January 30, 2002: Features

During a controversial career, Jorge Castañeda ’73 has forced political change in Mexico

By Bianca Vazquez Toness ’99

Two weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Jorge Castañeda ’73, foreign minister of Mexico, was on the defensive. Standing before the Mexican congress and looking uncharacteristically humble, he argued that Mexico should give its unbridled support to the U.S. in its fight against terrorism. Reflexively anti-gringo, several members of congress attacked him as a “sellout” and “pro-Yankee.” One leftist politician even called for his resignation.

Such drama has become standard fare in Mexican politics since Vicente Fox dethroned the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) after 71 straight years in power. But as the legislators chided Castañeda that September day, it became clear their offensive was less against anything he was proposing than against the man himself. The 48-year-old Castañeda has been a Marxist, a leftist academic, a voice against free trade, and an adviser to leftist candidates — in short, a man who was once one of them.

Part of the legislators’ resentment stems from jealousy. Castañeda, who helped Fox strategize his historic campaign, simply did what the leftists could not: He changed Mexico’s government. That singular goal, more than any ideology, explains his journey through the political spectrum. Castañeda may be a chameleon, as his opponents argue, but he is also a realist.

He is also the most talked-about man in Mexico City. The newspapers call him “El Guero” (“the Blond One”) for his fair complexion. Critics, who charge him with being pretentious, are further inflamed by his self-assuredness. Journalists complain that he only talks to the most important media outlets. (He turned down requests for an interview with PAW.) “I am not arrogant, just overbearing,” he famously said once. Despite having never held political office before — or perhaps because of it — Castañeda continues to engineer groundbreaking change in Mexico, making a clean break with its historic isolationism in favor of the most pro-U.S. foreign policy Mexico has seen in recent years.

Perhaps the biggest irony of Castañeda’s rise as a full-time opponent of the old system is that he is a product of that system. His father, PRI member Jorge Castañeda de la Rosa, was once foreign minister. His mother, a Russian Jew and naturalized Mexican, met her husband while working as a translator at the U.N. in New York. Young Jorge’s pedigree gave him advantages unavailable to most Mexicans: He grew up a polyglot between New York and Geneva, perfecting his English and his French, while his father served as Mexican ambassador to the U.N. He enrolled at Princeton in 1970.

There, Castañeda was anything but establishment. Like many students at the time, he protested the war in Vietnam. His roommate Miguel Firpi ’71 recalls a “charismatic” young man who “talked politics ad nauseam.” Others remember the foreign minister for his obsession with Diplomacy, a Machiavellian board game. In any case, he had the persona to accompany his politics. With long hair and a beard, he would play the guitar for hours, passionately singing Mexican folk songs while the coeds swooned.

For his history thesis, Castañeda wrote 250 pages on the Castroist revolutionary movement in Chile between 1965 and 1972. It was clear to Peter Winn, then his adviser and now a professor at Tufts University, that the college senior was preparing for his future role as a public intellectual. “Jorge was not only extremely bright but was politically engaged and strongly idealistic. He had a sense he could do something with his life to make a difference,” says Winn. Friends describe him as a student who didn’t worry over the difference between an A— and a B+. “He was more concerned with the journey,” says Alice Kelikian ’72. Still, he seemed eager to move on. He graduated in three years, one of them spent studying in Paris.

Books could only satisfy him to a point. After graduation, Castañeda asked two Princeton friends to go on a road trip. Kelikian joined Robin Lloyd ’73 and Castañeda in Washington, D.C., where he’d bought a VW bus. Swinging through Mexico, they picked up two friends and Castañeda’s cousin, then headed south, traveling with little money and no visas, sleeping on the bus, and showering infrequently. “We didn’t know each other beforehand, but we just had to put up with each other. This was Jorge’s trip,” says Lloyd. Enchanted with socialism in Chile, Castañeda hoped to visit. But the political climate there — a coup was imminent — forced the group to detour through Argentina and Brazil before Castañeda had to return to Mexico, prior to reporting to the University of Paris to begin a doctorate in history.

His doctorate gave him clout upon returning to Mexico at age 25, but his family connections opened the door to the political elite. Castañeda, a political science professor at the national university, called himself a Communist, but that didn’t stop him from moonlighting for his father, who was appointed foreign minister in 1979. The son convinced his father to abandon Mexico’s historically anti-interventionist policy. Calling on contacts made during his school days in France, the younger Castañeda helped negotiate a joint recognition with France of rebel forces in El Salvador, much to the dismay of the U.S., which supported the government in the civil war against the Marxist guerrillas.

A decade later, Castañeda was still working with his father’s party, as a campaign adviser to Carlos Salinas de Gortari. But any enthusiasm for the PRI quickly withered when the party, on election day, announced that ballot-counting machines didn’t work. Castañeda jumped ship in 1988 and joined up with Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, leader of the newly formed PRD (Democratic Revolutionary Party). Cárdenas lost that year in what is considered to be the most flagrant election fraud in Mexico’s history.

That election helped convince Castañeda that an upset of the PRI was the only way Mexico could prove itself as a democracy. He became an election observer, which is how he came to know Vicente Fox, a leader in the conservative PAN (National Alliance Party) who was running for the governorship of Guanajuato in 1991. Shortly after the election, Castañeda founded Grupo San Angel, an intellectual junta devoted to planning political reform. He invited Fox to participate.

Meanwhile, Castañeda was gathering publicity for himself. He became one of Nafta’s loudest critics, and began writing in earnest, publishing five books since 1988 along with countless essays and newspaper editorials. His writings are an intellectual paper trail documenting what Winn, his old Princeton adviser, calls “Jorge’s transformation from someone critical of those who work from the inside to someone actually doing it.” His 1993 book Utopia Unarmed analyzes the Cold War’s failed Latin American revolutionary movements and concludes the left is relevant inasmuch as it can influence established governments. In 1998 he went one step farther, publishing a treatise arguing that the only way for the left to effect change is by cooperating with opposition parties.

Thus was born the alliance between Castañeda, the academic from the left, and Fox, the businessman from a party that banned miniskirts in its offices. On July 2, 2001, it was clear that Castañeda had made the right choice: The PRI was defeated.

Castañeda’s success as foreign minister can be measured in many ways. He has befriended his old foe Jesse Helms and convinced the U.S. to reconsider the much-resented process by which it judges whether Mexico is a loyal partner in the drug war. He helped push immigration reform to the front of the Bush administration agenda — though plans to legalize undocumented workers were abruptly set aside after the September 11 attacks. And after months of campaigning, he helped Mexico win a seat on the U.N. National Security Council.

That day at the congress, in the heat of the struggle over whether to declare support for the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign, Castañeda tried to reason with his compatriots: “If we don’t support the U.S. now, they’ll remember it later when they are thinking of importing tuna, tomatoes, and lettuce.”

Anything to help his old allies catch up with Mexico’s new reality.

Bianca Vazquez Toness ’99 writes frequently about Mexico.


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