Friday, December 2, 2016

Mexico has lessons for New Zealand

I recently spent a month travelling around Mexico. It is not a country we hear a great deal about here in New Zealand but recently it has been in the news because of Donald Trump's campaign promise to build a border wall and make the Mexicans pay for it (although, interestingly, the US presidential election seemed to be of far less importance in the Mexican media than the outcome of the baseball World Series, which was being contested north of the border about the same time).

Mexico is a beautiful country with a hugely rich history and far more diverse geography and demography than most people would imagine. The Mexican people are warm and friendly, once you overcome their initial reserve, and they appear to enjoy life far more than the overly serious and officious Americans north of the border. However, Mexico is a basket case politically, economically and socially, which is why so many Mexicans want to join their numerous cousins in the USA.

Mexicans, like Maori, still tend to blame their people's ills on colonialism but they perhaps have a greater justification in doing so than those descended from the first New Zealanders. The Spanish conquistadors had few of the qualms of the British colonisers in New Zealand, seizing all the land, enslaving the entire indigenous population and setting up a feudal society that various revolutions since have never entirely overcome. The consequences of this is that Mexico today is a country that is still to some extent at war with itself. 

The conflict in the country is seen in several areas. Firstly, there is the well-known drug violence, which is mainly confined to the northern regions that border the United States. The drug violence is all the worse because of the extensive corruption in the local police forces that not only turn a blind eye to much of the violence but actually participate in some of the worst of it (such as the massacre of 43 students in Guerrero in 2014). Then there is the political violence, like the recent kidnapping and torture of a priest in Veracruz, which seems to be a constant if low-level threat particularly in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. And finally there is the less overtly violent, but nevertheless intimidatory, protest actions that regularly disrupt life in all the major cities in Mexico - such as barricading all the exits from a city and demanding money from drivers to let them past (which I personally experienced on several occasions).

Tribalism plays a significant part in Mexico's political and social conflict. Ethnic groups such as the Nahuatl, Yucatec and Zapotec all have their particular grievances, usually about land and the preservation of language and culture. Like Maori, they choose to focus on their differences rather than on commonalities of shared national heritage, individual rights and the benefits of living in a modern, pluralistic society. Many of their historical complaints may be justified but collective grievances and identity group politics are only likely to hold people back and ultimately economic and social advancement always comes down to individual aspirations and responsibility.

Mexico seemed to be on a track to economic prosperity and real democracy in the latter decades of the 20th Century after hundreds of years of autocracy and one-party rule, but progress has stalled in the last twenty years and the lack of investment in infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals is obvious to anyone visiting the country. Undoubtedly the country's long dalliance with socialism is a significant cause of this decay, with even the state-owned oil monopoly, Pemex, unable to maintain investment in new exploration and extraction methods.

There are some lessons in Mexico for New Zealand, which has been encouraging the grievances of Maori for the last forty years in a seemingly endless series of Treaty of Waitangi claims and settlements. The strength of modern Western democracies is in their unity and common humanity, not in tribal differences. Universal rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of one's own interests and equality before law are the keys to freedom and prosperity. Tribalism and the inevitable grievances that arise from identity politics are obstacles not the solution.

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