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Critical Review by Sidney Weintraub
SOURCE: "Fuentes: Mexico's Smoldering Volcano," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 18, 1996, p. 4.
Below, Weintraub offers a predominantly negative review of A New Time for Mexico.
The focus of this collection of essays [A New Time for Mexico] is largely on events during the last two full calendar years—the breakdown of Mexico's economic fabric in 1994 and the calamitous depression that followed in 1995. The discussion is personal and idiosyncratic—how Carlos Fuentes views what happened and what are his Ten Commandments for the future.
Fuentes is a person of considerable distinction, and his writings therefore merit the attention of those who seek to understand the Mexican scene. His thoughts are often inspiring, such as the emphasis on democracy, liberty and justice in his Decalogue, but they are also often quite base, such as his crude anti-Americanism. His prose is full of flowery banalities: "To see Mexico from the air is to look upon the face of creation. Our everyday, earthbound vision takes flight and is transformed into a vision of the elements. Mexico is a creation of water and fire, of wind and earthquake, of the moon and the sun." These are the opening sentences of the volume. But he also creates powerful word pictures: "While U.S. progress has produced garbage, Mexico's backwardness has produced monuments." His aspirations are commendable. But his political-economic analysis is often downright naive. (Mexico's reserves were not slashed by a wave of imports, as he states, but by capital flight stemming from a lack of confidence in the management of the country.)
The essays tell us much about Fuentes, particularly about his noble hopes for his country, but they provide little that is new to informed Mexicans or observers of the Mexican scene. By all means, read this slim volume if you wish to understand what motivates Fuentes but don't also expect to learn much about the reasons for the economic horrors that beset Mexicans during the last few years.
Mexico has been on a downward slide for the last 25 years. Luis Echeverria, when he acceded to the presidency in 1970, shifted policy with the objective of narrowing Mexico's abysmal divide between the rich and the poor, but his populist effort to spend the country into greater equality led only to mountainous inflation and further deterioration in income distribution. His successor, Jose Lopez Portillo, despite huge inflows of oil revenue, left the country with a Popocatépell of debt that impoverished the country for the rest of the 1980s. (Fuentes describes Popo as a dead volcano, which it apparently is not.) Between them, the next two presidents, Miguel de la Madrid and Carlos Salinas de Gortari, did bring Mexico into the world economy, but the end result was what happened in 1994 and 1995. Every economic catastrophe has its antecedents, but these are largely absent in Fuentes' description.
Fuentes' hero among Mexican presidents of the modern era is Lazaro Cárdenas, on two grounds: his land reform accomplishments and his standing up to the United States in the nationalization of foreign oil facilities in 1938. Most Mexicans would share this sentiment. Cárdenas did nothing to stimulate democratic opening in Mexico, as Fuentes admits. His main villain among modern Mexican leaders is Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, who was president during the infamous 1968 student massacre. Fuentes invokes Diaz Ordaz's name again and again in connection with this event, but he ignores the fact that the minister directly responsible for the police action was Echeverria. It is almost as though he cannot find it in himself to attack a populist, whereas he has no difficulty in repeatedly berating the more conservative Diaz Ordaz.
For reasons that are not fully articulated, Fuentes admires Carlos Salinas, who shifted the direction of Mexican economic policy. However, he is critical of Salinas on two scores, first for neglecting political opening even as he opened the Mexico economy, and, second, for not carrying out a devaluation of the peso before he left office in order that his successor could consolidate his own absolute power. By contrast, Fuentes has harsh words for Ernesto Zedillo, the current president, for his "brutal" break with Salinas and his lack of political expertise, which "permits … many democratic slogans to be perverted." Fuentes is, of course, accurate that Zedillo is a political novice, but Zedillo has demonstrated that he is more committed to the rule of law than Salinas ever was and that his preference is to end the absolutist system that has typified Mexican presidential politics for the last 70 years.
It is almost as though Fuentes resents Zedillo for succeeding to the presidency after the first candidate chosen by Salinas, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was assassinated. Fuentes is explicit that he would have preferred either Manuel Camacho, the former mayor of Mexico City who rebelled openly when Colosio was chosen, or Jesus Silva Herzog, a former finance minister and now ambassador to the United States, a person Salinas would never have selected as the candidate.
Fuentes has spent much time in the United States, but his resentments run deep and his comments are hard to take. U.S. malaise, which he assumes now exists, is accompanied by the need for a foreign enemy, and the enemy, he implies, "lies waiting at the very doorstep … with a common border stretching over 2,000 kilometers." He draws an obscene analogy between the Holocaust and the anti-Mexican attitude of California politicians when he says that "xenophobia and racism lead to the pogrom and the concentration camp." He states several times that the purpose of the $20-billion U.S. loan in 1995 after Mexico's financial collapse was to repay U.S. banks and investors and that the foreign credits do nothing "to set Mexico on its feet and back on the road to greater production." Nothing is said about the long-term price Mexicans would have had to pay had the country defaulted its sovereign debt—which really was the only other immediate option when the loan was granted.
The phrase that most rankles is that "anti-Americanism is not enough" to save both Mexico and its culture. Necessary, but not enough? His main point is that Mexico must do more for itself, which is a sentiment with which few would quarrel, but this comes after repeated trashing of U.S. motives and actions.
Fuentes is a most unreliable source on U.S. habits of thought and behavior. Is he a good source for understanding Mexican thought and behavior? In part, yes. We know how costly the continued authoritarianism has been for Mexico, and Fuentes is a major voice for democratic opening. Fuentes is highly critical of the closed nature of decision-making in Mexico, a practice that surely contributed to the debacle of late 1994. Mexico's justice system is typically scorned by the population, and Fuentes is a powerful advocate for reform. He regularly reminds Mexicans of the deep poverty and social injustice that exist in the country, and respected voices like his are needed to bring about reform.
But, while he plays a valuable role in calling attention to these political, social, legal and economic deficiencies in Mexico, it is not clear that he understands the processes needed for correction. Mexico saves too little, and his panacea is to change the pension system. Don't borrow even if the alternative is default on sovereign debt, and damn the consequences. Entering into NAFTA was a useful step according to Fuentes, but it is not clear why he believes this, because he asserts that it serves "above all, national interests of the United States."
There is much to admire in what Fuentes writes and does. But there is also much that leaves the respectful reader nonplused.
This section contains 1,268 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)