"Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!" -- Porfirio Díaz.
Unlike the colonial era when Mexico's relationship with the world was primarily oriented to and controlled from Europe, since achieving its independence the country has been involved most actively with the adjacent areas of the Americas. First and foremost among these has been the United States, to which she lost more than half of its national territory in the middle of the 19th-century and from which it has been subject to on-going economic, political, and cultural pressures ever since. Indeed, a cornerstone of Mexico's foreign policy has been to resist such pressures, not only at home, but also throughout Latin America, and most particularly in those parts of the hemisphere in closest geographic proximity to itself, i.e., in Cuba, Central America, and the Caribbean basin.
Understandably, Mexico's love-hate relationship with the United States traces its beginnings to its defeats in Texas and the Mexican War, but has been kept alive by repeated military interventions or threats thereof in the years that have followed. In times of peace, the U.S. penetration of Mexico's economic life has contributed further to distrust and animosity between the two neighbors. The fact that nearly one-quarter of the productive capacity of Mexico was in American hands on the eve of the Revolution must be appreciated as one of the leading causes for the popular dissatisfaction that resulted in the overthrow of the Díaz regime. Subsequent cautious moves toward the nationalization of the country's railway system and its mineral wealth reflect continuing attempts to shake off "Yankee imperialism". Shortages of agricultural labor in the United States during the 1960's prompted the inauguration of the bracero program, allowing Mexican migrant field hands to work in the U.S. for a specified time before returning home to Mexico. This program also worked to Mexico's advantage, because it provided a safety valve, albeit a small and inadequate one, for the growing unemployment that resulted from that country's rapid population growth. Indeed, once the bracero program ended, the migration of unemployed Mexicans northward across the border only swelled further -- in some years totaling between 300,000 and 500,000 persons, though now it was no longer legally sanctioned. By the end of the 1980's, nearly one-tenth of the population of Mexico was illegally resident in the United States, and by the 1990's certain of the border states (notably California) were finding themselves financially burdened by the provision of educational, health, and welfare services to the burgeoning numbers of aliens.
More ominously, as drug use increased in the United States from the 1950's onward, Mexico not only became a growing supplier of cannabis (marijuana) in its own right but also was used as a strategic "bridge-head" or "way-station" to the American market for the cocaine-producing cartels of South America. The Mexican armed forces and police, in concert with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, have expanded their efforts to curtail the cultivation of illicit drugs in remote areas of the country and to interdict shipments of such substances into their airports and seaports from abroad. However, the United States has frequently challenged such efforts to curb the supply of narcotics as being "half-hearted" and ineffectual due to corruption, whereas the Mexicans in turn have argued that the problem would largely be brought under control only if the American demand for drugs were reduced
Nowhere else on earth does a "first-world" nation like the United States share a common border with a "third-world" country such as Mexico. With income levels on the north ranging from eight to ten times what they are on the south, the "pressure gradient" between the two areas serves to propel a constant stream of disadvantaged people northward across the frontier. (Following U.S. involvement in the conflicts in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, refugees from these countries as well as from Honduras have joined the exodus to El Norte, crossing first into Mexico and then picking their way through the length of that country up to the United States.) Mexican-American interdependence after World War II has grown rapidly as U.S. economic and cultural penetration of its southern neighbor has once more accelerated. Not only is the United States Mexico's largest trading partner -- both for imports and for exports -- but it is also the largest source of revenue for Mexican tourism. The geographic proximity of a growing pool of cheap labor on the southern margin of the largest consumer market on the planet was the primary motivation for the maquiladora program and likewise provided the impetus for the creation of the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) in 1994. By the end of the 1990's, commercial interests both inside Mexico and without were lobbying for the repeal of many "constitutional provisions" aimed at foreign business enterprises that trace their origins back to the Revolution. Thus, as the "globalization" of the world economy continues apace, Mexico contemplates a future that increasingly will subordinate what its sees as its "national self-interest" to that of "international capitalism".
As part of its "anti-American" posture in the realm of international relations, Mexico refused to break off diplomatic relations with Castro's Cuba in the 1960's when Washington began exerting pressure on its hemispheric allies to isolate his government. Indeed, Mexico vociferously denounced all foreign intervention in Cuban affairs -- especially the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion -- as well as the U.S. campaign to remove Cuba from all international organizations. Instead, Mexico has continued an active program of cooperation with Cuba in economic, educational, and cultural affairs, and ever since 1975 the sitting Mexican president has paid a formal "courtesy call" on Cuba during his final year in office. It should be noted that Mexico's relationship vis-a-vis Cuba is paralleled not only by Canada but by the European Union as well, so it is not alone in its reaction to the American policy on this matter.
By the same token, Mexico has been very critical of the U.S. involvement in the internal affairs of the Central American and Caribbean republics. The C.I.A. subversion of the first democratically-elected President of Guatemala in 1954 was merely the beginning of a host of interventions which included the 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic, the 1983 invasion of Grenada, the 1990 invasion of Panama, and the 1994 invasion of Haiti, and which escalated into supporting the so-called Contras in their effort to overthrow the government of Nicaragua and the rightist 'death-squads" of El Salvador, all in the name of "anti-Communism." Mexico was one of the founding members of the so-called "Contadora group", established in 1983 in an effort to end the conflicts in Central America and to remove the influence of both the United States and the Soviet Union from that arena. The following year Mexico helped establish the "Cartagena group" whose aim was to help provide foreign debt relief to the poorer countries of Latin America and later became a signatory to the "San José accords", along with Venezuela, by which it agreed to supply oil on concessionary terms to the economically-weak states of the Caribbean basin.
Of more immediate concern to Mexico were events on its own southern frontier, occasioned by the military campaign launched by the army of Guatemala against suspected "Communists" among the Maya Indians in the Petén region. As government soldiers attempted to herd the isolated inhabitants of the area into centers where they could be more easily monitored by the military, as many as 40,000 of the Indians sought refuge across the border in the Mexican Yucatán. Unable to cope with this unwelcome influx of migrants into its territory, Mexico at first attempted to keep them out, but ultimately had to establish internment camps and, insofar as possible, to provide employment for these homeless people, all the while trying to stem the "invasion" through negotiations with the Guatemalan authorities. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the "diminished threat" that it posed did the military-dominated government of Guatemala move toward relaxing its persecution of the Indians. Finally, following the signing of an accord in 1992, the slow return of the displaced refugees also began. However, the so-called Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994 and growing drug scandals involving the Governor of the state of Quintana Roo have resulted in a much-increased presence of the Mexican military in these areas in the last few years. "Sympathetic" paramilitary up-risings have also shown themselves in other areas of the country, including Guerrero and Oaxaca.
The Elections of 2000
On Sunday, July 2, 2000, Mexico held what has subsequently been hailed as the most democratic presidential election in the country's history. Over 37 million Mexicans -- approximately 64% of the eligible electorate -- cast ballots for candidates of no fewer than eleven political parties, of which only the three largest had any possibility of achieving a sizable plurality, much less a majority. Indeed, no candidate won a majority in the country as a whole, though Vicente Fox, the Governor of the State of Guanajuato and the candidate of the Alliance for Change (AC) -- of which the largest constituent party was the Party of National Action (PAN) -- received the highest number of total votes, or 42.5% of the total. His chief opponent, Francisco Labastida Ochoa, the candidate of the incumbent PRI party (the Institutional Party of the Revolution), received just over 36% of the total votes, and Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the son of former president Lázaro Cárdenas and the candidate of the Alliance for Mexico (AM) -- of which the Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD) formed the principal element -- came in a poor third with about 16.6% of the votes.
Fox obtained a majority of votes in seven of Mexico's 32 states, racking up his highest total in his home state of Guanajuato (61%) and achieving his next-best results in the adjacent states of Aguascalientes (54%), Jalisco (53%), and Querétaro (52%). In Sonora he received 51% of the vote and in both Baja California Norte and in Nuevo León he just topped the 50% mark. On the other hand, Labastida obtained a decisive majority only in the state of Sinaloa (64%), whereas Cárdenas could not muster more than 37% of the vote even in his own home state of Michoacán.
In the Mexican Congress, where 300 seats are divided first according to majority vote and thereafter according to proportional representation, Fox's Alliance for Change obtained 141 seats, the PRI ended up with 131, and Cárdenas' Alliance for Mexico secured 28 seats. In the Senate, the Alliance for Change won effective control over 13 states and the Federal District, the PRI retained control over 16, and the Alliance for Mexico won majorities in 2. The House of Deputies ended up being divided in the same manner, although a majority of Senate seats in Chihuahua was exchanged for a majority of House seats in Quintana Roo instead. As a result of the various races for state governorships in 2000, the Alliance for Change succeeded in electing 8 -- one of them being in the state of Chiapas and the Alliance for Mexico took 5 -- including the Federal District, but the PRI hung on to fully 19. In any event, after 71 years of single-party government, the electoral changes that were effected in Mexico in 2000 were heralded as long-awaited harbingers of hope by most of the country's people. For the first time in a couple of decades, a presidential transition has not been marked by a plummeting devaluation of the peso; investors are not panicking; and the prices of tortillas and television sets are not escalating out of sight. Change is definitely the watchword of the day!
One of President-elect Fox's first initiatives was to call for a more open border with the United States. Ironically, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has just the opposite vision of the future: 1300 miles of roads paralleling the frontier, thousands of stadium-style floodlights dispelling the darkness along the Rio Grande, spy cameras monitoring strategic crossing points, and unarmed military units beefing up the surveillance conducted by the currently understaffed Border Patrol.
For many Mexicans, one of the most attractive alternatives to continuing a life of poverty is to attempt an illegal entry into the United States. However, as the U.S.-Mexican border becomes ever more heavily "militarized", such a move has become increasingly perilous. Indeed, well over 425 persons lost their lives in the year 2000 alone attempting to enter the United States in remote desert areas. Nevertheless, the desperation that motivates these unfortunates is such that, even with the increased risks involved, they are willing to undertake the gamble. Needless to say, those who are apprehended by the Border Patrol find such detention merely a temporary inconvenience, for within a matter of a few days or nights they simply resume their attempt somewhere else. For those who finally manage to evade the Border Patrol, the hope is to quickly lose themselves in the multitude of their countrymen and women already resident in the United States and to find some sort of employment that will permit them to eke out an existence.
Poverty and unemployment are among the strongest "push" factors directing the wave of emigration northward, not alone from Mexico but from the countries of Central America as well. In the one-month of October 2000, Mexican authorities detained more than 170,000 Central Americans who were seeking to transit the country on their way to the United States. Low as the standard of living in Mexico is, it still is about 3-4 times higher than that of most Central American countries; the result is that about five per cent of such illegal immigrants are content to be absorbed into the Mexican economy. But native- born Mexicans, who are confronted with an average minimum wage of just over $4 a day -- that is, if they can find a job in the first place --hear reports from their friends or relatives who have already escaped to "El Norte" that they can confidently expect to find a job which will pay at least that same amount, or more, every hour. As a Mexican carpenter returning to visit his family at Christmas once told me, in Houston he was able to earn in one hour what he would have earned in one month back on the farm. Moreover, the fact that he was also able to carry with him armfuls of Christmas presents would have been unthinkable had he not made the move to flee from his native village.
When the geographic origins of Mexican migrants to the United States are examined, it quickly becomes apparent that proximity to the border is one of the critical factors in the equation. The state of Zacatecas leads in the number of migrants, followed by Guanajuato, Durango, the Federal District, Michoacán, and San Luis Potosí. It should be noted that all of them lie on the meseta, and all of them are predominantly mestizo in terms of their ethnic composition. It should be noted that Mexico's most impoverished citizens, its Indians, are not the ones seeking a better life in the United States, most of whose own Indians are either wards of the government or support themselves running tribally-owned gambling casinos!
The remittances that the successful migrants send back each year to their families in Mexico are not inconsequential. Indeed, in the six years following the adoption of the NAFTA agreement, i.e. from 1994-2000, such remittances have amounted to 83 per cent of all the U.S. investment in Mexico over the same time period -- some $28.2 billion compared to about $33.7 billion. (At the present time, it is estimated that the annual remittances of Mexican migrants total between $6 billion and $10 billion, making them virtually equivalent to the Mexico's entire income from tourism.) The lion's share of these remittances -- more than 97% -- have gone to pay for the basic necessities of life back in Mexico, food and housing. It is estimated that such remittances constitute the primary source of income for no fewer than 220 municipalities of the country, and make up from 50-60% of the incomes for more than 1.1 million families in all.
To be sure, the "outflow" of these vast amounts of money from the United States to Mexico has also produced handsome profits for those firms involved in such transfers, nearly 60% of which are effected by two American companies, Western Union and Money Gram. By exchanging pesos for dollars at a rate about 1 peso lower than the official rate, i.e., 9 instead of 10, they have ensured themselves a commission which averages about 10-12% on every transaction, amounting to a grand total of about $3 billion in the first half-dozen years of NAFTA's existence. (Some estimates put the commission rate charged migrants for sending remittances back to Mexico as high as 30%.)
(The day to day events in Mexico continue shaping the country's destiny, so this chapter is as yet incomplete. The fact that Vicente Fox broke the hold that the PRI had on the presidency did not alter the fact that it retained control over both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, and in effect "checkmated" any substantial reforms or changes that he might have wished to make. As one of my Mexican informants commented, "You really cannot expect one man to do very much in six years", and even now as his term nears its final phase, Fox's wife is positioning herself to make a run for the presidency on her own. Despite some progress in fighting graft and corruption, the battle against poverty, the efforts at job creation, the struggle to protect the environment, and the campaign to improve the lot of the Indian South still have a long way to go.)