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Ghost story

7 April 2010

Rafael Barajas Durán, el Fisgón, has long been my favorite Mexican political cartoonist. Working for Jornada, he can probably count on a better than average educated audience,  but he is typically Mexican and very much part of the Mexican mainstream in his assumption that one recognizes the past and the weight of the past in today’s headlines. North of the border, we think of the “drug war” — and the interest of the United States in “assisting” Mexico with “problems” on the northern border as something going back, at most, to Richard Nixon’s presidency.  In Mexico, as Fisgón not so subtly reminds us, to understand ourselves, we need to look beyond our own immediate lives, and think in terms other than the narrow concerns of today’s headlines.

Not so subtly, Fisgón has the ghost of the General Santa Ana — the disastrous and devious “Napoleon of the West” of the early and mid- 19th century — looming over Don Felipe, shown as a little boy playing soldier (notice the uniform shirt trails down to the ground), lecturing the living President like an angry and disappointed parent.  “At least I never had to explain why the Army patrols our border”, says the President best remembered for losing nearly half the country to the United States.

The new paradigm of the drug war is that a purely military solution — more troops on the border — has been counterproductive.  Even George Friedman at Stratfor, the military-industrial complex’s favorite spokesman, has finally cottoned on to this, and it’s suddenly being presented as if there were a new and startling observation.  I’d like to think Friedman stole the idea from me, but I stole it from Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Laura Carlesen, Andres Manuel López Obradór, Carlos Montemayor, Jorge Casteñeda, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon and many, many others…  including Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana.

What I see Fisgón getting at is not so much that Don Felipe just doesn’t measure up to the ghost of Santa Ana, but that he’s playing — and playing badly — at a game that for Santa Ana was life and death.  It was his attempts to create a centralized state that led to the Texas Revolt, and — in attempting to control that border situation — sparked the United States invasion of 1846-48.    He didn’t wipe out the Alamo, nor put troops in the field just for show… something our smaller, less-inspiring, less-flamboyant, less-threatened (and less threatening) President doesn’t seem to understand.

Santa Ana’s eleven presidencies ranged across the Mexican political spectrum of the early 19th century… his governments ranged from reactionary to reformist, under varying forms of government from federal republic to a centralized state.  He tinkered constantly with the means of governance.  While there haven’t been, and we are well beyond the days of, wrenching changes in the form of governance, the present Administration keeps trying to change the rules… first to denationalize our energy producers, then to consolidate the electrical system, then to decide monopolies need to be broken up… all within a few years.  As in the Santa Ana years — in a small way — we are seeing a government with no real agenda other than its own preservation.

But Santa Ana was consistent in one area — preserving Santa Ana.  His tenures in the Presidential chair generally were constitutionally  irregular — in a large and public way.  He depended on the military to defeat and break up any organized opposition to his rule and to support the elites who only wanted the state to bolster their own economic interests.  And never felt the need to explain or justify that.  Felipe Calderón’s accession to Los Pinos wasn’t as dramatic as some of Santa Ana’s (his best being when he resigned as President, so he could overthrow his government, and try out a weird system of four branches of government), but it was — in the eyes of many — at the very least constitutionally dubious: a Santanizadoito.

Klein, Chomsky, et. al. have pointed out that an emergency — real or feigned — is used to force unpopular changes on a society.   The “drug war” keeps the military in the streets and along the border,  allows the government to label potential opponents as an enemy (think of the claims Michaocán politicians were all in the pockets of “cartels” only to have charges dropped after the elections) and to distract the populace from moves designed to shift power away from the workers back to the old elites (as in the proposed radical changes to the Labor Code, which effectively makes it impossible to form a union without an employer’s approval).

Santa Ana had one advantage over Don Felipe.  In the 1840s, the border was sparcely populated, and there really wasn’t all that much demand in the United States for Mexican products.  And his emergency was real.

Today, as George Friedman notes:

The United States consumes vast amounts of narcotics, which, while illegal there, make their way in abundance. Narcotics derive from low-cost agricultural products that become consumable with minimal processing. With its long, shared border with the United States, Mexico has become a major grower, processor and exporter of narcotics. Because the drugs are illegal and thus outside normal market processes, their price is determined by their illegality rather than by the cost of production. This means extraordinary profits can be made by moving narcotics from the Mexican side of the borderto markets on the other side.

Whoever controls the supply chain from the fields to the processing facilities and, above all, across the border, will make enormous amounts of money…

From Mexico’s point of view, interrupting the flow of drugs to the United States is not clearly in the national interest or in that of the economic elite. }

What would Santa Ana do?  Of course, he would back the elites with the Army. Or would he?

In 1847, as the Winfield Scott moved in on Mexico City, Santa Ana’s agents  approached U.S. asking for a cash payment in return for which the Mexican Army would only feign resistance.  Scott fell for it, and Santa Ana — honest for once in his life (well, dishonest in an honest way) used the money to pay his troops, who did not feign their resistance.  Santa Ana’s final downfall was in 1853 when he sold the 76,800 km2 Mesilla Valley to the United States — it was, after all, of little use to Mexico and Mexico (or rather, Santa Ana) needed the money.

Bribery now is more subtle — and more complicated — than in Santa Ana’s day. And the border, unlike it was in the 19th century, is a busy place, with huge United States investments. And, unlike the times of Santa Ana, we like to think we are a more democratic and open society, in which the people have rights too.

Who are the elites?  The narcos?  The United States business interests?  The United States narco business interests?  The United States government?  The people?

Felipe Calderón, let us remember, approached the United States government with the idea of the Merida Initiative.  While the funding is not, as with the Mesilla Valley deal, a matter of just making a cash offer, skimming off as much as possible and sending the remainder to Mexico (er… Santa Ana), but an investment in goods and services that will be used to supposed allow the Mexican Army to fight… whom?  And for whom?  And against whom?

And so the Army is on the border.  As confused as to their exact role as anyone.  And with only a ghost of a chance of a cogent, adult explanation.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 April 2010 5:02 am

    a real ghost story.

  2. 4 July 2014 6:14 am

    Segun comentan los entendidos en Michel de Nostradamus ya predecia esta situacion en Iraq

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  1. Peru and that “sea-change” in Mexico « The Mex Files

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