FEATURE So Far From God BY MICHAEL ERARD 0 n 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 ments,” 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 AUGUST 6, 1999 that in Ireland and Latin America, artists and writers involved in postcolonial 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 Garcia Marquez, 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” world. On March 15, 1995, he’d jetted from Mexico, the reputation THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13 A
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