Mexico City —The poor of Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean have long looked North for a better chance in life, braving the Florida Straits, wading across the Rio Grande or stealing through the rose gardens of suburban San Diego as prophets of a postmodern age when borders no longer hold. Now, in an historic shift from the days of anti-Yanquism, their governments and intellectual elites are looking North as well.
Except for Fidel and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who still seem enthralled by the romance of nationalist revolution, most of Latin America welcomes the integrationist vision of Mexican President Vicente Fox, a onetime salesman for that imperialist brew, Coca-Cola, as a sensible path forward for a region still weighed down by massive poverty and the backdraft of corruption. For Fox, only the rule of law, democracy and a common market with the United States will create a space free and wealthy enough to accommodate the aspirations of all Americans.
The Mexican writer Carlos Monsivais once remarked that because Mexico lacks opportunity, " Los Angeles has become the heart of the Mexican dream." Indeed, one-quarter of the working population of Fox's home state of Guanajuato live as migrants in the US. And a full 30 percent of all legal immigrants to the US these days, not to speak of those who cross the border illegally, come from Mexico. To bring the dream back home Fox, in effect, proposes to build a bigger house with his neighbor.
But, more than anything else, bringing opportunity back to Latin America must start with ending corruption. If there is a continental denominator in the recent political upheavals across the region it is the revolt against the impunity of a corrupt political class that, with notable exceptions like Chile, has filled its pockets while leaving behind a legacy of economic stagnation and one of the world's worst maldistributions of wealth.
This revolt has taken varying forms, from Fox's surprise election after 71 years of perfect dictatorship in Mexico to the sudden fall of Alberto Fujimori and his spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos in Peru to the popular rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela with his resonant cry against "rotten elites."
In this hemisphere, though, it takes two to tango. Although it was California Governor Jerry Brown who first proposed a common market with Mexico back in 1979—an idea roundly rejected at the time by Mexico's nationalist leaders —few US politicians today are willing to embrace the boldness of Fox's vision.
President George Bush-the-younger has at least told Fox he "appreciates" his optimistic vision of Mexico's future convergence with the US so "people don't have to leave home to feed their family." Bush has, however, rejected Mexico's proposal for a European-style "development fund" to help close the gap as too bureaucratic and told Fox to look for resources in the marketplace.
As Fox has responded, it is doubtful that the market alone can do the trick. But in this case the devil may be in letting the ideologically shaded details bog down the long-term vision. The point is that it is profoundly in the US interest to help set Mexico on the path of convergence in any way it can. A country that is mostly middle class instead of mostly poor by 2050 will be a country where people stay home, insist on the rule of law and demand a cleaner environment.
NAFTA has already made Mexico the largest trading partner of the US, next to Canada, and it has brought jobs and new wealth to Mexico—at least from Mexico City northward. The central issue now is how to extend those benefits into places like Chiapas and the other still rural zones in Mexico's south, for example by using microcredit facilities to help lift millions out of absolute poverty, and to find ways to expand the middle class through programs as prosaic, but fundamental, as organizing a secondary mortgage market to finance broader homeownership.
There is plenty of room for creativity in leveraging "market resources" through government programs, as Fox himself already did as governor of Guanajuato where private remittances of Mexicans working in the US were matched dollar for dollar by the state government if they were invested in opening new shops or factories in the migrants' hometowns. Mexicans working in the US remit an astounding $8 billion a year to Mexico, a figure nearly equal to total annual foreign investment in the country.
Vicente Fox has proposed moving the fence posts of the Mexican ranchero to create a larger field for dealing with common problems. If the new US leadership responds with an equal sense of historical imagination, North America can offer an example to the world of how globalization can be made to work for rich and poor alike, even if they are historically contentious neighbors.