From iron curtains to windows of irony

LONDON — Carlos Fuentes is a Mexican novelist who was awarded the Cervantes Prize for Spanish Literature in 1988. He has just completed a documentary for BBC on the historical relationship between Spain and Latin America. WHEN THE European Conference on Security and Cooperation convened in Paris last month, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl warned against "retrograde nationalisms" that could disrupt the building of the "common house" of Europe. He was calling attention to one of the many paradoxes that stud, like sequins, the debutante's gown of the New World Order as it struggles to fashion itself amid the ruins of the Cold War.

This gown could become the shirt of Nessus, which tears away the skin that wears it, unless forms of conciliation are found between the worldwide movement toward interdependence and the multiple nationalist tendencies that are now rising to contradict it. Nowhere is this truer than in the Soviet Union.


Certainly, it is extremely difficult to predict whether Mikhail Gorbachev will outlast the changes that he has so courageously initiated, or fall victim to his own Frankenstein. And perhaps the gentle monsters of glasnost and perestroika can even revert to the autocratic Golem of the past.

I doubt this can happen. The cat is out of the bag and is roaming a world of instant communications, available information and visual vocabulary. The new political grammar transforms walls into air, and iron curtains into windows of irony.


But the Soviet crisis does point to one of the great paradoxes of the movements we are witnessing. The trilogy of economic interdependence, technological progress and instant communications can conceivably lead us all -- from Moscow to Madrid to Mexico City -- to a better world order of shared plenty.

Yet hardly has this door been opened than, in much of the world, the problems of culture and ethnicity have riotously stepped in to break up the celebration.

How can you quicken the step toward global integration if you have Ukrainians and Lithuanians, Georgians and Armenians, Moldavians and Azeris yapping at your heels, denying the very principle of a worldwide integration of productive forces? This is where political and cultural imagination must join together to ask: Can we conciliate global economic demands with the resurrection of these nationalistic claims?

Both reason and imagination tell us that the solution, that point where the demands of integration can be balanced against those of the nationalities, is federalism.

My hope is that we will witness a re-evaluation of the federalist theme as a compromise between three equally real forces -- the nation, the region and the world.

To this end, that great North American book, "The Federalist Papers" should be distributed in the millions. Although 200 years old, it may hold the secret to making the new world order work.

"The Federalist Papers" was written by three great North American statesmen -- when there was such a thing -- Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison.

The applicability of their 85 essays is, of course, neither universal nor restricted to conditions in 1787. Madison, for example, addressed the human tendency toward factionalism. While clearly understanding that its causes were difficult to uproot, he proposed to control its effects. How? Through a seeming paradox: A strong national government, but controlled by checks and balances, separation of powers and federal diffusion of authority. You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.


Only now has Gorbachev grasped the federalist solution. It is at the heart of his initiative for a new "Treaty of Union" between the Soviet republics. He should have proposed it a year ago. But perhaps it is not too late to open up the federalist vista as a far-reaching, future-oriented and universally appealing political solution, and not only in the USSR.

Thanks to "The Federalist Papers," 13 factious little colonies of the English New World became a great modern nation. As the United States, Canada and Mexico today are designing a North American free-trade area, one wonders about the fate of the Ibero-american republics to the south of the United States? Do they pose problems comparable to those we are seeing in the Balkans, Central and Eastern Europe -- not to mention Ireland and the Basque country, Brittany and Quebec?

The world transformation has caught Latin America in a vicious crisis -- political, social, economic -- with scant resources to actively present ourselves in the new, multipolar order.

Yet our contemporary crisis has made us realize that one thing endures in the midst of our political and economic failures. It is our cultural continuity, the multiracial and pluralistic culture we have created during the past 500 years.

Contrary to current events in Europe and Asia, cultural demands in Latin America do not disrupt the national or even the global rationalities. They re-enforce them.

If, in Eurasia, the problem is the conciliation of international integration with ethnic demands through a new federalist regime, in Latin America the problem is to conciliate economic growth with social justice through, again, a democratic federalism.


Latin America has a peculiar advantage over other regions in today's world. Our national cultures coincide with the physical limits of each of our nations, even as our larger cultural boundaries embrace the Iberian peninsula -- Spain and Portugal -- and through them Europe; and even as our internal diversification includes Indian and black cultures.

The important thing is that no local separatisms menace our national unity or our neighbors' territorial integrity. Our culture, precisely because it is so varied -- European, Indian, black -- does not propose religious fundamentalisms or ethnic intolerance. As the Venezuelan author Arturo Uslar Pietri puts it, even when we are purely white in Latin America (and whites are a minority), we are Indian and we are black. Our culture cannot be understood without all three components. We are mestizo -- a mixture of tastes, mores, memories and accents.

We do bear profound social injustice. Because the national cultures are contained within the national boundaries, it is up to each of us to solve this problem through local politics. It is here that the federalist idea is quite relevant for Latin America.

Traditionally, we have been ruled from the center and from the top. Today, emerging new civil societies, from Mexico to Argentina, propose rule from the bottom and from the outskirts of society.

The mission of Latin American democracy is to conciliate both movements. Whether in Salinas' Mexico, Fujimori's Peru or Collor's Brazil, we are trying to extend the republic, as Madison put it.