By Pedro G. Cavallero (for Safe Democracy)

Pedro G. Cavallero states that electoral processes in Latin America receive sporadic coverage in the US despite the fact that most of the region’s democracies are far from fully consolidated. Mr. Cavallero analyzes the Mexican political situation –before National elections– and notes that the perception of Mexico in the US remains blurred, often distorted, and even reduced to simplistic notions, and despite this “binding vicinity”, the country is becoming a vanishing neighbor for the US.

Pedro German Cavallero is a policy analyst based in Washington DC. He holds a master degree in comparative law and comments regularly on U.S. foreign policy and inter-American affairs.

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AS AMERICA’S ATTENTION FOLLOWS THE EXPANSION OF DEMOCRACY TO FAR-OFF CORNERS of the world, somehow it disconnects from political developments unfolding much closer to home. Highly-scrutinized elections in the Middle East are constantly visible and nonstop reporting exposes the Byzantine play of alliances, fast-evolving scenarios, and candidates’ shifting allegiances. In contrast, electoral processes in Latin America receive sporadic coverage. However, most of the region’s democracies are far from fully consolidated. It was not long ago that almost all of Spanish-speaking Americas were ruled by non-elected governments. From Mexico to Argentina, a broad spectrum of regimes colored the hemisphere, including highly-repressive juntas, cleptocratic dynasties, Stalinist-oriented guerrilla-clad cliques, and fraudulent one-Party semi-Gods.

During 2006, several Latin American countries will go to the polls to elect presidents, including America’s closest neighbor to the south. Six years after passing a major political test by dumping the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) regime, Mexican voters will choose President Fox’s successor. In 2000, Mexico joined the fold of emerging democracies when discarding a system that Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa labeled as the “perfect dictatorship”.

This time a politically exhausted president will be relieved from the burdens imposed by a long sexenio in office. The July 2 election may also provide closure to the democratic process’ “opening-up” phase initiated in 2000. In fact, the outgoing administration highlights one of its (otherwise scarce) achievements as having led the nation through a major political transformation, namely power alternation. However, whomever succeeds Fox will need to exhibit other accomplishments. For example, building a realistic, inter-dependent relationship with the United States should be at the top of the agenda. For this to happen, Washington should start sending the right signals.

By all accounts, the race for Los Pinos, as the official presidential residence is known, is not yet a closed case. Candidates’ divergent worldviews and backgrounds add to its relevance. According to recent polls, Andrés Manuel López Obrador continues enjoying high popularity that places him at the head of the race. As candidate of the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), López Obrador managed his mayor position at the helm of Mexico City’s government to project nationally. Recently, Miami Herald’s Andrés Oppenheimer pointed out that López Obrador seems to defy logical calculations. As the elections approach, he is toughening his rhetoric and reinvigorating an anti-establishment image.

To López Obrador’s right is Felipe Calderón, Fox’s former energy minister and second in popular preference. Calderón benefits by being perceived as distant from the outgoing administration. Though he served President Fox as cabinet secretary, Calderón does not seem to be “tainted” by proximity with a widely-perceived shrinking presidency. Some analysts consider that, if elected, he would give a measure of continuity in terms of the government’s overall orientation. In terms of the bilateral dynamics, Calderón would try to succeed where Fox evidently failed: working closely with Washington.

Finally, the third main contender is Roberto Madrazo, the PRI flag-bearer. Madrazo, who trails both López Obrador and Calderón, represents the personification of the practices and vices Mexicans rejected six years ago. He is the quintessential “dinosaur”, as such back-dealing party chieftains are known. Though his chances seem to be remote at this point, analysts warn against counting out PRI’s unmatchable well-oiled structure and nationwide presence.

The U.S. and Mexico share a 2,000-mile border (3,200 kilometers) characterized by unceasing human flows and astounding volumes of trade hardly matched anywhere else in the world. Despite this “binding vicinity”, Mexico is becoming a vanishing neighbor. As such, it emerges in American public opinion intermittently. Thus, even a key presidential election fails to generate significant interest. Mexico’s perception remains blurred, often distorted, and even reduced to simplistic notions.

Consistently, issues such as drug smuggling, institutional transparency, police corruption, and the alleged “human avalanches” (waves of undocumented workers) take center stage at the expense of more balanced portrayals. Indeed, Mexico continues providing a badly-needed human workforce, without which entire segments of the American economy would stall. However, illegal border crossings constitute a fraction of the exchanges linking both countries. These images combined place Mexico squarely in the “national threat” category and prevent Americans from understanding how closely-intertwined both neighbors have become in recent years.

Since the passage of the NAFTA agreement, Mexico positioned itself as America’s second-largest trading partner (Canada being the first), unquestionably a major leap forward in the bilateral context. However, opinion-makers and policymakers alike fail to place American-Mexican relationships on a higher platform. This partnership also proves those alarming voices, advocating the building of fences in the border, wrong. In fact, there is no other nation whose internal dynamics (political, social and economic) would have such a direct and lasting impact on America’s daily life.

This long-standing disconnect seems to be a resilient and deeply-rooted factor in U.S. foreign policymaking. Persistently, it forces Washington to look across the Atlantic (and far beyond) in search of tomorrow’s opportunities. Meanwhile, it prevents the U.S. from looking south and engaging with the hemisphere’s largest Spanish-speaking nation, where both undeniable challenges and enormous opportunities lay. In the meantime, a sleeping giant lays next door.