Author Archives: Stephanie Buck

Why You Should Care About Mexico, Part 3: The Debate

Mexico matters.

It matters in more ways than what makes the headlines these days – it matters not only because of shared security interests, but also because the US and Mexican economies are inextricably linked. Mexico’s upcoming elections matter because the newly elected leader will help set the tone and policies for US-Mexico diplomatic, trade, and security relations, among others. Open and transparent discussion of tangible policy issues with input from a variety of civil society actors can help create stronger, sounder policies that will help Mexico on a path towards greater equity and prosperity. The Center for Research and Development (CIDAC), a Mexican think tank and CIPE partner, is trying to foster exactly this kind of discussion.

On April 30, 2012 CIDAC launched a new platform for debate, designed to create a space for in-depth discussion of policy proposals. This forum, called Debate Electoral (Electoral Debate) brings together experts on various economic and social policy areas, poses a central question, and gives each expert an allotted amount of time to answer the question. CIDAC also follows up with other questions, and visitors to the site can weigh in on the discussion and vote for who they think “won” the debate.

Thus far CIDAC has sponsored seven debates on topics ranging from oil subsidies to education to justice.  So far the Electoral Debate app on Facebook has garnered 8,299 visits, 3,562 likes, and has been shared 89 times. Debate topics, such as subsidies, have been presented to the candidates, and PAN candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota even discussed her position on the topic of subsidies during the first presidential debate.

Additionally, CIDAC interviewed PANAL candidate Gabriel Quadri on this subject and posted the interview on the Electoral Debate platform. A debate like this, using social media, is something new for Mexico, and is one that allows more citizens and civil society actors to view and discuss important, substantive issues from a variety of perspectives.

Economic policy, security, justice, and education are hot topics in this year’s race to Los Pinos. They are also all policy areas that will benefit from an open dialogue, much like the one CIDAC is trying to create. Anyone can participate in these discussions (provided they can read and write in Spanish), and input from anyone with an interest in Mexico is welcome.

Whether the PRI sweeps the election, or any of the other candidates make an unlikely leap from behind to win, input from think tanks like CIDAC and other civil society actors can only help strengthen Mexico’s democracy and contribute to more effective policy-making that will benefit Mexico, and subsequently, the United States.

When Mexico flourishes, so will the United States.

This is the final part of a three-part series on the Mexican election. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Why You Should Care About Mexico, Part 2: The Elections

This is part 2 in a 3-part series about Mexico’s upcoming presidential elections. Read Part 1 and Part 3.

The four candidates vying to be President of Mexico. (Photo: Christian Science Monitor)

What is justice? Should Mexico’s national oil company be opened and more competitive? What would you do with 200 billion pesos ($14.4 billion – the amount Mexico currently spends on oil subsidies)?

These are just a few examples of the kinds of questions various NGOs in Mexico, including CIPE partner the Center of Research for Development (CIDAC), are asking in the run-up to the Mexican presidential elections on July 1. As discussed in a previous post, Mexico and the US matter to each other politically and economically. So it is important learn how best to follow not only the polls, but also the debates and issues at hand.

Discussion of real policy issues has historically been lacking in Mexican presidential election races. Instead, candidates make vague, general statements, while avoiding concrete talk of specific policies. However, increasing pressure from citizens and civil society has begun to yield results. This year, for the first time ever, all four candidates took part in two live, televised debates.

Mexico has made enormous strides in democratic and economic development over the last two decades. The signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, coming on the heels of the Mexican economic crises of the 1980s, dramatically reconfigured the Mexican economy. Since 1994, the Mexico has become much more open and more dependent on trade – especially with the US, its largest export market. In 2008 Mexico’s exports accounted for 31% of GDP, triple the share of twenty years ago, with 80% of those going to the United States. At the same time, new investment and export opportunities in Mexico have increasingly helped to drive economic growth in the United States.

Economic change aided a gradual opening of the Mexican political system as well. In 2000, the party that had ruled Mexico for more than 70 years, the PRI, was defeated by an opposition party candidate in that year’s presidential election. In spite of progress made since NAFTA was signed, however, the last two decades have also underscored the challenge of reforming democracy without strong institutions.

The next president of Mexico will certainly have a myriad of difficult issues to deal with, including rising violence and the power of drug cartels, the need for judicial reform, and the crafting of policies that will boost Mexico’s economic performance in a way that benefits even the poorest citizens. For example, both the National Action Party (PAN) and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the two largest parties, have indicated that they want to continue with policies that will encourage free trade and better incentives for entrepreneurs. This bodes well not only for Mexicans, but also for the country’s trade relations with the US.

However, the differences lie in how the candidates and their parties propose to achieve this: the PAN advocates fiscal discipline and restraints in public expenditures to maintain a healthy macroeconomic balance, while the PRI will face pressure to stick to campaign promises to improve the financing of social programs.

With issues of security, justice, and economic growth at stake, what is the best way to follow the elections?

  • For those who read Spanish: visit Arena Electoral, a Spanish-language website that profiles each candidate, details their public policy proposals in numerous areas, and then ranks them. It also has a feature that helps you figure out which candidate aligns with your own viewpoints.
  • For the non-Spanish speakers, the New York Times has a frequently updated page about Mexico that pulls together background information and important news updates.
  • Follow the candidates on Twitter:
    • Enrique Peña Nieto (@EPN):
      • Party: PRI (the old ruling party)
      • Credentials: former governor of Mexico State
  • Andrés Manuel López Obrador (@lopezobrador_):
    • Party: PRD
    • Credentials: former mayor of Mexico City
  • Josefina Vázquez Mota (@JosefinaVM):
    • Party: PAN (the current ruling party)
    • Credentials: former Secretary of Education
  • Gabrial Quadri de la Torre (@g_quadri):
    • Party: PANAL
    • Credentials: Academic, civil engineer, media contributor
    • Check out for information in Spanish about the hot topics surrounding these elections and to find out how you can weigh in. Also, follow CIDAC on Facebook and Twitter.

For more about CIDAC and their work around the elections, visit the CIPE blog again tomorrow for the final part of this three-part series on the Mexican elections.

Why You Should Care About Mexico

…and Why Mexico’s Upcoming Presidential Elections are not just a Mexican Affair. Part 1 of 3. Read Part 2 and Part 3.

US-Mexico border crossing in San Ysidro -- the busiest border crossing in the world. (Photo: Flickr/Willem van Bergen)

Mexico today is one of the world’s most open economies, the thirteenth largest by GDP, and the United States’ third largest trading partner. While many Americans associate Mexico with words like “drugs,” “violence,” “immigrants,” or maybe “Cancun,” the truth is that the US economy is inextricably linked to Mexico’s, and vice versa: economic, civil, social, or political unrest on one country greatly affects the other, both directly and indirectly.

The aim of this three-part blog series is to look at the bigger picture: Mexico is far more important to the US, and the US to Mexico, than conventional wisdom suggests — and in many more ways.

A recent New York Times article discusses the importance of Mexico’s rapidly approaching presidential elections to the state of Texas. However, these elections will affect more than just the border states. The economies of more than a dozen other states, including Nebraska, Iowa, and Michigan depend heavily on exports to Mexico. Mexican companies are now the largest suppliers of cement, baked goods, and dairy products to the US market. Mexico is also the second largest supplier of oil to the US, after Canada.

In addition to providing each other with important export markets, the Mexican and US economies are becoming increasingly integrated in ways that blur traditional understandings of trade. The regional supply chains of US companies criss-cross the US-Mexico border, meaning that Mexico and the US work together to manufacture goods that are eventually sold on the global market. For example, cars built in North America may cross the border as many as eight times as they are being produced.

In other words, the US and Mexico are more than just neighbors. Economic interdependence, shared cultural heritage, and grim security issues that both countries must face together mean that what happens in Mexico affects the US in more ways than just immigration and drug trafficking. Mexico’s economic, political, institutional, social, and security challenges are all interconnected: whoever wins the Mexican presidential elections on July 1 will have to face a myriad of complex problems. He or she will help set policies that will both directly and indirectly affect everyone from US business leaders to migrant workers to white suburban teenagers.

A Mexico that is fully equipped with leaders who can help navigate the process to the reforms the country needs is an even more important economic and political ally that can help increase prosperity throughout the region.

This is not a zero-sum game. If Mexico flourishes, the US will also flourish.

Coming up: the candidates, the issues, and how you can get involvedRead Part 2 and Part 3.

So You Want to Be a Think Tank Superstar?

Alicia Sepúlveda, chief economist and project manager. (Photo: CEDICE)

“In life, everyone chooses the role they want to play, and I chose the role of an economist who believes in freedom…Freedom is a precious treasure, that some say is only valued when it’s lost. Nevertheless, happen what may happen, I want to remember that I fought with the Generation of Knowledge for a free society.” This is what motivates Alicia Sepúlveda to get out the door every day and head to her job as the chief economist and project manager at the Center for the Dissemination of Economic Knowledge (CEDICE), a CIPE partner which was recently ranked the 9th best think tank in Central and South America .

Last week, the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program released the 2011 Global Go-To Think Tank Rankings, in which experts rated more than 5,000 think tanks from around the world in 30 different categories. Venezuela-based CEDICE also came in at 17th in the world in terms of impact on public policy — the only Latin American think tank on that list. Another CIPE partner, the Center for the Implementation of Public Policies Promoting Equity and Growth (CIPPEC) in Argentina, was ranked the fifth best in Central and South America.

Passionate, dedicated staff like Sepúlveda are just one ingredient for top think tanks, which play an important, if often undervalued, role in democratic societies. Successful think tanks not only foster informed, democratic debate of public policies, but also serve to bridge gaps between lawmakers, civil society, and the general public.

These gaps include the  “Operational Gap,” referring to policymakers’ lack of access to tools or information necessary to respond to contemporary challenges and issues. In countries where policymakers don’t have access to reliable research or data, it is hard to make rational policies that are good for the country.

Effective think tanks also help to close the “Participatory Gap,” which arises from the self-perceived exclusion of individuals and private organizations from the policy-making process – that is, the situation where people choose not to participate in policy debates because they do not think they will be heard.

Successful think tanks coordinate policy discussions among civil society and provide a vital voice to economic constituencies. In fact, think tanks can be among the only sources of reliable economic information and data, especially in emerging market countries. Although think tanks represent just one aspect of a vibrant civil society, in many ways they have become the most influential voice of civil society in global policymaking, and can often act as a barometer of the state of a given country’s civil society.

Think tanks can play an important role even in countries where freedom of speech and political participation are limited. For example, the fact that a think tank like CEDICE can operate and impact public policy in a place that is ranked 96th out of 165 countries in democratic freedoms (according to the Economist’s Democracy Index 2010) shows remarkable hope for democracy in Venezuela.

CIPE and CEDICE have worked together since 1995 on projects that have varied in scope from training journalists on economic reporting to employing cost-benefit analysis to evaluate economic legislation and provide informed policy analysis for the public and legislators. Legislators frequently use CEDICE’s analysis in their presentations in the National Assembly, and CEDICE is the most-quoted NGO in the Venezuelan media. The Go-To Think Tank rankings show that CEDICE’s work, with CIPE support, is paying off.

The success CEDICE strives for does not happen overnight. In order to excel at advocacy, a think tank like CEDICE must conduct thorough, objective research, and be able to make their analysis easily consumable. It also requires constant effort from people like Alicia Sepúlveda who truly believe in the organization’s mission.

Even after a full day of economic analysis, phone calls and meetings with legislators, writing press releases, coordinating events, and more, Sepúlveda is not always ready to leave when the day is over. That’s what fighting for a cause you believe in – to promote liberty, entrepreneurship, and free enterprise – looks like. That is the precious treasure she, CEDICE, and CIPE, are working together to protect.

On a mission to promote policy debate in Argentina

At yesterday's presentation with Fernando Straface, seated in the middle at the head of the table, with a green neck tie. (Photo: CIPE)

A half hour before yesterday’s 8:30 a.m. discussion on Promoting Policy Debate in Argentina, a stranger knocks patiently at CIPE’s front door. He introduces himself as Fernando, and suddenly it hits me. This man and the think tank he leads are setting the stage for Argentina’s first Presidential campaign debate ever.

He shows no signs of exhaustion from an unusually lengthy trip that involved multiple days of delays due to clouds of ash spewing up from a volcano in Chile, and more than 18 hours of transit once on the plane because of seemingly irrational connections. He smiles warmly and graciously declines my offers of assistance, content to set up his presentation on his own. Unassuming in stature, well-mannered, and unpretentious, if you met him on the street, you would not presume that he is the executive director of  Center for the Implementation of Public Policies promoting Equity and Growth (CIPPEC), a highly visible organization that is carrying out extremely important work in the public policy arena in Argentina.

The crowd slowly filters in, making a straight path for the coffee as part of an effort to stay fully alert at this early morning discussion. Representatives of from think tanks, NGOs, consulting firms, and even Campbell Soup Company mingle over D.C. staple food and beverage: Corner Bakery coffee, bagels, and muffins.

John Zemko and Matt Dippell, Directors for Latin America and the Caribbean at CIPE and NDI, respectively, open with a few remarks about the excellent strides CIPPEC is making in promoting public policy dialogue. Surprise guest Mike McCurry highlights the importance of the CIPPEC’s work on promoting presidential debates. Then, Mr. Fernando Straface takes the floor to introduce CIPPEC’s Agenda for the President project.

If there is any morning grogginess left in the room, it evaporates when Straface mentions that Argentina has never had a presidential debate. Never.

Presidential candidates in Argentina have previously seen debates as a sign of weakness. In contrast, presidential debates in other countries in the region have actually helped create a space for discussion on candidates’ positions on important policy issues. During presidential campaigns in Argentina, candidates typically focus less on policy, and instead center the discussion on personality politics and make vague references to universally desirable goals, such as “to reduce poverty,” or “to improve education.”

The absence of a culture and practice of presidential debates, compounded by the candidates’ disinclination to engage in concrete policy discussions or to define policy strategies, have led to unstable public policies. In addition, these issues have created a lack of consensus that is necessary to advance policy agendas that could help Argentina actually achieve its development goals.

The CIPE-supported Agenda for the President project seeks to promote a deep and profound debate of policies that directly affect Argentina’s development. In this vein, CIPPEC has produced fifteen Memos for the President that address key issues such as education, health, social protection, the economy, energy, security, justice, and transparency, among others. These Memos identify major challenges in each area, and also propose solutions to confront these problems. In addition to multiple events and presentations made on a weekly basis to civil society groups, members of the government, academia, and others, CIPPEC publishes numerous articles and Op-Eds in national and local publications to expand the scope and reach of this important project.

With the first round of elections approaching in October, much remains to be seen and done. In the meantime, CIPPEC is working to change the structure of incentives for presidential debates by mobilizing stakeholders who will raise policy issues to the forefront of the political discussion. In this respect, the media plays a crucial role. CIPPEC’s vision is to close this project with a public debate between the top presidential candidates. That is no dream to sleep on.