Read Redeemers Online

Authors: Enrique Krauze

Redeemers (11 page)

Around 1926, the fantasist turned political again, within the restrictions of this stage of the world. The next Mexican elections would be in 1928. Vasconcelos did not participate in them, but when Álvaro Obregón, the president-elect, was assassinated in July 1928, new elections were called for 1929. Vasconcelos decided to launch his candidacy. He gave a speech in Chicago asking for support from the American government and American public opinion. The United States should stop supporting dictators and offer effective and respectful aid to liberal and democratic movements on the southern continent. He argued (for once Vasconcelos actually argued rather than declaimed) that, without democracy, the result will have to be either military or bureaucratic dictatorship: Latin American
caudillismo
or the dominance of a bureaucratic caste, as in Russia. He called for moral regeneration but associated it with the process of authentic democracy: “It is only fair to discuss and criticize democracy once we have installed it.” While still in exile, he built up a following, especially among the young, through ferocious articles published in the newspaper
El Universal
.

His return to Mexico City was his own Palm Sunday, 1929. He would be the modern Quetzalcóatl, a liberator like Madero but far more cultured. Through the electoral process, the people should react as they did with Madero, only now their choice will transfigure the country for good and all. He would offer the chance to “purify the Revolution” and return it to its proper channel. He began to refer to himself, for the first time, as a “prophet.” He had a new “Adriana,” a dominating impassioned love, Antonieta Rivas Mercado, to accompany him on his great adventure.

But as he advanced in his quest, the signs of impending defeat grew stronger and the notes of Old Testament prophecy more frequent in his speeches: indignation, agitation, violent outbursts, dithyrambs on evil and injustice, anguish at the mistaken preferences of society. An observer mentioned “the sharp sword” of his words. Another saw the language of Vasconcelos descending in “naked phrases, luminous bursts.” He himself dubbed them “spiritual dynamite.” It was not mere rhetoric when Vasconcelos said of his campaign: “The Ten Commandments are my program above and beyond the Constitution.” He was speaking more incisively than he may have realized. His campaign was all admonition, rather than a program. As in the Old Testament, it expressed almost no positive message.

But its negative criticisms were clear enough. His political rivals, the Sonoran generals, had enriched themselves through the Revolution. They had carved out new personal estates, they were brazenly sacking the banks, they were conspiring with the American ambassador Dwight Morrow to assure the victory of their candidate, Pascual Ortiz Rubio. Vasconcelos grew increasingly impatient with the masses of Mexico. Weren't the same people who cheered for him in the morning capable of going to the bullfights in the afternoon and applauding a matador who was in league with the government? Perhaps because he realized that he would lose the election, he gave orders for a reaction to the expected fraud. This included armed revolution, of course, as well as other means that partially contradicted his call to arms and resembled the methods of Gandhi: peaceful resistance involving the refusal to pay taxes, to use or to run any public transport, and so on. Vasconcelos now saw himself as the conscience of Mexico. Thanks to him the country had a new and final opportunity for salvation. “Your destiny, Mexico! is at stake.” Vasconcelos or the abyss.

Once again, his uncompromising temperament—fierce, inflexible, convinced of his own magnanimity—spilled over into the lives of people he may have considered “all too human.” And the result was to be expected. Young students who adored him were killed in the streets for his cause. He was surrounded by an entire generation of potential martyrs, his young apostles, the students. One of his followers, Andrés Henestrosa, a Zapotec Indian who had studied in Mexico City thanks to the program of scholarships established by Vasconcelos, wrote:

 

We all believed we were destined for sacrifice because we believed that our hearts were clean and immaculate. And so we ardently embraced
Vasconcelismo
. We came to this fight not to live nor to triumph but to leave, on the barricades of Mexico, on the asphalt of Mexico . . . that existence that would only take on meaning if we sacrificed it for that which is most desirable of all things: freedom, which we believed was threatened.

 

After he lost at the polls (in an election heavily marred by fraud but one that the generals would never have allowed him to win), Vasconcelos could have founded a new political party based on something more than his personal charisma. He refused to do it, and he also decided at first (despite his previous rhetoric) not to call for armed resistance. Only two options remained: exile or the sacrifice of his own life. Leaving the country would have the value of an historical stimulus. “Prometheus enchained” not by the jealousy of the gods but through the apathy of his own people. And yet a martyr's sacrifice would be by far the more dramatic statement. Not a suicide but the death that might come to him in battle or at least in defiance of the possibility of death. It was something he had asked of others. And they had given their lives, for him. After all, a new Madero should continue, right up to the end, faithful to the memory of Madero. And to that of José Martí.

To Andrés Henestrosa he confided that he was ready to resort to arms: “For the first time in the history of this damn country,” he said, “Intelligence will mount a horse . . . I have enjoyed life, Andrés, I have been a lover of glory, as D'Annunzio has said . . . and I have played with death, during the years of the Revolution. So that for me, now is the hour.”

With this last phrase, Vasconcelos was directly quoting José Martí, though it is interesting, given the future course of Vasconcelos's life, that he also quoted Gabriele D'Annunzio, the John the Baptist of Italian fascism, who would be honored and eventually sidelined by the “savior” Mussolini. (D'Annunzio was a man in some ways similar to Vasconcelos, much concerned with the supremacy of beauty and power and the serial seduction of women.) But when the day to set out on his armed rebellion arrived, with a small group of men ready to risk their lives, Henestrosa, who had awakened prepared for the fight at five o'clock in the morning, received no word from his
caudillo.
At seven o'clock he went to see Vasconcelos and was told, “After you went to sleep, we changed our plans.”

Vasconcelos had decided it was not his hour. Some three months later, on February 14, 1930, between twenty and forty Vasconcelistas, accused of plotting against President Ortiz Rubio, were summarily executed by the army. Like the student Germán de Campo, who was shot by General Gonzalo N. Santos in the streets during the campaign, they had stood with Vasconcelos and he had now abandoned them. And he would bear the guilt of this final decision, at least in some measure, until his death thirty years later.

When Vasconcelos decided to leave, Mexico lost a secular saint, but did gain something more lasting. Outside of Mexico, from Spain and from the very belly of the beast he most hated, living and writing his memoirs in Austin, Texas, he would compose the four volumes of his great autobiography and various works of philosophy, including his
Aesthetics
, which he (though not posterity) considered his most important work. He would also produce other books, one on
Bolivarism and Monroeism
(1934), where he pursued the old theme of the irreconcilable differences between the two Americas, and a
Brief History
of
Mexico
(1936), in which he completely rejected the liberal vision of Mexican history he had thoroughly supported years earlier, plus at least two pamphlets:
What Is the Revolution?
and
What Is Communism?

Accompanying him throughout his period of exile were his wife and his children.

 

IX

He would return to Mexico in 1938, after spending nearly a decade of mostly self-imposed exile in Europe and the United States. In Paris, in the early 1930s, together with the highly talented Antonieta Rivas Mercado, he founded a journal,
La Antorcha
(The Torch), with the same name as an earlier journal he had directed in 1924–25. (In 1931, Antonieta would cause an enormous scandal when, isolated and desperate, lacerated by her love for two married men, one of them Vasconcelos, she entered the precincts of Notre Dame Cathedral and shot herself in the heart, using Vasconcelos's own pistol, in defiance of God and implicitly Vasconcelos.)

The journal, which survived for thirteen issues, was poorly produced, small in format, with errors in its French pieces and strewn with epigraphs in Spanish that are continual examples of the sin of pride: “God punishes and tests those he loves,” or “Solitude is the fatherland of the strong and silence is its prayer.” Even the advertisements in
La Antorcha
were marked by Vasconcelos's new and all-consuming ideological passion, which he would cultivate for the rest of his life: hatred of the Yankee, represented most vividly for him in the person of the American ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow, whom he accused of orchestrating his defeat. It would not be the last conspiracy theory that would tarnish the later years of a man who had contributed so much to his own country and to Latin America.

La Antorcha
was meant to “defend the moral and material interests of Spanish America,” purifying the “degraded consciousness” of its people. He admitted that Spanish Americans had lost their earthly empire. But the spiritual realm remained, left vacant by the emptiness of Anglo-Saxon thought. One had to follow the example of the Hebrews or the ancient Iberians, oppressed by the Romans but immune to their philosophy. “Let us take the machine from the Yankee, not his metaphysics.”

La Antorcha
is the variation on one note of a man who refuses to forget. He had not been defeated. He had won “all the votes.” Over and over he would keep on repeating: “It wasn't me who gave up the fight but a tired people who could not make good on their promise to fight in defense of the vote.” If 14 million Mexicans “had forgotten the outrage,” Vasconcelos would “think in flames” to burn away any trace (at least in himself) of forgetfulness. In his rage, in his elitist devotion to the idea of the superior man, the philosopher king, and his right to rule, he is no longer a democrat. And his tastes in reading have become even more idiosyncratic. This enormously intelligent man turned willfully ignorant and, already in 1933—as demonstrated by one of his short stories on a “rabbinical” conspiracy between Wall Street and Moscow to dominate the world—he had begun to accept a clumsily forged document produced by the Czarist secret police as truth, though fortunately he was no longer in the position to distribute thousands of free copies to the Mexican people. But
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
had already received the blessings of a government risen to power, only one year earlier, in Germany. And Vasconcelos would soon bestow his praise on yet another book intimately connected with that government.

In 1940, shortly after the outbreak of war in Europe with Hitler's surprise assault on the Polish nation, Vasconcelos accepted a position as editor of
Timón
(Rudder), a journal funded by the German embassy. It would last for only seventeen issues because the Mexican government, resolutely neutral but strongly inclined toward the Allies (and later to enter the war against Germany), did not allow it to continue.
Timón
published virulently anti-Semitic propaganda (in two articles signed by Vasconcelos himself, others contracted by him), “information” direct from Joseph Goebbels's Ministry of Propaganda, and an article by Vasconcelos dealing with themes long familiar to his readers, how “Intelligence Imposes Itself ” and the supreme value of a specific book:

 

Hitler, though he disposes of absolute power, is a thousand leagues from Caesarism. Hitler's force does not come from the barracks but from the book [
Mein Kampf
] inspired by his intelligence. Hitler does not owe his power to soldiers, nor to battalions, but to his own speeches that won him power in democratic competition with the other leaders and aspiring leaders that Germany developed after the First World War. To sum up, Hitler represents an idea, the German idea, that had been earlier humiliated by the militarism of the French and the perfidy of the English . . .

 

In other words, Hitler had won office through the same kind of peaceful and admirable campaign conducted by Vasconcelos. It was the merit of the German people to have responded well, unlike the ungrateful Mexicans, who had not been fully able to appreciate “intelligence” (for which Vasconcelos, in the above passage, uses the highly erudite classicism
cacumen
).

When the Allied counteroffensive on the eastern and western fronts began the pincer assault on Hitler's armies, Vasconcelos was devastated. He would turn his affection toward other dictatorial regimes. During the 1950s he would be received with respect by Franco in Spain and Perón in Argentina and Batista in Cuba. Invited to the Dominican Republic by Rafael Trujillo, he would write an appreciative prologue to a book of poems by the Caribbean dictator's wife.

In Mexico he would be honored for his luminous past. In 1941 he was made Director of the National Library and, some years later, put in charge of another great collection of books, the Biblioteca de México. He was lavishly honored at home and abroad as a writer and philosopher. His autobiographies, with their masterful style, had been welcomed with enormous praise and material success. But he was not consoled. The Mexican people had not risen as one to install him in the Presidential Chair. And he had not died heroically, like Madero or Martí. Along with his own wounded ego, he would sometimes dwell on the memory of those who had died in the streets, during his campaign. He would always want to be recognized, in retrospect, as the legitimate president of Mexico:

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