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Strong and Weak
I interview John Womack about the relationship between the US and Mexico.
“Regarding Mexico, there are many harmful policies that we need to change as soon as possible, including the policies that I mentioned before regarding trade and immigration and drugs and guns. And including anti-ecological agriculture. And also including harmful efforts to push for oil and for more cars.”
“You can volunteer with No More Deaths and participate in Greenpeace Mexico.”
“There are also three organizations that are all based in Chicago—Centro Sin Fronteras, Pueblo Sin Fronteras, and La Familia Latina Unida.”
I was honored and thrilled to be able to ask Womack some questions about the relationship between the US and Mexico—see below my interview with him that I edited for flow and added hyperlinks to.
1) How would you characterize the historical relationship between the US and Mexico?
A strong nation-state and a weak nation-state.
There was no intimation given that the removal of the 3d and 4th regiments of infantry to the western border of Louisiana was occasioned in any way by the prospective annexation of Texas, but it was generally understood that such was the case. Ostensibly we were intended to prevent filibustering into Texas, but really as a menace to Mexico in case she appeared to contemplate war. Generally the officers of the army were indifferent whether the annexation was consummated or not; but not so all of them. For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory. Texas was originally a state belonging to the republic of Mexico. It extended from the Sabine River on the east to the Rio Grande on the west, and from the Gulf of Mexico on the south and east to the territory of the United States and New Mexico—another Mexican state at that time—on the north and west. An empire in territory, it had but a very sparse population, until settled by Americans who had received authority from Mexico to colonize. These colonists paid very little attention to the supreme government, and introduced slavery into the state almost from the start, though the constitution of Mexico did not, nor does it now, sanction that institution. Soon they set up an independent government of their own, and war existed, between Texas and Mexico, in name from that time until 1836, when active hostilities very nearly ceased upon the capture of Santa Anna, the Mexican President. Before long, however, the same people—who with permission of Mexico had colonized Texas, and afterwards set up slavery there, and then seceded as soon as they felt strong enough to do so—offered themselves and the State to the United States, and in 1845 their offer was accepted. The occupation, separation and annexation were, from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union.
Grant says that it was “one of the most unjust [wars] ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation”. And he says that the “occupation, separation and annexation were, from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union”.
The US did steal half the country. But Britain or France would’ve if the US hadn’t, which would’ve transformed North America’s whole geopolitics.
3) What were the short-term and long-term consequences of the war of aggression against Mexico?
In the short term, Mexico lost the half of the country that it couldn’t govern—its new northern states began some orderly growth.
And the US gained vast western territories. One where slavery gained important new ground—Texas. And one where the US gained great gold mines and important agricultural country—California.
In the long term, Mexico’s new north became—for mining and agriculture—the economically most important part of the country. Recall that it was the northern states that dominated the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century.
And the US boomed greatly across the West after the Civil War, became an imperialist power, and—largely thanks to possession of California—defeated Japan in World War 2.
4) Has the US ever carried out any atrocities in Mexico or supported any atrocities in Mexico?
The US intervened in Mexico twice during the so-called Revolution, but I don’t recall any atrocities that they committed or were accused of.
The Texas Rangers have—along with other state police and also along with private Americans—committed numerous atrocities against Mexicans in the USA, not to mention Mexican-Americans.
There have been plenty of atrocities in Mexico in the last 150 years, but it’s all—I think—been Mexicans against Mexicans.
5) Throughout Mexican history, what are the most egregious ways in which the US has harmed the Mexican people? What books and articles should people read on this front?
The harm has happened mostly through (A) degrading and exploiting Mexicans when they’re in the US as workers and (B) US corporations otherwise economically exploiting them.
And I’d also recommend the following excellent sources: Juan González’s 2000 book Harvest of Empire; Greg Grandin’s 2007 book Empire’s Workshop; and Alfredo Carlos’s 2014 article “Mexico ‘Under Siege’”.
Reports from Mexico also compared winners and losers. “Economists predict that several million Mexicans will probably lose their jobs in the first five years after the accord takes effect,” Tim Golden reported from Mexico in the Times after the House vote; the effect on wages is predictable. “Business leaders like deal; others see rich getting richer,” a Boston Globe headline read the day after the vote, reporting that “Mexico’s business classes reacted with glee” while “environmental, human rights and labor activists in Mexico continue to criticize the accord.” Previously, such voices had been largely unheard, while journalists and economists informed us confidently of the opinions and goals of “the Mexicans”—who regularly turn out on inspection to be corporate executives, bankers, political leaders, American investors, and the like. Some of them go on to condemn the jingoist “national perspective” of critics of NAFTA who depart from convention by explicitly focussing attention on concerns of Mexican workers and farmers—not “the Mexicans”—and thus “implicitly assume that Mexican issues and interests are secondary” (James Galbraith, “What Mexico—and the United States—Wants,” World Policy Journal); it takes some skill to thread one’s way through the ideological contortions. Readers of the Newsletter of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations could learn that there were huge demonstrations against NAFTA in Mexico, “well articulated, if too-little-noticed in the United States, cries of frustration against government policies—involving repeal of constitutional labor, agrarian and education rights stipulated in the nation’s popularly revered 1917 constitution—that appear to many Mexicans as the real meaning of NAFTA and U.S. foreign policy here,” realistically enough (historian Seth Fein, writing from Mexico City). Readers of the major media and journals heard little of this.
So regarding NAFTA, Chomsky was harshly critical of “the ideological contortions” and of the way that anti-NAFTA opposition was suppressed in “the major media and journals”.
There were actually multiple NAFTAs. The first one in 1995 was a limited trade agreement that—on the whole—was a net benefit to Mexico.
The second one in the late 1990s allowed—thanks to Clinton’s treasury secretary Bob Rubin—what the first NAFTA hadn’t. Foreign banks were able to buy Mexican banks, which gave the commanding heights of the Mexican economy mainly to US banks—that was the killer.
There’s no more NAFTA now—thanks to Trump and Biden, it’s now the USMCA. But the US banks still rule.
7) How is the US harming the Mexican people right now? You can look at the fact that the US is the market for the Mexican cartels’ drugs as well as the supplier for the Mexican cartels’ guns.
The harm happens mostly through US corporations exploiting Mexican workers in Mexico.
It’s absolutely outrageous that the US doesn’t have gun-trafficking laws, that the NRA has non-profit status, and that the NRA has so much power internationally.
And it’s utterly criminal that—thanks to the NRA—so many US guns go to Mexico to fuel civil wars among the drug cartels there.
9) What do you think about legalizing drugs in order to cut off the cartels’ revenue? People have been talking about this idea for decades—of course, one might point out that the cartels will just pursue some other business model if drugs cease to be an option.
I don’t think that you should legalize highly lethal drugs—the kind that kill you like fentanyl does.
The problem is inequality and poverty in Mexico—poor people go into the drug trade because they’re desperate.
And if you legalized all drugs, the cartels would just go into banking.
10) Is there any logical reason for Americans to oppose immigration from Mexico? What books and articles should people read on this front? Sometimes you look at the fact that immigrants are doing punishing labor and you wonder who other than a desperate immigrant would ever want to do that labor—Aviva Chomsky has a 2007 book that goes through various myths about immigration, including the following myths:
“Immigrants take American jobs”
“Immigrants compete with low-skilled workers and drive down wages”
“Unions oppose immigration because it harms the working class”
“Immigrants don’t pay taxes”
“Immigrants are a drain on the economy”
“Immigrants send most of what they earn out of the country in the form of remittances”
It would be remarkable if all of the fire and fury in US politics regarding immigration was based on incorrect and confused and baseless myths about zero-sum competition.
There’s no logical reason for the American opposition, which actually just comes from racism and jingoism and willful ignorance.
I’d recommend that people read the 2017 book The Politics of Immigration from David Wilson and Jane Guskin. And I’d also recommend Wilson’s recent articles, including his 12 July 2021 article and his 10 January 2022 article.
11) What do you think about the below 2021 comment from Noam Chomsky?
Since Clinton, policies have tried to drive people fleeing into the most hostile areas. Block off the areas where there’s fairly easy transit—they could be picked up by a humane asylum policy—and drive them into the most dangerous areas, where they’ll wander in the desert [and] get lost and die of starvation. Meanwhile, use tactics like flying Border Patrol helicopters over them—so if a group is together, they’ll get scattered, get lost, and die. There are relief efforts from Tucson—great, wonderful groups. The main group, No More Deaths, tries to send people into the desert to set up small encampments, where they can offer some medical help if people can make it there. They leave bottles of water in the desert for people who are dying of thirst. The Border Patrol breaks into the camps, smashes water bottles, and so on. Before Trump there was kind of a tacit agreement that they would leave each other alone. But this has gotten much worse.
This is a humanitarian crisis where people are dying out in the desert. And No More Deaths is trying to stop the deaths.
Chomsky’s right—it turned much worse under Clinton and was at its worst so far under Trump.
And No More Deaths is definitely a terrific organization that does incredible work.
12) How does the below point that Aviva Chomsky raises—in my interview with her about Central America—apply to Mexico?
So President Biden talks about the roots of mass migration being poverty and violence and corruption. What Biden forgets to ask is what the roots of poverty and violence and corruption are—there’s a whole history going back to the 1800s, but then the neoliberal reform of the 1990s is especially relevant.
Her point is that you have to ask “what the roots of poverty and violence and corruption are”.
Capitalism is the root of Mexico’s poverty and violence and corruption—Mexico’s own capitalism, but also the imperialist American capitalism that affects Mexico.
You can learn about how capitalism causes these problems if you read John Saxe-Fernández’s and Gian Carlo Delgado’s 2005 book Economic Imperialism in Mexico. And people should check out the interesting 1 August 2020 piece about doing business in Mexico—the piece gives you a sense of how capitalism affects Mexico.
13) And how does the below interesting point—that Aviva Chomsky raises in my interview that I mentioned—apply to Mexico?
It’s much more useful to focus on what the US is doing right now—the US is destroying Central Americans’ lives right now through climate policy and trade policy and immigration policy, so we need to stop the current actions that are destroying Central Americans’ lives.
Her point is that it’s better to focus on the present harmful policies than to focus on the past harmful policies.
It makes sense to concentrate on the present—that’s what you can change.
Regarding Mexico, there are many harmful policies that we need to change as soon as possible, including the policies that I mentioned before regarding trade and immigration and drugs and guns. And including anti-ecological agriculture. And also including harmful efforts to push for oil and for more cars.
14) What activist organizations can people join in order to help the Mexican people?