“What a pleasure,” Carlos Fuentes was saying, “to speak praises of the United States again.”
Mexico’s statuesque novelist, the handsomest, best-tailored writer in the world, sounds euphoric in spite of The Crisis — maybe because, as Brazil’s President Lula has said, “we didn’t start it this time. It was the blond guys with blue eyes.”
On Fuentes annual sojourn at Brown, he is riffing with us on changes we believe in, and a few we don’t.
CL: Carlos Fuentes, the world has changed, rather in your direction since I have seen you. Take stock.
CF: Well, I spent eight years of my wasted life with George Bush.
CL: You weren’t alone.
CF: I am glad that is over because I have a deep feeling for the United States since I went to school here as a child during the era of Franklin Roosevelt. So my ideal is the Rooseveltian ideal: the New Deal. When I see it as left behind, corrupted, violated as it was in the Bush years, I feel extremely sad about the United States. People say I am anti-American. No, I am pro-Roosevelt…
CL: Mexico’s politics have changed [since the PRI got thrown out ten years ago]. When does the economics catch up?
CF: I am afraid it is not catching up at all, because in Mexico we need to put the people to work. We have a great reserve of labor, which we are not using. We are thinking that if private enterprise takes up the slack of this crisis, we will go through it, but I don’t think that is true. I think that basically in Mexico we have to renew our infrastructures and modernize the country with the abundant workforce that we have. It is not a question of trickle-down capitalism, we have to build from the bottom up, as Roosevelt did in the United States in the ‘30s…
CL: The news, of course, is about the fear of Mexico becoming a narco-state: that both the guns and the drugs are making their way through these tunnels into the United States and Mexico. Put that into perspective.
CF: Let’s say that the narco-wars in Mexico cause around 100 deaths. 90 of those deaths are between the capos of the gun cartels—like Al Capone in Chicago—they are gangs fighting, and murdering, each other. About 8 are police and army personnel and about 2 percent are civilians, so that is the way that cookie crumbles. Besides, it is localized in the north of Mexico, in Ciudad Juarez, Baja California and Tampico. But it is not a universal problem in Mexico, it is not nationwide. But that they are infiltrating governments, that they are infiltrating politics—that is also true. The reverse of the coin is that the origin of the problem is in the United States. And as long as the United States does not know who creates demand for drugs, who are the banks that clean the money that comes from the border, who are the people who are manipulating, using the drug business in the United States, we will never know the truth.
There is the great thing from the Obama administration, which is to accept that this is a bilateral problem that requires a bilateral solution. It is not only a problem of Mexico, it is a problem of the United States demanding the drug, supplying the arms and making the money. Let’s see if this is cleared up by the present administration in Washington.
CL: Your friend and mine, ex-president Ricardo Lagos from Chile, was worried that all of the discovery of these fifty-plus tunnels has been on the Mexican side. The United States, for all of its alarm, can’t seem to find the other end of the tunnel.
CF: It has to be because the United States and the Bush administration refused to accept that this was a bilateral problem shared by Mexico and the United States. [Under Bush,] it was only a problem created by Mexico against the United States. When you accept that it is a bilateral problem, you see the other end of the tunnels.
CL:: What do you think is unfolding in the [United States] relationship with Cuba?
CF: I think that more is happening than what meets the eye. I think that there is an agreement, basically, between the United States and Cuba to go step-by-step. I mean, after fifty years of cold war, it is natural that the steps be taken cautiously. But I think there is an agreement basically for both Havana and Washington to take the steps, hesitatingly, Hillary Clinton makes one declaration, Raul Castro makes another, Fidel intervenes, Obama intervenes. We are going towards a normalization of relationships. Now, will this affect the internal politics of Cuba? At the meeting in Trinidad, everyone demanded that Cuba be readmitted into the Organization of American states, but there is a proviso there, and that is that the governments must be democratically elected, which is not the case of the Cuban regime. How do you get through that hurdle? Come on.
The present situation is an anachronism. It was built on the fact that Cuba was a satellite of the Soviet Union. There is no Soviet Union anymore. What danger does Cuba represent? None whatsoever. It has a regime that is distasteful, it is not democratic, but you can have relations with an authoritarian capitalism, which is the way that I guess that Cuba will go, following China and Vietnam…you have good relations with them under the system of authoritarian capitalism. You can live with it.
CL: You’ve been watching the United States your whole life. Send us a postcard, about us.
CF: I am extremely optimistic. You know I’ve always said that the American presidential election should be universal. We should all have a right to vote for the President of the United States because it affects us all, and I think that 80% of the world would have voted for Barack Obama. I think he represents hope. It’s a novelty, it’s a good novelty, he’s a good man, an interesting, an intelligent and generous man — for me its great news to have such a man in the White House, it’s very good news.
CL: Zadie Smith says that he has, on some level, the mind of a novelist. He is a great man for writing dialogue, for hearing other voices, for multiplicity of perspectives.
CF: He ends his sentences, which Bush never could… Politically, he is very good news. He is in the right direction for the present crisis. It was genius on the part of the American people to elect such a man at this time.
Carlos Fuentes in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, April 23, 2009.