By Marc Cooper
April 15th, 2019
Mexico’s de facto culture minister wants to remake his society—starting with books.
On a recent Thursday night, thousands piled into Mexico City’s Palace of Mining to attend, of all things, a book festival. Neither books nor mines were the main attraction, however: Just inside the doors, in a chandelier-studded ballroom, some three dozen reporters and a half-dozen network camera crews waited quietly for the 70-year-old writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II, who had recently been appointed to run the storied Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Contributing editor Marc Cooper has known Paco Ignacio Taibo II since the 1980s and admits to going to Semana Negra three times.
The FCE is a publishing house primarily funded by the Mexican government, with a staggering back list of some 10,000 titles, as well as some 30 bookstores in Mexico and another dozen or so abroad. Its prominence positions Taibo as a kind of culture minister. With full command of this prestigious and influential institution—which, in the course of its 85-year history, has published 65 Nobel Prize winners—Taibo has tremendous sway over Mexican publishing and, by extension, book culture in all Spanish-speaking countries.
Standing 5-foot-4 and arriving in his signature baggy jeans, an open work shirt over a faded tee covering a bit of a paunch, Taibo received a rock star’s welcome. He had with him his two omnipresent companions: a bottle of Coke (he drinks three liters per day) and a yellow pack of H. Upmann Cuban cigars rolled with a dark, harsh tobacco.
Before landing his new job, Taibo was one of Mexico’s best-known, most irascible, and most prolific writers, with over 80 books under his belt (and surely more to come). He’s known as a radical, profane, and outspoken critic of just about every institution in Mexico. His down-to-earth humor, sarcastic swipes at the privileged, and informal vocabulary laced with street vulgarities make him an unusual choice for public office—imagine a somewhat younger Noam Chomsky being appointed US Secretary of State, and you’ll get the drift.
Before the event, Taibo’s wife of 40-plus years, Paloma Saiz, whispered to me: “I told Paco that now…he’s got to be more careful, as every word he says is scrutinized.”
Indeed, having first met Taibo more than 30 years ago while reporting a story in Mexico City, I was probably as stunned as anybody when his appointment was first floated last fall. Taibo’s one of the most intriguing people I’ve ever met; if you computer-designed a government official, he would be the exact opposite. Taibo is a full-time provocateur—not the loud and clownish type, like Abbie Hoffman, but a relentless literary and political activist who focuses his prodigious talents on the multiple targets of corruption, deceit, and arrogance that mark the Mexican political class.
At the same time, Taibo’s presence is no more or less surprising than the near-daily aftershocks of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s election. The maverick politician known as AMLO bulldozed the country’s three traditional parties and took 53 percent of the presidential vote; in the process, he rather casually smashed open the Mexican political piñata and left the establishment empty-handed.
Lopez Obrador’s decision to appoint Taibo matters more in the political sense than you might think. Writers, journalists, and books play a significantly different role in Mexican society than they do north of the border. Authors are a source of national pride: They’re nearly as likely to appear on a talk show as a new pop-star singer. They are also targets: More than 70 journalists have been murdered in the last decade, hundreds of others have been threatened, and countless Mexican authors have been intimidated out of the profession.
In this context, Taibo’s tenure at the FCE will be a much more important test of López Obrador’s own principles. AMLO has committed himself to restoring democracy and standing up for the poor; how much latitude Taibo has will serve as a litmus test for the progressivism of Mexico’s new leadership.
In his first 100 days in office, López Obrador was credited with one breakneck “miracle”—or at least a “surprise”—a day. He moved quickly, even brusquely, toward reform, passing legislation that his opponents complained about as loudly as his supporters cheered.
In February, Taibo became a significant object of the public’s attention. First, the opposition tried to use an arcane law that barred foreign-born Mexicans from heading a state-owned agency. (Taibo was born in 1949 into a socialist-anarchist family in Asturias, Spain; the family left when he was 9, and Taibo became a nationalized Mexican as a child.) But the president’s majority in the Mexican Congress legalized his appointment with the so-called “Taibo law.”
By coincidence, that measure went into effect the night that Taibo announced his publishing plans at the Palace of Mining. “How many people would come out in Los Angeles for an event like this?” Taibo asked me before he took the stage. “Would you get 400 people and 40 reporters to hear some guy talk about a publishing plan?” He laughed. “Andrés Manuel has chosen the book as the symbol of culture and of political awareness, and our job is to bring books that are cheap or even free to every corner of the country. Mexicans love to read; they just can’t afford it.”
Yet a Mexican trade paperback can cost $25 or more (in US currency), and many workers make only $8 to $12 a day. “This is why our new fighting slogan is Una República de Lectores,” Taibo says—a republic of readers.
Taibo’s literary plan de choque called for over 70 literary events, fairs, and exhibitions nationwide held in three months. He has ordered the rehabilitation of a small fleet of book buses that his predecessors left to rot, and he’s already using them to visit some of the more remote sections of the country, including in the epicenter of narco activity. Taibo has already launched his first series, “Vientos del Pueblo,” a 400,000-copy press run of eight books priced at $2 or less, including authors ranging from Ariel Dorfman to Michel Foucault.
Taibo has also signed agreements with foreign publishers that will cut their book prices in Mexico by half, and he plans on publishing scores of new titles this year, including plenty of fiction. “We are not going to publish a women’s series, an indigenous series, an anything series,” he tells me. “We are simply going to publish good books… no bad ones. We don’t care who wrote them or what country they are from.
“And no political pamphlets, either,” he adds. “When someone is moved by something they read, it’s usually not a newspaper article or even a magazine piece. It’s usually a book—Robin Hood, The Grapes of Wrath, you know. So no didactic pamphlets from Lenin or Trotsky. And Das Kapital? That book is so dense, it’s the best way to get people to quit reading forever.”
Reading and revelry: Attendees of the inaugural state-funded book festival seek autographs from the event’s maestro. (GDA via AP)
This is not to say that Taibo’s politics aren’t squarely on the left—though they are rather eclectic and decidedly nonsectarian. Having become politically active during the 1968 revolutions, Taibo was greatly influenced by Che Guevara and Salvador Allende, but also by national heroes like Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Lázaro Cárdenas del Río, Mexico’s last progressive president, who nationalized the oil companies on the eve of World War II.
Taibo’s 1968 principles remain intact, though he has opted to fight for what is truly possible without forgetting his more “utopian” ideals. I once asked his father how he defined his own politics. “I guess you can call me a liberal-anarchist-socialist-humanist,” he said with a laugh. I doubt that Taibo’s answer would be much different. Yes, he wrote the definitive biography of Che in Spanish and maintains friendly relations with Havana. But his new smash Patria trilogy is a paean to Mexico’s liberal reformation of the mid-19th century.
“Look,” Taibo says. “We are not going to exclude anything or anybody. But the people of Mexico have voted, and they have voted to end decades of disastrous neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is dead. Dead!”
Mexico’s cultural revival
When I arrived at his apartment in the somewhat gentrified Condesa district, Taibo’s family was in an uproar. Apparently, a lot of people had listened to the launch at the Palace of Mining the night before, and by 10 am, there had been an explosion of tweets in his timeline. Most were to the effect of: “Where the hell are those $2 books you promised? Can’t find them.”
“Looks like we screwed up,” Taibo says. “We ran off 40,000 of them, and they sold out in four days. Got to get the presses running full-time and load up the bookstores.” Taibo’s co-conspirators—his wife, Paloma, and his adult daughter, Marina—were upstairs, attempting to respond to each and every tweet and letting people know where to find the books the following week.
Meanwhile, Taibo would soon be en route to a fact-finding tour of FCE’s bookstores to see if he could really turn them into community centers. He was accompanied by a well-known Mexican playwright and her producer, who wanted to scout locations for live theater. FCE controls over 30 stores, and Educal, a government-backed nonprofit, over 80; they are now being merged under Taibo’s watch. And many are marvelous: bright, clean, modern, and airy, like literary Apple Stores stocked to the rafters.
But while the stores were fully staffed, there were hardly any customers. Taibo was undeterred. “We are going to change the face of the entire industry in Mexico,” he remarked as we stepped into his van. “We are going to have a huge ripple effect. Book prices will go down everywhere.”
We drove through the city’s terrible traffic to the FCE’s headquarters in the south. The complex, inaugurated in the 1990s, when former Mexican president Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado was heading up the FCE, is imposing and impressive: a tree-shaded oasis, a tasteful mishmash of office buildings, libraries, exhibition centers, creeks, and walkways.
“Welcome to the elephant cemetery,” Taibo jokes, referring to the FCE’s reputation as a place where the politically well-connected were put out to pasture as they got older. “This was a machine for dispensing favors,” he adds.
That mentality runs deep. In the past, graduate students and higher-level functionaries have cut deals with the FCE to publish their books, which have little to no commercial value, so they could put them on their résumés or hand out copies to friends. “After you leave public service, you get sent here to cash in,” Taibo says. He wants to change the way this place works: By stopping the frivolous production (and storage) of expensive hardcovers that won’t sell, he believes more resources and labor can be dedicated to producing ones that do, and at a lower cost.
We walk down another hallway and both break out laughing when we encounter a row of about a dozen stolid black-and-white portraits. It’s a gallery of all the former leaders of the FCE, and when Taibo leaves, he’ll be hanging there, too. Just imagining this ruffian up on the wall a few feet from Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado is hallucinatory.
At 10 am, it’s time for the first of six meetings. Taibo’s core team is young, fresh, and enthusiastic. Some have a long history in publishing; others are writers themselves. They sit relaxed, legs crossed, papers spread over a round coffee table in one corner, seeming utterly out of place amid the swanky furniture and expensive art. The scene reminded me of those black-and-white photos of the early days of the Cuban Revolution, with armed and mud-spattered barbudos lounging on the floor of some government office they had requisitioned. There were no guns here, though; just collegial discussions over what’s about to be published and what sort of events the plan de choque has coming up.
Any time the enthusiasm flags, Taibo cranks it back up, yelling “I love this!” and waving his arms. It used to take months to get an event approved; now, we sit here and schedule four or five in one morning, just like that.
As we depart the FCE, Taibo pulls me toward a glass door at the front entrance. Taped to it are three very official FCE memos on letterhead and rubber stamps validating Taibo’s signature. In the most pompous oficialista language, Taibo informs his employees that starting immediately, the heretofore private “executive” elevator, the “executive” dining room, and, of course, the “executive” parking lot have all been “de-privatized” and are now open for unrestricted use by the workers. “I did this,” he says. “My first three decrees.”
Taibo is no newcomer to politics. He was attending college in 1968, when the Mexican government reportedly shot at least 26 student activists and jailed many more. In 1994, he was a campaign spokesman for the unsuccessful leftist presidential candidate Cuauhtémoc Cardenas, and he played a similar role in AMLO’s latest campaign. Taibo has been in the public eye since 1976, when he published his first book, Dias de Combate. It was the first in a series of nine crime novels starring the cynical but gold-hearted private detective Héctor Belascoarán Shayne—a half-Irish Mexican everyman who, when he wasn’t solving crimes, was being thwarted, harassed, and threatened by federal and state cops. Since then, Taibo has won the National History Prize, among others, for his history of communism in Mexico. He has written about Leonardo da Vinci; published a voluminous biography of Che that’s been translated into 28 languages; and written a biography of Pancho Villa, which has more than 1 million copies in print.
He has also worked on documentaries for Netflix on Che, Villa, and Santana and is currently front and center in the adaptation of his Patria trilogy. “I’ve had to cut back on writing because the Fondo is taking up 15 hours a day,” he says. “But I have never been happier. I’ve already done 80 books, and I have another 40 in me. Right now, I’m working on a history of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and I found that it was really led by a young socialist Jew that history has mostly ignored.”
Taibo has honed an inimitable and disheveled style, though I suspect it’s congenital. He doesn’t own a tie or a sport jacket. He doesn’t drive. He doesn’t own a cell phone. He doesn’t socialize with elites, especially the literary elite, which thinks of him as a crude political agitator. And it’s hard to walk a couple hundred yards with Taibo in Mexico City without some stranger or another stopping him to shake his hand or start an argument.
Because, while his work always grapples with injustice and the daily torturous frustrations of the average Mexican, his work, like his personality, has a light touch. He’s accessible: His writing is always free of any dogma, hero worship, preachiness, or grating political correctness. Taibo deeply, madly loves Mexico City, largely because with all its crowded chaos, its no-go districts, its thick pollution and round-the-clock noise, it is a place that’s very easy to dislike.
Oversize: Giant cardboard books welcome visitors to Semana Negra, now one of Europe’s biggest literary fairs. (Reuters / Eloy Alonso)
And then there’s his freakier side—one that reveals just how much he wants to turn reading literature into a popular pastime.
In 1988, Taibo organized one of the most phantasmagorical literary festivals that I have ever seen: Semana Negra, or “Black Week,” an unlikely mix of the Iowa State Fair and Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, with a whiff of Woodstock and Burning Man thrown in. Semana Negra was held every July in his hometown of Gijón, Spain. It offered a host of popular attractions—amusement-park rides, food stands, musical performances, even a daily newspaper for the whole week—and then dropped a literary festival right in the middle of it. The concept was simple: attract tens of thousands of people to a pop-up carnival on a week of warm summer nights and then let them wander into the spaces where books were sold and authors and journalists sat 10 feet from you, lecturing and debating.
You could get off the Ferris wheel and hear authors from around the world; you could eat cotton candy while listening to a debate about noir between Cuban author Rodolfo Perez Valero and the now-departed American writer Bob Leuci. The Cold War was still on, so Taibo went out of his way to invite a bevy of Cuban, Russian, and even Bulgarian writers to mix it up. Thus was born the International Association of Crime Writers and its yearly festival of literature, which drew 100,000 people per night for seven nights in a row. Taibo ran this festival for 24 years, until he handed off the job to friends in 2012.
Meanwhile, Paloma was hired by the Mexico City government to run a series of book fairs, back when AMLO was mayor in 2005. Eventually, Paloma and Paco turned the organization into a nongovernmental organization called La Brigada Para Leer, supported in part by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Germany. It has spent the last 10 years bringing books, authors, and entire literary festivals to the very poorest of “book deserts” around the capital.
“I was born to do this new job,” Taibo tells me at lunch one day. “Twenty-four years of running Semana Negra and eight years working with Paloma on the Brigada are two facts that the president noticed very carefully. What I am doing now is just a logical extension of the Semana and the Brigada.”
While Brazil and Colombia may have produced some worker-priests, I think it’s absolutely accurate to describe Taibo as a worker-writer: Whenever he speaks publicly, he directs his words at the poor in the crowd. He is a hero to millions of working Mexicans who know that this is a country in which too much truth-telling can be dangerous, if not fatal.
Barring any major catastrophes, AMLO and Taibo have much to look forward to. The law limits the president to a single six-year term, but there are midterm elections coming up in just about two years, and almost every political observer believes that López Obrador’s MORENA party will sweep them, giving him more power still.
Taibo, for his part, is still trying to wrap his head around his new position—and his new boss, whose policy initiatives, he concedes, can appear disjointed. “I can’t tell you how to describe this government,” Taibo says. “Andrés Manuel has a certain trajectory as a militant and a leftist and as a nationalist, but I think it is impossible to describe his government as other than Rooseveltian. Those who have described him as Mexico’s Trump don’t have a fucking clue as to what he is about.”
“It’s all strange. It’s all contradictory,” Taibo adds in a reflective moment. “The president wants to create a social-welfare state. But he is also intent on sharply cutting the size of the state. The state had become bloated with bureaucrats and people with no-show jobs,” he continues, and to pay for public goods, “AMLO [wants to] invest in people instead of bribes.”
Not all of AMLO’s supporters are that sanguine—or forgiving, for that matter. Corruption, for all of López Obrador’s early efforts, has been difficult to root out, from the police to Congress. The president appointed a National Guard to handle civil policing, disappointing supporters who wanted less of the military, not more. Crime persists. The economy is faltering. Five journalists have been killed since he took office.
Mexico’s intelligentsia leans left, but a large swath of it views AMLO with great trepidation—perhaps because they have been the subject of staff cuts, or have benefited from corruption in the past. Among the middle and lower classes, though, AMLO has certainly engendered hope that real change is coming.
But even some of his more sympathetic critics, including on the left, believe that AMLO is too stuck in the past. Taibo sums up the frustrating reality: “The right wing thinks Andrés Manuel is a communist; the left wing thinks he’s a right-winger. I think he will do well for Mexico.”
Then Taibo changes the subject back to the one he can control: books. “I’ve been to hundreds of book festivals, fairs, and exhibitions. I love them,” Taibo says. “When you go to a book festival in the US or Germany, they are beautiful—it’s a moment of pleasure. But in Mexico, when you have a book fair, people come because they are hungry to read, because it is the only place they can afford a book or buy a book. For many of those who come, it is a revelatory moment—they can’t believe you are talking to authors as if they are friends.”
As to the challenges that await both the FCE and AMLO’s government, Taibo sticks to the positive. “I’m an optimist,” he says. “Here’s the difference between an optimist and a pessimist: The pessimist is disappointed before, during, and after whatever it is; we optimists are disappointed only afterward. That’s much better. This country should be optimistic at this point.”
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is a retired professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.