Mexico's Top Historian Wants You To Look Past The Grim Headlines

"In comparison to so many other countries in the world ... Mexico is a culturally homogeneous country that does not have the problems of racism, religious wars or migration."

09/06/2016 1:49 AM AEST | Updated 13/06/2016 8:10 AM AEST

Enrique Krauze is considered Mexico’s leading historian and among that country’s preeminent public intellectuals. He founded the publishing house Editorial Clio and is the author of numerous works, including Mexico: Biography of Power. He also co-edited the literary magazine Vuelta with the Nobel Prize-winning poet Octavio PazKrauze recently sat down with Alex Gorlach in Mexico City for The WorldPost.

In your writings, you draw a rather pessimistic picture of Mexico in general. But here, in Mexico City, I cannot see a country in despair that you describe. How come you focus on the negative aspects of Mexico?

As a historian, I judge things in an historical perspective. I started writing in a time in the 1970s and '80s when Mexico depended immensely on the state -- and the state depended enormously on oil. In the '80s, we began to open the Mexican economy with free trade agreements and other agreements. Nowadays, the Mexican economy is one of the most open on the planet. It is amazing to see different aspects of Mexico flourish; the energy one feels here nowadays is remarkable. There is an economic dynamism that nobody could have expected 30 years ago.

'The Mexican economy is one of the most open on the planet.'

But the problem is things are not moving fast enough. Many industries still depend on the U.S. in particular; remittances from those working in the U.S. are still very important to our economy. The economy is growing at roughly 2.5 percent annually, which is nowhere near enough what this country needs given our growing population. Add on to that the informal sector that is still -- and I hate this word -- huge. There are reasons to believe that Mexico currently relies on this, despite what the basic economic theories say. And then, of course, the biggest problems are the drug and money laundering industry.

How solid is Mexico’s emerging middle class as a basis for a healthy democracy?

There is an emerging middle class, that, for instance, constitutes itself in the increase in women in the private sector and in politics, a typical indicator for increasing social development. It may not be “middle class” by American or European standards, but the average middle class family owns a home, a car and pay TV.

Henry Romero / Reuters
"The biggest problems are the drug and money laundering industry."

Thirty years ago Mexico had what the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called a “perfect dictatorship” – we had the form of democracy in terms of voting, but it was always fixed so the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party won elections. Only 16 years ago did we have a --  peaceful -- transition to democracy and less control of the media.

The international press has been too harsh on Mexico -- I feel like they do not acknowledge the essential progress Mexico has achieved in terms of the boosting and strengthening of economic development, as well as a multi-party political climate immediately after a dictatorship.

The younger generation in Mexico has not experienced the hardship that the previous generation had to live through. They seem to assume the benefits of a liberal democracy; they just take it for granted. What does the generational split look like in Mexico?

'Mexico is a culturally homogeneous country that, comparatively speaking, does not have the problems of racism, religious wars or migration.'

There is a split. But I think this is unavoidable. I cannot blame you for not remembering something that never directly impacted you, or blame you for not adapting the mindset of a previous generation. The younger generation, the Mexican millennials, don’t want to destroy the newly built democracy -- which of course is good. We really must not complain -- it is good that the millennials here don't aspire to be revolutionaries. Nobody between 18 and 30 runs off into the woods to start guerrilla-style fights against the government the way we saw it 30 years ago.

However, the growth process of Mexico is nowhere near done yet. Of course people are unhappy with the current situation. There is a lot they are upset with: violence, corruption and other violations of the basic foundations of democracy. The problems we Mexicans have are different from the ones Europeans are facing. Here, there is no migration problem, or religious problems; there is no race problem like there is in the U.S. The biggest problem we have here is crime, and our inability to combat it. This, combined with corruption, is what pulls down this country, but it also confronts us with a more critical process: how do you build the rule of law in a modernizing society?

What are the consequences of Mexico being positioned in between the United States and the other Latin American countries? Does the geography combined with the shared language give the country any advantage over the U.S. in terms of trade relations?

De Agostini / G. Dagli Orti via Getty Images
This Mexican painting portrays a mixed race family with their Mestizo child.

I think Mexico is continuously orienting itself more and more towards economic integration with the United States -- and that is going to continue, assuming Trump does not win the election. In comparison to so many other countries in the world -- and I reiterate this because it is important to understand -- Mexico is a culturally homogeneous country that, comparatively speaking, does not have the problems of racism, religious wars or migration.

But there is a greater, a more fundamental answer to your question. Latin America does not look towards Latin America in the first place. Our countries are not cooperating and trading enough amongst each other. Nowadays, the internet helps us come together, but two main problems remain: firstly, the countries are not taking economic advantage of their geographic proximity, which leads to the second problem, namely, that the other Latin America countries are in a much deeper mess than Mexico. All the populist movements are failing currently, and there will be a shift in politics happening. Also, the level of performance amongst Latin American countries -- compare Costa Rica to Bolivia, for example -- is too different in order for it to make sense for Mexico to see Latin America as one trading unit.

What about Spain and Europe? Do they prove a better trading opportunity for the Mexican economy?

Regrettably, we are very far from Europe geographically speaking. Historically, Mexico has had a love affair with France. And, of course, Spain is very close to the Mexicans. Personally, I wish we had the Spanish judicial system, or the Spanish police and institutions. Say what you want, they may be in trouble economically, but their institutions have managed to maintain their strength regardless. It’s their civic process that I envy.

'We in Mexico see what is happening in Europe and think the way countries are behaving against immigrants is quite out of step with the global realities we long ago accommodated to.'

Is there a European influence also in political culture?

That is a great question that I find is historically neglected. The man who studied this most was Richard Morse. He demonstrated that the Ibero-American political culture was deeply rooted in a “neo-scholasticism” paradigm of power based on authoritarian tradition and dogma. That is something I have always believed to be true. The way we perceive power here, or in Spain and Portugal, is different than the way the U.S. interprets it. Three centuries of Spanish rule here left something very deep. In spite of that, as we discussed, we are continuing to develop democracy.

 …but, historically, you also had an independence movement spearheaded by the Jesuits…

The Mexican poet Octavio Paz had a wonderful phrase: “Latin America is an eccentric outpost of the West.” I agree. Our eccentricity, seen in the political and cultural heritage of Spain, is what makes us peculiar and sets us aside from everyone else. However, that eccentricity to some extent also means that we are at a different stage of democratization than everybody else.

Latin America was essentially a branch of Spain. Our eccentricity is in our history -- we had a Spanish rule -- 13 kings that peacefully succeeded each other, all of which never set foot onto our country. That, by the way, is an interesting case in terms of legitimacy. Mexicans did not live under repression. The Spanish, of course, exterminated a lot of native populations, but the majority were incorporated into the Mexican nation under Spanish rule. And this is where the second reason for eccentricity comes from -- the pre-colonial cultures of Latin America that no Western country has as part of its makeup. Latin America is, historically, a place of tension. You have a strong pull from the past -- cultures, habits and tribal rituals are still deeply entrenched in people. But people are also looking towards the future, and are feeling the full effect of globalization and digitalization. Finding a balance between the past and the future is what is so challenging the continent.

Marc DEVILLE via Getty Images
"The Mexican poet Octavio Paz had a wonderful phrase: 'Latin America is an eccentric outpost of the West.'"

Is there anything the rest of the West can learn from this eccentricity?

Morse thought that Latin America -- keep in mind he was writing in the ‘70s and ‘80s -- had a repository of cultural values and ways of life that he called “conviviality” -- a tolerant, affable and congenial way of people relating to each other no matter what their cultural roots. It is a way to share and live life that is projected in our culture across literature and music. The old West, and even the U.S., should have a look at that!

Partially, the convivial mentality is making inroads into the U.S. since Latin Americans are there -- the immigrants bring that attitude with them when they settle down in the United States. Let us see what happens in the next 10 or 20 years. This raises a deeper issue: How do cultures permeate each other? In the U.S., there is a steady melting pot of cultures. Hispanic millennials play an important role in this.

As for Europe learning from this conviviality, the problem there is the way Europe is treating “the other.” We in Mexico see what is happening in Europe and think the way countries are behaving against immigrants is quite out of step with the global realities we long ago accommodated to.

This interview has been briefly edited and condensed for clarity.

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