Jorge Castañeda On Mexico's Eternal Mañana

In the summer of 2001, Jorge G. Castañeda Gutman was one of the most important men in the Western Hemisphere. As the foreign minister of Vicente Fox, the newly elected president of democratizing Mexico, Castañeda was a figure of considerable glamour as he negotiated with a yielding Bush Administration a vastly ambitious Mexican plan that merely began with amnesty for illegal aliens.

At the time, I found Castañeda a fascinating figure—in part because he wasn’t a terribly diplomatic diplomat. Instead, he was something rare in Mexico: a controversialist, a public intellectual who had a lot on his mind and didn’t mind explaining it.

Now, having largely given up on trying to foist Mexico’s problems onto the U.S., an older and possibly wiser Castañeda is back with a consistently interesting new book: Mañana Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans, about how Mexico should and (perhaps) can solve its own problems.

When George W. Bush entered the White House in 2001, his chief foreign policy goal was an immigration deal with Fox. Castañeda recounts the Mexican leadership’s visit to Washington in early September 2001:

“Fox was further informed by Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice that, despite the known reluctance of Congress, the administration would attempt to deliver on its promise of some sort of immigration deal by the end of 2001. The specifics were not entirely clear, but private conversations by senior officials in both governments suggested that a compromise could include a legalization process for Mexicans in the United States without papers, as well as a temporary worker program for new migrants at a level well above the existing legal flow, though below the total illegal sum.”

Here at VDARE.com, we followed these high-level conversations with concern. Fortunately, by 9/5/01—i.e. before Arab terrorists forced immigration enthusiasts to “lie low” temporarily, in the unguarded words of Cato’s Steve Moore  —we had concluded that Congress was unlikely to ratify quite that blatant a betrayal of Americans. Similarly, Bush subsequently failed to push his immigration plans through Congress in 2004, 2006, and 2007.

In retrospect, what Castañeda calls a “new place for Mexico under the American sun” was fatally eclipsed by 9/11 less than a week later.

Several things happened at once:

First: the Bush Administration’s attention, and that of the American public, was turned toward the Muslim world. This torpedoed Bush’s hope for amnesty and a massive guest worker program—although it also allowed Bush to follow a policy of malign neglect of border security that proved nearly as disastrous.

Second: The recession aggravated by 9/11 stymied the wider part of the Fox-Castañeda plan. This went far beyond immigration to something approaching the European Union. Their goal was for America to give vast sums to Mexico for its economic development, just as Germany had subsidized Greece to bring the Greeks up to Europe Union standards (at least in theory).

As Castañeda told the Los Angeles Times:

"That's what Fox essentially wants, the type of resource transfers that occurred in Spain and, before Spain, in Ireland, and, after Spain, in Portugal and Greece. The Germans were willing to build highways in Spain. Somebody else has to build our highways. We don't have the money."

[Jorge Castaneda: Mexico's Man Abroad, by Sergio Munoz,, August 12, 2001]

Even then, at the tail end of the Internet Bubble, it was impolitic for Castañeda to point out in English the ultimate logic of the Bush-Fox honeymoon. In 2011, of course, with Greece’s corruption undermining the European Union, this plan of turning Mexico into a giant Greece at American expense seems like another bullet dodged.

It’s important to note, however, that these fond hopes continue to be nurtured in shadowy meetings among the elites. In a footnote, Castañeda praises the planning for a “North American Economic Union, or Common Market” still being done by “the North American Forum, chaired by George Schultz, Pedro Aspe, and Peter Lougheed…”

Third: in the aftermath of 9/11, the Mexican public just did not endear itself to the stricken American public. As Castañeda explains in his current book:

“Quite simply, there was no outpouring of broad Mexican sympathy, support, and solidarity for the tragedy befallen its neighbor. Fox’s supposedly slow response would be forgotten; Mexican society’s coolness would not.”

Fourth: Castañeda did not endear himself to the Mexican public.

Castañeda had dazzled the American press before 9/11 swept away Mexico’s Moment, but his cosmopolitanism always made him an awkward political figure at home. Known as El Guero for his reddish-blond hair, he is the son of a 1970s Mexican foreign minister and a Soviet Jewish translator who met at the UN during Stalin’s time. (Castañeda’s chief advisor in the immigration negotiations was his elder half-brother Andrés Rozental.) He spent the first twelve years of his life in New York, Geneva, and Cairo. He then studied at the French Lycée in Mexico City, Princeton, and earned a doctorate in economic history at the University of Paris.

Thus when Castañeda became foreign minister in 2000, he often botched the countless patriotic rituals that public schools instill (if nothing else) in the average Mexican. He writes:

“I found it difficult to know … when to sing the national anthem, salute the flag, or look circumspect, wistful, or happy … Worse still, I was even less adept at respecting age-old customs of indirect communication, euphemisms, rhetorical flourishes, and elliptical expression.”

This Mexican mode of obfuscatory discourse was parodied by the great film comedian Cantinflas, the most famous of Mexican movie stars (he was born 100 years ago last Friday). A representative Cantinflear: “There’s the rub, that it’s not one thing or the other, but rather quite the contrary”.

Still, while Castañeda didn’t make a terribly suave Mexican diplomat (he left office in 2003 and now divides his time between Mexico City and New York University), he makes an above-average New York public intellectual.

And that’s a valuable thing, since practically nobody else in the Boston - New York - Washington corridor knows much of anything about Mexicans. When discussing the impact of immigration policy, Northeastern public intellectuals often assume that Mexican immigrants in the U.S. will turn out like Italians or Jews or blacks or whatever group they happen to have experience with. Or, they simply assume that Mexicans must be the opposite of those evil rednecks in the Southwest that they hate.

In contrast, while Castañeda has had to learn a huge amount about his fellow countrymen. And his Mañana Forever? is an admirably impatient attempt to diagnose and reform the Mexican national character.

Like most intellectuals, Castañeda’s suggestions for his fellow citizens tend to boil down to: “Be like me” -- more well-read, logical, educated, argumentative, and Americanized. But it’s important for American intellectuals to hear from one of their own kind that, overwhelmingly, Mexicans aren’t like him.

His book is also full of interest to Americans who might be wondering what we are getting ourselves into by letting tens of millions of Mexicans immigrate.

Castañeda isn’t an outstanding prose stylist in English, and he sometimes struggles with the quantitative parts of his analysis. Still, he’s a fine observer. For example, he notes that the impoverished Indian south of Mexico “continues to provide much of Mexico’s personality”. In contrast, the wealthier “north is industrious, modernizing, violent, lighter-skinned, and devoid of charm …” In short, the north sounds a lot like Los Angeles.

And Castañeda’s recommendations for reform in Mexico do make some sense.

In 2001, Castañeda made a valiant effort to foist Mexico’s problems off on America—hey, you can’t blame him for trying. But today it’s obvious that America isn’t rich enough anymore to subsidize his country of 113 million.  Mexico, therefore, is going to have to fix itself.

Castañeda sees Mexico as doomed to perpetual mediocrity as long as it continues to indulge in its traditional worldview of victimism and anti-Americanism.

From a Mexican point of view, perhaps the essence of Americanism is summed up in General George S. Patton’s standard pep talk to his Third Army (as famously re-enacted by George C. Scott in Patton):

Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. ... Americans play to win—all the time.”

Well, if Americans love a winner, Mexicans love a loser.

As many earlier Mexican writers have pointed out—for example, poet Octavio Paz in The Labyrinth of Solitude—the national narrative preached in Mexican schools is obsessed with history. Unusually, however, it’s a history in which the designated heroes usually lose. Castañeda points out that every official major Mexican hero other than Benito Juarez died at the hands of his enemies.

Of course, actual Mexican history is also full of winners, such as Cortez—one of the biggest winners in world history, in fact. But in the orthodox Mexican narrative, he’s just a white bad guy.

Granted, Mexico is actually run more or less by the descendants of Cortez. But ideological pride of place is given to the Indians, with their traits of passivity and conflict avoidance. To the Mexican mind, according to the competition-loving Castañeda, “The only benefit possibly derived from direct confrontation is for someone to win and someone to lose, and almost all the time, the loser will seem more ‘Mexican’ or ‘popular’ than the winner”.

Maybe this enshrinement of the Indian personality as the symbolic hero helped Mexico avoid the kind of recent race war that killed 200,000 in neighboring Guatemala from 1960-1996. But Castañeda points out that aversion to competition and confrontation explains much about Mexican mediocrity, such as their weak record in international sports, especially in team sports. He entitles one chapter “Why Mexicans Are Lousy at Soccer. They aren’t really that lousy (Mexico usually make it to the round of 16 in the World Cup, same as the U.S.), but they are nowhere near as good as another partly-mestizo country, Argentina, that has only 35 percent as many people.

If it’s considered un-Mexican to compete and to win, then it’s also un-Mexican to do what it takes to win, such as trying hard and teaming up with your fellow Mexicans for everyone’s mutual benefit. In contrast, Patton said An Army is a team. Lives, sleeps, eats, fights as a team”. But, then, Patton was a gringo who had a gringo obsession with winning.

Castañeda points out that Mexico’s main distinction in international competition appears to be concocting, with government support, pointless new feats for the Guinness Book of World Records, such as Most People Dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. He quotes another Mexican political scientist, Carlos Elizondo:

“Why such an obsession with this? For the same reasons we dislike competition. These records are based on noncompetition. … Nobody else in the world cares.”

More seriously, it’s ridiculous that the richest man in the world—telephone monopolist Carlos Slim—is from Mexico. He’s extracted something like a couple of thousand dollars from every family in Mexico, and Mexicans can’t afford that. Slim, the son of Lebanese immigrant Yusef Salim, is a Christian Arab who likely comes from a long line of rug merchants who loved haggling. Once he made it within the inner circle of Mexico ruling elite, he’s found Mexicans to be easy pickings.

A careful reader will note that Castañeda, who looks overwhelmingly white by ancestry, seems a little irked by the anti-white ideology concocted by his fellow white Mexican intellectuals. He appears to feel that anti-white indoctrination in the schools’ encourages Mexico’s pervasive mediocrity by discouraging identification with great European ancestors and with competent American neighbors.

I may be more sympathetic to Mexican anti-Americanism than is Castañeda. After all, it’s not easy on the ego living next to the world’s most successful country. The Mexican ruling class taught Mexicans anti-Americanism to avoid being turned into a banana republic controlled by American business and military, like Honduras. They succeeded.

And that’s good, because it means that Mexico is not our fault. Sure, we arguably stole California from them, but they wouldn’t have done anything with it, as a visit to the San Diego-Tijuana border shows. It’s not as if Silicon Valley would be El Valle de Silicio if it were still ruled by Mexico.)

We don’t owe Mexico anything other than mutual non-interference.

As Castañeda details, Mexico has been making progress in recent decades. But, then, so have other countries.

Indeed, the good news these days is that middle income countries like Mexico can climb reasonably rapidly … if they make the effort.

Think of recent improvements in electronic communications. Old-fashioned Bell System telephone landlines were a natural monopoly, and thus only the U.S. and a few other countries had the organizational skills and culture of honesty to make landline telephones efficient and ubiquitous. Getting a telephone line installed in your home or business was a nightmare in Italy, much less in Mexico.

In contrast, wireless communications are not a natural monopoly and therefore don’t require the social capital that America’s venerable Bell System demanded. Hence many countries, whether or not their cultures have much improved, are on the economic upswing due to finally getting a telephone in most hands.

An instructive contrast with Mexico:  Turkey, which is to Europe much as Mexico is to America. For decades, Turkish elites were fixated, like Fox and Castañeda in 2001, on continuing to export their surplus population to Germany and in winning admission to the European Union, which would entail huge subsidies to raise Turkish wages to EU levels.

Seven years ago in Vdare.com, I warned that Turkey’s admission to the EU would be bad for Europe, bad for Turkey, and bad for the Muslim world overall. Surprisingly, France and Germany showed enough spine to block Turkish accession. And European countries have been quietly cracking down on the most egregious kind of welfare-fraud immigration from the Muslim world.

The fading of the Euro Fantasy has coincided with the Turks hitching up their pants and getting to work fixing up their own country. The Turkish economy has been booming, especially compared to archrival Greece, which was cosseted and corrupted by access to all that German money. The value of the Euro used in Greece is high because German cars and machine tools are worth so much. Greeks aren’t as productive as Germans, so they are undercut by Turks who have their own reasonably-priced Turkish Lira.

When I was in lovely Bodrum, Turkey in 2009 for Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Property and Freedom Society conference, everybody told me I had to go visit the Greek Isle of Kos, merely three miles away.

“What’s it like?” I would ask.

“It’s just like here, only much more expensive.”

Not surprisingly, I never got around to going to Kos. And not surprisingly, either, the Greek economy collapsed, threatening the Eurozone.

Castañeda points out that while Mexico today makes a fair amount of money off tourism and a small amount off American retirees, it should make much more.

He lists numerous reforms that would make American retirees and snowbirds feel more secure and welcome in Mexico, ranging from eliminating the constitutional ban on foreigners buying beachfront property to adding Walk-Don’t Walk signals at intersections.

Most of these reforms would not only be moneymakers, but good for Mexicans in general. Increasing the number of intersections where elderly Americans can feel confident of making it across alive would definitely be good for Mexico.

But the most fundamental change he suggests: Mexicans should stop referring to Americans by the semi-obscene term pinches gringos. [VDARE.com note: A printable translation would be "lousy" gringos.] In fact, he says, Mexicans should just drop the gringo ethnic epithet entirely. It’s not so much that Americans mind, but that Mexicans need to teach themselves to be more respectful towards Americans—because they need to learn from Americans how to have a decent country.

Although Mañana Forever? is explicitly about Mexicans, it is also stuffed with clues about Mexican-Americans.

For example, why has Mexican-American educational achievement been so lackluster, generation after generation?

One reason: that Mexican love of ritual that snagged Castañeda when he was foreign minister. To most Mexicans, education is only secondarily about learning the 3 Rs:

“Going to school consists largely in attending the ceremony honoring the flag, the singing of the national anthem, the interminable graduation speeches and diplomas, the ritual of presence.”

For Mexicans, the point of going to school is going to school. Any learning that occurs is accidental.

Similarly, Castañeda points out some news unwelcome to urbanist intellectuals: Mexicans love sprawl. The author notes that many giant Latin American cities, such as Sao Paulo and Caracas, are full of high-rise apartment buildings from which middle class residents take public transportation to work. Maybe that’s not the greatest lifestyle, but it’s an efficient solution for huge cities.

But Mexico City isn’t like the other Latin megalopolises. Even though the metropolitan area of 21 million is the most populous in the Western Hemisphere, its low-rise housing sprawls endlessly. Partly this is due to fear of earthquakes, but mostly it’s due to Mexican distrust and uncooperativeness: “The people of this country do not like to share common spaces with others, which is exactly what an apartment building, high- or low-income, entails”.

The sprawl is exacerbated by “the Mexico City middle class’s adamant refusal to use public transportation”, despite the capital having 125 miles of decent subway. In a recent study of “commuter pain” by IBM, Mexico City tied with Beijing for the worst traffic in the world, scoring 99 on a 0-100 scale. (In contrast, Los Angeles is worst in America, but only scores 25. In other words, traffic can get much worse.) The average Mexico City commuter drives four hours per day.

This Mexican predilection for sprawl and traffic jams has obvious implications for the U.S. Some East Coast public intellectuals, such as blogger Matthew Yglesias, have been pushing the idea of higher density cities to lower carbon emissions and thus save the world from global warming. Somehow or other, letting in 165,000,000 more immigrants is also part of the master plan.

But Mexicans don’t want to live like Upper West Siders. They want single-family homes and V-8 vehicles. Castañeda points out that during Mexico’s construction boom of 2004-2008, only three percent of the new residences built in Mexico were apartments. The number of private cars in use in Mexico has been growing 12 to 15 percent per year. The chief goal of many Mexicans appears to be to get away from other Mexicans.

Not surprisingly, Mexicans in the U.S. have been trying to bypass urban centers and move to the exurbs. The housing bubble of 2003-2007 was most concentrated in heavily Mexican areas of the four Sand States.

Another interesting Castañeda point: the political feebleness of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. and the bogusness of self-styled Mexican leaders. He writes:

“It is a well-known constant for politicians of all stripes who seek the support of Mexicans in the U.S., either for votes, money or influence with their families back home, that the more politicized Mexican groups in the United States tend to be infinitely splintered and atomized, and they are most the time simple letterhead associations with no real constituencies.”

In summary: Mexicans do not appear, from Castañeda’s detailed account, to be a terribly formidable people.

One unspoken implication of Castañeda’s discussion of Mexico’s need to become more welcoming to Americans: rather than Mexico invading America, it makes more sense for Americans to be peacefully invading Mexico (to enjoy their retirements in low cost surroundings).

Think about it. We beat the Germans. We beat the Soviets. We’re the champs. So, why don’t we act like winners?

To in effect cede prime parts of our own country to illegal alien Mexicans would have struck Gen. Patton as the height of absurdity.

And profoundly un-American.

[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His new book, AMERICA’S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA’S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]