Challenges Facing Mexico's New President; Pena Nieto Pledges Greater Prosperity, Security

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Byline: Roger F. Noriega, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Mexico's new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, took office on Saturday, promising a balanced budget, bold education reform, a more productive energy sector and vigorous security policies. How he manages this ambitious agenda during his six-year term will impact Mexico's future and its partnership with the United States.Mr. Pena Nieto takes the reins of government from Felipe Calderon, who managed one of the most difficult periods in Mexico's contemporary history. During Mr. Calderon's administration, the country suffered a serious polarization after his razor-thin victory over a leftist firebrand. Rampant narco-violence also prompted the government to implement a strategy to confront the impunity and carnage, which was threatening the country's governance. The effects of the 2008 financial crisis also hit Mexico, smothering steady economic growth. As if these challenges were not enough, Mexico was the epicenter of the H1N1 virus pandemic, which killed thousands of people and halted economic activity in the country for several weeks in the spring of 2009.Although Mr. Calderon is known mostly for his relentless offensive against drugs, his legacy may well be the way he managed this host of problems with boldness and skill and handed over a country with stronger institutions and a solid economy. Mexico's annual gross domestic product is about $1.5 trillion, the government has reserves of nearly $200 billion, and the country attracts more than $19 billion annually in direct foreign investments. Mexico has outgrown its track record of staggering currency devaluations and financial instability.Mr. Pena Nieto's election in July was a triumph for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which held a monopoly on power for seven decades until its defeat in 2000. Many say PRI governments of the past turned a blind eye to narco-criminality and sowed a culture of corruption in order to hold on to power. Perhaps the new president's biggest challenge will be convincing his skeptics that he will keep Mexico on a responsible path.The security question looms large among the challenges ahead, because Mexico is in the midst of a real war on drugs. While the vast majority of the 60,000 deaths attributed to this violence were gangsters engaged in bloody turf battles, millions of Mexicans have felt the brunt of the spreading violence. Many kingpins have been arrested or killed, yet a half-dozen powerful cartels continue to threaten the well-being of Mexican citizens. …