Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press
MEXICO CITY — Calling for an end to "old stereotypes," President Barack Obama on Friday portrayed Mexico as an emerging nation that is remaking itself and said the U.S.-Mexico relationship should be defined by shared prosperity, not by threats both countries face. "It's time to recognize new realities," he declared.
In a speech to a predominantly student audience, Obama conceded that the root of much violence in Mexico is the demand for drugs in the United States, and acknowledged that most guns used to commit crime in this country come from the U.S. But he said an improving economy is changing Mexico and improving its middle class.
"I see it in the deepening of Mexico's democracy, citizens who are standing up and saying that violence and impunity is not acceptable," Obama told several hundred people gathered on a cool, breezy morning in a covered, outdoor plaza at Mexico City's grand National Museum of Anthropology.
Obama said he is optimistic that the U.S. will change its patchwork of immigration laws. With about 6 million Mexicans illegally in the United States, the issue resonates deeply in Mexico, which also has seen deportations of its citizens from the U.S. rise dramatically under Obama.
Underlying Obama's visit was his desire to persuade the U.S. public and lawmakers that Mexico no longer poses the illegal immigration threat it once did.
"The long-term solution to the challenge of illegal immigration is a growing and prosperous Mexico that creates more jobs and opportunities for young people here," said Obama.
To that end, he called for improving the growing trade relationship between the two countries. Mexico is the second-largest export market for U.S. goods and services. The U.S. also buys more Mexican exports than any other country. Still, the reality of Mexico's economic surge is perhaps not as rosy as Obama portrayed it.
While Mexico's economy has grown, it has yet to trickle down to average workers. Huge poverty rates held steady between late 2006 and 2010, the most recent year for which government statistics are available. Between 40 percent and 50 percent of the population of 112 million Mexicans live in poverty, earning less than $100 a month.
Obama also cited Mexico's healthy manufacturing sector as an example of the country's "impressive progress," with new factories turning out TVs and automobiles for foreign markets. But some of that growth is due to the fact that wages largely have stagnated, while China's have risen, making Mexico more of a low-wage paradise.
Mexico's economy grew by about 1 percent in the first three months of the year and the country isn't creating anywhere near the million jobs annually it needs to employ all the young people entering its workforce.
Obama spoke on the second day of his Mexico City visit, peppering his remarks with Spanish phrases, including that he was "entre amigos" or "among friends." He concluded with "Viva Mexico. Viva los Estados Unidos. Que Dios los bendiga" or "Long live Mexico. Long live the United States. May God bless them."
After the speech, he was heading to Costa Rica, where he planned to deliver a blunter message to Central American leaders struggling with weak economies and drug violence. Obama was to meet with Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla before joining leaders from the Central American Integration system. The regional network also includes the leaders of Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.
The U.S. view of the region is that its pervasive violence and security weaknesses are holding back economic growth, and that with fewer Mexicans crossing the border illegally, the rest of the region has become the main source of illegal immigration into the United States.
As a result, Obama is expected to call for stepped up security cooperation, regional economic integration and improvements in human rights and democratic reforms.
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