So Far From God

In which the road-weary author sets out to down a pint with post-modern Irishman Carlos Salinas O'Gortari.


On the day I flew into London, the news of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet had been pushed to The Guardian’s eighth page. Hospitalized with a stomachache while his lawyers appealed a British court’s decision, a weakened Pinochet appeared to be stalling his inevitable extradition to Spain, where he would face charges of torture and other violations of human rights. London was a layover on my way to Ireland, where another former Latin American head of state was reported to be hiding out. I was determined to use some of my time there to track down Carlos Salinas de Gortari, president of Mexico from 1988 to 1994.

After a week of vacation I headed to Dublin, to find out what Salinas had been up to since he left Mexico in early 1995 in a tempest of controversy, as hated for the consequences of the neoliberal economic policies of his presidency as Pinochet is feared in Chile for his fascism. When I arrived, he wasn’t in Ireland – he’d moved, for the moment. An Irish Times reporter told me that a cell phone number no longer worked, and the Mexican ambassador said Salinas was seldom seen anymore.

So I wouldn’t interview Salinas, and I could never ask him the question that had pestered me as I drove around the island: why was he living in Ireland? He could have led a successful self-imposed exile nearly anywhere, and Latin American countries would make far better bases from which to wage a campaign to clear his name and restore his place in Mexican history. So, why Ireland?

A professor of literature at the University College of Dublin, Declan Kiberd, got a clue when Carlos Salinas waited in line with students on a quiet Wednesday in May, 1996.

“It was a strange interlude. Looking back, it seems very Borgesian – to meet someone and later find out who it was,” Kiberd remembered. The man came into the office wearing a wool cap, which he never doffed, and a scuffed suede coat. Kiberd described him as “shambling but pleasant,” and took him to be a fellow academic – perhaps a Latin American economist, though he told Kiberd he had a background in political science. “I assumed he was someone who had fallen afoul some regime. I’ve met quite a few of those. Sometimes they will tell you what happened to them, and often it’s quite terrible, but this man never did.” After forty minutes, Kiberd excused himself – he had students to meet. Could they get together for a pint? the foreigner suggested; sure, Kiberd said. Several weeks later, the professor saw a Sunday Times article, with a photograph of Salinas, capless and bald. Only then did Kiberd realize who he’d talked to – and that he was an economist, with a Harvard Ph.D. “In retrospect,” he said, with a tinge of regret, “I might have given him more time.”

Salinas had called round to talk books (he hasn’t rung yet about that pint). “He knew his literature. I was impressed by his arguments,” Kiberd told me. The previous fall, Kiberd had published Inventing Ireland, an authoritative 700-page volume whose post-colonial bent challenged standard views of the history of Irish literature. Salinas, who’d read the book, was intrigued by Kiberd’s implication that in Ireland and Latin America, artists and writers involved in post-colonial struggles for self-determination have been central to the formation of national identities. In this sense, the novel narrative modes of James Joyce resemble the mythical realism of Gabriel García Márquez, Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, and Jorge Luis Borges, because for each writer, “the shattering of older forms permitted the breakthrough of a new content, a post-imperial writing.”

Kiberd observed that “Salinas talked like a man who was trying to root himself here. Like he was trying to transcend his present troubles.” Was the ex-president creating a home in Ireland, the land of exile and homecoming? The massive emigration from Ireland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some have argued, created the notion that a person only became fully Irish while abroad, because only far from its reality could he nurture an idea of Ireland. And not only emigration created exiles. Large numbers of rural people headed for the cities, where their children were educated in English, not Irish, and in this way “a life conducted through the medium of English,” Kiberd writes, “became itself a sort of exile.” Thus, the Irish Renaissance of the early twentieth century was as much about the construction of an idealized cultural “home” as it was a rediscovery of what really had been lost.

Did Salinas believe that artists, not technocrats, had shattered the old Mexican identity? In order to make NAFTA a reality, he had to convince Mexicans that cooperation and free trade, not ideological conflict, were the keys to prosperity; that in such circumstances, a national identity defined against a real or imagined U.S. imperialist threat would be a liability. Salinas was praised in The Wilson Quarterly in 1993, for his role in helping Mexico “shed much of the debilitating ideological baggage of the past.” And as Mark Falcoff wrote in American Enterprise, “Mexico is ceasing to be ‘Mexico.’ That is, Mexico has begun to discard an entire set of civic values and practices that for more than seventy years defined its national identity.” All of this under Salinas’ leadership, so when the peso collapsed late in 1994, Mexicans had no one to blame but one of their own.

From that Sunday Times article, Kiberd would have learned that Salinas was now dubbed “the Elvis of former presidents” – sighted at leisure (in shopping malls, at jazz festivals) all over the world. On March 15, 1995, he’d jetted from Mexico, the reputation of his once-proud presidency ruined, the Mexican peso devalued and the economy in collapse, and his brother, Raúl Salinas, arrested for murder and “illicit enrichment.” After a plaintive hunger strike in the home of a working-class Monterrey family failed to gain him the sympathy of the Mexican public, who were by then burning him in effigy, Salinas was welcomed in a number of places – New York, Montreal, Havana, the Bahamas – and from each he was quietly pressured to leave.

Salinas drifted, a man in search of that one place where he could live almost invisibly, in what some said was his part of a secret deal with his successor, Ernesto Zedillo. Meanwhile, in Mexico, mortgage rates reached 85 percent; credit card interest rates were 140 percent, and thousands of cars, homes, and new businesses were repossessed. Investigations into Raúl Salinas’ finances showed that he’d socked away $300 million in foreign accounts, and Swiss officials later arrested his wife for trying to withdraw $83 million from accounts. When rumors suggested “drug money,” Carlos pleaded ignorance of his brother’s “investment fund.”

During this period, journalists leaped to interview Salinas. Unable to confirm his physical location, the Mexico City Times published an e-mail address, a move which flooded an innocent Amnesty International administrator named Carlos Salinas Córdova with e-mail from around the world. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported that he received requests for interviews, invitations to functions, and angry criticism. Salinas Córdova was good-natured about the attention. “But I am not bald,” he said.

I showed some photos of Salinas in his wool cap and suede coat disguise to some Irish friends; they remarked how Irish he looked – “like a farmer,” someone said. Back when the Irish police first commented on reports that Salinas had found refuge in Dublin, they supposed a “moustachioed Latin American” would blend in with difficulty. As it turned out, he cunningly blended so well that only after a rare August 1996 interview with an Irish Times reporter did the Irish police begin “discreet” inquiries into his status. The Irish government, stung by scandals in the nineties in which passports were sold to rich Arabs, denied that Salinas would be given special status, though he’d well overstayed a ninety-day visitor’s visa. Salinas applied for a resident’s permit, but other events in the spring of 1998 assured his permanence in Ireland: his wife of three years, Ana Paula Gerard Rivero, gave birth to a son, who automatically received Irish citizenship. (Grateful, he named his son Patricio.)

Salinas keeps a low profile but isn’t hidden, surrounded by bodyguards and careful with his movements, difficult to reach by phone but not unresponsive. Journalists approach him, but he rarely grants interviews. (When he does, he goes to paranoid lengths to avoid offending the current president – one journalist told me that Salinas had asked him not to include an illustrative Oscar Wilde quote, for fear that Zedillo might link Wilde’s criticism with The Importance of Being Earnest.) From time to time, he issues press releases that attempt to discredit prosecutors in his brother’s case, and he also flies to New York for directors’ meetings of the Dow Jones Company. He is also seen in museums, bookstores, and restaurants. The family and its entourage live just south of Dublin, in a house described as “modest but secure” and valued at $1.8 million (a steal compared to the $80 million Salinas family house in Mexico City). Down the street from Sinead O’Connor, Bono, Van Morrison, and other rock star recluses (well, except for Sinead, who recently flung herself at the public by being ordained as a Catholic priest), the house is reportedly owned by Tony Ryan, an airline magnate and Mexican Honorary Consul in Ireland.

As I built a list of Salinas’ Irish friends, I began to think he’d chosen Ireland for the company. Not only rich and prominent, some friends were themselves controversial politicians, such as former prime minister Charles Haughey, a charismatic Fianna Fail politician so corrupt he makes the old-school los dinosauros of the PRI oligarchy look more like kittens than lizards. (Salinas has claimed that his political reforms angered such “entrenched interests” and “established privileges,” and the case against his brother, as well as his own exile, are politically motivated.) A conservative Irish nationalist, over his thirty-year political career Haughey survived accusations and investigations into his gunrunning, suspicious property deals, perjury, and influence peddling, only to fall in 1992 to charges of tapping the phones of his political opposition. Not only does he own a twelve-bedroom Georgian manse located on 300 acres outside Dublin, he also owns a house offshore, as well as helicopters and a yacht, “The Celtic Mist,” to get him to the island. Impressively, he also owns the island – all on a prime minister’s annual salary of $150,000.

Clearly, Carlos Salinas would feel quite at home.

Perhaps he chose Ireland because its new-found economic prosperity reminded him of that brief period of optimism in Mexico in the early nineties. In the eighties, Ireland had a debt load that was 115 percent of its gross domestic product, and a higher per capita debt than Mexico. In the nineties, after tightened fiscal policy, subsidies from the European Union, and access to European markets to sell beef and other agricultural products, the country has been transformed – its new nickname is “the Celtic Tiger.”

Foreign firms, among them Microsoft, Intel, and Dell, have located there, encouraged by a young, highly-educated workforce. While I was in County Donegal, the Donegal Democrat reported that a California healthcare company will open a claims processing facility there, creating over 200 jobs. Each day, after offices close in California, claims will be sent electronically and prepared by native English speakers for the start of the next day in California. Salinas would understand the concept of an information-processing maquiladora, where value is added to information rather than auto parts and tennis shoes.

The island is awash with money and an optimism about the future. The streets of Dublin are gridlocked with new cars, and young people easily get home mortgages in Dublin’s hot real estate market. I asked a bartender at a pub near the American embassy about Salinas. He didn’t recognize a photo of Salinas, though he thought Salinas’ wife was familiar; he ended up describing how he’d just bought a house himself.

The only dangers seem to be inflation and xenophobia. The most recent unemployment figures, 6.4 percent, are the lowest since such figures have been calculated, down from 20 percent in the late eighties. Many industries complain of labor shortages. For so long, Irish youth had to leave the island to find work. Now Ireland reluctantly admits foreign workers, many of them Romanian and Bosnian refugees. (Welcoming former heads of state is less difficult. Many people didn’t know Salinas was there, and those who did seemed pleased.)

I walked in the rain to the neighborhood where one newspaper report said Salinas lived. The day was, in Irish parlance, “a soft one” – Salinas did not pick damp cold Ireland for its climate, where there is a word for every flavor of rain, including “pelting,” “lashing,” and “pissing.” That morning, the city bustled in mist. Dublin is a city of walkers; people trickled from small neighborhood lanes, joined the streets’ streams, down to the rushing thoroughfares which lead to the city centre.

On my way, I passed rumpled schoolboys with novels in their pockets, and a middle-aged man in a three-piece suit came out of a bank and put garbage bags full of shredded paper on the curb. Having heard that Salinas takes walks in parks, I stopped at Herbert Park, and while three tawny pomeranians jousted and tumbled on the verdant lawn, I read the park’s fifty rules inscribed on a bronze plate. The twenty-fourth rule demanded that “No person shall in any open space sort rags, bones, refuse, or matter of like nature or mend any chair or other article,” and the twenty-sixth required that “No person shall in any open space discharge any gun, syringe, squirt, catapult, or other instrument, or shall wantonly or recklessly throw or discharge any stone or missile or make any bonfire or let off any firework or perform military evolution or practice gymnastics.” As I looked up from the sign, a man in a tweed cap approached, making me jump, but I knew it wasn’t Carlos.

In another park in another place, a plaza in an elegant, historic Mexico City neighborhood, one of the strongest ties between Mexico and Ireland is memorialized on a small brass plaque that lists the names of the San Patricio Battalion – 200 Irish men who, under the command of John Riley, fought with the Mexican Army against the U.S. from 1845—47. Deserters from an exploitative U.S. Army, they fought under an emerald flag decorated with a shamrock and a harp against a country which they’d found xenophobic and anti-Catholic. They fought bravely until 1847, when they were defeated defending the monastery of Santa Maria de Los Angeles at Churubusco. The surviving two-thirds of the battalion were captured. Fifty men were hung as deserters; fourteen were branded; Riley himself was whipped, branded, then reduced to begging. About him, little more is known.

In this decade, a spate of high-level diplomatic exchanges have strengthened relations between Mexico and Ireland. But for all the trade, investment, and cultural swaps, the two countries lack an extradition treaty – and in the end, this is perhaps the most salient reason for Salinas’ stay. Some analysts figured that Zedillo’s half of the secret deal was not to investigate Salinas, if the ex-president made himself scarce. But as Raúl Salinas went on trial for the murder of his former brother-in-law, a high-ranking member of the PRI, investigators wanted to question Carlos. Though the former president said publicly that he would answer questions “anywhere, anytime,” investigators from the Mexican attorney general’s office did the travelling. In 1996, they visited Dublin, and at the Mexican embassy, they grilled Salinas with 300 questions about the 1994 assassination of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta.

as claimed he hadn’t chosen Ireland for its lack of an extradition treaty. Instead, he praised the Irish – his official reason for residing in Ireland. Declan Kiberd recalled that he “was very friendly about the Irish,” and during their conversation, they discussed what the Mexicans and the Irish have in common: “they’re both emotional, they’re very traditional, and they’re not too materialistic,” Kiberd said. In the Irish Times interview, Salinas highlighted his fascination with the Irish people, to the point of being “florid in his tributes to Irish hospitality,” David Shanks wrote. “They trust a lot,” Salinas told Shanks. He also compared Irish and Mexican struggles against imperialism. “Both have ‘one small stream’ – the Irish Sea, the Rio Grande – separating them from powerful neighbors,” Shanks reported. In Ireland too, Salinas could say, in homage to Porfirio Díaz, that he was tan lejos de Diós, tan cerca de los imperialistas.

While Salinas was singing the praises of the Irish, his own fortunes took a further turn for the worse. In October, 1998, Swiss officials wondered whether Carlos knew about his brother’s links with drug traffickers, including a $500 million bank account. In a November Newsweek essay, Salinas defended his brother – and himself – calling the accusations “outrageous, absurd and an affront to all Mexicans,” and claimed the four-year investigation into his brother’s activities was unjust and politically motivated. This did not stop a Mexican judge from handing down a murder conviction in January of this year, and sentencing Raúl to fifty years in jail.

Carlos Salinas’ dissertation is dedicated to his brother: “To Raúl, companion of a hundred battles.” They’ll soon fight their hundred and first – according to The New York Times, Carlos Salinas left Ireland for Cuba, where he was meeting with his brother’s lawyers, helping them prepare for an appeal. He then briefly returned to Mexico, for his first public visit since he fled the country, resulting in protests in the streets of Mexico City. And when he’d made his excuses, he returned to Ireland.

Carlos Salinas chose Ireland because he could stay there – in the sense that it was agreeable to reside there for a while, and also in the sense that he could not be forced to leave. Meanwhile, the Irish seemed happy to let him stay. As a man who had fought his country’s fight and was reviled for his heroism, now living as an outlaw, he must have seemed as familiar to them as Ireland felt to him. He’s been described as a comet fallen from the sky, compared with a spurned lover, hailed as an economist and a politician, reviled as just another corrupt technocrat, his name occasionally even linked with the hated Pinochet. Perhaps it’s simply easier to think of Salinas as an Irishman. He thinks of himself that way: a First World man with Third World memories.

Michael Erard is an Austin writer in exile from New York.