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Here: A Biography of the New American:
Continent


by Anthony DePalma
375 pages,
ISBN: 1891620835


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NAFTA From An American Perspective
by Fred A. Reed

No ignorance is greater than American ignorance of all that lies beyond its borders. The fall seems never to bring awareness, only the lament of continually shattered innocence.

There are exceptions to this glum rule, however. Because it claims to challenge ignorance "Here", New York Times correspondent Anthony DePalma's survey of the radical reconfiguration of the continent set in motion by the North American Free Trade Agreement merits attention in these dire times.

For DePalma begins with a modesty uncharacteristic of mainstream media pundits. His premise: "We know North America exists, but we do not know North America." From this point of departure, DePalma sets out to understand a continent shared by three distinct and independent states moving, he believes, toward an ill-defined though strongly intuited form of integration.

Now we stand at a threshold, the point at which this commonality of the North American experience, impelled by the thrust of contintental convergence whose name is competition, transforms itself into new social and political arrangements.

Viewed schematically, little differentiates DePalma's argument from the nostrums of the free trade elite. In fact, "Here" may be best seen as well-turned agit-prop in support of a globalization agenda that is coming under increasing pressure from citizens in all three countries. What does distinguish it from, say, the triumphalist swaggering of a Thomas L. Friedman, is its insistence on examining the continent not only from the United States, but from the vantage point of its southern and northern neighbors.

How could this uncharacteristic sensitivity not fail to commend itself to readers in both Mexico and Canada? But such readers can be counted upon to study DePalma's text closely, to challenge its arguments and to question its premises.

No arid recitation of economic indicators, Here celebrates the men who delivered their respective governments, and societies, over to the promise of unfettered flow of goods and services: Ronald Reagan, Brian Mulroney and Carlos Salinas de Gortari. And Here wonders, though not unduly, at the comeuppance of two of the three. Massively repudiated by Canadians, who reduced the parliamentary deputation of his hapless successor, Ms. Kim Campbell, to two seats, Mr. Mulroney is now pudgier, and undeniably content to have seen his erstwhile foe, Jean ChrTtien, renege on his campaign pledges, sustain the hated GST, maintain NAFTA and advocate the emerging hemisphere-wide free trade deal, a process DePalma describes with barely restrained irony.

His co-disciple Salinas de Gortari was a man who "saw a bleak future for Mexico unless he could reverse seventy years of economic protectionism and continental mistrust." In one of those odd coincidences of history, Mr. Salinas was hosting none other than Jean ChrTtien at a state dinner in Mexico City to celebrate the end of protectionism when his designated successor, Donaldo Colossio, was assassinated in Tijuana, possibly on the instructions of the outgoing president himself.

But at both ends of the continent, strange movements were emerging to cast shadows over DePalma's optimism. One of them, the emergence of the EZLN, the Zapatista Army for National Liberation, led by sub-comandante Marcos, chose January 1, 1994, the day when NAFTA was to come into force, to launch his rebel forces against several towns in Chiapas.

Mexico's great revolutionaries, men like Zapata and Villa, "fought not to create the future, but to redeem the past, the same dream that seemed to motivate Marcos" judges DePalma, attributing the international investor skittishness that ensued more to the Zapatista surprise attack than to, say, the murder of the PRI's designated presidential successor¨and tagging Marcos as a historical throwback in the process.

Almost two years later, at the other extremity of North America, "the demon took the shape of a portly, silver-haired man in a formal vest crossed by the chain of a pocket watch." Jacques Parizeau had contrived to incite nearly one-half the voters of QuTbec "to do what they had repeatedly told public opinion polls they did not readily want to do: vote to separate QuTbec from the rest of Canada."

Seen from north of the world's longest undefended border, DePalma's treatment of the QuTbec independence movement sparks flashes of cognitive dissonance. Though accurately describing QuTbec's broad commitment to free trade orthodoxy, Here misses the piquancy¨and the political sophistication¨of a political force that combines a commitment to continentalism stronger than that of the Canadian Federal Government with "the same tribalism that the United States was trying to halt in Bosnia and other unstable parts of the world."

If the author is aware that one of English Canada's outstanding grievances against the Parti QuTbecois, which for all its demonic connections still forms at this writing the government of QuTbec, is that QuTbec's support of free trade powerfully irritated Canadian nationalists by going them one better, he is not saying so. Bizarrely, the near religious acceptance of the free trade gospel by the "separatists" would make them less a tribalist anachronism, and more the pro-American linchpin of a true reconfiguration of north American political space, drawn from more compact, flexible entities which may be based on ethnicity (incidentally, the aim of United States policy in the Balkans), or perhaps on market-driven localism. Hard to be more "here" than that.

Visibly irritated by this apparent paradox, DePalma's caution and general empathy seem to forsake him briefly. On the inclination of QuTbec's leaders to ask QuTbecers about their future in Canada, he argues that "they have created conflicts that have consumed the country." But he, like his English Canadian informants, cannot accommodate the idea that many QuTbec citizens see the federal arrangements which can be ultimately traced back to the Conquest as having created conflicts that consumed their country.

"Our futures are overlapping, whether we like it or not," concludes DePalma, rather magnanimously. "It needn't be our dissimilarities that determine how we deal with each other, but rather all that we share." What may grate upon readers of this intelligent though somewhat rosy continental overview are the words "whether we like it or not." These days, they may strike too strong a resonance with George George W. Bush's less than tolerant "those who are not with us are against us."

Fred A. Reed is the author of Salonica Terminus: Travels into the Balkan Nightmare. Talonbooks, 1996, and Anatolia Junction: a Journey into Hidden Turkey, Talonbooks, 1999. ˛

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