Thursday, April 18, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Mexican Elections in Perspective by Ignacio Castuera

Mexican Elections in Perspective
Ignacio Castuera

Panama Canal postcard (1915)
COPY: rich701/Flickr

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Empirical

To better understand the results of the recent presidential elections in Mexico, it is necessary to look back at a history of hopes dashed as this nation attempts to live in the shadow of the mightiest empire in the history of the world.

Alexander von Humboldt was the first Protestant allowed to visit the Spanish colonies in Latin America. He corrected the geographical coordinates of Acapulco and visited the city of my childhood, Puebla, which he loved. At the end of his trip he was asked by President Jefferson to meet with him to share his impressions and to talk about subjects of interest to the two intellectual giants. It must be remembered that the same year Jefferson and von Humboldt exchanged views, the Lewis and Clark expedition was launched.

Upon his return to Europe, von Humboldt, a Prussian, attended an event in Paris where he met both Napoleon Bonaparte and a young man from Nueva Granada, Simón Bolívar. During his conversations with Bolívar, von Humboldt urged him to return to the Spanish Colony, liberate it from “Catholic bondage,” and create a large country capable of balancing the power of the “Colossus of the North.” Years later Bolívar said about von Humboldt: “Alexander von Humboldt has done more for America than all its conquerors. He is the true discoverer of America.”

Bolívar did go back to free his colony from Spain, but the great country von Humboldt and he envisioned never materialized, as Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador emerged as three independent–and often quarrelling–separate countries. (Panama was also part of that original great country that Bolívar and von Humboldt envisioned, but when the US was denied access to Nicaragua to create a canal to connect the Pacific to the Caribbean Sea, the US created that artificial republic in territory that was originally Colombian.) To date, the Colossus of the North has almost unchallenged power with few exceptions that rise up from time to time. Right now Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil to some extent, and, until recently, Paraguay seem to offer a measure of resistance.

Puebla, Mexico
PHOTO: Russ Bowling

Zeroing in on Mexico, one must learn, or remember, that even though Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla issued a declaration of independence from Spain in 1810, a long and costly war of eleven years had to be fought before Mexico could really be considered independent. During the War of Independence, a succession of regents ruled the new nation. At one time a Mexican Empire existed with Agustín de Iturbide as emperor, but it disintegrated quickly although many “royalist conservatives” continued to hope for that kind of political option.

Just as it happened in South America, a big country was not allowed to exist next door to the Colossus. First Texas declared itself an independent nation which later became a territory of the United States. In 1846 Mexico lost much of its land due to a most questionable war with the United States. Only Abraham Lincoln opposed the war and asked for proof that indeed Mexico had been the aggressor. Neither he nor Congress ever saw the kind of documentation that would offer such proof. All Mexican territories north of the Rio Grande became US possessions, and some US historians believe that if northern senators had not opposed it even more land would have been lost by Mexico. Ironically, they feared that as with Texas, acquisition of Mexican land would expand the slave states. If it had not been for this concern, Cuba and Nicaragua could have easily become US territories.

After 1848 the smaller and weaker nation of Mexico continued to search for the kind of government that would be appropriate to the new realities. The politicians were divided among conservative and liberals, and a succession of presidents ruled for short periods at a time.

In 1858 Benito Juárez, a Zapotecan Indian from Oaxaca and member of the liberal party, was elected. The conservative party refused to accept the election, and using as an excuse the fact that Mexico still owed a great deal of money to France, “invited” Louis Napoleon to occupy the throne of the defunct Empire of Mexico. Louis Napoleon offered the throne around Europe and young Maximilian of Hapsburg accepted it. Although the Civil War raged on, the Second Mexican Empire existed only in paper and Maximiliano I was known as the Emperor of Mexico. He did not travel to Mexico until 1864.

Pancho Villa
PHOTO: David B. King

During the almost simultaneous Civil Wars in the US and Mexico, Juárez and Abraham Lincoln forged a friendship sustained by correspondence and the personal friendship of their secretaries. At the end of the American Civil War, Lincoln issued a stern warning to the French, tilting the Mexican Civil War in the direction of Benito Juárez. Maximilian was executed along with the leaders of the Mexican Conservative Party in May of 1867. The Conservative opposition to Juárez that precipitated the Mexican Civil War was due to the reforms he proposed to the Mexican Constitution and that is why instead of simply calling it a civil war, Mexican historians refer to it as The War of Reform. 

Among other reforms, Juárez succeeded in abrogating the laws that made the Roman Catholic Church the official state religion of Mexico. At least one of the wishes of von Humboldt became true, albeit much farther to the north than he wanted. Eventually all the new nations that emerged from the former Spanish Colonies followed suit.

During the War of Reform, a young general, Porfirio Díaz, emerged as a brave soldier and a sagacious politician. Eventually Díaz was supported by the Liberal party and became President of Mexico. Sadly, Díaz became drunk with political power and was corrupted by significant funds coming from American copper and oil companies. He was receiving so much money that two ironic statements from him remain axiomatic in Mexico today: “No general can withstand a ten thousand dollar cannon shot,” and “Poor Mexico, so far away from God and so close to the United States.” He ruled for almost thirty years until the Mexican Revolution of 1910 when the familiar figures of Zapata in the south of Mexico and Villa in the north emerged. Villa’s raids across the US border happened because he understood that Díaz’s power was connected to United States interests.

After the Mexican Revolution of 1910 succeeded in removing Porfirio Díaz, a struggle for power took place. Francisco I. Madero, the intellectual who was the most legitimate and capable candidate, was installed as president but he was not acceptable to the economic and political interest of the Colossus. Madero served for only two years. It is common knowledge that the murder of Madero was concocted by a cadre of Mexican traitors headed by Victoriano Huerta, the general in charge of all the armed forces of Madero. Huerta’s plot was assisted very directly by two US interventions: the direct support of the American Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson and the seizure of the Port of Veracruz by US forces sent by President Woodrow Wilson supposedly to stop German expansion of WWI into the Americas. This is known in Mexico as the Ypiranga Incident, after the name of the German registry ship that was seized by US forces only to be released a few days later. These interventions tilted the Mexican Revolution in ways acceptable
to US interests. (For years the most common dog name in Mexico was Wilson; one of the equivalents in Mexican Spanish of “I don’t give a damn” is me vale Wilson; and a wrestling lock which is supposedly impossible to break is called a Wilson!)

Huerta’s plan was discovered but he denied all accusations and unfortunately Madero believed him. A few days later La Decena Tragica (the Ten Tragic Days) occurred with the assassinations of Madero, his Vice President José María Pino Suárez, and many others, and concluded with the installation of Huerta as president of Mexico. Mexican politics remained very unstable until the birth of the PRI, Partido Revolucionario Institucional. Originally the PRI (originally part of the Socialist Internacional) sought to respond to the highest aims of the Mexican Revoluton, nationalizing the railroad companies that were extensions of US companies, and in 1938 President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized the oil companies. It is important to note that in all of these nationalizations Mexico paid high prices to the original companies that established businesses in Mexico.

Mexico City
PHOTO: Leandro Neumann Ciuffo

After World War II under President Miguel Aleman Valdez, the PRI took a right turn politically, and became at best a centrist party whose control remained unchallenged. Unrest was present in varying degrees from student riots (one of which destroyed the statue of Miguel Alemán on the Campus of the National University) to armed uprisings primarily in the state of Guerrero where rebels wanted to complete the Frozen Revolution of 1910. In 1968, prior to the Olympics which were held there, the massacre of Tlatelolco left thousands of young people dead or “disappeared.” 
All this undermined the prestige and power of the PRI. The main beneficiary of the PRI’s decline was the conservative Partido Acción Nacional, PAN.

Since the years after WWII, the PRI had acted in ways that were congruent with benefits for United States interests; this became truer when PAN took over in 2000. Vicente Fox, who was the first President of Mexico from PAN, learned all of his political and economic training as CEO of Coca-Cola Mexico. It is not too far-fetched to state that Fox first worked for Coca-Cola of Mexico and then worked in Mexico for Coca-Cola.

For many years it was believed that the PRI rigged many elections. Ballot boxes were blatantly stolen. Truck loads of voters were driven to polling stations with clear mandates to vote for the PRI and money was offered for voting for the ruling party. But since 2000 a different kind of cheating has emerged for the first time for the benefit of the PAN and most recently for the “refurbished” PRI.

The Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) emerged slowly from a combination of the PRI left-leaning populists and other left-leaning parties. Fox’s victory in 2000 was all but assured when the PRD fielded a presidential candidate, but many observers believe that the PRD candidate against Fox, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas (son of the legendary leftist PRI member and former President Lázaro Cárdenas) was the real winner and that the PAN resorted to the very same tactics that the PRI had used in earlier elections in order to assure a victory for Fox.

In 2006 Felipe Calderón Hinojosa from the PAN was elected, but once again major questions were raised about the election. Most observers in Mexico believe that the real winner was the PRD candidate and angry demonstrations were held in several parts of the country, especially in the capital where the PRD holds an almost absolute political power to this day. The official count had López Obrador, the PDR candidate, losing by very few votes.

Pok-a-Tok field
PHOTO: Nick Paquet

The results of the recent election are an almost exact parallel for López Obrador, but this time it was the PRI that “won” over the PRD by only a couple of percentage points. Official pre-election polls are not permitted in Mexico, but several organizations conducted scientific polls and the results have been shared in the cybermedia, especially using YouTube. In these polls López Obrador had a 49% support in late May with double digit advantage over the PRI candidate, an eventual “winner” of the elections, Enrique Peña Nieto. López Obrador has urged his supporters to remain calm and not to repeat the violent reaction that occurred in 2006.

It is important to indicate that only ten days after his inauguration in 2006, President Felipe Calderón “officially” declared the War on Drugs in Mexico by committing 6500 armed troops and raising salaries of the military and police. For three decades the government had a live-and-let-live policy regarding drug cartels and during that time hardly anybody outside those cartels died as a consequence of violence related to drug use or trafficking.

One definition of the War on Drugs offers a particular note of interest for those observing the Mexican elections and the intervention of the United States in the affairs of countries south of the border. Wikipedia has a succinct and clarifying definition: “The War on Drugs is a campaign of prohibition and foreign military aid and military intervention being undertaken by the United States government, with the assistance of participating countries, intended to both define and reduce the illegal drug trade.” This is taken from the book Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Claire. Translating the concept for our purposes, the War on Drugs is the most recent transformation of US interventionism in Mexico. Here political parties are united now, as the elected man from the PRI has expressed, albeit in nuanced ways, that the War on Drugs will continue. The War on Drugs has been denounced by three former Presidents of Latin American where the Drug War is raging (Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia.) Otto Pérez Molina, former President of Guatemala, pronounced the war a failure just a few months ago during the Summit of the Americas and has had the courage to propose decriminalization.

At the time of the writing of this article, the Mexican poet, Javier Sicilia, is in the midst of a campaign in the United States to end the War on Drugs. Sicilia’s son died tragically in the cross fire of disputing sides of the war. He reasons that drug use is not a criminal problem–it is a health problem. However, there is a lot more profit in supporting a War on Drugs arming all sides, legally and illegally, than in addressing the problem as a health issue. Sicilia also has stated that those who buy drugs most of the time plan to use them on themselves, but those who procure weapons plan to use them on others. This kind of impeccable reasoning is bound to get a prophet like Sicilia killed, rather than heeded.

Eduardo del Rio (known simply as Rius) is a popular and populist pedagogue whose books try to educate the masses about the harsh political and economic realities of Mexico. During the recently concluded campaign, he stated that it seemed impossible that after twelve years of PAN regimes the PRI was making a comeback and was asking voters to support the PRD. He went on to add during most of his speaking engagements that it was nearly impossible to counter the propaganda machine of the corporations who used radio, television, and other mass miseducation. His books, said Rius, reach a maximum of several hundred thousand readers. Televisa and TV Azteca (the Mexican media giants) reach millions in seconds with lies, misinformation, and misrepresentation.

Rius’ statement can be echoed in the US and in most North Atlantic nations. The stories reporting the results of the Mexican election hide much more than they reveal. Enrique Peña Nieto was declared the winner, but at this writing, a most unlikely coalition of PRD and PAN politicians are questioning the results and urging a thorough investigation.

As pointed out before, after WWII the PRI has behaved in ways that benefit US interests more than the Mexican citizens. When NAFTA (North American Fair Trade Agreement) was implemented, an unlikely combination of factors came together. First, in the United States, Bill Clinton, who had campaigned against NAFTA before the elections, proceeded to twist arms of Democrats to ensure passage of NAFTA. In Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the President of Mexico from the PRI, together with Carlos Slim pushed for the approval of NAFTA in Mexico. This deal was instrumental in helping Slim to become the richest man on Earth (according to Forbes magazine.) So both in the US and in Mexico, the common folks keep on getting poorer no matter which party wins. The real winners after the elections are the big corporations and the oligarchies that truly own both countries.

The only hopeful development in Mexico is the emergent growth and influence of the PRD. The Regente of Mexico City (a sort of Mayor but with much more power) is from the PRD. The more educated people voted for the PRD and the youthful movement, Somos 139. (“We are 139” is a movement that emerged as students in the elite Universidad Iberoamericana responded to the claims that only 138 students had walked out in defiance and opposition to the candidate from the PRI). They played a major role in campaigning for López Obrador.

The PRD will get a significant number of seats in the Mexican Congress and the PRI will have to negotiate instead of merely dictate. The PRD has the potential to prove Porfirio Díaz wrong; pobrecito de Mexico, tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos (poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States) is no longer strictly axiomatic, but the road ahead will not be easy either.

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