Big Think Interview With Jorge Castañeda

A conversation with the professor of politics at New York University.
  • Transcript


Question: What do you teach your NYU students, and what do they hope they gain from your class?

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, I’ve been teaching there now for 13 years with the exception of the three years I was in the foreign ministry.  I teach freshmen which is a lot of fun.  Freshmen honors seminar, they're kids or 18 years old.  They're right out of college - out of high school, I’m sorry, and I give them a very sort of general survey course on Latin America.  A little bit of history, a little bit of economics, a little bit cultures, movies, novels, whatever, and what I’m trying to achieve there is to have them remain interested in Latin America for the rest of their lives as students and subsequently as whatever they do in their careers and with an intellectual and traveler’s interest and I think actually most of the time I succeed up to a point in that.

In my graduate class, which is a joint Columbia/NYU class that I have been doing the last couple of years with Dean John Coatsworth of the School of International Public Affairs at Columbia, we do a US/Latin America relations course which is really a foreign policy course of what the United States has done in regard to Latin America since World War II and what it should have done or what it should do in the future.

Question: What were your major responsibilities and challenges as Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs?

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, main responsibility was to conduct the country’s foreign relations, but at a time when it was very important to promote this notion that Mexico had finally become a full-fledged representative democracy for the first time in its history.  So that, in a sense, was my main responsibility beyond the traditional foreign policy of the country. 

And the main challenge I faced was how to drag along a society which remains remarkably conservative and traditional into a more modern world of international relations.  It was very difficult and I can’t say I really succeeded as much as would have wanted to.

Question: Why were you recently barred from running for Mexico’s presidency, and why did you want to run?

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, the reason I was barred is that Mexican electoral law does not allow independent candidates to run.  You have to be nominated by a party in order to be on the ballot.  I challenged that in the courts; I took it all the way to the Mexican Supreme Court and subsequently to the Inter-American Human Rights Court and I eventually won part of my suit, but too late to be able to have - to compete, to contend in the 2006 elections. 

What I would have wanted to achieve?  Well, I wanted to achieve what I think remains to be accomplished in Mexico today, which is to carry out a broad agenda for change and economic policy and social policy and international affairs and security matters and an institutional reform, which are the platforms I ran on in 2006 or 2005 and which, unfortunately, have not been achieved in the subsequent four years now.

Question: How would you characterize current U.S.-Mexico relations?

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, the divergences are great than ever in terms of the disparity in economic growth and income and standards of living.  If, maybe, 30 years ago the ratio was six or seven to one, now it’s maybe eight or nine to one.  So, despite huge progress that has been achieved in Mexico over the last 15 years, the fact is that there is a great gap between the United States and Mexico or between Canada, the United States and Mexico, than there has been before.  And, unfortunately, that has not changed; it’s getting worse.

On immigration, nothing really has happened since 2007 and the issue, up to a point, has been laid to rest by the US recession because some Americans have the impression that fewer Mexicans are coming to the US, which is probably true, some have the impression that more are returning to Mexico.  That’s probably not true.  But, the fact is that once the US economy picks up again, and it will at some point, demand for low wage, low skill Mexican labor will return to where it was a few years ago and we will be back to 300-, 350,000, 400,000 Mexicans entering the United States without papers every year.  And so, the whole immigration issue will come back to haunt both countries because they really haven’t don’t anything to address it.

Question: What does the U.S.-Mexico border fence say about relations between the two countries?

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, I think there’s two aspects to it.  There's the emblematic or symbolic one, which is, it’s a terrible message to send to both societies that the United States wants to build a wall or is building a wall to try and keep people out or, for that matter, to keep things in, like guns or money or chemicals.  It’s a lousy idea, it sends the wrong message.  This is not the type of symbol that you want erected on the border between two countries that seek to be closer and closer friends and allies and partners over the years.

On the other hand, it’s also true that the fence is not exactly being constructed in a huge rush.  It’s taking forever.  Very few miles have actually been built.  Most of the miles where it’s been built are uninhabited.  I don’t think that it is that much of a big deal.  I think that too much was made of it.  It’s, as I said, for symbolic reasons, but in terms of actually deterring Mexicans from entering the United States, I don’t think it will have any effect whatsoever.

Question: Is illegal Mexican immigration actually a problem?

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, it’s certainly not a problem in the US.  It generates problems in the US and in Mexico, but, in fact, it is a solution to many of the United States’ problems and it is a solution to many of Mexico’s problems, which doesn’t mean it doesn’t create problems also.  But, it’s largely a solution.  Why is it a solution in the US?  Because the US needs low-wage, low-skill labor to carry out a lot of jobs that Americans don’t want to do at the salary that Mexicans want to do them.  Yes, I’m sure there may be people who would like to wash dishes in restaurants in New York at $25 an hour.  I’m not sure a whole lot of restaurants could survive if they had to pay busboys $25 an hour.  The same is true for the meat packing plants in Iowa.  The same is true for picking tomatoes or oranges in Florida.  Same is true for apples or sweatshops, textile worker mills in California.  These are not good jobs by American standards.  Americans would not want those wages, would not want those working conditions.  But for Mexicans, they're so much better that they represent a very attractive destination and this helps the United States be more competitive and this helps the United States keep inflation down and this helps the United States attend, for example, to an elderly population through nursing etc., that is growing very rapidly.

For Mexico, it’s a solution or not a problem because we can’t create the number of jobs equivalent to the number of people entering the job market every year.  Why?  Because the people entering the job market today were born 20 years ago and they were born of parents who were then born 25 years before that and that’s when we had a huge population bubble.  And so, we are now having to face a lot of people entering the job market, well over a million a year, 1.2 million, 1.3 million, at least for another ten years.  And what that’s means is that we will not find jobs for them because there's too many of them and so they will go and find jobs where there are jobs.  And there happen to be jobs in the United States.

Question: Will immigration-related problems work themselves out, or should they be tackled at a policy level?

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, in the very long term it works itself out.  It goes away, and it goes away basically because one, as the US population ages increasingly, the United States will need more and more labor from Mexico, and as the Mexican economy modernizes and becomes more competitive, it will be able to create more and more jobs for Mexicans in the US.  So, we could easily see a situation 25 years from now where the US would be asking us to send them more people and where we would be saying, “No, we don’t want to send you more people because we need them.”  That is not at all an inconceivable situation 25 to 30 years from now.

In the interim, there's a real issue.  And so, what I’ve always suggested and fought for for many, many years now is that Mexico and the United States should adapt their laws to reality instead of trying to adapt reality to their laws.  Reality doesn’t follow through that simply.  The United States should legalize the workers who are here, the seven or so million Mexicans without documents, as well as the other six or seven million foreigners without papers, and it should create a migrant worker program to insure that those who keep coming, come legally and done create a new illegal universe of workers as happened after 1986. 

Whether the United States wants to also enhance border security, if it makes Americans feel comfortable, that fine.  But, it’s important recalling that what we’re referring to with border security has nothing to do with terrorism or any of that sort of threats.  It’s been now, soon, nine years since 9/11.  There are literally hundreds of millions of border crossings per year between the United States and Mexico, and over nine years there hasn’t been a single episode, a single incident, a single suspicion of an incident, of an episode.

So, there is no security threat to the United States from Mexico.  The United States knows this very well.  Mexico knows this very well.  But, if the United States wants to spend a lot of money to enhance border security, once it’s legalized the people that are in and once it’s created a worker program for others to come in, that’s fine.  I mean, that’s your money.

Question: How does Obama’s immigration policy compare to George W. Bush’s?

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, Bush actually had a very decent policy on immigration.  Probably the only issue he has a pretty decent policy on and the problem with it was his timing.  That he missed out on doing before 9/11.  Obviously he didn’t 9/11 was coming.  He then, I think, waited too long in 2003 and 2004 because of the war in Iraq.  And then finally in 2005 when he was re-elected and thought he could get it done later, he went for Social Security instead of immigration.  And he himself has now recognized, has acknowledged after leaving office that one of his biggest mistakes was not to have done immigration before when he could deliver the right wing Republican votes in favor of an amnesty program.  As once he became a lame duck he wasn’t able to deliver that.

Obama is in a similar situation.  What he is suggesting is great.  I don’t think anyone can argue with any of the points that President Obama has more or less set out in terms of what kind of immigration reform he would want.  The problem is the timing again.  If he doesn’t do it very soon in 2010, it will get in the way of the 2010 midterm elections and politicians don’t like that.  And then he’ll only have, like, a year in 2011 to get it done because then he’s got the presidential elections coming up in 2012.  So, he’s running very much into the same type of problem Bush had.  He’s got the right instincts, his heart is where it should be, his head is where it should be on this issue.  Everything is great.  The only problem - and he, by the way, he has the votes which maybe Bush didn’t have.  Obama has the votes.  What he doesn’t have yet is the timing, and I don’t know how long he’ll need to get this worked out.

Question: Has NAFTA been beneficial or harmful to Mexico’s economy?

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, NAFTA was oversold from the very beginning.  It was oversold by its advocates as being the sort of the silver bullet that would solve Mexican underdevelopment and it was oversold by its critics who - you remember Ross Perot’s huge sucking sound that millions of jobs would flow from the United States to Mexico.  I wish they had.  That’s exactly what we need.  But, that didn’t happen.  So, it was oversold from the very beginning and consequently it’s easy right now to blame NAFTA or to praise NAFTA for Mexico’s ills or for Mexico’s successes.

In fact, I have the feeling it hasn’t done that much harm.  This notion that millions of peasants were driven off the land by NAFTA is false.  Peasants in Mexico have been being driven off the land for decades now and, as a matter of fact, there should be fewer peasants in Mexico today then there are with or without NAFTA.  Mexico is a country who where by GDP per capita it should have far few people working in agriculture than it does. 

Conversely, it has not done the country that much good either.  The Mexican economy has only grown an average of around 3 percent per year, a little bit less, since 1994 when NAFTA came into law which is really not very impressive and it’s way below what was expected of NAFTA.  So, I think too much has been made of the whole thing.  As it stands, it’s okay, but it’s not such a big deal.

Question: How can Mexico raise its standard of living over the long term?

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, there's a lot things that it has to do.  Has to do things on energy, on the rule of law, on tourism, on all sorts of things.  But, at the end of the day, the one most important thing that it has to do is to convince itself and the United States and Canada that Mexican economic development and prosperity is the number one issue on the US and on the Canadian agenda with Mexico.  That the number one issue is not drugs; the number one issue is immigration only indirectly.  The number one issue is not the environment, etc.  The number one is how the United States and Canada with Mexico can drag Mexico up by its bootstraps and turn it into a more prosperous country. 

This is not something that outrageous for the United States.  It’s what the United States did with Puerto Rico in the 1940’s.  It’s, of course, what it did with Western Europe through the Marshall Plan.  It’s what it did with Japan and Taiwan during the 50’s and 60’s.  It’s what the Western European countries, the rich northern Western European countries like France and Germany and Britain, did with the poorer countries like Ireland or Spain or Portugal or Greece or now with Poland.

If you're interested in having neighbors that are further up in the income scale, make you more competitive, make you more secure, make better friends, you have to get involved in doing so.  This notion that this is just Mexico’s business is not accurate.  It doesn’t work that way because we share a 2000 mile border, because 10 percent of Mexico’s inhabitants live in the United States, because 90 percent of our trade is with the United States.  There are a million American residents in Mexico, more than in any other country in the world.  You can’t just say, “Well, that’s a Mexican problem.”  But, we have to convince the United States that that’s the way it is and we have to convince ourselves that that’s the way it is.

Question: How do you assess Felipe Calderón’s performance as president of Mexico?

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, he was dealt a terrible hand.  Back in 2006 he barely squeaked through with a very protested election.  I happen to think he won cleanly, fairly, fair and square, but a lot of Mexicans don’t think he won that way and, in any case, he only won by less than half a percentage point and with only 35 percent of the vote, which is not exactly a mandate. 

Given all of that, I think that on some fronts he’s done all right and on others what has not happened turned out well, is not entirely his fault.  For example, the huge contraction of the Mexican economy last year, minus seven percent, perhaps one of the greatest contractions **** in the world, was partly Mexico’s fault, but partly comes from abroad.  So, I’m not sure you can fault him entirely for that.  What I do fault him for is for having declared this unwise, unwinnable and otherwise futile war on drugs which I think was a lousy idea and which today with the enormous levels of violence that we’ve be seeing during the month of January in northern Mexico, show us that three years on the war is further from being won than ever before.

Question: What would be a sensible drug policy for the U.S. and Mexico to adopt?

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, what would have been a sensible policy was not to declare a war.  Was to continue with the type of arraignment that Mexico has had with the cartels and the US has had with the cartels for 40, 50 years now.  Having recklessly plunged the country into this now, I think what Calderón and the United States should do is to sort of sit back for a second, think this through, see what they really want to achieve, what is achievable and what should be done that’s new.  For example, there are more and more states in the US that are moving towards decriminalization at least of marijuana.  Mexico is still a very important producer of marijuana.  Some people say that up to 60 percent of the profits of Mexico’s cartels come from marijuana.  Well, if the United States or California’s de facto legalizing it through medical marijuana, what sense does it make for Mexicans to die to stop marijuana from entering the US when once it enters it can be sold legally at over 1,000 dispensaries in Los Angeles, more than the number of public schools there are in Los Angeles.  That’s certainly one thing that we can do.

Another thing that we can do is combat the collateral damage, fight the collateral damage rather than the source of evil.  In other words, there are times when it’s better to attack symptoms or effects and not causes.  What do you do when you have a common cold?  You go after the runny nose, after the teary eyes.  You don’t go after the cause because we don’t know what the cause is and we can’t fight it.  The same thing is true with terminal cancer, as tragic as it may be.  You go after the symptoms because there's nothing you can do about the causes.

Well, that might be a wise approach as far as drugs in Mexico are concerned.  So, there's a couple of ideas of what we could do.

Question: Should Mexico’s constitution be amended to allow its military to participate in U.N. peacekeeping missions?

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, I certainly do, and I started fighting for this when I was in the foreign ministry with no success.  I think it is irresponsible of Mexico to abdicate from this type of commitment with so many other countries in Latin America, smaller or larger, from Chile and Uruguay to Argentina and Brazil, have always fulfilled.  And this neutrality thing is quite relative.  We entered World War II.  We fought on the side of the Allies.  We sent a tiny Air Force Battalion to the Pacific.  I mean, it was no big deal, but symbolically we were certainly part of the war.  This notion that we are neutral is something that Mexicans have made up to themselves, to ourselves now, for a long time which doesn’t really correspond to the truth. 

The real issue here is whether Mexico wants to assume the role it has to - a country of 110 million people and a country that has now the 12th or 13th largest economy in the world - should play, or whether it wants to remain in its cocoon, sort of its - mixing metaphors, with its head buried under the sand.  I think it shouldn’t.  I see no good reason why we shouldn’t participate in UN peacekeeping operations.  I see no reason why everybody is participating in Haiti one way or another and we’re not.  We’ve sent aid, but that’s all we’ve sent.  We’ve sent no troops, no engineers, no nurses, no doctors.  Why?  Because we have this ridiculous taboo that Mexican forces shouldn’t do this.  Well, why shouldn’t they?  Why should the Brazilians do so?  What's the deal?

Question: What do you see as Mexico’s role in the world over the long term? 

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, my sense is that we’re moving closer and closer to forms of economic integration with the United States and Canada and conceivably Central America and Caribbean could become part of that in the coming years.  I don’t see Mexico as a Latin American country.  Too much of trade, investment, tourism, immigration, remittances, absolutely everything is concentrated exclusively with the United States.  So, Mexico has to be part of a North American community, a North American union, which at some point probably should include some type of monetary union along European lines with a free flow of labor, with energy being on the table, etc. 

How far away are we from that?  Quite far, but so did it seem back in Europe in the 1950’s and very little time later they came around and understood that that was their future lay.  My sense is that the Mexican society is voting with its feet.  We have a higher share of Mexicans living in the United States than we have ever had in our history.  One out of every nine Mexicans, Mexican citizens, people born in Mexico, live in the United States today.  That’s a lot of people.  We have, as I said, a million Americans living in Mexico.  That’s more than in any other country in the world for civilian Americans.  Military is different, but civilians, it’s the highest number in the world.

So, that’s where Mexico’s going to end up I think.  I would prefer to get there more quickly and to manage and orient, regulate the movement instead of just having it happen haphazardly.  But, I think the result will be the same anyway.

Question: What is Che Guevara’s continuing relevance as a thinker or symbol?

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, as a thinker I don’t think he is relevant and I think he ceased being relevant in the early 60’s.  And Fidel Castro also thought so which is why he invited him kindly to depart and go do his stuff elsewhere.  I think he was an extraordinarily charismatic, attractive, seductive, courageous human being, but I think he had very little to say or to add to what we know about social change or economic change or modernization in Latin America or elsewhere. 

As for symbolically, I think he’s immensely important because he has come, that’s the point I try and make in my book, he has come or he came to represent the societal change, the cultural change that took place in the 1960’s.  This is not what he was fighting for, by the way.  He was fighting for a traditional, Stalinist, communist, hard line, Marxist, Leninist revolution.  He didn’t care about young people’s rights or women’s rights or sexual preferences or drugs or any of those other things.  If anything, he probably would have been against them.  But, he became the symbol of the revolution of societal mores of the 1960’s everywhere in the world and we are all the better for that revolution, that one having taken place.  That is what led to having now a majority of women working in the workplace, not just at home.  Today, everywhere.  Or the majority of young people going to college in the richer countries and having possibility of choosing their lifestyles, their sexual preferences, the way they dress, they way they eat, the way they listen to music, etc.  The ‘60s were an extraordinary upheaval.  A peaceful revolution that really changed the way people live all over the world, and Che Guevara became the symbol of that unwillingly.  This is not what he was up to.  But, you never know who you work for.

Question: How did the meaning of Che’s life become abstracted from the facts of his life?

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, in a sense he was, of course, unlucky because he died, but he was very lucky because he died at the right time, the right place, the right way and you don’t often have people who are able to do that in such an extraordinary fashion.  He died just before 1968.  He died as a martyr.  He died fighting for a cause he believed in.  He died with a picture.  I described this in the book where how he had to be cleaned up and showed to be almost Christ-like in order for everybody to recognize him.  He couldn’t be show like Saddam Hussein when he was captured in his rat hole in Iraq because then people would have said, “No, this is not him.”  He had to be shown, dead of course because he was executed, but he had to be shown clean, combed, with his eyes opened and they turned him in, his murderers, turned him into an extraordinarily romantic, emblematic, photographic icon.  That plus the timing plus the causes plus the place all came together to combine and turn him into the symbol of something that he wasn’t fighting for.  But again, as I said, you never know who you work for.

Question: Will we ever see the likes of Che again, in Latin America or elsewhere?

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, in a sense I hope not, and I’ll say why.  In the same way that I don’t think and I hope we won’t see another Mandela who is the other emblematic figure of enormous stature of the last 40 or 50 years.  Why do I hope we don’t have to see them again?  Because I don’t want to have people in Latin America having to fight with guns in order to achieve their aims and I don’t want to see someone else in Africa spend 19 years in jail for their beliefs and their convictions and because of a repressive racist regime.  I don’t want to see that.  Of course it means that we probably won't see these martyrs or these extraordinary people like Mandela and we won't see a Che Guevara dying in the mountains because there's no good reason to go and die in the mountains anymore.  You can achieve most of what you want in Latin America, politically, through the ballot box.  You may not win the first time; you may not win the second or the third time, but so many people have won now that it is reasonable to expect that you could win one day.  So, why go and give your life up in the mountains if what you can do is organize and canvas voters and win elections?

Recorded on February 1, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen