Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Lake Chapala and Ajijic

Lake Chapala lies 30 miles south of Guadalajara and lot of American and Canadian retirees live there. The town of Ajijic (ah-hee-HEEK, sounds like “take a peek”) is famous for its artists´ colony. This fanciful mural gives you a flavor of the place -- the images are a mix of images from American indigenous petroglyphs, which look a lot like the Cro-Magnon cave paintings of Spain and France.

The influence of North American money is obvious in the upkeep of the buildings, the gardens, the street plantings and the stores. They cater to visitors with money to spend. Restaurant menus have English translations, which is not common in Guadalajara and most of the other places we´ve visited.

Lake Chapala, Mexico´s biggest lake at about 50 miles long and 20 miles wide, is the highest it´s been in decades because of a very heavy rainy season. This public park shows the impact. With lake levels low, development crept down to meet the water, with obvious results. It takes just one generation to forget history.

People I´ve talked with in Guadalajara say that the lake used to be a popular place to swim, water-ski and fish. Now it has a reputation for pollution. A lake of that size in the U.S., so close to a population center, would have been crawling with boats on a Sunday afternoon. We saw just two or three.

We liked the flowers. They pour over walls and from second-story terraces. When you get a peek through the iron gates, you see lots of lovely gardens.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Drug violence becomes terrorist violence

At least seven people were killed in a grenade attack on an independence day crowd. NTX photo

On Aug. 30, an estimated 1 million people marched in solidarity in Mexico City against the wave of violence and kidnappings in the country.

Editorialists joined the call for the ineffective police and courts to do something. A series of high-profile arrests followed, and now it appears organized crime is fighting back.

In a highly symbolic act of violence, two fragmentation grenades were tossed into a crowd watching Independence Day celebrations in a square in Morelia on Monday, seven people died and more than 100 were injured.

A video on El Universal´s website captured the moment when one of the grenades exploded immediately after the governor of Michoacan delivered the traditional Cry of Freedom and three cheers of “Viva Mexico”. The message to President Felipe Calderon and other federal authorities from organized crime seems clear: We are the power and we will not be intimidated by law enforcement. The site of the attack is the president´s hometown.

Virtually every opinion column in today´s papers touched on the violence, which previously touched mainly the police and those involved in the drug trade. This was the first time civilians have been directly attacked in the drug war.

Several editorialists -- Ciro Gomez, Joaquin Lopez-Doriga, Hector Aguilar -- commented on the new higher level of violence and intimidation that this terrorist act represented.

The timing of the attack on Independence Day and the audacity of the attack on innocent people has shaken the nation.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Discoveries in Guadalajara and Tonala

The street we live on, Pablo Neruda, has a tree-lined median strip that shows some of the best and worst of things here. The best is obvious, lots of greenery. All the streets here are lined with trees, even most of the big commercial streets. The worst is that a lot of the sidewalks are falling apart.

The traffic on our street is very heavy, with three lanes on each side and big buses running all the time. At night, the traffic noise makes it hard to hear a television set. Given the mild year-round temperatures, buildings have very thin walls and no insulation.

On Saturdays and Sundays in the parks or public squares you´re likely to see young women in fancy dresses, and you look for the groom. He´s not there. These are birthday parties for 15-year-old girls, a very big deal, kind of like a coming-out party or a cotillion or a bat mitzvah. They call the parties quinceañeras in some Latin American countries.

In a big public park in Guadalajara, these stumps serve as picnic tables and seats.

All the kids kick balls around. Baseball is not played in Guadalajara, as near as I can tell, unless the American community has some teams. Baseball is played in the north and some Gulf Coast states.

We took a drive one Sunday to Tonalá, a town east of here that is being absorbed into the metropolitan area. It has its own distinct character and history, and a walk through the streets turns up some non-urban scenes, like this one at an informal restaurant.

You see lots of old cars on the streets of Tonalá. Not as old as the ones in Cuba, but close. A collector might do well to spend some time in Mexico scouting out bargains.

The big attraction here is the artisans´ market. Tonalá is known for its stoneware and ceramics. There are a lot of little factories and you can get a pretty good deal on original handpainted stuff. We had been using plastic stuff for about six weeks so we broke down and bought a 56-piece set for six people.

We liked the church.

Exploring the history of Mexico City

Diego Rivera´s murals in the National Palace are a marvelous history of the country from 2,000 years ago to the first part of the 20th century. My favorites were his depictions of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec city on the lake in what is now Mexico City.
I´ve read some of the accounts of the Spanish priests and soldiers who were the first Europeans to see it, and they were awestruck by its beauty and organization. They compared its causeways and canals to Venice. Here are more images of the city.

And this is model of what the original temples looked like, based on contemporary depictions.

In the square next to the cathedral, native dancers perform. In the 1970s, excavations in the cathedral square uncovered ruins of the original Aztec temples that occupied the site.

Actually, there were seven Aztec temples built one on top of the other. Since they were built on a lake bed, they were subject to flooding and subsidence, sometimes accelerated by earthquakes. So as a temple sank, a new one was built on top, and you can see the layers in the excavations.

Compared to what the richest country on earth has done to preserve the history and culture of its native people, Mexico has done a marvelous job. Their monuments and museums and archeological sites are numerous and well cared for. True, the North American tribes worked in wood and leather more than in stone, but there does seem to be more respect here for the tradition and contribution. Part of that may just be for political reasons, given Mexico´s large indigenous population. Still, there are parts of Mexico where Mayan temples are as numerous as churches in Italy, and that has come about from a conscious effort.

The big guy behind us brings rain or corn or something else, but he clearly has the power to bring a lot of it.

Pagan, Catholic religions blend in Mexico

Cindy and I took a trip about an hour north of Mexico City and got to experience an interesting contrast in religious beliefs and observances.

Pilgrims to the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe show their devotion by approaching the cathedral on their knees.

First we stopped at the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is a major pilgrimage destination for Mexican faithful. Legend has it that it was here in 1531 that Mary, the mother of God, appeared to a Nahuatl named Juan Diego, spoke to him in his native tongue and told him to build a church on the site. There are now six churches there, Juan Diego is a saint, and thousands of people pack the site daily. These are not the well-to-do Americans and Europeans who visit the sacred temples of the Aztecs, Mayans and other pre-Columbian sites. These are the common faithful.

The Sunday we were there, several thousand people packed the main cathedral, and thousands of others lit candles at various shrines and asked for miraculous cures of their physical and psychological ailments.

The Catholic religion has blended with the ancient pagan religions so that Mary is often identified with the earth goddess or other female deities, and Jesus and the saints are identified with other gods and goddesses of the pagan pantheon. They´re blended together in a uniquely Latin American form of Catholicism that still feels very medieval.

This little girl sought the blessing of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The next stop was Teotihuacan, an enormous ceremonial center in what was the biggest city in the Americas 1,900 years ago.

The place was called Teotihuacan by Nahuatl speakers several centuries after the city's fall, but its original name, the language or languages spoken there, and the ethnic groups who built the city are still unknown.
-- Arizona State University Department of Anthropology

You can get some sense of the scale of the place from the size of the ants (people) walking around. Each of the platforms once housed a temple. The pyramid of the Sun in the background is a couple of hundred feet high. The main avenue follows a north-south axis. The whole site was buried under dirt and trees until excavation began in the 19th century. There is still a lot to be uncovered.

Cindy and I marveled at the design of the ceremonial city. In their original state these pyramids were covered with a smooth stucco that was painted red, and carvings and murals decorated the fronts of the platforms. You can see traces of some of the colorful murals in a museum on the site. It is all quite impressive. At the time of its greatest flourishing, it was the sixth largest city in the world, the ASU researchers say.

The central plateau that today includes the site of Mexico City had a population estimated to be 25 million people at the time Europeans arrived. My source for this is a very interesting book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

The pyramid of the Moon is behind us in this picture. Cindy and I climbed to the top of both the pyramids. They´re quite steep.

The Aztecs who passed through the city after it had been abandoned and partly destroyed gave their own interpretations to the meaning of the place. They were equally awed and recognized that it had sacred significance.

Why governments are unstable in Latin America

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has nationalized a number of industries and shut down a television network that criticized him.

Historians generally agree that the instability in Latin America boils down to a couple of things.

Men not laws
Governments traditionally have been all about men, not laws. In fact, many times a newly elected president will undertake rewriting the constitution so that it supports his party, political beliefs and so on. (This is happening right now in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Bolivia, to name three). So the constitution is often about the person, not the country. When a new president comes in, a new constitution or constitutional reform is often a part of the new regime.

And let´s not be smug. The U.S. and Great Britain had civil wars on their way to creating viable representative democracies, and we still have plenty of corruption. Still, what is different in Latin America is that the revolutions of 1810-20 that kicked out the Spanish did not result in the creation in each country of a constitutional convention, passage of a bill of rights and creation of a viable institutional framework to support a democracy. Basically, whichever clever and powerful person could pull together enough support to control the capital could to some extent control the country.

Multinational companies support dictators
Democracy is messy, so multinational companies, with the support of Democratic and Republican presidents alike over the last 200 years, have supported dictators who guaranteed stability (often through violent repression of dissenters) and no disruption in business. It´s embarrassing for an American to read about all the assassinations and coups we have supported in the interest of protecting the flow of low-cost natural resources, manufactured goods and agricultural products.

The lack of strong local industries has meant these countries are subject to the fluctuations of international commodity prices and other external forces, creating conditions for economic instability, which translates into social and political instability.

Three socialist presidents: Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela are part of the new wave in Latin America. Morales and Chavez accuse the U.S. of supporting coups to overthrow their governments. Given our history in Latin America, this argument wins believers. It is also a convenient way to villify opposition movements. (AP photo)

Socialists come to power

Socialist leaders of various stripes have risen to the top recently in Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador by promising to kick out multinationals and share more of the wealth and the land with the majority. These countries suffered terribly in the 1980s and 1990s when they tried to adopt market-driven economic policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. (These policies are known disparagingly in Latin America as neo-liberalism.) So now these countries are swinging in the other direction, toward state-run economies. The U.S. is worried but shouldn´t be. There is an opportunity to work in a hybrid of the two economic models.

Weak institutions, strong dictators

Today, most countries in Latin America have weak institutions that the public does not respect -- courts, police, congress, executive -- so they trust a system that is like that run by the mafia: you take care of me, I´ll do a favor for you. It´s all about relationships, family connections, friendships, alliances. The law is not trusted, respected or used to resolve disputes. There is even a recognized occupation for people whose job is to facilitate paperwork (gestor in Mexico, tramitedor in Bolivia) by strategic gifts (mordidas en Mexico, coimas in Bolivia) Investors shun a lot of these countries because contracts are hard to enforce (no seguridad jurídica).

Druglords (narcotraficantes) fill the vacuum left by weak institutions. The druglords build schools, playgrounds, hospitals and provide food programs for the poor. In exchange they expect, and get, silence and cooperation. They have destabilized the rule of law in large parts of Chihuahua and other Mexican states.

The rich and the poor
Also you don´t have a big middle class here. When you have a middle-class majority, you have a built-in self-interest in stability. Here there is institutionalized wealth and poverty, which means that you almost always have a very unhappy majority.
In Mexico, which is a relatively prosperous country, more than 40 percent of the people live in poverty, according to a study I read recently. Some 23 million adults in this country of 100 million are either illiterate or didn´t finish primary school.

Most of the poor are indigenous people, usually farmers (campesinos). In the U.S. and Canada we wiped out and moved out all of the indigenous peoples. In Latin America, the Spanish and Portuguese used them to work on their farms and in their mines. The majority in most countries is of indigenous or mixed descent.

So you have built-in social instability that the ruling class has declined to rectify through a program like the New Deal.

Obviously, this is a generalization and simplification. Others could add nuance and more information. John Charles Chasteen´s book Born in Blood and Fire (2000) is very informative, as is Frank Tannenbaum´s 1966 book Ten Keys to Latin America.

Cristina Fernandez, president of Argentina, who succeeded her husband, Nelson Kirchner, in the job.