More than Christmas, Three Kings Day on Tuesday was the holiday to celebrate if you come from Latin America. Starting in Mexico and going south, the holiday—the Dia de los Reyes Magos—commemorates the New Testament story in Matthew that describes the visit of three wise men to Bethlehem to see the newborn baby Jesus. Each one bears a gift for the Christ child. It is also known as the Feast of the Epiphany.
So I wondered whether Tuesday’s meeting between President Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto bestowed anything more than symbolic gifts during this first official visit by Mexico’s leader to the United States.
Can Peña Nieto’s offer to prevent a surge of illegal immigration from Mexico actually be implemented? The Obama administration fears that with the president’s recently signed executive action, many Mexicans may be falsely lured into thinking that they can now enter illegally and get a work permit. Did Obama’s offer to help Mexico with a new public relations campaign to protect its southern border from migrants from El Salvador and Honduras symbolize another gift on Three Kings Day? Did both leaders promise to help finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement that presents economic opportunities for both nations? The answer to all these questions is yes. They are important steps forward in the bilateral relationship with our neighbor and third-largest trading partner.
But the real gifts that Mexico needed on this holiday of giving were not in hand, in spite of the willingness of both countries to work together to improve economic gains and better cross-border relations. The gift of democratic governance is something that cannot be bestowed from the outside. This is something that the United States has learned the hard way, from Iraq to Afghanistan to other parts of the world where we have been generous with our assistance but more often disappointed by the results.
What Mexicans yearn for is a country where impunity is no longer tolerated. Where peaceful protests are not met by government-sanctioned executions, as we are now seeing in the case of the missing students in Iguala. Mexicans also want a country where governance is not permeated by the corruption of local and national officials. They seek the legitimacy of the state to guarantee due process, rule of law and access to justice. These gifts are the result of a government willing to allow itself to be held accountable for its actions.
On Three Kings Day in Mexico, families celebrate the holiday by exchanging gifts and eating a communal breakfast meal that features a sweet pastry, the Rosca de Los Reyes Magos. This round bread is baked with a small baby Jesus doll inside. Legend has it that she who gets the slice with the Jesus doll, the tamalada, must offer a celebration feast in February to all who attend the breakfast. Whether there was a sharing of the Rosca at the White House luncheon the President hosted for Peña Nieto was not reported in the press. But I am sure that if there had been one, the Mexican leader was secretly hoping that Obama would offer some variation of a tamalada from the meal that would allow Peña Nieto to return home with a gift for his citizens.
Ironically, Peña Nieto’s presidency has been successful economically. His reform of the energy sector will be a longstanding gift to his country as private investment will create greater efficiencies in oil production. It will also open up investments in one of the largest shale oil fields in Tamaulipas, but that will also depend upon how he manages gangs and criminals in that state. Where he has not succeeded has been in gaining ground in the ongoing battles with drug cartels and other illicit businesses that continue to use violence or bribery as a way of life.
U.S. assistance to help Peña Nieto in his struggles with ongoing criminal activity has been extensive. We have providing training for federal police. We have supported training for lawyers and programs to lay a stronger foundation for the rule of law. We have given Mexico helicopters to track and arrest traffickers through the Mérida Initiative. There has been progress, but the problems go beyond Mexico’s borders, as the drug trade is transnational.
What both our countries need is each other. Whether it is in controlling immigration, or eliminating drug transit routes, or in ensuring that economic growth continues, we are united. The best gift that can be given between our two countries is a renewed commitment to a more open and democratic region, a support for the concept of partnership that President Obama sought in 2009 when he first addressed the region’s leaders at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. If Mexico can have our back in working out the challenging diplomacy of getting Cuba back into the inter-American system, and can support our own role in the hemisphere as a fair and generous partner in multilateral forums, then both North American countries will start 2015 in a better place. As partners, we must bestow these gifts on each other.
The original version of this article appeared in The Hill.