Gaston Garcia Cantu

<i> Marc Cooper and Greg Goldin are Los Angeles writers. </i>

Gaston Garcia Cantu, 68, is a noted Mexican historian, author and journalist.

His outspoken analysis and criticism of government affairs have made his column in the daily newspaper Excelsior one of the most widely read in Mexico. He was interviewed in Mexico City, which is still littered with rubble from the Sept. 19 earthquake that took as many as 8,000 lives

Q: Some Mexican editorial writers have argued that the failure of the government to fulfill the people’s immediate needs in the wake of the earthquake has led Mexicans to band together and cast off what has been described as a submissive mentality. A: It is easy to hold prejudices and misconceptions about a population, like ours, that has suffered long periods of colonization. The psychological makeup of the Mexican people is not a submissive one. And it never has been. The Aztecs, who finally fell in 1521, were never, in fact, defeated by the strength of the Spaniards alone. Thirty thousand indigenes that had joined up with the Spanish to demolish the Aztec empire wound up being the key factor.


Q: And the ensuing centuries of colonization--isn’t that the sort of submission some of your colleagues referred to? A: Historically, a colonized people is a subjugated people. That’s very different from being submissive. The Mexican people lost their independence but never surrendered their desire for freedom. They have made three great revolutions, those of 1810, 1855 and 1910. They are a people struggling for possession of the land, and they have not hesitated to rise up with, and at times without, arms.

Q: It is generally thought that the inability of Anastasio Somoza to respond to the 1972 earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua, led ultimately to his overthrow seven years later. Might the earthquake in Mexico have a similar effect?

A: The situation here is more complex. Nicaragua is a small country. Mexico has a population of more than 70 million, very important industrial achievements, vast cultural development and, in spite of its shortcomings, a sophisticated educational system. This makes for a much more complex and contradictory situation. The privileged have differences among themselves, as do the middle classes and the poor. This means that, in the face of a disaster such as the earthquake, there wasn’t a uniform response.

Q: Then the earthquake was just another in a series of natural disasters that have marked Mexican history?

A: No. It happened to take place in a time of profound political, economic and social crisis in Mexico. Under normal conditions, it would only have caused death, injury and destruction, something always lamentable. But this quake was made much worse by the present crisis. The complete destruction of so many buildings in the poor neighborhoods of the capital, neighborhoods in which workers and artisans live with their families, made public for all who cared to notice the subhuman conditions in which these people were living and working. Even in some of the more modern buildings, the disaster revealed that people had been working in conditions comparable to those of English millworkers at the time of the Industrial Revolution. After the buildings collapsed in the textile district, it became clear that seamstresses were laboring without workplace rights, without social security and under deplorable conditions. The resulting scandal revealed that these were the conditions demanded by their employers: They were not to have finished primary school; they were not to have any political or social activism; and they were not to be involved in any union activity. And while these conditions were consistent with the rise of industrial capitalism, they have no place in modern Mexican society. The United States must understand these Mexican realities. Otherwise it would seem that our problems are strictly a result of our confusion, our ignorance, our disorganization--and that’s not the case.

Q: How do Mexicans see themselves in the aftermath of the earthquake?

A: In Mexico City, information abounds. But the social inequalities are so great that those in other parts of the country live as they did in the mid-19th Century. I believe that millions of Mexican campesinos hardly know that the earthquake even took place. Its effects on these people, nevertheless, will be grave and dramatic. The rebuilding of Mexico City, and the servicing of the foreign debt, will mean for the average Mexican campesino limits on his salary, limits on credits needed for planting. It will mean fewer roads, less drinking water and less water for irrigation because there will be fewer dams constructed; less electrification, fewer schools, teachers and books. Inevitably, all Mexicans will be affected, and many of them will severely feel the crisis without ever knowing the reasons behind it. The social aftershocks of Sept. 19 are going to be felt for years to come.

Q: For as long as a decade?

A: Maybe. What we’d like to do is overcome the effects of the earthquake by the year 2000.

Q: But you re not sure Mexico will be able to achieve that?

A: Right.

Q: And do you think that President Miguel de la Madrid’s government will seriously undertake the task of reconstruction? A: The government has received millions of dollars in foreign donations that are being distributed through the National Reconstruction Committee. Many of us fear, nonetheless, that the committee has done nothing.

Q: Would you say that the people lack confidence in the government’s ability to honestly and efficiently use the donations it has received?

A: The people are unbelieving. The urban middle class has led a campaign of verbal criticism through the use of jokes and wisecracks--which is a peculiarly Mexican way of manifesting discontent and mistrust. But this lack of confidence is in great degree generated by the Mexican government itself. In order to bolster its credibility, the current administration tolerated and even encouraged the discrediting of its predecessor. It didn’t realize that this would have a boomerang effect. The present administration, by allowing to become public the corruption and malfeasance of the prior government of Jose Lopez Portillo, inadvertently discredited itself. The Mexican people correctly concluded that the present government is no different from the previous one. To them the government is the government. Whatever was honorable about the previous government has now been erased. And, therefore, whatever is honorable about this administration is also being wiped out. These are the effects of the government’s political clumsiness. It is inflicting a slow death upon itself.

Q: How do Mexicans feel about the earthquake aid that has come from the United States?

A: I think there are two problems with the American aid given us. One is that there was an exaggerated amount of publicity given to what Nancy Reagan personally brought on her trip--$1 million. Another was the intervention of your ambassador, John Gavin, who went around making inspections and offering statements to the press as if he were one of our government authorities.

Q: You are referring to when Ambassador Gavin gave the press his own estimate of the number of deaths?

A: Yes. This is the sort of inappropriate interference that just cannot be tolerated. That cannot be tolerated even from a Boy Scout, let alone from a U.S. ambassador. This was a clear sign of American arrogance. But we don’t criticize the aid that the American people sent us. We are not ungrateful. Medicine that is given to those who are sick can never be ill-intentioned. And the Mexican people appreciate it. A vaccination has no nationality the moment it is injected into your arm.

Q: When you speak of American arrogance, do you think that, 75 years after the Mexican revolution, U.S. influence is greater now than then?

A: Yes. The United States is the greatest economic and military power in the West. Our neighbor is the most militarized force in the hemisphere. For a country like ours, it is absolutely suffocating to have you on our border. The analogy that we can establish is: The Soviet Union is to Poland what the United States is to Mexico.

Q: What is the best that can be expected for Mexico by the turn of the century, now that this blow has come at such an unpropitious time? A: I do not believe things will change substantially by the year 2000. But in the next 15 years, if the Mexican people achieve certain democratic objectives, no doubt they will be better off, for they will have a better nation. And there is no doubt in my mind that they will achieve this, because nobody can stand forever the sort of misery and humiliation that marks the present. And this will happen whether the United States likes it or not.

Q: So you remain optimistic?

A: No, this isn’t optimism. Rather, it is a reasonable conclusion from the way history works. The worst thing that could happen in the next 15 years is war. A war that would no longer be a world war, but a war of the galaxies that would exterminate all of us. There would be nothing to discuss, no tally sheets to draw, just death. In a more immediate sense, we want to avoid the United States expanding ever more its power in Latin America--because it is the United States and not the Soviet Union that has the overpowering presence on our continent. If U.S. policy continues as it is today, then Latin Americans will be forced to launch a series of local and national revolutions like those that swept through all of the Americas in 1810. This would mean trying to improve our lives through violent means. It would be catastrophic, because the destruction would be great. But this may be our only remaining hope.