Inside Mexico: The lost country

By IAN CAMPBELL, UPI Chief Economics Correspondent

QUERETARO, Mexico, Oct. 16 (UPI) -- This is the last of the Inside Mexico articles for UPI though the series may emerge again soon in a newspaper or magazine. A book, too, is a possibility. I would have my title: "The Lost Country."

Why "lost?" The problem is historical but begin with the here and now. The economy is barely growing. Of course, that is largely because manufacturing is weak in the United States. But it is also because Mexico -- unlike China, for example -- has no dynamism of its own. It depends utterly on the United States, the neighbor with which it is so uncomfortable.


The stationary economy reflects a lack of policy initiatives. Politically the country has entered a sort of paralysis. In three years President Vicente Fox has been unable to push through a single major policy initiative. The arguments, over opening up the electricity network or the oil industry to foreign investment or reforming the tax system to make the government less dependent on oil revenues, go round and round, not forward.


Are countries not always like this? Well, yes and no. There is always disagreement and argument but there is also sometimes a collective sense of what is needed. It is that collective sense which enables countries to tackle problems and progress. Take, for example, some of the countries of the former communist bloc in eastern Europe. They see it as being in their interests to draw closer to western Europe. They have shifted their economies towards the free market model. They know what they are aiming for: the prosperity and political stability of western Europe.

Does Mexico have any of these certainties? What is it aiming for? What does it want to be?

Mexico is trying to adjust itself to an earthquake: the Partido Revolucionario Institucional's loss of the presidency in 2000 after seventy years in office. It is an event comparable with the fall of communism in eastern Europe or the initiation of free market reforms in China under Deng Xiaoping. Those seismic events, it is true, happened longer ago than the fall of the PRI. But at present the PRI remains a major force and Mexico shows little sign of knowing where it wants to head. It looks lost. That could prove a temporary failure but it risks being more permanent, for it has historical roots.


"We are at home in the lie" ("Nos movemos en la mentira con naturalidad"), writes Octavio Paz, the poet, in his Labyrinth of Solitude, a prose study of Mexico published in 1950 to which Inside Mexico has turned for enlightenment a number of times. Paz uses this phrase when he reflects on Mexico (and other Latin American countries) in the early nineteenth century when independence from Spain was achieved. Overnight, Paz writes, we had "liberal and democratic ideology" that "far from expressing our historical reality, concealed it." For a hundred years, Paz writes, "we have had authoritarian regimes, serving feudal oligarchies, but which employ the language of freedom."

What Paz points to is a divorce between Mexico's political rhetoric and reality. We do not always agree with him but he does seem to us here to have hit upon something fundamental. This divorce pervades Mexico's history -- and it is built on other divides.

How was modern Mexico born? Through the conquest of indigenous tribes -- the Mexica or Aztecs, the Otomí, the Maya -- by a tiny band of Spaniards armed with guns and mounted on horses. The Spaniards brought a new language, new leadership and a new religion, Roman Catholicism, that Latin America has embraced -- perhaps nowhere more strongly than in Mexico. But, above all, what conquest brought was the rule of the many by a few foreigners: a foreign oligarchy which then spoke for the country as though it were its own.


Move on three hundred years. What triggered the war that would bring independence from Spain? It was, so Mexican history tells us, the "grito," or shout, of a priest, Miguel Hidalgo, which is commemorated every September 15. But for what did Hidalgo call? He did not call for independence, but rather loyalty to the Spanish crown rather than Napoleonic usurpers. And what did his call launch? A race war in which Mexico's native majority began to slaughter its light-skinned minority -- not just the peninsulares born in Spain, the colonial rulers, but also the creoles of Spanish blood born in Mexico. To Mexico's majority they were all the same: white oppressors. But independence led to government by creoles, not to the incorporation in government of the country's darker-skinned majority.

Move on another century, to 1910. Mexico's internal revolution was led by Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. For Paz the revolution is "a true revelation of our being." But he points, too, to its revolutionary tendency to look back to a "mythic age," in its case the pre-Hispanic one. It is difficult to build something solid on myth. The revolution suffered, Paz writes, from a "lack of ideology," which reflected in part the failure of the intellectuals of the time, who were "incapable of guessing the meaning of the revolutionary movement." Perhaps this was because Mexico's intellectual elite of a century ago were divorced from the common people. And they instituted another divorce, making the state secular and for a time expressly anti-Catholic while the bulk of the population remained and remains to this day devout.


Today are Mexico's intellectuals in touch with the demands of the poor majority? While the editorials of Mexico's newspapers lament the free trade agreement with the United States and Canada that is the one source of dynamism and fresh jobs in the Mexican economy, millions of less well-educated and less privileged Mexicans struggle their way over the border into the United States towards the free market capitalism that Mexico's well-fed intellectuals decry as heartless and cruel.

"Feudal oligarchies," writes Paz. What could be more feudal than the Mexican economy whose greatest source of wealth, oil, is controlled by a handful of people who steal on a vast scale while proclaiming how they are working for Mexicans and Mexico's future? Feudal, too, is Mexican society, in which a super-wealthy elite and a minority that has a Western standard of living employs an uneducated majority, in field, factory or home, for $10 or less per day. The feudal system suits its lords. Perhaps they have little incentive to change it.

For Paz the United States is in part responsible for Mexico's lack of identity because of the robbery "in one of the most unjust wars in history," and in a demonstration of "imperialist expansion," of half of Mexico's then territory in the middle of the nineteenth century. No doubt he is right. The United States exploited Mexico's political instability to expand itself and its power. But would Mexico's standard of living today be higher if California and Texas and the other stolen states were still Mexican? Would California and Texas be the economic powerhouses they now are, harboring some of the world's wealthiest people? Or would they be as poor as Mexico is?


"We Mexicans have not created a Form that expresses us," writes Paz, "Mexicanness, then, is a way of not being ourselves."

This crisis of identity is, to our mind, Mexico's most striking feature. It is visible in the divorce we refer to above between rhetoric and reality and between rulers and ruled but also in fear. The foreign is frightening. A country that is divided, stratified, feudal is unlikely to be able to orient itself in the world. From this comes Paz's "solitude," the isolation of Mexicans, which Paz sees as being from one another as well as from the outside world.

The PRI embodied that isolation, nationalizing the oil industry in the 1930s and for decades ensuring that Mexico was a largely closed economy. By incorporating the unions in his power structure and wrapping itself in the Mexican flag the PRI, while proclaiming its desire to emancipate, perfected the "feudal oligarchy." And priistas are still defending it vigorously -- in the interests, of course, of all Mexicans. Yes, perhaps we could allow some private investment in Mexico's big industries, but only so long as it is Mexican. The foreigners will rob us.

How convenient that mentality has been to the small and wealthy clique that continues to run this country. And how badly they have served the poor majority: millions of whom have made the only meaningful vote open to them: one exercised by the feet.


There is confusion in Mexico as to how to go forward now. There is a sense that Mexico is different to the United States and should be. Rightly or wrongly, Mexicans consider themselves less materialistic, more social, more spiritual. But, after the failure of the revolutionary party to improve the standard of living of the majority and the descent of that party into rampant corruption, all of it wrapped in the language of social values, to what economic policy should Mexicans turn? What way ahead is the truly Mexican one?

It is not clear how long the confusion will persist, how long the country will remain lost.

This is the last weekly Inside Mexico for UPI. The author can continue to be contacted on

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