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The Country in the Mirror : Jorge Castaneda reveals the fantasies upon which U.S.-Mexico relations have been built : The Mexican Shock: Its Meaning for the U.S., By Jorge G. Castaneda (The New Press: 256 pp.; $23.)

February 11, 1996|Benjamin Alire Saenz | Benjamin Alire Saenz's most recent book is "Carry Me Like Water" (Hyperion)

It is something of an understatement to say that the United States has never understood Mexico. Nor have this country's policymakers ever come to terms with a country that operates within a cultural and political framework so radically different from our own. Unfortunately, the United States' relationship with Mexico has always relied on myths that were either romantic representations of a colorful people inhabiting a paradise or xenophobic suspicions of a people incapable of enlightenment.

Our conflicting attitudes toward Mexico are, I suspect, rooted in a vague, unspoken knowledge that Mexico is indeed different from the United States. Yet inexplicably, our policies have been premised on "sameness," as if Mexico was merely an underdeveloped version of the United States. In time, or so our policies suggest, Mexico would become just like us. It is precisely this kind of thinking that has paralyzed our relationship with a country whose fate is so intimately tied to our own. And it is precisely this kind of thinking that has made the United States an accomplice to Mexico's current crisis.

Jorge Castaneda's book comes along at a crucial point in U.S.-Mexico relations. Originally a collection of essays, it attempts to "explain what happened in Mexico since late 1993, as well as why these events that have shaken the country since then matter--and should matter--to Americans. It also revisits the differences between Mexico and the United States, emphasizing the difficulties involved in the marriage of two such contrasting societies."

The book is divided into three sections: "The United States and Mexico," "When Mexico Lost Its Charm: A Memoir of 1994" and "The United States and Latin America." The book's progression unmistakably leads to the fact that success or failure in U.S.--Mexico relations is emblematic of America's relationship to all of Latin America. How the two countries interact with one another has implications for all of the Americas and their inhabitants. There is no longer the possibility of dividing policies into the old categories that read "foreign" and "domestic" as if the two were truly separate--especially in the global economy of the late 20th century.

The most compelling section of Castaneda's book (and also the book's center) is "When Mexico Lost Its Charm." The author succeeds in recounting and analyzing the events in 1994 that shook Mexico to the core of its identity--from the Colosio assassination to the North American Free Trade Agreement to the Chiapas uprising (a particularly compelling chapter), from the election of Zedillo in 1994 to the political disgrace of Carlos Salinas. A host of characters emerge from Castaneda's narrative in a political drama that is at times absurd, at times tragic. Some of these actors verge on the heroic, some of them are despicable--all of them, in Castaneda's hands, remain compelling.

What is left in Mexico, after the events of 1994, is a void--a void that stands as an emblem of past sins against a nation and its peoples: "But even as Carlos Salinas set about destroying what was already there, he neglected to set up something new. He absconded from the responsibility of putting in place the only structure viable in a country like Mexico, at the end of the 20th century: a structure of representative democracy, as genuine as possible, and a lawful state that would render justice and ensure security. . . .

"The country was stripped of its old system, which, with all its defects and infamy, gave Mexican society half a century of stability. Today it is completely adrift, without a new system based on rules that, even if stricter, would at least be acceptable to everyone. No one with any vocation for democracy can possibly miss the old days but only a sorcerer's apprentice dismantles and pulls things down without replacing them. We are currently paying the price for that abdication."

One of our most shameful political legacies has always been to treat our "neighbor to the south" as if it existed only to meet our needs and expectations (be those expectations political, cultural or economic). Such condescension is unacceptable behavior--a behavior we must change if either country and its peoples are to thrive in the coming century. Moral arguments aside, the United States has a great deal to lose if it does not play a hand in assuring that Mexico becomes a politically and economically stable country. If Mexico cannot afford to live without the United States, then the reverse is also true. As Castaneda so eloquently argues, the fates of the two countries are inexorably tied to one another:

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