After ending his six-year term as The New York Times bureau chief in Mexico City, Alan Riding has written Distant Neighbors, a study of Mexican politics and society. It is a book that a journalist would write only when burning bridges. Accusing senior politicians and businessmen of corruption, Riding names names—including those of Mexico’s past three presidents. His book has already been praised in the U.S. press as a classic, in part because there are so few books on Mexico available in English. But it tackles almost every aspect of a complex society in one medium-sized volume. As a result, it is valuable, but spread as thin as a tortilla.
According to Riding, the core of Mexico’s problems lies in a generational clash for power. Traditional Mexico is an agrarian, Indian society. But the new Mexico has been increasingly dominated by a Harvard-educated, technocratic elite. That clique has taken over the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRl), which has controlled the Mexican government for more than 50 years. Riding says he fears the consequences. “A new head has been transplanted onto an old body,” he writes, “a Westernized, individualistic and materialistic minority imposed on an Oriental, conformist, communitarian majority—and the relationship is uncomfortable.”
Mexicans are indeed uncomfortable, not only with each other but with their tragicomic history. The bombastic Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna, who defeated the Texan freedom fighters at the Alamo, lost his foot three years later in a conflict with France. “Once recovered,” Riding writes, “he helped overthrow the [Mexican] government, buried his foot with full military honors and then was in and out of power three times in as many years.”
More recently, Mexico has written its history in oil rather than blood. But the influx of oil money has proved to be both a blessing and a curse, stimulating the corruption already so pervasive in the Mexican government. Currently, Jorge Diaz Serrano, the former director general of the state-owned oil company Pemex is awaiting trial for embezzling $34 million. Riding also cites a report by Washington columnist Jack Anderson that the last president of Mexico, José López Portillo, stole between $1 and $3
billion during his six-year term of office. But for Mexico’s impoverished majority, the new wealth has brought only rhetoric and, as new social programs have fallen behind the public’s get-rich-quick expectations, the danger of widespread unrest.
Meanwhile, the country’s huge foreign debt, which Riding predicts will reach $120 billion by 1991, is causing Mexico to mortgage its future to meet its current interest payments. As a result, says Riding, the entire economic system is collapsing. His observations have embarrassing implications for Canadians: he quotes critics of current President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado who claim that he is “offering the country a choice between ‘Argentinization or Canadization’—that is, between prolonged stagflation or near-total foreign control of local industry.”
Riding is a versatile journalist, and his lively coverage of Mexico’s national traits has been equally at home in the Times's news, financial and sports pages. But in Distant Neighbors that flexibility can create an irritating superficiality. Riding even remarks that “Mexicans burst into song at the least provocation.” As well, passages that read like a travelogue careen into material that could have been drawn from a banker’s newsletter.
Still, Riding is at his best writing on subjects he cares about; Mexico's dispossesed inspire him to observations of sur prising tenderness. "On any day, groups of men in straw hats and huarache sandals can be seen walk ing in single file along the streets as they might along a narrow mountain path," he writes, "or standing in horror as they ponder how to cross a busy downtown ave nue." Riding's book is be ing promoted as the dec
ade's definitive work on North America's poor cousin. But the true vir tues of Distant Neighbors lie in Riding's finely tuned reading of the Mexican heart. ANNE NELSON
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