What a thrill it was today to welcome to a packed house in the board room of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry two former presidents who altered the course of history in their countries and in the Americas.
Joining us for a roundtable with Arizona business leaders were former Mexico President Vicente Fox and former Costa Rica president Laura Chinchilla.
Both are groundbreakers. President Fox was the first opposition party member to ascend to the presidency after over 70 years of one-party rule in Mexico, while President Chinchilla was the first woman to be elected to her country’s highest office.
The visit to Arizona was made possible by the work of Peoria City Councilman Tony Rivero. Tony is poised to win a seat in the state House in November, and we couldn’t ask for a better advocate for a cross-border relationship with our neighbors that is characterized by prosperity and friendship.
Today’s conversation was particularly gratifying for me as I’ve had the opportunity to travel for work and pleasure in both countries. Thanks to leaders like state House Speaker Andy Tobin, I’ve been part of delegations to Mexico City and Guadalajara and we’re poised to open a new trade office in the capital, and I agree wholeheartedly with President Fox when he compared a trip to Costa Rica “like going to heaven.”
Here are some broad stroke takeaways from what proved to be an extremely enlightening discussion.
We win with trade. President Fox kicked off his remarks by reminding our group that we’re marking the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a transformational pact between the U.S., Mexico and Canada that opened up new markets in the continent and benefited consumers through increased competition on store shelves.
President Chinchilla pointed out that her country and region benefited from CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement. She made clear that her country’s embrace of free trade was the result of a stark choice: either export products, or export your people. Costa Rica wisely chose the former and, as a result, is now home to global manufacturers like Intel and the jobs that come with them.
Build bridges to opportunity and prosperity. President Fox used the allusion of bridge building when describing his hope for the U.S.-Mexico binational relationship. He’s right. Our state’s proximity to Mexico is an enormously positive attribute and one that we should embrace and promote.
Consider the potential for increased tourism between Arizona and Sonora and the rest of Mexico. In a roundtable last month with business leaders in the Show Low area, a representative of the Pinetop-Lakeside Chamber of Commerce shared with me that every ski season the parking lots of her community are packed with cars sporting Sonora license plates. Those license plates mean big bucks.
The Maricopa Association of Governments, currently chaired by Youngtown Mayor Michael LeVault, is leading the charge to increase Mexican tourism by expanding the border travel zone from the current 75 miles to a zone that encompasses the entire state. Under current regulations, Mexican nationals entering at a land port and seeking to travel beyond Tucson must obtain additional documentation at an additional expense, despite the fact that these travelers, by virtue of possessing a valid Border Crossing Card, have already been vetted by State Department personnel at a U.S. consulate in Mexico. The extra cost and hassle creates a disincentive to explore the rest of what our state has to offer.
A simple administrative reform can open the whole state to increased Mexican tourism; it’s a change we should embrace.
These are the good guys. President Chinchilla spoke of the increased democratization of Latin America over the past decade. President Fox spoke of his optimism that reforms in Mexico’s energy sector will reduce corruption in the legacy state-owned oil company, Pemex.
The expansion of the rule of law, as President Chinchilla articulated, increased transparency and predictability, which is better for attracting business and better for the citizenry.
Not all of Latin America is so pro-democracy, though. In places like Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia, there are powerful members of the political class who don’t embrace the same vision Presidents Fox and Chinchilla described and are hostile to U.S. interests and those of our friends. The U.S. should not only be thankful for leaders like the two who spoke at the Chamber today, but should seek ways to strengthen our friendships whenever possible.