Washington, D.C., September 11th, 2011.-During the last month I’ve read reviews by [Mexican] colleagues who belittle or minimize the Caravan for Peace, considering it naive and unsophisticated. They have also expressed optimistic views that describe the Caravan as the dawn of a new era inspired, perhaps unknowingly, by the phrase uttered by Lincoln Stephens in 1919 after visiting the newly born Soviet Union: “I have seen the future and it works.”
The Caravan is neither an example of irrelevance nor is it a watershed. During a month it planted seeds, following the path opened decades ago by other Latin Americans.
I accompanied the Caravan in its early days. I was in Tijuana, San Diego and Los Angeles. When I returned to Mexico City, someone sent me a question: “Why do you get involved when you aren’t a victim and you’re not part of that fraternity of pain?” At the time I answered the question in an obvious manner, but it helped me to collect my thoughts and feelings, my beliefs and aspirations.
I accompany and support this Caravan because I have lived very closely with two wars and for a personal reason that I will mention at the close my presentation.
The first was the Dirty War of the sixties and seventies. I am part of a generation that rebelled against authoritarianism, some took up arms, others took the peaceful path. The cost in lives and suffering was enormous.
But the worst thing was the silence and impotence. In those years there were very few in Mexico or abroad who were interested in the human rights violations or electoral fraud. In Mexico, [calls for] human rights were seen as an instrument of imperialism. In the U.S., they turned their gaze towards the far distance so as not to see what was happening in their neighbor’s house.
We ended up defeating the skepticism. The unity of the victims and the work of academics, journalists and officials changed the cultural paradigms in Mexico and the United States. Increasingly it was accepted that there were serious violations of human rights in Mexico, and this antecedent legitimizes the informative role that the Caravan has been carrying out regarding what is happening in Mexico.
I gained my second experience with war in the Central American conflicts. During the eighties I combined research with journalistic and humanitarian work in Chiapas and Central America. Simultaneously, in Washington, I got involved in demonstrations and discussions regarding these wars and understood the importance of the societies joining together in defending the most basic rights.
A couple of clarifications. I arrived in 1975 at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, studying for my doctorate, and I was present when relations between the societies of Latin America and the United States intensified. This was a qualitatively different dialogue. There had always been very strong relationships among conservatives in the hemisphere, but in the seventies and eighties, for the first time, a long-term understanding between those of us favoring change was established.
This advance provides useful lessons for a better understanding of the Caravan for Peace. Solidarity among societies is fickle. To achieve their benefits, they must work with commitment, tact, intelligence and patience. This complexity is unavoidable because it has to do with reconciling ideologies, nationalities, genders, interests of the powers that be, bureaucratic inertia and political cultures. They are forced equilibria that are constantly being woven and undone in a constant oscillation between agreement on basic principles and haggling over strategies and practices. This tension is, indeed, very creative…
What was it that has kept the coalitions [of the seventies and eighties] together and allowed them to redirect U.S. foreign policy by opening an opportunity for change? Why were they successful? Thinking about those years, the main reason was that the principal bond was humanitarian. We were all joined together by the desire to curb the attacks on human dignity perpetrated by Somoza, the Guatemalan military, and the Salvadoran right wing.
Theoretical formulations had a use, but our unity came from the commitment to life. That elemental agreement enabled us to convince much of public opnion, members of Congress and the foreign policy establishment. The message was simple: America could not preach respect for human rights while financing death squads or tolerating forced resettlements.
The Caravan for Peace shares all of this history as it comes knocking on the doors of Washington, because Mexico is an unbearable humanitarian tragedy. Mexico is ruled by an elite incapable of protecting us because it is a prisoner of the powers that be. Impunity, cynicism and corruption are what impels us to seek understanding and support outside of our borders.
The Calderón government has not fulfilled its commitments to victims gathered in the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity; nor is it able to implement a mechanism to protect journalists and human rights defenders who are threatened. It is a governmental song bird: it sings very beautifully, but it does absolutely nothing. Last Friday, the Interior Ministry deceived us again [regarding the Victims Law], so in protest twenty-four human rights organizations left a rigged meeting.
To combat our helplessness we need external support, and in the United States that requires combating indifference and denial. Washington has responsibilities to which it must attend. One of them is to recognize that in my country we bear about 60,000 counted dead and that there is massive and illegal smuggling of weapons that arm the legions of criminals who threaten, kidnap, torture and murder us.
For a month the Caravan has sown the seeds of a dialogue among sectors of the two societies. For these seeds to germinate and flourish we have to overcome many obstacles. There are differences between those who come from Mexico and those who receive us in the U.S. To make these manageable, we must always remember that ours is a covenant for life and human dignity. If we forget this basic principle we become unwitting accomplices of the executioners.
I close with two thoughts.
On May 8, 2011, I was in Mexico City to receive the march called by Javier Sicilia. I was talking on a shaded bench with Miguel Angel Granados Chapa,** when Daniel Gershenson*** came for us so that we could greet the poet. Javier first embraced us, then kissed us and invited us to join the march. Miguel Angel was weak from his illness and excused himself. My family joined the march and arrived at the stage in the Zócalo [main plaza]. I stood by the mother of a 19 year old girl who was first kidnapped, then tortured and finally murdered.
The details touched me because her family lives a few blocks from my house. We are neighbors. That girl could have been my daughter, who is now pregnant. The sorrowful mother gave me a photo of her daughter, which I placed with the portraits of my family. Every day I look at that picture and think of the victims, both present and future. Any Mexican is a potential candidate to join the list of victims of a war that is fueled by the actions and omissions of the United States of America. Do not ask for patience and silence from us before the barbarism of some and the ineptitude of others.
A good neighbor cares for those living nearby. The United States is a fickle neighbor. Sometimes it stands in solidarity; other times it is indifferent.
In March 1941 the U.S. Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act to deliver humanitarian and military equipment to allies threatened by the Axis. Franklin Delano Roosevelt uttered a phrase that sums up this Act: it is “to help extinguish the fire in a neighbor’s house before your house catches fire and ends in ashes.”
Washington is not a good neighbor with Mexico. That’s what we have to say to the Washington establishment, those who live inside the Beltway, and to the society: help us to put out the fire before it ignites you. It goes with your interests and national security to do so. As in the Second World War, to ignore the conflagration is suicidal; to incorporate humanitarianism in foreign policy is a sign of wisdom. Thank you.
Speech given at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, D.C., Sept. 11, 2012 Spanish original
*Sergio Aguayo is a professor at the College of Mexico, president of the Civic Alliance and a member of the board of directors of the Mexico Center of the Woodrow Wilson Center.
**Miguel Ángel Granados Chapa was a Mexican lawyer and journalist who died of cancer on October 16, 2011.
***Daniel Gershenson is a Mexican social activist and journalist, co-founder and president of Al Consumidor, a non-profit to protect consumers. He is a columnist for Animal Político and other publications.