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Two Bicentennials, and two disappointments.

datePosted on 09:27, September 18th, 2010 by Pablo

Although the NZ media did not pay much attention to them, Argentina and Mexico celebrated the bicentennials of their independence from Spain this year (Argentina on May 25 and Mexico on September 16). Much fanfare and parading happened in both nation’s capitals, and a wide array of patriotic rhetoric was heard. But the sad truth is that both states are disappointments and long time failures. They certainly are not in the same league as Somalia or Yemen, but for the majority of citizens in each country the hallowed promise of independence has come up short. The failure in both instances rests not with foreign imperialists but with the respective political and economic elites.

Argentina and Mexico are the fourth and fifth largest countries in the Western Hemisphere and blessed with abundant natural resources, a variety of climates and geography, extensive coastlines and close commercial ties to greater Europe dating to 1810. They have well defined borders and are peace with their neighbours (even if those borders are permeable and historic resentments occasionally arise–but none of this compromises trade or good relations with neighbours big and small). The strategic sectors of their economy are under state or domestic capitalist control (or both). They both exhibit considerable foreign policy independence.

Yet, 200 years after independence, neither has fulfilled its promise. Mexico is in the midst of a vicious civil war between a variety of drug cartels and the state that poses the risk of it disintegrating into neo-feudal enclaves and autonomous regions barely under the nominal authority of a failed central state apparatus. Argentina, although not the financial basket case that it was in 2001-02 or the state terrorism experiment that it was from 1976-82, remains a nation in which corruption at all levels of society is an art form and in which patronage and nepotism are the hallmarks of political life.

This really should not be. Both countries have produced, among many other lines of contribution, Nobel laureates, writers, artists, musicians, actors, medical pioneers, legal scholars, diplomats, human rights champions, renown architects and more than a few good political scientists. The number of such luminaries is disproportionate to the total population of each country, so it is clear that the talent pool runs deep in each case. Yet time and time again, year after year, decade after decade, the tides of national fortune ebb and fall so that neither country has come close to fulfilling the promise of its naturally-given and human potential. That is a pity, and a waste.

I grew up in Argentina and have spent a fair amount of time, both personal and professional, in Mexico. In my younger years, when my leftward tilt was more pronounced, I joined those who blamed the US and imperialism in general for the woes of these and all other countries in the region. Dependency theory was my theoretical crutch and, as a prescription, revolution was to me the best answer to the region’s problems.

I was wrong. Mexico had its revolution in 1917 and although the nature of its authoritarianism changed, the fundamental socio-economic and political problems underpinning it did not (the 1994 Zapatista rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas was a reminder of that). Although a looming presence, the US is not the primary source of Mexico’s ills (although its drug consumer market is certainly a part of it). Although nominally democratic for a decade, Mexican politics remains infested with cronyism, corruption (now often drug related) and a lack of transparency. Socio-economic actors of all types see the state as a trough from which to feed when in power or in favour rather than as a neutral mediator in redistributive conflicts.

Argentina has not had a revolution but not for lack of trying. I was personal witness to the Montonero/ERP campaigns of the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as the last gasp of the Peronist mythos in person (Peron died in1974 after returning from exile the year before). That only precipitated the state terror experiment and the return to shallow consumerism for which Argentines–or least those living in Buenos Aires–are famous. The attitude towards holding power is similar to that of Mexico, and the “state-as-money bag” approach is also endemic amongst the Argentine elites.

After the neo-liberal experiments in both countries, the gap between rich and poor is worse now than it was 50 years ago. Working class dissent remains a simmering pool that remains unmitigated in each case. Crime haunts the streets (more in Mexico than in Argentina, but both at much higher rates than before 1960 or even 1990), and uncertainty about the future is rife amongst all but the upper ten percent of society. Even the national soccer teams have failed to live up to popular expectations, which in of itself is symptomatic of the larger malaise each is living through. And yet the politics of elite greed continues unabated in both countries, now under ostensibly democratic aegis.

All of which is to say that as much as it is nice to celebrate longevity, it is human folly that has prevented these two countries from developing into fully mature states that are nourishing and representative of their citizens. My hope is that the younger generation of citizens exposed to the excesses of the past 25 years in both places will work harder than their parents and ancestors at giving them the political leadership that they so rightly deserve and which was sorely missing from the official grandstands during the celebrations.

8 Responses to “Two Bicentennials, and two disappointments.”

  1. hokeypokey on September 21st, 2010 at 15:17

    Muchas gracias, Pablo. Some sensible comment on what’s going on here in Mexico is really important and often lacking. I (sadly but heartily) agree about the pity, and the waste. May the next 200 years be a vast improvement, it’s up to my generation.

  2. Pablo on September 21st, 2010 at 20:48

    Cheers HP.

    I thought that you might take an interest in the post. It is short and generalised but I thought the basic thrust was correct. What a squandered potential in both countries!

  3. nic on September 22nd, 2010 at 06:34

    Pablo –
    Any chance you could explain why you don’t see the War on Drugs as a primary explanation for failings with the Mexican State?

    From my casual reading of news reports, it appears to be THE biggest issue, completely fucking with Mexico’s democracy. To put it another way – can you see Mexico succesfully developing as a country while so much drug violence occurs in the country and while drug money devours its democracy?

  4. Pablo on September 23rd, 2010 at 12:45

    Nic:

    Very good point. My answer is in two parts, one about the quality of democracy in Mexico and the other about the “war on drugs” impact on Mexican governance.

    I can infer from your question that you fully know that Mexican democracy is more facade than fact. The transfer of power from the PRI to the PAN was a shuffling of the elite deck chairs more than a democratic transition, and the declaration of war on the narcos has more to do with state survival (or least its monopoly on organised violence) than with democratic representation per se (I shall defer to hokey pokey on this, as s/he is in Mexico at the moment). The bottom line is that the narco-war has nothing to do with democracy and all to do with competing alternate sovereigns vying for jurisdictional power via a contest of force with the centralised and federal security apparatuses. The American and European appetite for cocaine is, of course, the great suction tube into which all of this criminal activity is pulled across the Mexican social and geographic landscape.

    As for the drug war itself. The success of Plan Colombia has pushed the cartels out of Colombia and into Mexico, which essentially means that increased stability in the former democracy means decreased security in the latter (such as it is as a democracy). The Mexican cartels are more vicious and more transnationalised (in the form of cross-border US-Mexican ties) but are slowly but surely losing the armed struggle with the Mexican federal police and Army (which are backed by the US to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in direct aid and indirect military, police and intelligence assistance). Thus, the war on drugs is headed to another front in the next couple of years, but what it leaves as a legacy in Mexico is dire.

    Although the death throes of the Sinaloa, Sonora, Michoacan and Zeta, et.al., cartels will carry on for some time, the picture is clear: they are now moving operations south to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador (and also into Nicaragua and Costa Rica), forming alliances with US-based gangs such as the Mara Salvatruchas in order to run drug distribution and protection rackets in these very fragile countries in which law enforcement is haphazard at best and completely corruptible at worst.

    But let us be clear: blaming the Yank appetite for cocaine, cannabis and crystal meth for the troubles of Mexico is like blaming Pakeha vices for the violence within maori society–it exacerbates but is not the root cause of it.

  5. Phil Sage (sagenz) on September 23rd, 2010 at 20:45

    Pablo – Have you considered the liberal reality that alcohol and caffeine are drugs and people should have the legal, and possibly taxed, right to ingest whatever they choose?

  6. Pablo on September 24th, 2010 at 00:26

    Phil:

    I tend to side with those who see decriminalisation as a proper solution to much of the drug problems in modern society, even while recognising that there is a league of difference in the harm caused by heroin and cocaine when compared to cannabis and party pills.

    I also recognise that demand feeds the supply chain. But even if there was a more enlightened drug policy in the US, that alone will not stop violence in Mexico and elsewhere. The narcos will still fight over control of their markets and in the absence of effective state monopoly on force they will act as alternative sovereigns in the geographic areas they control.

    In other words, in societies were violence is a cultural characteristic, legalising the demand side abroad and the supply side at home will reduce but not eliminate the propensity of individuals and organisations to settle disputes by force.

  7. Phil Sage (sagenz) on September 24th, 2010 at 09:26

    I take the liberal position that you tax legalised drugs to care for and rehabilitate those addictive personalities who misuse any drug, whether legal or illegal. You remove dictators and those who would rule by force. You spend money on education to offer everyone a genuine educational chance in life. and you make very sure that those who are psychologically incapable of living within a non violent society are removed from that society.

    American politicians inability to be honest is destroying its neighbours just as the demand for cotton and cheap labour in centuries gone by drove slavery. That is not to blame America for world ills but to blame American politicians for being too gutless to allow genuine informed choice.

  8. hokeypokey on September 27th, 2010 at 14:27

    Pablo, this made me remember the time earlier this year here in Mexico when I was moving some furniture with a small moving company. Whilst chatting in the cab of the truck on the way to our destination, I discovered that the owner had only completed primary school as a child. He had set about studying intermediate and high school as an adult and was all keen to get on and study law at the national university, UNAM. He had a pretty good grip on Mexican political life, in a Gramsci organic intellectual type way. His take on politics and drug dealing in Mexico was that the Mexican population should just get on and elect a narco as president and be done with it. At first I thought the idea absurd, but then on the other hand I could see why he might think it would be a good idea…

    I can infer from your question that you fully know that Mexican democracy is more facade than fact. The transfer of power from the PRI to the PAN was a shuffling of the elite deck chairs more than a democratic transition, and the declaration of war on the narcos has more to do with state survival (or least its monopoly on organised violence) than with democratic representation per se (I shall defer to hokey pokey on this, as s/he is in Mexico at the moment). The bottom line is that the narco-war has nothing to do with democracy and all to do with competing alternate sovereigns vying for jurisdictional power via a contest of force with the centralised and federal security apparatuses. The American and European appetite for cocaine is, of course, the great suction tube into which all of this criminal activity is pulled across the Mexican social and geographic landscape.

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