Chaos may not be too strong a word for the social and political disarray that marks the crumbling of Mexico's 67-year-old authoritarian political system unresolved political assassinations; massive currency crises and capital flight; paralyzing economic downturn; guerrilla uprisings in the south; graft of pharaonic scale in a once trusted former president's immediate family; and emergence of a Colombia-style narco-culture that pervades all institutions and co-opts all law enforcement.
Most of these afflictions are not new in Mexico's troubled 174-year history as an independent republic. But nowadays they seem far more menacing from this side of our common border. Mexico is no longer a sleepy banana republic isolated by harsh terrain and bad roads from the U.S. There will soon be 100 million Mexicans, most of them unfulfilled, impatient - and mobile - as never before. Nearly 20 million of them live within a half day's drive of the U.S. border.
The mushrooming of Mexican colonies in the U.S. southwest has increasingly mingled Mexico's politics with our own. The Mexican establishment has advanced this process by allowing Mexican-born Americans dual citizenship and extending partisan political mobilization to U.S. territory. The U.S. encourages it by sweeping immigration amnesties followed by massive rubber-stamp naturalizations. Overlapping loyalties and an evanescent border are ingredients for the spread of violent conflict to U.S. soil if the Republic's political rot degenerates into general insurgency.
Journalist Andres Oppenheimer ratchets up our fears of apocalypse in Mexico with this chronicle of corruption, greed, murder and ineptitude in the ruling circles of the republic since the early 1990s. His book is a series of journalistic sketches or case studies of recent debacles in Mexico that symptomize a political system above accountability, immobilized by deceit and denial, and now collapsing from within because of infighting among the once united dominant political tribes.
Corruption, he notes, is no longer working as the Aoil@ and Aglue@ of Mexico's political system C the oil that made government wheels turn and the glue which bound quarrelsome factions of elites together and to the president since the 1920s.
The uprising of Zapatista militants in Chiapas state on New Years day 1994, an expression of despair, also helped catalyze the loss of investor confidence that would within a few months blossom into massive capital flight. Oppenheimer disputes the romantic view of some media and international human rights interests of the Chiapas insurgency as an indigenous, non-ideological movement for Indians' rights. Oppenheimer traces the movement's origins and leadership, not to Chiapas, but to a 17-year effort among non-Indian urban, Marxist-Leninist militants.
Initial reports of the latest anti-regime uprisings in Guerrero and Oaxaca states in August, 1996, suggest Oppenheimer's analysis is valid there as well. The implications are ominous. Mexico's professional revolutionaries have succeeded where Che Guevara and Fidel Castro failed C winning the active allegiance of the downtrodden indian masses.
AAmong the worst losers
[in the 1994 currency crisis]
are those in Mexico's working
class, which once again is
sacrificing most to pay for the
elite's bouts of overspending and corruption, and American communities and their workers,
who must bear the costs of new waves of Mexican settlersY@
Neither Mexico nor the United States looks noble in the book's recounting of events leading to the currency crisis of late 1994. Mexico City set the stage for insolvency with an overvalued peso that stimulated massive imports from the United States in 1993 and 1994 and heavy patronage spending in anticipation of the 1994 elections. The Clinton administration reaped the gains as Mexico's extravagant purchases and hefty trade deficit with the United States improved the climate for Congressional approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
But with the ink hardly dry on NAFTA, Mexico's reserves had dwindled to the danger level by early 1994. Even as U.S. Treasury officials confidentially warned of impending financial crisis, the Clinton administration was publicly praising Mexico's economic record. Two weeks before the devaluation Clinton held up Mexico as a Amodel of good economic management@ for other world economies. None of Treasury's internal warnings were shared with millions of U.S. investors, who failed to get out before devaluation cut the value of their investments by half.
Among the worst losers are those in Mexico's working class, which once again is sacrificing most to pay for the elite's bouts of overspending and corruption, and American communities and their workers, who must bear the costs of new waves of Mexican settlers abandoning a country that offers only poverty and neglect.
The well-connected giants of Mexico's coddled private sector, Oppenheimer notes, had no trouble switching out of pesos in time. While Mexico's smaller businesses and farmers have suffered severely under NAFTA, private sector elites were able to buy privatized state enterprises on sweetheart terms and were guaranteed protection of their monopolies for the first twelve years of NAFTA. In return, Mexico's magnates donated sums to the official party's 1994 re-election effort that make U.S. political contributions seem paltry.
Oppenheimer concludes that Ernest Zedillo, candidate of the official party, won the Presidency in August, 1994 fair and square, although with less than half the vote for the first time in PRI history. The author gives us an insider's view of how then-President Carlos Salinas Gortari hand-picked to succeed him, first, the ill-fated Luis Donaldo Colosio and then Zedillo, without even the pretence of a primary vote, convention, or even a smoke-filled room to restrain him. This was an exercise of what the author calls Mexico's Arevolving dictatorship.@
At work throughout these events, Oppenheimer finds, is AMexican exceptionalism@ among U.S. policy makers. No matter how destructive Mexico's behavior, whether drug smuggling, human rights abuses, illegal immigration, or financial recklessness, the United States will not endanger the relationship by confronting it as a mature, accountable partner. One political scientist has called this condition Athe tyranny of the weak.@
For the author, among the sickest of Mexico's institutions are the national, state and local police forces C some 2400 of them, poorly coordinated, trained and paid. The major police forces have carved out special niches of corruption. The Federal Police are now the allies and protectors of the major Mexican drug cartels, or distributors themselves of seized heroin and cocaine. The Mexico City police specialize in extortion of motorists and taxi operators and occasional kidnappings for ransom. Tijuana city police have prospered in car theft in neighboring San Diego. State police forces are little more than uniformed crime syndicates.
The Ministry of Interior estimated conservatively in 1995 that 60 percent of all police had accepted bribes or had criminal records themselves. The Ministry reported that about 50 percent of members of the nation's estimated 900 criminal bands were active or retired members of police forces.
An inescapable point of Oppenheimer's volume is that Mexico as a modern nation is just not working. Mexico's divisions and injustices are antithetical to nation building. Not surprisingly Mexicans are spiritually or physically opting out. Oppenheimer finds Mexican nationalism is a myth created by the ruling elites to strengthen their bargaining position with the United States. The author cites polls showing Mexicans are less nationalistic than Americans: 59 percent of them favor a political merger with the United States.
For millions, the Mexican state now fails to offer the most basic amenities of nationhood: equality before the law, a functioning judicial system, personal safety and dignity, and a modicum of civic participation. A portentous response has been the unilateral self-annexation of millions of Mexicans to the nation next door.