Castañeda’s Legacy for U.S.-Mexico Relations

Castañeda’s Worldview

The conventional wisdom (both in the United States and in Mexico) about Castañeda depicts him as a “leftist intellectual” or “political scientist” who collaborated with the ruling PRI but later broke with it to join the “democratic camp.”  At the same time, his view of the United States underwent a similar transformation from harsh critic to friend, even breaking with Fidel Castro in order to pleaseWashington.

Unfortunately, this view is misleading in light of Castañeda’s writings, trajectory and even some of his actions during the campaign and as foreign minister.

First and foremost, consider his positioning in the ideological map. The son of a Soviet mother (who worked for the Soviet government at the UN) and a former Mexican foreign minister of communist inclinations (who was appointed by President José López Portillo after an extended visit by Cuban leader Fidel Castro to Mexico), Castañeda was a member for many years of the Moscow-oriented communist party of Mexico, even though he also collaborated with the ruling PRI. Although he attended elite schools inFranceand theUnited States, and speaks French and English fluently, he affected a revolutionary attitude.

Even while claiming to belong to the communist party, Castañeda apparently worked with his father at the foreign secretariat, and together they formulated a more interventionist policy in Central America, mostly in tandem with Cuba’s geopolitical designs in the region. This policy was once described as “the incongruent policy of supporting, even indirectly, guerrillas in other countries, while Mexico lived a climate of political persecution.”[ii] It also earned them the appellation “Castroñeda.”

When the communist party was re-named the PRD after fusing with a dissident group of left-leaning PRI officials in the late 1980s, Castañeda became a close advisor to its leader Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, with whom he was later to break publicly and vehemently. Though Castañeda is often classified as a “leftist,” this nomination does not capture the distinction between a liberal, social-democratic Left and an illiberal Left. The Czech Social Democratic government of Milos Zeman, for example, fits into the liberal leftist camp because of its history of intervening in favor of the genuine democratic opposition in many countries including Belarus and Cuba. Castañeda, however, fits squarely into the latter group thanks to his history of supporting communist regimes and extra-constitutional armed insurgencies worldwide.

Castañeda’s writings in the 1980s moreover reflect quite clearly an anti-American, pro-communist line tainted with emotional baggage and laced with paranoid, unfounded accusations. Several of his former colleagues have noted Castañeda’s inability to control his emotions or to restrain his sense of “settling scores.”[iii] These writings indeed seem to lend credence to some kind of irrationality on his part. There is a constant in them that has little to do with traditional social-democratic and liberal concepts of social justice, peace and democracy. They also cannot be described as “political science,” nor a serious analysis of Mexico-U.S. relations. Instead, they include:

  • Unreasonable accusations against Washington and Mexican democrats. Castañeda wrote on many occasions in the 1980s that Washington was governed by “crazy people” bent on “destabilizing” Mexico and even hinted that the pro-democracy National Action Party (PAN) was potentially a fifth column that would be invited as part of this “plot.”[iv]
  • Victimization of himself and of Latin America by the United States. Self-victimization by Castañeda seems to provide the justification for his aggression towards his presumed enemies. It is mainly embodied in repeated accusations of intervention by theUnited States in the internal affairs of Mexico and other Latin American countries. Interestingly, and often in the same article, he calls for Mexico’s intervention in the internal affairs of Central American countries and even of theUnited States.
  • Calls for aggression against the United States and its citizens. In several of his articles, Castañeda called for a “shock” in Mexico’s dealings with the United States and international banks, the centerpiece of which was a moratorium on the foreign debt.[v] He also often spoke of the abandonment of Mexico by the United States and lamented that Mexico and Mexicans are disliked by the United States. He also called for the Mexican government to retaliate against the half-million American citizens living in Mexico.[vi]
  • Projection. Castañeda often seems to use projection to describe his presumed enemies, including the PAN, Washington and his critics. For example, he used the term “crazy” against Republicans in Washington, “paranoid” to describe the Mexican nation, “aggressive” to describe U.S. foreign policy, “plotting” against the Reagan administration and “unprofessional” against the Mexican press. These adjectives, ironically, are mostly what Castañeda’s varied critics use to describe his behavior. He also projected the Mexican and communist political system upon Washington when he accused the State Department of not intervening to “stop” Senator Jesse Helms from his “anti-Mexican” hearings in the mid-1980s.[vii] With his constant accusations against the PAN and other Mexican elements (even PRI presidents) of “betrayal” and “selling out” to American “conspiracies,” Castañeda is perhaps revealing, through projection, something about himself and his relation with Cuban and even Soviet elements in the past. There were reports recently in the Mexican press that Castañeda had collaborated with Cuban intelligence for many years.[viii]
  • Extremes of idealization and vilification. Castañeda’s seems to be an example of  the communist mind that Mikhail Gorbachev criticized as unable to see things other than in black and white. On the one hand, Castañeda reserves undue kindness and uncritical reverence for elements such as the pre-perestroika Soviet Union, communist guerrilla movements, as well as for “leftist” and anti-American academics, publications and policymakers around the world. On the other, he uses unduly harsh, uncompromising and virulent language to describe anti-communist or conservative forces, particularly in the United States and Latin America. For example, he called Helms and his fellow U.S. legislators “an infernal machine,” and an anti-communist paramilitary in Central America a “psychopath assassin.”  He also accused Reagan and his administration of “systematically violating all the rules of traditional protocol in their relations with all the countries [of the world].”[ix] His history with the PRI, with the leftist PRD and its leader Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and with other past allies also seems to follow a pattern of extreme idealization followed by extreme vilification.