Confronting Mexico

Former foreign minister argues that major changes are necessary if the nation wants to move forwardFormer Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda prefaces his latest book by discussing the H1N1 swine flu, discovered in 2009 in San Diego County, that caused Mexico to close schools and some businesses. Mexico’s move, which hobbled its economy, was praised by international officials but also criticized as a drastic overreaction. In “Mañana Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans,” Castañeda says the government responded as it did to force Mexico’s highly self-medicating citizens to take proper measures to protect themselves. “The government had no choice but to exaggerate the danger of H1N1; otherwise no one would have taken the matter seriously,” he writes. Castañeda uses what he calls Mexicans’ self-medicating mentality; their reluctance to make hard decisions; their tax avoidance; their attention to ritualistic style over substance; and their lack of international prowess in team sports to argue that his countrymen are too individualistic, too nonconfrontational and radically dysfunctional. He says Mexican society must undergo major change to progress.His book is a valiant effort to explain why Mexico is in the fix it is in and how it can move forward. The ever-impatient Castañeda has the credentials: foreign minister under National Action Party President Vicente Fox, graduate of Princeton and the University of Paris, and author of more than a dozen books. This volume courses from the Spanish conquest to the present, with a heavy emphasis on statistics and opinion polls. But Castañeda tortuously jumps through a number of hoops in an attempt to advance his thesis about Mexicans’ avoidance of conflict and their individualism, when it might have been easier just to say there are exceptions to his generalizations. He calls organized crime an individual undertaking, arguing that Mexican cartels have been individually run or family-based. “Mexican individualism is an individualism of the family,” he writes.If Mexico is nonconfrontational, why is it suffering from beheadings, massacres and other drug violence? Castañeda says that Mexico is nowhere near as violent as it seems, and that the country, “even in the midst of its self-induced drug disgrace, has fewer homicides per hundred thousand inhabitants than most countries in Latin America.” Was the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910 a product of a conflictive society? Castañeda says it might have only seen 30,000 to 40,000 combat deaths, with perhaps 436,000 deaths resulting from the 1918 Spanish flu.The chapter “Why Mexicans are Lousy at Soccer and Avoid Skyscrapers” largely blames individualism for Mexico never making it to a World Cup soccer semifinal. But while El Tri has not achieved soccer’s ultimate success, it is a stretch to say Mexico is lousy at the game. It has won eight CONCACAF regional championships, double the U.S. total. There is far more at play in Mexico’s lack of a World Cup trophy than individualism.Castañeda also calls the United States a highly individualistic country, but notes the U.S. propensity for group sports and for teamwork. He says the United States has 2 million civil organizations, one for every 150 inhabitants, while citing a figure that Mexico has 8,500, one for every 12,000. It is here where he shows how Mexico needs to continue to move forward. He cites the impressive rise of Mexico’s middle class over the past 15 years and the number of students in higher education more than doubling to 2.6 million. Castañeda sees hope that Mexican women, as they become more empowered both in Mexico and in the United States, will effect positive change. He says Mexico would benefit by lengthening the school day; by supplanting local police forces with a national one; and by changing its “unmanageable three-party system” and instituting election runoffs. He says that the Institutional Revolutionary Party that ruled from 1929 to 2000 mastered the art of conflict aversion through perpetual negotiation, but that the trait is dysfunctional for democracy.San Diego features in the book other than swine flu. Castañeda says crime decreased in San Diego even as immigration rose. He says former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Jeffrey Davidow, now the outgoing president of the Institute of the Americas in San Diego, was “a career bureaucrat with a load of chips on his shoulder” — while also astute.While Castañeda may see some patterns that were not there, and perhaps misidentifies some solutions, he has put a great deal of thought into Mexico’s troubles. This individualistic yet confrontational book is worth plowing through for those interested in Mexico’s past, present and future.David Gaddis Smith is a San Diegan who writes about Mexico and border issues on his blog,

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