For many residents of Mexico, it rankled when Latin America got only a passing mention in a debate on foreign policy held shortly before the 2012 U.S. presidential race. It was Republican candidate Mitt Romney, not eventual winner President Barack Obama, who brought up Latin America, saying the region offered a “huge opportunity” for the U.S.
No Latin American countries earned a specific mention in the debate, just Romney’s more general statement about the region. The candidates mostly stuck to discussing the Middle East and China.
Latin America is definitely on Obama’s radar now, due in part perhaps to the growth in America’s Hispanic population and what many experts see as its importance as a voting bloc in U.S. elections. According to an Associated Press story, Hispanics will make up 26 percent of the American population in 2043, up from 17 percent today. As the story notes, many Hispanic immigrants maintain close ties to their home countries.
It may or may not have been politics that prompted Obama to make a whirlwind visit to Mexico last week, but it definitely landed the country in the headlines. While immigration and crime tend to dominate discussions of Mexico in the U.S., Obama put the focus squarely on businessduring his visit.
According to a Forbes story, Obama announced that Vice President Joe Biden will participate in regular, bi-national, high-level discussions designed to further strengthen economic ties between the two countries. He also met with prominent Mexican business executives, including Carlos Slim Domit, chairman of Grupo Carso and son of the world’s richest man. And he praised Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto for his efforts to pass legislation that will open up Mexico’s telecommunications market, a move that is widely seen as one of the most significant achievements of Pena Nieto’s first six months in office.
As a USA Today story noted, Obama spoke to an enthusiastic audience of Mexican students about the need for the U.S. to “recognize new realities, including the impressive progress in today’s Mexico.” He also mentioned that “some Americans only see the Mexico depicted in sensational headlines” and that attitudes toward Mexico can be “trapped in old stereotypes” about violence.
And misperceptions are found in Mexico, as well, Obama said, with some Mexicans thinking America wants to take over Mexico while others believe the U.S. ignores the country.
Misperceptions about Mexico
While Obama spoke of the need to correct such misperceptions, it may not be easy. A recentsurvey by the Chicago Council of Global Affairs found that favorable ratings of the country are at their lowest point since the council began asking about relations between the two countries in 2002. Mexico got a mean score of 43 on a scale of 0 to 100, down from a score of 60 in 2002.
When it comes to economic relations between the two countries, 64 percent of Americans see Mexico as an economic partner rather than an economic competitor. Yet many respondents underestimate the importance of Mexico as a trade partner. Just 20 percent were aware that Mexico is one of America’s top five trading partners. An encouraging 57 percent, however, believe the two countries are working in the same direction on trade and economic development.
More encouraging results: The number of Americans who believe the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has had a positive impact on the U.S. economy stands at 50 percent, up grom 42 percent in 2004. The number is even higher among respondents under age 45 and those with a college education.
This article was originally appeared on NSAM’s sister publication Global Delivery Report.