Thursday, September 28, 2006

Eagle's Throne

Below is a passage taken from an epistolary novel, The Eagle's Throne, by the Mexican writer, Carlos Fuentes. It is a letter written by Nicolás Valdivia who, now in government, goes to the Old Man for advice. The president has just died, and there's a vacuum and struggle for who will eventually replace him. The Old Man (who always has a parrot with him) is a former president, and has his finger on the pulse. He's telling Valdivia about an elected president, Moctezuma Moro, who was murdered before he could take up office.

The passage is a reminder of how difficult it is for democracy to take hold in the developing world. Mexico was essentially a one-party state until Vicente Fox and his National Action Party (NAP) broke the jinx in 2000. There has been a struggle between the NAP candidate, Felipe Calderón (who won officially), and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left winger who has challenged the results - even declaring himself head of a parallel government.

Some things for context. In Mexico, presidents are allowed only one six-year term. The seat of the presidency is called the Eagle's Throne. Cárdenas refers to Lázaro Cárdenas, president of Mexico between 1934 and 1940.

'An honest man,' the Old Man said. 'I can vouch for that. He thought of himself as the Hercules who was going to clean the stables of Mexican politics. And I warned him, "It's dangerous to be really honest in this country. Honesty may be admirable but it ends up as a vice. You have to be flexible in the face of corruption. I know you're honest, Tomás, but close your eyes - like divine justice - in the face of the corruption of the rest of them. Remember, firstly, that corruption lubricates the system. Most politicians, government employees, contractors, etc, won't have another opportunity to get rich once the six-year presidential term is over. They'll go back to oblivion. But they want to be forgotten, so that nobody accuses them of anything, and rich, so that nobody bothers them. Then another gang of villains will turn up, but denying them the chance to pocket anything would be a mistake.

'"What you need," I told Tomás, "is to surround yourself with scoundrels, because you can control the corrupt. It's the pure man who's the problem, the one who gets in your way. In Mexico there should be only one honest man, the President, surrounded by a lot of tolerated and tolerable scoundrels who in six years' time will disappear from the political map.

'"The bad thing about you," I said to Tomás Moctezuma Moro, "is that you want the map and the land to match. Look, live at peace in the centre of the map and let the labourers of corruption cultivate the land.'"

The Old Man sighed and I could almost feel a tremor in the hand that was pressing down on mine with incredible strength.

'He didn't listen to me, Valdivia. He proclaimed his redemptive intentions right, left and centre. That way, he believed, he'd gain the greatest popular support. And he was acting out of conviction, without a doubt. He was going to put an end to corruption. He said it was the lowest form of stealing from the poor. That's what he said. The thieves were going to jail. The poor would have protection against abuse.

'"Slow down Tomás," I told him. "They're going to crucify you if you go round playing the redeemer. Don't announce what you intend to do. Do those things when you're sitting on the Throne, just like Cárdenas did. Don't destroy the system. You're part of it. Good or bad, it's the only one we've got. What are you going to replace it with? You can't just invent something overnight. Be satisfied with making an example of a few scapegoats at the beginning of your term. Make a moral statement early on and then you can rest." But he didn't listen to me. He was a Messiah. He believed in what he was saying.'

I was stunned. He crossed himself.

'Who killed him Valdivia? The cast list is enormous as the cast list of the film The Ten Commandments. Do you remember? Drug-traffickers. Local bosses. Governors. Local presidents. Corrupt judges. Bent policemen. Bankers fearful that Moro would take away the public subsidies that financed their private incompetence. Union leaders afraid that Moro would force them to be voted on and approved by their union members. Truck drivers overpricing their merchandise. Millers exploiting the corn-producing local farmers. Loggers turning forests into deserts. New land owners controlling land, seeds and tractors, while impoverished farmers continued to use the ox and the wooden plough.'

Did the Old Man sigh, or was it the parrot?

'The list is endless, I tell you...'
It's hard, this democracy thing, isn't it?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

it bloody well is hard. what i find fearful is that most of us "assume" its the "right" mode of government for all of us. Some nations just havent evolved that way unfortunately. its not something that can usurp century set means and cultures.