Sunday, May 21, 2017

Decolonization in the Caribbean #6: Jokes of Leftists Past

This year's regional seminar for the UN Committee of 24 was different than the three previous ones that I attended in a handful of ways. There was always some debate and some rhetorical conflict at previous seminars, but this one extended to a level I had never seen before. Other participants who have been involved far longer than I have, also acknowledged the conflict and tension reached new heights in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. I’ll be writing about this later, but the conflict created a lot of wasted time and also of waiting around for events to unfold or drama to be sorted out. This led to a lot of conversations that you wouldn’t normally take place, as people anxiously waited for the work of the seminar to move ahead. A lot of these conversations ended up being humorous as people sought ways to ease the tension and also pass the time. I heard a lot of funny stories from across Latin America, to the Caribbean, the Pacific. In this mix there were stories of parliamentary in-fighitng and kava drinking in the Pacific, Fidel Castro or Nelson Mandela anecdotes, memories of plebiscites from Africa, the Pacific and Asia, and plenty of diplomat nightmare tales about losing luggage in every imaginable airport or hamlet on the planet.

As many of the conference participants are leftists or recovering leftists, much of these stories centered around social movements, independence movements or revolutions that they witnessed or actively fomented. Note that I said, recovering leftists as well, time and government service can have a way of shifting your ideological spectrum a bit, and seeking other ways to represent yourself, which won’t date you or pinhole you ideologically.

This was by far my favorite of these exchanges: A middle-aged woman, who is an avowed communist was speaking to a younger man, who is a diplomat, about his family background. He was born in Mexico City and so she asked him about his family and what his father did. After giving her some details she remarked, “So your father is a communist, so are you a communist?” He responded that no he wasn’t and that his father wasn’t either. She then repeated to him some of the details of his father’s life that he had just told us, that meant he spent time with some very radical circles of the youth movement in Mexico City. She pushed him, saying that his father had to be a communist if that was what he was doing in the 60s. The boy responded, “My father was a young man in Mexico City in 1968. I think every young person there said they were a communist, so I don’t think it counts.” 

Below is an excerpt from the website The Annenberg Learner, and an exercise on analyzing photos associated with protest movements. The excerpt is a brief political history of Mexico leading up to the protests of 1968. 



In 1968, Mexico was poised to show the world that it was among the most accomplished and important nations, with a growing middle class, robust agriculture and industry, and idyllic tourist destinations. The Olympic Games were to be held in Mexico City, and, for the first time ever, the live TV broadcast would be in color. But in the months leading up to the October world-sporting event, the student protest movement and the government’s brutal response would expose some less desirable truths about the country. As in many other countries, youth in Mexico were dissatisfied with governmental policies, and they weren’t afraid to speak out—with disastrous consequences.

Having gained its independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century, Mexico continued to face internal and external struggles. These included the Maya uprising and Yucatán’s constant succession attempts. U.S. President James Polk, bent on expanding U.S. territory, used reports of a skirmish in territory he claimed as American to persuade Congress to declare war in 1846. The technological superiority of U.S. weaponry ultimately sealed Mexico’s defeat two years later, resulting the loss of about one-half of its territory. The U.S.-Mexican War was the first to be photographed. After the war, Mexico was a nation in turmoil, with conservatives advocating a return to monarchy and strict ties to the church while liberals preferred an American model.

Eventually, Mexico settled into an authoritarian regime, with three decades in power for General Porfirio Díaz. In 1911, rebels seized power, and 30 years of revolution and counterrevolution ensued. Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Lázaro Cárdenas are some of the national heroes from this time. Muralist Diego Rivera’s work portrayed some of the optimism of the revolutionary period of 1910 to 1946. Mexico supported the Allied Forces in World War II, and many Mexicans went to the United States during the war as legal “braceros,” working in jobs vacated by American soldiers. The braceros sent money back to families in Mexico, creating a class of wealthier, more-consumerist Mexicans.

The 1950s saw a number of changes in Mexico, including women’s suffrage (1953) and rapid population growth. Though successive presidents were implementing social programs and nationalizing industry and utilities (to the chagrin of Mexico’s neighbor to the north), the country was under single-party rule, and there was an ever-increasing gap between the wealthy and the poor. Mexicans on both ends of the political spectrum became unhappy with the ruling party, the PRI, which didn’t approve of political dissent or strong unions. In 1959, the PRI broke a railroad workers’ strike and jailed the popular union leader Demetrio Vallejo. In 1964 and 1965, under President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, they crushed a doctors’ strike.

Students at Mexico City’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) and National Polytechnic University, and other Mexicans disagreed with government expenditures related to the upcoming Olympic games. Instead, they believed the government should be making societal improvements and aiding the country’s poor. Additionally, Mexican students had the examples of revolutionary heroes Fidel Castro and Che Guevara—and they were also aware of student unrest in the United States, France, and around the world. When fights broke out between rival student gangs at the UNAM, the Díaz Ordaz government sent in the military to squelch the outburst. This violation of the university, supposed to be autonomous, propelled students into action.

Student groups organized and staged numerous nonviolent demonstrations, staged street theater to disseminate political views, and posted a list of demands that included freedom for political prisoners and for students who had been arrested in the clash with police, redirecting of Olympic funds to public housing, and restoring the universities’ autonomy. One after another, student actions evoked violent response. Students occupied school buildings to protest, only to be met with more force.
A National Strike Council had been formed and organized marches. One, in August, drew a half-a-million people; many other Mexicans joined the students in peacefully protesting their autocratic government. Díaz Ordaz, believing that foreign communist forces were instigators in the unrest and determined to project a sense of authority and control leading up to the opening of the Olympics on October 12, became increasingly hostile to the protestors.

On October 2, several thousand demonstrators came together in the Plaza of the Three Cultures, also called by the Aztec name Tlatelolco. There was a huge military presence, including helicopters overhead. Initial gunfire frightened the crowd, which tried to disperse but was met with bayonets and more shooting. On a balcony from which speakers had faced the crowd, protestors were held at gunpoint by military and watched as shots were fired into the crowd below. People were beaten, arrested, and killed, and bodies were dragged away. On orders from Díaz Ordaz’s government, the press covered up the extent of the government-authorized brutality. To the present day, it is not known how many people were killed at Tlatelolco. At the time, the British newspaper The Guardian estimated 325. Press coverage focused more on the Olympic Games than on the tragedy at Tlatelolco.
At the time of the massacre, only a single Mexican official publically objected. This was Octavio Paz, the famous poet and essayist who was then the Mexican ambassador to India. A year after Tlatelolco, lecturing in the  United States, Paz compared the student movement in Mexico to the movements of students in the Soviet Bloc countries and other places where democracy did not exist.

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