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May 25, 2012, Friday

Turkey and Mexico: Distant yet so close

Guadalajara -- Mexico is a country that stands apart from Turkey at an almost 12,000-kilometer distance, yet amazingly Turkish and Mexican cultures seem to pivot around very similar attributes. Both are family-centered societies with religion playing an important role in people’s lives.

Turks and Mexicans are very hospitable, friendly, easygoing and warm people. Just like in Turkey, you do not feel the sense of alienation or being left out when you visit Mexico and talk to people there. Mexicans are very open to foreigners. You won’t feel the same if you go to some European countries today deeply troubled with rampant racism and xenophobic movements, even though they are only a short flight from İstanbul.

I spent this week in Mexico interviewing officials from the government for the upcoming G-20 summit to be held in the Mexican resort area of Los Cabos on June 18-19. When I was touring the historic downtown in Guadalajara, the capital city of the central state of Jalisco, I felt like I was taking a stroll in the historic peninsula at the center of İstanbul. You can see a very vibrant community here, with families taking their kids downtown to enjoy themselves in the breeze right before the sunset. Both Turkey and Mexico boast a youthful population that fuels the growing economies today with a highly talented and qualified labor force. Both countries’ economic success stories are largely based on the rise of the middle class.

I was struck by something when I was talking with President of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and former Permanent Representative of Mexico to the UN Enrique Berruga Filloy, who recalled the classic 1968 book by Samuel Huntington titled “Political Order in Changing Societies.” During my college years, I remember studying how Huntington compared Turkish and Mexican political parties and political systems of the time. He later claimed in his controversial book “The Clash of Civilizations” that Turkey and Mexico are examples of “torn” countries that remain culturally schizophrenic and therefore potentially unstable. He starts his thesis by citing isolated incidents in Bosnia and the US to link both Turkey and Mexico with his apocalyptic fantasies. I think he was utterly wrong in this manifestly poor characterization as both countries today boast stable political systems, enjoy booming economies and are clearly not culturally schizophrenic. However, you may very well find other suitable candidates that fit that description well in the developed world rather than in the developing world.

Therefore, I believe there are strong factors that warrant closer collaboration and cooperation between Turkey and Mexico in a number of areas, the least of which is to prove Huntington’s theory on culture wars and civilization clashes a fallacy. Predominantly Catholic Mexico and predominantly Muslim Turkey can set a very good example of cooperation, as we did with the Spain under the UN-sponsored scheme of Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC). But there are other pertinent issues that we need to take a closer look at when it comes to promoting Turkey’s ties with Mexico.

First of all, officials in both countries seem to have recognized the fact that they need to boost trade. Considering that Turkey and Mexico have a $1.8 trillion combined value of gross domestic product (GDP), the trade volume between the countries of less than a billion dollars is ridiculous. It is encouraging to see that it is on the rise, from $640 million in 2010 to $845 million in 2011, but it should grow at a much faster pace. Officials say they have taken steps to make sure that trade grows since the landmark visit of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Mexico in 2009. The groundwork for a legal framework has been laid including agreements on investment protection, double taxation and customs regulations. A Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is in the pipeline and Mexico has started to facilitate travel for Turkish businesspeople by issuing longer-term visas. Enrique Haro, the chief of staff at ProMéxico (Mexico’s Trade and Investment Agency) told me that just last week the agency approved adding İstanbul, Turkey’s largest city and business capital, to the list of places where it wants to have a representative office. Considering that the agency has 33 offices in the world so far, adding Istanbul to that short list is an important message that Mexico means business when it comes to developing ties with Turkey. On the other end, the Turkish economy ministry issued an official circular last month, designating Mexico as priority country for the 2012-2013 periods. These steps are important in overcoming the lack of understanding, the most important hindrance in front of the promotion of trade and investment, between respective business communities.

Though both countries can offer a huge domestic market -- mostly young and well-educated populations of over 113 million in Mexico and over 74 million in Turkey -- to each other with a rapidly rising middle class and increasing income levels, they are also gateways to vast markets in their respective neighborhoods. With export-driven economies backed by strong manufacturing industries, both Turkey and Mexico are also keen to diversify their trade portfolio by reducing heavy reliance on a single market. While Turkey relies on the EU market for 46 percent of its exports, Mexico depends on the US for 80 percent of its exports. This is another strong motivation to bring both countries together in trade relations.

The two countries have worked closely ahead of the upcoming G-20 summit in Los Cabos and share similar aspirations to make it a successful discussion of topics such as sustainable development, poverty reduction, economic and financial reforms and the fight against protectionism. For example, Deputy Finance Minister Gerardo Rodriguez told me on Thursday how he appreciated the work being done by Turkey as one of the co-chairs of a workgroup called the International Financial Architecture Working Group, established to improve the international financial architecture that could be achieved through an expansion of the global financial resources for crisis prevention, in particular through the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Though both Turkey and Mexico, relatively unscathed by the economic crisis in the eurozone, are expected to post some 4 percent growth in their GDPs this year, they realize the existence of huge stakes for their economies if the issues in world financial stability continue to linger much longer. Hence the common objective for both is to have increasing voice in the global financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank so they can push for structural reforms, fiscal and otherwise, to shore up a fragile world economy. They are equally concerned that the US is stalling over implementing a 2010 voting reform deal which would reduce Europe’s dominance over the IMF board and give a stronger voice to emerging economies like Turkey and Mexico.

More importantly for a relationship that is fruitful and profitable in the long term between the two countries, both Turkey and Mexico need to invest greatly in building the catalyzing factor of human -- social and cultural -- ties. That is where the tourism, business, cultural and educational exchanges come into play. Throughout my stay in Mexico, the words of the Mexican Ambassador to Ankara, Saime Garcia Amaral, have continued to echo in my ears. “It is only when Turks travel to Mexico or Mexicans travel to Turkey that they can get to really know what each other’s culture is like and what the other is really about,” Ambassador Garcia once told me. He is absolutely right on that point simply because you can build everything else on top of the strong bond you establish between the people of two countries.

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