MEXICO An Exchange

September 25, 2007

Last August and September, histo- rian John Womack of Harvard Uni- versity wrote a series of letters to the editors of The New York Times, pro- testing the coverage of Mexico pro- vided by correspondents Larry Rohter and Alan Riding. Not intended for publication, the letters were circulated among editors and passed on to the correspondents themselves. Report on the Americas is pleased to share with its readers what the Times could not. Following Womack's letter to Times executive editor Max Frankel are Rohter's and Riding's replies. Dear Mr. Frankel: For at least a year The Times on Mexico has been no more than a tour- ist guide to the important political de- velopments underway there. Your edi- torialists and reporters have conveyed the impression that something very serious is going on in Mexican poli- tics, but given no clear account of what it is-much less an explanation. First, your readers were continually in- formed that opposition to the govern- ment and the PRI [Institutional Revo- lutionary Party] was mounting in the form of increasing support for the PAN [National Action Party], a relatively old and in Mexican terms quite con- servative party. Then suddenly they were informed that the main opposi- tion was actually a new left-wing coa- lition, but with folkloric tendencies. Then this opposition became a formi- dable contender for power. And now all your readers get is shallow descrip- tion of intense conflict in the Mexican Congress over the presidential succession-again without explana- tion. One problem is your reporters' ig- norance of modem Mexican political history (or indifference to it). It is of much more than antiquarian or nit- picking interest to get major questions of modern Mexican history right, or at least out in the open for discussion. Larry Rohter and on occasion Alan Riding seem to have taken for granted that the PRI began in 1929, under an- other name but already programmed to grow without essential change. Thus Rohter continually identifies the PRI as founded in 1929 and victorious in Cuauhtemoc Cardenas: the rise of the Left? REPORT ON THE AMERICASvirtually all elections until this last round. If I object that the party organ- ized in 1929 was not the PRI but the PNR (Partido Nacional Revolucion- ario), that this PNR fell to pieces in 1935-36, that some of the pieces went into lengthy exile, that other pieces were subsumed with much more pow- erful elements of different origins into a new party-the PRM (Partido de la Revoluci6n Mexicana) in 1938-and that this PRM was itself reformed into the PRI in 1946, then I may well seem to you to be merely picking nits. But this is not "ancient history," in- significant and boring. To write as both Rohter and Riding have is to confuse three substantially different parties. So what? Well, you won't understand ei- ther the PRI or the emergence of the Left now as an obviously powerful force. What kind of picture would you have of either the Democrats or the Republicans if you thought that what you had in 1929 was basically what you have now, just bigger and older? The PRM was really as close as Mexico came to a popular front, and its reform in 1946 was not merely acro- nymic but deeply symptomatic and significant: The purge of the Left from all positions of national leadership, the isolation or destruction of Leftist ele- ments that continued to struggle for popular front causes, and the indefi- nite subordination of the Left that re- mained in the new party. If anything like this is the case, then the makings of the PRI's present crisis date from 1946-48; the rise of the Left is not really a rise, but a resurgence. Implicit in this reading of history and current events is a sense of Mexi- can politics quite different from that conveyed by Mr. Rohter. A politics where Republicans and Democrats are all in the same party. A politics of bitter internal conflict, private feuds, public compromises; with bloody gun- fights in the provinces, nothing much under firm control, a chief executive much less in command than any "Western" president or prime minis- ter, and issues that were alive in 1938 or 1946 [that are] still alive. Both Rohter and Riding have re- sorted again and again to the poor man or woman in the street for their im- pressions of what is underway. This is a nice touch, and certainly the opin- President Carlos Salinas de Gortari I ions of ordinary people are often more wise and to the point than those of professional pundits. But if foreign readers need these opinions, they also need more-some effort by the re- porter to tell what is really going on, not just impressions and opinions, but real and important movements of power. Besides, both Rohter and Riding often fail to explain anything about Mexican intellectuals whom they quote apparently as objective observ- ers but who are actually declared par- tisans of one or another current in or outside the PRI. There is also the fail- ure to determine who the insiders are in any of the factions of the PRI, or the PAN, or the Left, much less to get any of the truth into the clear. Insiders in politics never tell the whole truth, of- ten they tell pure lies, but it is the duty of a good journalist to get the truth out of them anyway. To assume that what Salinas did as President de la Madrid's interestedly loyal minister for the last six years is any guide to what he will do in the next six is another example of incom- petence or laziness. That is not how politics works anywhere, certainly not in Mexico, as Alan Riding learned years ago and Larry Rohter should have learned by now. Like any professor, I could go on, but you have better things to do than suffer more of my lecturing. I hope nevertheless that you have suffered so far, because what is going on now in Mexico and what will go on between the United States and Mexico are ex- traordinary questions, possibly danger- VOLUME XXII, NO. 6 (M ) 05 a N Uw .r? ous if misunderstood. U.S.-Mexican relations are going to be considerably different, much more unpredictable, possibly subject to severe strain. The United States-at least its most edu- cated, wealthy, and influential citizens, readers of The Times-can no longer afford the ignorance and misconcep- tions of the past. John Womack Cambridge, MA Dear Dr. Womack: I do not intend to respond to your personal insults, but amidst all the spleen you vented are some serious issues that do merit an answer. You argue that the PRI of today is not the same as the party that was founded in 1929, a statement that seems to me to be almost a tautology. Despite some drastic shifts of position over the years, the PRI is still the party of the Mexi- can Revolution, whatever that means in 1988. To use a phrase I once heard from one of the men in the street you do not like to see quoted in The New York Times: a chameleon may change colors, but it remains a chameleon; it does not suddenly become an iguana or a skunk. It also appears to me that you have seriously underestimated the intelli- gence of readers of The New York Times. I don't for a second think that anyone who reads my stories on Mex- ico assumes that the PRI has remained free of internal conflict for 60 years; I know that interested readers are far more sophisticated than that, though you may not. I have every intention, therefore, of continuing to describe the PRI as I have in the past, since the formulation I use is both a concise and accurate summation of the party's role in modern Mexican history. Furthermore, I find your own inter- pretation of the evolution of the PRI to be simplistic. To argue that the Left has been out in the political wilderness since the days of Alemin [president 1946-52] is an attractive proposition. But it inconveniently leaves some major questions unexplained, such as the Echeverria [1970-76] a years in particular and Mexican foreign policy in general. And do you really believe that the PRI of the last 40 years can be characterized simply as a capitalist party? I think the picture is a lot more Scomplicated, as do most Mexicans. You say that I naively assume that Salinas' performance over the last six years is a guide to what he might do as president. On the contrary, I have of- ten included in my reporting the warn- ing that Mexican presidents have a habit of breaking with the policies of their predecessors. For example, on July 13, 1987, discussing the presiden- tial selection process, I quoted Manuel Moreno Sinchez as saying the succes- sor to de la Madrid would be "he who best disguises himself' and "hides his true intentions." Then, when Salinas was chosen as the PRI candidate in October 1987, my front page story on the announce- ment included this paragraph: "Mexi- can politicians and journalists cau- tioned today that it was impossible to predict which policies Mr. Salinas would follow as a resident of Los Pi- nos, the Mexican equivalent of the White House. In the past, candidates have pledged fealty to the man who selected them, only to head off in en- tirely different directions once they took office." Your objection to my quoting "the man in the street" makes no sense at all, especially coming after an election that was a watershed in Mexican his- tory precisely because the average Mexican confounded the expectations of the political establishment. But your complaint that I don't talk to the "real insiders" about what is going on in Mexico is even more curious. As a matter of fact, I talk regularly with the people who are directly involved in the political process. That does not mean, however, that they will agree to be quoted in my articles. What it does mean is that I will take those views into account when I write and that if someone else expresses similar views on the record, I will not hesitate to use that quote instead. As for the question of the people whom I do quote, the academics and political analysts to whom you object so much, you've hit on another tautol- ogy. I have yet to meet a Mexican who does not have a point of view regard- ing the crisis the country is experienc- ing. Were I to disqualify sources sim- ply because they have points of view, it would hardly be worth my while to do any reporting at all. I think that the majority of the po- litically involved Mexicans I talk to are capable of distinguishing between what they would like to see happen and what is really happening; when they do not I am quite capable of dis- counting any wishful thinking myself. I also trust that my readers are well aware that no one in the current politi- cally charged atmosphere can be truly neutral or impartial. You are yourself hardly an unbi- ased observer of what is taking place. Your own relationship with Salinas is well known here. Your Manichean, reductionist view of the world and of Mexico is similarly no secret, and it happens to be one that I do not find persuasive. You are, of course, entitled to your views. But I resent your efforts to impose them on me and the audi- ence for which I write. Larry Rohter Mexico City Dear Jack: For a historian, I understand that journalism is a frustration. A country is studiously ignored for long periods and then, when it becomes "news," generations of events are telescoped into a few paragraphs with all the risks involved. Believe me, it is also frus- trating for journalists, but that's the business. I would add (with a con- fessed amount of self-interest) that, for those with a continuing interest in Mexico, The Times has provided fuller coverage over many years than any other newspaper. My experience since 1971 was that, while the PRI was never monolithic, it remained remarkably disciplined until money seriously began to run out in the mid-1980s. There were, as you know, serious succession crises in 1970, 1976 and 1982, but the 1988 crisis is clearly different. I agree that the policies adopted by Mexican presidents are shaped by their personalities and by circumstances and not by loyalty to their predecessors. Therefore, I also agree that, while Sali- nas might have been picked by de la Madrid with the idea of perpetuating the same economic policies, Salinas will do his own thing. I happen to have known both men for many years and know Salinas to be more intelligent (perhaps astute is a better word) and politically imaginative than de la Madrid. I do not underestimate him. But I would dispute your interpre- tation of the Cirdenas phenomenon as "the rise of the Left." It is true that Cirdenas was nominated by four vaguely Marxist, socialist or populist parties, but three had been PRI satel- lites and the fourth, the Mexican So- cialist Party, did so only after it be- came apparent that its own candidate, Heberto Castillo, was going to win only three or four percent of the vote. I think it is an over-simplification to suggest the huge support for Cdrdenas meant significantly increased support for the Left. Rather, voters were moved by nostalgia, nationalism, a unique form of Mexican fundamentalism, ac- cumulated distaste for the PRI and in- tense anger over the collapse of eco- nomic hopes. But they did not choose a radical option. Mexicans voted against the PRI and not for the Left. Salinas may in fact finish up doing many of the things that the "Left" is calling for, but would that make him a leftist? That said, we agree that Mexico is entering a period of great uncertainty and, more than ever, it is essential that the politically literate north of the bor- der understand what is going on-if only to resist the temptation of med- dling. Warmest wishes.

Tags: Mexico, New York Times, bias, Elections, media

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