MEXICO CITY — After President Obama’s upbeat speech in Mexico on Friday, many in attendance said they were flattered by the description of their country, but others said they hardly recognized the place he had just described.
“[That was] a really good speech by President Obama, but what Mexico was he talking about?” said Jose Carlos Cruz, 24, a graduate student in international relations. “Unfortunately in our country, the situation is terrible: There’s poverty, unemployment, and even worse, the future is anything but promising.
“How nice that he came to give inspiring speeches, but what’s happening in Mexico is far from what he talked about today,” Cruz said.
Alberto Rios Lara, 26, who is studying to be an economist, said: “Obama is a great speaker — it’s really impossible not to feel excited. However, the reality is different in Mexico. We need more action and fewer speeches.”
In the speech, delivered at National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, Obama described Mexico as a nation that is “creating new prosperity,” has “lifted millions from poverty” and has institutions that are “more accountable to you.”
Many of his rosy assertions about Mexico weren’t incorrect. The media — in Mexico City, at least — are indeed feistier than in decades previous, when they were often subservient to government interests. Political parties do, in fact, “compete vigorously” and “transfer power peacefully.” And the country has emerged, as Obama noted, as an important manufacturer of automobiles, appliances and other goods, helping many Mexicans enjoy new middle-class lifestyles.
But the story is considerably more complicated. This week, the nonprofit Freedom House, in its annual report on the state of journalism globally, lumped Mexico in the category of nations where the press is “not free,” due to persistent threats and violence directed against reporters and news organizations.
Last year’s election of President Enrique Peña Nieto was marred by allegations of vote-buying by his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. And the World Bank notes that 46% of Mexicans continue to live in poverty.
In the tightly crafted, upbeat speech, which made references to the late Mexican writer Octavio Paz and 19th century Mexican hero Benito Juarez, Obama largely steered clear of the negative, making only a passing reference to the pervasive and often gruesome violence that continues to plague much of the country. Many of the attendees were high-school students, whom Obama described as “part of something new — a nation remaking itself.”
Rosa Castro, a 43-year-old college professor, said that the upbeat tone sounded curiously similar to the messaging of the new government, which has been seeking to downplay the issue of violence and drug cartels in favor of a narrative of modernization, reform and economic growth.
“My question is: Who wrote Obama’s speech — Enrique Peña Nieto’s team?” Castro asked. “Obama is fantastic, but I believe that today, he was talking about another country, not ours.”
Others were moved by Obama’s vision of a Mexico leaving behind its old ways and heading toward a brighter future. There was also a palpable sense of fascination with, and admiration for, the man himself: Obama, according to one recent poll, enjoys a 54% approval rating among Mexicans.
“It was incredible to see Obama; he really impressed me,” said student Maria Velazco, 18. “His way of speaking, of walking, of smiling. ... And I think that, like he said, a change is possible. A new Mexico is possible.”
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