- Published on Thursday, 08 August 2013 16:10
By Lisa Y. Garibay
UTEP News Service
You know the issues are important when it brings two mayors, the nation’s first director of national intelligence, a U.S. ambassador, a Mexican ambassador, and members of the Mexican and U.S. congresses together in one place.
That’s just a sampling of the power players who assembled for the fourth Council of the Americas Border Conference on the U.S.-Mexico Competitiveness Agenda, co-presented by UTEP and U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke. Academics from universities around the region joined their UTEP colleagues to hear from leaders vested in a wide range of issues related to business and life on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
UTEP President Diana Natalicio welcomed the day’s special guests and delivered an opening address, stressing the importance of binational collaboration for not only politics and business, but also for education and improving quality of life overall. She was followed by John Negroponte, chairman of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas and former U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Mexico, the Philippines and Iraq. Appointed the first-ever director of national intelligence by George W. Bush in 2005, Negroponte also served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 1989-1993 and participated in the establishment of NAFTA.
“There are many exciting opportunities in the U.S.-Mexico relationship,” Negroponte said while presenting an overview of border trade efforts over the past two decades. “More than a billion dollars in trade crosses this border daily. It is the windpipe of our economy and when managed intelligently, it can be a massive asset to competitiveness to both our countries.
“As North American integration intensifies, the importance of the border only increases, and with it the urgency to reduce congestion and upgrade infrastructure,” he said.
Many of the speakers urged clarification of the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico as well as what takes place on the geopolitical boundary that divides them. U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who represents the 16th District of Texas including El Paso, talked about the rhetoric prevalent in D.C., “which sees, unfortunately, the border and Mexico as more of a threat rather than the opportunity that we know it to be," he said.
“Everyone here understands what’s at stake and the positive role that El Paso and Ciudad Juárez can play, but we need that message to get out to the rest of the world,” he said before introducing Texas Secretary of State John Steen, who presented Negroponte with a signed order from Gov. Rick Perry proclaiming the esteemed statesman as an honorary Texan.
For the day’s first panel, “Advancing the U.S.-Mexico Economic Relationship,” Negroponte moderated a discussion between Eduardo Medina Mora, Ambassador of Mexico to the U.S., and E. Anthony Wayne, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Wayne set the tone when he said, “The United States has many important relationships in the world, but I would certainly argue that there’s no relationship more important than our relationship with Mexico.” In listing the vast amount of dollars, jobs and goods that the partnership between the two countries has produced, Wayne concluded, “This relationship in North America has been a success story and there’s a lot more success in front of us.”
Medina Mora, who coordinated the legal advisory team to the Mexican government during NAFTA negotiations, said that in his position representing Mexico’s interests to the United States, he tries to still think “like a businessperson,” referring to his expertise in the commercial sector before moving into politics. From that point of view, he said, “It’s not only the numbers, it’s the quality of the numbers,” emphasizing that changes in policy are needed specifically to increase the level of trade that’s occurring on the border. “It’s amazing that we’ve managed 80 percent of our trade … over land borders with these limitations … We have 21st century trade within a 20th century framework on top of a 19th century infrastructure.”
The ambassadors went on to address audience questions about government transparency, water policy, immigration, and the drug war, agreeing there were no easy solutions but cooperation was imperative.
A panel titled “Reform Agendas in Mexico and the United States: Views from the Legislative Branches” followed with O’Rourke and Javier Treviño, a member of the Mexican Federal Congress, moderated by El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar.
“We have to get Mexico moving again,” said Treviño, pointing out the current administration’s focus on security, fighting poverty, and education as a means of increasing quality of life for Mexican citizens. “If we want to build into the future, we need to put all of our effort today into education,” he said.
Both repeated the importance of targeting policy that genuinely works for the private sector. O’Rourke cited the history of pedestrian bridges connecting Juárez with El Paso, which was a solution not from the governments, but the work of citizens and business groups coming together to make border crossing more efficient.
Up next was “Stimulating U.S.-Mexico Competitiveness Through Infrastructure Investment and Public/Private Partnerships,” moderated by Rolando Pablos, CEO of the Borderplex Alliance. Panelists were Bernardo Ayala, vice president of Mexico markets for Union Pacific; Gerónimo Gutiérrez, managing director of North American Development Bank; and Enrique Norten of TEN Arquitectos.
The three businessmen discussed how a focus on the basic necessities of water, energy, communication, transportation, health care and schools is necessary to close infrastructure gaps along the border. The audience sat intrigued by Norten’s comments on how quality architecture and the municipal systems that go along with it can make or break an economy, using Detroit as an example. He also urged people to realize that trade is becoming less and less about countries and more about “places,” – larger municipal areas – that are in competition or collaboration.
“The 19th century or 20th century models of understanding of places don’t work anymore,” Norten said. “The American 20th century model of creating great connectivity within all of its territory and creating terribly strong edges to separate this country from the world doesn’t work anymore … We cannot be speaking about places (in ways) that are about separation and not about unification.” Cheers and applause erupted when he then stated, “How can we be speaking of what to do with the bridges when we’re building terrible walls? What would happen if we had invested $40 billion in connectivity and not in separation? I strongly believe that will come back and haunt the United States.”
“A Conversation on the Trade Relationship: 20 Years after NAFTA” was the day’s final panel, engaging Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas; Amgad Shehata, vice president of international public affairs for UPS; and Francisco Uranga, Foxconn’s corporate vice president and chief business operations officer for Latin America, in an urgent discussion about freeing up business that crosses the border.
Farnsworth underlined the broad importance of these issues when he stated: “We need to understand the border is not just an issue for border communities.” Thomas Fullerton, Ph.D., chair for the Study of Trade in the Americas and UTEP professor of economics, moderated the discussion, attempting to shed a more positive light on the much-maligned North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
“The untold story of NAFTA is the huge volume of trade taking place," Farnsworth said. While the agreement marked the first time that a developed economy partnered with an undeveloped one, all panelists agreed that there was a lot that had been learned over the past 20 years which could be used to ensure a better future for all involved.
This was the fourth such event held by the Council of the Americas border initiative, which aims to foster a public-private dialogue on deepening economic integration within North America and on improving management of our common borders. Previous conferences were hosted in Laredo, Texas; La Jolla, Calif.; and Washington, D.C.
“This was a huge success in terms of the response and the number of registrants, but it was also very thought-provoking, exactly what we would’ve hoped for with lots of dialogue,” said UTEP President Diana Natalicio. “It was a great opportunity to bring together a lot of very important decisionmakers who can take what they’ve learned here — and that’s probably true for all of us in some sense — to begin to think of new ways of ensuring that the investments that we’ve all made will be leveraged in very positive ways and yield great returns.”
O’Rourke emphasized the importance of gathering so many leaders together and praised UTEP for helping to make it happen. He urged a greater understanding of the reality that this particular border affects quality of life far beyond the line of demarcation.
“In every single state of the union, there are tens of thousands of jobs at stake, hundreds of billions of dollars in trade that are generated in those states and connected to jobs in those home districts.
“If we can build on the great work that we’ve seen here in this community over decades and lead that fight in Washington, D.C. and use what we learn today at this conference, we can begin to change the dialogue, the attitude, and the perspective in Washington, D.C.”
To see photos from the event, click here.