Modernizing Mexico For A Better 'Manana' In Manana Forever? former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda tries to encapsulate the paradoxes and promises of his country. He joins NPR's Neal Conan to talk about what Mexico needs to do to turn itself around.
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Modernizing Mexico For A Better 'Manana'

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Modernizing Mexico For A Better 'Manana'

Modernizing Mexico For A Better 'Manana'

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Like a lot of his fellow Mexicans, Jorge Castaneda lives in the United States and looks back home at his country with optimism mixed with worry. Will Mexico's bright future ever arrive?

Unlike most of his compatriots, Castaneda served as Mexico's foreign minister from 2000 to 2003 and works now at New York University as global distinguished professor of politics and Latin American studies, which gives him a unique position, a true insider and an outsider as he considers that illusive future.

Mexico will achieve the benefits of modernity, he writes, only if its soul ceases to be a burden for its people, if its character and culture become instruments of change and no longer of immobility.

Well, if you're Mexican or Mexican-American, tell us: What do you think keeps Mexico from envisioning and realizing its promising future? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Glen Weldon charges up his power ring to deconstruct the cinematic summer of the superhero. But first, Jorge Castaneda joins us from our bureau in New York. His new book is "Manana Forever: Mexico and the Mexicans." Nice to have you with us today.

JORGE CASTANEDA: Thank you, Neal, thank you for having me.

CONAN: And as we look at that modern Mexico that you hope to see in the future, one part of it seems to have been realized already. I think most Americans would be surprised at your assertion that Mexico is a middle-class country.

CASTANEDA: Well, I certainly make this point at length, Neal, though if I may, I would simply a minor correction to your brief and generous introduction. I actually one teach at NYU one semester a year, which is four months a year. The rest of the time, I live in Mexico. So I spent two-thirds of my time in Mexico City and one-third of the time in New York, and it has been that way for the last 25 years or so.

CONAN: Okay, well, I apologize for that.

CASTANEDA: But in terms of the middle class, which is the important point here, yes what has happened in Mexico over the last 15 years, roughly since 1996, when we got over the tequila crisis of '94 and '95, is that economic stability, financial stability, has made it possible for the country now to become a majority middle-class society.

Roughly 60 percent, a bit less, 60 percent of all Mexicans belong to a lower-middle-class and upward. More than five million homes have been purchased over the last 15 years. Mexicans have access to credit, to automobiles, to cellular phones. There are 83 - 85 million cell phones in Mexico today, a country of 150 million inhabitants. That's one and a half per adult. I don't know how you can have half a cell phone, but we do.

And we could go on with a series of indicators like this, which surprised many Americans and surprised many Mexicans, actually, too, who...

CONAN: I was just going to say, if it surprises many Americans, would it comport with Mexicans' idea of what their country is?

CASTANEDA: Not really. We continue to have a very negative view of ourselves in Mexico in continuing to believe that this is a country of a few fabulously wealthy individuals and that enormous majority of poor people. Well, that was the case maybe 100 years ago, maybe even 50 years ago. It certainly is not the case today.

And the point of this book, among others, "Manana Forever," Neal, is that that middle-class society is incompatible with the radical, extreme Mexican individualism which made it possible for the country to build itself and to survive over five centuries of adversity. But today, these two things are incompatible.

CONAN: The cult of individualism, again a lot of Americans would think that Mexicans, this is a mass country.

CASTANEDA: Well, it's the country that's been written about by American and European writers, novelist. It has been painted by Mexican muralists, been photographed by American and British photographs. But the country today and for many, many years is a rabidly individualistic country.

A couple of simple examples, we have no collection active - class-action suits in Mexico. The legal figure has still not been approved in Mexico. We're the last country in Latin American to have them.

We have no high-rise residential buildings in Mexico. Poor, middle-class or upper-class Mexicans don't like to live in common apartment. We're terrible at team spots, whether it's soccer, baseball, basketball, volleyball or whatever, but we're good at individual sports, different level of importance of course.

And perhaps most significantly, we participate less in all sorts of associated practices. We have fewer Mexicans participating at any kind of organization not only than the United States, which would be probably logical, but than most countries in Latin America.

Now, Johns Hopkins University rating, we rank last in the world in this area.

CONAN: And why is that?

CASTANEDA: Well, there are many reasons. The one I try to underline in this book rather briefly, Neal, is that the Mexican state, even since colonial times, the Spanish state, so overwhelmingly stamped upon and overwhelmed, so to speak, Mexican civil society that it was impossible for people to organize.

So Mexicans began from the very beginning, from the conquest, practically, when they weren't really Mexicans, began to find individual solutions to collective problems, and we've been doing so ever since.

The best example, of course, is mass emigration. With the exception of El Salvador and Ecuador today, Mexico's the country in the world that has the largest share of its population living abroad. Mexicans prefer to find an individual solution to real problems that are collective problems by leaving rather than staying and fixing them collectively.

This is something that I think is clearly shown and proven in the numbers I give, which are not my numbers. I don't come up with any original figures or very original statements here.

Perhaps also I might add, Neal, that this is what the classic authors like Octavio Paz, like Samuel Ramos, like Manuel Gamio, like American anthropologist from Chicago Oscar Lewis have been saying about Mexico for many, many years, up to a century now. I'm really not inventing anything terribly new here.

CONAN: We want to hear from Mexican and Mexican-Americans in our audience today what you think keeps Mexico from realizing its enormous potential. But I wanted to ask one more question before we get to the phones, and it's 800-989-8255, email talk@npr.org, and that is what you write about immigrants from Mexico, and I think for different reasons, both Americans and Mexicans would be surprised at your praise of them.

CASTANEDA: Well, I've always had enormous respect for our compatriots in the United States, but in this particular book, in "Manana Forever," the point I try to make is that we know that Mexicans can change the main traits of our national character when we are placed in a different context, in a different environment, when all of a sudden we have to abide by different rules, work under different practices, adapt to different traditions, to different customs.

And from the anecdote from the Mexican who in Mexico throws a wrapper on the floor and litters to the same Mexican throwing the same wrapper into a garbage can in the United States, from that anecdotal, not terribly important piece of information to polls and surveys and market studies that show how Mexicans trust people much more, trust Mexicans and trust Americans and Mexican-Americans in the U.S. much more than in Mexico, how Mexicans participate and engage in associative practices in organizations much more than in Mexico, how they respect the law in general much more than in Mexico how they begin little - how they save.

Mexican rate of savings in the United States and the remittances Mexicans send home are almost of Chinese levels. It's incredible how much Mexican males do this.

But most interesting, Neal, is the behavior or the changes of Mexican women in the United States, who undergo an incredible transformational experience because they have their own income, because their job depends on them, because they're accountable to no boyfriend, no husband, no father, no brother who they live with their friends, they go out and dance if they want to, if they don't, they don't.

They are totally independent, and this an incredible, liberating experience for them that transforms them enormously.

CONAN: We're talking with Jorge Castaneda, his new book, as he mentioned, is "Manana Forever: Mexico and the Mexicans," 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Armando(ph) is on the line from San Antonio.

ARMANDO: Hi, good afternoon. I just want to make a comment that how can we fix this around. All Mexicans, all our governments have a big mistake about Mexico. We're trying to follow the American style, but all our government doesn't realize that we're broke. Mexicans, we're broke. They broke us since the '70s trying to follow all the politics of the United States.

All the companies that go in Mexico, they don't pay taxes there, they pay here. So what happened with that? We need jobs. Mexico doesn't have jobs no more. They're all overseas too. That's why - I know we're having those kinds of problems. Fix them - pay taxes like anybody that makes money pays their taxes so they can build more jobs in Mexico. Bring the jobs back to Mexico. Bring the jobs back to the United States so we can have a better country.

So that's why we won't cross the country. We won't cross the river, you know. I love this country, and I love the way it works, but sometimes I tell the American people, you guys are being like Mexicans. You're not turning around and looking at your people, what's happening? That's my comment.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Jorge Castaneda, you do criticize Mexican government, not for becoming excessively American in its approach, but for a political culture that, well, sort of avoids the kind of bruising exchange of ideas of an American democracy.

CASTANEDA: Absolutely, Neal, and I think Armando's quite right on the question of taxes. Mexico has one of the lowest tax takes in Latin America and certainly of the entire OECD that we belong to. And this is something that, if we don't change, we will not be able to really progress.

But the deeper question is why don't Mexicans pay taxes. Why do Chileans or Brazilians, or even Colombians, pay more taxes than we do? Forget about Europeans or Americans or Japanese or Canadians. Well, because our mistrust of government, our individualism, our lack of respect for the law is much greater than in these other countries.

Armando's absolutely right. We don't pay enough taxes. The question is why. A poll taken recently, that I don't quote in the book but I quote others to the same effect, asking Mexicans whether Mexicans comply with the law, 60-odd percent said never or rarely.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CASTANEDA: This is what we say about ourselves. This is not what others say about ourselves. This is what we say about ourselves. So no wonder of course we don't pay taxes. So I think yes, this is a real issue, and we have to accept the sort of government policies that imply confrontation, and we're not accepting them.

CONAN: Jorge Castaneda, Mexico's former minister, his book is "Manana Forever." If you're a Mexican or a Mexican-American, what is it that is keeping your country from achieving its bright future? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. In his new book, Jorge Castaneda paints a picture of Mexicans as a people of paradox, full of internal contradictions that he says are incompatible with a middle-class society and a prosperous future.

To make his point, he points to the H1N1 flu crisis two years ago. Mexico shut down its schools, told people to wear face masks and generally raised the alarm. Castaneda writes: Mexico's government did the right thing. Mexicans generally don't like doctors and don't trust public officials. The government had no choice but to exaggerate the danger of H1N1, he writes, otherwise no one would have taken the matter seriously.

It subsequently argued, perhaps with some hyperbole, this overreaction saved thousands of lives. The authorities were nonetheless correct in assuming that this individualistic, incredulous attitude had to be factored into policy.

The book is called "Manana Forever: Mexico and the Mexicans." You can read more about how that played out and its implications for the country, including its economic implications, in an excerpt at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you're a Mexican or a Mexican-American, what is it that prevents Mexico from achieving its bright future? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. And let's go next to Eloina(ph), Eloina with us from Sunnyvale in California.

ELOINA: Thank you, Neal. I just want to - I'm a Mexican national, and I feel that Mexicans are hopeless, and that's the main problem. We come from a large history, an old history of corruption, lack of real democracy, despite what Calderon says about his election.

Our judicial system doesn't work. That's why we don't follow rules, because nobody does. We don't pay taxes. And - but it appalls me that Mr. Castaneda can claim that poverty in Mexico is not a big problem. Our agriculture and industry are destroyed, and I hope Americans really get to read Mexican newspapers to get a real version of what's happening in Mexico right now.

CONAN: To be fair, he doesn't say it's not a big problem. He does, but he does argue that the country's doing better economically. But I'll let him speak for himself. I'm sorry.

ELOINA: Mm-hmm.

CASTANEDA: Thank you, Neal. Well, I certainly do not say that Mexico does not have a significant problem with poverty. As a matter of fact, I repeat many, many times that the levels of poverty we have are unacceptable. The problem are the numbers.

If we're 115 million people and there are 40 million living in poverty - which is unacceptable, which is intolerable - it also means there's more than 70 million not living in poverty. The numbers have to add up one way or another. And as a matter of fact...

ELOINA: Well, (unintelligible) and we see the amount of people who want to come to this country, and...

CASTANEDA: That may be, and I'm sure there - as I've many times made the point, there are three, 400,000 Mexicans every year who come to the United States under terribly adverse circumstances because they can't find a proper job in Mexico, and these people should be able to find jobs in Mexico.

But what I'm looking at, from my point of view - and it's just one like any other - is the bigger picture.

ELOINA: Sure. (unintelligible)

CASTANEDA: Is the Mexican middle class today a majority of society, yes or no? My answer is yes. My answer is that 60 percent of the Mexican population today belongs to a lower-middle class and upward, with housing, with cars, with refrigerators, with credit, with vacations, with education, with cell phones, with Internet, et cetera. That's what I say, and that's what the numbers say.

But I'm perfectly willing to hear other numbers.

ELOINA: I see.

CASTANEDA: What is difficult for me to understand is for someone to come up with a percentage that doesn't add up to 100. You do have - it has to add up to 100 percent. And so if you think or others think that fewer than 60 percent belong to this middle class, how many do belong to this middle class, according to you and to others?

That's the real question, not whether we know a lot of poor people. I do, and I'm sure you know as many or more than I do. But it has to add up to 100 percent.

ELOINA: I have a last question.

CASTANEDA: Certainly.

ELOINA: Could you tell me where those numbers come from?

CASTANEDA: Well, the numbers come from a number of different sources, as you can see in the book in the second chapter. They come from (unintelligible). They come from the World Bank. They come from market surveys. They come from the people who sell houses. They come from the people who sell cars. But you know where else they come from, which is terribly interesting, and you might find this attractive? They come from Lopez Obrador himself, left-wing leader of Mexican politics who is constantly hammering on these points.

Every time he says there are 50 million poor people in Mexico, he's also saying there are 65 million who are not poor.

ELOINA: I see.

CASTANEDA: So - unless we have a difference in arithmetic here, but unless - if we don't have a difference in arithmetic, 50, 150 minus 50 equals 65 in Mexico, in the United States, just about everywhere.

ELOINA: I appreciate your answer, and I hope Mexicans believe those numbers. Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: Eloina, thanks for the call.

ELOINA: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Luis, Luis with us from California.

LUIS: Oh, hi, Neal. Well, it's just - I believe that what's holding Mexicans back from realizing their dreams is sarcasm. It's like if a politician steals, I don't know, $50 million, they're like oh, well, you know, it's a politician. So it's a matter of, I don't know, getting mad at it, you know, that that's - working against it instead of just, like, laughing it off. For the most part, that's what most of us - you know, well, you know, he's a politician.

So - and as far as the middle-class numbers that Castaneda is giving, if it comes from (unintelligible), I mean, for the most part, they're made up. I mean, look at the unemployment numbers that they turn out, and then if you actually walk into any Mexican city or state or town, I mean, they just don't match. Just like he was saying, the numbers have to add up. So it's kind of weird, the numbers that they run, especially from (unintelligible). So, you know...

CONAN: Well, we've gone through the numbers thing, but if we could go back to the cynicism I think that Luis was talking about in the political class.

CASTANEDA: Well, I think there is a great deal of cynicism, not only in the political class - and Luis is absolutely right - but also in Mexican society at large. The political class, in a sense, is not more or less cynical than other political elites in other countries. The problem is that Mexican society puts up with it and has put up with since time immemorial.

And what I try to do in this book is try to provide an answer as to why Mexican society puts up with this kind of cynicism and this kind of behavior, not why it exists. And the answer I try to give, which is - of course, one can agree with or not - is that Mexico's tremendous aversion to conflict and confrontation and competition almost obliges Mexican society not to confront its politicians, not to confront its elites, not to confront its leaders, but simply put up with this.

Why? Because we are terribly risk and conflict and competition-averse. I give the example in the book, regarding competition, how we have this obsession with the Guinness Book of World Records, whereby we're the only country in the world, really, that constantly wants to be in this book.

We're the longest taco and the highest Christmas tree and the largest number of people dancing simultaneously to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" in Mexico's Central Square. But why do we do this? Well, because this is the kind of competition we like: competition without competitors, because nobody else wants to cook the longest taco in the world.

Well, the same applies, I think, to our society in confronting our politicians, confronting - we don't have - we're the only democracy in the world, with the exception of the United States at a federal level, that doesn't have a referendum on any issue. What's a referendum? It's a straight, up-and-down, yes-or-no vote on something, whatever you like: the death penalty, legalizing marijuana, privatizing oil, you name it.

We don't have this, because it forces people to say yes or no, and there will be a winner, and there will be a loser. We don't like that, so we don't have it. Every other democracy in the world, with the exception of the United States at a federal level, has it. We don't. Why? Why?

CONAN: Luis, you were trying to get in there?

LUIS: Well, in the case of the Guinness Book of Records, more than likely, it's because we just don't want to see the reality of it. We just make up stuff. It's like the (unintelligible) coming up with the (unintelligible) and all these problems that they just make it be unfair. They just get the people all these ideas of (unintelligible) in Mexico, but it's not so. We just don't like to look at the reality, because if we do, we have to do something about it.

CONAN: Luis, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

LUIS: Thank you.

CONAN: Here let's - is an email we have from Frank in Oaxaca. I am a dual-national living in Oaxaca. The problem is corruption. Corruption is traditional. The Aztec Empire was not like the Roman Empire, nor the British Empire. It was a pirate empire.

The Spaniards came and replaced the apex of the social pyramid. The war of independence was for the Creolos(ph) to become the apex. The masses have been ripped off and repressed throughout history. Goons have always been available to bust heads and shoot the people. Corruption, corruption, corruption.

CASTANEDA: Well, I think Frank has a point. Again, the question is why this has been so and whether there's a logic to it. And the point I try to make in this book and the chapter devoted to corruption and the law in "Manana Forever," Neal, is precisely that this has been rational, logical, understandable Mexican behavior given the series of traditions and the notions we have had since before the Spanish arrived but actually coming from Spain much more than from the Aztec empire.

The notion of you obey the law but you don't comply with it. This was the deal the Spanish Crown worked out with the viceroys in New Spain. This was the deal that worked during most of the 19th century. And this is the deal that continues, in a sense, to work today. If we have so many ridiculous laws in Mexico, then our incredible imagination and ingenuity is applied to getting around stupid laws instead of to making intelligent laws, and that is what spawns corruption.

CASTANEDA: When you have laws that can't be applied, that can't be complied with, then you find ways to get around them and the best way, of course, is corruption. So the point I try to make is, yes, it's corruption but corruption has been rational behavior. It has not been something irrational or devoid of logic in Mexico for the past 500 years, like Frank says.

CONAN: So how do you change the culture of corruption? How do you change the culture of cynicism and that cult of the individual that you say is a roadblock to Mexican modernity?

CASTANEDA: Well, there is a series of factors that can allow things to change. Obviously, institutional change which has been going on has helped. For example, the advent of rotation in power since 1997 has made a huge difference in corruption at the federal level, not because current high officials are more honest than they were before. It's simply because if you have an opposition in Congress, you have a free press, you have sunshine or transparency laws, you have a treaty with the United States and Europe that obliges you to comply with certain norms and regulations, you have a civil society that is more powerful and more active and more organized, if only because of that, you begin to limit corruption at the top.

On the other hand, if you begin to change at the bottom by changing attitudes such as individualism, such as aversion to conflict and confrontation, such as the disrespect for the law, well, you will also begin to change corruption from there. Now, how do you do this? Well, we know one thing, as I said from the beginning. We know that Mexicans in the United States do change. And by Mexicans, I'm not referring to Mexican-Americans or people who've been here for 30 or 40 years. I'm referring to Mexican nationals who've arrived over the last 10 or 15 years. They do change. And not only do they change, they transmit their changes back home either by coming and going, or by the incredible volume of communication through phones lines, through Twitter, through Facebook, through email.

But from 12 million Mexicans in the United States and the roughly 40 million Mexicans in Mexico who are friends or family of theirs, this is an enormous volume of communication where attitudes, habits, conceptions, everything is communicated and begins to change.

That's why we see some things already happen in Mexico very slowly, much too slowly for me. I'm much more frustrated, believe me, Neal, than many of those who are calling us who are, I'm sure, are much younger than I am. I'm 58. I'm not sure I'll see the changes that I want to see in Mexico, certainly not when I'd like to see them. But the change is coming. It's there, which is why I'm optimistic even though the book is a very critical and introspective one.

CONAN: We're talking with Jorge Castaneda about his book, "Manana Forever." You're listening TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Jerry(ph) on the line. Jerry is calling from Norfolk, in Virginia.

JERRY: Hey, how are you doing? Thanks for taking my call. I was your guest actually touched on what I wanted to talk about, the influence of Mexicans to Mexican-Americans living on this side of the border here in the U.S.

I'm a first generation American. My family came from Mexico, but I honestly don't see anybody outside of Mexico doing any kind of real change. I think it has to come from inside Mexico because a lot of people that come here start a new life, have children like me, and we're already focused on our life in America. We're all focused on being Americans and raising American children. We're not really concerned about things that are going on back home, to be honest. And that's just the way I feel.

CASTANEDA: You know, I certainly agree, which is why I was underlining the fact that I'm referring to Mexicans born in Mexico, who are Mexican citizens and who've arrived over the 10 - the last 10 years and who maintain very tight ties with their families back home. And this, we know, is the case of the 11 or 12 million, I repeat, Mexican nationals, not Mexican-Americans, not first, second or third generation Mexicans in the United States...

JERRY: Oh, sure. I was...

CASTANEDA: ...but Mexicans who arrived recently the last 10 years I would say.

JERRY: I would still like to have some kind of influence back home to any of my family members that want to make a change but I just think it has to be from them. I would love to have any kind of positive influence but they have to do the leg work. It has to done within Mexico.

CASTANEDA: Oh, there's no question it has to be done within Mexico. What I'm hoping for - and I don't pray, but if I were, that's what I would pray for - is for Mexicans in the United States to exchange experiences with their friends, their family, their children back in Mexico - and again, I repeat, recently arrived Mexicans - and tell them, look, as a matter of fact, if you respect the law, it's in your best interests because the laws actually protect the weakest, not the strongest.

We, in Mexico, all believe that laws are entirely drawn up to protect the strongest, the wealthiest, the most powerful. But, in fact, when the rule of law applies, the people that it most applies and protects the most are the weakest, the poorest, the least powerful, and that is something that Mexicans in the United States understand very quickly.

You take a poll among Mexicans in Mexico - I mentioned the poll in the book - the least trusted institution in Mexico, by far, is the police. No self-respecting Mexican in Mexico will ever call the police for anything. You ask the same question to recent arrived Mexicans in the United States. Forty or 50 percent of them say they trust the U.S. police despite the racism, despite the abuses, the excesses, the beatings, et cetera, the deportations. How do you explain that?

Well, I think the explanation lies in that actually the U.S. police are more trustworthy than the Mexican police. And Mexicans see it. They notice it. That's why Mexican women, when they're about to be beat up by their husband or their boyfriend or their father, will call in an American policeman even if it means having the guy who's about to beat her up deported, and even if it means putting her own status in danger because she knows that at least the guy will come and stop the beating, which does not happen in Mexico.

CONAN: Jorge Castaneda, thanks very much for your time today.

CASTANEDA: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Jorge Castaneda, Mexico's foreign minister from 2000 to 2003 under Vicente Fox. He's the author of the newly released "Manana Forever?: Mexico and the Mexicans." Again, there's an excerpt on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Up next, Hollywood calls out for the superheroes to save the day at the summer box office. Glen Weldon will join us to deconstruct them. This is NPR News.

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