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Democracy in Mexico — the 
Complex Roles of the United States: A Conversation with Sergio Aguayo

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Sergio Aguayo was interviewed in his office at El Colegio de México in February 1999. I edited a transcript of the interview and invited him to make changes and corrections in April 1999. He returned the manuscript with extensive revisions in May 1999.
David Thelen

David Thelen: There are two areas we want to talk about: the project that resulted in your book Myths and [Mis]Perceptions and your work on human rights (particularly refugees and democracy).1

This is the tale of my schizophrenia. In different circles, I am frequently regarded either as a professor, an activist, or a columnist. On the one hand, I have now been a professor at El Colegio de México for twenty-two years, engaged in the typical activities that characterize a professorial existence. On the other hand, I have also been active in the promotion of human rights and democracy in many different ways, and I have written a weekly column for fifteen years now. This is not a result of any conscious choice on my part; it simply happened, as a consequence of personal decisions, external events, and accidents.

I was born in 1947, in a little town in the state of Jalisco and grew up there, in Guadalajara. As a youth — and a typical son of the Mexican Revolution — I believed in the regime, which seemed to promise both an education and hope for the future. This produced a well-developed sense of nationalism and a persistent distrust toward foreigners, especially those from the United States. Politics were a central interest from an early age; as a teenager, I joined a street gang committed to student activism.

My life was transformed, however, by the students’ movement of 1968, which — combined with the repression of the 1960s and 1970s — posed serious questions regarding the legitimacy of the government. Briefly, I toyed with the idea of joining the guerrillas, something that was not unusual in certain Latin American circles during the 1960s. This was a decade of dreamers, a time when everything seemed possible.

Although I finally rejected that idea, many members from my political group did participate, only to be exterminated by government forces. Some were killed, others disappeared, and many remain psychologically maimed. I personally was a victim of beatings and torture. These circumstances eventually forced me to leave Guadalajara, which had become a very dangerous place to live (as a matter of personal revenge, I was sentenced to death by one of the paramilitary groups created by the government). Having heard of El Colegio de México, which had established a B.A. program in international relations and — this was even more important — provided scholarships for full-time students, I arrived in Mexico City in 1971, armed with a scholarship and the determination to remain there. This would be an extremely difficult fresh start. For the first time in my life, I was engaged in serious studies, and this was very, very painful. I worked day and night, both because I liked learning, and because I did not want to (and in fact could not) return to Guadalajara, ridden as it was with political and drug-related violence (it was then that the drug lords established themselves there).

The early 1970s were a time for the country to loosen up a bit. The transition to democracy had already begun, and many of us felt that a change in the regime was within reach. For many Mexicans, one part of this process was a growing interest in the world as a whole, and especially in the United States. Thanks to a further scholarship, in 1975 I was able to travel there for graduate studies, which would focus on the United States itself. This was a bit of an adventure; in 1970s Mexico, those who showed an excessive interest in the United States were frequently accused of belonging to the CIA(Central Intelligence Agency). Fortunately, an example had already been set by scholars such as Josefina Vázquez, Daniel Cosío Villegas, and Lorenzo Meyer, who were calling for an improved understanding of our neighbor to the north and who had proved in practice that you could love Mexico and yet study the United States.

Recently married and with a three-week-old daughter, I found myself at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Two shocks were in store: first, I found that my recently acquired English left a good deal to be desired; and second, I was astonished to find myself in a country that not only seethed with effervescence but was also engaged in a furious exercise of self-criticism. That clearly contradicted some of the stereotypes I held at the time. It was a tough period, but having completed my M.A., I was accepted into the Ph.D. program. For my dissertation, I decided to explore the myriad ways in which Mexico was perceived by the United States elite. My purpose was both academic and political. I wanted to understand United States society in order to detect the margins that Mexicans had for a change of regime and, I hoped, to discover means for Mexico to acquire greater independence from the United States.

I obtained my Ph.D. in 1984, having already become a professor at the Center for International Studies at El Colegio de México. In 1977, upon my return to Mexico, I was invited to join the staff by Lorenzo Meyer. By then, I had already decided against politics as a career. I wanted to be a professor, but I also hoped to participate in Mexico’s nascent process of democratization, by giving part of my time to support the victims of authoritarianism. This allowed me to pay tribute to the victims of repression, while simultaneously assuaging my feelings of guilt as a survivor.

The book appeared in 1998. This extremely long inception period was partly due to my increasing involvement in a range of different topics, but it was also due to a sin of arrogance. Although I was well aware that the study of ideas is a very complex subject, I decided to broaden my field enormously by analyzing the contents of no less than seven thousand articles on Mexico published over the years by the New York Times. This was, furthermore, but a first step in my interpretation of Mexico’s relation with the United States. I soon found that this bilateral relationship has a multitude of layers, not unlike the Russian matrushkas, where one doll is lodged within another, and another, and yet another. You never know when this will end, and you must be willing to face what lives inside the dolls.

My project remained blocked for many years because — as I now realize — it was more than an ambitious intellectual exercise; it also involved a process of emotional maturation. To understand the connections between the United States and Mexico, I was forced to rethink Mexican nationalism and the role played by the United States in Mexican history. One of the fundamental concepts of Mexican nationalism was that ours was a country in a constant struggle against the deleterious influence of the United States, an attitude succinctly captured by a well-known phrase, attributed to Porfirio Diaz: "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the U.S."

One of the most shocking findings was that Mexican nationalism was not as intense as we Mexicans had come to believe. Of course, Mexican authorities did resist the United States, but there was also a pattern of constant support from elites in the United States for Mexican authoritarianism. This was not new. In 1927, the governments and elites in both countries reached an informal understanding of mutual support. Washington gave the victorious Mexican revolutionaries an unusual amount of space, allowing them to develop an independent economic model, an independent foreign policy, and an authoritarian regime. The Mexican government reciprocated by taking Washington’s interests into consideration, by guaranteeing Mexico’s stability, and by providing discreet support for the United States in critical situations. That is why so many important documents — such as the military plans for the defense of the continental United States — implicitly assume that Mexico would support the United States in case of war.

A peculiar understanding, indeed. The Mexican government was more than capable of bashing the United States in the international arena, and yet Washington was willing to tolerate this because it formed part of a very complicated relationship that was not based on any treaty. It was one aspect of a highly pragmatic accord that pointed to another conclusion: Mexico’s foreign policy is based on interests, and not on principles as has been widely proclaimed.

It was also a logical understanding because, despite history and rhetoric, the Mexican revolutionaries had no option but to reach an agreement with the United States. That is, there is a pattern of isolationism and evasion on the part of Mexicans about the United States, a consequence of the terrible defeat we suffered in 1847. Mexico and the United States have always been neighbors, but we are extremely different, in religious, ethnic, and many other terms. When Mexico achieved independence in 1821, some of our founding fathers turned to the United States, looking for a model to construct a new country, a society. The United States, however, was more interested in the territories of Texas and California. The defeat in the war of 1846 – 1848 was a blow to our self-esteem. A terrible blow. All of a sudden the foreigner became an enemy, and we stopped studying the United States.

What was perhaps even more disturbing was evidence that indicated that the Mexican regime had manipulated Mexican nationalism, in order to cut the country off from the world outside. This provided the government with a total ability to use force as a means to control the population. It was also disturbing that the United States elites collaborated with this process in a number of ways: mostly, by ignoring electoral frauds, human rights violations, and so on.

In any event, the country finally started to thaw somewhat during the 1970s. By yet another accident, I began to study the United States at a time when tens of thousands of Mexicans were beginning to travel to the United States, to Europe, or elsewhere around the globe. We traveled abroad with different questions, finding many different answers — perhaps because we came from different Mexicos. In the book, I captured all those changes: there is a reinterpretation of Mexico’s history and its relations with the United States. There is also a history of how the United States’ perception of Mexico was gradually transformed, and why. So, this was the genesis of that book.

As for my activism, after 1968 and my escape from the violence of Guadalajara, I was able to devote some years to full-time studies. I’ve mentioned the fact I was hired by El Colegio de México upon my return from graduate studies in the United States. My spare time was now taken up with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) dedicated to development and human rights. I was, for example, one of the founders of sedepac (Servicio, Desarrollo y Paz — service, development, and peace), an NGO devoted to development. That was a fascinating time. I was able to participate in the very inception of organizations that — years later — would sustain the struggle for democracy in the 1990s. In the 1980s, we developed a series of networks that have allowed more and more people to speak out freely and without fear. Daytimes, I lived the life of a professor at El Colegio de México. At night, and whenever I could, I was engaged in a very discreet and modest form of political activism in the slums of Mexico City, in the hamlets of Michoacán and Tlaxcala, and in cities along the border with the United States. It was a period of learning about activism and citizens’ diplomacy.

In the early 1980s, sedepac launched a consciousness-raising program among the women who worked in the maquiladoras (assembly plants) of the border town of Matamoros, Tamaulipas. This was a joint project with a Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee (afsc). They supported a pastor, Ed Kruger, who lived in Harlingen, Texas, and who crossed the border to work with people from sedepac. As workers were (and are) very tightly controlled, they could not be approached in the factories; therefore, we traveled to their homes at nights. It was a very successful program, because the workers were eager to learn. However, in 1984, ten thousand Zenith workers launched a strike, demanding better conditions and salary. Sadly, they were crushed because we did not have the social and political force needed to support them.

DT: What kind of social and political force?

SA: Let me refer to some of the things I learned about activism. When you organize people, you must help them overcome the fear that is a key ingredient in any authoritarian society. Fundamentally, people must realize that they have rights. The goal is to produce that sparkling in the eyes, an external manifestation of an internal transformation that is spiritual, ethical, and political. It is like a revelation or liberation that occurs at the moment when someone interiorizes the fact that she is a human being, endowed with dignity and self-respect, and that she has to fight for that dignity to be recognized.

Simultaneously, you work with them in their organization and in the preparation of a strategy. One has to pay a great deal of attention to the specificity of each group. Work with Indian women, for example, is very different from work with maquiladora workers. An Indian woman is triply burdened by being a woman, Indian, and poor; her balance is consequently very precarious. How can you challenge, for example, her belief that a man has the right to beat her? You must be very, very responsible and respectful.

Although you are with them at the very moment that they acquire consciousness, you must nonetheless respect their decisions regarding the time and the instruments they choose in order to change and fight. In Matamoros, we raised consciousness, we encouraged their organization, and we stood by them when they moved. But neither the workers nor we had the lawyers, the money to survive, the media willing to inform objectively (any movement that is denied accurate press coverage is fundamentally challenged from the very start). Nothing like that existed in the Matamoros of 1984. Matamoros was a very hostile place for independent movements. The workers were painfully defeated; many lost their jobs, and we felt very, very depressed. However, that was the kind of experience I would later be able to draw on as president of the Academia Mexicana de Derechos Humanos (Mexican human rights academy) (1990 – 1996), which trained thousands of activists — literally thousands — all over the country.

What’s more, the case of Matamoros exemplified a binational network that was not based on ideology or history, but on principles, and on accidents of personal history. I do not remember ever discussing the history of Mexico’s defeat in the nineteenth century with either Ed Kruger or the afsc. We had a common task: to raise the consciousness and organizational abilities of women who were being exploited by Mexicans and Americans. Something similar happened in our work with refugees.

DT: Tell us what you did on that field.

SA: Mexico was changing rapidly when the Central American wars broke out. Refugees started to arrive in Mexico from Central America in the late seventies, and I became involved. This was basic humanitarian work. I had never studied human rights or humanitarian law. I learned in practice, actively defending people in real situations. In order to formulate a coherent argument, you must read, go to conferences, acquire more and more knowledge, and all of a sudden you find that you have become an expert in the field. Because the defense of human rights is based on a sophisticated and complex set of arguments, requiring the dissemination of ideas, I also started to write regularly for the Mexican newspapers. Later, I became involved in independent journalism, and in 1984, I was one of the founding members of the center-left newspaper La Jornada. In September of that year, I started to publish a weekly column.

During that period, I was involved in the smuggling of people from Central America into Mexico and the United States. That was the only way to save many lives. We would learn, for example, of a Salvadoran widow in Guatemala. Her husband had been assassinated by death squads. She was a terrified refugee with three children. We would then learn that a group in New York was willing to provide sanctuary. We would meet the family in Tapachula and smuggle them to the United States border — that’s almost three thousand kilometers — and deliver them to people like Jim Corbett in Tucson, Arizona. This was a clandestine international humanitarian movement, not unlike the underground railroad that once helped runaway slaves get to the North or to Canada. That kind of activity was frequently resented by members of the security apparatus; I was threatened in Chiapas, which even then was rife with gross human rights violations. Certain Mexican officials, however, were very supportive.

DT: At some point you connected with Aristide Zolberg and Astri Suhrke to come up with a new model of the significance of refugees in the world, to turn the nation-centered understanding of refugees into a transnational meaning. Please help us understand the project that became Escape from Violence.2

SA: That was a fascinating intellectual exercise. Aristide Zolberg is a European Jew who arrived in the United States as a child and became a sophisticated scholar and an exceptional human being. Astri Suhrke is a remarkable Norwegian who has carried out a great deal of work on Southeast Asia. Initially, I was invited to write a section on Latin America for their forthcoming book. I was soon incorporated as coauthor of the whole book. We found that as we joined our life experiences and expertise, we were able to discover a great many patterns, establishing associations, similarities, and differences.

We also had access to an impressive amount of information from all over the world: we moved from famine in Ireland to the independence wars in Mexico, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe, and the United States. We truly made a determined effort to understand the dynamics of refugee movements. The result was a very articulated framework for understanding forced migrations around the world.

DT: Why was it important to question the nation-centered lenses through which western Europeans and Americans at least have thought about refugees?

SA: In the 1980s, the refugee crisis was overwhelming the world. There was a vital need for a more sophisticated theoretical understanding that could guide policy makers throughout the world in a more enlightened and humane direction. I think our work had intellectual impact because it came at the right moment and because it provided specialized knowledge that was also directly relevant for policy development.

Among the aspects we highlighted were the international dimension of refugees and the international community’s responsibility for solving or alleviating the plight of these millions of people. There were, of course, many other themes that made the book original. During the 1930s, international response toward the victims of political violence in El Salvador, Spain, or Germany was very different. The reason is that refugees are created when there is someone willing to recognize them.

In terms of relations between societies, the book also reflected the fact that Mexican social scientists were being rapidly accepted in first-class universities as peers. This is normal today, but at that time it was unusual for a Mexican to participate in such a project as a full coauthor.

DT: You said that your activities in the seventies with refugees became a basis for your campaign for democracy in Mexico. . . . 

SA: On certain occasions, the distinction between government and society becomes extremely meaningful. Working with refugees over time, I came in contact with organizations and people; many of us became close personal friends. A large number of Mexicans have established working agendas with citizens from the United States, Canada, Europe, and Latin America. The Central American conflicts gave an added impetus to this form of citizens’ diplomacy, created for purely humanitarian reasons. When the wars in Central America and the Cold War ended, a range of groups was already in place in Mexico, creating a movement for democracy. The crucial event was the presidential election of 1988, which, as you know, was rigged in a massive electoral fraud. Many of us turned our agenda inward. The regime received support from the United States government, Cuba, and many other international actors.

In 1990, I was elected president of the Academia Mexicana de Derechos Humanos, with a program that focused on civil and political rights. With the motto "civil rights are also political rights," we monitored elections, evaluating their freedom and fairness, using thousands of volunteers. We also searched for media biases, among many other programs. We emphasized the people’s right to get involved in public life. It was only natural to ask the international community for solidarity with the Mexican people.

What was novel was an explicit search for international support, including support from ngos and foundations in the United States, and not from the United States government.

DT: Do you mean that in order to support the struggle against Mexican authoritarianism you needed United States citizens to challenge the United States government to stop its complicity with Mexican authoritarianism?

SA: The answer is more complicated. First, we received solidarity in direct participation. In the 1990s, we monitored a great many elections throughout Mexico. Then we created Alianza Cívica (civic alliance) — an umbrella organization covering hundreds of ngos — which invited almost five hundred international observers to the presidential elections of 1994. Those observers came from nineteen different countries, but two-thirds of them were Americans. We asked them to travel around some of the most difficult places in the country.

Many of the observers from the United States were able to monitor events in some of Mexico’s most remote and inaccessible villages. Upon their return, some spoke at the United States embassy, publicizing what they had seen, while others wrote to their representatives at home. We simply asked them to accompany us in Mexico, allowing them to make their own decisions as to what kind of action they would take in their own country. For example, the Washington Office on Latin America (wola) specializes in lobbying Congress; the Global Exchange has done a great deal of grass-roots work. United States scholars and journalists were instrumental in transforming visions of Mexico. An innovative body of literature, which frequently criticized the Mexican political system, started to appear in the 1970s and 1980s. A new breed of United States scholars came to write their dissertations in Mexico. Among others, these included Judy Hellman, John Womack, Roger Hansen, Susan Kauffman Purcell, Wayne Cornelius, and David Ronfeldt. These scholars were more critical than their predecessors, and they came armed with sharper questions. A similar path was traced by American journalists, who were also beginning to transcend the official vision of Mexico. This change was fundamental, as it fostered a new and widespread sympathy toward Mexico’s democratic movement in United States society as a whole.

We also received financial support from many organizations around the world: Inter Pares, the Centre for the Development of Human Rights and Democracy, and, from the United States, the MacArthur Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the National Democratic Institute. Most of our funds, however, came from Mexican sources.

There is a fundamental aspect in this relation: In all the social groups that I know of, there was a request for international solidarity, and not for guidance. The agendas and the methods were established by Mexicans, and United States citizens were very respectful of this sensitivity. Nonetheless, many of us have been accused of being traitors to the fatherland and bad Mexicans. Sectors close to the government have accused me of being a puppet for American imperialism, due to my work for democracy; I have again been threatened on a number of occasions. But history is quite clear: One can request and receive solidarity from other groups and still be a good Mexican. This attitude is a clear sign of a mature nationalism.

There is a now a substantive level of dialogue, which was previously nonexistent, between social groups from both sides of the border. There are all sorts of liaisons, and the flow of information has become very plural. The Mexican government has been forced to accept this plurality, because it is an inherent and unavoidable aspect of present-day Mexico. Certain sectors in the international community have played a vital role in protecting us, not only politically, but physically. The fact that there are groups, scholars, and journalists in the United States, Canada, and Europe with a real concern for democracy and human rights in Mexico creates a protective shield for those of us involved in that kind of action.

DT: What are your plans for the future?

SA: I have recently completed a book on the students’ movement of 1968, which is part of a long-term project: I want to write about the history of state violence and social resistance in Mexico during the second half of the twentieth century. This history will also explore the role played by the international community.

As an activist, I am also working on a new, long-term project: the need to consolidate democracy at the local level. That is, we must learn how to administer and govern municipalities, combining democratic principles and efficiency.

I will continue to write a weekly column, analyzing Mexico’s political and human rights situation, United States – Mexico relations, and so on. Currently, my column appears in the Mexico City daily Reforma, as well as in sixteen other newspapers throughout Mexico.

I am also struggling to adapt my writing style to the new Mexico. It is no longer enough to denounce the government (as was the case in the past). Today, our criticisms must become truly constructive. As the country’s situation continues to change, I am even considering running for office sometime in the future.

Well, that’s been my life during the last thirty-five years: professor, activist, and journalist. It has been a rich and schizophrenic life, one that I did not choose. It came to me naturally, and I simply accepted it. In the process, I have acquired a much clearer view of the mutual history of Mexico and the United States, and that knowledge has proved invaluable for whatever contribution I have made to the construction of democracy in Mexico.

Sergio Aguayo has been professor at the Center for International Studies of El Colegio de México since 1977. He has been active in such organizations as Alianza Cívica and the Academia Mexicana de Derechos Humanos and writes a weekly column for the Mexico City daily Reforma. He wishes to thank Julian Brody for help in preparing the interview for publication.

Readers may contact Aguayo at [email protected].

1 Sergio Aguayo, Myths and [Mis]Perceptions: Changing U.S. Elite Visions of Mexico, trans. Julian Brody (La Jolla, 1998).

2 Aristide R. Zolberg, Astri Suhrke, and Sergio Aguayo, Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World (New York, 1989).

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