Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

To-do list for Obama and Mexico's new president

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
November 27, 2012 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Mexico's incoming president Enrique Pena Nieto will meet with President Obama on Tuesday.
Mexico's incoming president Enrique Pena Nieto will meet with President Obama on Tuesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mexico's incoming president Enrique Pena Nieto meets with Obama on Tuesday
  • Ruben Navarrette: His election means a return for PRI, party that held presidency for 71 years
  • Mexican people are tired of crusades such as drug war, want a return to basics, he says
  • Navarrette: Obama, Pena Nieto have opportunity to help each other and their nations

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

(CNN) -- On a recent trip to Mexico City as part of a delegation of Mexican-American and American Jewish leaders, I heard a joke that is circulating among the intelligentsia:

"Mexicans are observing daylight savings time in a major way. On December 1, they'll turn the clocks back 100 years."

Actually, it's not quite a century. The reference seems to be to 1929, when the Institutional Revolutionary Party (or an earlier version of it) kicked off what would be a 71-year hold on the presidency. In the 20th century, PRI became notorious for the brutality, corruption, election rigging, and brazen thievery of its leaders and their cronies.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Now, after 12 years out of power, the PRI is returning to the scene of its crimes. The party is about to retake the reins of power thanks, in large measure, to the popular appeal of a handsome, charismatic and personable 46-year-old lawyer who seems to have stepped right out of central casting. He is even married to a beautiful telenovela actress.

Enrique Pena Nieto is set to take office on December 1.

Mexicans feeling persecuted flee U.S.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



This has been a Hollywood ending for a political party that was, just a few years ago, on the brink of extinction.

The first blow came in 2000 when the National Action Party's Vicente Fox broke the PRI's hold on the presidency. Then came heavy losses for the PRI in Congress during the 2003 midterm elections. That was followed by another victory for the PAN in 2006, when Felipe Calderon took the presidency -- and the PRI candidate came in last among the top three political parties. But then, the PRI regained some ground in the 2009 midterm elections -- in part, it seems, because the Mexican public was so battle-weary after three years of Calderon's bloody war against the drug cartels.

Mexico may change name to 'Mexico'

Don't get me wrong. The drug war is messy but necessary, and that's true in both the United States and Mexico. Legalizing drugs and making them more readily available would, in either country, increase the number of addicts, lead to more street crime to feed consumption habits, destroy scores of families, make people less productive and more dependent, and empower criminals by surrendering the fight.

Opinion: Mexico, U.S. ties ripe for major expansion

And yet, it all comes at a high cost. South of the border, the drug war has resulted in the deaths of more than 50,000 Mexicans. And, because it has become more difficult to move drugs to the United States and Canada, it has brought to Mexican society a domestic drug consumption problem that Mexicans have long been content to export to the United States.

Even the man who started the war -- or, as Mexicans like to say, stirred the hornet's nest -- now claims that it's not winnable. Calderon, the outgoing president of Mexico, recently conceded in an interview with The Economist that ending the consumption of drugs and drug trafficking is "impossible." As Calderon sees it, the real goal of the drug war is to disrupt the drug trade and keep money out of the hands of killers who terrorize the Mexican people.

Those people are now taking another look at the PRI. The way they see it, the party may have been corrupt, but at least it was competent. Unlike the PAN, whose leaders seem obsessed with causes and crusades -- for Fox, defending Mexican immigrants in the United States, and for Calderon, the drug war -- the PRI kept the trains running on time.

Can Enrique Peña Nieto save Mexico?

As many Mexicans see it, the country needs to move on to other business. They expect Pena Nieto to lead the way. They may not want a complete and unconditional surrender to the drug cartels, but they could live with an accommodation that included an end to the violence.

The battle against the drug cartels is sure to be on the agenda Tuesday when Pena Nieto is scheduled to visit the White House and meet with President Barack Obama.

I had the chance to meet Pena Nieto during my trip and hear about his vision for building a new and improved Mexico. Despite the knocks that he has taken from the Mexican press and the elites for not appearing to be book-smart, he has more than his share of "EQ" -- emotional intelligence. This will carry him far with a Mexican public that, at this point, wants to have leaders that it can relate to, who will address its everyday concerns.

Mexico's misconceptions

Like a certain recent U.S. president from Texas, Pena Nieto is taken lightly by many as he enters the office. Yet sometimes being underestimated can be helpful. And just as George W. Bush reached the height of his popularity after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Pena Nieto might yet surprise his critics and rise to the challenge of dealing with a major crisis when faced with one.

In his meeting with Obama, the Mexican president-elect is likely to dwell on what he believes the U.S. can accomplish for Mexico. This will probably include delivering the last few hundred million dollars worth of equipment and supplies that is owed to Mexico to help it fight the drug cartels under the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative; safeguarding the rights of Mexican immigrants in the United States regardless of legal status; and supporting the creation of a North American trade alliance (the US, Mexico and Canada) that could compete with Asia and the European Union on the stage of global commerce.

But Pena Nieto should also focus on what Mexico can accomplish for the United States. He could pledge to continue the drug war and keep the pressure on the cartels, in the spirit of the Merida Initiative; vow to create more jobs and better-paying jobs in Mexico, especially in the poorest regions that produce most of the illegal immigrants to the United States; commit himself to addressing the severe inequalities between Mexicans, closing the huge gap between rich and poor, and expanding the middle class in a country where more than 50% of the population still lives in poverty; and pledge to open up the Mexican petroleum industry to investment from North America and partnerships with American and Canadian oil companies.

Latin America's challenge

All of this would benefit not only the relationship between Mexico and the United States, but also the lives of Mexicans. Those people seem to be tired of crusades. Now, it appears that they want their leaders to focus on the basics: creating better-paying jobs, protecting the population, expanding trade, improving access to technology, developing infrastructure in rural areas, and improving relations with foreign countries and trade partners.

Those are some of the challenges facing Enrique Pena Nieto. How he addresses them will tell us whether the Mexican people who elected him, and returned his party to power, made a wise choice or a bad mistake.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT