Thursday, May 5, 2011

Cinco de Mayo -- A Poor Excuse for a Party



Throughout the Southwest and in more and more communities even in the North and East, this weekend will see a host of festive raucous Cinco de Mayo parties with the usual fare of tacos, moles, carnitas, and chicharron, the usual blare of banda, salsa and mariachi music and of course lots of tequila, margaritas and cerveza. There will also be the usual press clippings explaining how the victory of “Mexican” forces against the French “invader” symbolizes Mexican freedom and self-determination.

One is loathe to begrudge a party, but the Cinco de Mayo was not a great victory for Mexico. It was rather the symbolic beginning of her complete subservience to the United States.

Secular and anti-clerical biases in Mexico and the United States lend support to what has become the Myth of Benito Juarez who is lauded as the "liberator" of Indians and the "defender" of his country against foreign domination. As a politically correct bonus, he himself was actually a full blooded indigenous person. A few facts might help.


The French did not invade Mexico. They were invited in by the Conservatives in what had become a civil war over the nature and direction of the country.

Juarez was a leader in the Liberal faction which wanted free markets, free trade and an economic alliance with the United States. (Another leading Liberal was Governor Mariano Vallejo whose fairly gushing admiration for the United States led him to connive at American illegal immigration into California.)

Juarez was also an adamant secularist who blamed religion for all of Mexico's woes and who was determined to "liberate" the masses from their superstitions and lead them into the sunshine of Positivism.

In pursuit of these economic and secular goals Juarez was willing to sell the country to the United States. In 1861, upon assuming the presidency after a three year civil war, Juarez sent a personal emissary to Springfield Illinois to inform the newly elected Lincoln of his desire “to maintain the most intimate and friendly relations with the United States ... and to concede every form of facilities towards developing the commercial and other interests of both republics.” [1]

The type of concessions Juarez had in mind were evidenced in the McLane-Ocampo Treaty (1859) in which, in exchange for four million dollars, he granted the U.S. transit rights over the Isthmus of Tehuantepec which was being eyed as a possible inter-ocean canal. Juarez also proposed to grant additional corridors from Tampico to Mazatlan and from Arizona to Guaymas, thereby cutting the country into four sections. Further bittering the deal, Juarez agreed that Mexican troops would protect and enforce American transit rights. Lastly, the treaty abolished tariffs between the two countries and prohibited the granting of similar arrangements to any other "party". It was simply NAFTA with a vengeance. Fortunately for Mexico, the U.S. Senate never ratified the treaty.

Less fortunately for the Indian, Juarez's inane attempt to turn the peasant into a Jeffersonian yeoman benefitted only one class: the American investor. "Liberated" from his century old ejido system of communal land holding, (which had existed even prior to the Spanish Conquest), Indian peasants "freely" alienated their lands to American buyers and were left utterly destitute.

Juarez was an ultra-liberal free-trader who was entirely willing to place Mexico under the tutelage and economic domination of the U.S. If Mexico was saved from utter humiliation by the U.S. Senate, it was not for want of trying by Juarez.

In 1859, the same year that Juarez was buying support from the United States, the Conservatives initiated discussions with France with a view to having Archduke Maximilian of Austria assume the Mexican throne, vacant since 1824.

In 1862, at the request of the Conservative “Regency,” French troops landed in Veracruz. In Puebla, on the ascending plains outside the Central Valley, they were met and temporarily defeated by Liberal forces. It is this victory that is celebrated on the Cinco de Mayo.



In the ensuing weeks, the French retook the initiative and seized the capital. In 1864, Maximilian arrived and was installed as Emperor. By then, however, the American Civil War was over and the United States resumed its funding of the Liberal forces, leading to the ultimate defeat and execution of Maximilian (1867), whose rotting corpse Juarez refused to return to the widowed, erstwhile empress Carlota for over a year.

After defeat of "the French," Juarez was elected president by an overwhelming electoral onslaught of 7,422 votes out of 10,380 cast. (Yes, Mexico was that kind of democracy.) With the French out and the Confederacy defeated, the United States and Mexico could finally consummate their integration.

The sticking point all along had been the U.S. Democrats who conceived of domination in terms of territorial annexation and the extension of slavery. This was unacceptable to even the most craven Mexican. As Juarez's Springfield emissary had put it, “We are willing to grant the United States every commercial facility that will not be derogatory to our independence and sovereignty. This will give the United States all possible advantages of annexation without any of its inconveniences.” [1]

Free soil Republicans got the message; and, as Secretary of State William Seward later put it,“value[d] dollars more, and dominion less." Mexico's debts to the United States were paid off with licenses, land-grants and economic concessions.

In 1871, Juarez was re-elected by 5,837 votes against 3,555 for Porfirio Diaz and 2,874 for Sebasti√°n Lerdo de Tejada, all of whom were Liberals. Juarez died the following year and was succeeded by Tejada who began to feel that dependence on the United States had gone far enough. "Better a desert between strength and weakness," he said.

But between strength and weakness lay a mountain of debt. Tejada's proposed policy of balancing sell-outs with appeals to French (!) investors displeased the First National City Bank of New York, which overnight called-in its many loans and with the stroke of a pen bankrupted the Mexican Government.

Meanwhile, with funds provided by his investor friends in New York, Gen. Porfirio Diaz assembled troops on the northern border (that would be Texas) from whence he launched his liberating invasion of Mexico.

Once installed as president, Diaz became a stickler for legalities and had himself duly and very properly re-elected president for the next 35 years during which time he quite literally sold the country out to American interests. Of course a few upper crust Mexicans participated in the bonanza or served as strawmen but, by and large, virtually all of Mexico's resources, infrastructure, banking and commerce were under foreign and mostly American control.

By the numbers, Mexico boomed. It was ranked a first world country. It took three dollars to buy a single peso. From Taft to Tolstoy, Diaz was hailed as the prodigy of his age. But by those other numbers, Mexico was steeped in misery. The wealth did not trickle down. Only two percent of the population held title to land; and that two percent excluded 90 percent of the Indian population. In 1895 life expectancy was 30 years and 16 percent of the population was homeless.

In 1910, Diaz was overthrown in what is known as the Mexican Revolution. Covering its own sins of continuity, Mexico’s post-revolutionary governments have turned Diaz into the bugbear of the story. He is excoriated, denounced and blamed for following precisely the same policies that the "benemerito" Juarez had charted. The cherry on the whole historical sundae is that the general who led the decisive and winning charge on the Cinco de Mayo was none other than Porfirio Diaz himself.


This is not to deny that Mexico was faced with unpalatable choices, the essence of which had been brilliantly foreseen by the Count of Aranda. In a prophetic memorandum written in 1788 to King Charles III, Aranda lamented American independence. These “pygmy” colonies, he said, would soon become a “colossus” which would feed upon Spanish lands. [2]

Fully grasping the demographic, economic and cultural issues involved, Aranda proposed turning the hemisphere into a Spanish Commonwealth, ruled by affiliated monarchies taken from the Spanish House of Borbón, and perpetually excluding economic relations with the United States or Great Britain.

It was not to be. Napoleon’s invasion of Spain made sure of that, as did the restoration of the ultra-imbecillic Ferdinand VII. But in no small measure, the collapse of Aranda’s plan was also due to the opposition of those New World Spaniards (criollos) who, for a variety of economic and ideological reasons, wanted free trade with the English and the Americans.

Nevertheless, Aranda’s prospectus explains why the flags of Argentina, Guatemala and Nicaragua are dressed in the pale blue of Borbon colors and why Mexican conservatives had sought both in 1821 and 1859 to re-establish a monarchy oriented toward Europe.

It can be said, in gross, that throughout the 19th century the great divide in the Spanish Americas was between liberals who espoused free-trade with the United States coupled with the empirical secularism of the so-called French Enlightenment and more physiocratic conservatives who preferred commercial relations with continental Europe coupled to the cultural and religious traditions of the Indo-Iberian world.

From an economic perspective, the game was lost about the time of the world recession of 1808. The failure of the Spanish Empire to adequately foment the development of local capital meant that Spanish America would always have to look to the outside for its own development. With countries as with individuals economic catch-up is almost impossible.

The issue was not “what” but “how” -- or, more brutally, who would be the better, gentler master: Europeans with their understanding and at least partial respect for common cultural traditions or the Americans with their incomprehension, disdain and plunder-based economy.

People of a progressive or leftist persuasion tend to be anti-clerical, if not anti-religious. They also are pleased to see native people of color advance into positions of leadership. But Juarez is not their man.

Juarez was one of those people who turn their backs on themselves out of a mimetic envy and admiration of an alien who appears to them to be all that they are not and ought to be. Although he is extolled as Mexico’s first Indian president, he in fact turned his back on everything the Indian was and himself wanted to be.

It was Maximilian who, with the eyes of the enchanted foreigner, saw and appreciated the uniqueness of the Indians and sought to be their protector. Maximilian’s decrees were published in Nahuatl and indigenous people were granted the right to imperial audience and petition. Maximilian re-established recognition of communal ejidal lands and prohibited their alienation. Lastly, he promulgated laws regulating and improving the working conditions of agricultural laborers. This was no small matter in a country which, at the time, was one-third pure Indian.

The tragedy of Maximilian was that he was, in fact, a progressive and did more to modernize Mexico in three years than had been done in the preceding thirty. He alienated his own conservative base by refusing to abrogate the laws separating church and state. The difference between him and Juarez was that Maximilian saw and valued those deep rooted traditions and norms that give a people their uniqueness and define the character of a country. Juarez wanted Mexico to be not-Mexico.

As classic economic liberals, enamored with the Cartesian/Voltairian ideals of the French Revolution, it was was hardly surprising that Juarez & Co. should think of countries as fungible “economic units” in “trading blocs.” It was this mind-set that led liberals throughout Hispanic America to look to and attempt to carbon copy Democracy in America, irrespective of their own demographics and cultural traditions. It was a deceitful fantasy and the results were devastating.

Marx has pointed out that the bourgeois revolutions of the late 18th century resulted in a certain “equalization” of the individual who was freed to enter into ad hoc economic relations. “Free soil, Free Labor” as the U.S. Republicans put it. But the downside of this liberation was that it freed the individual to be simply a unit of production and consumption without that complex of personal affiliations and cultural customs that was woven around feudal economic relations.

This is not to repeat the somewhat trite and tired refrain that America has no culture. It was rather that the United States, erected on a virtual tabula raza, opted from the start to be home to all. The Count of Aranda saw clearly the advantages this gave to the Northern Pygmy,

“The liberty of religion and the ease of establishing settlements under the new form of government will call forth laborers and artisans from all nations....”

By “ease of establishing settlements” he meant that the new form of government dispensed with the limitations that had been placed on westward expansion by the British Crown, one of the main actual grievances of the disloyal colonists.

But Mexico had its own history -- one formed by the complex and paradoxical synchretism between the indigenous and the iberian under the aegis of a very multi-faceted Catholicism which both restricted and preserved pre-Cortesian beliefs and economies. To mold and modernize this clay required a very finessed hand.

In Mexico, where everything is equivocal, so-called "feudal" relations included exploitative hacienda peonage but also encompassed those communal ejidal proprietorships, rooted in soil and religion, which the "revolutionary" Emiliano Zapata fought to maintain.

Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals were quite the bete noir they made each other out to be. Both faced a difficult task with less than delightful choices. Conservative intransigence over religious toleration (in Mexico a rather academic issue) caused them to desert their own best hope of a constitutional monarchy allied (as was the Dominion of Canada) with a European power.

Subordinating the country to the pygmy turned voracious colossus was the worst possible solution. Even assuming that American capitalism provided something more than extractive exploitation, it had nothing to offer Mexico but a cycle of production and consumption; and it is this that has filled Mexico with the appalling spectacle of consumer junk, mounds of garbage and telenovelas all smarmed over by an official propaganda of indigenous kitsch.

Global capitalism proved itself to be an irresistible historical phenomenon. But a political economy which followed the less utilitarian and more socially conscious French and German models would have served Mexico better.





[1] Lincoln’s Mexican Visitor, by William Moss William (1/17/2011) N.Y.Times, and citations therein. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/17/lincolns-mexican-visitor.html

[2] Dictamen del Conde de Aranda al Rey Carlos III...etc. http://www.bibliojuridica.org/libros/6/2713/48.pdf

[3] Empire & Revolution, John Hart, Univ. Press Group, (2006) ISBN 9780520246713


©Woodchip Gazette, 2011
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