Mexico is not condemned to failure

Reading the new book by Jorge Castañeda, Mañana Forever: Mexico and the Mexicans, I was struck by his observation that Mexicans tend to seek individual solutions to collective problems, while Americans and Europeans tend to seek collective solutions to collective problems.Castañeda, one of Latin America’s sharpest intellectuals and a former Mexican foreign minister, says Mexico suffers from an acute individualism that is evident in Mexicans’ attitudes toward politics, architecture, arts and even sports. Mexicans are not team players, he says. It is not surprising, for example, that Mexico, one of Latin America’s most populated countries, has never won a soccer World Cup, or that it has produced international music stars like Armando Manzanero or Luis Miguel — but not world-famous orchestras.But doesn’t that apply to most Latin American countries? After all, Argentina has the world’s best soccer player Lionel Messi — and didn’t win last year’s soccer World Cup. Colombia has world-famous singer Shakira but no comparably famous orchestras, I noted during an interview with Castañeda.“There is some truth to the fact that there is a Latin American individualist trait in all countries, but the Mexican case is exceptionally acute,” he said, noting that Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and other Latin American countries have historically had much better soccer teams than Mexico. Castañeda cited the fact that when you fly over Mexico City, you see a largely flat city that stretches out endlessly, with individual houses as far as the eye can see. Comparatively, when you take a picture of Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo or Caracas from the air, you see high-rise apartment buildings everywhere.“Mexicans don’t like living in an apartment building, because they don’t think it belongs to them and don’t want to share a public space with their neighbors,” he said. “That doesn’t happen in other parts of Latin America.”Likewise, few middle or upper-class Mexicans take the subway, or join charitable, religious, communitarian or educational institutions. Mexico ranks last in a Johns Hopkins University ranking of countries’ charitable donations, with only 0.04 percent of its gross domestic product spent on charity, he noted.When faced with economic or social problems, Mexicans take advantage of their geographic closeness to the United States to seek the ultimate individualist solution: emigration. “Their reaction is, ‘I’m leaving; you take care of this mess,’” he said.Asked about the reasons behind this individualist culture, Castañeda cited the fact that the conquest of the Americas was not the work of Spain as a country, but the achievement of individual adventurers who often acted on their own initiative. In addition, Mexico already had a hierarchical structure even before the Spanish conquest, which left little room for individual initiatives, he said.But, I asked, are Mexicans doomed by their history? Isn’t this a “cultural determinism” that has proven wrong in many other countries until recently seen as hopeless?“At any given time, a country’s culture or national character or national identity, although I don’t like that term, has a significant influence on the way people act,’’ Castañeda said. “But what I maintain is that it can be changed, and that it must change, and that Mexico can only prosper if it changes it.”My opinion: I agree. Countries are not condemned by their history. They can change. Singapore, South Korea, Ireland — even after its current financial crisis. India and China were believed to be basket cases only four decades ago and suffered famines that were never seen in Latin America before they started growing steadily in recent years.I know many of you are thinking that none of the above-mentioned countries are in Latin America. But that’s not true: There are several countries in the region that are growing steadily. Just look at Chile, or Costa Rica, or — with luck — Brazil, and you see economic progress in our neighborhood. What determines whether countries prosper is their national consensus on basic things, such as the need for continuity in government policies, attracting investments and improving educational standards. There is no biological reason why Latin America’s prosperity should be a “Mañana forever” proposition. It can be achieved and it is being achieved by several countries, although unfortunately not by as many as we would like.

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