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CLARIN

How Mexican Novelist Carlos Fuentes Predicted Trump — And A Different Kind Of Wall

Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist who died in 2012, wrote more than a decade ago of a U.S. president who, through punitive measures, would almost shut Mexico down and accidentally revive the art of letter-writing.

Carlos Fuentes in Mexico City in December 2011
Carlos Fuentes in Mexico City in December 2011
Rosendo Fraga

BUENOS AIRES — In 2002, the late Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes wrote The Eagle's Seat (La Silla del Águila), a novel that depicted, with passion and precision, the problems of modern Mexican politics, in the setting of Mexico as he imagined it in the early 2020s. The story has a very radical, Republican president of the United States elected on November 8, 2016, though already involved in government in preceding years.

In Mexico meanwhile by mid 2018, yet another president is elected from PRI, the resilient, center-left Institutional Revolutionary Party that has survived both full-blown democratic politics and several conservative PAN (National Action Party) governments, and now ruling with some difficulty in alliance with other parties. The PRI president has been in power for two years, as the 2020s begin.

Literature generally feeds on history, but sometimes it anticipates it. Argentina's Jorge Luis Borges played at this on more than one occasion, as in his story of an Irish leader fighting British domination in the 19th century, and forced by circumstances or fate to assume the role written in a tale. Another Argentine writer, Manuel Mujica Láinez, anticipated the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in a story written in 1969, 20 years before it happened.

Fuentes's fictional president decides to stand up to the United States, partly due to a miscalculation but also seeking popularity with a bid to revive Mexican nationalism. He thus calls on the U.S. government to end its military interventions in the region and joins a pact with Russia and the OPEC cartel to raise crude oil prices.

The Republican president, a man with an impassioned temperament, responds by deciding not to invade, but isolate Mexico from the rest of the world. Fuentes imagines that by then all Mexico's communication systems, both internal and external, are worked by U.S. satellites, which allows the White House to order all the neighboring state's communications cut. Cellphones and land lines stop working. All broadcasting and the Internet, including all social networking, shut down.

The Mexican leader receives contradictory counsels from his team and entourage. Some advise him to retreat lest the country become ungovernable, and urge him to inform the public that this was actually the telecommunications shutdown that had been announced for 2000 but had failed to materialize that year! Others urge him to continue, because the fight with the United States is rooted in Mexican culture and history, and the episode would give "historical sense" to his presidency.

The novel has two interesting points for reflection concerning the immediate future. The first relates to the personalities of the two political leaders. These usually change ideologies in line with interests, ease and circumstances. But history shows they do not change personality. In this case, the U.S. president depicted, who wields power between November 20, 2017 and the same date in 2021, feels challenged and responds in a firm, decisive manner, though he himself is violating international norms and rules. Clearly the president Fuentes imagined has much more in common with Trump than with Barack Obama or as the case might have been, Hillary Clinton.

The second point concerns miscalculating in a crisis. The Mexican president depicted is, in contrast, indecisive and more inclined to intrigue and negotiation than to taking big decisions. He defies his American counterpart without properly calculating the consequences. There is no 19th-century-style invasion of Mexican territory nor a blockade like the one imposed on Cuba for more than half a century. Instead, a kind of shutdown of all communications almost makes Mexico ungovernable.

The crisis has an unforeseen effect. To communicate, people start writing again, and the collapse of modern communications imposed as a punishment prompts the return in 2020 of traditional correspondence. In the manner of Les Liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos, this novel takes the form of letters exchanged between its political protagonists — the president, his ministers and advisers and a beautiful woman who manipulates political destinies and brings in the erotic element present in Fuentes's novels.

Mexico's preeminent 20th century novelist foresaw 14 years ago strong continuity in Mexican political culture, which events have so far confirmed, a political phenomenon that strongly chimes with Trump's election and eventualities many now fear in Mexico. Markets have already begun anticipating a difficult situation.

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Coronavirus

Chinese Students' "Absurd" Protest Against COVID Lockdowns: Public Crawling

While street demonstrations have spread in China to protest the strict Zero-COVID regulations, some Chinese university students have taken up public acts of crawling to show what extended harsh lockdowns are doing to their mental state.

​Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling on a soccer pitch

Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling

Shuyue Chen

Since last Friday, the world has watched a wave of street protests have taken place across China as frustration against extended lockdowns reached a boiling point. But even before protesters took to the streets, Chinese university students had begun a public demonstration that challenges and shames the state's zero-COVID rules in a different way: public displays of crawling, as a kind of absurdist expression of their repressed anger under three years of strict pandemic control.

Xin’s heart was beating fast as her knees reached the ground. It was her first time joining the strange scene at the university sports field, so she put on her hat and face mask to cover her identity.

Kneeling down, with her forearms supporting her body from the ground, Xin started crawling with three other girls as a group, within a larger demonstration of other small groups. As they crawled on, she felt the sense of fear and embarrassment start to disappear. It was replaced by a liberating sense of joy, which had been absent in her life as a university student in lockdown for so long.

Yes, crawling in public has become a popular activity among Chinese university students recently. There have been posters and videos of "volunteer crawling" across universities in China. At first, it was for the sake of "fun." Xin, like many who participated, thought it was a "cult-like ritual" in the beginning, but she changed her mind. "You don't care about anything when crawling, not thinking about the reason why, what the consequences are. You just enjoy it."

The reality out there for Chinese university students has been grim. For Xin, her university started daily COVID-19 testing in November, and deliveries, including food, are banned. Apart from the school gate, all exits have been padlock sealed.

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