Campaigning for Change in Mexico

Jorge G. Castañeda was long involved in efforts to end the 70-year dictatorial reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) over Mexico. In 1988, he supported the presidential ambitions of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, who probably won the election that was officially called for the PRI candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Cárdenas decided to contest local races across Mexico, and in 1989 Castañeda traveled to the town of Tepoztlán as an election observer. As he recounts in “Mañana Forever?” it became obvious that the PRI was tampering with the ballots in this election as well, and Castañeda urged the local cardenistas to put up a fight. They demurred, coming up with several implausible explanations for their passivity. Finally, one cardenista copped to the real reason: contesting the results would make the PRI hacks angry. Well, yes. That was “entirely the point,” Castañeda writes, “to stop the old ruling party gangsters from stealing another election, even if they were ultimately unhappy about it.” Castañeda decamped to Mexico City the next day, frustrated by the cardenistas’ response, but he came to understand their position. The local PRI guys would have made their lives hell. And historically, rebels haven’t fared well in Mexico. Not far from Tepoztlán, Rubén Jaramillo had advocated on behalf of landless peasants in the 1960s and was murdered, along with his pregnant wife and three children. The martyred Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata had staged his uprising in Anenecuilco, just miles away. It’s not a legacy that encourages principled defiance over cutting a deal. In “Mañana Forever?” Castañeda contends that the behavior of the cardenistas in Tepoztlán is reflected in broader Mexican culture. Mexicans don’t believe in the efficacy of collective action. They shy away from confrontation and are too accepting of a corrupt status quo. That mind-set may have made sense when the country was dominated by a dictatorship and a vast majority of citizens struggled merely to survive. But since 1994 Mexico has enjoyed a flawed but functioning democracy and a growing middle class. Its future holds promise. As Castañeda persuasively argues, however, in order to realize that future, Mexicans will need to leave their old ways behind. There is mounting international and domestic pressure for Mexico to change. The rise of China has benefited Latin American countries like Brazil and Chile, which export minerals, agricultural goods and other commodities to the Asian giant. But it has hurt Mexico, because the country produces the same kinds of export-assembly products the Chinese churn out cheaply and efficiently. Increasing Mexico’s competitiveness will require tabling the traditional aversion to standing up to power. It will mean dismantling the utilities monopolies that make the country’s electricity and fixed-line business phone services more expensive than in the United States. It will also demand greater deference for the rule of law, a concept that has never gained traction in Mexico and has helped create a culture of impunity in which drug cartels have thrived. Castañeda presents an impassioned and erudite case for a rethinking of old Mexican habits. His background makes him especially well positioned to explain his native land to an international audience: in addition to serving as Mexican foreign minister from 2000 to 2003, he earned his Ph.D. in Paris and teaches at New York University. Castañeda’s academic proclivities occasionally bog down his arguments; he relies heavily on polling data and occasionally ignores the fact that most readers in the United States have only a cursory knowledge of Mexican history. Still, he is well versed in everything from Mexico in the pre-Columbian era to modern pop culture icons, and he manages to bring his aperçus together into an engaging narrative. In addition to investigating the forces that have forged the Mexican character, Castañeda provides a road map for the country’s future. Some of his recommendations — like creating a national police force and reforming the judicial system — are relatively uncontroversial. Others, however, have a quixotic and perhaps self-serving quality. He wants the United States to create a Marshall Plan for Mexico and hopes that eventually the two countries will share a single currency. He argues, too, that Mexico needs a Charles de Gaulle figure, a forceful president who will prod Mexicans to be more positive about the United States, much the way de Gaulle managed to inculcate a warmer relationship between France and Germany. Castañeda says there isn’t a person on the Mexican political scene right now who can engineer that turnaround. Nonetheless, it’s possible that he hopes to be that figure. He did, after all, campaign for the presidency in 2006, a few years after leaving his position as foreign minister. Curiously, that experience is all but absent from the book. While Castañeda presents anecdotes from his childhood and his stint in Vicente Fox’s cabinet, the only reference to his time on the hustings is when he remarks that at his campaign events women would pose questions much more succinctly than men. It’s arguably not a huge omission for Castañeda to refrain from discussing his presidential ambitions, because “Mañana Forever?” doesn’t read like a campaign autobiography, at least of the type that flood bookstores in the United States during presidential election seasons. Castañeda wants to shake his countrymen out of their complacency. He’s holding a mirror up to Mexico that’s meant to point out its flaws, not promote its virtues. It’s as though he’s positioning himself to be not Mexico’s president, but its philosopher king. Alexandra Starr, who writes frequently about immigration and Latin America, is a fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University Law School.

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