Commentary Magazine

La Capital, by Jonathan Kandell


La Capital: The Biography of Mexico City.
by Jonathan Kandell.
Random House. 640 pp. $24.95.

Only toward the very end of this huge work does Jonathan Kandell, who covered Latin America for the New York Times and is now assistant foreign editor of the Wall Street Journal, begin to convey some sense of the ecological and economic catastrophe that is modern Mexico City. Twenty million people are crammed into a great crater, 7,500 feet above sea level. The air is so filthy that, Kandell claims, breathing it is as dangerous as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. The city grows by some 750,000 people a year, vastly more than can be employed, housed, serviced, or policed. Most of the population lives in squalid shantytowns, without paved roads, water or sewage, electricity, transportation, or security. Traffic is immobile.

Mexico City long ago depleted its own aquifers, and so water—for those lucky enough to have access to it—must be pumped at exorbitant cost from hundreds of miles away. Since there is no natural drainage from the crater, hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage must, at equally exorbitant cost, be pumped hundreds of miles back again. What is not pumped collects in the low areas of the crater to kill the poor and their children. The drying up of the lakes over which the city was built has aggravated its geological instability, and this, together with shoddy construction standards, leaves it vulnerable to earthquakes like that which destroyed the homes of 70,000 people in 1985.

Compared to the frightful facts of poverty, infant mortality, unemployment, industrial pollution, and environmental disaster, aesthetic regrets do not matter much. All the same, Mexico City was once one of the most beautiful places in the Americas. Just thirty years ago, you could still see the volcanoes and mountains that fringed the Valley of Mexico through the famously azure sky. The colonial core of what had been the richest city in Spanish America was, amazingly, intact, surrounded by the parks and avenues of the late 19th century and the art-deco neighborhoods of the early 20th. Beyond them were suburban villages, cobblestoned and quiet, and a little farther yet, some of the most fertile farmland in the whole country. The regime’s longstanding attempt to legitimize itself by patronizing artists and intellectuals, as well as its hospitality to leftist political exiles, had thrust the city into cultural leadership within the Hispanic world, while the accumulating wealth from the early stages of Mexican industrialization was, for the first time, easing the lives of the poor.

What went wrong? Kandell does not have much of a reply. In fact, despite its title, La Capital is not particularly concerned with Mexico City. Its first 527 pages treat us to an intelligent and entertaining overview of Mexican history. Only in the final chapter—when Kandell ties the book up with an inexplicably upbeat conclusion—does he attempt to explain what has happened to the city in which he grew up.

To be fair, the final chapter does itemize with brutal vividness many of the elements of an answer: the subsidies and favoritism that have lured industry into a region whose geology and climate are disastrously unsuitable for it; the mechanization of agriculture that has driven a burgeoning population off the land and into the cities to look for work; the division of authority between the appointed mayor of the federal district and the “elected” governor of the surrounding province of Mexico; and a centralized culture that makes life in the provinces unthinkable to anyone with any choice about his location.

But individual insights are not the same as an answer. Mexico needs a Tocqueville, a Tocqueville of failure. Kandell is a reporter, and confronted with a disaster this big, a reporter’s instincts can mislead him; the better the reporter, the farther astray they can take him. Sometimes there is no balance to be struck; no human touch to find; no ray of hope amid the despair.



Kandell calls his book a biography rather than a history, but his approach is not at all biographical. The biographer of a man who ended as horribly as Mexico City seems on its way to doing would try to understand what in his subject’s character and circumstances brought him to his dismal conclusion, and that means starting at the beginning. To Kandell, Mexico City’s troubles emerge—quite suddenly and mysteriously—in 1968. It takes a harder look to trace them a little farther back than that.

Mexico has consistently demonstrated itself incapable of honest and effective self-government. From 1821 until 1876, the country’s history was a bloody and random sequence of wars, plots, coups, and corruption. When Porfirio Diaz grabbed power in 1876, he stabilized the nation for thirty-five years, but at the price of centering the entire state in himself and controlling his subordinates by permitting them to steal. By 1911, Diaz’s peace had become intolerable, and Mexico exploded into a meaningless and pointless revolution that, over a decade, killed perhaps a million, perhaps two million, people before installing a new elite—just as authoritarian, distinctly more brutal, and breathtakingly more corrupt—in the place of Diaz’s henchmen. Descendants of this elite have remained in power from then until today.

To a North American, Mexico looks like a fantastically statist society: Kandell figures that by 1982, some 70 percent of the nation’s economy was state-controlled (up from some 13 percent in 1968) and 1.5 million Mexico City bureaucrats supervised 1,155 state-owned enterprises, which, in turn, employed millions more. The media, both state and private, say what the government of the day wants them to say, and the state-supported intellectuals find it prudent to use their wit in denunciations of the United States.

Yet this huge and expensive government cannot even begin to control illegal parking in Mexico City. It cannot control the growth of the capital because those in charge of enforcing the government’s innumerable laws and edicts to slow development routinely take bribes from those who want to evade them. Since success in business, on any scale above that of a tortilla vendor, requires the suborning of the bureaucracy, enterprises find that they must locate themselves near the agencies that grant them the right to import and export, that allocate credit, and that control the unions. Citizens’ legal rights are routinely violated by local big shots because the juridical system lacks the power to enforce them. Regulations to protect the public health and safety mean nothing—or worse than nothing—when, as they so often do, they become opportunities for extortion by corrupt officials. It is the weakness of Mexico’s government, perhaps even more than its gargantuan size, that has ruined Mexico City.

And Mexican government is so weak because no regime since, maybe, the Aztecs has been able to command the spontaneous respect and adhesion of its people. No wonder Mexicans break the law when their presidents do, too. Lopez Portillo, president from 1976 until 1982, personally stole in the vicinity of a billion dollars. His predecessor, Luis Echeverria, stole somewhat less during his six-year term, but that was before Mexico’s great oil boom, and there was less to steal. No post-revolutionary Mexican president, not even the relatively clean Miguel de la Madrid, who succeeded Portillo and left office last year, has ever departed public life poorer than he entered it. And scandals like these are replicated throughout Mexican society. Kandell reports that superiors assess how much each Mexico City constable ought to be stealing, and then demand a tithe. Without corruption, petty officials would starve, business would be suffocated by red tape, the ruling party’s elaborate patronage system would wither, and Mexican political stability—such as it is—would collapse.

Historians may quarrel over the source of Mexico’s woes: perhaps they are the lingering effects of the barbarism of the Aztecs, or the superimposition of Castilian culture on an Indian society, or the collapse of the economy after independence, or the mistakes of Porfirio Diaz, or the failure of the Revolution. And Latin American experts may disagree about whether the disturbance is irreparable. Perhaps more democracy might improve things, or perhaps left-wing or right-wing authoritarianism would; maybe the Mexicans need more foreign investment; maybe they need more self-sufficiency. But maybe it is too late to do anything other than watch the biggest city in the world slowly poison itself.



About the Author

David Frum is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for National Review Online.

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