Magazine March 9, 2020, Issue

A Life in Mexico

Enrique Krauze (Photo courtesy of Mr. Krauze)
The historian and ‘cultural entrepreneur’ Enrique Krauze reflects

Mexico City

For many years, Enrique Krauze had a dream for Mexico: that the country have “real elections, a free press, separation of powers, and the rule of law.” This was “my very modest utopia,” he says—“and this very modest utopia came to life in the year 1997.”

In that year, there were free and fair elections, supervised by an independent body. These elections broke the monopolistic power of the PRI—whose initials stand for “Partido Revolucionario Institucional.” We are talking about the party that ruled Mexico for some 70 years.

Krauze sees his “very modest utopia” in jeopardy now—thanks to the ascendancy of a master populist, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a.k.a. AMLO, as president. In fact, Krauze fears that Mexican democracy will be lost for generations.

He is one of the leading intellectuals in the country, and in great Latin America at large. He is a historian, an essayist, an editor, a TV producer, and more. I have come to see him at his home in Mexico City. It strikes me as a writer’s paradise, this home, with books, desks, paintings, objets d’art, and lots of natural light. If a writer can’t get work done here, I think, he can’t get it done anywhere.

Krauze has a lot of work to do. He runs Letras Libres, the magazine he founded in 1999. (It is a literary-intellectual journal.) He runs Clío, the company he founded in 1992. It produces documentaries about Mexican history, and publishes books about the same. (You remember from Greek mythology that Clio is the muse of history.) He writes a biweekly column. And he writes his books and essays. “I have always combined many tasks in my life,” he says. “If you take life seriously, you can do that.”

I can’t help thinking of William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review, who kept up a range of activities, with energy and aplomb.

Krauze tends to do most of his writing on the weekend, particularly at his home in Cuernavaca, some 55 miles from Mexico City. He cites Philippe Ariès, a French historian of the 20th century. Ariès wrote a memoir called “Un historien du dimanche”: “A Sunday Historian.” Krauze allows Saturday too. And when it is time to draft a book, he puts everything else on hold—trusting those tasks to his colleagues—until the draft is complete.

In an aside, Krauze tells me this, about Cuernavaca: “It is a beautiful place, known as the ‘City of Eternal Spring.’” Humboldt gave it that name in the 19th century. “Now it is hellish, because of the violence we have through all Mexico—but that is another subject.”

He was born in 1947, here in Mexico City. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. With other family members, they came here in the 1930s. Enrique’s father, Moisés, started a printing business. His mother, Helen, was a journalist. (She is in her mid 90s today and still active.) To one another, the extended family tended to speak Yiddish.

Enrique speaks good English, by the way. He protests that he is “not fluent,” but he is more fluent than a good many native English-speakers. He never had formal instruction, he says. He learned the language mainly from reading—that and “listening to music, from Frank Sinatra to the Beatles.” In the early 1980s, he was a visiting professor at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford.

I ask whether he has experienced much anti-Semitism in his life. The answer is no. In the past, there have been attacks from the far Right, and now, he says, there are attacks from the far Left, especially in the social media. This is because he is a critic of the populism now regnant. But “I can say confidently, at the age of 72, and after an intellectual career of 50 years, that I have never had major problems as a Mexican Jew.”

Krauze earned an undergraduate degree in industrial engineering and a doctorate in history. He worked in his father’s printing business for a couple of decades. All the while, he was writing. Then he became a full-time writer and “cultural entrepreneur,” to borrow his phrase.

By some Americans, he is thought of as a conservative, because he has stood for democracy against dictatorships, not only of the Right but also of the Left. (Few are those who are consistent in this regard.) By some Mexicans, he is tagged as a conservative—even a reactionary—because he opposes the Left populism of López Obrador (and Right populism elsewhere). Strictly speaking, however, he is a liberal, he says—a liberal “in the classical sense.” He is an admirer of George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Karl Popper, and Isaiah Berlin, to name four.

When he mentions Berlin, I think of Charles Krauthammer—who told me about his intellectual development. When a young man, he read Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty, and thought, That’s what I believe. He never wavered from it. When Berlin died in 1997, Krauthammer paid tribute to him in a beautiful column, hailing the Four Essays in particular.

Krauze got to know Berlin in Oxford. Once, he asked Berlin how the Bolshevik Revolution succeeded. Lenin, Berlin said. If not for Lenin, that revolution would not have been pulled off. That is a powerful statement about the effect one man can have, for good or ill. Krauze tells me, “The only dogma I have in my life is this: Total power concentrated in one man leads to disaster and doom. If we didn’t learn that from the 20th century—Mao and the rest—we didn’t learn anything.”

Early in his career, Krauze had a mentor, an “intellectual grandfather,” he says. That was Daniel Cosío Villegas, who lived from 1898 to 1976. He was a Mexican economist, historian, and diplomat. He was also “a builder of institutions,” as Krauze says. Most significantly, he founded a prestigious publishing house, the Fondo de Cultura Económica. In his politics, Cosío Villegas was “a pure liberal,” says Krauze—a liberal in the classical sense. “He believed in human freedom. He was not an anarchist, mind you. He believed in freedom within the framework of a republic, within the framework of institutions.”

Krauze says that he has tried to model his life on Cosío Villegas’s. No one would say he has not succeeded. Krauze himself says simply this: “You feel you are building a culture, and that you have a responsibility to the country.” He continues, “I have devoted my life to Mexico, out of love—and out of thankfulness, to a country that opened its hearts to my family, Jews who came from Europe.” (They could not get into the United States, Krauze says, owing to a quota.)

If Daniel Cosío Villegas was his “grandfather,” Octavio Paz was his “father,” intellectually. Paz was another all-purpose writer and intellectual, who also served as a diplomat. In the early 1970s, Krauze started to contribute to Paz’s magazine, Plural. He met Paz, face to face, for the first time at Cosío Villegas’s funeral. Not long after that, Paz started another magazine—another literary-intellectual journal—Vuelta. Krauze worked with Paz at Vuelta for almost 20 years.

Octavio Paz is probably best known for his poetry. It is for this, primarily, that he won the Nobel prize in 1990. But Krauze thinks he was actually best as a cultural essayist.

Lionel Trilling, the American critic, once spoke of “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” (His student Norman Podhoretz borrowed the language for the title of a 1986 collection, The Bloody Crossroads.) Enrique Krauze, like Octavio Paz and many others, has worked at these crossroads for a long time. Today, the focus of attention in Mexico is the populist, and popular, president, López Obrador.

AMLO is “more than a populist,” says Krauze: “He is a messianic figure.” When AMLO first ran for president in 2006, Krauze wrote an essay about him titled “The Tropical Messiah.” AMLO grew up in the state of Tabasco, which is in the southeast of the country, on the Gulf of Mexico. He absorbed the political culture there. He sees himself as called to save the people, according to Krauze, and he convinces others that this is his calling, too. AMLO is not a cynic, Krauze stresses. No, he is a true believer, in himself and in his destiny.

He lost that race in 2006. He lost again in 2012. And in 2018, at age 65, he made it. López Obrador is a very talented, canny, dangerous performer, says Krauze.

In a 2016 article, Krauze sketched out a type:

The Latin American populist leader harangues his people (or hers, in the case of Peronist Argentina) against those who are not “our people.” He proclaims the dawn of a new history and promises the advent of heaven on earth. Once in power, microphone in hand, he installs a pattern of systematic lying, decrees that his official truth is the only truth, invents external enemies to blame for his own failures, unhinges the economy, feeds hatred between classes, races, or other groups, maintains a continual mobilization of the masses, disdains parliaments and judges, manipulates elections, persecutes the press and media, and destroys civil liberties.

If populists can be counted on for one thing, it is talking. They talk and talk and talk. Often, they are entertaining, and sometimes they are mesmerizing. In conversation with me, Krauze remembers Aló Presidente, Hugo Chávez’s talk show in Venezuela. Chávez did it on Sunday. Here in Mexico, López Obrador speaks to the public every day, in his mañanera—his morning performance, which takes place from 7 to 9. In these hours, he sets the agenda, even the tone, of the country for the day. La mañanera is an ersatz press conference, in which the president holds forth in front of friendly media figures, with a few others in attendance to serve as foils.

Recently, AMLO praised what he called “the blessed social media.” And he blasts what he terms “la prensa fifí,” i.e., “the fancy press.” He creates the impression that only he himself, and his enthusiasts, can be trusted to deliver the news.

Enrique Krauze recalls what Gabriel García Márquez, the great Colombian novelist, said about the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, whom he adored. In 1975, García Márquez singled out Castro’s “genius as a reporter.” Castro was always talking to people, for hours on end, giving them the news. “Thanks to those spoken reports,” said García Márquez, “the Cuban people are some of the best informed in the world about their own reality.”

A very different Gabriel, Gabriel Zaid, has dubbed López Obrador “el poeta del insulto”—“the poet of the insult.” Zaid is a Mexican writer, born in 1934, whom Krauze regards as the top intellectual in the country. AMLO indeed has “a truly poetic gift for insulting,” says Krauze. Chávez had it, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has it, others have it—but López Obrador has it in abundance. “He has coined scores, if not hundreds, of insults,” says Krauze, “in order to attack, diminish, delegitimize, and harm people who don’t agree with him.” If you disagree with the president, you are an enemy of the people, fifí at best.

Horrifyingly, says Krauze, López Obrador is “destroying institutions that took decades to build,” governmental institutions that have been independent. Currently in his crosshairs is the National Electoral Institute, which has organized Mexico’s federal elections. It has ensured that those elections are clean, at least relatively so. AMLO is determined to bring governmental bodies under his personal control.

Krauze talks of other populists too, including Bolsonaro—who holds his own mañanera, by the way—and our own Donald J. Trump. Krauze has always expressed a strongly negative view of the American president, seeing in him a nativist. He is also amazed that we have a president whose style resembles a caudillo’s. Many others here, and throughout Latin America, share that amazement. But U.S. democracy is strong and entrenched, notes Krauze. Mexico’s, not so: It is fragile.

In the late 2000s, he spent time in Venezuela, and published a book: Power and Delirium. It is about the Chávez effect on that country. Chávez and chavismo led to “the most gruesome and terrible human disaster in Latin American history,” says Krauze. He is not predicting the same for Mexico. He is not predicting a collapse on that scale. Still, he is worried. “There is a temptation to say, ‘Well, Mexico is different, and López Obrador means well. Also, you can’t deny that people like him.’ I heard just the same about Chávez, when I was in Venezuela. Exactly the same.”

Earlier in our conversation, I used the American expression “to have seen this movie before.” Krauze now says, referring to populist Mexico, “I have seen this movie before,” in Venezuela. “The actors are different, and some scenes are different, but the script is the same.”

He further points out that if Mexico hits the skids, economically and socially, the United States will have a huge problem on its hands. It behooves us Americans, says Krauze, to pay attention to our southern neighbor.

Toward the end of our morning together, Krauze and I talk about Mexican movies, and, in particular, the much-honored 2018 film Roma. (The title refers not to the capital of Italy but to a neighborhood here in Mexico City.) The film is, in part, about a woman abandoned by her man. This is a common theme in Mexico, says Krauze—and not just in the movies but in life. Yet women persevere, he says, trying to make a life for themselves and, especially, their children. He is deeply impressed by what they do.

I say, “There’s a lot of quiet, everyday heroism, isn’t there? Pardon the cliché.” Krauze then rebukes me, memorably. “Are you afraid of clichés, Jay? You shouldn’t be. And I will not be afraid of clichés.” Then, with emotion, he tells me about some of the people he has encountered in Mexico, in his years of traveling the country: ordinary people, poor people, trying to keep their dignity, and often succeeding.

“I can tell you something,” he continues: “People in Mexico are of a very sweet nature, and of a very religious nature.” Now his voice becomes indignant. “That is why I’m so furious at López Obrador for taking advantage of that sweet, religious nature, and making people believe that he is a demigod who will save them. The people of Mexico do not deserve that. They did not deserve the authoritarian and corrupt regime of the PRI, and they don’t deserve this populist regime either. They deserve the slow, difficult building of a democracy. But maybe my very modest, humble utopia was, after all, a utopia”—in other words, a place that does not and cannot exist.

It occurs to me that Krauze may be feeling the spirit of defeat. That he fears his lifework—all those books, all those documentaries, etc.—has been in vain. I don’t forbear to mention this to him. He answers me, “Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fighter, and I will fight to the end.”

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