Jorge Castaneda: Mexico’s Man Abroad
For almost 150 years, Mexico’s foreign policy was essentially defensive. Nonintervention and self-determination were its twin pillars. Today, as Mexico democratizes and becomes a key player in the global economy, its approach to the world is correspondingly changing. Under President Vicente Fox and his foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda, human rights and democracy have become core values in Mexico’s foreign policy. Castaneda recently spoke to Times editors about his country and its emerging view of the world.
Question: The government of Vicente Fox has had some months in office now. How are things going?
Answer: We are proceeding on most fronts as we thought we would be. Nothing has not worked, but nothing has worked perfectly. We would like to have had tax reform passed by now, but we haven’t got it. On energy, we’re probably close to getting approval of some legislation on the tax side. The Chiapas bill [granting increased autonomy to indigenous peoples in Mexico] essentially worked , if not perfectly. So our legislative agenda is more or less where we expected it to be.
The president’s popularity remains very high. But his difficulty in translating that popularity into legislation, into votes in the Congress, is also very high. We hope to pass a congressional reelection bill [that would allow for members of Congress to serve more than one term] sometime this year or next. This would be the single most important instrument with which to create a bully pulpit. There is no bully pulpit in Mexico, because any congressman can say, “I don’t care what the president says, and I don’t care how popular he is, because I’m out of here next year, and I can’t be reelected.” That is an institutional problem.
Q: Who would the bill cover?
A: Congressmen and senators, perhaps mayors of cities. There are some people who think that one three-year term for a mayor is too little, and they are probably right.
Q: Not presidents?
A: Not the president or governors.
Q: How are things going on the foreign-policy side?
A: We have been able to make a lot of progress on a lot of fronts. We have perhaps too many fronts simultaneously active, but we seem to be moving forward. We have begun changing Mexico’s image abroad, and that’s the first objective we had. We’ve begun to put human rights and democracy at the center of everything we are trying to do, and that’s working well. We don’t quite have all our ducks in a row yet, but I think we will by the end of the year. Finally, we have been able to move our agenda with the United States forward very well, largely because President Bush has been immensely receptive [to it] and has attached enormous importance to relations to Mexico.
Q: Will an amnesty, or “regularization,” offer cause a rush of migration from Mexico to the United States?
A: I don’t think so. This is going to be exclusively for people who are already here and who can prove how long they have been here and what they have done while here. People in Mexico are not going to just run to the border and try to get in before some window shuts down.
Q: Some people here are suggesting that the amnesty will merely be an expansion of the existing guest-worker program.
A: We are in favor of expanded guest-worker programs for people who are in Mexico today or for people who are [in the United States] and choose to remain using that route. But that’s not the issue that needs addressing. You can tell a migrant until you are blue in the face that he should join a guest-worker program for a year and then go home, but he won’t do it. If that’s what is proposed, we would say “no.”
Q: But hasn’t Bush been hinting that he’s thinking about something temporary, not permanent residency or citizenship?
A: There’s a little bit of confusion there. On the one hand, there will be an expanded, temporary guest-worker program. That’s one track. Another question that needs to be addressed, though, is what happens to Mexicans who are currently in the United States and who have no papers? Any program that’s temporary [in the U.S.] is, up to a point, meaningless. If you tell somebody, “You can stay [in the U.S.] legally for six months, but then you leave,” the guy will say, “‘Where are you going to find me?”’ Nobody is going to leave voluntarily who is already [in the U.S.] unless they have the guarantee of coming back. It doesn’t make any sense.
Q: The Bush administration seems to be suggesting that the regularization would not, in most cases, lead to citizenship. Would the Mexican government not find it problematic if the U.S. were to create a new class of immigrants who basically have all the rights of green-card holders but can’t become citizens?
A: It’s not our issue. Different countries have different citizenship laws. This is not something of huge significance to us. What is of huge significance to us is all the other rights.
Q: Have the mechanics been discussed in detail?
A: For now, the definition of regularization is what we are discussing. In the White House, they are probably discussing how far they want to go and what they understand regularization to mean. There are all sorts of notions out there. The governor of Arizona, for example, had a splendid study carried out that came up with what she calls “earned amnesty.” This means you assign points to a variety of things, and depending on how many points you get, you are granted rights, and you move farther along on the path to residency and then citizenship. You have to learn English, for example.
Q: We’ve been talking mostly about U.S. problems with these proposals. What about in Mexico? What’s the overall tone in the often sharp-tongued Mexican press about all these ideas?
A: The press has had a field day. It didn’t run, with a couple of exceptions, news of the amnesty as broken in the New York Times. It did run all the other stories three days later, saying that the administration had backtracked from the New York Times story. So what came out in the [Mexican] press was that the United States says “no” to amnesty.
Q: Do you feel the Mexican press is out to get you?
A: Well, it’s not me anymore. It’s Fox. When it was I, it didn’t matter. They can throw me out, but they can’t throw Fox out. And the press really wants to destroy him as much as possible. I mean, systematically.
A: For two reasons. First, for half a century, the Mexican press has been financing itself with official government advertising. We cut off the money. This had been its main source of revenue. Now, in a recession, private advertising and sales are down. The press is in very bad shape, and it wants the government advertising desperately. [Attacking Fox] is its way of trying to get back [the advertising].
The second reason is that we are having a democracy binge in Mexico, similar to what happened in Spain in the 1970s. The press thinks that freedom of the press means freedom to bring down the government, basically. And that’s what it is trying to do.
Q: On another subject, you’ve been calling for a truth commission to be established in Mexico that would examine past wrongs. Obviously, the Party of the Institutional Revolution, or PRI, will not take this lightly. Are you proposing it in seriousness? Or as a negotiating tool with the PRI?
A: I didn’t propose it; [national-security advisor] Adolfo Aguilar Zinser did. I have placed the issue at the center of the agenda, but I have not taken sides on it. I simply said, there are countries where truth commissions have been established, and they had these advantages and these drawbacks. I did not take sides in the debate. Public opinion, as measured by polls, is pretty overwhelmingly in favor. So that’s where the debate stands. The PRI would not take it lightly, that is true. So what would happen? It wouldn’t pass the president’s reforms? Well, without a truth commission, its members are not approving the president’s reforms, either.
Q: When you were an academic and a critic of the government, you wrote a lot about how true democracy is not possible as long as you have huge disparities between rich and poor. Now that you are an insider, how does it look?
A: It still looks pretty difficult. Certain things are clearly possible. We have a functioning electoral system. We are beginning to see the type of freedom of the press that is necessary and desirable. There’s still a problem of what kind of a press or media you have, but there is no longer the issue of the government controlling it.
Other things, though, are very complicated. One question is how do you distribute wealth regionally in Mexico between a rich north and a poor south. Mexico has an average per-capita income of about $5,000 a year. But if you break it out, the north has an average income of about $10,000, and the south has one of about $2,000. How do you distribute national resources in a reasonable way in a country like that?
Q: You do this through investment. In Italy, the south was also very poor.
A: Levels of foreign investment are rising, but they are not at the levels we would like them to be. Since 1995, they have been more or less stagnant at $10 billion a year. This year, it will probably reach $15 billion, which is a significant increase.
Q: What about the Spanish model? Joining the European Union gave Spain a boost.
A: That’s what Fox essentially wants, the type of resource transfers that occurred in Spain and, before Spain, in Ireland, and, after Spain, in Portugal and Greece. The Germans were willing to build highways in Spain. Somebody else has to build our highways. We don’t have the money.
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