Friday, September 11, 2009


In September 2001, we had not yet relocated our offices from New York City to the central highlands of Mexico, so we missed the Mexican reaction to the terrorist attacks. But it provides the opening chapter of a book by the US's Ambassador to Mexico at the time, Jeffrey Davidow: The Bear and the Porcupine (try to guess which one Mexico is).

The terror of September 11, so damaging to the American would, became a window on the Mexican psyche. It did not so much alter the US-Mexican emotional terrain as it cleared it, thinning out the brushwood and revealing the fault lines…

“The initial Mexican reaction to the terror was one of horror. President Fox’s office and other government departments faxed statements of grief. Ordinary citizens, politicians and cabinet ministers called the embassy or friends in the United States to express sympathy. Millions of Mexicans sat stunned and numbed in front of their television sets. They learned of the probable deaths of Mexicans in the World Trade Center, where many worked in the Windows on the World Restaurant. (Much later, the deaths of sixteen Mexicans were confirmed.)

“But quickly the reaction became muddled, degenerating into an unseemly internal political debate that revealed very little trust or understanding, but much ugliness and a harsh insensitivity”

Ah, that's sound like the US_Mexico dynamic we know and love! The problem appears to have started with a statement from Vicente Fox’s straight-talking foreign secretary, Jorge Castañeda, who acknowledged the US’s right to seek revenge for the attacks, and said Mexico should stand with her. “In difficult moments for a country, like those the United States is now facing, friends should not haggle over support,” he said. Anyone who knows Mexico could see where this was heading: Critics on the left immediately screamed that he was giving Uncle Sam “a blank check.”

“[Novelist Carlos] Fuentes argued that the US had brought the attacks on itself by recklessly pushing its own power throughout the world. His laundry list of American sins managed to convey the impression that Osama bin Laden had somehow been spurred to action by Bush’s renunciation of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. He told his countrymen not to act as America’s achinchicles - a wonderful Mexican word meaning “minions and full of the onomatopoeia of clanking prisoners’ chains.”

Commander Codpiece then did his part by giving his famous “either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists” speech, which somehow got translated in the Mexican press as “we want Mexico to send a lot of troops to die in Afghanistan.” Castañeda, trying to calm the furor, made clear that America didn’t need, and had not asked, for Mexican military help. “And if they did ask,” he added, “we would not give it.” That got picked up in the US press as “Mexico tells US to go fuck self,” though, admittedly, the country was a little to preoccupied to express a lot of outrage.

Of course, it's not like a little token Mexican military aid is completely unprecedented - and, who knows, maybe we'd have wrapped this Afghan adventure up by now. Anyway, Mexicans would have to wait for the next war in order to fight for the red, white and blue.


Richard said...

Mexico's WWII contribution was hardly "token"... the U.S. wouldn't have been able to put so many soldiers and sailors in the field if it hadn't been for the braceros keeping the farms, factories and railroads running in the U.S.

And, Escuadron 201 was not fighting for the U.S.A., but served under Filipino Field Marshall Douglas MacArthur (ok, who also happened to be a U.S. General) and only after Mexico had itself been attacked by German U-boats.

(Geeze, I gotta plug my book again?)

I was working in Cuernavaca on 11 Sept 2001. The rich brats in the school where I was teaching thought it was funny to see planes crash into a building, but people were coming up to me on the street and expressing their sympathy, and the Morelos State Police ... knowing I was a U.S. citizen working in their city... followed me home when I walked back from work, AND kept a car outside the school (where we had a couple U.S. citizen students) conspicuously outside for a week.

What soured Mexican governmental relations was Bush's "for us or against us" statement, and attempt to turn the event into an anti-Iraq crusade. Mexico's constitution does not allow for declarations of war unless the country is directly attacked and non-intervention has been the basis of Mexican diplomacy since Benito Juarez was president. Mexico had no reason to attack Iraq, or were there any diplomatic problems.

The Bushistas ASSUMED Mexico would sign on to their great adventure, and attempted to subvert Mexican diplomats (going so far as to spy on Adolfo Zinzer, the Mexican U.N. Ambassador)and... after demanding Fox sign on to the adventure, Fox was forced to go on national television to deny that Mexico would be involved (and Fox was bed-ridden, recovering from back surgery at the time) and to abrogate the Rio Treaty calling for mutual self-defense among the American nations.

Davidow was probably the best U.S. Ambassador since Dwight Morrow, but he's just plain wrong when he claims that it was only the "left" that opposed the intervention. Polling by El Universal had opposition to Mexican involvement at about 90 to 95% The only backers of Mexican involvement were Jorge Casteñada -- whose world-view is more that of a tenured Colombia University professor than a Mexican foreign secretary -- and, as one Mexican commentator said, "Mexicans who get their news from the New York Times."

Burro Hall said...

I mostly post stuff so that you'll do a much longer, more detailed post in comments, Richard.

And by "token" I meant "less than the British."

For me, Davidow's credibility falters at the very beginning, when he mentions turning on the tv that morning and seeing "the first plane hit the World Trade Center," which was of course impossible.

Dave said...

My wife had just moved here from Mexico shortly before 9-11 and as she heard "Commander Codpiece" (I like that epithet!) announce that infamous "with us or against us" line, she turned to me with chagrin and said "What do they want Mexico to do???" Seemed like a good question to me.

It was obvious we'd spent our capital by the time we returned to Mexico shortly after the invasion of Iraq and could hear people not-so-discreetly murmuring "pinches gringos" behind our backs.

Anonymous said...

Re the kids laughing, it may have been partially nervous laughter. I swear I was expecting the Terminator to walk out of the rubble with a guy under each arm.

When I realised it was real I went: OMG, what are THEY going to do now? The whole with me or against me mindset was easy to predict.

Burro Hall said...

It would have been funny, after Thursday's hijacking, for Calderon to announce that you're either with Mexico, or with the evangelical crazies. That would have put the US in an awkward position.

Anonymous said...

Burro, this video was taken by a Mexican, me (I).

Anonymous said...

At that time I was working for the Wall Street Journal by the way.

Lazlo Lozla said...

Richard, I don't think Adolfo Aguilar Zínser was ambassador at that time, but our man in the UN. But you are right about the souring because of the Iraq adventure: the Fox administration not only didn't support the war but lobbied for a UN resolution to condemn it, therefore the interest from the US to have Aguilar Zínser's office bugged.

sarah said...

I was studying in Queretaro at the time. The cal state university has an exchange program with ITESM. I always say Im glad I was in Mexico when it happened. I have a much much different view of the whole thing.