Cynicism isn’t my favorite literary mode. It wears thin after a while. And John Ross is nothing if not cynical. For the first two chapters I wondered if I was going to make it all the way. However, the saving factor in his book, “The Annexation of Mexico” is that most of the people he’s writing about are infinitely more cynical. Very quickly my discomfort with the author’s attitude faded as I grew more and more angry with the people and events he’s describing. I had no problems finishing his book. It now belongs on my ‘permanent’ shelf.
His thesis is that outsiders, and most especially the United States, have never stopped trying to control or annex “this enormously rich, indescribably poor nation” in one way or another for centuries. Usually this was accomplished through plain old land-grabbing. Today the process continues through economic instruments such as indebtedness, NAFTA and the war on drugs. As Ross puts it: “…as obsessed as Mexicans are by the specter of annexation at the hands of the United States of North America, the annexation of Mexico is only one small strand in the U.S.’s thickly-braided obsession with annexing the known universe.”
Ross, a social activist, poet and working reporter based in Mexico City, has a lively and irreverent style. It makes his book an enjoyable read, despite the sometimes heavy material.
Here’s what he has to say about himself: “I have been covering this war (against annexation) for a long time, decades, and my heart still sails whenever I catch news of a wildcat strike or a sit-down in the middle of a road or the emergence of a new guerrilla in some remote sierra or jungle. I try to get there while the track is warm, hopping the next bus or the next truck ride or just hoofing it in on foot if there is no less strenuous mode of locomotion. …I have grown old chasing revolution in Mexico but I haven’t been bored. Although I usually get my story, most of what I write appears in alternative publications and special interest journals and not much is seen, much less demanded, by a wider public. Those who control the US-Mexico sector of the global media are not interested in my message.” It’s a great pity – the man deserves that wider public.
Here’s a nibble from his chapter on NAFTA: “….when two of the most inept debaters on the North American mainland stepped into the ring to slug out NAFTA on the U.S. tube, the audience numbered in the millions. “H. Ross Perot, a living parody of heartland populism, was designated to denigrate the trade treaty. Clinton selected his slow-talking veep, Al Gore, to defend the NAFTA crown.
“Perot swarmed all over Gore from the opening bell, telling it pretty much as it really is, and earning the enduring enmity of the Mexican people in the process by washing their soiled undergarments on international television – the debate was cabled into Mexico, attracting large audiences even though it was broadcast entirely in English. Perot fulminated about murdered journalists, police violence, dead workers, child labor, maquiladora workers who lived in cardboard shacks with no plumbing, the 36 people who owned Mexico, the great sucking sound to the south….”
There’s a lot of economics and politics in Ross’s book and I don’t claim to be able to follow all the convoluted threads concerning NAFTA and the IMF and the various peso collapses and dollar baleouts over the years. However, the general consequences of the tragedy are clear. The number of billionaires in the country increases; Mexico’s national debt never stops ballooning and the poor get poorer. When a known drug lord boasts that he alone could pay Mexico’s national debt and might even mean it – well…what can you say? A dry academic writer would have trouble doing justice to this. Ross’s wit and irreverance – and his profound cynicism – help keep you going through some of the more abstruse arguments.
Personally, I could have done without the section on the invasion of Yankee products and culture…Coca Cola, McDonald’s, Mr. Burger, Hollywood movies and tv, etc., etc. I’ve lived in England, Canada and Australia and I can recall plenty of critics in those countries going on in exactly the same vein. Surely the simple fact is that a lot of people like and want those products.
There are two chapters on the War on Drugs. I liked Ross’s closing comment on the subject: “The use of drugs and the war on it are an expression of great unhappiness amongst the population of North America. But whether alienation, boredom, frustration, fear or loathing drives so many North Americans to use drugs in such impressive numbers is not really the concern of Mexicans. They have plenty of problems of their own. Nonetheless, Mexico has been threatened and condemned for not doing more to defend its best trading partner from this self-inflicted scourge. I suspect it is the price of admission that is being paid for here – being annexed by the American dream also means being annexed by the American nightmare.”
Those chapters come complete with some awful war stories about police and drug lords. When you read, for instance, that one drug lord distributes U.S. $10 million a month to police in order to stay in business you begin to understand the nightmare Ross is describing. In another section, Ross quotes a 1990 Americas Watch report cautioning that the Mexican police are the country’s “greatest threat to national security.”
For me the final chapter on the border region was worth the price of the book. This is the fourth book I’ve read recently which suggests that although the border is very definitely THERE – walls, barbed wire, guards, etc. – in certain respects it hardly exists any more. There’s so much interaction between the two countries, in both directions, despite the fact that the border “is the only land border on earth separating the First World from the Third World.” Ross gives copious examples of that interaction. Mexicans have $31 billion USD, a third of their foreign debt, stashed in U.S. banks. Boise, Idaho, has so many Mexicans they have a Cinco de Mayo parade every year. 300,000 natives of the states of Puebla and Tlaxacal now work in the greater New York City area. More salsa than ketchup is now consumed in the U.S. There are 18 million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in the U.S. – 6% of the total census. And on and on and on…
And yet….on the very day that I wrote this, CNN showed film of Mexicans being soundly beaten by police, a la Rodney King, following a border car chase. The only good news was that two of the cops were reportedly fired for their actions.
- Do yourself a favor and order a copy of “The Annexation of Mexico” and learn a whole lot more about this country.
The Annexation of Mexico: From the Aztecs to the IMF
One reporter’s journey through history
By John Ross
Common Courage Press. 1998
Available from Amazon Books: Paperback