Mexico’s Democracy Matters — to Mexico and the US


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By EARL ANTHONY WAYNE, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico

In recent weeks, Mexico and the United States have clashed publicly on issues ranging from the strength of democracy and public safety in each country, to addressing deadly fentanyl smuggling from Mexico, human rights in Mexico and bilateral trade and investment issues.

Each of these topics deserves in-depth attention, given the vital importance of the two neighboring countries to each other, and each topic’s inherent significance and challenge for U.S.-Mexico relations.

Of particular import, however, is the serious debate in Mexico about the future of its democracy. The United States should pay close attention because of the potential long-term impacts for U.S.-Mexico ties and because the United States also continues to debate the functioning of its own democracy.

The United States is co-hosting a second multilateral Summit for Democracy this week, as the world continues to experience a decline in freedom and democracy.

Graphic design: Melissa T. Castro/Pulse News Mexico

Many on both sides of the border are sounding alarms, concerned that new reforms to Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE) and Mexico’s ability to ensure the quality and integrity of elections will have a negative impact on Mexico’s democracy. The INE’s outgoing director, Lorenzo Córdoba, recently visited Washington to flag his concerns.

The final decisions about the shape of Mexico’s democratic institutions should be made by Mexicans, in line with their constitution, as Mexico’s Supreme Court (SCJN) is now doing, but the United States has a legitimate right to speak up about its concerns. This is also true for Mexico, as it watches U.S. policy debates.

Mexico impacts the United States more significantly every day than any other country in the world, through trade, co-production, migration, crime and family ties. Many millions of people on both sides of the border are the living links that intertwine the societies, economies and politics of both countries. Those close links are not going to change in the foreseeable future. We cannot move away from each other. However, the nature of bilateral cooperation can either enhance mutual prosperity and well-being or allow opportunities to slip away and tensions to rise, as seen in recent weeks.

Graphic design: Melissa T. Castro/Pulse News Mexico

For several decades, Americans and Mexicans have worked together to grow both economies. Today, Mexico is the United States’ second-largest trading partner (after Canada), with around $1.5 million in trade each minute of the day.

On other parts of the complex bilateral agenda, both governments have struggled to deal cooperatively with serious shared challenges such as illegal migration and cross-border crime, highlighted today by deadly opioid trafficking and the recent kidnapping and killing of U.S. citizens just across the Texas border in Matamoros, Tamaulipas.

It is not surprising that these issues are fueling alarmed discussions and calls for action in the United States. Recently, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has not hesitated to respond forcefully and defensively, criticizing proposals for tougher action against Mexican drug cartels, and also saying the U.S. State Department is lying in its report about human rights in Mexico.

Both U.S. citizens and Mexicans should be well informed about policy debates in each country and the potential impact on their relationship. From each side of the border, concerned citizens and officials should feel free to respectfully express concerns about potential effects of proposed actions, including regarding democratic governance. This is part of being good, responsible neighbors.

Graphic design: Melissa T. Castro/Pulse News Mexico

The proposed reforms have resulted in tens of thousands of Mexicans taking to the streets to protest against the changes and to support maintaining the INE as it exists at present. The proposed reforms have sparked concerned statements and commentaries in Mexico, the United States and other countries. Mexico’s Supreme Court just temporarily suspended the proposed reforms, while it considers the constitutionality of those reforms in Mexico’s judicial system.

Responding to mild criticism from the U.S. State Department on Feb. 27,  AMLO asserted that there is “currently more democracy in Mexico than in the United States.” He continued, “When I say that we have more democracy than them, it’s because the people rule here and the oligarchy rules there.” He offered to debate the issue, claiming he has “evidence to prove there is more liberty and democracy” in Mexico.

AMLO’s surprising response was to these State Department words: “Today, in Mexico, we see a great debate on electoral reforms on the independence of electoral and judicial institutions that illustrates Mexico’s vibrant democracy. We respect Mexico’s sovereignty. We believe that a well-resourced, independent electoral system and respect for judicial independence support healthy democracy.”

The democracies in both countries are not perfect and can be strengthened, but it seems hard to argue with the U.S. State Department’s comment about the value of “a well-resourced, independent electoral system and respect for judicial independence.”

Importantly, studies highlight stark differences between the quality of democracy in Mexico and the United States, while underlining serious challenges to democracy in every region of the world.

The Democracy Report 2023, produced by the V-Dem Institute, ranks countries on a variety of measures of democracy. It ranks the United States as the 23rd-strongest among 178 countries on its Liberal Democracy Index and puts Mexico in 93rd place.

Rule of law is essential for democracy to function well. The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index looks at eight clusters of measures to rank 140 countries. Overall, this index ranks the United States 26th and Mexico 115th.

There are also other comparative rankings and reports to consider, such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index or the Organized Crime Index, where Mexico is given the fourth-worst criminality score among 193 countries.

A bottom line from the studies, however, is that democracy is complex, hard to maintain and facing backsliding is every region of the world. There are solid grounds for being concerned about maintaining a strong democratic system in Mexico, reinforced by analyses of those who study governments, as well as recent events in Mexico.

Mexicans themselves certainly should decide their path forward. However, their friends, neighbors and partners have legitimate interests in the path that Mexico takes and in sharing their counsel for achieving a path that leads to stronger democratic institutions that can help the country manage its daunting agenda.

EARL ANTHONY WAYNE (@EAnthonyWayne) is co-chair of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute and a Distinguished Diplomat in Residence at American University’s School of International Service. He served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico, among other diplomatic assignments.

An earlier version of the above article first appeared in the U.S. website The Hill and is being republished in Pulse News Mexico with specific prior permission.

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