For anyone who has felt confused, confounded, disappointed, disturbed and yet still enchanted by Mexico, John Gibler’s Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt (City Lights, January) offers some relief.
Gibler, an independent journalist who has lived in Mexico since December 2005, starts by deconstructing the idea that Mexico’s history is a tale of total conquest by Spanish conquistadors or succeeding waves of military, political and economic invaders. Instead, he describes a country never fully vanquished, albeit one still affected by colonization in the last half century – through trade policies and economic pressure rather than military might. “If the conquest is still ongoing,” Gibler writes, “there are people and places that remain unconquered.”
Gibler has been present during defining moments in Mexican politics of the last few years, including the Zapatistas’ “La Otra” campaign, the Oaxaca teachers’ strike, and the violent clashes in San Salvador Atenco over the government’s plan to build an airport that would displace hundreds of campesinos.
Gibler’s interpretation of a “Mexico unconquered” testifies to the urgency of current struggles, and celebrates the fierce spirit of Mexican resistance, past and present. Resistance movements, Gibler notes, “take on an anti-colonial dimension” and lead “to bold, creative, massive and energetic social participation. Mexico’s class war is a fight against the ongoing conquest, a social struggle for dignity and autonomy.”
The book adeptly gives us a crash course in Mexico’s history through this lens. Gibler briefly yet effectively describes the perversion and historical revisionism of the 1910 Mexican Revolution by the PRI party, which used it as a calling cry during its seven-decade authoritarian reign. Though the PRI continued to give lip service to the Revolution’s goals of land reform and rights for the poor, in reality it has long been characterized by corruption, brutal oppression, blatant thievery and the imposition of neoliberal economic reforms completely opposite to the supposed spirit of the Revolution.
“The Revolution forms the symbolic foundation of Mexican nationalism, the shape-shifting ideology claimed in various forms by every national political party and social movement in the country,” Gibler writes.
Gibler also questions the lionization of revolutionary Gen. Lázaro Cárdenas, even by many on the left. He notes that, despite Cárdenas’ championing of land reform and nationalization, he was the “true genius behind the PRI’s monopoly capitalism.” Gibler describes how Cárdenas co-opted the labor movement and other mass organizations and won over the military and the Catholic Church while sidelining peasants and more progressive forces.
“Cárdenas did not simply buy off movement leaders,” Gibler notes. “[H]e first convinced them with very real political actions, thus pulling them deeply into the arms of the State.”
Gibler defines Mexico as a country not ruled by law but rather by brute force and shameless authority. As forceful illustrations, he points to the violent and pervasive drug trade, as well as the shocking government attacks on protesters at San Salvador Atenco.
In this case, Gibler finds himself somewhat at odds with major human rights groups. He writes that arguments for reforms are based on pushing Mexico to comply with its own laws, when in reality, the country’s laws – though enshrined on paper – have never had much power or meaning. And in the broader sense, he insinuates the whole human rights framework is an exercise in futility because it fails to address the roots of the problem – strong-arm oppression based on race and class.
Such provocative ideas are more hinted at than fleshed out, which could be seen as either a weakness in Mexico Unconquered or a preview of his future writings.
Likewise, Gibler pokes at the arguments of immigrants rights activists who call for amnesty and immigration reform, noting that the hemorrhaging of Mexico’s population is so massive and systematic that it cannot be described as the natural desire of populations to move and flow.
He also challenges how the Mexican government and foreign institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund define “poverty,” seeing it partly as a means to impose neoliberal programs.
With the premise of an unconquered country still fighting the battle against colonization and exploitation, Gibler draws parallels (both spelled out and subtly implied) from centuries of Mexican history to ongoing and recent struggles, such as the 2006 Other Campaign (“La Otra Campaña”) of the Zapatistas and Oaxaca’s state of virtual war the past few years. Running throughout this analysis is the theme of how class warfare and racism are braided together in exploitation and oppression.
Gibler describes how former Mexican President Porfirio D’az’s “racism was both official policy and buried in his development model: using railway expansion as a means to dispossess indigenous communities and force the conversion of subsistence farmers to wage laborers.” Although D’az reigned a century ago, the connections between his scheme and current multinational development and transit projects – like the controversial Plan Puebla Panamá industrial “dry canal,” which is displacing rural communities across a wide swath of the country – cannot be missed.
Gibler also examines the U.S. role in the ongoing conquest of Mexico, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the preceding wave of privatization that made it possible. NAFTA, which took effect in 1994, allowed U.S. companies to take advantage of cheap labor that manufactured electronics, textiles and medical products across the border. At the same time, the United States flooded Mexican markets with agricultural exports – such as heavily subsidized corn – that undermined Mexico’s local agrarian economies.
The resulting job loss created more available workers for the U.S.-owned maquiladoras (factories) in Mexican border cities and fueled the flow of undocumented Mexican workers willing to work for low wages and no benefits in the United States.
The situation is perhaps best summed up by a doctor Gibler meets, who moved to the United States but was one of relatively few to return to his hometown.
“I think that the United States’ plan is to make Mexico into a kind of colony,” says Manuel Valadez Lopez. “People go to the United States to work and earn dollars. They come back to Mexico and spend their dollars on American products. It’s a nice, round business. Everyone here depends on the United States. If this isn’t a colony, then how do you define colony?”
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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.