Double Vantage: On Jorge Castañeda

Double Vantage: On Jorge Castañeda

In Mañana Forever? Jorge Castañeda chronicles the growth of the middle class to argue that Mexico is not a failed state.


There are a few things that Mañana Forever?, Jorge Castañeda’s new book on Mexico, pointedly isn’t about. It’s not about violence, and it’s not about the immigration debate (though it does consider the effects of emigration). Above all, it’s not about the drug wars. Castañeda, it soon becomes clear, considers these subjects, especially the last, to be distractions when it comes to a discussion of the Mexican national character—or of Mexico in general. He is in agreement with David Rieff, who recently lamented in The New Republic the tendency of American commentators to endorse the idea that Mexico is at risk of becoming a failed state, and to focus exclusively on the grisly fallout from President Felipe Calderón’s military campaign against the country’s narco-gangs.

Lately, better news from Mexico has been attracting attention. A July front-page article in the New York Times made it clear that US perceptions of its neighbor have lagged behind reality. According to recent statistics, the flow of illegal immigrants has already stopped, with net traffic falling to zero for the first time in sixty years. “The Mexican census recently discovered four million more people in Mexico than had been projected, which officials attributed to a sharp decline in emigration,” explained Damien Cave of the Times. Perhaps even more surprising, stepped-up enforcement on the US side of the border is only a small part of the picture. More significant are trends in Mexico, including increased work and educational opportunities and a sharp fall in birthrates. “The decision to leave home involves a comparison, a wrenching cost-benefit analysis,” wrote Cave, “and just as a Mexican baby boom and economic crises kicked off the emigration waves in the 1980s and ’90s, research now shows that the easing of demographic and economic pressures is helping keep departures in check.” In short, Mexicans are finding more reasons to stay in Mexico, despite the cloud of drug violence.

This is the Mexico that Castañeda wants Americans to understand better: a country where democracy is on the rise and a new middle class is rapidly emerging. In his shrewd, contrarian study, broadly informed and bold if occasionally highhanded, he analyzes a series of character traits that have long been attributed to the Mexican people and explains how an outmoded self-image is occluding analysis of economic and social gains. Castañeda is a political scientist, so his methods are more sociological than philosophical; but his book is ultimately an ontological inquiry, an attempt to probe the Mexican psyche—or, more accurately, to diagnose and perhaps exorcise its real and imagined ills. Unlike Octavio Paz—his most renowned predecessor—he’s no poet, nor does he claim to be, though he does implicitly situate himself in the lineage of Paz and other students of Mexican character, from essayists Jorge Cuesta and Samuel Ramos to psychoanalysts Santiago Ramírez and Jorge Portilla and anthropologists Roger Bartra and Claudio Lomnitz. (This book, like Castañeda’s previous ones, does double duty as an excellent guide to further reading.)

Born in 1953 in Mexico City, Castañeda spent his childhood partly in Cairo and Paris, where his father served as Mexico’s ambassador. He received a bachelor’s degree from Princeton and a doctorate from the University of Paris, and has taught at universities in Mexico and the United States, where he is currently a professor at New York University. He also writes regularly for Reforma, El País and Newsweek. In his youth, he was a communist and an admirer of Fidel Castro; but his admiration for the Cuban regime dimmed to the point that in 1993 he published Utopia Unarmed, a foundational study of the postwar Latin American left. The book is an obituary that is in part critical of, and in part an elegy for, the leftist ideal of armed struggle forged in Cuba and exported around the region. Castañeda did not cut corners, interviewing leftist guerrillas in the region as well as Castro’s spymasters. The result is an intellectually rigorous account of one of the most dizzyingly complex periods in Latin American history. As none other than Gabriel García Márquez, known for his cozy relationship with Castro, said of Utopia Unarmed, “This is the finely written and well-spun tale of the ascent and subsequent misfortune of the Latin American Left, a victim of its own willfulness and others’ dogma…. And it is also a blueprint—polemical but less illusory—for surviving the shipwreck even with the loss of much of the furniture.” The book remains an essential resource.

Castañeda has played two notable roles in Mexico’s transition to democracy after seventy years of PRI one-party rule: first, as a late supporter of the insurgent leader of the center-left opposition, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, who in 1988 lost a presidential election that many suspect was stolen from him when vote-counting computers mysteriously crashed; second, as the foreign minister in the center-right government of Vicente Fox, who was elected Mexico’s first post-PRI president in 2000. Castañeda still identifies with the left, but the left sees him as a controversial figure—a role, incidentally, that he seems to enjoy. Meanwhile, his international upbringing and cosmopolitan life—as controversial in their way as his political views—allow him to take a double vantage point as an insider and outsider of the sort that does not exist in American politics.

* * *

The question of national character is tricky, at once irresistible on a conversational level and treacherous on a theoretical one. Castañeda acknowledges this, and grounds his discussion in a careful definition, distinguishing national character from national identity. The latter is a more straightforward blend of history, religion, language and ethnic origins: a nation’s official self-definition. The former is something harder to pin down: the way a nation views itself, and how it is viewed by others. Less charitably, it might be called national stereotype. According to Castañeda, it’s difficult to ascribe a national character to countries of immigrants like the United States. Countries of emigrants, like Mexico, face a different problem. Does national character change when a significant percentage of the citizens live outside the nation’s borders? And in this particular case, might certain elements of the American character—positive elements, specifically—be grafted onto the Mexican character via Mexico’s emigrants?

Castañeda eventually attempts to answer this question, but first he sets out to examine key aspects of the Mexican national character as it has traditionally been understood: lack of community spirit and collective initiative (Castañeda rather confusingly calls this “individualism”), avoidance of conflict and competition, fear of outsiders and mistrust of laws. Each trait is identified and then deconstructed or debunked, with Castañeda endeavoring to explain why current circumstances render it obsolete. Throughout the book, one underlying tendency keeps popping up: what Castañeda calls the “Mexican predilection for simulation.”

Simulation—or the tendency to present something as it is not, whether on an individual or a national level—is a Mexican peculiarity long dissected by writers and observers. In Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz celebrated it as the art of Form, a Spanish and Indian heritage, while noting the toll it takes on those who avail themselves of it; Castañeda condemns it as “a substitute for facing up to awkward realities,” and sees its noxious effects everywhere. Most fundamentally, he identifies it as the rot besetting the Mexican legal system. In colonial times, laws written in Spain often had little relevance in Mexico, and so a system was worked out whereby laws were officially “obeyed” but not applied. As Castañeda explains, “This was the beginning of the separation between law and fact, between a de jure world and a de facto one, between the outward, rhetorical, and even reverential respect for the law in the abstract, and the emergence of a path in everyday life totally decoupled from that law.”

This dissociation between rhetoric and reality was later reinforced by a series of Mexican constitutions, the first composed after the War of Independence and adopted in 1824, and the last proclaimed after the Mexican Revolution, in 1917. Like nearly all the constitutions of Latin American nations, these documents were based on the US Constitution and the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and were what Castañeda calls “aspirational” texts, based on the assumption that Mexico already had elections, separation of powers, economic freedoms and civil liberties. Yet in the absence of this framework for democracy, work-around solutions were devised from the beginning, and it was taken for granted that the letter of the law would remain precisely that. Even in the international arena, Mexico acquired the habit of ratifying treaties but never passing the legislation necessary to implement them at home.

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.”

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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