Rx for Historical Entropy
Beginning with the Mexican War of 1846-1848, the United States actively pursued a policy of economic and military expansion throughout much of the 19th and early 20th century. This is a part of U.S. history that is little discussed and seldom referred to in the United States. Few U.S. high school or college students can name a single battle of the Mexican War, despite the fact that the U.S. gained a third of its national territory as a result, and Mexico lost two fifths. Yet, the conquest of the Mexican territories (which would ultimately result in the formation of the states of California, New Mexico, Colorado, lower Texas and Arizona, parts of Kansas and Wyoming) has not been forgotten by our neighbors to the south. Most Mexicans agree with Ulysses S. Grant, that "it was the most unjust war ever waged by a stronger nation against a weaker one." As an integral part of Mexican education, this history affects how Americans are perceived. Any American dealing with a Mexican on an issue of mutual security who does not understand that the Mexican's history is both more informed and more personal on this issue, will certainly be at a disadvantage.
The emigration which continues from Mexico into the United States is, at least in part, a legacy of this war. Most of the Mexicans are crossing an artificially imposed "border" into former Mexican territories. The fact that this emigration is exacerbated by economic discrepancies between the two nations is not lost on Mexican leaders who understand that the economic inequality, too, is a legacy of the past. They also understand that immigration whether legal or illegal is also a pressure valve for their own nation. The United States cannot afford to have a Mexico destabilized by a revolution, or by the chaos which would result from millions of poor ("gente sin recursos") held captive in the south by too strict a control of its northern borders.
The impunity with which the United States entered Mexico in the early 20th century, whether General John "Black Jack" Pershing's army on the trail of Pancho Villa, or the U.S. Navy in Veracruz in self-righteous indignation over the arrest of a drunken sailor, has not been forgotten. A perceived American arrogance in pursuit of its national interests at the expense of the autonomy of others, is something the U.S. leaders, businessmen and cultural ambassadors need to be keenly aware of. However, such education has been sorely lacking. As a result, attempts to influence Mexican elections, correct discrepancies in their banking system, change the structure of their police force, and emasculate leaders by threatening to deny "certification" on drug enforcement issues, has hampered independent growth in that country and made generation after generation of intelligent, cultured and sympathetic Mexicans skeptical of the best-intentioned of U.S. policies.
Dangers to Hemispheric Security
The danger to both U.S security and to that of Mexico, is not that these incursions occurred. It is that, while U.S. interventions are part of the history and the culture of these nations, these same interventions are virtually unknown in the United States except to a handful of graduate students in Latin American studies and specialists in international relations. The interventions mentioned above are reported in none of the high school history texts, and are barely a footnote in most college texts. As a result, most the U.S. citizens in Mexico, conducting business, working for the DEA, employed by the embassies, teaching in the American Schools abroad, are "history deficient." Nor could they hope to understand a culture whose history has been systematically excised from their texts. Moreover, since that history for them does not exist, significant parts of the Mexican culture remain enigmas. By doing away with that history and their nation's part in it, we have impoverished Mexico and become the most powerful agents of historical entropy in Mexico and Central America.
As an educator in Latin America who has worked in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Mexico and Colombia for the past twelve years, I see the results of our failure to educate our citizens in the history of these regions. I see the contempt for the culture, the assumed superiority, the arrogance, and the glibness of my fellow citizens in this area of the world. It does untold damage to our relations with these countries and seriously undermines (as we have seen most recently in Guatemala) the conditions requisite for peaceful social dynamics and for protection of human rights. Samuel Huntington in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs warned that in the eyes of most of the world - the United States is becoming a "rogue superpower"... and is considered "perhaps the greatest single threat to their societies." Commenting on this view Noam Chomsky in a recent Harper's article noted that "Americans who prefer a different image of their society might call for a reconsideration... The U.S. defiance of world order has become so brazen as to be of concern to even hawkish policy analysts."
The first step is the education of our populace in a true United States history which does more than simply laud the early years of the Republic and depict our national story as a glorious progression in the areas of human rights, freedom, tolerance of diversity, and the respect of other nations.
The second step is an increased focus on the teaching of Latin American history in courses offered to students, especially - but not limited to-those preparing to go into the diplomatic service, those majoring in international business, international relations, and international law. By Latin American history, however, I mean originals or accurate translations of their histories, not bleached-out or self-justifying versions written by North American writers. Neither businessmen nor diplomats will make much progress if their education in this area is limited to a parochial view. International education should be just that, international-providing students with an in-depth insight into geography, culture, language and history of the nations with which those individuals intend to do business.
Post NAFTA Changes and the Drug Wars
After one year of NAFTA, Mexico had a $12 billion trade deficit. Mexico's poorest group, unable to afford the basic "canasta" of milk and tortillas for marginal survival had grown from 14 million to 21 million from 1990 to 1994. In that latter year, the peso fell from 3.40 to the dollar to 6.50. The Mexican meltdown had begun.
The U.S. and the International Monetary Fund came to the rescue, but the $52 billion bailout ($20 billion from the U.S.) would carry a price. In effect, the masses who did not contract the debt where condemned to suffer the austerity measures imposed by foreign creditors on the local economy. These measures included drastic cutbacks in public spending and social services, so that a great percentage of the GNP could be set aside to meet foreign debt reservicing and repayment. The price of tortillas (the basic comestible) rose 100% in the first 24 months of the crisis. According to a study by Banamex, 62 million Mexicans had a caloric intake below U.N. minimum nutritional standards. Social programs were eviscerated, $26 billion left Mexico in capital flight as the rich cashed in their chips and the poor were left to die in the streets, or take to the mountains and jungles-like the Zapatista Liberation Army-and prepare for the coming revolution. Comandante Marcos of the EZLN in Chiapas was sending out missives via the Internet that even the beleaguered Mexican middle class was hearing. "This loan has been signed off in...blood," he noted, while President Clinton confirmed much the same thing as he complimented President Zedillo on his courage in imposing "hard measures" on the Mexican people in order to quickly pay off the U.S. portion of the loan.
"Free trade, NAFTA, foreign loans, economic development," by First World nations have "resulted in increased job insecurity, a rising crime rate, and growing social inequality in Latin America," according to James Fogarty, author of the Liberation and Development: A Latin American Perspective. Not without reason some Latin American critics are calling it capitalismo salvaje, which they fear will result in economic genocide, that is, the elimination of those who are superfluous to the economic model. Fogarty's suggestion is that we abandon the neoliberal, world capitalist and developmental models which have ravaged Latin America for a "more humanistic approach aimed at attacking the root causes of injustice, poverty and social unrest." He points out the success of alternative models such as that of Costa Rica which reduced its poverty level by two-thirds in the 1980's, a period during which poverty in the rest of Central America grew exponentially.
The Next Annexation
There are an estimated 20 million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in the U.S. There are another 3.7 million who are Hispanic in origin, émigrés from Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Cuba, Costa Rica and Honduras. By the year 2020 it is estimated that they will constitute 50% of the California electorate, and Caucasians will be a minority. Ironically, the invasion by the United States and subsequent annexation of two-fifths of Mexico in the 1840's has been answered by a counter-invasion of the United States by Mexican immigrants in the 20th century. They and their Central American fellow-Hispanics bring with them a culture of resistance and struggle, a militancy, which has spread from the United Farm Workers to the AFL-CIO, from strikes in Pennsylvania and New York, to school walk-outs of Proposition 187 in California. A group of people who were driven out of their own countries by (often U.S. supported) mal gobierno, they have developed a culture of resistance which has been transplanted in U.S. soil. This culture is quite "American" at its base; it is grass roots democracy in action. It is peaceful resistance which our Constitution guarantees to protect.
Yet this same social action south of our borders is labeled "political unrest" and its democratic leaders are termed "leftists" and "Marxists" and dangers to our national security. The U.S. (with the exception of Kent State) has not in modern times used its military to suppress popular dissent within its own boundaries. However, it has no problem equipping governments for such activities south of its borders, and turning a blind eye to them. Military officers throughout South and Central America have been trained by the International Education Program (MET) and at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. Senior officers have often studied at the U.S. Army's Public Relations School in Indianapolis. These men have become consumers of American military technology and hardware in their own countries. And the U.S. arms industry, which sells $12 billion worth of weaponry a year worldwide, wants to expand this market.
But what does Mexico do with Blackhawk helicopters, rockets, grenades, Hueys, troop transport planes, Hummers, machine guns? It has no external enemies. Only two scenarios come to mind. The first is to help the U.S. fight its on-going "war on drugs," the second is to suppress dissent within its own borders. This latter scenario is even more compelling when one sees that the export list of military gear from the U.S. to Mexico includes water cannons, riot control gear, and electronic shock units. While pretending to encourage the "democratic process" which includes, according to Thomas Jefferson, "the right to alter or abolish" a government when it becomes destructive of the rights of the people, the U.S. has in fact clandestinely promoted violations of human rights in Latin America to preserve a semblance of order in those nations, and to prime the pump of free market arms sales.
The war on drugs, which most of the world sees as a U.S. domestic problem, has been exported to Mexico and Central America, with often disastrous results for the human rights to the local populace, the sustainability of freedom, and the other nation's own national security. With the FBI, DEA, INS, CIA, Customs Service, National Security Agency, the DOD's National Imaging and Mapping Agency all operating on Mexican territory, the compromises of human rights, the violations of national sovereignty, and the temptations to use Mexico as a stooge for the Colombia cartels, are obvious. In 1994, for example, the DEA smuggled 5.4 tons of cocaine in and out of Mexico as part of a sting operation of the Cali cartel, without ever notifying the Mexican authorities.
No one in Mexico believes that the use of drugs in the United States is a Mexican problem. The will of the above mentioned agencies to make it a Mexican problem provides a font of abuses, with no legal limitations on the personnel involved, with the exception of agency reprimands of the officials involved for "excess of enthusiasm."
Change of Focus
We need to focus on examining the impact of the history of the United States and those of her neighbors to the south, of studying the errors we have made by proceeding with policies which have not taken these divergent histories into account, and in suggesting solutions based upon insights provided by this study. In those cases (which are many) in which no clear solutions are available, we need to prioritize policies which contribute to the long - term sustainability of those countries and thus to hemispheric security, rather than short - term economic advantage.
The Maquiladora Industry
One such threat to our security is the maquiladora industry. Over 2, 500 foreign - owned assembly plants now employ over a million Mexicans and account for half of Mexico's manufacturing exports and 38% of total exports. But these plants have taken so many young Mexicans from the interior of Mexico that there is no infrastructure to accommodate them. Raw sewage pours into Rio Grande affecting Texas, crime flourishes (statistics on the rapes of young working girls in this area are the highest in all of Mexico); toxic chemicals leak into the aquifer which touches Arizona, and the California border is an environmental disaster zone. The maquiladora economy is also an immigration emergency in the making. What would happen if there was any disruption in this industry?
I realize that there is no "right" answer to any of the questions but the process of thinking these questions through and re-examining the histories from both sides, will be illuminating-and perhaps enlightening. One result will be to reawaken U.S. interest in the importance of Mexico and Central America, to replace indifference with understanding, prejudice with knowledge, and ultimately aid in the security of our hemisphere and the sustainability of those nations to the south we call our neighbors. As an American teacher working abroad, it has been particularly distressing to me that the education we have in the history of other countries is not only minimalist but often biased. This is particularly tragic in Latin America where U.S. presence will continue to be significant in the 21st century. International education in the U.S. needs to provide students with a cross-cultural view of the impacts of U.S. intervention and continued U.S. presence in Mexico and Central America, and show how our past policies continue to affect the lives of U.S. citizens and the lives of our neighbors to the south.
Central American Immigration
While I have concentrated mostly on the Mexican problem in this brief overview, it is important to note that the displacement of large groups of Guatemalans, Nicaraguans and El Salvadorans during the disturbances of the past twenty years has resulted in vast increases of refugees and in illegal emigration of those peoples to the United States. Since many of the illegals "pretend" to be Mexican in an effort to avoid deportation to their respective countries, those who are caught by U.S. authorities tend to be returned to Tijuana or Nuevo Laredo where they add to the border problems and put increased pressure on the already debilitated infrastructure of those communities. Most, as soon as the opportunity presents itself, attempt to emigrate once again to the U.S.
The large numbers Guatemalans, El Salvadorans, and Nicaraguans have radically changed the barrios of East L.A. and the Mission District in San Francisco to cite two well-known examples. In the Sixties and early Seventies these neighborhoods were mostly Mexican, highly socialized, with strong family values. They hosted block parties, Cinco de Mayo celebration, fiestas and concerts which were attended by people of every race. Now these areas have developed into dangerous enclaves run by rival gangs of teenage hoodlums, most of who are recent arrivals from Central America where the family unit has been destroyed by war, where schools have long been closed, and culture abandoned for mere survival of the fittest. The streets of L.A. and the San Francisco Mission District have inherited the whirlwind previous Central American policies have sown.
My long-term goal as an U.S. educator working abroad, as a writer, and as a parent, is to help create a deeper understanding of Mexico and Central America in order to make our own country safe and those countries self-sustaining, to deepen our awareness, and to motivate educators to act now to insure that future generations will inhabit a peaceful, healthy and culturally rich hemisphere which honors human life and human diversity. With that in mind I'd like to offer a few tentative solutions to historical entropy.
1. The United States should continue to encourage study abroad and intercultural exchanges with Latin American students.
2. It should make the study of a second language a requirement in secondary schools, and should employ native teachers providing intensive courses.
3. The United States should make Latin American history a required subject for students in universities studying international business, international relations, international management, and international education.
4. Study-abroad programs sponsored by the State Department, private agencies and universities, should add a history component to their offerings so that students will develop an understanding and a respect for the country and the culture in which they study.
5. American Schools abroad should require all teachers to attend intensive language courses before the end of their first year, and to take a course in the history of their sponsoring country by the second year of their contract.
6. Since North American teachers in Latin America serve the upper classes and middle classes in their schools, teachers should also be required to make a service commitment to the community in which they live so that they become aware of and participate in local education, and help those children who are less fortunate, and whose families do not have the resources to allow them to attend such schools.
7. American businesses abroad should develop a social awareness policy which includes quarterly reports on the impact of their investment and development activities in the host countries, and their efforts to alleviate dislocations, poverty, environmental destruction, and unfair competition.
8. Consumers and investors in the United States need to be more attentive to the cost of their investments as well as the profits. None of us would accept a profit from a company which invested our money in sales of cocaine or money laundering schemes, no matter how high the returns. Yet, we unquestionably receive high returns from companies which destroy the rain forest, decimate indigenous people, eviscerate local industries, and impoverish entire nations. We must insist on frank disclosures.
9. To facilitate this process, the United Nations should create Investment Disclosure Criteria which will rank multi-national corporations on a scale of one to ten which will reflect their positive or negative impact on local industries, the environment, human rights, child labor, contribution to local standard of living, and social responsibility. Such rankings will be part of the Disclosure to Investors which accompanies the stock offering, and will allow investors to make informed and responsible decisions.
10. Alternative models to the neoliberal free trade prototype should be explored and supported in Latin America. What this means, in effect, is that popular democratic leaders who seek to implement social change in Latin American countries should not be stymied or undermined by rigorous developmental restrictions, nor by active interference by more developed countries in their internal affairs.
The success of the United States economically and militarily has created a sense of superiority and arrogance which emboldens its leaders and many of its citizens to denigrate or demonize alternative cultures, systems and ideas. Because of this the cognitive dissonance which arise in the best students of American schools abroad is significant and cannot be obviated either by clever cynics who see their mission as one of asserting American hegemony, or the well-intentioned and Candide-like teachers who see U.S. values as the best in the world. In the case of the former, contempt for alternative cultures and histories undermine the teacher's effectiveness. With the latter, the students perceive a gap between American ideals and American actions which convinces them that the teacher is either ignorant or gullible, or both.
The American school teacher abroad has the obligation to be candid and forthright, and to have a depth of understanding of the past, and a commitment to the present. This does not mean replacing idealism with cynicism. But it does mean tempering our previous judgments with a healthy skepticism , holding on to those values which are truly universal, and when called upon to affirm a tenet of economic, social or political agenda which is repugnant, dismissing what insults our intelligence or our sense of justice.