Economic issues dominate Higgins visit to Mexico

Hot topic of emigration a key part of President’s speeches

Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins speaks during a welcoming ceremony at the National Palace in Mexico City earlier this week. Photograph: Edgard Garrido/Reuters

Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins speaks during a welcoming ceremony at the National Palace in Mexico City earlier this week. Photograph: Edgard Garrido/Reuters


President Michael D Higgins joked that the first time he visited Mexico in 1967 he sneaked into the country illegally.

“It was the first of many crossings I made without the appropriate papers,” he said at a reception hosted by the Irish ambassador to Mexico Sonya Hyland on Monday night.

Anne Bauer, a friend since they were students at Indiana University, recalled at the reception the story of how Mr Higgins hid under a rug in a car as the group of students on “spring break” from the university travelled over the border. A smiling Mr Higgins confirmed the story today.

The anecdote raises a serious point - emigration is a hot topic for Ireland and Mexico as migrants flee faltering economies. It was a regular topic during Mr Higgins’ speeches over his four days in Mexico.

This week, Michael D Higgins swapped a rug and a beaten-up student car for armed guards and a presidential motorcade 46 years after a first visit that left a lasting impression on the politician.

While history, education, the arts and culture were frequent topics during the President’s speeches, economic matters dominated the Mexican leg of the President’s Latin American 12-day tour. This is unsurprising given how the Presidency and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have become important outposts for the Department of Finance in selling Ireland’s economic recovery overseas.

The meeting of President Higgins and President Enrique Peña Nieto was well timed, taking place as both Ireland and Mexico attempt to recharge weak economies.

The Irish economy is expanding modestly (GDP growth of just 0.2 per cent this year). Growing exports and encouraging foreign investment are crucial to the recovery and Mexico could help with that.

Mr Peña Nieto is pushing “transformational” reforms in education, energy, finance and taxation in an effort to jump-start an economy that has clocked only lacklustre growth since 2001. Mexico was hit hard by difficulties in its nearest neighbour, the United States, which accounts for 85 per cent of its trade.

The Mexican government wants to open up oil and gas exploration to private and foreign investment, apply evaluation-based hiring and firing in teaching, and crack monopolies in telecoms and television.

The fanfare that accompanied the signing of agreements and partnerships between Irish and Mexican businesses and universities at an impressive ceremony in Mexico’s National Palace showed their importance to each country. Each signature marked a potential economic boost in both countries.

The following day, Mr Higgins’ call for new policies that balanced sustainable economic growth and social inclusion seemed out of place at times before an audience of arch-capitalists at the Mexico Business Summit in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second biggest city. But it was an important platform and the President took full advantage to explain Ireland’s recovery and what Europe has to offer to Mexico.

As he departs tonight for El Salvador, the second stop on his three-country tour, Mr Higgins leaves behind huge goodwill generated largely by his simple act of speaking occasionally in Spanish during his speeches and meetings. The president had brushed up on his Spanish last year before a visit to South America by attending classes in Spain.

A member of the Irish delegation remarked this week that they had to listen to the simultaneous interpretation to understand what Mr Higgins was saying at one of the private meetings with the Mexican government. His mix of Spanish, English and Irish in speeches impressed both sides.

Mexican audiences were warmed by the gesture, which was noted by Mr Peña Nieto during his welcome address for Mr Higgins at the National Palace. “It triggers this empathy,” he said.

This bodes well for the future relations. Ireland hosts potential Mexican investors and country’s foreign minister Jose Antonio Meade, whose ancestors hail from Co Limerick, next year. There may also be a possible reciprocal visit by the president of Latin America’s second largest economy in 2015.