The paradox, and tragedy, of these stumbling blocks to progress, the author says, is that Mexico has, in many ways, become a middle-class society and a representative democracy, "albeit an imperfect one." In recent years, extreme poverty has declined, and income inequality has diminished. Home ownership, college enrollment and Internet use are on the rise. The murder rate, although swollen by narcotics gang warfare, is considerably lower than in countries such as El Salvador, Russia and South Africa.
What hasn't improved, or even evolved much, is respect for rule of law and taking responsibility for the difficult obligations that a middle-class democracy demands of its citizens, in return for greater freedom and better living standards.
Although "Mañana Forever?" offers a precise critique of that dilemma, it supplies little in the way of workable prescriptions. It doesn't suggest any real alternative to an all-out embrace of the fully globalized, free-trade economic model. Nor does it propose any methods for streamlining Mexico's bloated constitution, which is addled with scores of amendments that are merely sops for special-interest groups.
Even so, this important book, by an exceptionally shrewd, sophisticated and deeply knowledgeable analyst, deserves a place on the short shelf of classics about modern Mexico that includes Alan Riding's "Distant Neighbors" and Paz's "The Labyrinth of Solitude."
And it holds out a glimmer of hope that it's not yet too late for genuine reform. As Castañeda puts it, "The nation's traits have changed over time, as its citizens adapted to constantly evolving external and internal circumstances; they are not set in stone."
From 2004 to '08, Johnson covered Mexico, Central America and South America from The Times' Mexico City bureau.