NR Digital

Faraway, So Close

by Duncan Currie
Mañana Forever?: Mexico and the Mexicans, by Jorge G. Castañeda (Knopf, 320 pp., $27.95)

Whether or not the late Mexican military ruler Porfirio Díaz (1830–1915) ever actually said, “Poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States,” his alleged quip has recently taken on a darker significance. Mexican border cities known for being tourist havens and manufacturing hubs have turned into cauldrons of violence. Their proximity to the American behemoth is still a huge economic advantage, but it has also made them ground zero for vicious turf wars between narco-gangs competing over access to the world’s most lucrative illegal-drug market. Meanwhile, a steady flow of U.S. weaponry bolsters cartel firepower. One can only imagine the exasperation in Mexico when news broke of “Operation Fast and Furious,” the mind-bogglingly ill-conceived U.S. program under which federal officials deliberately allowed guns to reach Mexican organized-crime members in hopes of tracking them. (The guns were subsequently tied to dozens and dozens of shootings, including the December 2010 murder of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.)

On the other hand, bilateral security cooperation has reached unprecedented levels, and the Mexican government is finally starting to develop the intelligence capabilities and legal tools necessary to combat the drug mafias. The violence has been spreading, but it remains heavily concentrated along the U.S. border, the western coast (where drugs are produced and also enter Mexico from South America), and various inland shipment routes. Until just a few years ago, overall Mexican crime rates were on a long-term downward trend. Despite the volcanic eruption of drug slayings, Mexico still has a much lower homicide rate than Brazil (to say nothing of Colombia, Venezuela, or El Salvador), and its sprawling capital city has a much lower homicide rate than Washington, D.C.

Indeed, there is more to the past decade of Mexican history than Wild West–style bloodbaths. The authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost its 71-year hold on the presidency in 2000, and pluralist democracy has become firmly entrenched. Mexico boasts a larger middle class, greater educational opportunities, stronger public institutions, better economic management, and a sounder financial system than it did prior to the 1994–95 peso crisis (which triggered its worst recession since World War II and prompted a U.S.-led bailout). Between 2007 and 2010, its ranking in the A. T. Kearney Foreign Direct Investment Confidence Index climbed from 19th to eighth. According to the World Bank, it is now easier to do business in Mexico than in any other Latin American country (including Chile).

Such positive signs are easy to overlook amid gangland beheadings and other atrocities. Given all the hyperbolic talk of Mexico as a “failed state,” the moment is ripe for a thoughtful, nuanced portrait of America’s southern neighbor that explains both the complex dynamics of the drug violence and the broader challenges facing Mexican society. Jorge Castañeda’s new book Mañana Forever? succeeds on the latter count, if not the former.

Born into a wealthy political family and educated at Princeton and the University of Paris, Castañeda served as Mexican foreign minister from 2000 to 2003, under the first non-PRI government since the 1920s, before launching a quixotic independent presidential bid. (His father, Jorge Castañeda Sr., was Mexico’s top diplomat between 1979 and 1982.) Now 58 and a professor at NYU, he writes in strikingly blunt terms about the cultural impediments to Mexican progress, arguing that deeply rooted character traits — such as an aversion to conflict and competition, a resistance to collective action, a cynical disrespect for the rule of law, and a tortuously ambivalent view of the United States — have retarded his home country’s maturation. Castañeda stresses the need for a Mexican Charles de Gaulle: a bold leader who could effect “a fundamental shift in attitudes” toward foreign investment, protectionism, corruption, and America. Without such a shift, “the social and economic transformations Mexico requires are implausible.”

Mexicans may chafe at being lectured by a privileged academic who has spent so much of his adulthood living abroad. And indeed, Castañeda’s tone can often seem scolding. As for the substance of his case, one recalls the famous words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

In the spirit of Moynihan, Castañeda demonstrates that cultural variables have jaundiced Mexican politics, but he also concludes that wise political stewardship could modernize Mexican culture. Unfortunately, Mexico has an antiquated three-party system that discourages compromise, stifles policy innovation, and allows presidential candidates to win election with a mere plurality. (The current Mexican president, Felipe Calderón, secured a razor-thin victory with less than 36 percent of the vote.) The only way to break the logjam and guarantee that future Mexican governments enjoy a real electoral mandate, says Castañeda, is (1) to hold a national referendum on key constitutional issues and (2) to require the top two presidential vote-getters to compete in a runoff election if neither receives a majority on the first ballot.

A healthier political system would make it easier for Mexico to pursue structural economic reform. As Castañeda emphasizes, the country needs more investment (particularly in the energy and telecom sectors), more competition, a more efficient tax regime (its revenue take, as a share of GDP, is the lowest in the OECD), and tougher curbs on monopolistic practices. (The World Economic Forum reckons that Mexico is a less competitive economy than Sri Lanka or Jordan.) In the area of public security, Castañeda rightly condemns the corruption and inadequacy of state and local police forces, which are “irretrievably compromised” with organized crime. He favors gradually replacing them with a national police force, and also establishing a national criminal code. (The vast majority of crimes in Mexico are nonfederal and go unreported.)

For all its persistent troubles, Castañeda’s native land has become “a middle-class society, with an incipient but vibrant democracy, an open economy, and one of the world’s most thriving and multifaceted cultures.” Since the completion of NAFTA, Mexico has signed free-trade deals with countries throughout Latin America, and also with the European Union, Israel, and Japan. At least one of Castañeda’s proposals for further North American integration — a single currency — is laughably unrealistic, and others (such as “infrastructure and social cohesion funds” modeled on the Marshall Plan and U.S. aid to Iraq) seem highly unlikely in an era of looming fiscal retrenchment.

Castañeda is also unduly sanguine about Mexican assimilation in the United States. No doubt, Mexicans have much to learn from their successful brethren north of the border. But according to the latest “assimilation index” compiled by Duke University economist Jacob Vigdor, Mexican immigrants are “poorly assimilated in an absolute sense and show few signs of progress over time.” Indeed, Vigdor calculates that, as a group, they were actually less economically and civically assimilated in 2009 than they were in 2000. For that matter, various social indicators (nonmarital childbearing, school-dropout rates, gang activity, welfare dependency) suggest that many Mexican Americans are assimilating downward into an underclass culture.

Immigration remains one of the two most combustible issues in U.S.-Mexican relations. The other, of course, is drug violence, to which Castañeda devotes precious few pages. Some of the hardest-hit areas were — or still are — leading symbols of Mexican prosperity. In 2005, AméricaEconomía magazine ranked Monterrey as Latin America’s safest city. Now the rich industrial center is plagued by grisly mayhem between the Gulf Cartel and their erstwhile allies, the Zetas. In 2007, a British investment publication hailed Juárez as North America’s top “large city of the future.” Since 2008, it has experienced levels of gangsterism that make the ghettos of West Baltimore look like downtown Cedar Rapids.

Sturdier, more transparent legal institutions would help mitigate the violence, and Mexico is slowly building them. (In this noble effort, it deserves greater U.S. assistance for police training and judicial reform.) But institution building is profoundly difficult even in favorable circumstances, let alone when some of the most powerful criminal organizations on the planet are terrorizing public officials and private citizens. Drug legalization may seem a radical way to deplete the revenue and muscle of the cartels, but it is inching closer to mainstream acceptance.

Indeed, a growing number of former Latin American presidents — including Vicente Fox and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, and César Gaviria of Colombia — now advocate treating drug use primarily as a public-health concern rather than as a criminal matter. Zedillo, Cardoso, and Gaviria — along with legendary Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker and Reagan-era secretary of state George Shultz — were all members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which in early June published a report declaring the “war on drugs” a failure and urging governments to experiment with “legal regulation of drugs.”

Castañeda has previously expressed support for legalization, but he does not tackle the subject in this book. The germane question is not whether legalizing drugs is a “good” policy option, but whether the social consequences of prohibition — both for consumer and producer countries — are worse than those of legalization. As we ponder that question, we should also consider a poignant statement made by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was killed by drug traffickers in March. Speaking recently to a crowd in El Paso, Texas, the grieving Sicilia reminded Americans that “behind every puff of pot, every line of coke, there is death, there are shattered families.”

– Mr. Currie is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Send a letter to the editor.