Friday, October 4, 2013

The Storm That Swept Mexico (Paradigm Productions/PBS, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Storm That Swept Mexico, a 2011 documentary on the 1910-1920 Mexican revolution and how the issues involved have played out since — leading up to the 1968 massacre in Mexico City in which police and the army sent in fully armed forces and started shooting unarmed, peaceful demonstrators who were protesting the amount of money Mexico was spending on the 1968 Olympic Games while poverty and privation still gripped most of the country. It was one of those depressing “the more things change, the more they stay the same” stories; it begins with the turn of the last century, when the dictator Porfirio Diaz had been in power for a quarter-century and he had filled his government with a group of technocrats called the cientificos, essentially the Mexican version of today’s Heritage Foundation in the U.S. They believed that the future of Mexico lay in opening the country to foreign — especially American — direct investment, and largely gave away the country’s patrimony of natural resources to U.S. (and European) companies who ran the mines and oilfields with an iron hand. Diaz had taken power in 1876, four years after the death of Benito Juárez, and before he emerged as a Right-wing dictator he’d actually been a general in Juárez’s army and had helped immeasurably in Mexico’s successful resistance to the French occupation of 1862-1867. The fact that a liberal general turned into such a conservative dictator is a nice bit of historical irony the filmmakers (director Ray Telles and writers Telles, Kenn Rabin and Manuel Tsingaris) didn’t bother to mention, nor did they point out the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexican politics — the church has always aligned itself with the most Right-wing elements of Mexico and the film doesn’t mention the Cristeros, the fanatically religious counterrevolutionaries who started a short-lived reign of terror against the Mexican government in 1926-28 (their name came from their war cry, “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” — “Long live Christ the king”).

They mostly tell a pretty straightforward story of the Revolution and how the politics of the Mexican civil war played out in later decades, starting with Francisco Madero and his publication of the book La Sucesion Presidential en 1910 in 1908 (a moderate book that argued that Diaz ought to allow the free election of a vice-president who could take over after he died — like a lot of aging dictators, Diaz did not pick a successor out of fear the anointed successor might try to topple him ahead of schedule). It didn’t mention an even more scathing book about Mexico published in 1909, Los Grandes Problemas Nacionales by Andrés Molina (a name I have a particular fondness for because I personally know his granddaughter, San Diego activist Gracia Molina de Pick), but it does mention that Madero managed to become president of Mexico after he picked up two generals who led their own private armies and gave him the needed military force: Pascual Orozco, who’s been pretty much sidelined in the histories; and Francisco “Pancho” Villa, who’s become legendary. (One fact unmentioned in this film is that Villa was born with the name “Doroteo Arrango” — one with far less outlaw or revolutionary “cred.”) Madero took power as a moderate revolutionary and was faced with the much more radical demands of Villa, who was based in the northern state of Chihuahua, and Emiliano Zapata (who remains enough of a name to conjure with in Mexican history that the resistance movement to the North American Free-Trade Agreement in Chiapas in 1994 called itself the Zapatistas — having heard a great deal about those Zapatistas it was odd to watch this movie and hear the word refer to the original ones), who was from the state of Morelos just south of Mexico City and whose key demand was that the large estates, the haciendas, on which peons had labored in conditions perched between slavery and feudalism for centuries, be broken up and the peasants each be given individual farms. Essentially Madero and his associates were trying to make an American-style revolution — moderate reform that would leave the ruling classes pretty much in place — while Villa and Zapata were the Mexican equivalent of the French Jacobins, wanting to tear down the material economic basis of the ancien regime and start over.

Villa remains probably the most enigmatic figure of the revolution; he’d been a bandit before he got into politics and he behaved more like a thug even when he was a revolutionary (the film makes the same comparison between Villa and Zapata Lesley Byrd Simpson did in his book Many Mexicos: when the two arrived in Mexico City together Zapata’s men went door to door and begged for food, while Villa’s men just took whatever they wanted — including the eons-old privilege of conquerors, rape). At the same time he was an innovative military commander who pioneered the use of trains in warfare (previous commanders had regarded trains primarily as ways to supply their armies; Villa used trains to move the troops themselves about quickly to avoid the battles he didn’t want to fight and mass his troops together for the ones he did) — indeed, it’s unfortunate that this film didn’t tell one of the most interesting stories of Simpson’s book: that, in the later battles between Villa and the more moderate general Alvaro Obregón, Villa’s men tore up the railroad tracks as they retreated — and Obregón assigned a detail in his army to lay tracks along the roadbeds so his trains could keep the chase going. Villa also organized the wives and girlfriends of his soldiers to accompany them into the combat zones, and while these so-called Soldaderas mostly tended to their men’s sexual needs between battles and served as nurses for the wounded, at times they actually took up arms themselves — and Villa also allowed himself to be photographed and filmed, knowing that the use of then-modern communications media would keep his name in the forefront of the revolutionary struggle both in Mexico and in the U.S. (where there was actually a lot of public support for him until he started stating raiding parties on the U.S. side of the border). Indeed, Villa actually signed a contract with the Mutual Film Company to make a movie about him, including footage of him actually fighting, and the film was completed and released — though, alas, it’s one of all too many silents that’s lost today (though this documentary includes surviving newsreel footage of Villa and indicates, among other things, what good casting Wallace Beery was in the 1934 film ¡Viva Villa!).

The film also goes into the role of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson, who served while William Howard Taft was president (it was interesting to be seeing still pictures of Taft right after having read James Bradley’s marvelous book The Imperial Cruise, describing his mission to Asia in 1905 during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency and going into the whole sorry history of U.S. imperialism in Asia and the open, proud, out-front racism that underlied it, and noting that as president he was playing the same game as President in Mexico he’d played as Roosevelt’s Secretary of War in Asia) and who kept looking for a figure in the Mexican revolution the U.S. could support in exchange for a free hand in Mexico for U.S. companies. The film doesn’t mention some of the most interesting figures in the early history of the revolution, including Madero’s brother Gustavo (who organized his own secret police and thought — rightly — that Francisco was dangerously naïve about how to deal with his enemies) and Bernardo Reyes, a Porfirist general who tried to lead a counterrevolutionary coup, but it does go through the bloody succession of caudillo leaders (it’s a Spanish term, literally meaning “man on horseback,” to describe a military leader who takes over and rules a country by force), including interim presidents Victoriano Huerta and Venustiano Carranza (who ripped off the country so thoroughly that the verb “carrancear,” meaning “to steal,” entered Mexican Spanish), before the so-called Constitutionalistas led by Obregón and Plutarco Elias Calles essentially won the civil war in 1920 and set up the Partido National de la Revolución (PNR) which — later known as the Partido de la Revolución Institutional (PRI — and the oxymoronic character of the name “Institutional Revolutionary Party” says volumes about how it ruled!) — effectively ruled Mexico without serious challenge for the next 80 years.

One good thing about this show is that it doesn’t stop with the Mexican revolution, it also carries the story forward to 1968, after the PRI had long since betrayed the progressive promises not only of the original revolutionaries but also of Lázaro Cárdenas, the president who was nominated in 1934 by Plutarco Elias Calles, who — unable to run for re-election under the 1917 constitution (which imposed a one-term limit on the Mexican presidency to avoid a president turning himself into a perpetual dictator by perpetually winning rigged elections the way Diaz had) — imposed three peleles (“puppets”) on the Mexican electorate after Obregón, who had relinquished the presidency to Calles in 1924 and had been re-elected after Calles’ term in 1928, had been assassinated (ostensibly by a religious fanatic reacting to the revolution’s laws against the church — including an end to compulsory tithing, a secular public education system and a secular system of marriages; to this day Mexicans who want a church wedding can have one if the church is willing, but that’s not what gives them the mutual rights and responsibilities of a married couple; the secular process does that). With the term having been extended from four years to six, the office was open in 1934 and Calles gave the dedazo (literally “the tap on the shoulder,” the process by which, barred from running again, the outgoing Mexican president nominated his successor) to Cárdenas, who’d established a clean reputation as governor of Michoácan state and whom Calles thought would be a mild reformer. Instead he prepared his move against Calles and his principal supporter, union leader Luis Morones, and exiled them from the country in early 1936.

Then he went about organizing land reform (setting up collective farms called éjidos in northern Mexico and individual plots in the south) and expropriating the foreign oil companies (with compensation — some of the most heartrending footage in the documentary shows people giving their jewelry and kids smashing their piggy banks and putting the results in boxes called “Dinero” to raise the money to pay off the oil companies), setting up the state-owned Pemex (Petroléos Mexicanos) to control the country’s oil industry from wellhead to gas station (Pemex remains to this day the only brand of gasoline available in Mexico). Cárdenas was represented in the interviews by his son Cuáhatemoc (whose name reflects one aspect of the Mexican revolution unexplored in this documentary — a deliberate and propagandistic playing-down of the Spanish part of Mexico’s heritage and a celebration, almost an exaltation, of the Native part), who ran for the presidency twice and at least the first time (in 1988) was almost certainly denied the victory he deserved by election fraud on the part of the PRI. It seems that Lázaro Cardenas thought he could establish a progressive Mexico that would remain in place after his six years in the presidency were up — among other things, he opened Mexico to refugees from fascism, not only people who fled Spain after Franco’s forces won their civil war (it was an obvious place to go not only because Mexico was offering to take them in but because it was a Spanish-speaking country and therefore they didn’t have to worry about learning a new language) but refugees from the rest of Europe, too, including Jews (at a time when there was still enough anti-Semitism in the ruling class of the U.S. that aside from a handful of celebrities, almost no European Jews were admitted to the U.S. during World War II and the Holocaust). Instead, as the PNR turned into the PRI and the presidents stopped coming from the military (Cárdenas’s immediate successor, Avila Camacho, was the last president of Mexico who had started out as a general) and instead came from the ruling class’s intellectual elite (a throwback to the days of Diaz’s cientificos!), Mexico’s progress gradually reversed. The ultimate betrayal of the revolution came in the early 1990’s, when Mexico’s ruling elite signed on to the so-called “North American Free Trade Agreement” (NAFTA), which essentially reversed Article 27 of the 1917 Mexican constitution (the article that had said all natural resources collectively belonged to the Mexican people and could therefore not be sold to private companies, especially foreign-owned ones) and also destroyed Mexico’s system of agricultural subsidies, smashing the economic basis of Mexico’s farming communities and forcing millions of peasants off the land and to the Mexican cities in search of industrial jobs — and, if they couldn’t find them (and few could), then leading them to emigrate to the United States (the real reason why the number of undocumented immigrants to the U.S. swelled from the 3 million of 1986, when the Reagan-era amnesty bill was passed, to the 12 million of the late 2000’s before the 2008 recession closed enough job opportunities in the U.S. that the undocumented population actually shrunk by a million as quite a few immigrants returned to Mexico).

There are problems with The Storm That Swept Mexico — quite a few of the interviews are in Spanish (with English subtitles instead of voiceovers) and at least five veterans of Zapata’s army are included, which since Zapata was killed in 1919 suggests that these were probably filmed for a much earlier documentary made for the Mexican audience, probably in the 1970’s or early 1980’s — and one outrageous historical mistake: the show treats the Zimmermann Telegram as authentic — a legitimate offer from German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann to Mexican president Venustiano Carranza offering to return Texas, Arizona and New Mexico to Mexico if Mexico would enter World War I on the German side and help them defeat the U.S. that was “leaked” to the British Secret Service and then passed on to the New York Times and other U.S. media. In fact it was written by the British Secret Service as an elaborate fake to incense U.S. public opinion and get America into the war on the British side — and it worked; the relatively isolationist Southwestern states reacted the way the Brits had wanted them to and joined the East Coast coalition pushing the U.S. into the war. Overall, though, it’s an impressive documentary even though it would be even stronger if it had taken the story past 1968 and gone into NAFTA, the rise of the (new) Zapatistas in response, the PRI’s first defeat in a presidential election in 2000 (to Vicente Fox, the candidate of the National Action Party or PAN, which had been formed back in the 1940’s by the Roman Catholic Church to combat the anti-clericalism of the revolution!) and the current furor in Mexico over the current PRI president’s proposal to allow foreign oil companies back into the country and partially privatize Pemex — which shows, if nothing else, how “live” the issues raised by the Mexican Revolution really are!