From the mid-1940s through the 1970s, Mexico generally enjoyed considerable economic growth, especially in industry. However, in the 1980s the economy, heavily dependent on sales of petroleum, incurred large international debts as petroleum prices fell. In the early 1990s, debt relief, diversification and privatization of the economy, and foreign investment showed positive effects, and the growth rate returned to historic levels. A new crisis arose with the collapse of the peso in the mid-1990s, forcing the adoption of austerity measures. A strong export sector helped the country to recover in the late 1990s, but the economy again went into recession in 2001, in large part because of the economic downturn in the United States. The Mexican government plays a major role in planning the economy and owns and operates some basic industries (including petroleum, the government ownership of which is mandated by the constitution), but the number of state-owned enterprises has fallen substantially since the 1980s.
About 20% of the country's workers (including those largely outside the money economy) are engaged in farming, which is slowly becoming modernized. Because rainfall is inadequate outside the coastal regions, agriculture depends largely on extensive irrigation. Mexico produces a wide variety of agricultural products, including corn, wheat, soybeans, rice, beans, cotton, coffee, fruit, sugar, and tomatoes. Agave species (see amaryllis) are widely grown, and are processed into the alcoholic beverages pulque, mescal, and tequila. Livestock raising, dairy farming, and fishing are also significant economic activities.
Mexico is among the world's leading producers of many minerals, including silver, copper, gold, lead, zinc, and natural gas, and its petroleum reserves are one of its most valuable assets. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, petroleum constituted about three quarters of Mexico's exports. That figure fell drastically in the mid-1980s. The petroleum industry subsequently recovered substantially, but production began to drop in the mid-2000s. Diversification of industry since the 1980s has helped to keep Mexico's trade economy from becoming dependent once more on a single export.
Next to oil, the most important source of exports are the industrial assembly plants known as maquiladoras. Since the early 1980s there has been considerable foreign investment in the maquiladoras, which take advantage of a large, low-cost labor force to produce finished goods for export to the United States. These plants have increased Mexico's export production considerably. The economic importance of the maquiladoras, however, is exceeded by tourism. Favorite tourist centers include Acapulco, Cancún, Cozumel, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlán, Cabo San Lucas, and Tijuana, as well as Mexico City itself and such highland centers as Guadalajara and Puebla. Remittances from Mexicans working, both legally and illegally, in the United States are also extremely important to the economy.
The principal industrial centers in Mexico are Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey, Juárez, Tijuana, Veracruz, Durango, León, Querétaro, Tampico, Mérida, and Puebla. Leading products include food and beverages, tobacco, chemicals, iron and steel, refined petroleum and petrochemicals, textiles and clothing, motor vehicles, and consumer goods. The country is also known for its handicrafts, especially pottery, woven goods, and silverwork. Mexico's chief ports are Veracruz, Tampico, Coatzacoalcos, Mazatlán, and Ensenada.
The leading imports are machinery, steel mill products, electrical and electronic equipment, motor vehicle parts for assembly and repair, aircraft, and manufactured consumer goods. The main exports are manufactured goods, crude oil, petroleum products, silver, fruits, vegetables, coffee, and cotton. Until recently, the annual value of Mexico's imports was considerably higher than the value of its exports. The United States is by far the largest trade partner, followed by China, Japan, Canada, and the European Union nations.