By: Lisa Coleman
Having interviewed and talked to quite a number of Mexican government officials in my years as a journalist, I must say I have heard enough canned rhetoric to last a lifetime. More often than not, I found myself wishing for someone who would skip the press releases and just have an honest one-on-one conversation. After a recent interview with Arturo Sarukhán, the current Ambassador of Mexico to the United States, I think I found just the person I was looking for. What a pleasure to meet someone who is so willing to discuss Mexico’s issues with such refreshing, and almost surprising, candor.
Though our interview was via webcast, I could tell in an instant this man was different. Straightforward, intelligent and engaging, Ambassador Sarukhán was immediately open and receptive to all questions. There were four other bloggers participating in the interview, and I am quite sure they share my sentiment about the Ambassador’s discussion.
His credentials read like a laundry list of over achievement: Sarukhán is a former Consul General at New York City, and served as foreign policy coordinator in Calderon’s presidential campaign and transition team. He graduated from El Colegio de México with a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and received a master’s degree in U.S. Foreign Policy at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., where he studied as a Fulbright scholar and Ford Foundation Fellow. In 1988–1989, before joining Mexico’s Foreign Service, Sarukhán served as the Executive Secretary of the Commission for the Future of Mexico-US relations, a non-governmental initiative funded by the Ford Foundation to recast the Mexico-US relationship.
And, for the cherry on top, rumor has it that in October 2009, Sarukhán became the first Ambassador in Washington, D.C. to have a personal Twitter account. (He tweets under the handle @arturo_Sarukhán.)
That said… you can imagine how interesting it was to talk some Mexico with him. He started our conversation with an overview of the U.S./Mexico relationship. “The muscle tone of the U.S.-Mexico relationship is, I think, despite occasional background noise of media and public opinion, extremely good. This is the best level of engagement and best strategic sense of direction since days of NAFTA.”
With endless negative press about the drug wars and what’s “wrong” in Mexico, it was particularly compelling to hear the Ambassador bring the focus back to what’s “right” in Mexico: the pillars of economic structure, the ambitious free trade framework and the successful social programs. Sarukhán went on to discuss in detail that Mexico’s network of free trade has “changed the footprint of economic development and activity in Mexico.” Mexico is now the third largest trading partner and second in the purchasing of goods from the United States. Every day Mexico and the U.S. trade $1 billion, move goods on 5,000 trucks, and host one million legal border crossings. In his words, this makes for “an extremely dynamic relationship with the U.S.”
A question was also raised about the U.S. auto industry building manufacturing plants south of the border, a choice that has been widely criticized here in the states. All major manufacturers in Mexico plan to expand operations, which plays to the American public as more job loss for our workers. Sarukhán was quick to point out that “Mexico is either the first or second largest trading partner to 22 U.S. states. There are 8 million jobs in those twenty-two states directly linked to trade with Mexico. What I think what we need to continue to do is highlight and underscore how this interconnectedness we’ve developed in North America is, at end of the day, creating (and not displacing jobs) from the United States and Canada.” In addition, he makes the argument that, “Enhanced job creation in Mexico equates to falling immigration rates into the United States.”
I, of course, had to ask about tourism and how the government plans to position itself in a more positive light to travelers and the American public as a whole. We agreed the biggest problem, and most challenging for Mexico, is the lack of geographical knowledge or reference on the part of the American public. Sarukhán noted, “There are a total of 2700 municipalities in Mexico with only 80 reporting violence. The challenge is that if it bleeds it leads.” This is unfortunately so very true, especially when it comes to Mexico. He also mentioned there is a “Master plan that will contemplate a public awareness or public education campaign to help alleviate fears of the tourists,” and he hoped the premiere of the Mexico: The Royal Tour (with Peter Greenberg and Calderon) will hopefully play a role in the perspective of tourism.
In terms of social programs, the Ambassador discussed something quite remarkable called “Oportunidades” (Opportunities). I had actually never heard of the program before and found it very impressive. The program, originally called Progresa (Progress), was created in 1997. It’s a government social assistance program designed to target poverty by providing cash payments to families in exchange for regular school attendance, health clinic visits, and nutritional support. This cconditional cash transfer micro lending program targets the female head of household. She must provide proof that she and the children are going to the doctor and getting vaccines, and the kids must be enrolled in school and getting passing grades to remain in the program. Oportunidades is credited with decreasing poverty and improving health and educational attainment in regions in which it has been deployed. Around one-quarter (40 million) of Mexico’s population participates in Oportunidades. It is a fascinating social model, and worth exploring if you’re interested.
I truly could have spoken with and listened to the Ambassador for hours. And, I could go on endlessly in this blog about all the topics covered. But suffice to say, it was an excellent interview. If Ambassador Arturo Sarukhán had a platform to reach the American public on a regular basis, I can assure you their perspective of Mexico would change. Follow him on Twitter, you’ll learn a lot.
Disclosure: I am being compensated for my work in creating and managing content as a Community Manager for the México Today Program. All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared here are completely my own. Mexico Today is a joint public and private sector initiative designed to help promote Mexico as a global business partner and an unrivaled tourist destination.