Mexico's International Image: Is the US to Blame?

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    Pamela Starr

    The October 2014 issue of Internationaistas, the publication of the Youth Program of the Mexican Council on International Affairs, was dedicated to “Mexico’s Image in the World”. Its contents – four articles and an extended interview with Simon Anholt – highlight a wide range of issues related to this topic, but they all seem to boil down to explaining the disconnect between Mexican reality and its international image. In Anholt’s words: “Mexico is living inside a reputation that belongs to a completely different country; a country that is much smaller, much poorer, much weaker, much less stable, much less proud, much less democratic and much less effective.” The question is why.

    Anholt and the article authors together come to a disconcerting conclusion: The United States has played a significant role in shaping Mexico’s unduly negative international image. The authors argue that the US elites have an interest in portraying Mexico (and the rest of Latin America) as “lesser players on the international stage” to justify its dominance and maintain its freedom of action in the region. In addition, US culture is said to measure itself relative to its neighbors making a negative image of Mexico “useful to the American mind because it reminds the Americans of how civilized they are.” And then, since the US media has the loudest media voice on the planet (and since it pays more attention to Mexico than media in Europe or Asia), the US image of Mexico has become internationalized.

    At the same time, however, the authors note two other factors that play into Mexico’s relatively poor international image: Mexican media’s constantly negative tone about the country and the fact that a national image is formed in part as the sum of its “subnational profiles”, meaning that regional and local developments have an international impact.

    And they suggest a couple of interesting potential solutions to Mexico’s public diplomacy challenge. First is the need to coordinate the public diplomacy of subnational entities to create a unified national message.

    Second and given that a nation’s reputation is often born of its usefulness to others, Anholt insists that “If Mexico wants a better reputation, [it] has to do something for humanity and for the world.” More specifically, it needs to do something that makes itself useful to the United States and its citizens.

    Is Mexico’s international image excessively negative? Is US culture, power, and media coverage of Mexico really the central reason for this disconnect between reality and reputation? Does the solution revolve around Mexico making itself useful to the United States and the US public?

    Luis de la Calle

    US media scrutiny on Mexico is deeper and more intense than on any other developing country. This should not be a surprise, as we share a border, are deeply integrated and have large two-way migration flows. Not being covered would be surprising indeed. Moreover, Mexico is much more a domestic issue in the US as it is an international one compared to other countries.
    It is in fact possible that this scrutiny “lowers” Mexico’s image as news coverage always has negative connotations. Looking at long term perception data, it can be seen that Mexico’s image in the US goes down, not up, with media attention (including during the NAFTA negotiations and approval process). A tempting conclusion could well be: minimize coverage as an instrument to improve image. I’d disagree. The challenge for Mexico is how to use this level of scrutiny in our favor and with the objective to make Mexico and Mexicans more familiar for US audiences, so that we can better defend ourselves in the US political discourse and in the courts. In a way, even the intense negative coverage has a long term advantage: audiences will end up accepting Mexico and Mexicans are there to stay and that our fortunes go hand in hand in more fronts we are willing to admit.
    An important change would be trying to improve image of individual Mexicans rather than the image of Mexico or its government. That’s what Bill Cosby did.

    Sergio de la Calle

    Indeed the United States plays a significant role in shaping Mexico’s image, and the level of international scrutiny is extremely high (which is a reflection of Mexico’s importance in the world). This puts Mexico in a tough spot, but it can be a powerful advantage, for that:

    1. I agree that Mexico needs to show its usefulness towards Americans, to convince them that a good Mexico is in their best interest, that a strong region makes America a safer and prosperous place. But it is also a matter of persuading Mexicans first and then others.

    2. More linkages need to be made or need to be more visible between both countries. Since the US possess the “loudest voice in the world”, Mexico should use this asset for its own good, show the world their common history, common culture, common goals and their success stories (embellished stories do sell well in the United States).

    Tania Miranda

    Being the US neighbor and so tightly linked, in every aspect possible, makes Mexico an important focus for American media. And America’s media coverage of Mexico is definitely part of the reason for the large disconnect there exists between reality and the international perception of the country. However, I think this is a two way street in that, whenever something positive happens in Mexico, it also gets disproportionate attention in a disproportionately small amount of time (for instance the Mexican moment, Peña Nieto’s reforms and Pacto por Mexico in 2013. In no time, Peña Nieto was the man of the moment and there was an international hype about Mexico’s future). Not that this is precisely a good thing, since it certainly raises expectations that are not always fulfilled. So in a way, being an important focus for US media coverage works like a magnifying glass for Mexico’s occurrences – both the good and the bad, and Mexico could take advantage of this if it were to send out the right message.

    The article’s first solution – a better coordinated and unified public diplomacy effort – is right on target. On the other hand, Anholt’s solution by having Mexico do something “good” for humanity, however accurate, sounds hard to ask for. He mentions that in order to do well, a country needs to do good. Countries that do “good,” have in general a better public image. This is how he comes up with the Good Country Index. And it IS probably the case that, if Mexico did something good for the world, or even proved “useful” for the United States, it would improve its image. However, looking at Anholt’s index overall rankings, it immediately pops up that the top 20 nations (with one outlier) are rich and mostly western European. Likewise, the last 20 (again, with exceptions), are poor and/or troubled economies. Albeit without doing a thorough analysis, we can think it has to do with the fact that those nations which have covered their population’s basic needs, and have no deep economic or political crisis occurring, can take the time, money, and orchestrated effort to do something selfless that will help humanity as a whole. Certainly now, with so many complications happening in every front, it is hard to ask Mexico that we do something for humanity, or for the United States, even when this would mean improving the country’s international image and this in turn would bring positive political and economic results. Even if this could be part of the solution to Mexico’s image vs reality problem, as Mexico’s youth, it will not be easy to convince the government (or the Mexican population) that we should be doing something good for our Northern neighbor – especially for our Northern neighbor.

    Juan Ernesto Trejo

    There are few times where we can praise Mexico abroad. In general, there are only a few events, forums or international reunions where it is possible for countries to present their accomplishments and advances. Therefore, many fall into the trap of organizing media campaigns that lack ground and solid bases. Thus, sooner or later it will end up tearing apart and revealing the only thing they are: only words and not actions. Today, the Mexican government is trying to provide an answer to the demands expressed by international organizations such as the UN.

    Now, Mexico also has to give an answer to the domestic political crisis that hasn’t been able to solve completely, as some scholars like Genaro Lozano might suggest at one of the major circulation newspaper “Reforma”: The crisis of Ayotzinapa, the “White House” and now the electoral dynamics represent corner points. Suddenly, the government has been forced to talk about security. Suddenly, the distrust towards PRI has revived. Suddenly, the opposition parties have become by word, in opposition again. The government have been left without a script and with a credibility crisis.” All these represent an inner crisis that have been internationalized and all thanks to Mexico itself, not to the United States.

    Despite all the above, unique opportunities that cannot be left behind have emerged to improve our image. An example of this is the dual year between Mexico and the United Kingdom. This project was born from a cultural initiative among both countries to incorporate afterwards other aspects of the bilateral relation, such as trade, tourism, science, technology, academia, and the economic and corporate sector.The benefits of showing and promoting one country to another in this way are multiple: We expect an increase of the 46% of the total volume of trade by the end of 2015, as the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Nick Clegg, suggests. This is only an example of how the organization of this type of events, where a country’s image abroad is promoted, can profitable. Can FOBESSI do a better work than this? We hope so.


    I’m not sure the U.S. is to blame for Mexico’s image. There’s an argument (posed in the piece by José Antonio Brambila Ramírez) that American elites have a stake in influencing Mexico’s image. However, can we really conclude American elites have a stake in making Mexico’s image a negative one? Or is it possible it is the other way around? A recent New York Times article read “As Ties With China Unravel, U.S. Companies Head to Mexico,” less than six months ago Forbes published a piece titled “Manufacturers Love U.S., Mexico.” An interview published four days ago in the Mexican newspaper El Universal said General Motors “plans to invest US$5 billion to modernize four plants in the country.” Perhaps it is important to dissect the term “American elites” before we can analyze whether or not the group is encouraging Mexico’s negative image.

    I was also surprised to see the suggestion that Mexico needs “…to do something for humanity
    and for the world.” I’m not sure what this means? Mexico’s history includes two ancient civilizations, revolutions against tyrants (new and old), isn’t this enough? Why does Mexico owe something to the world? Mexico’s raison d’etre, not just for its image but for its future, should be the well-being of the country and its people.

    Finally, Mexico has many opportunities to improve its image at the economic, academic and governmental levels. However, one should not understate the importance of tourism to Mexico and the opportunity it represents. Americans, despite what the media might say, visit Mexico in large numbers. This is an opportunity for Mexico to educate Americans and close the gap between perception and reality. What better people ambassadors for Mexico than those Americans that visit the country. Whether or not this type of approach is effective is uncertain. But it is worth having a conversation.

    Juan Espinoza

    Yes. Mexico’s image is excessively negative. But, no, US culture is not the central reason for this disconnect between reality and reputation. I would argue that both the power of US media coverage and a culture of lawlessness in Mexico together contribute to this gap in perception.

    Asymmetry of power that exists between two fundamentally interdependent and interconnected countries creates a measure of comparison that has hardly ever benefited Mexico’s external image – consistently pushing a U.S centric metric of evaluation. Mexico as a topic, as an identity, as a person, as a place – since the creation of Border Patrol in 1924- has been treated in a context of racism, controlling the border from violence and danger due to the Mexican Revolution, and a clear need to demarcate one society from the other (Sanchez, 1993). As a global hegemon that taps into the imaginary of people all over the world through news stories and Hollywood exports, the United States has managed to create a rigid structure by which Mexico is either a disenfranchised and powerless country below the United States, or simply a problem of violence and drugs that needs to be dealt with.

    Speaking to Tania’s point on the recent Mexican moment, I recently found a word cloud from the summer of 2014 that had “reform” and “Peña Nieto” as some of the top words used to reference Mexico in news sources. At Ibero we created a similar word cloud taking from top International news outlets (NYTimes, BBC, Wall Street Journal, etc.) in November of 2014. Post Ayotzinapa, the words that occurred most in coverage of Mexico were “students” and “el estado”. As Tania pointed out, Mexico’s moment was over very quickly but this opened up a great case by which we can observe a greater problem in this problematic U.S centric framing of Mexico. Prior to the student massacres, Mexican accomplishments were being associated to individuals; for example, Enrique Peña Nieto on the cover of Time and other coverage of the reforms as his presidential accomplishment in the LA and NYTimes. After the massacres occurred, the first NYTimes headline on Ayotzinapa read, “43 Missing Students, a Mass Grave and a Suspect: Mexico’s Police.” Before Ayotzinapa and Tlatlaya, Mexico enjoyed what was deemed a successful moment by the international community – especially by publications like the Economist and the Wall Street Journal given the nature of these neoliberal reforms that align with their readers’ values. During this coverage the EPN administration was credited with the success of reform and it was made singular through the individual embodiment of Peña Nieto. However, when problems erupted even what most consider a liberal paper that was previously also discussing the reforms in Peña Nieto terms, addressed a problem in Mexico as one of the “Mexican Police”. This sort of murder mystery detective headline slumps back into a way of reporting that associates problems in Mexico to a greater collective identity and narrative. When the reforms happened, it was bravo Peña Nieto, yet when the massacres happened, it was shame on you Mexico. Mexico can be spoken in a positive way when discussing the reforms that align with U.S values but the moment violence erupts that notion is made foreign as quickly as possible.
    At the same time, the recent political outbreaks against the Mexican government have been partially supported by U.S journalists. Tlatlaya, the case far out shadowed by Ayotzinapa, was leaked and almost forcedly placed on the global news agenda by a United States journalist working for Esquire Magazine. Mexicans mobilizing for accountability of the deaths were helped by U.S led international coverage that further pushed for this issue to remain in the attention of the national and international public agenda. The problem herein lies in the disconnect that most Mexicans attribute to a lack of rule of law where the Mexican government who we would be asking to address Mexico’s image problems isn’t even one that much of the general population truly believes in. In a country where civil society does not connect with the government, a complex solution of crafting Mexico as a so-called “good” nation or a unified coordination of subnational images just is not possible. Journalists should reveal the truth about what is happening in Mexico, and the government needs to actually reflect and work with civil society. Some scholars have already called for addressing the problem of lawlessness in Mexican reporting. “Border News Media Coverage of Violence, Organized Crime, and the War on Drugs, and a Culture of Lawfulness” by Jose Lozano, Francisco Martinez, and Fernando Rodriguez explains how they believe that Mexican journalists should pay more attention to cultivating values and attitudes sympathetic to the rule of law in Mexico by asking them to point out laws that were broken in each reported incident of violence. This avoids talking about violence as this mass epidemic in Mexico, and presents a place where we can find a solution by addressing a true need for accountability in a legal system that exists but goes seemingly unenforced.
    Thus we need a way to address the U.S’s problematic and powerful media schemes and Mexico’s problems of lawlessness that will continue to undermine any attempt at a true concerted effort of improving Mexico’s image in the world.

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