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Optimism about Mexico's political and economic future

Optimism about Mexico's political and economic future
The future of Mexico | Quick Take | GZERO Media

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi everybody, Ian Bremmer here. A happy Monday to you and a Quick Take to kick off your week. I'm just back from Mexico, Mexico City myself, and lots of fascinating meetings, lots of takeaways. Thought I would give you some of my sense of what is happening there, Mexico and Mexico's context in the world.

First thing I would say is I come away pretty optimistic about where the country is heading overall, and some of that is the context of Mexico in an environment where China-US relations are getting a lot more challenging. There is some significant national security and strategic decoupling that is happening at the behest of US administration, governors, members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans. And also, there's a lot more uncertainty about doing business in Xi Jinping's China itself, given the rapid and sudden changes on COVID, on how to do business as a technology company, on rules and regulations for the private sector, rule of law and its absence, local competition, you name it. And so, even though I still fairly strongly believe that China's going to become the largest economy in the world by 2030, the idea that US corporations will be able to take as much advantage of that is increasingly uncertain. Almost any business leader you talk to in the United States is saying, "Yeah, China is an important market for us, but we are being more cautious about how much we want to invest there, going forward. At the very least, we're putting a pause on some of the big decisions we're making." And in many cases, they're starting to reduce some of that forward looking exposure.

Who are you going to invest towards if you're not investing in China? Well, Mexico in many ways is the country that stands to benefit the most outside of the United States. And indeed, in every meeting I had in three days in Mexico, I was hearing about near-shoring. It's a kind of awkward term, but basically the idea of multinationals based in the United States, doing a lot more on the ground in Mexico. Mexico's the 15th largest economy in the world. It is a large population, it's quite young, it's hardworking. The demographic's increasingly very attractive and it's strongly integrated into the US economy and supply chains. The fact that Tesla had just announced a $10 billion investment near Monterey while I was there was a big boost, a shot in the arm for the Mexican economy that a lot of people were talking about.

And so as a consequence, I mean, there's no question I meant think back on Lula's days, his first time around as president and how much his popularity was benefited by the fact that the economy was in a commodity super cycle and indeed, led to some 80%, even 90% of times approval ratings. I think that right now, Mexico benefits significantly from right place, right time, given what's happening geopolitically.

Now, looking to Mexico itself, I have to say that I was also surprised that Mexico's CEOs and bankers, who have been enormously negative pre-pandemic about then new President AMLO, and he doesn't like him, he doesn't want to talk to him, he's going to be a disaster, he is going to lead the economy into ruin, this time around, I heard still plenty of criticism, but also a recognition from the CEOs in Mexico and the bankers that, "Well, actually, he's not been as bad as we expected." What do you mean by that? Well, he hasn't actually raised taxes, he hasn't spent money on the fiscal balance that the government doesn't have. In fact, in many ways, he's been conservative as a leader in terms of small government, fiscal hawkishness. Mexico's debt to GDP is 50% right now and has stayed stable despite the pandemic. That's caused some challenges in terms of the ability of Mexico to make large scale investments into its domestic economy, given the pandemic. But nonetheless has made the business community feel more comfortable with him.

Instead, there's been a focus on tax collection and on reducing government expenditure. So much so that there's a problem on execution, weakening and inefficient, but nonetheless, comparatively talented civil service in Mexico. It's a reason why when you go to the World Bank or the IDB, you see so many former Mexico technocrats in the bureaucracy, because they were always seen to be some of the most talented from all of the Western hemisphere. Overall, I would say the Mexican economy is positioned to do quite well over the coming, let's say five, 10 years.

The domestic political issues are the biggest concerns. In particular, President Lopez Obrador going after his country's electoral institute, trying to take away some 80% of their funding, which would, if it went through, undermine the ability of Mexico to have free and fair elections. And there's really no justification for that decision. AMLO claims it's because he actually won the 2006 election, which was razor thin decided against him. And it's also why he was quite late to congratulate Biden on his 2020 win, you might remember that. And even some of his own supporters are befuddled by it, since AMLO's Morena party is likely to win upcoming elections anyway. Unlike Trump, Erdogan, Orban, Bolsonaro, all of these leaders, it's not like AMLO needs to gut Mexico's democracy in order to keep his party in power. But the other point is that he's also likely to fail at this so-called electoral reform as Mexico's Supreme Court will rule against the so-called reform. And there've also been massive demonstrations against it across Mexico, largely from the middle and upper classes, showing the power of Mexico's civil society which is hardly going away. This is not going to become an autocracy, just as Brazil hasn't, just as the United States hasn't.

And when he fails, he's almost certainly going to call his supporters against the corrupt Supreme Court, as he would have it, all of which does undermine rule of law in the country. I will say that I am less worried about this than some in the same way that I was less worried about January 6th in the US as not a coup, or January 8th in Brazil as not a coup and not able to fundamentally undermine democracy in these countries. In part because I fully expect AMLO will be out after his single constitutionally mandated six-year term, and I also think that either of his potential Morena party successors won't have the same charisma or capacity to pursue these sorts of policies.

But also, and here I think this isn't appreciated by many of AMLO's opponents, I do think that there are real issues here. I mean, AMLO is broadly skeptical of all sorts of, as he calls them, neo-liberal conservative elites, that's a mouthful, and their institutions, because they've had enormous access and influence across the board historically, including in the judiciary. They really could shape policy or stop initiatives, given their influence over all branches of government. There has been corruption. There has been a lot of corruption in the distribution of social benefits, in influence over Congress and legislation in procurement processes. Tax authority, where the Mexican government had been clearly letting companies off the hook, which AMLO has tried to change at least somewhat successfully. And I think part of the elite anger at this administration is that the elites can no longer influence the regulatory and legislative policy as they could before. And while the judiciary is an important and necessary check on AMLO's power, it's also hard to argue that economic elites haven't had undue influence on Mexico's court system. Both of those things are actually true.

There are other places I could spend time, there's been very limited success in curtailing violence in Mexico, dealing with the drug cartels. That's a long history of failure in Mexico and I don't come away any more optimistic from my trip in Mexico this week. I am a little bemused by the criticism though, that AMLO doesn't travel internationally enough. And it's true, he almost never leaves the country. He's been five years in office now, I think he's been to the United States four times, each time for one day. And he made one trip to Central America and Cuba and that's it. I mean, for the head of a G-20 economy, that is unheard of. And he also doesn't really care.

But I want to say it's not like there's any particular debate about Mexico's development model. It's not like people are saying, "Oh, maybe we need to work more with Europe or hedge with China." AMLO has zero interest in that and indeed, one of the first things he mentioned to me was his concern that China's growth would unbalance the geopolitical order and lead to conflict. There's something that underpins this that's very important, which is last year, Mexico's trade with Texas was five times its total trade with all of Latin America.

Unlike Brazil, unlike other developing countries where there's lots of discussion about potential competing development models, there really isn't with Mexico. It is a US and USMCA focused model and I think appropriately so. Meanwhile, AMLO has been traveling relentlessly across Mexico by car or on commercial airlines, meeting with the Mexican people. And he's the first president in a very long time that's spent that kind of time with Mexico's poor across the country and that's a big piece of his popularity, which has been quite high over the course of his entire term. I personally would like it if he would travel more because I care about foreign policy. But in the context of Trump's America First or Biden's US foreign policy for an American middle class, you can certainly understand that you can have more sympathy.

And I think about my own friend, Iván Duque, who I've known very well for years now, the former Colombian president, he's loved by the Washington establishment, but ultimately was very unpopular in Colombia, in part because he was seen as being kind of a creature of Washington consensus and not as interested in Colombia. And I think AMLO completely gets that in today's geopolitical environment, that just doesn't play.

I think the right comparison for AMLO on the global stage is Modi, India's prime minister, in terms of he's from the underclass. In the case of Modi, from the under caste, focuses on the underclass and wants to take on colonial elites and their institutions that have always been unpopular with the average people in the country. That includes the independent media and NGOs which are viewed, even if somewhat unfairly, as educated elites that don't care about the people and haven't historically.

By the way, when I mentioned the Modi comparison to AMLO, he immediately liked it. In fact, recognizes that he doesn't do as well in Mexico as Modi does in India because Modi also has the Hindu nationalism call card that he can play and does play, which AMLO is certainly not doing in terms of Catholicism and the role in Mexico's government institutions. Now, of course, that's a mixed bag. Because while Modi has become an essential friend to the United States as a part of the Quad, the relationship can only get so close and there is that tension between the United States and Mexico, and the West and Mexico accordingly.

But I do think that putting all of that in context gives you a lot more balance about what's happening in Mexico right now and Mexico's role with the US and Mexico's role that it doesn't have with a lot of the rest of the world than we've been reading in a lot of the media, and as a consequence, I thought it was really interesting to talk about it.

Anyway, that's it for me and I'm delighted that I've had a chance to get back there and I'm sure I will be again real soon, and I hope everyone is well. Talk to you soon.


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