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Agustin Barrios Gomez, president of SolutionsAbroad.com, has been commissioned by the newly-relaunched English-language daily The News to produce a weekly opinion column on Mexican current affairs. The column is published every Wednesday in the paper and also here online. Our president is a member of the Mexican Council on Foreign Affairs and is an analyst of politics in North America with a degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University.
What to Make of What the President Should Do Now
May 13, 2009
There are now more H1N1 influenza infections in the US than there are in Mexico. Mexico City's notorious traffic is back (who would have ever thought that we would cheer the Great Bottleneck?). International institutions have praised Mexico's response and now the worry has shifted from the spread of this new strain of flu to the possibility that it might pick up some genes from the H5N1 "avian" variety (which has a 60% kill rate). If it does, then we would be looking at a pandemic with Hollywood-style ramifications, but chances are that the viral mix-and-match would start in Asia (home of H5N1). President Calderón is, for the moment, safe from being responsible for the new Plague.
So, what should he do now? Tourism revenues are set to fall by 40% this year (that's about $5 billion dollars to this Top 10 destination). South American opportunists and Chinese hotheads have tried to quarantine Mexico. Economic activity in the world's 8th most important city economy, Mexico City, was stifled. Experts predict that this episode will cost the country about 0.69% of its GDP, but common sense fears much more.
First, it's time to crank up the stimulus. Mexico has a lot of pent-up supply and demand that is waiting for a reason to start up again. Second, President Calderón needs to promote the hospitality sector, with much higher deductions for business travel and restaurant expenses (national tourism is actually more important than international arrivals, so benefits for Mexican businesses would be very helpful). Restaurants have suffered too much; from smoking bans to capricious local authorities and draconian tax laws. It's time for the government to bud out and for Mexico to fulfill its mission as the place for "food, folks and fun" (to borrow McDonald's' old slogan).
Third, let's get the word out. Thankfully, the Obama administration was even-handed in its handling of the influenza crisis, listening to scientists, not populists. Nevertheless, Mexico's image problem remains, not just from H1N1, but from the violence and poverty that get incessant coverage in the media.
As has been mentioned in this column, Mexico needs a multi-disciplinary approach in communicating to Americans. Academics and scholars should be made available to all media outlets when they talk about Mexico; cultural events should be coordinated and a mega advertising and media campaign should start today. The campaign should differentiate among Mexico's diverse destinations.
As we all know, Mexico is much more than its caricature. In fact, for tens of millions of Mexicans and Americans, Mexico is the world's best kept "secret". Given the issues that confront many communities, it would be naïve to think that the State Department could retract all of its travel advisories ("warnings") in the short term. Nevertheless, there are many opportunities to advertise specific destination that are perfectly safe. In that sense, Mexico could promote a tacit (or, better yet, explicit) "seal of approval" from the US State Department, insofar as there is no advisory, or as the US Embassy considers the place OK. Many of these colonial towns, beaches and cities would have the added benefit of not having suffered from H1N1.
At the same time, business groups could promote the NAFTA zone as the economic region that it is, with tens of millions of border-state Americans benefiting from their links with Mexico. The truth that a dollar spent on Mexican goods benefits the US much more than one spent elsewhere needs to be far better understood than it is today.
The Statue of Libertad
This week's reopening of the crown of the Statue of Liberty (officially "Liberty Enlightening the World") in New York reminds us of the excellent job that other countries have done to honor the American immigrant tradition. In 1886 the French celebrated their friendship with the US by giving it a statue that stands 93 meters tall (with pedestal), welcoming "huddled masses yearning to breathe free".
Mexico, being the most significant source of US immigrant manpower in history, should have a similar gesture. Ours could stand on Catalina Island, at the entrance of the LA/Long Beach port complex, thereby manifesting an East and West Coast symmetry vis-à-vis Lady Liberty in New York. The original is a tribute to European immigration, while LA's would pay tribute to the New Americans, who are overwhelmingly Mexican descendants, including the current mayor of Los Angeles.
The point is that President Calderón needs to think outside the box. His high approval levels notwithstanding, Mexico is in a funk. There are plenty of people who are willing and able to help, but they need a coherent vision and some seed capital. That's where the federal government can step in.
For the latest thought-provoking article by Agustin Barrios Gomez please go to our Opinion Column page
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