Carlos Fuentes | Critical Review by Walter Russell Mead

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Carlos Fuentes.
This section contains 936 words
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Critical Review by Walter Russell Mead

SOURCE: "In the Shadow of a Colossus," in Washington Post Book World, June 23, 1996, p. 5.

In the following review, Mead provides a generally positive appraisal of A New Time for Mexico.

"We turn on the television sets of the Mexican mind," writes Carlos Fuentes in A New Time for Mexico, "and every night we hear the same evening news. Top of the news: THE SPANISH HAVE CONQUERED MEXICO. Second item: THE GRINGOS STOLE HALF OUR TERRITORY. After that, murders, arson, kidnappings and, five-legged cows."

The murders and five-legged cows have been coming thicker than usual since the policies of former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gotari collapsed ignominiously in 1994–95. Salinas had promised through the magic of NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] to turn Mexico into a First World country. Instead, as Fuentes makes clear, the Mexican scene remains a kind of Jurassic Park inhabited by political dinosaurs and, increasingly, by a new species Fuentes calls "drugosaurs"—figures who combine the corruption and impunity long associated with Mexico's terminally corrupt ruling party with the money and brutality associated with the drug trade.

The American establishment has fallen silent on the subjects of Mexico and Salinas. Nobody wants to admit that for the last six years the United States utterly misread its closest, most populous neighbor. The only people in the United States who want to talk about either Mexico or NAFTA today are people like Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan. The result is more than depressing. At the moment, the United States seems more likely to build a wall along the common border than to undertake any serious initiative to help Mexico grow.

For Mexico, of course, the collapse was more than an embarrassment; it was one of the most humiliating fiascos in a painful national history. Once again it seemed that Mexico was doomed to fail while the United States went forward from strength to strength. Mexico's economy and political regime alike seemed unreformable and unworkable.

This is the background for Carlos Fuentes's new book, and in it we can see a passionate and committed Mexican intellectual struggling with his country's unhappy present and uncertain future. Combining impressionistic accounts of the Mexican national soul with remarkably lucid summaries of Mexican history, snippets of literary autobiography, policy prescriptions and personal journals, A New Time for Mexico is a challenging book, but the North American reader will find few more helpful introductions to the Mexican national crisis.

Unfortunately, the policy-wonk bits of the book are not very successful. Fuentes has a list, but he doesn't have a plan. Mexico must become more democratic. It must open itself to market forces while preserving, and even extending, a network of social benefits to protect and educate its poor. NAFTA must be reformed; the United States and Canada ought to be more generous to Mexico; Europe and the newly prosperous states of East Asia ought to be more involved. Mexican political parties must become more honest; they must agree on a fair and transparent system for future elections; fraud must be rooted out of politics.

Well, yes, of course. But how?

Fuentes is more impressive when he dissects the flawed psychology behind Mexico's repeated one-sided dashes for modernization in both the 19th and 20th centuries. For Salinas, like Porfirio Diaz a century ago, progress meant the Europeanization or, most recently, the Yankification of Mexico. The psychological and emotional landscape of the Mexican countryside had to be exchanged for the values and perceptions of the Manchester School one hundred years ago, and those of the Harvard Business School today.

Mexico, says Fuentes, needs another kind of modernization: one built on the celebration and affirmation of its national character and civilization. Rather than the autocratic, top-down reforms of a Salinas, Mexico needs decentralization and democratization.

This again seems indisputably true—and exquisitely difficult to do. And it involves a revolution in Mexican thinking beyond anything Fuentes contemplates in this book.

For Fuentes and for much of Mexican elite opinion, Mexico confronts the Colossus of the North alone. It is not just that many Mexican intellectuals dismiss such "backward" countries as Guatemala and Honduras in much the same way many United States intellectuals dismiss Mexico. It is that for Fuentes—and for his countrymen—even countries like Brazil, Chile and Argentina do not loom very large in the hemispheric political and economic environment.

In the early 1980s, Mexico refused to make common cause with fellow-debtor nations like Argentina and Brazil. Later in the 1980s it moved ahead with NAFTA, rejoicing that the other Latin American nations were excluded from this new, special relationship with the United States. By insisting on handling its relations with the United States on a bilateral basis, Mexico magnifies its weakness and its isolation. By imagining itself as isolated—so far from God, so close to the United States in Porfirio Diaz's famous phrase—Mexico achieves a kind of glamour and dignity, but also dooms itself to endless impotence and futility.

Many things will have to happen before Mexico's political system and its economy can fulfill the hopes of Mexico's people; one of those changes will have to involve a rediscovery and a celebration of Mexico's connections with its neighbors to the south. Until then, look for more murders and five-legged cows. Mexico is in the midst of a profound, possibly a violent restructuring. We must all hope that it will be sane, patriotic and thoughtful humanists like Carlos Fuentes, rather than drugosaurs and dinosaurs, who shape Mexico's new order. And the United States can never forget that, should Mexico's problems dramatically worsen, no wall can be high enough, no river deep enough, to keep those problems out of our lives.

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This section contains 936 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Walter Russell Mead
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