All the Presidential Schemers

What Carlos Fuentes misunderstands about Mexican politics.

In Carlos Fuentes’ new novel, The Eagle’s Throne, it is the year 2020. America has knocked out all of Mexico’s communications—there are no phones, fax, or e-mail. Washington made its move in a fit of pique over Mexico’s refusal to lower oil prices and its demand that the United States end its military occupation of Colombia. This is the context for a story about presidential succession—a potentially timely subject, as Mexicans will elect a new president in July.

This is a juicy setup for Fuentes, a chance for that sophisticated, passionate novel of the paso doble between the United States and Mexico that he was born to write. Fuentes, Mexico’s most prominent novelist, is also an essayist, dramatist, professor, and former student of international law. The son of a diplomat, he was raised partly in Washington and served as Mexican ambassador to Paris. He is a longtime, if not particularly original, critic of American ideas and influence, and in 2004 he published a book of essays called Contra Bush, which is just what you think it is. Always a more interesting novelist than essayist, Fuentes could have used the situation he has imagined in The Eagle’sThrone to probe the love/hate relationship Mexicans have with the United States. Or, well-known proponent of Mexico’s democratization that he is, he could have explored Mexico’s second modern transformation as he dramatized the workings of presidential politics. In his best novel, The Death of Artemio Cruz, written in 1962, Fuentes portrayed the gradual corruption of Mexico’s revolution a century ago. Today, Mexico’s emergence from 71 years of dictatorship—democratic, but hobbled by the habits of old—again offer him a rich subject.

Fuentes has chosen to do neither. Instead of rendering the transformation of electoral politics, he refuses to acknowledge it. The conflict with Washington is simply a trick to eliminate telephones and e-mail, justifying the construction of a novel entirely in letters exchanged among Mexican politicians. There are no Americans in the book at all, only a passing reference to U.S. President Condoleezza Rice. In truth, there are no Mexicans here either, just archetypes of the men and the occasional woman surrounding the president and competing for his perch—the eagle’s throne of the title. Some of the characters are plainly meant to represent real folk: the decent, passive, ineffectual leader Lorenzo Téran is President Fox; scheming Ex-President César León is clearly Carlos Salinas, Mexico’s president between 1988 and 1994. But mostly they are simply caricatures: the Corrupt One, the Military Hothead, the Technocrat, the Sexual Temptress. All spend their time trying to screw each other, in both senses of the word.

If Fuentes were trying to say anything interesting and complex about the soul of Mexico today, his use of the epistolary form would condemn him to failure. The letters are mostly long, florid speeches. And since there’s no good way to handle exposition in a book of letters, there are too many mini-history lessons prefaced with “my dear friend, you know how we got here, but I’m going to explain it anyway.” (One character even feels compelled to recount the history of a couple of thugs named Hitler and Stalin.) The book is curiously anachronistic, missing precisely what is most interesting about the country’s current political culture and offering instead a static portrait of a Mexico in political turmoil after the death of a president. Because Mexico has no vice president, the opportunity for an appointed successor echoes the old ways when presidents were essentially appointed by their predecessors. The book seems to inhabit the Mexico of the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s 71-year dictatorship, not the very different country Mexico is today.

As Fuentes has been among the most insistent on pointing out, back in those days the president of Mexico was chosen by an electorate of one. One party ruled everything, and one man ruled that party—he simply pointed his finger at his successor. It was a deeply pathological system that guaranteed no one ever brought the president bad news or challenged his views. Fuentes surely isn’t nostalgic for the dedazo, as the point of the finger was known, but he obviously is very attached to its literary possibilities. In The Eagle’s Throne, presidential succession is still an insider’s game. The key is to become interior secretary, the most important Cabinet post. From there one can best accomplish the serious work of presidential politics: sycophancy toward the president, and blackmail, extortion, and murder of rivals.

As though under the sway of the old saw that literature thrives best under dictatorship, Fuentes seems stubbornly unwilling to acknowledge that this aspect of Mexican politics has changed dramatically. Mexico is, in fact, electing a new president in July. President Fox’s Interior Secretary, Santiago Creel, has been running for president since the moment he was appointed. Yet it didn’t even get him his party’s nomination. The National Action Party’s membership considered him unappealing and unaccomplished, and nominated instead Felipe Calderón, the little-known technocrat who was energy secretary. The frontrunner to succeed President Fox is not from the president’s party and not from the PRI. He is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who quit his post as mayor of Mexico City to run for president, a populist from an outsider party with a clear message (Down with the rich! Up with the poor!) and a charismatic, almost messianic, appeal. In other words, this is a normal election—the first without the PRI in charge.
There are still caciques—old-style strongmen, “dinosaurs,” as they are called in Mexico; indeed, López Obrador was one in Mexico City. His political machine there looks like the old-style PRI political machine nationwide. But that machine will not make him president, since it doesn’t exist in the vast majority of the country. What may make him president is his clear, focused message to the Mexican voter. López Obrador is sucking down, not up. He is populist and simplistic, the opposite of the politicians in The Eagle’s Throne. Perhaps Fuentes ignores this evidence of change because he can stand an authoritarian Mexico but not a vulgar one.

He is a classic public intellectual, strongly tied to Europe. For Fuentes, to be vulgar is to be American. It must hurt, then, that a novel about Mexican presidential politics today should be about spin doctors and get-out-the-vote specialists and political machines and TV advertising and way too much money. Jack Abramoff and James Carville are closer to Mexican politics today than Fuentes’ parlor-game ambience and pompous characters. Mexico is a wildly imperfect democracy, but a democracy it is. In fact, Mexico does a better job of registering voters and counting votes than we do. Turnout is much higher. But overall, Mexico’s election this year looks a lot like America.

Or maybe Fuentes is afraid of losing one of his lifelong themes: authoritarianism. It is, he has said, Latin America’s most deeply rooted tradition—true in Mexico more than in most places. Today, in addition, Mexico also suffers from post-Soviet hangover. The PRI dictatorship was not Marxist, but it was deeply Leninist. It wasn’t very violent, but then, it didn’t have to be. “Perro con hueso no ladra” was the mantra—the dog with a bone doesn’t bark. If you had independence and energy, you would soon be offered either a government position or a corrupt secret arrangement. Mexicans do not remember a time when they were allowed to think for themselves.  

Which means that corruption, secrecy, passivity, and servility have not vanished from Mexico: Fuentes need have no worry. They are merely now shaping political life in more subtle ways. Under the PRI, journalists, for example, were paid by the agencies they covered. This is gone—but Mexican journalism is still Latin America’s worst; newspapers are a tool for politicians to communicate with each other and publishers to flatter potential business partners. Citizens groups now abound, but most waste their time sniping at each other. They criticize but do not propose—acting is up to someone else. The courts respond not to PRI dictates, but to good old-fashioned money.

Fuentes has already written the Great Mexican Novel once, in The Death ofArtemio Cruz, a look backward by a Mexican media mogul on his deathbed, a portrait of race relations, the slow betrayal of idealism, and the triumph of corruption and authoritarianism as the revolution spent itself out. Today the Great Mexican Novel would be about how the old ways of thinking and doing business coexist with the structures of democracy. But it’s not clear Fuentes can write it. One of the most consistent criticisms of his later work is that he has stayed with the themes and forms of the 1960s: He is out of touch and reluctant to adapt to a country whose political direction and literary opportunities disappoint him. Governments are easier to change than the habits of the past—for nations, and for some writers as well.