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Mexico's Carlos Fuentes, on the record
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November 15, 2011
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Carlos Fuentes, Mexico’s acclaimed author, writer and statesman, spoke to the Globe and Mail editorial board about the challenges facing his country and the region. The Royal Ontario Museum’s Institute for Contemporary Culture invited Mr. Fuentes to Toronto to give the Eva Holtby Lecture on contemporary culture Nov. 14.

Mexico is facing a dramatic security challenge. President Felipe Calderon has confronted the drug cartels by sending in the military. Has this worked?

President Calderon arrived at the presidency five years ago and his victory was widely doubted because he only won by a small margin: 0.5 per cent. We are not accustomed to that in Mexico. He wanted to prove he was in command so he launched a war against drug cartels. Past presidents of Mexico have negotiated with them, set one group against the other and played politics. Calderon brought the fight directly to them and created a huge problem. He couldn’t count on the police, they were very corrupt. So he used the army. Now the army has become corrupt and sometimes it is beaten by the cartels. This is not a good situation. It has taken over the country’s agenda.

What other issues are important?

There are other things happening. The country is growing. We have an important financial and business class, a good bureaucracy, a middle class which is a bit unhappy. And we have the “Ni-nis”, people who are neither students nor workers. And a great hidden mass of discontented people. So it is a tricky situation. I hope it can be solved by political means. If not, we may have major violence in Mexico.

What is the significance of next year’s election?

It is a decisive election, the most decisive I’ve ever witnessed. It will decide what the country becomes. It will be Mexico’s destiny. We need politics that can take us forward.

People are very worried and looking for a political solution to a grave crisis. The security of the country is in bad shape. Though it is also true that the drug problem is reduced to six states in Mexico. Drugs are not a problem in Mexico City.

Who are the leading candidates?

We don’t have official candidates yet from any parties, but the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party] seems bent on recovering power. It was in power for 77 years until 2000, when the opposition PAN [National Action Party] was voted in. Today, after 12 years in power, the PAN is in third place. The left is divided. There is a spoiler called AMLO [Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador] on the extreme left [who contested Calderon’s victory] and centre left is Marcelo Ebrard [currently the mayor of Mexico City].

I would vote for Ebrard.

What are the challenges?

Whoever wins will have to face the problem of rising insecurity, criminality, and the needs of the growing middle class. The fight against criminal gangs, in which the co-operation of the U.S. is essential.

We have huge problems. Our population has gone from 20 million to 110 million today, and that in the space of my lifetime. We have this enormous population and we are not offering them sufficient work. That is why so many leave Mexico and go to the U.S. In Mexico, there are corrupt political bosses, discrimination, injustice, loneliness. They leave and when they arrive in Canada and U.S., I see them and they are intelligent, hard-working people we have lost.

Mexico is a victim of proximity to the US. Is the US playing a productive role?

The drug gangs, we know who they are; we know the names of the drug lords, we know they buy their arms in Texas and send drugs to the U.S.

But what about the consumers and distributers? We don’t know. There is a major problem here. There is certain co-operation with the U.S., on security and police work. But it is imperative that the next president reaches an agreement with Barack Obama to involve the U.S. in a fight against the cartels.

The markets and consumption is in the U.S., and the U.S. does not do sufficient work to help Mexico with this matter.

What will be the difference between PAN and PRI strategy with regards to the drug war?

In the past, the PRI has negotiated with the drug lords, and set one against the other. And they fought each other. The PRI played politics. What will the next president do? It is up for grabs.

In the past, you have spoken of the sense of defeat in Latin American culture and literature. You speak of the illusion of progress. Can you update us on your views?

If you have an idea of democracy in progress, you always expect more. You don’t expect more of a tyranny. Since the 1980s, what has happened is the culture of Latin America has manifested itself as one continuous enriching reality. Since the Columbus adventure, we have had a continuous culture without interruptions. Our political and economic life is full of interruptions.

We need to bring the values of continuity inherent in our culture to the political and economic processes in the country.

How is the region doing?

There is a gain in democracy in Latin America. The Cardoso/Lula governments were fantastically important in proving you could have social advancement with democratic means. Brazil is the giant of the region and is resented by many Latin Americans. It is one of the great powers now. It is now right up there with China and India. And playing a major role, which hurts them a bit.

You cannot stop the growth of Brazil, it is impressive. But it has a hinterland that is not developed. Mexico has lost the pre-eminent role it once had.

What about Argentina?

In 1910, the Encyclopaedia Britannica predicted that the two major powers would be the U.S. and Argentina. Not so. Argentina has a small population, immense land, capacity for three harvests a year, navigable rivers, great plains. But it has spoiled everything. I love that country, its literature, music people. What went wrong?

Argentina grew faster than any other country in Latin America. Sarmiento educated the people, the flow of immigration was gigantic and they built a great country.

When the Perons arrived in power, Argentina had a strong economy. It had fed Europe during the post-war period, Argentine meat and wheat. The Perons threw the money away in populist measures. And Argentina went bankrupt and they have not recovered since. Tragic story. This country spoiled its own chances through foolishness and demagoguery.

What about Colombia?

President Juan Manuel Santos is very intelligent. He is doing a new kind of politics and saying "I am your friend." He reached out to Venezuela. He made the army, which was very brutal, I’m only sending people from their home town to their home town. So they know everybody and everybody knows them. He has done a lot of good things in short time.

What about Peru?

Pres. Ollanta Humala in Peru is good news. He tends to be a president in the Lula Brazilian model, centre-left moderate government. Bolivia is in trouble with its own people. Chile has a good democracy and economy and is the first country in which discontent has flowered. So you have good and bad news, but I’m confident we will be able to join the cultural reality to a better political and economic reality.

What about Venezuela?

[President Hugo] Chavez is dying, and I don’t know what will happen after Chavez.

He has propped up governments with oil money. What becomes of Cuba with Chavez gone? Chavez keeps Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua afloat. If he dies in power, it’s one situation, if he dies after an election and loses, it’s another. What will the miltiary do? He has destroyed political life in Venezuela. You don’t know what will come next.

Canada’s current Prime Minister has made Latin America an important foreign policy initiative. Is that noticed?

No, it is un-noticed. There is a great sympathy in Mexico towards Canada. A lot of Mexican migrant workers come here. If we are going to have a good relationship in the future, it is up to you. It is the way you treat the Mexican migrants workers.

We also must create jobs in Mexico for the migrant workers. They are fleeing dramatic situations. They cannot live in certain parts of Mexico. They contribute to the progress and wealth of the U.S. and of Canada.

Everything in the world is globalized except people. The workers are subject to ancient norms and prejudices. It comes down to renewing the international compact. What are we going to do with the workers?

Is Canada a natural ally for Mexico? We have this great beast next to us, the U.S ...

Yes, but we are not against the US, but in favour. The US is the only imperial power with only two neighbours: Canada and Mexico. Both are much weaker than the US. We should get together and get the U.S. to join us and create a new compact for work, investment and politics. We are not doing that. Everyone works from a national standpoint and not from a commonwealth of the North American countries to solve common problems.

What reforms does Mexico need to make internally: the elements of army and human rights abuses and economically the oligopolies that still control the economy?

We are like the US before Roosevelt came along and interrupted the monopolies and decided no company should be larger than this and there should be a plurality of powers. We have yet to come to that in Mexico: there are state and private monopolies. We have to have a political revolution to say, you don’t have a right to have all this, this is going to be distributed. And we need a new policy of communications. Mexico is still focused on the north and south, we don’t have roads to take us from the Pacific to the other coast.

Agriculturally, the lands are in the hands of a few people and must be re-distributed. We need reform of education.

What about the power of Mexican culture?

+ Wexico

Mayan culture is there, the monuments are there, and convey great power and beauty. We are a Mestizo culture, a continuous culture. We have produced painting, literature, film. Mexicans have done wonderful things. We need to create a political system equivalent to a great culture.

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