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MEXICO: America's aching spine

Americans have little interest in Latin America. Aldo da Rosa jokes that there has been an improvement. They used to think that Buenos Aires was the capital of Brazil, but now the better informed know it is Rio. I would go further: some Americans very well-informed about Latin America have little empathy for it and do not realize the extend of poverty there. David Westbrook calls our attention to an article on the world-wide geography of `poverty in the latest issue of the Scientific American.

Is the situation in Mexico like that at the end of the rule of Porfirio Díaz? The technocrats employed by the government since the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari are like the científicos of Porfirio Díaz. Under him. the country was making great progress. In 1910 it celebrated the centenary of Hidalgo's famous grito, which as usual, was misrepresented as a declaration of independence. In fact he said "Long live Fernando VII and the Virgin of Guadalupe, and down with the bad government!", referring possibly to the French puppet government which had usurped the throne, which rightly belonged to Fernando VII. It was on the surface a declaration not of independence but of loyalty to the king of Spain. The rebellion broke out in Guanajuato, the capital of Fox. Do the people of that city today recall the bloody insurrection, in which Spaniards were massacred? Do the people there regard Fox, whose mother was a Spaniard, as a gachupín, the nasty label given to Spaniards? But why be bothered with the facts of history? Bring in the mariachis for the fiesta! Applause for Porfirio Díaz showed an ignorance of reality.

Americans had invested heavily in Mexico just as they have under NAFTA. American government officials joined in the joyful official celebrations proclaiming the glories of the Díaz regime. What an illusion! As Anita Brenner describes in The Wind that Swept Mexico, revolution would soon break out, led by Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, the hero Marcos emulates. The result was decades of ruin and misery from which Mexico has recovered only recently. We hope history is not repeating itself, but in may.

As Marcos and his army settled in Mexico, the lines were drawn. He had the support of mobs of young Mexicans who flocked from all over the area to hear a concert given by his supporters. Marcos showed no gratitude toward Fox, who had allowed his band to advance without hindrance. In an interview with the leftist magazine Proceso he belittled him and rejected his invitation to go to the presidential residence for talks. He was even more scornful of the predecessor of Fox, Ernesto Zedillo. Marcos is conceited and speaks of all his critics with disdain. He does not seem to realize his own limitations. It is as improbable that he and his gang could run Mexico much more efficiently that Zapata and Pancho Villa could have.

He has his allies, first among anthropologists, who housed his group in the National School of Anthropology and History. Some were housed in the university, where he met with a group of supporters, some foreign, like the 1998 Nobel laureate in literature, José Saramago, and at least three French figures: sociologist Alain Touraine, peasant leader Joseph Bové, and Mme. Mitterrand, widow of the French president. One reason I do not trust cultural anthropologists is that they concentrate on a local group of natives and forget the broader picture. Stanford anthropologists were active in establishing the Stanford campus at San Crístobal, the old capital of Chiapas. Some of them had no interest in or understanding of Mexico as a whole. As a result of my complaints that the campus gave a distorted picture of Mexico, the Stanford administration agreed to establish a campus at the University of the Americas. near Puebla. Some leading Mexican intellectuals had a similar criticism of anthropologists. One said on Televisa that the Indians need not protection for their languages and cultures, but good water, houses and work.

Marcos also has the witting support of some American leftists, who are right in demanding that Fidel Castro and his his imitators be judged fairly, but who fail to admit the unacceptable flaws in their system. In retaliation for criticism of his human right record by the UN and the US, Castro rebuked foreign journalists and jailed some thirty dissidents. Marcos also had unwitting US supporters. Many Americans are angered by the disparity of the huge salaries paid to executives who do not hesitate to fire thousands of workers. leaving them to face misery. Most foreigners are not just angered by this contrast; they are appalled. An unfortunate feature of American university life is that many students are just after a fat salary and fun. The expression "springbreakers" has entered the Mexican vocabulary for American college youths who swarm into Mexico during that break to enjoy unbridled fun, Cancún being a favorite haunt. The Mexican media have been running a campaign against them, describing them as spoiled immoral brats whom Mexico tolerates because of the money they bring.

The attitude of the Catholic Church was ambivalent. The Zapatistas used church facilities along their route, but official church pronouncements were cautious. There are a surprising number of Evangelicals among the people of Chiapas, and they seemed to support the Zapatistas. Ricardo Aquino Alfaro, head of the evangelicals of Veracruz, made a speech which puzzled me.

Marcos has many enemies. The most vehement said he should be shot. The governor of Querétaro, with an unfortunately clerical sounding name, said Marcos was a traitor. Marcos used choice epithets to describe him; he has an ample supply of them. More important, unlike the leftist PRD, the PAN and PRI deputies in Congress were united in their opposition to him; they refused his request to be allowed to address Congress. After the excitement of his arrival in Mexico, it is probable that the public will tire of him, but leftist university students and others will continue to support him, with violence if necessary

The tragedy in Colombia gave a hint of what might await Mexico. Fun-loving rich Colombians carried on a usual, while FARC met with President Pastrana in rebel territory. They seemed ready to resume the fight if their conditions were not met. Electric pylons were once more blown up, plunging a whole area in darkness, as a hint of what might happen. In Peru, Alejandro Toledo gained popularity, according to polls. If elected, he might well become a leader of his fellow Indians. Fujimori had won support by controlling the Sendero Luminoso revolutionaries, but now anthropologusts (!) were digging up the graves of some of its members killed when the Japanese embassy was stormed by Fujimori's foces. The aim was to prove that they had been shot after they had surrendered, thus making Fujimori guilty of crimes against humanity and thus subject to a trial by an international court. The hope was that he could then be extradited from Japan, which he refused to leave to face charges in Peru. The Pinochet case in Chile continued to seesaw, and violence brought more havoc to the south.

Canada is never mentioned in this connection, but the government of British Colombia has reached a generous agreement with Indian tribes. Whether it will work and whether it could be a model for countries like Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile remains to be seen. I make no predictions, but my advice is not "Remember the Alamo!", or "Remember the Maine!", but "Remember Porfirio Díaz!". Or perhaps I should say "Remember General Pershing!", as we wonder what President Bush will do in case of violence in Mexico. Is there a doctor in the house to cure America's aching spine?

Ronald Hilton - 3/13/01