Mexico and the Myth of the “Failed State”

Mexico and the Myth of the “Failed State”

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MERIDA, Mexico— For more than four decades, Americans have expressed alarm at what they see the imminent collapse of the Mexican government, warning their fellow citizens that Mexico is a “failed state.”

But far from being a “failed state,” Mexico is proving itself to be one of the most successful countries in the world, one that has made the transition from an agrarian economy to a modern industrialized one, while moving from a closed, authoritarian regime to a vibrant democracy.

Far too many Americans make the mistake of thinking Mexico as the country portrayed in the 1950s. Over the past half century, it has become one of the most important economies in the world. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the CIA World Factbook each rank Mexico as the 14th largest economy. Mexico has one of the most comprehensive social welfare programs anywhere in the hemisphere. This is a country that strives, albeit imperfectly and not always successfully, to provide for the general well-being.

Yes, given its resources and its population, many people fall between the cracks. Of Mexico’s population of 110 million, some 30 million, or a little over a quarter, are living in the “informal economy,” as it is euphemistically called. For comparative purposes, 1.5 in 10 Americans rely on food stamps, and in the largest American city, New York, 1 in 4 children live below the federal poverty line. No country addresses all of the needs of its people, but Mexico is diligent in at least working towards that end.

If you think that Mexixo is a country with no laws or legal institutions, a kind of place reminiscent of some Hollywood movie where it’s the “Wild, Wild West,” then you are in for a surprise. Mexico is one of the most bureaucratic nations in the hemisphere—it rivals France when it comes to official paperwork! And it rivals the Scandinavian countries when it comes to its aspirations for being a “nanny state.” In fact, international agencies—from the World Bank to the International Monetary Fund—continue to remind Mexico that it has to “streamline” its bureaucracy if it wants to become more competitive in the global economy.

Americans, however, are reluctant to give Mexico credit where credit is due.

The myth of Mexico as a “failed state” began with Barry Goldwater, who lamented that the 1968 Summer Olympic Games were being held in Mexico City, the capital of what he called a “faltering” nation.

Since then, Americans have discovered that Mexico-bashing is a sure way of making a quick buck on trash books.

“This is an attempt to understand Mexico's steep descent into turmoil,” is how Andres Oppenheimer’s 1998 book, Bordering on Chaos, was marketed. Less than two years later, Mexico made a peaceful transition for a single-party state to a full democracy by electing its first opposition leader in seven decades.

According to American commentators, a decade later, Mexico is still on the “verge” of collapsing. “The [Mexican] state has not yet taken control of drug trafficking, and its strength is steadily diminishing,” is George Grayson’s 1999 take in his book, “Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?” The book claimed to document “state disintegration.”

And the news media continues to feed a constant stream of “failed state” alarmism. From the Wall Street Journal to National Public Radio, Americans are told of Mexico’s impending collapse. Joel Kurtzman warned in the Journal in 2009 that: “Mexico is at risk of becoming a failed state. Defense planners liken the situation to that of Pakistan, where wholesale collapse of civil government is possible.”

Not to be outdone, NPR joined the fray the following month. “CIA and U.S. military planners now fear a worst-case scenario — that the country [of Mexico] could implode,” Tom Bowman wrote in NPR in 2009. He included this quotation: "You have maybe unplanned or unanticipated migration of people" into the U.S. to flee the violence, says Navy Capt. Sean Buck, a strategic planner with the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command. "You have a humanitarian situation in which we may feel compelled to respond to with other nation states and partners."

This is mild compared to the nightly Mexico-hate fest from the now-cancelled Lou Dobbs’ “Broken Borders” on CNN and the continuing Mexico-bashing on Fox News.

Earlier this month, writing in the New York Times, Damien Cave offered a stark reality check: “The extraordinary Mexican migration that delivered millions of illegal immigrants to the United States over the past 30 years has sputtered to a trickle, and research points to a surprising cause: unheralded changes in Mexico that have made staying home more attractive. A growing body of evidence suggests that a mix of developments — expanding economic and educational opportunities, rising border crime and shrinking families — are suppressing illegal traffic as much as economic slowdowns or immigrant crackdowns in the United States.”

Mexico’s achievement has not been easy, marred by economic crisis and national soul-searching as it has struggled to overcome the geographic proximity to the U.S. that has, among other things, engendered a military engagement against drug cartels. The “drug war” that has employed 45,000 troops to combat the drug cartels—and the resulting 35,000 deaths—are tragic indeed, but the “drug war” does not diminish the accomplishment of the Mexican nation as a whole.

It is a credit to Mexico, and the dignity of the Mexican people, that all this hateful speech coming from the U.S. has not been reciprocated. Mexico does not wish ill for the United States or vilify Americans. There is, however, concern, and there is the growing perception of bafflement: How did Americans become a nation of hysterics?

To be sure, Mexico-bashing remains a popular—and populist—pastime in the United States, one sure way of selling newspapers, boosting ratings on cable shows and selling trash books.

But American spectacles aside, the reality is quite different: Mexico, like most nations, faces formidable challenges. But it has made remarkable progress and become a vibrant democracy, with a significant middle class, and creating enough jobs internally to sustain internal growth. It is respected around the world as a peaceful nation, a bastion of relative stability today, with hopeful prospects for the future.

In less than a year, Mexicans will go to the polls to elect a new president, and whoever wins, it will be triumph for the success of the Mexican state.