Jorge Castañeda, one of Mexico’s leading intellectuals and a former presidential candidate, was secretary of foreign affairs from 2000-2003. Among his many books are “Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War,” “Mañana Forever?: Mexico and the Mexicans” and, most recently in 2020, “America Through Foreign Eyes.”
He recently spoke with Noema editor-in-chief Nathan Gardels. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Gardels: You were a key figure in Mexico’s transition from 71 years of one-party rule by the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) to democracy in the late 1990s, and you joined the first post-PRI government.
Going back to ancient Greece and Rome to the American founding fathers, democracy has been distrusted because it so often opens the way for demagogues — as it is now in our times with Donald Trump and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, among others. In López Obrador’s case, he has the highest approval ratings of any leader in the Americas, reaching nearly 60%. That is far higher than Trump ever got.
Why is he so popular?
Castañeda: His approval ratings, between 55% and 60% in most polls, are almost exactly the same as former Presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón at the same point in their terms, albeit under perhaps less adverse circumstances. His policies, however, are deeply unpopular, whether on the economy, security and crime, education or fighting corruption.
Personally, he is well-liked by half of the electorate and strongly disliked by the other half. This is in part Mexican tradition, in part a rejection of the past, in part his skill at dominating the agenda every morning, with his 7 a.m. press conferences and keeping the opposition off balance. He is an excellent communicator — albeit by pandering to Mexican society’s worst instincts — and a terrible ruler.
Gardels: In what ways is he so disastrous for Mexico, in your view?
Castañeda: The international media have highlighted his horrendous mismanagement of the pandemic, placing Mexico just behind Ecuador and Peru in excess deaths per inhabitant, along with a slow vaccination process. His cancelation of the Mexico City airport, which is only half-finished, without prosecuting anyone — in government or contractors — for the purported corruption it involved, discouraged private investment even before he took office. It has led, according to many analysts, to small negative growth in 2019, an 8.5% contraction in 2020 and practically zero growth for his six-year term as a whole.
Lastly, López Obrador’s drug policy of “hugs, not bullets,” which implies a tacit or explicit truce with some of the cartels, is the worst of both worlds. He has adopted a policy of benign neglect toward some cartels (shaking hands with El Chapo’s mother in public and freeing his son after he had been captured by the army) without obtaining anything from them in return. Largely for this reason, the level of homicides is higher than ever, more than three times what it was under Fox and nearly twice the average under Calderón and López Obrador’s predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto.
Gardels: In a recent article in Foreign Policy, you criticized U.S. President Joe Biden’s policy on Mexico — aid for southern Mexico and the northern triangle of Central American countries — as part of a one-dimensional approach that, following Trump, only focuses on immigration flows and the border.
As you put it: “López Obrador is playing Washington with his control over the tap of Central American refugees” in return for its northern neighbor ignoring all else he is doing. “No one should need reminding that there are barely 30 million people in the northern triangle, whereas there are nearly 130 million in Mexico. With López Obrador at the height of his power and folly, for Washington to view its neighbor only through the lens of immigration could be labeled reckless. … [T]he real long-term challenge for the United States — Mexican economic, political, and social stability, with its obvious repercussions north of the border — will get dramatically harder to manage.”
Since all presidents and political parties in Mexico have fiercely resisted American meddling in domestic affairs, what could the U.S. actually do — specifically — to curb López Obrador’s mismanagement?
Castañeda: “All” and “fiercely” are words that are both too big. The U.S. has meddled constantly in Mexican affairs since at least 1836, and many Mexican presidents have used U.S. meddling to further their own ends.
But in terms of specific policies the U.S. could pursue, first, Washington should clearly and publicly place several non-traditional items on the agenda: the rule of law, human rights and democracy, Mexican macro-economic policy and Mexican pandemic management.
Second, it should follow the same “two-track” approach that it theoretically adopted with Russia and China: State disagreements explicitly, confront when necessary and cooperate when possible and desirable.
Third, Washington should continue and even increase its support for Mexican civil society organizations, whether they focus on anti-corruption matters, human rights and freedom of the press, gender issues, climate change and renewable energy — regardless of whether López Obrador likes them or not, and even if he demands an end to American support for these groups.
Gardels: Absent any changes on this front, is it an exaggeration to say that Mexico is headed toward becoming a failed state? After all, one of the key definitions of a failed state is the authorities not having a monopoly on violence. Mexico has been spinning out of control in this way for many years now. What can be done?
Castañeda: The Mexican state has never possessed a complete monopoly on the use of force. It has never controlled every inch of territory throughout the country. The issue really is whether it is more or less a functional state than before. If the answer is less — I tend to think so — then the question is different.
Is the weakening of the Mexican state a product of collapse and the strengthening of the cartels, or simply that the democratization that began in 1997 made the previous state machinery dysfunctional, and a new one has not yet been constructed? I tend to think it’s the latter.
The current Mexican state is smaller, weaker and as corrupt as before, but under López Obrador it has become, in addition, much more incompetent. Lower salaries and fringe benefits, political appointments, witch hunts and partisanship have taken a weaker, more democratic state and transformed it into a nearly failed one. If things continue along their present course, López Obrador will hand over a failed state to his successor: not Venezuela or Cuba, but something more like Argentina, with three times as many inhabitants and a border with the United States.