A young Mexican president assumes office and surprises the world, not least his own nation. He proposes unprecedented reforms that don’t just clash with the entrenched ideologies of his party, the ever-mighty PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), but also with some of the country’s most powerful interests: hitherto untouchable economic titans, union bosses, and local chieftains. International observers laud the potential of the reforms to make Mexico less corrupt, and more prosperous and just. But at home, the reforms are met with distrust and seen by many as just another ploy that will benefit the greedy elites who build fortunes on the backs of the poor. Analysts and academics take to opinion pages and talk shows to predict that the reforms will have devastating social effects. Leftists and nationalists alike equate the reforms with submission to yanqui imperialism. Businessmen, too, oppose the reforms, which will increase competition and thus threaten their firms’ market dominance. The reforms may promise hypothetical benefits in the long term, but in the short term they pose tangible costs to these disparate and politically influential groups.
This is exactly what happened two decades ago when then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari liberalized Mexico’s closed, state-centered economy. And it’s happening again today to President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Ultimately, Salinas was able to defeat the opposition within and outside the PRI, ramming through an ambitious set of economic reforms that included a landmark free-trade agreement with the United States and Canada. While the result of that effort, NAFTA, has not been a panacea for Mexico’s problems—from poverty and inequality to mediocre economic growth—the country’s international trade has doubled and foreign investment relative to GDP has tripled since its implementation, and the agreement has surely boosted the country’s economic dynamism.