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As I See It... (16 May, 2006)

16 May, 2006

Map of MexicoEver since Hugo Chávez of Venezuela became the charismatic leader of his turbulent country so unexpectedly and dramatically, the Bush Junta, and sections of Washington have slowly been developing a bad case of the jitters! Connie Rice, in one of her trances, called President Chávez a “very dangerous man”. This may prove true in its own sweet time, meanwhile Chávez has warned the Stanford doctor : “Don’t mess with me!”

The customary picture Americans (and the rest of the world as well) had of Mexicans were of layabouts and vigourless lazybones, happy when asleep in the shade of a tree or building, a sombrero protecting their faces. This deceptive image has unhappily persisted stubbornly down the ages.

At my school in Calcutta during the Raj, our geography teacher did not give much attention to America. What we knew about, and cared about, was that the US was where Hollywood was, and American G.I.s were very much in evidence in India, helping the British and Indian troops fight the Japs. These soldiers spoke very much like the people we saw on the screens in cinemas!

A popular song in Calcutta in those days was :

“South of the Border,
Down Mexico Way,
That’s where I fell in love
When the stars above
Came out to play.
But wedding bells told me
That I mustn’t stay
South of the border,
Down Mexico Way!”

That song was part of the glamour and romance of the allure of guitars and castanets, and dark-eyed senoritas, tossing roses from forbidden balconies – all the flamboyance and thrills of fabulous Mexico!

The Lighthouse, one of Calcutta’s leading cinemas, showed a masterly film entitled Juarez, the epic struggle of a patriotic revolutionary man of the people, who fights the Austrian emperor, Maximillian, imposed on Mexico, and ultimately defeats him. The hero was played by Paul Muni, who was to become one of Hollywood’s great actors. This gripping film (which I saw thrice) during its three weeks’ run, had a powerful influence on my emotions and sensibilities. A terrible war was raging, in the east of India, to keep the Japanese invaders away from the Indian peninsula. Dangers of all kinds swirled around us, and we felt trapped. There were shortages of all popular commodities, and petrol was severely rationed. The unavoidable Black Market was about to make its appearance, and law abiding citizens would willy-nilly be forced to shop there during the hardship years of war.

Juarez made me aware of the importance of the historical film, and I began to look out for them. I searched in the school library for books on Mexico and Mexican history.

I am trying now to refresh my memory.

The history of Mexico revolves around the mixing of numerous cultural, ethnic, and political influences. These include contributions from several major indigenous civilizations, Spanish influences from the period of colonial rule, and a significant African heritage resulting from the slave trade of the early colonial era, now being apologised for by President Jacques Chirac of France.

Mexico’s post independence period was characterised by violence and civil war, including European intervention and a long domestic dictatorship. The latter led to the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920)—the most important event in 20th-century Mexican history. This revolution would influence Mexican culture and politics for decades to come. Mexico’s political system emerged from this era and has provided political continuity from 1928 to the present, a record achieved by few other governments. Its political system is dominated by a strong president and executive branch, to the detriment of the judicial and legislative wings of government, which is controlled by a single party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party. This party has dominated national elective offices in Mexico for most of the 20th century. While providing considerable stability, this political system has fortunately delayed Mexico from moving toward greater democracy, a pattern that most other Latin American nations followed in the 1980s and early 1990s, helpless victims of Washington’s “enlightened foreign policies for Latin countries”. The United States was flexing its military and political muscles as it planned to establish its Oil Empire.

But I wanted more of the story of Juarez, and I finally tracked it down.

The great leader to emerge among the liberals was a Native American, Benito Pablo Juárez, who became famous for his integrity and unswerving loyalty to the good of the people. For the next 25 years Juárez was the principal influence in Mexican politics. A federal form of government, universal male suffrage, freedom of speech, and other civil liberties were embodied in the constitution of 1857. Conservative groups bitterly opposed the new constitution. They were supported by Spain, and in 1858 the War of the Reform, between conservative and liberal groups, devastated Mexico. The Juárez government was supported by the United States, and by 1860 the Juárista armies had won decisively. Meanwhile, as provisional president between 1858 and 1861, Juárez had issued a decree nationalizing church property, separating church and state, and suppressing religious orders. These were all hallmarks of a strong dictatorship. Elected president in 1861, Juárez began to establish order. One of his first moves was the suspension of interest payments on foreign loans incurred by preceding governments. Angered by his decree, France, Great Britain, and Spain decided to intervene jointly for the protection of their investments in Mexico. The prime mover in the agreement was Napoleon III of France. A joint expedition occupied Veracruz in 1861, but when Napoleon's colonial ambitions became evident, the British and Spanish withdrew in 1862. For a year French troops battled their way through Mexico, finally entering Mexico City in June 1863. Juárez and his cabinet fled, and a provisional conservative government proclaimed a Mexican Empire and offered the Crown, at Napoleon's instigation, to Maximilian, an Archduke of Austria.

From 1864 to 1865 Maximilian and his wife, Carlotta, ruled the empire, but in 1865 France, under pressure from the United States, which continued to recognize Juárez, withdrew its forces. The armies of Juárez reconquered the country after the French had been repulsed in 1867, and republican troops under General Porfirio Díaz occupied Mexico City. Maximilian, besieged at Querétaro, was forced to surrender and, after a court-martial, was shot. It was a brief but brave reign.

Again Juárez attempted to restore order, but was met with revolts. In 1871, after an indecisive election, the Congress of Mexico declared Juárez president. Díaz, a candidate who had been defeated, led an unsuccessful insurrection. Juárez died in 1872 and was succeeded by Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, head of the Mexican supreme court. In 1876, when Lerdo de Tejada sought reelection, Díaz led yet another revolt. Successful this time, he became president in 1877. Thus revolve the wheels of fate!

The Mexican-American War, then took place, during which the Yanks persuaded Mexico to accept $18,250,000 for California, Nevada, Utah and parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming. Quite an impressive patch of real estate, eh? Before that deal, it was the Mexicans who thought they had an immigration problem, what with all those gringos constantly charging across their frontiers!

Indeed, Hispanic Americans are fond of arguing that the defeat of Napoleon III’s men in 1862 stopped the French from supplying arms to the Confederate Army for another year, thus helping Abraham Lincoln to win the Civil War! This might be a bit far-fetched, but the spirit of the argument should be embraced.

Today things are very different. The Americans fear that their precious homeland acquired through highly questionable methods, is threatened by Latinos, who are said to be swarming across the border.

Their song would be “North of the Border”, not looking for love and romance, but any kind of work! Their predicament reminds me of another song to do with cowboys and Mexicans, popular in Calcutta during World War II in the East, was :

Oh give me land, lots of land,
Under starry skies above,
Don’t fence me in!

President Bush is moving around the Immigration Crisis like a frightened eel, not quite sure where contradictory advice might land him. What sounds reasonable is the desire one day to permit Latinos to become legal citizens of the United States. In the meantime,

But it remains sharply at odds with a hardline Bill passed last December by Republican congressmen in the House of Representatives who are possibly more in touch with the party’s conservative base. This Bill would eventually cost billions of dollars in building new fences along the Mexican border, as well as making felons of undocumented workers without offering them any positive route to legality. The desperate Latinos may put up with being called names, perhaps, but not called and treated like criminals! They need to be assured that all the fuss is over, and all that is left is the paperwork, although this is not exactly true. Mr Bush is addressing the first major domestic problem of his presidency. His enemies – and that means the majority of those who voted for him – are certainly out to get him, so he should be on his guard.

It is not encouraging to read in The Guardian :

George Bush, scrambling to hold on to an increasingly disaffected conservative Republican base, said last night that he was deploying thousands of troops on America's border with Mexico to crack down on illegal immigration.

Apart from this heavy military commitment, Bush has already announced that he will deploy 6,000 National Guard contingents to stop “illegal” Mexicans from crossing that sentimental border!

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