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Double Vantage: On Jorge Castañeda | The Nation

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Double Vantage: On Jorge Castañeda

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As a former foreign minister, Castañeda is particularly good at explaining the ways this culture of semblance has affected Mexican foreign policy. Under the PRI, and to some extent to this day, the country’s standard position has been to pursue a “‘nonaligned,’ moderately anti-American course, without resorting to U.S. bashing but nonetheless befriending regimes that do,” such as Castro’s in Cuba and Chávez’s in Venezuela. When it comes to dealmaking, however, Mexico’s most important partner is the United States. Mexico may feel that it betrays its very soul when it opens its arms to its northern neighbor, but Castañeda believes that its equivocal stance—pretending to side with Latin America when it stands with the United States—is hypocritical and weak, obliging it to constantly “punch way below its weight in the international arena.”

Mañana Forever?
Mexico and the Mexicans.
By Jorge G. Castañeda.
Buy this book.

 

About the Author

Natasha Wimmer
Natasha Wimmer is the translator of Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives, 2666 and, most recently, Between...

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Interestingly, it is through the lens of this culture of semblance that Castañeda views the drug wars. In his opinion, the most pernicious effect of the struggle is that it has exacerbated the Mexican tendency to make decisions based on cherished fictions: “Making believe that drug consumption in the U.S. is illegal (when in fact it is increasingly tolerated), that trafficking in Mexico is strictly illegal (when it has been occurring for decades)…and that it is not in Mexico’s interest to receive between $9 [billion] and $39 billion for its drug exports every year (making this our first source of hard currency, above oil, tourism or remittances) are all examples of a profound hypocrisy that broadens the chasm between the law and reality.” Of course, such charges might also be leveled at the United States. Castañeda clearly wants to keep the drug issue off to one side in Mañana Forever?, though he has discussed it at length elsewhere, in venues from the Wall Street Journal to Foreign Policy and in the untranslated book El narco: La guerra fallida (Narco: The Failed War), co-written with Rubén Aguilar V. and published in 2009. Still, his brief, piety-dispensing discussion of the matter is noteworthy.

Other minor highlights of the book are the many revealing bits of data that Castañeda has gathered. For example, of all real estate lots in Mexican urban areas, 53 percent are not registered on public property rolls (closely related: Mexico collects fewer taxes as a percentage of GDP than any country in the OECD); drug consumption is markedly lower in Mexico than in the United States (0.4 percent of the population are considered to be addicts, compared with more than 3 percent in the United States); of all criminal court hearings, 92 percent are conducted on paper (consequence: no open adversarial legal process); at the beginning of the twentieth century, 13 million out of 15 million Mexicans spoke both Spanish and an indigenous language, a welcome reminder that Mexico is a diverse place.

* * *

One figure is especially crucial for Castañeda: by the end of 2012, Mexico will be roughly two-thirds middle-class, according to both absolute and relative definitions of the term. Castañeda gives a detailed account of his statistical methods, favoring a synthetic approach devised by World Bank economist Martin Ravallion, who posits “the existence of two middle classes in each developing country: the one that is so by international standards, and those who are middle-class by the standards of their own countries.” Ravallion’s rather low floor for middle-class earnings is $2 per day; The Economist gives a floor of $10. Castañeda calculates that in 2006 the floor in Mexico was roughly $7.30. Castañeda also charts car, TV and cellphone purchases, as well as the growth of the credit industry, private schooling and tourism, thus explaining and prefiguring the phenomenon recently described by the New York Times. According to Castañeda, the middle class has grown so quickly—since the peso crisis of 1995, essentially—that it has yet to mature culturally. What he means by this assertion is unclear, though it seems to have something to do with a lack of European polish: the Mexican middle class, he claims, “may not be a carbon copy of the ‘Old World’ middle class.” When discussing culture, Castañeda can be a bit condescending, such as when he describes a new class of Mexican tourists: “One can see [that they are first-time travelers] in the wondrous look in their eyes, in the pride with which they gaze upon Mexico’s marvels, and in their garb, habits, phenotype and innocence.” Nevertheless, his anecdotal evidence brings the numbers to life.

His detour into the evolution of the country’s racial mix is one of the most interesting parts of the book. The upshot is that Mexico, despite being repeatedly defined by its leaders as a mestizo nation, identifies most strongly with its Indian side—justifiably, as Castañeda points out—and this identification explains its perpetual sense of victimhood. Castañeda believes that Mexicans continue to avoid conflict out of a fear of crushing defeat, but he questions their historical reasons for doing so. As he explains it, Mexico’s violent history has been overstated. The massive deaths of Indians after the Conquest should in large part be attributed to infection rather than massacre, as should the deaths during the Revolution of 1910–17, which was immediately followed by the Spanish flu epidemic. Even today, he says, Mexico is less violent than most other Latin American countries: according to the Pan American Health Organization, for example, in 2007 it had eleven homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, behind Colombia, with thirty-eight, and Brazil, with thirty-one. Castañeda reasons that until the late 1980s, violence in Mexico was a rural phenomenon, invisible outside Mexico. “Since 2008, beheadings, mutilations, torture, and destruction are urban, often close to the United States, reported on and taking place in broad daylight…. This violence is strident, scandalous, and intolerable…. But it is far less widespread than before, though far noisier.”

The broad slant of Castañeda’s historical argument is sound, if a bit misleading. Even if the country’s disasters weren’t as devastating as advertised, they are still the inescapable topography of its past. Defeat and disappointment have been the historical norm in Mexico rather than the exception. Castañeda’s counterintuitive reading of the contemporary situation is more persuasive, though he may understate the extent to which Mexico’s experience of violence today is exacerbated by the weakness of the judicial system and the country’s climate of impunity.

Some sections of the book are marred by unclear reasoning, particularly the chapter in which Castañeda argues that Mexicans are not team players, neither literally (Mexico’s disappointments in international soccer competitions are taken as evidence) nor more generally (Mexicans avoid living in apartment buildings and participate in few community organizations). Castañeda blames what he calls individualism, explaining it as the product of 500 years of state control—though individualism is usually associated with initiative and independence, not apathy and alienation. A reference to the telecom magnate Carlos Slim as Mexico’s most prominent individualist—he stands alone because he is so much wealthier than anyone else in the country, if not the world, and even as a conversationalist he favors the monologue—further blurs the picture.

* * *

A curious aspect of Mañana Forever? is that it attempts the difficult feat of addressing two audiences at once. It was published simultaneously in English and Spanish, under the title Mañana o pasado: El misterio de los mexicanos, though it was written in English. (Over the course of his career, Castañeda has written alternately in English and Spanish, depending on his audience.) This suggests that the book’s primary readership is in the United States, yet its tone is exhortatory—even scolding at points—and directed at Mexican readers. Its stated aim, after all, is to persuade Mexico to “dispense with much of [its] atavistic baggage” (and, inevitably, with its “magic and mystery”) and to become a run-of-the-mill developed country: “In many ways, the less Mexico is different, and the more it is the same as others, the better for its people.” So why is this advice delivered in English, and addressed in significant part to a US readership? The answer (and the question) say something about the relationship between Mexico and the United States.

This brings us back to Castañeda’s grand experiment, in which he peers through his microscope at the 12 million Mexicans currently living in the petri dish of the United States. His aim is to discover whether they are transformed by life in a country with functioning institutions and different social norms, and if so, whether those changes are transferable. His findings are a bit slim, but his strongest conclusion is that women may be the fulcrum for change. Nearly 50 percent of migrants today are women, and unlike men, they work primarily in services. They are likely to be more independent than they were in Mexico, and they enjoy the benefits of equal opportunity. Based on Castañeda’s personal experience, they are also likely to be better listeners than men, and therefore more adaptable. All these observations are more an invitation to future study than concrete findings, but they represent a creative approach to the problems that Castañeda identifies. Of course, one would also have to study the potential negative effects of life in the United States on Mexican immigrants, such as the erosion of family bonds or a rise in obesity.

Castañeda clearly believes in the salutary nature of intellectual combat, and despite its weaknesses Mañana Forever? deserves to prompt serious debate. The big question that the book raises is whether character can truly be blamed for the majority of Mexico’s ills. Dissenters might argue that the lack of trustworthy institutions (legal, judicial, tax) has given Mexicans no basis upon which to build public spirit. It’s really a chicken-or-egg question: what must come first, character building or institution building? Castañeda would say that attitudes must be changed before government can be successfully reformed. A less obvious question may be whether Mexicans must fight so hard against type, if indeed they recognize themselves in Castañeda’s description. Gradual, piecemeal reform has achieved impressive if incomplete results in recent years, and perhaps circumspection and polite ritual aren’t all that bad in the service of peaceful progress.

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