Point of View

The Mexico you might not know

January 21, 2013 

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Map of De mexico

QI ZHOU — Getty Images/Hemera

Quick. What comes to mind when someone mentions Mexico? Dollars to donuts (pesos a buñuelos?), the most common answers would include some combination of illegal immigration, political corruption, crime, drug cartels and poverty.

As a result of our bitterly contested presidential election, some on the right might also mention Operation Fast and Furious, and foreign-policy wonks, recalling the Pentagon’s 2009 warning or Robert Kaplan’s recent bestseller, “The Revenge of Geography,” might throw in “failed state.”

So what’s the problem? Such views about Mexico are not merely incomplete – they have always been that – but very much out of date. Mexico has changed so much in recent years, particularly economically, that it might have become unrecognizable to those who haven’t been paying close attention.

With Washington and perhaps North Carolina likely to consider immigration reform in coming months, it’s important to have up-to-date information about one of the key countries driving the issue. Consider:

• Mexico has the 14th-largest economy in the world – Latin America’s second-largest – with a GDP of well over $1 trillion. GDP per capita in the country is well over $10,000 (considerably higher when measured in terms of purchasing-power parity). This places Mexico solidly among the ranks of middle-income nations, just behind Argentina and Turkey and well ahead of countries such as Lebanon, Malaysia, South Africa and Thailand, not to mention China and India.

• The country’s growth rate in 2011 was 4 percent, more than twice that of Brazil, and Mexico’s rate likely reached that same level in 2012. Going forward, many analysts project growth rates of at least 3.5 percent, with modest levels of inflation. According to The Economist, the country will rank among the 10 largest economies in the world by the end of the decade.

• Mexico is the 14th-largest nation in the world in area, and with 111 million people is the 11th-largest in population. Its economy is increasingly diversified, ranking 11th in the world in agricultural output, No. 12 in manufacturing output and 14th in services.

• It is the world’s largest producer of silver, the eighth-largest oil producer and the eighth-largest car maker, and it ranks in the Top 10 in the production of lead and zinc. Mexico ranks 11th in the world in agricultural output, 11th in revenues from tourism, 13th in steel production and 12th in total manufacturing output. It’s the 14th-largest exporter of goods and the 19th-largest exporter of goods and services.

• Mexico is currently our third-largest trading partner. With wages rising rapidly in China, labor cost differentials between China and Mexico have narrowed considerably, leading many to believe that by 2018 Mexico – the third-largest source of U.S. imports today – will rise to No. 1, passing China and Canada.

But what about overpopulation, massive migration and all that crime? Elements of truth, but much that needs qualification, and much that is patently wrong. For starters, Mexico’s population has stabilized. For a variety of reasons, female fertility has dropped dramatically over the past 50 years and is about 2.2 today. Demographers now forecast that by 2020 Mexico’s fertility rate will drop below “replacement levels” (about 2.1) and will be lower than that of the U.S.

And migration? Although workers’ remittances are still hugely important – the country ranks third in the world in this measure – according to the CIA World Factbook net migration is now quite low, and many believe that more Mexicans are returning to the country from the U.S. than are heading north. North Carolina politicians, take heed!

There is no way, alas, to deny that parts of Mexico are ridden by violent crime, most of it drug-related. But it is important to note that much of Mexico is safe – the country does not rank anywhere near the top in murder rates. Because much of the crime in Mexico is related to drugs, and because much of the demand comes from the United States, we shouldn’t pretend that our hands are completely clean.

Mexico will not have it easy in the years ahead, but economic and demographic trends are favorable. The middle class is growing, poverty is becoming less dire, the relative size of the labor force is increasing and life expectancy is now just under that of Americans.

The new PRI government seems serious about addressing the country’s problems, and Mexico’s future seems bright. Stay tuned.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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