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Mexico and Its Demons

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.”

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