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Country profile: Mexico


Country ratings

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)

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Dance group performing in Culiacan. © Teun Voeten/Panos Pictures

The novelist Mario Vargas Llosa once labelled the 71-year period of government in Mexico by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) the ‘perfect dictatorship’. The 2012 electoral victory of Enrique Peña Nieto marked the return to power of the PRI after a 12-year hiatus. Many commentators wondered whether the PRI really had changed or whether this was a case of ‘old wine in new bottles’.

Peña Nieto entered government on a reformist agenda. Last year he instituted his Pact for Mexico, which encompassed energy, justice, political reform and social development, as well as market-friendly reforms relating to education, taxation and telecommunications. Along with Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey, Mexico has been anointed as one of the MINT economies by Jim O’Neill who a few years earlier designated Brazil, Russia, India and China the BRICs. In common with other MINT economies, Mexico’s advantage lies in the youth of its workforce and its geographical proximity to a major market – the United States.

While Peña Nieto’s reforms have been welcomed by international finance organizations, within Mexico his policies have been questioned. Some, including the film director Alfonso Cuarón, say that Peña Nieto has not properly explained why some of these reforms, particularly the much-vaunted Energy Reform Bill that will see the end of the state monopoly on oil and gas, are beneficial. While Peña Nieto and those who see the country as the ‘new China’ believe that ‘Mexico’s moment’ has arrived, many others see Peña Nieto as beholden to international capital.

Orphans in the Casa de Ninos Emanuel.

Teun Voeten/Panos Pictures

Whether Mexico is living its ‘moment’ is very much an open question. Income inequality remains very high, and there are significant disparities in income between those who live in Southern and those who live in Northern states, and between the urban and rural populations. Despite the fame of the Oportunidades programme (a cash transfer scheme that pays poor families money conditional on school attendance and visits to a health clinic), work remains to be done to improve education, combat poverty, and improve the quality of healthcare for those outside the middle and upper classes.

The country also faces significant security challenges. A 2013 list of the Top 50 most violent cities in the world included nine cities from Mexico with Acapulco at number two. Much of the violence permeating Mexican society is cartel-related. Some 70,000 people have been killed since the start of the drug wars in 2006, with thousands more disappeared and displaced.

While the authorities’ efforts against the cartels were undoubtedly boosted by the arrest of Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, the impact of that on the Sinaloa Cartel is unlikely to be significant. Recent violence in Tamaulipas has led some to wonder if Mexico is not heading back to the bloody days of 2010. The rise of self-help and vigilante groups, such as those fighting the Cabelleros Templarios cartel in Michoacan, suggests that, for some, the government is not doing enough.

Children demonstrate for peace in Ciudad Juarez.

Teun Voeten/Panos Pictures

The actions of vigilante groups are about the right to lead a life free from outside interference. Much the same can be said about the Zapatistas in Chiapas. 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the Zapatista Rebellion. Though not as prominent internationally as in the past, the Ejército Zapatista Liberación Nacional (EZLN) continues to fight on behalf of indigenous communities and against the state. Though President Fox withdrew soldiers from Chiapas in 2000, according to the EZLN, the state has switched to a ‘low intensity’ approach, encouraging paramilitary actions and employing a divide-and-conquer strategy that seeks to turn other social movements against the Zapatistas, whose analysis of Mexico’s ‘moment’ could not be more different from Peña Nieto’s.

by Russell White.

Fact file

Leader President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Economy GNI per capita $9,740 (Guatemala $3,120, United States $50,120).
Monetary unit Peso.
Main exports Manufactured goods, oil and oil products, silver, fruits, vegetables, coffee, cotton. Two decades after the North American Free Trade Area came into force, 78% of Mexico’s exports go to the US but it also has free-trade deals with 50 countries.
People 120.5 million. Annual population growth rate 1990-2012 1.5%. People per square kilometre 61 (UK 257).
Health Infant mortality 14 per 1,000 live births (Guatemala 27, US 6). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 790 (US 1 in 2,400). HIV prevalence rate 0.2%. The quality of healthcare varies dramatically.
Environment There have been some interesting environmental developments in Mexico City to counter the city’s high pollution levels. These include the Hoy No Circula (No Driving Today) ban that kicks in when pollution reaches a certain level and the creation of azoteas verdes – green roofs – on schools, hospitals and government buildings.
Religion Mexico remains a Catholic country (around 83%) though evangelical Protestantism in its various forms has been on the rise.
Language Around 93% speak only Spanish and 1% only indigenous languages, with the remainder speaking both.
Human Development Index 0.756, 71st of 187 countries (Guatemala 0.628, US 0.914).

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution Income inequality remains very high, and is particularly acute in rural communities.
Literacy 94%. Literacy has increased significantly in the last two decades, though there is quite significant regional variation.
Life expectancy 77 years (Guatemala 72, US 79).
Freedom Journalists and newspapers have to be wary about what they write and publish about the cartels. The law giving the government the right to block cellphones and censor websites during protests has been criticized for infringing civil liberties.
Position of women Rural women have fewer labour-market opportunities than their urban counterparts. Violent crime against women continues to be a real problem.
Sexual minorities Homosexuality has been legal since 1872, anti-discrimination laws were passed in 2003 and laws legalizing gay marriage have been passed in progressive Mexico City. But other parts of the country are more conservative.
New Internationalist assessment Mexico continues to try to institutionalize the trappings of a modern democracy. Fears that the return of the PRI would mark a return to the politics of the past have proven unfounded. Nevertheless, the corruption and lack of transparency remain conspicuous. While some on the Left consider Mexican democracy to be corrupted, the country’s politics are very different from the past. As Enrique Krauze wrote in The Huffington Post: ‘The open society of today is more uncertain and dangerous than the politically protected society of the past, but it is also far more honest, far more susceptible to positive improvement.’

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