Today's date:
Winter 2001

Erasing the Border of Time

The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes' newest book is Laura Diaz. He spoke with NPQ is late November.

Mexico City - In the wake of the revolution, the PRI (Party of the Institutional Revolution) established a pact with the people: We will give you education, health, communications and stability. In exchange, you will not have democracy, but must tolerate the authoriarian government that will make your life better. And, the PRI did make life better.

Between 1920 and 1960 Mexico was transformed at an extremely rapid pace. Then, the PRI government became complacent, resting on its laurels and lauding the "Mexican miracle." It became blind to the fact that too many people were being left behind. To this day, half the population lives in poverty.

A new generation, educated by the so-called "governments of the revolution" under a system set up by Education Minister Jose Vasconcellos in the 1920s, sought to realize the values the revolution proclaimed: freedom and democracy.
In 1968, students took to the streets with what they had learned in school and demanded their rights. Instead, they got bullets. They were massacred.
That is when the decline of the PRI began. There were holding operations under successive governments that were forced to make a concession here or there. In the end, the growth of civil society in Mexico became so strong that the electorate finally cast out the PRI in the vote last July 2. (And, let us not forget that, already, by the midterm elections under President Ernesto Zedillo three years ago, 53 percent of the country was governed by opposition parties at the level of state governments and city halls.)

Mexico has thus entered a new stage in which we cease to be the perfect dictatorship, as Mario Vargas Llosa proclaimed, and have become the imperfect democracy.

NPQ | Today there are two contesting models for Latin America. Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, proposes a kind of "Bolivarian anti-globalization" program in which Latin America unites against North American neoliberalism. Vicente Fox, the new Mexican president, has proposed the opposite: integrating Mexico with the United States and embracing neoliberalism as part of a North American Common Market.

Mexico tilted North with NAFTA. But doesn't the idea of a North American Common Market imply a wholesale defection of Mexico from Latin America to the North?

CARLOS FUENTES | No. No. No. I would absolutely refute that.

First, though, the Chavez model is nothing but a return to the old authoritarian systems of Latin America. It is a warning that if democracy does not bring well-being to the majority of the people they will turn back to the old authoritarian ways. This, not democracy, has been the tradition in Latin America.

Fox, on the other hand, is really recognizing that Mexico is wedded to the US no matter what. Yet, only the north of Mexico is becoming closer to the US and the south has been left behind. If the south does not catch up with the north, we run the risk of splitting the country, of a Balkanized Mexico.

One of the most important policies Fox is pursuing is thus Mexico's opening to Central America, to make Mexico the North America of Central America, to link Chiapas, Yucatan and Quintana Roo to Central America. They have been waiting for it. They have been asking their big brother to the north for help.
Mexico has very powerful companies that can invest and develop the area from Chiapas down through Guatemala to Panama. This is another historical role for Mexico to play. These small states, after all, were part of the Mexican empire and the colony of New Spain.

Under Fox, Mexico will also pursue closer relationships with the MERCOSUR countries (the trading bloc that includes Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and Brazil).
Further, apart from Israel, Mexico is the only country outside of Europe to have a free trade agreement with the European Union.
So, far from "defecting" to the North, Mexico is pursuing a wide range of relationships globally.

NPQ | The political and intellectual class of your generation was educated in Europe. Later, key leaders like Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo were educated not at the Sorbonne, but at MIT, Harvard and Yale. Now, you have a president, Fox, who is a graduate of Coca-Cola, the great symbol of US cultural imperialism. (Fox was the president of Coca-Cola in Mexico.)

Clearly, that indicates a shift of orientation on Mexico's part.

FUENTES | Yes, that is natural. We all live in a new context. The Cold War is over. The US is the strongest country in the world. We cannot abolish the US, but must deal with it. The proximity helps Mexico. Mexico has a strong cultural profile and is not going to be overwhelmed by American culture.
I am in a minority vis-a-vis the left in Mexico, but I believe NAFTA benefits Mexico, not just the US.

So, now we can start thinking not only of a Bolivarian revolution that unites Latin America, but also about Jose Marti, the Cuban independence leader, who said that if you buy and sell from only one country you become the slave of that country, so it is important to diversify.

For Mexico, I say, "let's diversify."

NPQ | By bringing in to the government well-known leftists like Jorge Castañeda as foreign minister and Adolfo Aguilar Zinser as national security adviser, is the center-right Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) attempting a kind of national unity government?

FUENTES | Fox is aspiring to that. He invited people from the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) to enter the government-but they refused. He has no PRI people in his cabinet, though he will use public servants and diplomats who had been with PRI governments-a good thing since the foreign service in Mexico is the germ of a permanent, professional civil service.
Fox has the tremendous problem now of dealing with a Congress that is not in his pocket, where the PRI is still strong. This will make it difficult to pass legislation in the first three years until the next midterm election.
In reality, the three parties of Mexico-the formerly ruling PRI, the leftist PRD (Democratic Revolutionary Party) and the center-right PAN (National Action Party)-are in deep crisis.

The PRI may have a strong representation in Congress as well as 20 of the 31 governors, but it does not have much to offer by way of patronage without the presidency. Without the presidency, it is a headless dinosaur. And what can a party without ideology represent in the political spectrum? The PRD only got 17 percent of the vote. And President Fox seems to want to put as much distance between himself and his party, the PAN. In his view, he doesn't owe his election to the PAN, but to the FOF-"Friends of Fox."

My deep hope is that all this will modernize Mexican politics; that we will come out of this tumult with a European-style social democratic party on the left and a frankly conservative party on the center-right. Of course, there will be minority parties like a Green Party. But, essentially, there will be a two-party system.

NPQ | Octavio Paz used to talk about "the border of time" between Mexico and the US, Mexico having been born of the Counter-Reformation and Royal Absolutism, the US having been born out of the Reformation and the Enlightenment and thus a force for freedom that Paz called "the republic of the future."

Is that deep mentality that divides Mexico and the US finally being erased?

FUENTES | Yes. Fox and the Mexico he now represents want to become part of the modern world. We are thinking in term of a global reality that must be given a local identity. Either you have globalization that sidesteps governments and cultures, a speculative, faceless affair; or you have a globalization that is based on the capacity of each nation to govern itself, solve its problems and participate in the world on that basis.

NPQ | During the revolutionary decades of anti-clericalism and anti-Yanquism, Mexico's woes were said to result from "being so far from God, so close to the US." Now, under Fox, a practicing Catholic who embraces the US, perhaps the answer to Mexico's woes is that it is "so close to God, so close to the US"?

FUENTES | Probably, the problem for both Mexico and the US remains that we are so far from God, yet so close to each other. Of course, this is something of a joke, an irony. The point is, our two countries can work together. If we go back to the great legacy of FDR, we can be good neighbors and cooperate on the outstanding problems we will always have. You cannot have the strongest nation in the world living right next door to a developing nation without problems such as trade, migrant labor and drugs.

But these are minor problems when compared to such confrontations of the past as the Cold War and the Cuban Revolution. These barriers are gone. Today we are talking about problems that have solutions.

NPQ | Finally, do you share Fox's optimism about a long-term convergence of the US and Mexican economies?

FUENTES | I agree with Fox fundamentally on one very important idea of his: We live in a world where merchandise and capital flow freely, but people do not. They remained locked in closed borders.

Opening up borders to the flow of migrant labor is not just an issue between Mexico and the US, but a global issue for the 21st century. In fact, it is dramatically more on the front burner today in Europe than the US because the European economies are growing more slowly. Historically migrating countries like Italy and Spain are now becoming very hard-nosed against the new migrants from North Africa.
With Fox, Mexico and the US can offer an example of how to deal rationally and humanely with this problem by trying to solve it by enlarging the frame of cooperation.

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