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.
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.