Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has spent his first year in office introducing and promoting a number of reform initiatives that, when taken together, represent the deepest structural adjustments to Mexico’s economy since NAFTA. While some of these reforms have become controversial and met street-level resistance, the image of Peña Nieto abroad is largely one of a bold and visionary politician who has negotiated a level of consensus to break through legislative gridlock to take advantage of a historic “Mexican Moment” in which, according to pundits, the economy is roaring like an “Aztec Tiger“.
This image did not emerge on its own. Here in Mexico, the introduction of reforms are carefully stage managed events with custom set designs, broadcast live over the web. Press materials like info-graphics and promotional spots are made available immediately following the presentation. Even the social media accounts of government agencies tweet their approval to generate buzz around an issue. Abroad, former political figures now at lobbying firms or private consultancies with a stake in the reforms have taken the “Mexican Moment” message to the pages of major outlets without disclosing conflicts of interest.
US legacy papers with Mexico City bureaus like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post have written optimistic feature stories promoting the “Mexican Moment” narrative. The Mexican economy is presented as a “paradox” in which business opportunities are ripe “despite” drug war violence. The middle class is “booming” or “emergent” and friendly foreign investment policies have made Mexico a “land of opportunity“. What’s less apparent in this rosy coverage of Mexico’s economic reforms is the role of US consultancies and lobbying firms promoting this new Mexican “brand” within the pages of these outlets.
Undisclosed Conflicts of Interest in Media Coverage
Earlier this year, Enrique Peña Nieto was named by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in a glowing profile. The profile was authored by Bill Richardson, identified as “a former governor of New Mexico”. Richardson is currently (and at the time of penning the profile) the chairman of APCO Worldwide’s executive advisory service Global Political Strategies. According to public documents known as FARA filings, the communications consultancy firm APCO Worldwide is currently under contract to provide public relations services to the Office of the President of the Republic of Mexico.
The conflict of interest of the author of the Peña Nieto profile was not disclosed by Time magazine, which is one of the media outlets referred to by name as a media contact in Mexico by another lobbying firm contracted by Peña Nieto during his transition from candidate to president.
Another example of failure to disclose conflicts of interest can be found in this recent Washington Post story. The closing quotes come from Antonio Garza, identified in the piece as a “former U.S. ambassador” whereas his current position is head of Vianovo Ventures, which is an investment arm of “a boutique management consultancy that counsels companies and causes on high-stakes brand, policy and crisis issues.” Vianovo features its work in Mexico as a case study of “international brand management” and is currently churning out PR in favor the Energy Reform, some of which is published verbatim by smaller U.S. outlets.
Moving on to high-ranking positions at consultancy firms isn’t just for former diplomats and trade negotiators. Foreign service representatives with specialized information moving into the private sector is a trend which has emerged when one examines the professional backgrounds of experts speaking in favor of energy reform in Mexico. Former Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs, David L. Goldwyn now heads Goldwyn Global Strategies, which describes itself as “a leading provider of energy sector intelligence, analysis and strategy to Fortune 100 companies”. Diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks give an idea as to the scope of his work while in the public sector, including insight into bilateral negotiations and information gathered in relation to Mexico’s energy reserves.
The list goes on. AS/COA, a think tank chaired by former U.S. ambassador to Mexico (and Iraq) John Negroponte has been putting out positive takes on Energy Reform and has hosted events with private sector energy companies in favor of the reform. The Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center – perhaps the single most quoted source in Mexico stories by the NY Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal – has also been on a pro Energy Reform PR offensive. Its Advisory Board includes the president of Exxon Mobil Ventures-Mexico, the CEO of Hunt Oil, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, and is co-chaired by the VP of Pioneer Natural Resources.
The High Stakes Behind Energy Reform
The “Mexican Moment” and “Aztec Tiger” narratives come at a time of high-stake reforms, the crown jewel of which is Energy Reform. Coverage of the reforms in US legacy papers has been overwhelmingly in favor and interested parties have been extensively quoted while their conflicts of interest remain largely undisclosed. Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil company and high-ranking Fortune 500 company, is the cornerstone of the Mexican economy, responsible for one-third of federal government revenue.
Mexico is one of the top exporters of crude oil to the US, ranking third (between Saudi Arabia and Venezuela) according to the most recent data available from the US Energy Information Administration. The country also has some of the world’s largest untapped shale oil and gas reserves, much of it due immediately south of the Texas border. Plans are already in the works to expand binational gas pipelines by 2014. The stakes for private energy companies in the U.S. hoping for approval of Mexico’s energy reform are high, but there’s been virtually no examination of the potential economic impacts of drastically altering the structure of the Mexican government’s number one source of revenue in the foreign press which has relied heavily on the analysis of parties with a financial stake in the issue.