Cancun today: An interview with Jules Siegel

articles Destinations Travel & Destinations

With Jules Siegel & Tom Mangan

Original Interview with Seven
Reproduced with permission by Jules Siegel & 7Q

The one time I was in Cancun, it struck me as a “Yankee-fied” tourist trap. What are some of its charms that are apt to be missed by the inattentive tourist?

So is Las Vegas (a tourist trap, that is) except we have the Caribbean and lots of tropical foliage, among other sensual luxuries.

We’re going to add ferns and Bentwood to satisfy the American media as soon as possible. Right now we are dealing with 15,000 springbreakers. Talk about cute!

And fun. The only way I will be permitted to report on this in the serious media to which I aspire, I’m sure, is by giving it a grimly apocalyptic slant, like Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

Image: Almost naked and naked teenagers splashing and playing and dancing wildly and hugging and kissing like tipsy dolphins. Voice: In Tijuana, it’s dead dope dealers. In Cancun it’s drunken spring breakers. Mexico is up to its old tricks.

Cancun may very well be plastic, but I assure you that this is the real Mexico, the Mexico of today and the future, clicking and popping and exploding with positive energy, not the dusty old Dos Amigos version with silly sombreros and adobe houses.

Share an example of local folklore that seems fascinating to you but might seem inscrutable to someone who hasn’t lived there long enough to appreciate it.

We don’t have folklore in Cancun. It’s too old-fashioned. Well, maybe a little.

Many people here believe that Cancun means “Nido de Viboras,” Nest of Vipers, which is the way it can be translated literally. If you know the Cancun business mentality, this fits very well.

The private sector, in general, in Mexico is guided by the principle that the customer is always wrong. One might think that this goes back to the Roman rule of caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, as opposed to the English common law tradition that the seller is responsible for the quality of his goods.

I think it’s more a function of ignorance. There was no private sector in any real sense before the Revolution. The revolutionary government had to create it by financing whole industries, beginning with the banking system. So Mexican businessmen have no real tradition except what they see on American TV. Thus they tend to act like poisonous snakes, even when it’s not necessary.

As it turns out, however, it is very unlikely that Cancun means Nest of Vipers. It probably means Seat of Great Kan (in the sense of Kukulcán, the plumed serpent). Most Mayan place names and even the term Maya itself are mostly mere speculation.

Some say that the people here called themselves Itzá, among other names, but when the Spaniards began to speak to them in Spanish they answered, “Ma-u-than,” which may be translated “Don’t understand your language.” This was evidently misinterpreted as “Mayat’an,” or language of the Maya. I say “evidently” because there are some hints that even this explanation could be wrong, but the subject is too complex to deal with in a couple of paragraphs.

So this is just another example of why all folklore, not just the urban variety, is usually just folklore when you check it out.

One of Mexico’s presidential candidates spoke to the U.S. Congress the other day; they also interviewed him on The News Hour and it has me wondering: what do you think of the reformers’ chances of breaking up the ruling party’s 70-year monopoly on power?

You’re talking about the PAN’s Vincente Fox, the right-wing candidate, who wants to turn the clock back on women’s rights.

He’s not a reformer but a reactionary. He has a chance, I suppose, but there’s really no way of knowing. You can’t trust the polls. You can’t trust the news. You can’t trust your friends. It’s considered gross to say anything you know the other person doesn’t want to hear.

The polls are mostly propaganda lacking any statistical value. News reports are even worse. You can buy editorial space in Mexican newspapers. It will say exactly what you want it to say and it will not have a little label saying “Advertising.” Go back and read that again.

Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in Proceso that a PRI victory would be a disaster for democracy. He assumes they would win by fraud, I guess.

But what if they win fairly? What makes him think that an opposition victory would be good for Mexico, anyway? The PAN mainly consists of the kind of Catholic businessmen who used to argue that Indians were racially inferior in the days before the Revolution.

The left can’t seem to come up with any plan except being against the PRI, which has transformed Mexico into a major industrial power, replacing Japan as America’s second largest trading partner, after Canada.

All major candidates agree that the resulting unfair income distribution has to be fixed, but any fair examination of Mexican political history supports the view that the PRI wins elections by some fraud (nothing especially Mexican about that) and a lot of very effective social activism.

How would you explain Mexican society’s acceptance of such gross disparities in wealth and poverty?

How would you explain American society’s acceptance of its gross disparities in wealth and poverty? The United States has the second worst income distribution among the developed nations, exceeded only by France.

For a long time, Mexicans put up with the disparities because there was nothing much they could do about them. They didn’t have the tools in the form of education and organization, nor did they really care.

Most people had nothing in the material sense, but they did have social peace after a very bloody revolution, and they were reluctant to risk that, especially when the new government began making such rapid progress in modernizing the country.

When the Mexican revolution ended in 1917, only five percent of Mexicans could read and write. Today it’s 95 percent. In 1893, 800 of every thousand live-born children died before reaching the age of one. Today the infant mortality rate is about 26, and it is falling. In 1910, average national life expectancy was 30. Today, I believe it’s about 70.

As the Mexican government succeeded in improving the economy, living conditions and education, it began to feel the unanticipated effects of its own success. People with a little property tend to become more conservative. They want clear-cut and stable legal rights, not the personal discretion of some cacique.

For reasons that I think were mostly beyond the control of the Mexican government, real wages have fallen drastically since 1982. Yet more people than ever are earning and spending money. People are better fed and better clothed and, most important, better educated.

They are demanding new standards of conduct from their government. And their government is adjusting to those demands. That’s why there’s so much conflict. It’s a time of frighteningly rapid transition. Of course there will be all kinds of rough weather. How could it be any other way?

You mentioned the newspapers’ content being for sale. How big a role does the lack of a credible press play in the country’s developmental struggles?

None. Mexico is a face-to-face country. People prefer to communicate with each other directly, not through impersonal media, which they see as entertaining and useful but do not worship.

Newspapers are a very minor factor in general. All 23 Mexico City dailies have a total circulation under 800,000. The biggest paper was under 300,000, last I heard.

I don’t see the print media ever becoming an important force among the masses. Print is too abstract for the Mexican personality, too removed and pallid. The electronic media have that dynamic, on-the-spot realism that fits a lot better.

Television is very big, of course, and people do trust TV news because they can see the action, but they don’t rely on TV content for opinion. They are very aware that all news is controlled and manipulated.

A few years ago, Televisa’s producer/anchor Ricardo Rocha showed a video of a massacre in Guerrero that President Zedillo was said to have asked him to suppress because it contradicted the government’s explanations of the incident. He was fired. He’s now in radio.

Some of this seems to be changing. Here in Cancun, fierce competition for one of the richest markets in Mexico has forced local dailies (four, in a city of 450,000, all thriving) into a kind of civic-minded investigative reporting — police abuses (plenty, believe me), pot holes in the streets, problems with the water company, garbage collection, transportation and so on.

Local government officials read the newspapers carefully. Any incident that makes the news will be investigated and corrected, if possible.

One radio station owned by a very wealthy businessman did some really great stuff. I remember one case where a hospital refused to return the corpse of a former patient until the bill was paid, then clammed up when the relatives tried to go to the press. The owner of the station went to the hospital with a hearse and a sound crew and pounded on the hospital door. You could hear him knocking loudly, broadcasting live. “Open up! This is Gaston Alegre of Radio Turquesa. I demand an explanation of this incident. Deliver the body immediately. The hearse is waiting.” I was in a taxi, so I didn’t hear the outcome, but I’m sure they caved in.

Alegre, who owns a ritzy hotel, is now a leading force in the left opposition Partido Revolucionario Democratico. He ran for governor and terrified the PRI by getting some 34 percent of the vote. Some of the lower ranking PRD candidates won.

What do you make of the allegations that large segments of the government are being paid off by drug lords?

It depends on how you define “large.”

Mexico is a very big country with a highly evolved bureaucracy with roots that go all the way back to the pre-Hispanic period. The segments that have any contact with drug dealing are very much in the minority, because the largest part of the government is devoted to tax collection and social services.

These officials are people I like and respect, even the tax folks. With one or two exceptions, all my dealings with Mexican public officials have been quite civilized and, in many cases, heartwarming. No one has ever asked me for a bribe.

Every official I’ve dealt with in the course of my research or my problems has gone beyond mere courtesy to make sure that I received the help I needed. When I complained to the head post office in Mexico City that books sent to me did not arrive, the head of the state postal service came to my door to talk with me about it.

When my little boy was sick in Oaxaca in 1982 and we did not have enough money to go to a doctor, we took him to the public health center where the poorest people go, and we were treated with such overwhelming kindness and consideration that tears come to my eyes as I write this.

Because we spoke only rudimentary Spanish, the doctor who attended us called her husband, a physician at a large state institution, so that he could explain her diagnosis and instructions in English.

That said, I think that a few key people are being paid off by drug lords. Maybe it’s hundreds, probably thousands. I doubt if it gets above ten thousand in all.

From what I read in my local papers (and what my friends tell me), the concept of drug lords paying off public officials is a rather simplistic way of looking at it, as it implies that the drug lords are in charge of the process, which is not necessarily the case.

I’m sure that a lot of petty stuff goes on at the local level, as it does anywhere in the world, but that’s not what I take your question to be concerned with. These aren’t drug lords, but little guys hustling little loads. I’m sure they have to pay off to stay in business.

Even so, dope dealers are busted here regularly, usually for getting too close to schools or creating a public scandal. The dope scene here in Cancun is very tight and discreet for the most part. That’s the way the powers that be want it.

There’s a couple of billion dollars a year in real estate and tourism revenues at stake. I can’t quantify it any better than this because it’s an area that I’ve very diligently tried to avoid covering, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who knows my history as a writer covering crime and the youth culture in the United States.

I really don’t want anyone here putting me under some kind of hostile surveillance. It’s bad enough that my mail used to be opened and checked on the other side of the border.

This is a dangerously politicized topic. Suffice it to say that I think that almost everything you read on the subject is 99 percent bullshit propaganda and the rest is mere speculation.

Is there any authentic political will in Mexico to stop the flow of migrants across the border into the US? Strikes me there’s a vested interest in the status quo because of all the dollars the migrants send home.

And? Why would Mexico want to restrict emigration? This isn’t East Germany under Ulbricht, you know. Mexico is concerned about the number of scientists and engineers who emigrate after receiving a free education, but the answer (very effective) has been to provide incentives for them to stay, not to restrict them from leaving.

This is not the kind of country that automatically turns to heavy-handed and brutally intrusive police methods to solve minor social problems — except when the United States forces it to do so, as in the hapless war on drugs.

It goes both ways, doesn’t it? It’s not like the migrant workers don’t contribute to the American economy. The whole thing is one of our biggest political frauds. The United States needs Mexican workers. Study after study has shown that they produce a profit for the American economy.

The roots of the anti-migrant campaign are:

[1] Racist

White supremacists don’t like the way Mexicans tend to assimilate and become voters, usually Democrats (although I don’t have the figures on that at hand), not to speak of mongrelizing the sacred purity of the Aryan blood. Mexico is an essentially non-racist country. Social discrimination does exist, of course, but not in the vicious way so common in the United States.

[2] Unemployment

When American unemployment was high, it was more convenient to blame this on Mexican wetbacks than on the devastating Republican economic policies that put millions of families on the streets, many of them still living in cardboard boxes to this day. I might add that there are no street people in Cancun. Everyone here works. Families take care of their aged, and when they can’t, the Departamento de Integración Familiar takes over.

As I understand it, even the American labor unions have now recognized that Mexican migrant workers are not merely necessary but beneficial. They’ve joined corporate employers in lobbying for more relaxed policies.

Mexico and the United States have a common history and a common destiny. The border is an ugly artificial scar left from the worst days of American imperialism. Maybe the scar can never be healed, but it can soften and become porous.

It’s not greasers coming to take your jobs away. It’s hard-working Mexicans coming to help you thrive. Americans hate old people. They just throw them away in garbage dumps called nursing homes. Who’s going to take care of all of you when you get old? Your children? Uh-oh. Mexicans love old people and children. Wise up. You need Mexico and Mexico needs you. Is there something wrong with that?

Published or Updated on: June 1, 2000 by Jules Siegel © 2000

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