Beleaguered Mexico

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

MANY COUNTRIES get into trouble because of their own failings -- bad government is the most common cause. But Mexico lately has become an example of how a nation with a relatively good democratic government can plunge into crisis because of forces outside its control. President Felipe Calderón, who took office in December 2006, first faced an epidemic of drug trafficking and related violence brought about largely by the demand for drugs in, and supply of assault weapons from, the United States. Then a financial crisis born on Wall Street spilled over into Mexico's economy. Now the appearance of a new strain of swine flu and fears of a global pandemic have dealt another blow to the country, which has all but shut down in an effort to contain the bug.

By yesterday it was looking as if the swine flu scare might be subsiding: The number of new cases in Mexico was falling. But the tourism industry will be reeling for the foreseeable future, even if the flu is contained. Mexico's economy minister has estimated that the epidemic will cost the country half of 1 percent of its gross domestic product, and he's probably too optimistic. Moody's Economy.com predicted last week that Mexican output might shrink 6.2 percent this year, compared to an expected decline of 4.5 percent before the flu.

Mr. Calderón's government is getting some credit for detecting the new virus relatively early, for quickly supplying information to international health authorities and for taking sweeping measures to contain the outbreak, such as shutting down most of the country for five days that began Friday. It's a performance that contrasts sharply with China's secretive and clumsy handling of its SARS and bird flu cases earlier in this decade, and it's no surprise coming from a Mexican president with a record of courageously facing the country's problems -- as exemplified by his frontal attack on the drug trade, using tens of thousands of Army troops.

Unfortunately, Mr. Calderón has never gotten as much support as he needs from the United States. In recent months Congress has resisted full funding of the Merida Initiative, which is supposed to help train and equip Mexican security forces; the program is bogged down in red tape. President Obama recently sympathized with Mr. Calderón's account of the 15,000 or so assault weapons captured by his forces since 2006, almost all of which were smuggled from the United States. But he didn't agree to seek congressional approval for restoring a ban on assault weapons. Mr. Obama has not acted on immigration reform and did nothing to stop Congress from blocking cross-border traffic by Mexican trucks, in violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Mr. Calderón just barely won the 2006 presidential election over a leftist populist candidate backed by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. Mr. Chávez's fondest ambition remains adding Mexico to his anti-American bloc. That the United States is failing to fully support a friendly, democratic and capable Mexican government is not only shortsighted; it is dangerous.


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