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Michael Barone: Mexico becomes a stable, politically diverse neighbor

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Photo - Mexico City lights at night
Mexico City lights at night
Politics,Michael Barone,Politics Digest

We Americans are lucky, though we seldom reflect on it, that we have good neighbors.

In East Asia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines face challenges from China over islands they have long claimed in the East China Sea.

In Europe, Germany and other prosperous nations face demands for subsidies from debt-ridden nations to avoid the collapse of the euro.

When Southern Europeans look across the Mediterranean, they see Muslim nations facing post-Arab Spring upheaval and disorder.

The United States has land borders with just two nations, Canada (more on that another day) and Mexico, where Barack Obama is headed next month. They're both good neighbors.

I realize that most of the recent news on Mexico has been about violent drug wars. You get 500,000 hits when you Google "Mexico failed state."

But that's a misleading picture. The war on drug lords waged by President Felipe Calderon from 2006 to 2012 has had considerable success and has been de-emphasized by his successor, Enrique Pena Nieto.

The focus on the drug war ignores Mexico's progress over the last 25 years as an electoral democracy. For 71 years, it had one-party rule of the PRI, or Party of the Institutional Revolution.

Under PRI rule, a president selected by his predecessor selected his successor.

But under PRI Presidents Carlos Salinas (1988-94) and Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), Mexico established a clean election system under which the opposition conservative PAN and leftist PRD parties won state and legislative offices.

This was capped when PAN candidate Vicente Fox was elected president in July 2000. When Zedillo came on television and said, "I recognize that Vicente Fox is the next president of Mexico," thousands of Fox supporters gathered around Mexico City's Angel of Independence and stomped so strongly in unison that the Earth shook.

Fox and his PAN successor, Calderon, had some significant policy successes. But they were frustrated in getting changes in the energy sector, in which the state-owned monopoly Pemex has lagged behind, and in education, where teacher jobs are handed down from parent to child.

The reason is that since 2000, none of Mexico's three parties has had a majority in Congress. That's one result of genuine political competition, in which voters have imposed rotation in office in governorships and legislative seats.

But it also meant that the PAN presidents could not get reforms through Congress if they were opposed by the PRI and the PRD.

Things have been different since the 2012 presidential election. PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto seemed a depressingly conventional politician, who as governor of the state of Mexico (which surrounds central Mexico City) won publicity for dating a telenovela star.

Pena won the July election handily and on taking office in December called for major reforms. He issued a 34-page Pact for Mexico, which proposed greater competition for Pemex in the energy sector, plus education and judicial reforms.

Remarkably, it was endorsed by PAN and PRD as well as the PRI. Pemex has been a sacred cow in Mexico since the 1930s when President Lazaro Cardenas seized foreign oil operations and created the state-owned monopoly.

The Pemex union was a pillar of the PRI establishment. Now a PRI president was proposing to reform it, and his move was endorsed by a PRI party convention in March.

Pena also acted on education. In February, Congress passed a law establishing a transparent system for teacher hiring and evaluation.

The next day, the government arrested the head of the teachers union and charged her with spending $156 million of union funds on luxury goods.

And Pena has moved to deregulate telecommunications, which threatens the position of telecom billionaire Carlos Slim.

There is other heartening news from south of our border. Mexico's economy is moving ahead with 5 percent growth.

Since the NAFTA treaty went into effect in the 1990s, it seemed that Mexico's economy was tethered to ours, leaving it unable to close the gap with the United States. Now as our economy slogs along slowly, Mexico is moving toward catching up. It is, as former Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda has proclaimed, a majority middle-class country now.

It is also a country from which, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, there has been no net migration to the United States since 2007.

All this vindicates our previous four presidents, who pressed for closer ties with Mexico. But most of the credit belongs to the leaders and people of Mexico. Good neighbors.

Michael Barone, The Examiner's senior political analyst, can be contacted at mbarone@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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