The Other Mexico: Critique of the Pyramid
The Other Mexico was written in 1968, shortly after the democratic movement led by the students was abruptly ended with the massacre of several hundred peaceful demonstrators at the Plaza of the Three Cultures in Tlatelolco. In that ancient quarter of Mexico City nearly 450 years ago, the Spanish captain Pedro de Alvarado sealed off the square and mercilessly butchered the Indian priests and dancers. Today the square is bounded on three sides by a restored Aztec pyramid, a baroque Spanish church, and a complex of modern skyscrapers.
In protest against the massacre of the students, Octavio Paz resigned his post as Mexican, ambassador to India and wrote this book. In Mexico, though it has been a bestseller, very few literate Mexicans have actually approved of Paz’s vision. For The Other Mexico is an uncomfortable book for almost anyone living behind what the painter José Luis Cuevas has called “The Cactus Curtain.” As uncomfortable as the marriage of architectural symbols at Tlatelolco, where five years ago the riddled corpses were piled at the foot of the pyramid.
The doors of the church had been closed to demonstrators seeking asylum from the brutal repression of the khaki-clad descendants of Alvarado. From the towering glass structure of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, looming over the square as a symbol of modern Mexico, it was announced that the government had simply been defending itself against a “foreign-inspired plot” designed to thwart the celebration of the Olympic Games; that the students had been misguided by the misty teachings of “the philosophers of destruction”—a somewhat melodramatic reference to Herbert Marcuse. A threefold rationalization of the crusade of repression seemed to meet at Tlatelolco: the Aztec guerra florida, a ceremonial staging of feigned battles whose purpose it was to capture prisoners for sacrificial ends; the Spanish wars of genocide against idolaters and infidels, strikingly illustrated by the Alvarado massacre at Tlatelolco during yet another Aztec festival; and, on the eve of the modern Olympic festival, the cold war excuse for internal repression as a defense against international conspiracy.
Octavio Paz was struck by the continuity of a power structure, masked by different ideologies, serving equally well the needs of Indian theocracy, Spanish colonialism, and modern desarrollismo, development for development’s sake. He presents us with the drama of a people, suffering and silent, but given to periodic explosions that have formed the conscience of Mexico: the revolution to gain political independence from Spain; the liberal movement to achieve independence from colonial institutions; and the vast, bloody, chaotic revolution of this century, inflamed by the cultural passion for self-knowledge, the democratic passion for self-government, and by an economic passion for success as a modern nation. We watch the drama of a country constantly invaded, mutilated, exploited, and humiliated by foreign powers while the people and the state are shaped in response to these threats. We also see the country today, “the other Mexico,” both as an isolated, Indian, and agrarian country excluded from modern development and also as a modern society ridden with the distortions of “development.”
These are scenes to be applauded or deplored, yet they are rationally, even emotionally, explicable. But when Paz. pulls apart the final curtain of his drama, we are facing the unmentionable, the skeletons in the closet of our subconscious national life. His stage becomes a bare space where naked figures sing, weep, crawl next to a blood-stained wall, or dance in a festival that will soon be crushed by a violent physical intrusion. The light on that deepest of stages is the light of time: past, present, and future. The figures chant a line from a poem by Octavio Paz: “Time hungers for incarnation.”
The author is saying that Mexico is a multilayered civilization, a mixture of many coexisting times and cultures only partially expressed by the top-most crust of history and its institutions, its other layers waiting to emerge. So Paz’s first challenge in this book is that Mexico take a good look at itself, at its cultural and mythical past. The ghosts of our history will only be buried, the seeds will only germinate, if we critically examine their reality.
Paz, in effect, defines his book as “an exercise in the critical imagination.” He is most closely concerned with the avatars of modern Mexico during the postrevolutionary period. This close analysis raises two further issues. The first is the link between recent Mexican history and the codes of its past. The second is the rightness, in the light of that past, and as a nation in the shadow of contemporary world history, of Mexico’s present course as a developing nation. But what next comes under his close scrutiny is the idea of development itself. Paz objects to a model for development that will not take into account the reality and aspirations of Mexican culture, or that conceives the multiplicity of time in a strictly linear way.
Power, time, culture, and the individual’s harmonious or alienated relationship to them—these are, perhaps, the true subjects of The Other Mexico, and Paz relates them to other, broader and deeper, problems: Are the models offered by the dominant world systems the only ones available? What are the chances for a new democratic society within both the industrialized and the underdeveloped nations? And where does the agency for democratic change reside?
Paz sees Mexico as deeply divided, one half of the country being excluded from any of its material benefits while the developed half is denied real social, cultural, and political participation. These divisions will only deepen until the country becomes a stranger unto itself, unless there is a new national model for development which will let the diverse components of Mexico grow. Otherwise, there will be more Tlatelolcos, for repression is but the expression of power divorced from society.
How to link power and society democratically in Mexico? The first step, says Paz, is critical freedom. Only in an open critical atmosphere can the true problems of Mexico be defined and discussed, and the conflicting history of Mexico, hungering for incarnation, come out into the open. The Other Mexico is a critique of what the Mexican revolution achieved and failed to achieve, as well as a modest but far-ranging proposal for a new revolution: for a peaceful reform of our conscience and purposes.
“Time hungers for incarnation.” But do not revolutions, like Saturn, hunger for their own children? One forgets that, in order to avoid devouring its own offspring, a revolution should devour its own past, for the future of the revolution depends on the capacity of its participants to look at the society and culture that both nourished and poisoned it. All revolutions, but particularly those in underdeveloped nations, face a double-edged problem. They must represent the new, the future. Yet they must also legitimate their national origins. Witness the Soviet revolution.
Revolutionary movements must show themselves to be the agents both for the hope of the future and for the past of the nation. Mexico has not been an exception. Geographically shaped like a pyramid, Mexico is also a political pyramid: power has imitated nature. The Aztec empire was a conglomerate of vassal states on the coasts and the terraced mountains leading up to the dominant summit of the pyramid, the capital of Mexico-Tenochtitlán, the seat of the god-emperor-priest, the Tlatoani, whose attributes were impersonal. The power at the top of the pyramid was maintained by economic and military repression of the nations living, one might say, on the steps leading up to the central city. It was also maintained by periodic rituals of bloodletting.
The Aztecs were newcomers to the central plateau. They legitimated their power as heirs to the more ancient cultures by adopting the myth of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent whose Godot-like absence was necessary to keep alive the memories of the benefits he poured on men while among them: a morality of peace and brotherhood; the gifts of education, poetry, weaving, pottery, and agriculture. But the Aztecs adopted the myth as an ideological mask. As the anthropologist Laurette Séjourné points out, Quetzalcoatl was the source of a creative patriarchy, the revealer of the eternal unity of the spirit. The Aztecs transformed him into a principle of cosmic anthropophagy; ritual murder became the means of reuniting with the spirit. Séjourné concludes that, as seems to be the rule for all despotisms, the Aztecs could only hold power by seizing upon a cultural heritage and transforming it into a tool of domination.
Cortés conquered Mexico with the aid of the numerous tribes in rebellion against central Aztec power. But the Spaniards quickly understood the symbolic alliance of geography and power in the world they had just burned into submission. The Spanish city of Mexico was built on the ruins of the Aztec capital, the viceroy’s palace erected on the site of the Aztec emperor’s. Moctezuma the man, weak, vacillating, unsure whether the conquerors were simply men or the god Quetzalcoatl himself, returned to reclaim his usurped legitimacy, was stoned to death. But the institution of the Tlatoani was perpetuated, from the center and the top, by the Spanish administration. The new name of legitimacy was Christian evangelism. The fact of power was colonial exploitation.
The impersonal character of the ruler was compounded by the absence of the king in Madrid; yet another masked image, the viceroy, governed in his name. The presidents of Mexico have assumed this double legacy. In the presidential palace, seated on the presidential chair at the peak of the pyramid, and ruling from the sacred center, the Zócalo, is the ancient Tlatoani, reborn, transfigured, impersonal. This is the basic difference between power as used by a Mexican president, who is an abstraction, an incarnation of sacred powers, and the Latin American caudillo, who is profanely himself.
Aztec power perverted the “creative patriarchy” of Quetzalcoatl, divested it of its positive, moral significance, suppressed and sacrificed the diverse outlawed contributions of the cultures under the domination of Tenochtitlán and the Tlatoani. The cultures went underground. But so did the real culture of the vice-royalty; when the poetess-nun Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz chose silence to avoid further confrontations with the church and secular power, she was dramatizing the fact that the culture of New Spain was also going underground. It is curious but significant that Emiliano Zapata, after the fall of Mexico City in 1915 to his and Pancho Villa’s forces, refused to sit on the presidential chair or sleep in the presidential palace. His body and his dreams were not there. The peasant guerrilla leader, the fighter for social and economic democracy, instinctively knew that the central power and its symbols denied all that he stood for and would eventually destroy him.
Zapata was like a phantasm risen from the deepest well of Mexican reality to speak for all that had been silenced and oppressed by the continuity of power at the summit of the pyramid. It is also revealing that, on that same occasion, Zapata’s peasant troops took over the Parisian-style mansions of the aristocrats who had fled the country in the wake of the downfall of the dictator, Porfirio Díaz, during the Madero uprising in 1910. The campesinos there made a wonderful discovery: mirrors, huge, gilded mirrors. They spent their time looking at their grinning reflections. They had hardly seen their own faces before.
Mexico, too, until the revolution, had not seen its own face. This moment of self-discovery provided the profound sense of the revolution as a human fact. It was the sign of the passion for self-knowledge that I have mentioned before; perhaps, because the zapatistas saw themselves in those mirrors, Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros, and Tamayo were able to paint, Paz and Rulfo were able to write, and Chávez was able to compose. And from that moment of self-discovery comes the passion for democratic self-government. Faces against masks; the pluralist impulses of local democracy against the monolithic pyramid of central power and its figurehead, the Tlatoani.
But I have also mentioned that the revolution meant a passion for the economic success and functioning of a modern nation. The revolution was fought by the masses of dispossessed peasants; but it was finally guided by the small urban middle class, heir to the ideals of nineteenth-century liberalism. The passion for wealth prevailed over the passion for democracy. The new leadership deemed that national integration was the prerequisite for economic success. It was not patient with local leaders like Zapata who defied national institutions, yet it tried to infuse the traditional embodiments of power at the top with a sense of revolutionary mission—also from the top. It legitimated its origins as far back as the revolution of independence from Spain; it did not try to reach the hidden springs of national power. Like Russia, Mexico resolved its double dilemma between legitimacy in the past and revolution in the future through the rationale of unity against internal and external foes: the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia, the president and the party in Mexico.
Porfirio Díaz assumed the prerogatives of the Tlatoani and held on to the presidency for three decades, until 1911; he wanted to be both the impersonal Tlatoani and the personal caudillo. The revolution restricted the presidency so that the president is visited by sacred power for only six years—no Trujillos in Mexico. Before the holy “sexenio,” or six-year term, he is nobody on his way up; during his six-year term he is everybody at the top; after his term he will be a political has-been. The person does not count, the institution does. Yet the very fact that power is strictly limited to six years exacts from the president high psychological dues. He knows that he will not have another opportunity to leave his imprint on history. Within the impersonal institution, the personal characteristics of the man, for good or evil, are left unhindered. In our time, only Lázaro Cárdenas, president from 1934 to 1940, was able to survive, personally and with growing moral influence, this withering process.
The presidency coexists with the continuity of the party. Based on the balance between the legitimation of its revolutionary origins and the pragmatic needs of economic development, the ruling Party of Revolutionary Institutions, as Paz keenly observes, has been an instrument for both the manipulation and the expression of the masses. This delicate balance has in recent decades been achieved by regular pendulum movements between left- and right-wing policies. But when PRI follows a right-wing trend, it manipulates the masses without expressing their desires, thus alienating them; when it shifts to the left, it finds it has sacrificed popular support and can no longer reflect popular feeling.
This equivocal situation only enhances the real, continuous, if unavowed tradition of paternalism. Is it surprising that Mexico abounds in Karamazovs who would rather suffer a paternalistic regime, while grumbling against it, than accept the responsibilities of political freedom? The absence of the father figure makes us feel orphaned, abandoned, much as Malinche, the Indian woman who gave birth to the original Mexican bastard, and her son, the metaphysical hijo de la chingada, felt abandoned by the conquering father, Cortés.
Mexico has solved its obsession with parenthood by placing father in the presidential palace and mother in the shrine of Guadalupe. In the president we re-encounter Quetzalcoatl, Ulysses, Moses, and Cortés rolled into one, and forgive him his cruelty; in the Virgin we re-encounter our mother, purified, no longer a whore. It is significant that one of the demands of 1968 was for secularizing the president. The basilica of Guadalupe has yet to be stormed; that will be the still-distant triumph of women’s liberation in Mexico. The PRI has been an agent for paternalism. The mold of the Tlatoani, on an ever smaller scale, reproduces sub-Tlatoanis all the way down from the state governors to the local political bosses, the caciques. The shape of the pyramid is everywhere; and everywhere it squashes the democratic pluralism Paz argues for.
If its gravest sin has been to perpetuate the lack of political engagement in Mexico, what has this dual “revolutionary institutionalism” achieved on the credit side? Paz does not scant its merits. The concentration of power led to “a regime, which, if not democratic, was also not self-destructive.” By this he means that, from the creation of the party in 1929 to the moment when President Cárdenas, consolidating the principle that no president could be re-elected, stepped down in 1940, the military was progressively and/or violently eliminated. The army ceased to be a determining factor in politics; no Argentinian juntas in Mexico. In its stead, the official party assembled and organized the peasantry, the proletariat, and the so-called “popular sector” of upcoming politicos, small businessmen, professional people, etc., and these different tendencies within a national front “saved us from the terrors of any sort of orthodoxy.”
Between 1920 and 1940, between Obregón and Cárdenas, Mexico pushed through the deepest revolution that, up till then, Latin America had known. The agrarian reform was not an unqualified success, but it liberated the peon, for centuries a chattel to the large landholdings; and the city-bound campesino, in turn, became cheap labor for incipient industrialization. The recovery of natural resources that had been irrationally exploited by foreign trusts, particularly the expropriation of oil in 1938, further strengthened the national industries. Moreover, the state established the first extensive and successful public sector of the economy in Latin America. For its troubles, Mexico was condemned by Secretary of State Kellogg to sit in the dock and be judged by international opinion for what Evelyn Waugh, a visiting propagandist for British oil companies, termed “robbery under law”; Mexico was excluded from the League of Nations; many revolutionary programs could not be carried out because of direct or veiled threats from Washington.
But after 1940, the rightward swing coinciding with the world war and the hard-currency boom in exports ended the era of reform and initiated a period of development for development’s sake—or rather, for the sake of a small group of capitalists. Private enterprise stepped in to live in a house built and furnished by the state. The revolutionary transformations were swiftly channeled into profitable schemes. A burgeoning capitalist class in alliance with North American interests acted on the theory that wealth, if first accumulated at the top, would eventually filter down. It was not, and has never been, so. Cárdenas had wanted a constant, if slower, but balanced development of all classes, with preference given to the dispossessed. The new policy meant that wealth stayed at the top: 5 percent of all Mexicans hoard 50 percent of the national revenue. The boom expanded Mexico’s cities; then it saturated them and came to a dead halt because it did not reach the vast agrarian and Indian population, on whose backs the development rate of roughly 7 percent per annum was achieved.
A limited internal market, the consequence of the almost nonexistent purchasing capacity of “the other Mexico”; a drop in productivity (in 1970, Mexico was employing less than half of its installed industrial capacity); a mounting dependence on onerous foreign loans and investments; a sky-rocketing foreign debt: the illusory dynamics of economic concentration pursued their own course, while the state looked on, salvaging inefficient private enterprises at high cost, continuing to finance the infrastructure—burdened by an antiquated system whereby the state taxes only 8 percent of the national produce—and consciously sacrificing its own reformist dynamics, the very reason for its national and revolutionary being.
The society followed its own contradictory and unsatisfied ways. There were uprooted peasants in urban slum belts, a growing industrial proletariat yearning to acquire respectable middle-class status, a restless middle class that had reached its peak of expansion and started feeling the social and cultural consequences of political and economic concentration. Above all, there was an enormous youthful population (half the country is under twenty-five) from all three strata, critical, curious, wondering what, after all, were its opportunities in a nation where 5 percent of commercial industry controls 84 percent of commercial capital, 3.5 percent of industries owns 80 percent of capital in private industries, and United States investments withdraw half a million dollars a day in earnings. What sort of economic “development” was this? How could it call itself so when it coexisted with millions of peasants earning two dollars a week? And the price paid for desarrollismo seemed even heavier when compared to the lack of political development.
All these strains came to a head in the summer of 1968. A clash was inevitable. The dual institutions, president and party, were unaware of this. They had come to believe their official propaganda: Mexico was the kingdom of peace, stability, progress, and self-congratulation. The democratic movement of 1968 was inevitable; it represented all the unexpressed dissatisfactions, vague and powerful hopes, and contradictory realities of a nation long cut off from critical self-examination and lacking normal outlets for it. The press was domesticated, the congress a rubber-stamp factory, peasants and workers’ unions dominated by corrupt party bosses. The official repression, too, was inevitable. Unaccustomed to dissent, the regime panicked; it had no political answers to political challenges. The army was called in to repress the students and thus reappeared on the political scene. The ritual bloodletting once more took place, ordered from the top of the pyramid by the Tlatoani in power, President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, in the name of a perversion of nationalist and revolutionary theology. The hidden, subconscious mechanisms of power probed by Paz were once more in operation.
When The Other Mexico was published in the final year of the Díaz Ordaz regime, the right naturally attacked it under the guise of a new-found “nationalism.” The book was nothing but an “anti-Mexican tract,” said the collaborators with past and present imperialism. Openly identified with support of armed foreign intervention in the past, the right today cannily promotes disguised policies of economic privilege while happily proclaiming its nationalist legitimacy. President Díaz Ordaz even deemed it worthwhile to speak against Paz on nationwide television. Imagine Nixon doing the same thing against a North American writer—well, maybe it is imaginable. Nevertheless, what is said and written is much more explosive in a closed society than in an open one where rebels are expected to fizzle out in the limelight society grants them.
But the left was unhappy too. Both the radical left and the liberals were scandalized by Paz’s psychological and anthropological analysis of the deep-lying myths of the Mexican conscience. Both Marxism and liberalism have a common religious belief in the values of the modern world, in science and reason; both accept linear chronology and unbounded faith in progress. Paz is highly critical of the notions of progress and scientism and linear time, and he also maintains that while Marxism is the most coherent form of thought for an era of linear progress, it also historically reveals that this is not the only kind of time there is. Marx, says Paz, was “the founder of the science of social relations”; but he failed to deal with “the morphology of societies and civilizations, with what separates and distinguishes them above and beyond their economic production.”
The Other Mexico is a book much nearer to Nietzsche’s discovery of “the physiognomy of cultures, the particular form and the unique mission of each of them.” The students did not understand Paz’s purposes very well. They were demanding that he cease to be what he is, a writer and become what he was not and did not want to be: an avenging demagogue, an active political leader. But if a society does not comprehend what a writer is and does, that society is wanting in any true political sense of the diverse endeavors that change demands. Beaumarchais and Voltaire were responsible for the French Revolution as well as the people of the Faubourg St-Antoine; so, in his own way, was the Marquis de Sade. Any politics that does not admit this complexity of causes is destined to create a monolith even when it claims it is opposed to monoliths.
The responses to The Other Mexico place it with other political works whose influence went well beyond their length. Rousseau’s Discourse on Human Inequality and the Abbé Sieyès’s What Is the Third Estate? come to mind. Rousseau and Sieyès were urgently prerevolutionary writers. Octavio Paz’s urgency comes from a far less confident, if equally critical, attitude; he is very conscious of writing in the only postrevolutionary society in Latin America. Mexico’s contradictions and opportunities are greater than and different from those in the prerevolutionary societies south of our Guatemalan border or in the revolutionary societies of Cuba, Peru, and Chile. Moreover Paz’s book has circulated at the very time that a new president, Luis Echeverría, came to power and faced clear alternatives: to continue uncritically the past system of desarrollismo and repression, or to adopt a policy of change and renewal.
Does Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty in science, the idea that the very act of observing disturbs the system, also apply to the criticism of history and politics? I am not at all certain. I can only say that criticism expressed by the democratic movement of 1968 and by the writings of Paz as well as of other Mexican intellectuals found a response in, or at least coincided with, the Echeverría regime’s so-called “democratic opening” and its rejection of the twin solutions of desarrollismo and repression. Paz conceded as much by saying that Echeverría had “listened to the rumblings of history.” And to be fair, let me say that succumbing to the inertia of the old system, although easier, would have been costlier.
Faced with a system in shambles, Echeverría heard complaints and saw misery. The students and intellectuals imprisoned in 1968 were freed. A new climate of intellectual criticism, debate in the press, and a national dialogue was substituted for the politics of silence. The president and the sophisticated young people he brought into government contributed to the new atmosphere; self-congratulation was replaced by self-criticism, the existence of Mexico’s problems, old and new, was admitted. Paz himself publishes a highly critical, independent, and intelligent monthly called Plural.
More style than substance, as many of Echeverría’s critics argue? I doubt it. In many respects the new regime has fortified and extended the public sector which is now, more than ever, essential to an autonomous national life against the encroachments of transnational conglomerates. The foreign monopolies on sulphur and tobacco were taken over by the state and the workers; the nationalization of the telephone system prevented a takeover by ITT; the extent of the Heinz Company’s devastation of Mexican farmlands before leaving the country was revealed.
Echeverría has strongly diversified Mexico’s external sources of political and economic support in Japan, Canada, the EEC, the Soviet Union, and China; he has destroyed the old disadvantageous system of foreign trade through North American intermediaries: Mexico, for example, now sells cotton and fertilizers directly to Peking; he has worked closely with the Velasco and Allende regimes, maintained relations with Castro, demanded that the OAS restructure itself to admit ideological diversity in the hemisphere, and is trying to check Mexico’s suicidal dependency on the United States. When the White House’s envoy to Mexico recently asked if “the rules of the game” regarding investments and the general policy of development had changed, the Echeverría government answered that indeed they had, in favor of independent national development, with foreign investment admitted on a strictly regulated, auxiliary basis and with the same rights and duties as national capital. The new government’s laws on foreign investment and transfers of technology are two of the most advanced pieces of legislation in Latin America.
Yet the Echeverría government, precisely because in so many ways it is a departure from the traditional power structure, is threatened and limited by it. The ultras in Mexican politics cast longing glances at the Brazilian model: military order at the expense of civil freedoms, booming investments at the cost of independent development and social justice, desarrollismo with torture. And they are aware that Brazil’s is the system praised by President Nixon and United States corporations. The army, given a taste of power in 1968, seems to be biding its time. The extreme left hates Echeverría every bit as much as the extreme right—shades of the New Deal! And shades of the Cárdenas regime, opposed by the Mexican Communist Party for sheltering Trotsky and by Mexican fascism for its help to the Spanish Republic.
The government walks a tightrope. It has so far avoided a real tax reform. It also evades true political reform. Its positive policies are implemented from the top; they frighten the upper-class minorities; they do not, in themselves, assure popular support, which Echeverría badly needs. He is perhaps trying to cut the bonds of Mexican foreign dependence first, before plunging into what must be irreversible internal reforms. If he does not do so Mexican political life could easily be reversed during the next election three years from now. Mexico is facing perhaps its last opportunity to find original and independent ways of growth. The alternatives, as Paz states them, are “democratic social reform or reactionary violence.” The failure of the former in Mexico would mean an explosion of anarchy followed by a reversion to the politics of the pyramid, or a dictatorship of Mexican capitalists, the military, and United States business interests followed by easily crushed rebellions.
In the wide context of Paz’s book, the significance of the Echeverría regime is that the state has recaptured its lost initiative as principal agent for development with justice, as originally proposed by the Mexican Revolution. For Paz the state is “a relatively autonomous reality.” Modern Mexico and modern Japan both prove, he writes, that “the state is less an expression of the dominant class, than the dominant class is a result of the actions of the state.”
The Mexican state thus faces a Frankenstein monster of its own creation: the bourgeoisie it fostered. And the monster is now Karloff-sized; it can dispense with the state and rely on the international support of United States interests and the internal support of right-wing paramilitary groups such as the “Halcones” gang which early in the Echeverría administration tried to provoke it toward a policy of repression. And so, if the state is to become once more what Echeverría says he wants it to be, an independent, reformist national state, it must find new support. And this can come only from “democratic social reform.” The present Mexican administration is fearful of sacrificing the traditional levers of power: PRI and the popular organizations it controls. Yet PRI, in spite of its new, liberal leadership, finds it very difficult to give expression to the masses it has for so long simply manipulated.
Paz maintains that democratic social reform is impossible without a new, political “popular coalition [that] must remain independent of the state and the Party,” which would include all groups that have arisen as a result of the economic and social contradictions of the last decades and that now lack effective political representation. The purpose of the coalition would be to express “a plural society” and to “break up the existing monopolies—whether of the state, of parties, or of private capitalism—and discover forms, new and truly effective forms, of democratic and popular control over political and economic power and over the information media and education.” A new social contract must be elaborated by all Mexicans.
Two previous Mexican presidents have defied the system of the pyramid and the Tlatoani. Madero, president from 1911 to 1913, had absolute confidence in the workings of representative democracy, the parliamentary system, and free expression; he was murdered because he did not have an equally great mistrust of the real forces of the ancien régime he had left untouched: the agrarian plutocracy, the army, and the foreign exploiters. While Cárdenas felt great sympathy with the people’s ability to organize themselves, he also needed to assert the strength of the national state against its internal and external foes. This need overrode his sympathy.
Can Echeverría combine the positive aspects of both Cárdenas and Madero while avoiding their pitfalls: the weakness of the state in the case of Madero, the weakness of popular organizations in the case of Cárdenas? It is not the government that should form the coalition Paz speaks of; the government must only respect it while encouraging real reform within PRI and its organizations. The government must imagine new forms of social democracy directed toward what must be the real democracy of the future: self-management by the workers, the blending of actual political and economic freedom. In today’s contradictory but diversified Mexico, we need a strong national state side by side with independent political movements, respect for the people’s local forms of self-government, and a thoroughgoing democratic reform of the existing organizations within PRI. Each factor should strengthen the others.
But the present regime seems to be fearful of the risks of such a policy. The centralist tradition is very strong in Mexican politics. It is also true that the Mexican masses are lacking in the experience of effective political organization, while the well-organized right has proved itself brilliant in infiltrating leftist movements. Yet I insist that the greatest risk comes not from the people’s stammering search for a free voice, but from their silence, from the grievous national need for political education throughout Mexico: outside PRI, as Paz proposes, but also inside PRI; in collective farms, co-ops, factories, universities, state enterprises, and the press.
Mexico is a nation with a particularly rich history. The writer’s destiny in Mexico is to make people remember constantly that since our culture is multiple, our power must be shared out in multiple ways. Paz’s brilliant investigation in The Other Mexico is inseparable from the conviction that only an articulate people will finally save Mexico from the pyramid. His question is our question: can we, in the world of superpower condominiums and their cynical deals, formulate a just and human model for development that will not sacrifice our past or shackle our future?
A couple of summers ago, I drove around the Morelos countryside in Mexico with Carol and Jack Gelber. We were exploring Zapata’s landmarks, his birthplace, the fields where he grew up and later fought, the hacienda where he was shot down in ambush. We got lost in one of many turnings and stopped to ask an old campesino what his village was called, and he answered: “Garduño, in times of peace; Zapata, in times of war.” This man, heir to the revolutionary legend of zapatismo, knew there was another time. Or, rather, that one could both aspire to the past and to a future that would fulfill an original promise. We had the feeling that he had somehow kept alive a revolutionary present and that only in such a present did the past and the future have a meaning. He is the true protagonist of The Other Mexico. He too was repeating Paz’s words: “Time hungers for incarnation.”