Mexican Poet Carlos Fuentes: At Home Abroad

He's a world-reknowned writer, has been a diplomat, and is now a Fellow at Dartmouth College. For many people, Carlos Fuentes serves as a spokeman for Mexico--the country he writes his experimental and political works about. His novels such as Terra Nostra, The Death of Artemio Cruz. Where the Air is Clear, Hydrahead, and the recently translated collection of short stories. Burnt Water, have all treated the themes of Mexico's 1910 revolution, class society and ancient past, employing the symbolism and mythology of Mexico's revolution and indigenous people. Fuentes has been venerated for his prolific and original books and criticized for writing about Mexico's social problems while living an opulent and glamorous life.

The man is certainly urbane and charming. He speaks fluidly, puts one at case immediately, and quotes Balzac and Weber in the same breath. His silver mustache is immaculately clipped, his movements supple. And he knew how to run the tape recorder better than we did.

"That you, the children of the technological age, should know less than this son of Mexico," he joked, unjamming the machine.

The situation harbored symbolic irony. Considering Fuentes' concern with Mexico's struggle to overcome its domestic problems. He sees himself as a novelist influenced by Weber and Marx who believes that "there is a double commitment of a writer--to his readers and to his times."

Fuentes is very preoccupied with his times now. One issue which particularly upsets him is the recent escalation of U.S. military aid to El Salvador and President Reagan's campaign to rally European and Latin American support to the El Salvadorean government's fight against leftist insurgents.

"This is something that the people of El Salvador should decide for themselves. I think the guiding principle should be the self-determination of the El Salvadorean people and the non-intervention of the great powers. It doesn't mean that you can not negotiate or try to appear as a friendly broker. But this is a local revolution that was born in El Salvador and will be solved in El Salvador." He pauses, his hands momentarily calmed from their expansive gesticulations.

"We in Mexico see things very differently. Reagan believes there will be more stability in Central America if you give more arms to right-wing regimes. This is what you believed in Viet Nam. Mexico is also interested in stability since Central America is on our border and is a sphere of influence in Mexico. But Mexico believes that stability can only be reached if colonial structures are broken--either by reformist or revolutionary means.

"They have been broken by revolutionary means in Nicaragua, and we applaud this. If they can be broken by revolutionary means in El Salvador--O.K. If this also happens in Guatemala--very good. This would insure stability finally. But there will not be immediate stability, however, when you have American arms, American companies being sent to El Salvador, or when you maintain the status quo by not allowing the revolutionary process in these countries to really happen as the people really want them to."

Does that mean the Fuentes prefers revolution to dialogue between El Salvador's junta and extremist Left and Right? He is reluctant to offer a solution. "It is very difficult to come from outside and say: "This is what you should do.' I don't live there, I'm not exposing my hide. I'm not an El Salvadorean intellectual who might get shot. It is not for Mexicans or Americans to decide what is right for El Salvador."

Fuentes is skeptical about U.S. claims that Cuba and the Soviet Union are aiding the leftist guerrilla coalition, the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR), asserting that the presence of these two countries in El Salvador is minimal and has little ideological impact on the FDR itself. "To say the root of the problem is Soviet and Cuban arms is poppy cock," he says emphatically. "The FDR would be fighting anyway."

Affirming recent statements by the Mexican government, Fuentes states that "Mexico will not be pressured into aggressive actions such as those being planned by the present administration in Washington." On the contrary, he says, Mexico is asserting pressure on the United States, and he claims that "good relations with Mexico are impossible if the U.S. is going to initiate a course of aggression in Central America."

But how much of Mexico's stand is solely talk? What sort of concrete measures would Mexico take against the United States? Would it withhold oil exports? Fuentes just shrugs. He's been out of the government too long to make predictions.

On the topic of revolutions, I ask Fuentes, does he really think that fighting can solve socio-economic problems in Latin American nations? Many people have read into his works a recurring theme of the betrayal of the Mexican Revolution's ideal by a new corrupt bourgeoisie and landowners.

Fuentes sits up even straighter and looks very stern. "I have not said that the revolution has been betrayed. This has become a cliche in the interpretation of my work. I blieve the social and economic processes inserted into history are not wound and pure and change. What does not change, however, is our ideology.

"History changes revolutions--it changed the American, the Russian, the Chinese, the Cuban, and the Mexican Revolutions. And it is very difficult for us to accept the accidents of history--the demands of pragmatism. What the Mexican Revolution did was break the basic, unchangeable social structure imposed by the Spanish Conquest. It may have created a new bourgeois society, but the semi-feudal system during the times of Porfirio Diaz were changed."

Does Fuentes see Mexico's massive oil supply--which now totals a yearly income of $15 billion from exploration--as a possible tool to further the ideals of the Mexican Revolution, to create a more egalitarian and developed society? The writer sighs. It's clearly a question that's been asked before. The only way, he asserts, would be to limit exploration and exploitation.

"So far the government has kept a low ceiling on both. It has to--if a false step were taken in exporting too much oil or if there were the sense that decisions were being made outside Mexico, there would be strikes, student demonstrations, and many other disagreeable things."

He continues, "Mexico can digest just so many petrodollars. And in an inflationary world, what can you do with them? Buy hotel chains in the U.S., spas in Florida?

You could reinvest them back into the Mexican economy, I suggest. Right, he affirms.

"But you have to export oil in the quantity that you can absorb in order to produce changes within the country--to create new jobs and solve the gigantic problems of overpopulation, agricultural disaster, worker's immigration to the U.S. and unemployment."

Fuents believes that his country's vast oil supplies increase its bargaining powers, and can eventually reduce dependency on the United States, with which Mexico now conducts about two-thirds of its trade. Although Mexico exports 60 percent of its oil to the United States. Fuentes states, the figure has fallen from 80 percent. In addition, Mexico is increasingly diversifying its oil exports to other countries, expecially Israel, France, and Spain.

Another way to break dependency on the United States, Fuentes believes, is to further develop relations with other Third World nations by diversifying trade and developing greater political ties. Such efforts began with the last president, Luis Echeverria, and have been intensified under current President Lopez Portillo. Most recent attempts have been statements defending Cuba and agreements with Venezuela to provide 30-percent oil credit to Central American and Caribbean oil-importing nations.

The tape was quickly running out--there was time for one more question. Because Fuentes felt such a passionate concern for about the welfare of his country and Central America, I asked, didn't he feel a responsibility to be there?

The answer was simple. "I feel I'm there just by writing and by impression. I can see Mexico better from afar, from Baker Library in Dartmouth College, while if I were in Mexico having to wrestle with all the terrible problems of everyday life, it'd be too difficult to write. And I must write."

The tape ran out, Fuentes quickly sat forward and turned off the tape machine. "Mexico's coming up in the world," he smiled.