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D.C. Visit to Highlight Big Agenda Awaiting New President of Mexico

Days before taking office as the next president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto will visit the White House on Tuesday to take part in a discussion likely to focus on trade, the economy and transnational violence.

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Mexico’s commitment to security and its strong symbiotic economic ties with the United States will probably be key talking points when the country's next leader visits the White House on Tuesday, according to a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto will meet with President Obama and congressional leaders to discuss the countries’ futures amid a sluggish economy and concerns over transnational violence. Peña Nieto, who won Mexico’s presidential election in July, will take the oath of office Saturday. His victory brings a return to power for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which was in charge for more than 70 years last century. The conservative National Action Party, or PAN, had been in power the last 12 years.

Antonio Garza, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2002 to 2009 and is now counsel in the Mexico City office of White & Case, said Peña Nieto should stress Mexico’s place in the world as an emerging market.

“I would then make clear my own commitment to additional reform, a transparent and accountable democracy and acknowledge that Mexico still has a ways to go in terms of building the institutions that would put the country further down the road in terms of security,” he said. “The broader points that I would make is that Mexico’s strategic place in the world complements that of the U.S., particularly in such areas as energy.”

The White House this month issued a statement saying, “The United States remains committed to work in partnership with Mexico to increase economic competitiveness in both countries, promote regional development, advance bilateral efforts to develop a secure and efficient 21st Century Border, and address our common security challenges.”

Garza spoke to The Texas Tribune a day after consulting firms Vianovo and GSD&M released a survey showing that about half of the U.S. population holds an unfavorable view of Mexico, which is Texas’ largest trading partner and the United States’ third largest overall. Garza also chairs Vianovo Ventures, the firm's cross-border consultancy. 

But the survey also indicates that the majority of respondents have never been to Mexico and that most do not have any colleagues, friends or family members who were born in the country. That suggests, Garza said, that economists and frequent travelers have a clearer understanding of Mexico and, as a result, the challenges and opportunities the country faces. Adjusting Mexico’s negative reputation among Americans is where the work needs to be done, he said.

"Look, it benchmarks," he said. "It's from here upon which Mexico has to build a broader base of favorable opinion and move those negatives towards a better understanding of the realities of today's Mexico, which is that of a strategically well-positioned emerging market." 

Mexico’s position as a top trade partner, and the millions of resulting jobs for the U.S., should improve Americans' perception of Mexico, Garza added. Through September, more than $369.4 billion has passed between the two countries this year. Nearly half, or $172.4 billion, passed through the Laredo port, with another $65 billion passing through the El Paso port. The commerce has made the trade zones Mexico’s No. 1 and 2 top trading destinations, respectively.

Garza said unions and other opponents of trade pacts often overlook the fact that when Mexico is not exporting, it is importing. In 2011, he said, $200 billion worth of goods sold in Mexico was produced in the U.S., supporting 600 million jobs.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, will attend Saturday’s inauguration in Mexico City as part of a delegation that also includes Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, and Pete Sessions, R-Dallas. Cuellar said Tuesday’s discussions should also center on Mexico’s inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multinational pact that the congressman said could be a "NAFTA 2.0."

“The TPP will be a way to have NAFTA modernized without having to change it,” Cuellar said.

On border security, Cuellar said the U.S. has provided Mexico with a wealth of resources and ideas, which will also be a key issue during Tuesday’s meeting. Some American lawmakers have worried that the PRI would cut deals with organized crime, allegations it faced during its previous time in power. McCaul, who after the July election issued a statement saying he hoped the future president would not “turn a blind eye” toward organized crime, has recently expressed optimism. He said Peña Nieto has made efforts to improve safety, including inviting former Colombian Gen. Óscar Naranjo, who worked closely with the U.S. in the 1990s, to join his advisory team and address the cartel violence that has claimed more than 60,000 lives there since 2006.

Cuellar said Peña Nieto has strong ambitions to make Mexico safer during his first year in office.

“They seem to have a very good understanding in going after the gangs” the cartels employ, he said. Cuellar said Peña Nieto's transition team is interested in a proposal to provide the Mexicans with surplus equipment the U.S. is bringing back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cuellar, who has invited Peña Nieto to Texas following the inauguration, said more details will emerge on what the relationship between the two countries will be after the president-elect names his cabinet. Asked whether he expected Peña Nieto to retain some of Mexico’s current officials, including the country’s ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhán, Cuellar said the PRI would look to take hold of some of the openings.

“There are a lot of very hungry people that want to serve,” he said. "[The PRI] have been out of power for 12 years.” 

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