Mexico was in the news a lot last week. It hailed a new trade agreement with the U.S. and Canada to replace NAFTA – and President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador and President Trump even spoke by phone about ways to improve Mexico’s economic development in order to reduce illegal immigration.
“We estimate joint investments of more than $30 billion toward that effort,” López Obrador said then in Mexico City. It was a major break from the animosity that’s existed between Mexico and the U.S. since Trump was elected two years ago after running a campaign that insulted Mexico – and Mexicans – at about every stop.
So this feels like a big moment for Mexico, which is economically and politically the most important country in Latin America for the U.S. Yet in this part of the U.S. – Florida and especially South Florida – we’re so focused on Cuba and South America that we rarely think about Mexico.
The University of Miami thinks that has to change.
On the same day Trump and López Obrador bonded by phone, UM held a major forum on Mexico. Scholars from both countries discussed what to expect when López Obrador takes office on December 1.
One point was that Florida has a strong reason to pay attention – since López Obrador is a leftist populist who may have friendlier dealings with leftist dictatorships like Cuba and Venezuela than past Mexican governments have.
“We have an important set of individuals living in South Florida very concerned about what’s happened in Venezuela – and very concerned that something similar could happen in Mexico, the country that I call home," says Felicia Knaul, who directs UM’s Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas. It hosted the forum – along with a new UM effort called the Mexico-Mesoamerica Group.
Knaul calls Mexico home in part because her husband, UM President Julio Frenk, is Mexico’s former Health Minister. Knaul herself is a UM public health professor. And she’s aware of a key public health issue where Florida and Mexico intersect.
“We have to think carefully about crime and violence and drugs and what we can say from South Florida on those topics," says Knaul. "We need to think more about what a violent Mexico means" for the U.S. and the rest of the world.
In no small part that's because Florida is one of the worst sites of the U.S. opioid epidemic – and also the growing heroin addiction crisis. Mexican drug cartels are the major source of that heroin – and the massive profits they earn from it help fuel Mexico’s crippling narco-violence.
"It's more important than ever for Americans like Floridians to understand how interconnected drug consumption is with Mexico's drug violence," says prominent Mexican journalist and journalism professor Marco Lara Klahr, who was a forum panelist.
Lara specializes in teaching Mexican journalists how to cover that criminal mayhem – which all too often targets them. The murders of journalists by organized crime in Mexico is at an all-time high. One recent victim was Javier Valdez – a friend and colleague of Lara’s.
“Just before the narcos killed him, Javier and I had a long conversation about journalists being important protectors of human rights in Mexico,” Lara says. “But we’re also the most vulnerable.”
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Other panelists at the forum agreed that states like Florida need to keep that Mexican bloodshed in mind as they formulate drug policy. Roderic Camp is a Mexico expert at Claremont McKenna College in California.
“The whole violence issue has to do with our demand for illegal drugs," says Roderic Camp, a Mexico expert at the Claremont McKenna College in California. "And all we’ve done is to spend $16-to-18 billion a year on interdiction instead of programs that reduce the consumption. That to me is the most important contribution we could make to helping Mexico.”
There are of course other, brighter ties that bind Mexico and Florida, including trade and investment.
Mexico is one of the world’s top buyers of Florida aircraft and boats. It’s a top supplier of Florida’s cars and trucks. Mexican television giant Televisa recently broadened its partnership with the Spanish-language network Univision, based here in Doral.
Meanwhile, the University of Miami, whose nickname is the Hurricanes, says it just opened an office in Mexico. And its newest campus group is composed of students from Mexico, led by environmental engineering major Isabel Pérez from Mexico City.
“In Miami, Mexico should be just as important as all the other Latin America countries," says Pérez, adding with a smile: "More good Mexican restaurants in the area would also be nice.”
Perez and her group call themselves the Mexicanes.