Mexico and the Mexicans
Alfred A. Knopf: 294 pp., $27.95
Mexicans, like their Spanish forebears, love to quote proverbs as a way of underscoring eternal truths and imparting folk wisdom to younger generations.
Jorge Castañeda cites one of these popular adages not once, but twice, in his timely, perceptive new book, "Mañana Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans," to illustrate what he believes are some of the cynical, corrupt and backward-looking attitudes that are preventing his countrymen from living up to their vast potential. The saying is, "El que no transa no avanza" — "Whoever doesn't trick or cheat gets nowhere."
And that's only the start of the damning evidence that this former foreign minister of Mexico, visiting college professor (Princeton, Berkeley) and senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace assembles in persuasively making his case that Mexico must shed a slew of historically ingrained, counterproductive practices in economics, politics and culture if it someday is to take its place among the world's leading nations.
"This is not a book about the Mexican national character," Castañeda writes in his preface, disavowing the approach of such famous cryptologists of the Mexican "soul" as Graham Greene, D.H. Lawrence, Octavio Paz and Sergei Eisenstein. "It seeks to explain why the very national character that helped forge Mexico as a nation now dramatically hinders its search for a future and modernity."
At a glance, greatness would seem to be the logical destiny of a country blessed with the world's 12th-largest economy, an abundance of natural and human resources, a rich ethnic history and close proximity to a gigantic trading partner north of the Rio Grande.
But, Castañeda says, for generations Mexico has squandered these advantages.
It has done so, he asserts, by cultivating a political culture that shuns direct confrontation and the open, sometimes-bruising, free exchange of ideas and opinions that is democracy's lifeblood. Its ruling class, with a few notable exceptions, hides its true intentions, and its internal conflicts, behind an elaborate, ritualistic charade of outward courtesy and euphemistic rhetoric that mainly serves to preserve the status quo and postpone serious debate on pressing problems.
Similarly, he writes, the country's business elites — with telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim, the world's richest man, perched atop the modern Aztec pyramid of crony capitalism — conspire with politicians to keep their iron grip over monopolies or quasi-monopolies in critical industries such as oil, media and telecommunications.
"Risk aversion," he stresses, is the economic equivalent of the "conflict aversion" that taints Mexican politics, and it's causing Mexico to fall further behind rising powers such as China and India as well as regional rivals like Chile and Brazil. Whenever foreign companies try to elbow their way in as potential competitors, Mexico's corporate denizens exploit old-time fears of the Other, playing up images of outside powers threatening to contaminate the fatherland and enslave its workers.
Castañeda concedes that such anxieties, historically, have been understandable in a country that was founded on the conquistadors' brutal conquest of America's indigenous people, and later invaded by the French and the United States Army.
But today, he insists, these phobias have become a huge liability to ordinary Mexicans' improving their material lot. He cites public opinion polls to demonstrate that, for all the cross-border chatter about U.S. discrimination against Mexican immigrants, Mexicans themselves — despite their characteristic warmth and hospitality toward individual strangers — are collectively far more xenophobic toward immigrants than their U.S. counterparts and have largely opposed granting admittance or basic rights to foreign workers.
The book's tough-love tone is supported by Castañeda's precise, systematic mustering of hard facts from scholarly studies, public opinion surveys and the like. His authorial manner suggests a lawyer arguing before an international tribunal, and the book sometimes reads more like an indictment than a native son's amicus brief.
But if the tenor of "Mañana Forever?" occasionally veers toward the Inquisitorial, Castañeda, a frequent contributor to the L.A. Times' op-ed pages, also takes pains to brighten his dark narrative with considerable wit and humor, as in the title of his first chapter, "Why Mexicans Are Lousy at Soccer and Don't Like Skyscrapers." The answer, according to Castañeda, is that Mexican society emphasizes individual achievement and the familial unit over a broader-based collectivism and cooperation.
The paradox, and tragedy, of these stumbling blocks to progress, the author says, is that Mexico has, in many ways, become a middle-class society and a representative democracy, "albeit an imperfect one." In recent years, extreme poverty has declined, and income inequality has diminished. Home ownership, college enrollment and Internet use are on the rise. The murder rate, although swollen by narcotics gang warfare, is considerably lower than in countries such as El Salvador, Russia and South Africa.
What hasn't improved, or even evolved much, is respect for rule of law and taking responsibility for the difficult obligations that a middle-class democracy demands of its citizens, in return for greater freedom and better living standards.
Although "Mañana Forever?" offers a precise critique of that dilemma, it supplies little in the way of workable prescriptions. It doesn't suggest any real alternative to an all-out embrace of the fully globalized, free-trade economic model. Nor does it propose any methods for streamlining Mexico's bloated constitution, which is addled with scores of amendments that are merely sops for special-interest groups.
Even so, this important book, by an exceptionally shrewd, sophisticated and deeply knowledgeable analyst, deserves a place on the short shelf of classics about modern Mexico that includes Alan Riding's "Distant Neighbors" and Paz's "The Labyrinth of Solitude."
And it holds out a glimmer of hope that it's not yet too late for genuine reform. As Castañeda puts it, "The nation's traits have changed over time, as its citizens adapted to constantly evolving external and internal circumstances; they are not set in stone."
From 2004 to '08, Johnson covered Mexico, Central America and South America from The Times' Mexico City bureau.