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Manana Forever?

Format: Trade Paperback, 320 pages
Publisher: Vintage
On Sale: 04/17/2012
Price: $16.95
ISBN: 978-0-375-70394-2
open close ABOUT THE BOOK
In this shrewd and fascinating book, the renowned scholar and former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda sheds much light on the puzzling paradoxes of politics and culture of modern Mexico.

Here’s a nation of 110 million that has an ambivalent and complicated relationship with the United States yet is host to more American expatriates than any country in the world. Its people tend to resent foreigners yet have made the nation a hugely popular tourist destination. Mexican individualism and individual ties to the land reflect a desire to conserve the past and slow the route to uncertain modernity. Castañeda examines the future possibilities for Mexico as it becomes more diverse in its regional identities, socially more homogenous, its character and culture the instruments of change rather than sources of stagnation, its political system more open and democratic. Mañana Forever? is a compelling portrait of a nation at a crossroads.

“This important book, by an exceptionally shrewd, sophisticated and deeply knowledgeable analyst, deserves a place on the short shelf of classics about modern Mexico that includes Alan Riding’s Distant Neighbors and Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude.” —Los Angeles Times

“Castañeda presents an impassioned and erudite case for a rethinking of old Mexican habits. His background makes him especially well positioned to explain his native land to an international audience.” —The New York Times Book Review

“A revolutionary book about Mexico. . . . I never thought I would read a book by a Mexican that acknowledges that Mexicans have more to gain in venturing to America than U.S. dollars.” —Richard Rodriguez, The San Francisco Chronicle

“A lively and perceptive analysis of Mexican society. . . . [Castañeda] is an unusual and important voice in Mexico.” —The Economist
Jorge G. Castañeda is Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American Studies at New York University. He was Mexico’s foreign minister from 2000 to 2003. Castañeda has been a professor of political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., and a visiting professor at Princeton University. He received his B.A. from Princeton University and his Ph.D. from the University of Paris. He is a member of the board of Human Rights Watch and lives in New York and Mexico City.
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Few countries have devoted so much time and energy as Mexico to dissecting and debating, to hailing or regretting their “national character.”

Our obsession with who we are, and why, is endless and constant. It is not only ours. The number of foreign “regards” of Mexico is lengthy indeed: from Ambrose Bierce to Walter Lippmann, Cartier- Bresson to Jacques Soustelle, from D. H. Lawrence to Graham Greene, from Oscar Lewis to Tina Modotti, Edward Weston, B. Traven, and Leon Trotsky, from Sergei Eisenstein, Luis Buñuel, and Elia Kazan to John Reed and Jean Le Clézio. Mexican poets, novelists, anthropologists, sociologists and journalists, politicians, and painters have all delved into the Mexican soul, hoping to discover the Rosetta Stone that will finally decrypt and reveal the unpolished jewel of Mexican identity that so attracts admirers, discourages skeptics, and systematically fascinates and thwarts academics.

This is not a book about the Mexican national character, but about some of the country’s most distinguishing origins or features, and their consequences. It is about their contradiction with the daily reality of a society ever more removed from an initial series of national traits that rendered it so endearing and frustrating to Mexicans, no less than to foreign visitors, travelers, retirees, or adventurers. It is essentially an attempt to explain Mexico to Mexicans, and to Americans. It seeks to explain why the very national character that helped forge Mexico as a nation now dramatically hinders its search for a future and modernity. While clearly in a country as regionally, ethnically, and socially diverse as Mexico such generalizations are perilous, shared cultural, historical, and geographical experiences do nonetheless create shared characteristics. A discussion of national character as a whole has obvious limitations and is inevitably superficial, leading to a turgid academic debate that this book seeks to avoid. As recently as 2007, Alan Knight, th outstanding British historian of the Mexican Revolution, pointed out the difficulties and contradictions of working with notions such as a Mexican “national character,” preferring terms like “objective and subjective national identities.” We have no dog in that fight, and will limit ourselves to working with the terms used often interchangeably here.

The traits we will address are not exactly those stereotypes understandably offensive to Mexicans: lazy, irresponsible, violent, or despondent. Nor are they mannerisms often linked to Mexicans though hardly restricted to them: machismo, a different sense of time, or a special feeling of uniqueness embodied in what José Vasconcelos called our “cosmic race.” Furthermore, this contradiction between the cultural traits and the reality of the country is by no means its only obstacle to full-fledged modernity. But it is, in our view, the most crucial. Others have written about the lack of a democratic tradition, corruption, the enormous concentration of wealth and power in the hands of very few, the negative impact of living beside a neighbor such as ours or, conversely, the poorly exploited benefits of contiguity with the United States. The purpose of this exercise, as the Coen brothers’ Big Lebowski might have said, is to determine what “ties the room to gether.” It is the disconnect between Mexico’s national character and its current reality.

The book is organized by contrasts. One chapter seeks to describe, substantiate, and probe a particular trait of the national character; the following chapter attempts to confront that trait with the description of a central feature of modern Mexico that contradicts and invalidates the previously depicted trait. It hopes to show how that specific trait is no longer viable in today’s Mexico, and has become a major obstacle to its progress. Each trait is derived from three “fonts of wisdom”: the classics, the numbers, and the author’s own experience. What makes the three sources appropriate and useful is, precisely, their diversity.

First, the classics. Rarely has a country devoted so much intelligence, hard work, speculation, and soul-searching introspection to
identifying its identity. As far back as a century ago, and as recently as two decades past, the examination of the Mexican soul has consumed poets like Octavio Paz, novelists like Carlos Fuentes, essayists like Jorge Cuesta, Alfonso Reyes, Samuel Ramos, and Salvador Novo, dramatists like Rodolfo Usigli, psychoanalysts like Santiago Ramírez and Jorge Portilla, anthropologists from Manuel Gamio and Miguel León-Portilla to Roger Bartra,MauricioTenorio, and Claudio Lomnitz, sociologists from Guillermo Bonfil to historians like Edmundo O’Gorman. They have nearly always disagreed on details, devoting interminable pages to highly specialized—on occasion arcane—polemics, yet at the same time their research and reflection have had the same fundamental object. They cannot be lumped together into one single corpus of theory or description, but viewed from outside the specialists’ realm, they share enough conclusions so as to suggest something of a consensus.We shall select and study a few of those consensual traits—acknowledging that there are many others, far less unanimous—by taking the experts’ common viewpoints at face value. In many aspects, though not in all, they got it right.

A second set of sources are the mountains of data that the classics partly lacked to buttress their ruminations, insights, and intuitions, but which would have confirmed them, had they been available. This is not so say that they based their views only on hearsay and impressionistic analyses—there was that, but also intuition, travel, study, experience. Still, Mexican society was, until the mid-1980s, a very opaque one from just about every point of view. Over the past twenty years or so, however, it has been dissected by innumerable polls, surveys, focus groups, microstudies, sponsored and carried out by public and private agencies, universities and marketing firms, political consultants and parties, international agencies and local scholars. The National Statistics Institute, founded in 1985, has only recently compiled comparable historical surveys, while national household income and spending studies are less than thirty years old. After years of living without polls other than for certain very specific marketing purposes—why bother with election polls when there are no real elections—Mexico has become a pollster’s paradise, partly thanks to the advent of modernity and democracy, partly perhaps as a result of a certain narcissism. There is no relation between the data available to the classics—even the most recent among them—and that which any student or candidate for office can retrieve today from almost infinite sources. This information is not always easily or accurately comparable in time and space; series are not uniform; regional perspectives are often unavailable; and, inevitably, there is a great deal of self-serving information culled from leading questions or foregone conclusions. Similarly, there are valid doubts and objections regarding the reliability of Mexican polling firms, especially in view of their relative youth and inexperience. This explains why we often quote or refer to several polls simultaneously, and why the data we cite should always be seen as indicative of trends, not as precise measurements. Nonetheless, this trove of facts provides the speculation of the classics with the type of solid statistical foundation that they were partly deprived of before, and which either would have made their ingenious intuitions impossible if wrong, or more reliable if right.

Finally, there is the vantage point of the author. It is the lot of millions of my compatriots now, before, and in the foreseeable future to find ourselves in a curious internal/external position. The latter lends itself to eternal ambivalence, which encourages insights and discoveries that others, too far removed or excessively entrenched in everyday life, cannot easily acquire or achieve. More than 11 million native-born Mexicans reside abroad; 300,000 to 400,000 depart every year, more or less for good; the country’s leading businessmen, intellectuals, scientists, writers, and artists have almost all studied, worked, lived, and triumphed partly outside their birthplace. But with a few notable exceptions that I would never hope to emulate, these remarkable and simultaneously detached Mexicans have not devoted their talents to crisscrossing the country, studying it, and organizing the product of their study in a layman’s volume such as this. Most Mexicans who have never left the country are too close to perceive and admit its weaknesses; those who permanently settled in the United States are in all likelihood too distant and critical of their homeland to penetrate its mysteries and be captivated by its enigmas. So a lifetime of traveling throughout Mexico, lecturing at universities, writing in the local media, visiting small communities, and speaking with social activists and professionals, all the while teaching and writing in the United States, may lend this author the possibility of seeing what some others do not. A nomadic childhood and university studies in the United States and France may also contribute to this perspective.

An Outline

The first chapter describes one of the most neglected attributes of the Mexican ethos: an acute individualism and stubborn rejection of any type of collective action. It is contrasted with the thrust of the second chapter, that is, the emergence of Mexico today as a middle-class society, which by definition imposes limits on that individualism, and a growing reliance on collective endeavors. The third chapter returns to a classic feature of the Mexican soul: a powerful reluctance to engage in any type of conflict, a reverential respect for form and appearance over substance and content, and a constant effort to disguise feelings, interests, ambitions, and aspirations. This is challenged in the fourth chapter with the advent of representative democracy from the mid- nineties onward; the incompatibility of the necessary attributes for coping with authoritarian rule (during nearly five centuries) is coupled with the requirements of rough-and-tumble, transparent democratic politics, warts and all.

Chapters 5 and 6 delve first into the Mexican penchant for introspection, and fascination with history and the past, as well as fear and rejection of the “other,” especially of the “foreign other,” of which Mexico has always been a “victim.” This, once again, is a trait recurrently described by the classics, ever since they began to write and reflect upon the Mexican soul, and which thoroughly contradicts contemporary reality. Despite its closed- off, monopoly- dominated markets, Mexico’s economy is one of the most open in the world today;* Mexico is one of the world’s main tourism destinations; remittances from its population abroad represent one of the largest sources of its hard currency earnings. More importantly, few countries in the world have as close, complex, and multifaceted relationship with another, as Mexico does with the United States.

The seventh chapter is dedicated to the Mexican tradition of absolute disregard for the law, both for justified and understandable reasons and other unacceptable ones, and to the patrimonial approach to government service and Mexico’s world-renowned corruption, summarized by the marvelous admonition “El que no transa, no avanza” (“He who doesn’t trick or cheat gets nowhere”). Conversely, Chapter 8 examines Mexico’s need today to build a set of judicial institutions that guarantees the rule of law, and secures personal rights to property and due process. This clash is more current than the previous ones, since Mexico is already, up to a point, a democracy, a middle-class society, and an open economy, but is nowhere near to becoming a nation of laws. If anything, drug- trafficking and drug wars have distanced it from this goal in recent years, even if corruption has in all likelihood diminished. It is a crucial clash, because the resistance to living by the law, and as well as the traditional justifications for not doing so, are perhaps even more deeply entrenched in the Mexican psyche than other attributes of the national character.

Finally, in an almost desperate plea for the viability of change, and in an equally desperate search for a strong reason not to discard it, we will try to ascertain whether Mexicans in the United States, when placed in a different context, become different. There is almost a reallife, real-time experiment under way, involving millions of Mexicans about whom we know a great deal and can discover much more, who have decided, or been forced to decide, to transport themselves into an environment that is even more contradictory to their national character than the country they left behind. Mexicans in the United States live, work, marry, and settle in a context that, as much as they may attempt to make it resemble or replicate the one “back home,” is radically different from the country they left days, months, or years ago. Can Mexicans change, overnight or gradually? Can they adapt to settings so dissimilar to the ones they were born and grew up in? Is the modernization of Mexico possible when taken to the extreme— i.e., when peasants or students or children are uprooted and moved north—supposing it is desirable? Or, phrased in a more positive light, can Mexicans acquire the traits of a new national character, one truly compatible with their double nationality and double new reality: at home and abroad? These are the questions to be addressed in the last chapter.

Where and What Is Mexico?

The dysfunctional relationship between the classic traits of Mexico’s national character and its contemporary economic, social, international, and political landscape is well illustrated by one of the few relatively long-term statistical series regarding Mexicans’ values and beliefs compared with the rest of the world’s. In that series, which stretches from 1981 through the beginning of the new century, the nation’s values were plotted on a graph where the horizontal axis tracks changes between attitudes of survival and those of self-expression.*The former is considered by the team of social scientists who drew up the tables as “premodern,” and the latter as “modern.” The vertical axis also shows movement from traditional (“premodern”) to secular/rational stances (“modern”). From this perspective,Mexico falls clearly in the group of lower- and middleincome, emerging, or poor countries from Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Islamic world, where traditional and survival attitudes prevail. It is not bunched together with the industrialized, “modern” nations from the North Atlantic, the post-Communist societies in Eastern Europe (now part of the European Union), or the prosperous East Asian ones (such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan), where attitudes and values are of “self-expression” and “secular/rational.” But by its other features—Gross Domestic Product per capita, total exports, literacy, urban population, proximity to the United States, emigration, among others—it is clearly more part of that world, generally grouped together in the OECD, theOrganisation for Economic Co-operation andDevelopment (to whichMexico nominally belongs), or in the cluster of countries from Eastern or Southern Europe. It is closer to Poland and Portugal than it is to Peru or Paraguay.

That said, this contradiction, which constitutes the central premise of this book, does not rest on an underlying culturalist, essentialist, or ontological bedrock, or on a revised formula of what academics would call cultural determinism. The nation’s traits have changed over time, as its citizens adapted to constantly evolving external and internal circumstances; they are not set in stone. The foundational “shock” represented by the Spanish Conquest and the decimation of the pre- Columbian civilizations by disease, forced labor, and war are viewed in most historical and anthropological literature as an initial event. But that event, while it may have created the mixed race, or “raza mestiza,” did not engender a permanent essence, always present and immovable whatever the environment. It unleashed a process that over time has been influenced by other surrounding conditions, other moments, other factors. There is an original sin, but the sinners have changed, the sins have been modified, and the ritual of expiation and repentance has also been transformed. Least of all is there, in this endeavor, any predilection for the existence of a “Mexican essence,” of an “us versus them” mentality, of a supposedly superior Mexican substance victimized and violated by the “other(s).” Obviously any invocation of a national essence or ethos poses this risk, and while hopefully the author can avoid its pitfalls, others could, and indeed have, made use of such arguments for political purposes. Our approach is sufficiently removed from any insinuation of cultural determinism in that it explicitly posits that a number of historical, economic, social, political, and international factors have made Mexico a modern nation, despite its culture, not as a result of it. But until now, when this series of traits has become an insurmountable obstacle, culture was more an effect than a cause. In the importance attached to what is generally referred to as “culture,” there is perhaps a certain proximity to views such as Gunnar Myrdal’s and Arthur Lewis’s; in the rejection of “culture” as a permanent factor of underdevelopment lies a strong distance from authors such as Lawrence Harrison.

There is no question, as many scholars—most recently Roger Bartra and Claudio Lomnitz—have suggested, that the previous political system utilized the notion of “Mexicanness” to install and impose its own definition of patriotism, nationalism, cultural, religious, ethnic, and even linguistic identities. And maybe it would be preferable to throw the baby out with the bathwater and cancel the idea of differences that can be subsumed under a single concept; it might pay off to accept the full, logical consequences of Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen’s multiple-identity thesis. Except that even in the European Union, together with India the most diverse federation of identities, cultures, origins, and expressions in today’s world, the local or national factor subsists, perhaps because the legal one does. Or maybe, and more likely, it’s the other way around: the separate juridical existence of the nation-state, even absent a national currency (in most cases), a local market, and certain other swaths of statehood, could stem from the persistence of the national character of any one of the twenty-seven members. Messing with Mexicanness is a perilous enterprise, but suppressing it out of an overzealous reverence for certain currents in modern anthropology may be excessive . . . for now. Mexicanness remains a worthy subject of study, if due attention is paid to the regional, social, and ethnic diversity of modern Mexico, to the multiple-identity theses of many scholars, and to the evidently ideological nature of many of the components of Mexicanness, whether new or old.

Nor does this text subscribe to a neo- Weberian, Protestant ethic / Catholic essence approach, where the basic difference between South and North America, and the enduring characteristics of the latter, stem from the nature of the Conquest: by Northern European, Protestant, and ascetic settlers in one region; by Spanish, Catholic, swashbuckling conquistadores in another.* This dichotomy is not entirely illusory and had its influence on Mexico’s cosmogony for the past two centuries. If anything, the juncture at the destination is as crucial as the one at the point of departure, but in both cases it only explains (insufficiently) how and why things began, not how and why things have been ever since. The search for a single origin of the current status quo is as futile as the quest for a unique essence of all things Mexican. One of the classics we shall quote frequently, Emilio Uranga, was often referred to during his prime as the “smartest” man in Mexico, before he drank himself to death. Before he did, he wrote a brilliant, now out-of-print essay titled “The Ontology of the Mexican,” which demonstrates that there is in fact no such thing. There are the traits of a people, transformed through the sophisticated interpretation of the classics, from stereotypes to “character,” and which made it possible for a Mexican nation to emerge and survive, though never to thrive nor flourish, despite brief moments of economic glory in the nineteenth century. Which is where we are today.

A National Character?

What do we or anyone mean by national character? It is a strange thing. Everyone knows what it is—or at least believes they do—and yet few can actually define it, generically or in any other fashion. Descriptions are bandied about incessantly: the French are this way and that; the people of China collectively feel, think, or hope for this or that; Americans are . . . whatever; the Arab “Street” reacts one way or another to one event or another. Most of these generalizations almost always envelop more than a grain of truth, and can also be offensive, stereotypical, or downright false, particularly as more and more heretofore “homogeneous” nations become increasingly diverse, or, in some cases, polarized to the extreme, leading to bouts of national introspection. The generalizing psychobabble and sidewalk psychoanalysis often resorted to in this domain either boils down to an insightful anecdote, or reaches such a degree of abstraction as to be meaningless. The relevance of the issue, however, appears greater than ever. French president Nicolas Sarkozy (the son of Hungarian immigrants) called for a national debate in his country in 2009 on “What it means to be French”: a question that, in France at least, would have been unthinkable just a couple of decades ago, and that unleashed a national paroxysm and discussion that confirmed the relevance of the question. We understand national character to mean the package of cultural traits, practices, and enduring traditions, shared most of the time by most Mexicans, that make Mexico different from other societies, whose traits and practices make them, in turn, different from Mexico.

We do not equate this national character of a society or of the dwellers of a given territory with the notion of national or cultural identity: a much more sophisticated, useful, and simultaneously contradictory concept. Partly in contrast to Sarkozy, then British prime minister Gordon Brown called for an analysis of national identity early in his premiership, linking it to the need for immigrants to take a citizenship test, showing they knew what the British national identity was. The two notions are not the same. One—character—is often viewed as a watered-down version of the other—identity—but in fact springs from quite different cultural, anecdotal, and anthropological sources. Identity is used frequently in the struggle of subnational groups against discrimination or in favor of greater equality; character can come to signify just about anything, and often does. Ultimately, national identityis a concept that defines a nation unto itself, in an ontological, historical, fundamental manner: it is what makes a nation . . . a nation.

National character is, partly, how a national society views itself, and how it is viewed by others. Some societies identify their national “uniqueness” with their national “character,” as opposed to their history, their religion, their creed, their language, or their ethnic origins (Americans with the rule of law; British insularity; Mexican festiveness, the self-attributed main trait chosen by 72% of Mexicans in 2008, having a choice of ten options).

National character, then, is a much simpler, more malleable, and superficial notion than national identity, but it is also one that can be more easily described, surveyed, probed, and quantified. Anthropologists may have in part abandoned it, but that does not mean that in less academic work it cannot be useful, although it is clearly not devoid of internal contradictions. But national identity is too. As Sen has most recently noted, it is far from unified; it can be, or become, plural or diverse, particularly under the impact of globalization or significant immigration as several European nations have experienced. Few societies can boil their national identity down to a single feature—religion, language, ethnic origin, history, creed—but almost all encompass diversity. In the case of national character, though, and precisely as a result of its simplicity, one can cherry- pick traits, setting aside others without excluding any of consequence, and without subsuming a national identity to any single trait or small group of them.

The enigmas are countless. Countries of immigrants face problems when invoking a national character: whose is it? In a classically relevant quip ,Octavio Paz wrote (although some have attributed the original sin to Jorge Luis Borges) that “Mexicans descend from Aztecs, Peruvians from Incas . . . and Argentines from boats.” Unless it is a creed, a myth, or a common sense of themselves, citizens of immigrant nations often have to forge a national identity without resorting to a national character. Americans can all (more or less) agree that they belong to a nation of laws, but it is not easy—nor is it often attempted—for them to find and glorify a character binding together the patchwork quilt that is American society today: English, Irish, Italians, Poles, Chinese, Africans, Mexicans, and so on. Brazilians face a similar challenge: is there a common character to a few Portuguese explorers, a large number of African slaves, a huge group of Italian immigrants, and smaller cohorts of German, Jewish, and Japanese ones, and to the feijoada pot they all forged over the years? Or are there simply—and crucially—a number of common tastes, talents, and traditions that, together, built a national identity: soccer, music, a frontier spirit, and an endless optimism and cynicism about their collective and individual future?

Nations of emigrants, like Mexico is today, on the other hand, encounter alternate challenges in defining themselves, and dealing with the differences and similarities between national characters and identities. When is a diaspora still a diaspora? Can emigrants retain the traits of a previous national character, their sports passions, cuisine, music, dress, and customs, while acquiring another national identity, along with another nationality? How long can the home country continue to count its sons and daughters abroad as nationals, when they serve in the armed forces of another state, pay taxes to another government, and vote in other elections? Or can national character and identity be split so smoothly that everyone is content with the persistence of the first and the dissolution of the second? These questions find fewer and fewer answers in the real lives of tens of millions of present-day emigrants all over the world, as they did with others who sought foreign shores over the last several centuries. No resolution of the question of national identity is ever permanent. From our perspective, what matters most is whether the specific forms each solution entails are functional to the “success” of the country: whether it thrives and grows, protects and feeds its people, educates and heals them, respects their human and civil rights, and allows them to choose—more or less freely—how and by whom they wish to be governed. Those solutions—partial, total, lasting, or ephemeral— must meet the test of functionality. Occasionally, the traits of a national character get in the way of constructing and conserving a working, lasting national identity, as in the case of the snappy slogan many Latino demonstrators chanted during the 2006 marches in the United States against immigration restrictions: “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.”


This initial digression into the meanders of pop anthropology has a purpose: to attempt to define what we will be talking about, and to place it in an appropriate historical and universal context. Before moving on to the heart of the matter, a relatively recent tragedy in Mexico can perhaps exemplify the meaning of what we are getting at. In April 2009 an outbreak of so- called swine flu or H1N1 occurred in Mexico, rapidly spreading to the United States and the rest of the world. By the time it was controlled and matters returned to relative normalcy, nearly one hundred people had died in Mexico (mostly in the capital), and somewhere around ten thousand cases had been detected across the globe, chiefly in the United States and Mexico. Subsequently the illness surfaced just about everywhere, though with a lower mortality rate. Mexican authorities were rightly praised for their epidemiological and medical handling of the crisis, by everyone from the World Health Organization to Barack Obama. One year later the WHO acknowledged it had exaggerated, and the Mexican government was moderately criticized for the type of measures it took, including trying to bring patient fever down even when many epidemiologists considered fever to be a form of defense against the illness.

But many in Mexico, and also abroad, wondered why, in two nations that are for practical purposes communicating vessels, that experience more than 1 million individual border crossings and 15,000 truck crossings every day, with 11 or 12 million Mexicans living in the United States and 1 million Americans residing in Mexico, did the illness generate such different consequences and policy responses by both countries? Why did Mexico shut all schools and universities for upwards of a week, lock down economic activities and commerce (including restaurants) in several large cities, cancel movies, concerts, soccer games, and virtually force the entire population to wear ineffective face masks, while Obama suggested people wash their hands, and went out to dinner with his wife and his VP for burgers? Why did nearly one hundred people die in Mexico during the first days, and only six (one of whom was Mexican) in the United States, with three times the population? Why did schools on the U.S. side of the border remain open, while those to the south were closed? Was the virus unable to cross the river, or climb over George W. Bush’s wall?

There was, and still is, only one nonconspiratorial, sensible explanation for this gap. It lies in the Mexican health authorities’ almost intuitive wisdom and accumulated experience, which led them, early on, to conclude that without raising the alarm decibels well above what the epidemic intrinsically merited, Mexicans would not pay attention. Why? Partly because of skepticism with regard to anything derived from government, but also because of a series of cultural, historical, enigmatic traits that many had already detected in local health habits. Self-medication is the most remarkable one—controlling for GDP per capita, Mexico is probably the most self-medicated society in the world. But others are nonexistent prescription drug regulations, indefinitely postponing a visit to the doctor, either because private ones are too expensive, or public ones require endless waits or are unavailable, or, more likely, because Mexicans don’t like doctors and prefer resorting to traditional or homespun remedies dissonant from the country’s educational and income levels. The government had no choice but to exaggerate the danger of H1N1; otherwise no one would have taken the matter seriously. It subsequently argued, perhaps with some hyperbole, that this “overreaction” saved thousands of lives; the authorities were nonetheless correct in assuming that this individualistic, incredulous attitude had to be factored into policy. It was, and it led to the accolades across the globe.

But it also led to an economic disaster. Mexico is a leading tourism destination. It receives nearly 20 million visitors per year (90% from the United States); the tourist industry is one of the economy’s largest sources of hard currency, it is one of its largest employers (2.5 million jobs), and contributes a little less than 10% to GDP. The only “medical” way to manage the crisis was probably the one the government adopted, but economically the costs were staggering. In the months after the outbreak, cruise lines eliminated Mexican ports of call, U.S. airlines cut half of their routes, hotels suffered on occasion single-digit occupation rates, the entire world identified Mexico with “Mexican flu,” hundreds of Mexicans were quarantined abroad, and the economy contracted 10% during the second quarter of 2009, partly as a result of far fewer working days, but also because of tourism shortfalls.5

The authorities knew their people, and responded to an emergency in the light of the national character. That character proved costly and dysfunctional in this episode. The government didn’t know, or didn’t acknowledge, that this response would prove to be undoubtedly more onerous for the country than the epidemic itself. Had they toned down their reaction, and responded gradually, day by day, the pictures of thousands of Mexicans wearing face masks that circled the world would not have been taken, the damage to the country’s reputation would have been smaller, and the economic cost might have been reduced. But most people would not have reacted in an orderly manner, and instead of one hundred dead, there might have been two or three hundred, or more. Given the hand it was dealt, the government did the right thing: the problem was the hand, and that is what this book is about.