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Dog days and democracy

22 May 2015 By Martin Langfield

Two Mexicos often seem to coexist, one an insular land of hard-to-kill monopolies in politics and business, the other more outward-looking, embracing modernity, competition and even the United States. In his autobiography, “Amarres perros,” prominent academic and former Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda recounts a life spent trying to bring the second Mexico to the fore.

The title of the book, which is not yet available in English, resists translation. “Fierce Ties” is the least worst version, according to the author. It is a pun on the Mexican movie title “Amores perros” (“Love’s a Bitch,” approximately) and speaks to visceral bonds with homeland, loved ones and ideas, unbreakable even in times of distress.

For anyone interested in better understanding the $1.2 trillion economy with which the United States shares a 2,000-mile border, a free trade pact and powerful demographic links, “Amarres perros” provides a fascinating window into Mexico’s inner workings. It is also a bracing critique that suggests where the country’s best future lies.

The author is a trilingual Princeton and Sorbonne-educated thinker and pundit who teaches part of every year at New York University. In the 1980s and 1990s he contributed significantly to dismantling the grip on power of Mexico’s powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), advising first a leftist candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, and then conservative businessman Vicente Fox on their presidential campaigns.

Seeking to end the PRI’s decades of one-party rule, which were once described by Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa as a “perfect dictatorship,” Cardenas lost in 1988, according to official results, though an electoral computer “crash” and other shenanigans when early tallies showed him ahead cast some doubt on the true outcome. Fox then won in 2000 and made Castañeda his foreign minister.

In office, Castañeda sought to dump what he saw as outdated narrow nationalism and place U.S.-Mexican relations on a new footing. He succeeded in doing away with an annual requirement that Uncle Sam certify Mexico as a suitably vigorous ally in the war on drugs, deeming it farcical and humiliating. He also made considerable progress toward clinching a bilateral deal on immigration. Then the attacks of 9/11 took place, and the attention of George W. Bush’s administration shifted elsewhere. More than a decade on, such a deal is still elusive and necessary on both sides of the border.

Stymied on immigration and in his wish to make Fox’s tenure more transformative – by pursuing past PRI corruption more forcefully, for example – Castañeda left government in 2003 for an ultimately unsuccessful independent run at the Mexican presidency in 2006. He is at his best describing the squabbles and skulduggery of Mexican politics and international diplomacy, his dealings with individuals, both principled and slippery, on all sides, and the exhausting road trips to far-flung corners of Mexico during his presidential bid.

Sometimes, to use a soccer metaphor Castañeda deploys several times, the ball gets through but the man doesn’t. Quite a few of his ideas for a more modern Mexico have at least partly found their way to reality. All the work with like-minded thinkers and years of advocacy have had some effect.

His central theme is the need to end monopolies. Castañeda contributed to the biggest triumph, getting the PRI out of power after seven decades in 2000. The party has since returned, half-modernized, under current President Enrique Peña Nieto. The list of partial successes does not stop there, thanks to some degree of cross-party agreement. It includes judicial reform; a shake-up of the telecommunications industry; an opening to foreign investment in the oil industry, once thought impossible on nationalist grounds; and new anticorruption laws. However, full implementation of all these reforms will yet take years.

Now in his early 60s, Castañeda is not a man to suffer fools gladly, and his public life at times seems to have consisted of one feud after another, with allies and enemies alike. The book’s epigraph suggests indeed that he thinks a man without enemies has wasted his life. He may have burned too many bridges to be asked back by any future Mexican government. Or he may now prefer the less frenetic lifestyle of a respected academic and commentator. If so, the country will be poorer for it.

Although Castañeda publishes widely in English on Mexican topics, his autobiography has not yet been translated. That’s a shame, as this book, perhaps in a shortened form, would be valuable to readers well beyond the Spanish-speaking world.


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