05/24/2010 11:50 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mexican Exceptionalism

American exceptionalism has something to do with the fact that in the United States we did things differently from the rest of the world and yet somehow emerged as a superpower. Perhaps there is something in the soil of the continent, maybe a blessing or curse of the native peoples of this land, because our neighbor to the south, Mexico, is also pretty exceptional. Besides a rich and colorful history that has the makings of a high-ratings cable television series, Mexico's discommodious combination of poverty and corruption that are exacerbated by its "special relationship" with the United States, make it pretty exceptional indeed.

To be clear, no other country in the free world holds greater influence over a sovereign nation than the United States holds over Mexico. The symbiotic nature of our political and cultural relationship cannot be denied. Yet and still, Mexico remains an illusion to most Americans who tend to view the nation through a haze of vacation folly and just plain ignorance.

Mexico is not as poor as most Americans think. In fact, Mexico is the second wealthiest nation in Latin America and ranks 12th in the world's GDP -- higher than Australia, the Netherlands, all of Scandinavia, Ireland, Singapore, and several other developed nations. Many of those nations manage to provide their citizens with a social development program to keep the gap between the rich and poor from growing to a canyon. When it comes to GDP per capita, Mexico ranks 83rd.

Mexico has a middle-class whose lifestyle rivals that in the United States or amongst the white South African population. Mexico is one of the world's 15 leading industrial powers, is the largest exporter of oil to the United States, and is even home to the wealthiest man on the planet. Yet Mexico's minimum wage stagnates at $4.50 per day; 20% of its population does not have access to safe drinking water or indoor plumbing; at least one in four Mexicans cannot find jobs that provide a livable income; and in the decade after NAFTA went into effect (1994), the number of people living in extreme poverty, 25% below the poverty line, has grown from 17 to 26 Million.

Besides exporting its poor, Mexico gains from illegal immigration by taking in an estimated $9 Billion dollars a year from undocumented workers in the United States. The money these workers send back to family members at home adds more money to the Mexican economy than the country makes from its agricultural exports. And yet, the school life expectancy of Mexico is at the 8th grade, and that's an improvement of the past five years. For perspective, Cuba's SLE is at the 12th grade. In education expenditures Cuba ranks 9th, Mexico ranks 49th.

Lack of innovation and corruption have plagued Mexico.'s economic and public policy. Pemex, the country's nationalized oil and natural gas company, is a Fortune 500 company that earns the 10th highest oil revenues in the world. Pemex is the largest exporter of crude oil to the United States while simultaneously, and ironically, the largest importer of gasoline. Strangely, in the 72 years of its existence, Pemex has not developed its refining capability. That work is done in the United States. NAFTA, which promised to create new high-paying jobs in the private sector, not only cost jobs and turned wages downward in the U.S., expanded only slave-wage jobs with no security, no benefits, and no growth in the "maquiladora" industry in Mexico, which the promoters of NAFTA promised would disappear. Worse, the agricultural sector in Mexico was devastated by NAFTA. Farmers were forced to take subsidies to stop growing crops, such as corn, that would compete with American Agribusiness.

Trade policies aside Mexico's tax code is also equally perplexing. The highest income tax bracket in Mexico is 28%. In the U.S., it's 35%. Mexico does not collect state or local taxes, nor capital gains taxes. While that may be the sound of music to Sarah Palin and other laissez-fare junkies, revenue that could be produced by the state to pay for Oopurtunidas, Mexico's social development program, are passed over with dire consequences to its people, leaving millions vulnerable and desperate.

There is no way to fully comprehend how such a callous and negligent way of governing, which Americans have certainly gotten a taste of within our own borders, could be allowed to continue by the wealthy and the middle-class of the country. Their response forces any onlooker to take into account that when the Conquistadors came to Mexico they set up a hierarchy that placed Native Spaniards at the top, their mixed (Mestizo) offspring below them, and the massive Indian population at the bottom. In the four hundred years since then, not much has changed. The colony hierarchy is now the Mexican oligarchy, widely accepted but not entirely unchallenged.

There is a growing movement in Mexico to organize and protect the interest of Mexican workers and indigenous people. Unfortunately, in Oaxaca and the rest of the Triqui region, the reaction to protest has been violence perpetrated by the local PRI government. Who knows if this violence is being reported as part of the drug wars, but unless you are researching to write an article, you won't hear or read much about this struggle in the United States. Instead, the focus of the American people is kept on illegal immigration.

Many will say we do not need to concern ourselves with the domestic affairs of our southern and sovereign neighbor. All we need is a better fence. But what fence can stop a never-ending flood of desperate poor people willing to risk life and limb for a means to feed their families? Consider the fact that currently the United States' longest unguarded border is shared with Canada not Mexico, which in contrast is one of the most closely patrolled borders in the world.

If we are to ever fix the problem of illegal immigration we must concern ourselves with the domestic policies of Mexico and and more effectively, the foreign policy of our own country. Our country's dependence on Mexico's cheap labor and resources hold sway over our trade policy. If America does not have leaders that can find ways to keep our country prosperous without exploiting workers here, in Latin America and elsewhere, then America needs to elect new leaders. In that same vein, if you are an American company that can't innovate, mechanize and pay workers a livable wage to produce your product, perhaps you shouldn't be in business.

We have a choice here at this time, at this juncture. We can perpetuate the saga of illegal immigration, arguing amnesty and deportation, denying that illegal immigration has any effect on organized labor and scapegoating illegal immigrants for all of America's problems, or we can actually be a nation of people that rises to the occasion and actually solves problems. This is our opportunity for a paradigm shift. How we approach the problem of labor in this Great Recession will be either the demise or the salvation of workers everywhere. On this choice hinges American and Mexican exceptionalism and more importantly, our survival.