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Fuentes: Mexico's Smoldering Volcano : A NEW TIME FOR MEXICO. By Carlos Fuentes (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $22, 216 pp.)

August 18, 1996|Sidney Weintraub | Sidney Weintraub holds the William Simon chair in political economy at the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C., and is Dean Rusk Professor Emeritus at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin

The focus of this collection of essays 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 Popocatepetl 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 Cardenas, 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. Cardenas 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.

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