Late last month, only a week before President Obama set off on his trip to Mexico and Costa Rica, recently appointed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry referred to Latin America with one of the most offensive and unfortunate phrases in diplomatic lexicon: "our back yard." Nevertheless, Secretary Kerry's faux pas may have led to speechwriters working overtime to compensate for it in President Obama's message to students in Mexico City as well as opening the door for President Peña Nieto to revert the insensitive remark by quoting another Massachusettes politician, John F. Kennedy.
Traditionally when U.S. and Mexican presidents visit each other's countries, the U.S. president quotes from Benito Juarez in his speech and the Mexican quotes from Abraham Lincoln. Presidents Juarez and Lincoln each served their countries as presidents at the same time and they are each held in high esteem in their respective countries. Both are known for being concise and to the point in their public speeches--Lincoln for his pithy statements as well as his Gettysburg Address, Juarez for his "Among individuals as among nations, the respect of the rights of others is peace."
In his stellar speech to students in the courtyard of Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology last Friday, President Obama quoted from several Mexicans including Benito Juarez -- although when he quoted from Juarez, it was not the frequently quoted phrase about peace. Mr. Obama instead praised Juarez for saying "democracy is the destiny of humanity." The most extensive quote Mr. Obama used came from Octavio Paz in which, in his characteristically esoteric and convoluted way, Paz based Mexico's hopes for the future on its long history: "Modernity is not outside us, it is within us. It is today, as well as the most ancient antiquity. It is tomorrow, and the beginning of the world. It is a thousand years old and yet newborn."
Paz's view contrasts with Alan Riding's view in his best-selling book "Distant Neighbors" -- published in 1984, six years before Paz received the Nobel literature prize. In it New York Times correspondent Riding refers to a three thousand year old Mexico held back by its past while the United States, barely two hundred years old lunges toward the 21st century.
Is it all a matter of perspective?
Last November, in an effort to encourage U.S. colleges to reinstate study-abroad programs in Mexico, I toured through New England speaking in colleges about my prediction that as soon as the new administration took office in Mexico on the first of December there would be a change in perspective of Mexico in the U.S. mainstream media -- a shift towards a much more positive view of Mexico. It is marvelous to see the transition occurring as I expected it would -- now even to the point of having the U.S. administration joining the change in perspective. Last Friday at the Museum of Anthropology President Obama announced a program titled "One Hundred Thousand Strong in the Americas," in which 100,000 Latin American students, including Mexicans, will be invited to study in U.S, colleges and universities and an equal number of U.S. students will be encouraged to study in Latin America "because when we study together, and we learn together, we prosper together."
At presidents' Obama and Peña Nieto's joint press conference held in the National Palace last Thursday Mexico's president closed his remarks by quoting President Kennedy to whom he attributed having said, in that same building, 51 years ago, "Geography has made us neighbors. Tradition has made us friends. Let us not allow anyone to separate what nature has brought together."