Former Mexican President Fox exudes optimism about future

China and India are almost always cited in discussions of the world's rising economic powers, but Mexico makes the list much less frequently. A glaring omission, said former Mexican President Vicente Fox, considering the country south of the U.S. border is expected to be the world's fifth largest economy by the year 2040, according to a recent forecast by Goldman Sachs.

Fox, who delivered the March 5 Robert G. Wesson Lecture in International Relations Theory and Practice to an overflow crowd, used that Goldman Sachs forecast to frame a far-reaching discussion on the country's challenges and opportunities—from fostering democracy and tapping individuals' entrepreneurial instincts to broadening NAFTA, adopting a more sensible immigration policy with the United States, and even promoting alternative sources of energy.

Fox's discussion extended beyond his own country to examine the factors that have long excluded much of Latin America from the world's economic growth. He argued that Americans generally are unaware of the enormous progress Mexico has enjoyed since a devastating collapse in the peso in 1994. Yet he readily admitted that the country's educational system remains poor, its rapid population growth rate burdens its economy, it is still recovering from a long line of autocratic rulers, and it is rapidly running out of the surplus oil that has long been a valuable export.

While he said he disagreed with calls to privatize PEMEX, Mexico's government-owned oil company, he said private investment would be needed to expand oil production to meet future needs. The nation, he said, does not have enough money to make needed improvements in education and at the same time use government funds to increase oil output.

He said Mexico is the United States' largest trading partner and now has the highest per capita income of any nation in Latin America (industrialist Carlos Slim Helu of Mexico was named the world's third-richest man by Forbes magazine in 2008).

Fox's address was co-sponsored by the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Center for Leadership Development and Research at the Business School.

Describing Mexico's underground economy, Fox said of the 48 million Mexicans who go to work every day, fewer than half of them have what would be called real jobs with recognized businesses and corporations—about 15 million work for companies and 2.5 million for the government.

"The rest work as entrepreneurs or in underground economies, but they are still people who wake up and go to work in the morning," Fox said.

"Many people claim that those people should just disappear. But I don't think they will ever, ever get a formal job in a corporation. We have so much energy in those people that if we can put it to work our economy will be very successful."

Fox, who served as Mexico's president from 2000 to 2006, has a firsthand knowledge of both business and immigration issues. His own ancestors moved from Ireland to France and then on to Cincinnati, Ohio, before his grandfather immigrated to Mexico to pursue opportunities. Before entering politics, Fox worked at CocaCola's Mexico division, starting on a delivery truck and eventually rising to head the company's Mexican operations, where he boosted Coke's Mexican sales by 50 percent.

His longtime friend, Alejandro Toledo, the former president of Peru who is now the Payne Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at the Freeman Spogli Institute, added in his introduction that immigrants are "a different class of people, who are willing to take risks." Toledo said that both he and Fox were breaking with a longstanding Latin American tradition of former presidents staying quiet and going into retirement.

During a lengthy question and answer session following Fox's formal remarks, the issue of immigration surfaced repeatedly. Fox condemned what he described as aggressively anti-immigration attitudes in the United States, as well as the construction of a wall along the two nation's border.

People all over the world immigrate, Fox said, adding that it is "just human nature to be aggressive and trust yourself and go out looking for a better life." While not endorsing a completely open border, he did propose a more business-based approach to immigration in which Mexicans could be allowed into the United States when their services were in demand.

"Immigrants are not terrorists," he said.

Fox also said he supports further changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that would more deeply integrate North American economies in a way similar to what the European Union has achieved.

And, while saying he supports the development of alternative sources of energy, he said he is wary of a growing movement to derive fuel from plants traditionally used for food. "Everyone is excited about getting fuel from corn, but tortillas are getting very expensive," he said.

Andrea Orr is a freelance writer.