I am pleased and honored to be with you here today to discuss the bilateral relationship between Mexico and the United States.
I first want to thank Dr. Natalicio for this invitation and for her extraordinary efforts to make the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) both an academic powerhouse and an inclusive place of higher learning.
El Paso is a place where two cultures come together to generate a unique energy that gives rise to creativity and innovation. Dr. Natalicio has sought to cultivate that same energy here at UTEP, and that is one big reason why this university is thriving. Just recently this school was named one of the country's ten best universities. Perhaps most importantly, UTEP was ranked the top university in the United States in the category of social mobility. So UTEP's rise into the elite company of schools like Harvard and Stanford doesn’t just mean that grad students are having more intellectual conversations out at the bars and restaurants on Cincinnati Avenue; it means education here at UTEP has become a socially transformative force.
In fact, much of what Mexico and the United States are now trying to achieve at the bilateral level, such as increased educational exchange and collaboration on research and innovation, are things which Dr. Natalicio and UTEP have been doing for years.
Universities in the border region have a special role to play in the bilateral relationship because they intimately understand many of the challenges our two countries face simply due to their geography. The UTEP student body perfectly encapsulates the border region. With its binational, bilingual, and bicultural environment, it stands at the vanguard of the relationship between Mexico and the United States.
The U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship is one of enormous complexity and daily challenges—we share a 2,000 mile border over which 1.3 billion dollars in trade passes each day, along with 300 thousand vehicle crossings. We also share a complex history which continues to shape our present and, of course, we share a people. Around 35 million people living in the United States are of Mexican origin.
The way our economies interact with one another has also changed dramatically in the last twenty years since the implementation of NAFTA. We now build things together through integrated supply and production chains that would have been unthinkable several decades ago. Our two countries are more interdependent and more interconnected than ever before. The question our bilateral relationship must continually answer is how we are going to respond to that reality.
In the past, visionary ideas for large-scale collaboration between our two countries often remained just that—mere ideas. Not anymore. Mexico and the United States now have a framework for cooperation on a wide range of topics on the bilateral agenda.
The High Level Economic Dialogue (HLED) established by Presidents Enrique Peña Nieto and Barack Obama in 2013 looks at the priorities in the bilateral relationship and is based on three broad pillars:
- Promoting Competitiveness and Connectivity
- Fostering Economic Growth, Productivity, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation, and
- Partnering for Regional and Global Leadership
I am happy to say that UTEP is playing an important role in one of the priorities identified under the HLED—the Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation and Research (called FOBESSII for its Spanish acronym).
Right now Mexico only sends 14,000 students a year to the United States, and just 4,000 U.S. students take courses for academic credit in Mexico each year. By comparison, South Korea, with a population of 49 million, sends 72,000 students to the United States every year. We have decided we can do much better.
Earlier this year, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Mexican Secretary of Foreign Relations José Antonio Meade formally launched FOBESII. The mission of the Bilateral Forum is to boost the number of academic exchanges between both our countries through programs addressing student mobility, academic exchange, research and innovation in areas of shared interest and to boost the competitiveness and economic development of the region.
This past March UTEP hosted a FOBESII workshop between more than 90 representatives from government, the private sector, civil society and academia from the U.S. and Mexico.
UTEP was the perfect environment for such a meeting because the type of intercultural exchanges that happen here as a matter of routine are something that we want to happen on a larger scale at the bilateral level. We want to harness the type of social mobility that UTEP is creating for its students and distribute it throughout the entire region.
In order to promote competitiveness and connectivity, one of the areas to which we are devoting a great deal of attention, is the border itself. Over 500 billion dollars in trade crosses our border each year, but wait times at points of entry are still costing us billions of dollars. Through the HLED and the 21st Century Border Management Initiative, we are collaborating on infrastructure projects to reduce wait times and increase trade.
In fact, just 30 miles east of here the new Guadalupe-Tornillo port of entry is being constructed. The six-lane bridge will replace the current two-lane Fabens-Caseta bridge in order to boost development and help ease bottlenecks that occur at area border crossings, something I’m sure will come as good news to all those who commute from Mexico to Texas and back each day. Construction has also begun on North America's first binational airport on the border between San Diego and Tijuana. Much more is still needed, but we now have mechanisms in place to meet those challenges.
To switch gears from education and the border for a moment, let me talk about the transformative changes that are taking place in Mexico. Anyone following recent events in Mexico knows that the last year and a half have seen unprecedented reforms in my country. As part of a broad agreement between the three main political parties called the Pacto Por México, President Peña Nieto and the Mexican Congress were able to pass legislation that included reforms to energy, education, telecoms, transparency, finance and fiscal policy, as well as political and electoral reform. Taken as a whole, those reforms have laid the groundwork for a fundamental transformation in Mexico that will unlock the true potential of the country as an emerging economic power with a deep commitment to democracy and international responsibility.
One reason why the reforms in Mexico have attracted so much attention is that just a couple of years ago hardly any analysts believed they were possible. Interests supporting the status quo seemed too entrenched and political inertia appeared ready to negate any bold reform effort. Education reform is a perfect example of a sector that needed a complete overhaul in order to prepare our citizens for a brighter future and unleash Mexico’s potential. It simply had to happen for Mexico to advance, and I am happy to say that education reform is now being implemented.
Reforms to telecommunications will not only benefit consumers, they show Mexico’s firm commitment to competition and the marketplace, new transparency laws demonstrate our dedication to democracy, and the changes to banking and financial laws should help substantially increase the availability of credit in the country, paving the way for innovative entrepreneurs to add a new dynamism to the Mexican economy. Meanwhile, reforms to the tax code will help boost revenue for the federal government, allowing us to meet our fiscal obligations.
Political and electoral reforms will give voters the option to re-elect their lawmakers if satisfied with their performance. Changes also allow for the formation of coalition governments and set strict requirements to increase female representation within political parties, something long overdue which will serve our democracy well.
Energy reform has gotten the most attention of any of the reforms and with good reason—it has enormous implications for Mexico and the future of the North American energy landscape. In recent years, Mexico's state oil company Pemex has seen steadily falling production, but not for a lack of potential. We have energy deposits in the form of shale beds and deep water wells but have been missing the necessary technology and financing to turn them into profitable sources of energy. Opening up our energy sector to foreign investment will allow us to finally unlock significant energy sources that have previously been out of reach.
This will have positive economic effects for Mexico and the entire region, given that much of North America’s competitiveness in the global economy depends on our ability to produce abundant, affordable energy. The future prosperity of North America will be intimately linked to energy, and we now have an energy framework which will allow us to remain competitive in the years to come.
Ultimately, however, these reforms lead us back to education. In order for the reforms to truly have the impact we want them to have, we must have an educated workforce with the ability to fill high-skilled jobs. Education drives growth, and prepares a new generation of leaders for the challenges we must overcome as we walk down the path to prosperity. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “the philosophy of the classroom in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next". Being here at this university, I feel certain that the next generation is in good hands.
The word “university” comes from Latin—“universitas”, meaning “whole” or “a number of persons associated into one community”. The fact that the University of Texas at El Paso clearly recognizes both Mexicans and Americans as part of one big educational community means UTEP is a university in the truest sense. I congratulate UTEP for their continued commitment to education that is both academically elite, and socially inclusive.