Reseña de Sergio Aguayo sobre “Mañana Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans”

Mexico’s progress continues to be inhibited by resistance to change—a resistance that today, according to Jorge Castañeda, has placed Mexico’s democracy and the country at a crossroads. In Mañana Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans, the former Mexican foreign minister (2000–2003) analyzes the Mexican character and spirit and from that develops a roadmap for emerging from the current crisis.While Castañeda’s intellect shines through the work as he mercilessly points out the many contradictions of the Mexican people, several of his points are opaque or even superficial. Admittedly, changing the national character is a tough challenge. In his view, Mexicans are known for their individualism, their aversion to competition and risk, and an irrepressible impulse to ignore laws.Mexico’s torturous and stormy history is a continuing burden. It has led to a national penchant for self-victimization and has complicated its foreign relations, particularly with the United States. As the process of economic integration fostered by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) continues, cross-border issues such as crime, migration and border security affect Mexicans’ views of themselves as well as their ability to solve their problems.For these reasons, Castañeda takes a bleak view of Mexico’s future. “If the national trait[…]implies anything, it is that Mexican political culture, because of its deeply rooted rejection of confrontation, competition, and controversy, remains ill-equipped for democracy,” he writes.But this conclusion is unfair. The political culture and national character cannot be held principally responsible for the breakdown of Mexican democracy. There are other, equally important causes.Despite its limitations and traumas, Mexican society completed the task that history demanded of it in ushering in an end to one-party rule. The real problem is that the country’s political, economic and cultural elites have failed repeatedly to exercise leadership. In 1968, the masses took to the streets of the capital and faced the bayonets in Tlatelolco Plaza and elsewhere to demand basic freedoms. In 1985, civic organizations and citizens stepped in and led the recovery efforts when the government was paralyzed by an 8.1-magnitude earthquake that shook Mexico City. But the enthusiasm for change displayed on these and other occasions was squandered by the political leaders. Castañeda occasionally notes the mediocrity of Mexican leaders, but he fails to give it the weight that it deserves.The fourth chapter, for example, focuses on the reasons for the failure of democracy. But here, when discussing the presidency of Vicente Fox (2000–2006), Castañeda falls into a linguistic vagueness that weakens his analysis. “The crucial decision that Mexico has not made, and essentially for the types of cultural reasons we have been arguing,” he writes, “lies squarely in the refusal to truly consummate a break with the authoritarian past.” By holding the entire country responsible, the book conveniently avoids assigning blame for any missteps to particular individuals.However, blame should be assigned. In 2000, Mexican citizens challenged the authoritarian machinery and responded to the call for tactical voting to oust the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) from the presidency. Fox, a member of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), won the election; but his campaign promises were never fulfilled. Castañeda observes that Fox’s inner circle was divided between reformists and those who preferred to negotiate pacts with the old regime. In the end, the negotiators won “the new president’s favor” and those who were for change—including Castañeda—“lost, and [their] defeat has persisted.” In other words, Mexico did make the right decisions; those who failed were the ones in charge of carrying them out. Yet Castañeda still blames Mexico in general—rather than the political elites—for the lack of change.The substantive arguments Castañeda uses to criticize Mexican society disappear in his analysis of the Fox administration. But in this reviewer’s judgment, Fox was an irresponsible and frivolous president who allied himself with the old regime and permitted the concentration of political, economic and coercive power. His failures are responsible for the current crisis of representation in Mexican politics, including the ongoing monopoly on political power by a small clique of elites. Yet, even without strong leadership, Mexicans remain determined to shake off pessimism and passivity. People—despite being ignored or closed off by the system—continue to call for the justice denied them by the governing elites.Yet Castañeda seems unable to resist the temptation to hold society at large responsible for the failures of the elites. For example, in discussing efforts to institute class action lawsuits, which provide a legal channel for challenging the voracity of monopolies and oligopolies, he attributes the attempt at legal reform to “a group of legislators and legal experts” who pushed for the changes in 2008. “Perhaps the best proof of Mexico’s obsessive individualism and its resistance to any change in this field lay in the tardiness of this reform effort,” he writes. “The constitutional amendments were ratified in mid-2010, but the implementing legislation was still pending in 2011.”But two fundamental details are omitted here. The class action issue was in fact placed on the national agenda because of the work of the civic organization Alconsumidor. Beginning in 2005, Alconsumidor began to persuade legislators, academics and some in the media of the need to revamp Mexico’s legal system. As of June 2011, the reform remains held up due to the lobbying efforts of large Mexican and foreign corporations that are determined to continue exploiting Mexican society with obscene prices and commissions. Failure to pass such reform is yet another sign of the complicity of political elites.It should be recognized that important figures among the elites are committed to democracy and justice. Castañeda is certainly one of them. While serving as Fox’s foreign minister, he distinguished himself by accelerating the country’s political opening and by helping to anchor and position the country’s transition in international circles. His efforts while in office show that high-level officials who commit themselves to change can make a difference. It was a shame, therefore, that he left the foreign ministry to build a presidential candidacy—which, as it happened, failed in part because of the lack of support from elites. Having returned to the world of intellectuals and commentators, Castañeda’s self-appointed role today is to spark debate about the country’s future. But his effectiveness as a change agent is hampered by his pessimism.He wonders, “Why can’t Mexico, or any other country, conserve its specificity and simultaneously achieve modernity and well-being?” His answer is clear: “It can, but only if its soul ceases to be a burden for its people, if its character and culture become instruments of change, and no longer of immobility.” But it is not cultural inheritance that accounts for the mediocrity of the political elites and their resistance to change and for the crisis of Mexican democracy. Rather, it is their defense of special interests and their selfishness and corruption.Foreigners who arrive in Mexico eager to be well-informed are often advised to read a variety of newspapers. Castañeda’s new book can help provide that same panoramic view of Mexican society for non-Mexicans. But while it offers a wide-ranging critique of Mexico’s character flaws, it misses the deeper causes behind the crisis of Mexican democracy.

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