Project Syndicate: As you note in your latest PS commentary, the problems exposed by America’s triple crisis of COVID-19, economic recession, and mass protests over racial injustice and police violence are rooted not in President Donald Trump’s failures, as dangerous as they are, but in the country’s “founding conditions.” That is why the United States has repeatedly proved “ill-equipped to retool its safety net.” You imply that the current crises can catalyze “radical change,” especially if the November election produces “sound leadership.” Why might this time be different?
Jorge G. Castañeda: It is true that previous attempts at overhauling the social safety net in the US have failed. But, this time, the need for major reform is clearer than ever before. The pandemic has highlighted the health-care system’s inadequacies. The protests have driven more people to acknowledge the extent of systemic racism in the country, spurring discussion about everything from reform of law enforcement and criminal justice to broader affirmative-action policies and even reparations. And the burgeoning economic crisis has underscored the need to strengthen support for people’s livelihoods, such as through unemployment insurance, universal childcare, and a higher minimum wage.
As a result, the share of voters who back such reforms is growing, and their support is deepening. It helps that the share of minority voters – in particular, from the Latinx and Asian-American communities – is growing. If voter turnout among black Americans and young people increases as expected, the Democrats could win a landslide election victory in November. Owing their success, at least partly, to voters who support strengthening the social safety net, they will be under pressure to deliver.
PS: You suggest that Trump’s successor should pursue “a New Deal-like overhaul of US social, economic, and political structures.” What specific policies or reforms should lead the agenda?
JGC: The reforms that a Democratic landslide could enable were suggested, in one way or another, by most of the contenders for the party’s nomination. They include livelihood support, such as universal child care, a $15 minimum wage, universal paid family leave, and stronger unemployment insurance (roughly double today’s average). Universal health care – possibly, but not necessarily, a single-payer system – is also high on the list, as is reforming or eliminating the Electoral College.
To address inequality, many advocate tax reform – including a higher tax rate for the highest earners and a wealth tax on those who own the most assets – as well as free public higher education; affirmative action in education, housing, and small-business support; and possibly even a universal basic income. Finally, an end to mass incarceration, stronger gun laws, and immigration reform would go a long way toward protecting lives and upholding American values.
Enacting any one of these reforms would be important. Some of them together would be monumental. Introducing all of them would be transformative.
PS: In March, you praised the Organization of American States, under Luis Almagro’s leadership, for its management of the 2019 Bolivian presidential election: the OAS’s finding that the vote had been subject to “significant tampering” played a major role in forcing President Evo Morales from power. More recently, however, an independent study found serious flaws in the OAS analysis. Did the OAS – and Almagro – get it wrong? And how will such criticism affect the body’s ability to act as a “critical, vocal, and effective force for combating authoritarian governments and human-rights violations in Latin America”?
JGC: The University of Pennsylvania academics who criticized the OAS disputed only the body’s statistical analysis of what occurred when vote-counting was interrupted. But the OAS audit of the Bolivian elections, including the body’s early on-the-ground findings, included many other factors, none of which has been called into question.
Conversely, Almagro’s successful re-election bid – in which he enjoyed broad support – will allow him to continue his work on combatting anti-democratic practices and defending human rights in Latin America. He should, however, examine the authoritarian drift in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and El Salvador more aggressively, rather than focusing only on Venezuela and Nicaragua.
PS: Last December, you wrote that the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement – especially its labor and environmental provisions – could further undermine already-weak growth and investment in Mexico. Since then, Mexico’s economic prospects have deteriorated sharply: GDP, forecast in December to grow by 1.1% in 2020, is expected to plummet this year. Will this make Mexico less likely to address the “low wages, deplorable working conditions, tame labor unions, and utter disregard for the environment” that you include among its “shameful” competitive advantages? If so, what does that augur for relations with the US, where the Democrats, who may soon control the White House, insisted on strong enforcement mechanisms for the USMCA’s labor and environmental standards?
JGC: It is now less likely than ever that Mexico will implement the USMCA’s labor and environmental requirements. With the economy set to contract sharply this year – by 10.5%, according to the International Monetary Fund’s most recent forecast – the public budget is only going to shrink. Meanwhile, mass unemployment will make wage increases impossible. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s resistance to renewable energy and disregard for environmental considerations will only worsen matters.
If the Democrats gain control of the White House and both houses of Congress, they will owe their victory partly to labor unions. Given this, they can be expected to increase pressure on Mexico to change course. No wonder most observers believe that AMLO and his foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, are hoping that Trump wins another term. In fact, they will soon visit Washington, DC, to meet with Trump – a move that could bolster his re-election campaign.
BY THE WAY. . .
PS: You recently highlighted Cuba’s practice of sending doctors to other countries as a kind of propaganda tactic, expressing concern that Mexico’s acceptance of Cuban doctors during the COVID-19 crisis could become a permanent – and politicized – situation. How effective has this approach been elsewhere, and what risks does it pose to Mexico today?
JGC: Cuba has been sending doctors abroad – whether on solidarity missions or as a commercial, hard-currency-earning enterprise – since the 1960s. In the early 2000s, it sent some doctors to the Mexican states of Coahuila and Michoacán. Today, according to several press reports, there are nearly 1,000 Cuban doctors in Mexico, mainly in Mexico City and the states of Veracruz and Mexico.
This is a lousy deal for Mexico. The Mexican government pays these doctors’ salaries – totaling in the millions of dollars – to the Cuban government, and has acknowledged that it does not know how much the doctors themselves receive. Human-rights organizations have condemned the practice, which Mexico should be ashamed to accept. But that is not all: these doctors largely lack the training to work with modern technologies like ventilators, and many are political cadres or militants, who could help to fuel political polarization in Mexico.
PS: Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic challenger in the upcoming election, promised throughout the primary season a “return to normalcy,” and last year told a group of bankers and financiers that “nothing would fundamentally change” under a Biden administration. Obviously, recent events have pulled the rug from under that strategy. How can in instinctually status quo politician like Biden re-establish his footing?
JGC: It made sense for Biden to emphasize a return to normalcy when he was competing with the more progressive Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic primaries. It also made sense in a campaign against Trump, who has upended the rules and norms of democracy. Indeed, the “return to normalcy” was, in essence, a euphemism for “defeat Trump.”
But then COVID-19 reached the US, the economy began to falter, and protests over systemic racism erupted. Fortunately, Biden seems well attuned to the American psyche, and he is certainly in touch with reality. He knows that weathering these three crises successfully will require him to do much more than defeat Trump in November.
PS: Your new book aims to describe the US “through foreign eyes.” What is it about Americans that makes them so resistant to foreign perspectives, and what do they stand to gain from paying attention to them? Which “foreign” observation do you think would surprise ordinary Americans the most?
JGC: Americans have been traditionally indifferent to foreign analyses of – or opinions about – them, mainly because they could afford to be. But there are many reasons to hope that this is changing. I will name three.
First, as the current economic contraction shows, the US is much more exposed to the global economy than in the past. Second, the US is much more vulnerable to threats from abroad, as demonstrated by events like the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Third, Americans are facing escalating domestic challenges – perhaps the most severe since the Great Depression – and are thus more inclined to seek insights and solutions wherever possible.
The point in my book that I think most Americans would find surprising relates to American culture. Though it is often dismissed or even reviled by foreigners, American culture was the world’s first “mass culture.” Immensely porous and hospitable to foreign influence, it has become the basis of American civilization, much like Roman culture formed the basis of that empire.
PS: As a former Mexican foreign minister who has lived in, studied, and engaged with the US for a half-century, what do you think the US could stand to learn from Mexico?
JGC: The US could learn several things from Mexico, starting with a sense of history and tradition. While these traits have occasionally impeded Mexico’s progress, they have generally served the country well. Americans could also learn from Mexico that religion, despite being a powerful force for solace and community, should be as separate from daily life as possible. Mexicans are deeply Catholic, but do not view their religion as a way of life. Many Americans do, though as I show in my book, this habit is waning.
We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Castañeda’s picks:
Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941
by Stephen Kotkin
The first two volumes of Kotkin’s recent biography of Stalin feel like a godsend for those of us who read accounts of the Soviet dictator’s life written in the 1960s-1980s, before Boris Yeltsin opened up the archives. This is a long and fascinating read, with meticulous detail and rich explanations of what happened in Russia before the revolution, and in the Soviet Union until 1938. I can’t wait for the third volume.
Tiempos recios-Fierce Times
by Mario Vargas Llosa
Vargas Llosa’s newest novel may not be his finest, but it provides a glimpse into the CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala in 1954 and what came of it, for the CIA (which had just succeeded in overthrowing a government it did not like) and for the Latin American left (which resolved never to allow another such coup).
Capital and Ideology
by Thomas Piketty
Piketty’s second major work, this is a history of the inequality that has pervaded practically every part of the world since time immemorial. It’s a heavy lift, but Piketty provides an enormous amount of valuable information, useful comparisons, and interesting stories. And his programmatic suggestions for tackling inequality today are intriguing.
FROM THE PS ARCHIVE
Right after Donald Trump’s electoral victory, Castañeda argued that it was naïve to hope that Trump would not follow through on his campaign promises – and warned Latin America to brace itself. Read more.
During the Democratic presidential primaries, Castañeda welcomed the bold policy proposals – which would introduce elements of a modern welfare state in health care, childcare, and education – being advocated by many contenders. Read more.
AROUND THE WEB
In a New York Times commentary, Castañeda asked whether the Trump administratin’s decision to charge Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro with narco-terrorism, drug trafficking, and money laundering is anything more than a bluff. Read the article.
(In this Spanish-language interview, Castañeda analyzes the relationship between the US and Mexican presidents, particularly with regard to immigration policy. Watch the video.)
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