‘What We’re Missing Is a New Deal-Style Policy’

Carlos Fuentes
Carlos Fuentes promotes his new book, La silla del águila, in Mexico City (Photo: Alfredo Estrella/AFP-Getty Images).

The latest novel by Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes titled La silla del águila (The Seat of the Eagle) was just published by Alfaguara. It takes place in the year 2020 in Mexico, which is without satellite communications, since they have been suspended by the United States. Washington’s action was provoked when Mexico protested a U.S. invasion of Colombia. Without telephone, fax, or e-mail, politicians in Mexico can communicate only by letter. Fuentes presented his book last week in Madrid, where he spoke to Juan Carlos Iragorri, Cambio’s correspondent in Spain.

Why did you write La silla del águila?
I had thought about it for several years, since I had long been fascinated by the particular political style in Mexico. There were tragicomic consequences from the form of [presidential] succession in the PRI [ Institutional Revolutionary Party] characterized by the “dedazo” [the choosing of the next president by the outgoing president] and the definitive candidate, referred to as “tapado” [not yet revealed]. Tragic because the country’s presidents were imposed a year before they took office. And comic, because the “tapado” [portrayed wearing a hood] became the subject of cartoons like those drawn by Abel Quezada.

The problem was that with Vicente Fox’s election, all that changed and I was left without a topic. But one day President Bill Clinton asked me: “Why are there no vice presidents in Mexico?” And I answered him: “Because in the 19th century, they overthrew the presidents.” And he said: “What happens if the president dies?” I told him that I didn’t know, but that I was going to write a novel about it—about what would happen if a president died while in the “silla del águila.” [The presidential chair (silla) has an eagle (águila), Mexico’s national symbol.]

Why did you write the novel in the form of letters?
Because it’s political in nature, and in this way, I can remain totally distanced. The author is not present. The characters are those who speak and express themselves in their own manner, and this gives them clarity and autonomy.

The novel is entertaining, but the last chapter provokes anxiety.
Yes. This novel exposes the underground, the cellars of politics—not only in Mexico, but everywhere in the world. When I came to the end, I asked myself how to get out of that labyrinth. And I did it through an episode in which María del Rosario, the main character, steps out on the terrace of the Chapultepec castle to contemplate nature, the mountains, the volcanoes. And so, there is a remembering of the humanity that’s been forgotten, that exists far from the intrigues at the palace.

On the first page, the main character says that “everything is political, even sex.” Is sex part of political action?
What I wanted to say is that politics is the external expression of inner passions. The book refers a great deal to Latin American politics.

How do you see Latin America?
I’m enormously worried, because while the region’s countries have established democratic systems, they have not managed to truly reduce poverty and inequalities. I’m not speaking here of the critically ill cases such as Venezuela and Colombia, but rather, for example, of Mexico and Argentina. Chile and Brazil are those in the best shape. In short, perhaps democracy doesn’t produce results so quickly. But people want those results now.

What should be done then?
There’s a secretary of treasury in the novel who says that Latin America is only important when it creates problems. And thus, some believe that what must be done is to create economic crises and “tequila and samba effects” [the contagious impact of economic crisis in one country]. I believe that Latin America’s health is based on its human capital and on creating security and jobs....What we’re missing is a Roosevelt New Deal-style policy.

Is a U.S. invasion of Colombia possible?
Since the war in Iraq, a U.S. invasion of any country is possible. The U.S. military budget is greater than the total budgets of the 20 nations that follow, and within 10 years its army will be more powerful than all the rest of the world’s armies combined....The only way to neutralize this phenomenon is to create another pole of power that should be headed by Europe and backed by Latin America, which—as Felipe González has said—has been a great generator of international law.

Let’s turn to Mexico. What kind of president is Vicente Fox?
Fox...lacks the necessary administrative and political experience. What I’m happy to see, and what I applaud enthusiastically, is that he is tough and firm in matters of international affairs. He doesn’t allow himself to be manipulated by the Americans. Fox didn’t vote with Washington in the Security Council when the attack on Iraq was decided, and he said no to the U.S. Congress when it proposed legalizing thousands of Mexican workers in the United States in exchange for allowing U.S. capital to be introduced into the Mexican state-owned oil company.

How can relations between Mexico and the United States—which are very tense right now—be improved?
With time. And also with a democratic government in the United States. If Clinton or Gore had been president on Sept. 11, I’m sure they would have focused their efforts on fighting terrorism, not on taking control of Iraq’s oil. Look: Mexico has a giant for a neighbor and has had a number of major clashes with it. But when it holds true to its principles, it comes out on the winning side. We have confronted the United States in episodes involving Guatemala, Cuba, El Salvador, Panama, Granada, and Haiti, and absolutely nothing has ever happened to us. Because if the United States decides to take reprisals against Mexico, it will be shooting itself in the foot.