and corresponding tax policies.
Currently, the Mexican delegation claims that the US content for products manufactured in the State of Mexico is 40%. If the State of Mexico developed trade-friendly policies that applied favorable tax rates based upon US content, then further  tiered them for companies with lower US content, US leaders would view the gesture favorably and be forced to respond accordingly. For this scheme to work, however, Mexico should maintain a bi-lateral, transparent, third-party auditing process to ensure the policy is attracting the right kind of companies. At the end of the day, the same US companies who enjoy the maximum benefits will become the Mexican delegation’s greatest advocates in Washington. They will do a more effective job selling Mexico’s North American partnership to members of Congress and the American public than anyone else.

II. Open dialogue to develop trade policy between medical tourism in Mexico for US baby boomers in exchange for STEM education assistance for Mexican youth.
Just south of California, Tijuana has become the capital of the world for medical tourism with over 1 million annual visitors who generate over USD$1bn in economic benefits to the area. With the predicted shortage of doctors in the US, the retiring of 77 million baby boomers, and the introduction of Obama Care, the US may no longer have the manpower to take care of its aging population’s medical needs. Rather than leaving this situation to chance, US leaders would do well to help develop affordable pathways for the most common procedures by leveraging the abundance of Mexican doctors. Another potential idea would be to use approved Mexican medical procedural rates as a basis for insurance policy reimbursements, hence giving policyholders real options rather than just high deductibles.

In exchange for Mexico’s cooperation, the US can agree to help develop stronger STEM education curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) for its young adults who comprise over half of the Mexican population. Clearly Mexico’s immediate needs lie in educating their youth to fill a growing demand for engineers, whose efforts in turn will also help fuel the US economy, especially if the US content of manufactured products remains around 40% as stated earlier in point number one.

III. Highlight the expected reduction in border crossings over the next 5 years  based on a trending reduction in fertility rates in Mexico and improvements in  job prospects for Mexican youth.
Data shared at the event claimed that by 2020, Mexico’s fertility rates will decline from 2.67 children per child-bearing mother today to 2.2, which is comparable to the US current rate of 2.06 and the ‘replacement level’ of 2.1. The Mexican delegation should circulate these findings along with studies highlighting the reduced need to protect the US border from future Mexican immigrants because there will be fewer interested candidates. The billions saved trying to protect 51 guard posts along the longest border in the world (2,000 miles) could be allocated elsewhere including for launching Mexico’s vision for NAFTA Version 2.0.

© 2014 Tom Kadala

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Data Mining Lessons for Obama

Earlier this month an ex-CIA employee and whistleblower, Edward Snowden, exposed the federal government’s 6-year old, clandestine initiative, referred to internally as PRISM, a covert data-gathering program that began in 2007 as a corollary to the Patriot Act of 2001. This White House-directed, domestic-espionage project has been collecting phone logs of millions of U.S. citizens from major telecommunication giants (e.g., Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint) and emails from nine prominent Internet companies (e.g., Google, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft) in a concerted effort to thwart future terrorist attacks.  

History shows that PRISM has prevented numerous incidences, including a foiled backpack bombing plot in New York in 2009. Despite its undisputed success record, PRISM has ignited a national debate on whether the administration has gone too far seeking tighter security at the expense of civil liberties. In a statement to the American people, President Obama argues that his actions are justified.

 “You can’t have 100-percent security and also then have 100-percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” he famously stated. “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

Not surprising, many Americans disagree with Obama’s position and have taken action. Among them is Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky), who will soon introduce a class action suit of which he hopes to obtain more than 10 million signatures. Those in favor of Obama’s PRISM believe that the price to pay for security is small in comparison. Just how damaging can a diverted phone log be to anyone, or a random email read, for that matter, if terrorist attacks can be prevented? However, when the process requires canvassing mountains of data that could randomly incriminate anyone, the fundamental basis for the U.S. judicial system where defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty, is truly at risk.

‘Con’ concerns do not stop there. Dissenters argue that PRISM has set a precedent for further erosion of individual freedom. Without a counter mechanism in place, future leaders will more than likely continue to up the ante on domestic surveillance until an unimaginable, automated version of a Russian-style KGB informant process becomes undetectable and virtually unstoppable. If you are skeptical, consider what happened with consumer debt after Reagan’s supply-side economics took hold: Every American consumer was doused with credit cards. The combination of economic bubbles that followed eroded the effectiveness of our elected leaders in Washington who today are trusted by less than 20 percent of the population.

If eliminating PRISM is not an option, then what mechanisms can be put into place, early on, to prevent domestic surveillance from reducing our individual freedom… and what solutions have worked in the past, and with whom?

Data Mining vs Mining Precious Metals
Lessons can be learned from another type of mining activity that is very similar to mining data, namely, mining for precious metals in some of the most remote areas on the planet. Surprisingly, the operational principles of the two efforts are nearly identical. In both cases expensive machinery and sophisticated software are used to sieve through enormous amounts of data/ore. Both identify specific assets (i.e., key leads/gold nuggets) that in aggregate could create exceptional value, a value so great that individuals, corporations, or governments would break laws or silence whistleblowers to secure its use or acquisition. Finally, both processes are confronted with a conflicting tradeoff that involves the invasion of privacy of a constituency of voters.

Just as Americans feel an attack on their personal freedom from PRISM’s data mining activities, local communities in Peru, Congo, Guatemala, South Africa to name of few, experience a similar personal upheaval when global mining companies (i.e. Barrick Gold, Rio Tinto and many, many more) set up operations without the communities’ consultation or consent. Environmental disasters, such as toxic chemicals found in the water supply or increasing numbers of birth deaths or defects, have exposed rogue mining operations and over time have forced the hand of powerful politicians and legislatures to comply with legal mechanisms that protect the rights of affected community members.

Recent examples include Peru’s mining town of Bagua where 34 people were killed in 2008 in a staged military attack against peaceful indigenous demonstrators. In the Congo, where many rare-earth minerals are used to make mobile phones and appliances, increasing local uprisings have forced mining operations valued at $1 billion to close.  These uprising are clear evidence of a failed system or policy. They offer a lesson and illustration of a similar dark future for Obama’s PRISM project, if left uncontested.

The striking resemblance between data mining and traditional mining suggests that some of the best practices used to resolve conflicts in the mining industry could also be applied to the PRISM project to safeguard it from escalating and potentially causing a ‘trust rift’ between the US government and the American people.

American Society/Council of the Americas
At a recent gathering of the American Society/Council of the Americas (AS/COA) in New York City, a distinguished expert-panel with deep field experiences working on some of the toughest mining-related conflicts in the world offered their insights, best practices and ongoing recommendations to a packed audience of interested parties of non-profits, NGOs, and private investors. (AS/COAs recent issue of, Americas Quarterly, covers additional details.)

To qualify as a best practice, the panel highlighted a simple yet fundamental metric that involves a transparent two-way conversation between the mining company’s project (consultation) and the local communities concerns(consent). Social unrest is almost inevitable when the conversation becomes opaque and one-way or as referred to by the industry, “consultation without consent”. Fortunately, legislative progress continues in countries like Peru where mining laws have been passed that require both consultation and consent, for example, in cases where a community is forced to move.

One of the expert panelists, Rachel Davis, the managing director at ShiftProject.org, highlighted the imperative need to include consent mechanisms. To this end she outlined three key challenges that mining companies must address properly to ensure an open-dialogue with an impacted, local community.

  1. Offer a venue for consultation but be prepared to spend at least one month of face time to earn the people’s trust.  “Trust,” she emphasized, “is the imperative currency for collaboration.”
  2. Train staff members within the mining company to develop a genuinely concerned attitude along with the skills to handle awkward conversations or even hostile responses.
  3. Ensure available access within the company to handle grievances and capacity-building, coordination efforts within a cross-functional, corporate structure.

Emily Greenspan, the Senior Policy Advisor at Oxfam America, tweaked Davis’ three points by adding one more important stipulation. She recommended that mining companies evaluate how decisions are made at local levels.

“Taking the time to understand the culture, temperament, timing requirements, and so much more are crucial from the out start,” Greenspan explained. 

Her comments reminded me of President Obama’s lunch engagements with members of Congress earlier this year. They were, in my opinion, too little, too late to have the desired effect. Had Obama requested these luncheons at the beginning of his first term, perhaps the paralyzing partisan gridlock that we have today would have found common ground. The lesson learned is the vital importance of getting to know your audience from the beginning; otherwise the cost of catching up becomes prohibitive and meaningless.

With the looming ‘black cloud’ surrounding the PRISM Project, Obama would do well to learn from his prior experiences and heed the advice from field experts, many of whom are already within his administration and working on  global mining issues for precious metals. Why not tap on their wealth of experience to help clean up the PRISM project mess?

As history has shown in the mining industry, time may be running out for Obama. A failed policy of this magnitude could turn into an irreversible tide of social unrest.

© 2013 Tom Kadala

Winning Over the Latino Vote

As the Hispanic population continues to surge,  US Census projections show that after 2030 about 1 out of every 4 Americans will be of Hispanic descent.  Are we ready for a Latino or Latina President in the White House?

Politicians seeking office in the next two decades should seriously consider brushing up on their high school Spanish.  The Hispanic vote will be up for grabs and whoever best understands the Latino political psyche will, undoubtedly, come out ahead.  Although the spotlight continues to swirl around bipartisan bickering in Washington, the next battle lines to be drawn will be over the Hispanic voter.

Unlike their ‘compadres’ who are better established in the US, most foreign-born Latinos have fled from a politically entangled economy in their country to come to the US. The emotional scars inflicted on these potential U.S. voters have left a lasting effect of deep rooted mistrust for any political party. Even here in the U.S. these same voters are currently witnessing Washington lawmakers grapple with potentially polarizing issues such as the aggressive patrolling along the US-Mexican border.

For some it may be deja vous, all over again! Back in their home country, Latino voters have had their fill of empty political promises, placating rhetoric, and unscrupulous lawmakers to the extent that if a political analyst in Washington sought a reliable barometer to measure voter apathy after a political event, any Latino voter over the age of 25 would qualify. They have seen and heard it all!

Where there is apathy, complacency is not far behind. Any candidate who believes that the Latino voter can be won with a couple of ‘slick’ promotional ads may be in for a surprise. Latino voters are not only hard to win over but even tougher to gauge.  Why?

When asked how they feel about a candidate, one should be prepared to hear what one wishes to hear. Latinos, by nature, do not like to disagree openly with people outside of their inner family circle. They will say just the right words to give the impression that they are in full agreement. What they truly feel remains ‘in the family’.

The Latino voter requires patience and reliable research to grasp their concerns. They may speak the same language, Spanish, but the cultural ’engines’ that power their individual and collective emotions vary widely.  A ‘one-message for all’ strategy may miss this coveted target altogether.