The president paints an optimistic portrait of a country rising from its troubles, but many who live with the nation's violence and poverty wonder 'what Mexico was he talking about?'
By Kathleen Hennessey and Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
May 3, 2013, 6:08 p.m.
MEXICO CITY — President Obama on Friday painted a sunny picture of a modern Mexico emerging from its past troubles, an attempt at rebranding that serves the political aims of both governments but clashes with the realities of a country beset by violence and poverty. ...
The perception of a rising Mexico serves both Obama's and his counterpart's domestic agendas. Obama's push for immigration reform could be lifted by a perception that the causes of illegal immigration — poverty, violence and corrupt institutions — are easing under new Mexican leadership.
Obama was not subtle in hitting this point, quoting an unnamed Mexican man as saying, "There's no reason to go abroad in search of a better life." The U.S. president expressed new confidence that his immigration push was on track, saying, "We are going to get it done this year. I'm absolutely convinced of it."
Peña Nieto's reform agenda also could use a boost. After passing laws to overhaul education and telecommunications, he faces an uphill battle in opening up Mexico's energy sector, especially oil exploration, to foreign investment. Such a move has long been taboo here.
Obama's audience responded with enthusiasm, frequently interrupting him with applause or cheers. But audience members didn't necessarily agree with his assessment.
"How nice that he came to give inspiring speeches, but what's happening in Mexico is far from what he talked about today," said Jose Carlos Cruz, a 24-year-old graduate student in international relations who attended the speech. "A really good speech by President Obama, but what Mexico was he talking about?"
The Mexican economy has begun to slow, and the decrease in illegal immigration is more likely a result of demographic changes, the sluggish U.S. economy and the severe dangers of crossing Mexico than of any improvements inside Mexico.
In his speech, Obama praised a growing middle class to which the majority of Mexicans belong. Although it is true that Mexico has a strong manufacturing base that has allowed many Mexicans to prosper, economists say the middle class has been stagnant for years. The World Bank says 49% of the population lives in poverty. ...
Yet many among the several hundred people in attendance said he seemed too upbeat about their country.
"Obama is fantastic, but I believe that today he was talking about another country, not ours," said Rosa Castro, 43, a college professor. "My question is: Who wrote Obama's speech? Enrique Peña Nieto's team?"
Alberto Rios Lara, 26, who is studying to be an economist, said, "Obama is a great speaker; it's really impossible not to feel excited. However, the reality is different in Mexico. We need more action and fewer speeches."
According to a recent Pew Research poll, 35% of all 116 million Mexicans would like to move to the U.S.
In a more reasonable world, as former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda pointed out in his 2011 book Manana Forever?, Americans would be moving to Mexico for pleasant retirements (my parents took a look at Lake Chapala in 1967). Castaneda offered a long list of reforms that Mexico should undertake to make Americans less adventurous than old war correspondent Fred Reed feel welcome. He felt that the single most important was that Mexicans should stop using the ethnic slur "gringo."
Something else I've noticed is that it's hard for most gringo politicians and pundits to remember that Mexico has gone through lots of economic upswings before.
|In 1946, Jorge Pasquel offered Babe Ruth $1 million
to be President of the Mexican League
For example, Mexico did so well economically during WWII that the Pasquel Brothers spent a supposed $50 million in the mid-1940s attempting to build the Mexican League into a third major league baseball circuit. In early 1946, they paid 18 big league ballplayers, such as Mickey Owen, Sal Maglie, and Vern Stephens to jump their contracts for the big money of the Mexican League. This caused one of the bigger crises in baseball of that era, with the MLB playing hardball in response. The Commissioner threatened to ban for life players who disobeyed the legally dubious "reserve clause" in their contracts.
Today, 67 years later, it seems bizarre to think that the Mexican League once competed with the American League and the National League.
P.S. Most old Sports Illustrated articles are online, and they are often great. Here's Frank Graham Jr.'s "The Great Mexican War of 1946" from 1966:
[Jorge] Pasquel was 39 years old in 1946, when he and his dashing brothers (Bernardo, Mario and the twins, Gerardo and Alfonso) discovered the ramshackle Mexican League. His family had owned a prosperous cigar factory, but he made his own opportunities as a young man by marrying the daughter of Plutarco Elias Calles, President of Mexico, and having himself appointed a customs broker for the Mexican government. His career was tempestuous. He left his wife, killed a man with the pistol he always carried and made enemies as well as a fortune.
"Pasquel liked baseball," Mickey Owen says, "and he liked being in the limelight. The league gave him a lot of publicity, and it was closely tied in with his pal Aleman's presidential campaign that spring. Raiding the big leagues was a way of showing up the yanquis."
Pasquel became the league's president and its chief scout ... Once, when a no-hitter was broken up in the sixth inning, Jorge summarily restored the prize to the pitcher by overruling the official scorer and calling the play an error. The crowd was as overcome by this gallant gesture as if Pasquel had redeemed a lady's chastity. It accorded him a standing ovation, while Jorge beamed in his private box.
... "When our league was struggling to get started," Pasquel said, "major league scouts came down here and stole our players. Why? Because they offered them more money. We're giving those people a dose of their own medicine."
Pasquel stepped up his raids on the major leagues. ... Later Alfonso Pasquel visited Stan Musial in his hotel room. While Musial, who was making $13,500 a year with the Cardinals, watched in astonishment, Pasquel spread five cashier's checks, each for $10,000, on his bed. This, Pasquel told him, was merely a bonus. While Musial turned the offer over in his mind, Cardinal Manager Eddie Dyer (an old Rickey man) effectively intervened.
"Stan, you've got two children," Dyer said. "Do you want them to hear someone say, 'There are the kids of a guy who broke a contract'?"
Musial declined to go to Mexico, but the Pasquels scored their most dramatic coup by hijacking three other Cardinals, Pitchers Max Lanier and Fred Martin and Second Baseman Lou Klein. Lanier was the prize. Considered by some baseball men to be the best pitcher in the National League, he had a 6-0 record with St. Louis when he left for Mexico in June. ...
But the Mexican problem was beginning to solve itself. Attendance, after the novelty of new faces had run its course, quickly declined. There were heavy rains that summer. At critical moments during a night game the electricity would fail. ... Travel was arduous at best, and sometimes hazardous. Landing strips in a few towns were simply open pastures. "It was unnerving," Mickey Owen says. "Coming in for a landing we'd look out and see eight or 10 of those big black Mexican vultures waiting for us. That's one of the things I remember best about Mexico—those vultures."
... Nor did the American players prove to be the superstars Pasquel thought he had bought. When Veracruz, which Pasquel had stocked with the best players because it was his favorite team, sank into fourth place, Jorge took matters into his own hands. He fired Owen as manager and named as Owen's successor—Jorge Pasquel!
"It's quite possible I did a lousy job of managing," Mickey says. "But I think the main thing was that Jorge had a sneaky ambition to be the manager himself."
Pasquel, in uniform, took his place in the third-base coaching box. When he waved his arms, which he did frequently, his 12-karat diamond ring glittered in the sun. The crowd roared its appreciation. Between innings Pasquel retired to the dugout, where a valet, a napkin draped over one arm, served him steaming cups of vegetable juices and platters of chicken or crabs. When he had finished eating, his valet produced a tooth brush, with which Jorge cleaned his teeth. At the end of 10 days, Veracruz still languished in fourth place, the cheers for its gallant leader were not so delirious, and Jorge stepped aside in favor of a man named Chili Lopez.