Clockwork Orange

excerpted from the book

Cry of the People

The struggle for human rights in Latin America
and the Catholic Church in conflict with US policy

by Penny Lernoux

Penguin Books, 1980, paper


p319_... Latin America's military regimes-a lawless society ruled by a government whose stated reason for being is law and order. In practice, the law is designed and applied to serve the interests of the few, while order is an excuse for corruption and repression. The regimes pay lip service to such Western values as democracy and human rights, when their very survival depends on denying them. Every time there is a slight opening toward basic freedoms, such as a lifting of press censorship, popular reaction is so overwhelming that the military, feels compelled to jam the cork back in the bottle. And because the cork could blow again at any moment, these military governments exist in permanent instability, contrary" to the claims of their supporters in the international business community. Instability shapes their laws, which are better suited to the day-to-day orders of an army at war, as one European law specialist pointed out, than to enduring social structures identified with genuine democracies.

The only law in Nova Iguacu [Brazil] is that of the most ruthless, because the government has neither the means nor the will to rid the slum of drug traffickers and racketeers. When a regime has no popular support, it must rely on such henchmen to enforce its orders. And the more injustices committed by these thugs, the more reluctant the authorities are to restore civilian democracy, for a lawful society might hold them accountable for such crimes. Thus the web of crime and oppression spins on.

It is only when seen in this context that the widespread use of torture in Brazil and in half a dozen other Latin-American dictatorships can be understood. Fear, not law, is the source of their power, and one of its principal instruments is torture. "The armed forces, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Army police, and the military" police, all of them, suffered a perversion of their values and resorted to widespread use of torture of a very violent kind," said Brazil's retired Marshal Oswaldo Cordeiro de Farias.

"Government leaders did not curb it for fear of being seen as weaklings." "It isn't just the fear of arrest that prevents the people from protesting," added a Brazilian priest. "It is the knowledge that their bodies and minds will be subjected to such excruciating pain that anything, including death, is preferable." Forever maimed in body and spirit, not a few of them followed the example of Father Tito de Alencar, a twenty-seven-year-old Brazilian priest belonging to the Dominican religious order who was so severely tortured that he later committed suicide. Father Tito's description of his four months in a Brazilian prison speaks for itself:

. . . I went on denying and they kept giving me electric shocks, kicking and beating me in the chest with rods and their hands.

Captain Albernaz then made me open my mouth "to receive the Eucharist." It was an electric wire. My mouth swelled so much that I was unable to speak. They went on screaming and cursing the Church, saying that priests were homosexuals because they don't marry. This session ended at 2:00 P.M. I was carried back to my cell, where I lay on the floor.

At 4:00 P.M. some food was brought to me, but I couldn't swallow-my mouth was an open wound. A few minutes later I was taken to the interrogation room for an "explanation." There I found the same team with Captain Albernaz. They repeated the same questions and the same insults. Because of my resistance to torture, they decided that I was a guerrilla and was trying to hide my part in bank robberies.

The questioning was renewed to make me confess to holdups: again electric shocks, punches, and kicks on the stomach and genitals. I was beaten with hard little boards, cigarette butts were extinguished on my body. For five hours I was thus treated like a dog. Then I had to walk through the "Polish Corridor." [In the Polish Corridor a prisoner is made to run between two lines of soldiers who are instructed to beat him until he faints.] They told me that all this was only the avant premiere of what would happen to the Dominicans. [Three other Dominican priests were arrested with him.]

They wanted to keep me suspended the whole night on the pau de arara [literally, the "parrot's perch": the prisoner is bound in a crouching position and suspended from a rod thrust under his knees]. But Captain Albernaz said: "No, that won't be necessary. He will stay with us a few days. If he doesn't speak, his insides will be destroyed, and we know how to do these things without leaving visible marks. If he survives, he will never forget the price of his insolence."

I couldn't sleep in my cell. The pain kept getting worse. My head seemed three times larger than the rest of my body. I was haunted by the thought that my brothers would have to go through the same sufferings. It was absolutely necessary to end it all. I was in such a state that I didn't feel capable of suffering more. There was only one way out-to kill myself!

In my cell, littered with trash, I found an empty sardine tin. I started to sharpen it on the floor. The prisoner next door, hearing the noise and guessing my intention, tried to calm me. He had suffered more than I, having his testicles crushed, but had not yet despaired. But what I meant to do was to prevent others from being tortured, and to denounce before public opinion and the Church what happened inside Brazilian prisons. I was sure that this could only be done through the sacrifice of my own life. I had a New Testament in my cell and read the Passion according to St. Matthew. The Father called for the sacrifice of the Son as a proof of love for mankind. I fainted full of pain and faith.

Friday morning a policeman woke me. A new prisoner was next to me. He was a young Portuguese and was crying from the tortures he had suffered at daybreak. The jailer told me, "You have only today and tomorrow to make up your mind to talk; if you don't the 'tough ones' will get you through the same treatment. They have already lost patience and are ready to kill you slowly."

The same thoughts I had the previous day kept coming back. I had already marked on my wrists where I should cut. I went on sharpening my tin. At mid-day I was taken out of my cell to shave. I was told that I would be sent back to the Tiradentes Prison [the notorious prison for political prisoners in Sao Paulo]. I shaved myself badly and went back to my cell. A policeman walked by. I asked him for a razor blade to finish my shave. The Portuguese was sleeping.

I took the blade and thrust it firmly into the inner part of my left wrist. The gash was deep. It had slashed both the vein and the artery. The blood started to fall on the cell floor. I stuck my arm into the latrine hole, thinking it would flow faster. I regained consciousness on a bed in the first aid sector of the prison hospital. The same day I was transferred to the military hospital.

Fearing a scandal, the Army kept secret what had happened. At the military hospital, Captain Mauricio was desperately telling a doctor: "Doctor, this one cannot die. We must do everything possible to keep him alive; otherwise we are lost." The Operacao Bandeirantes [one of the military's death squads in Sao Paulo] put six soldiers in my room to guard me.

The next day psychological torture began. They would tell me: "Now your case is going to get worse because you are a suicidal and terrorist priest. The Church has expelled you," and so on. They would not let me sleep. All the time they spoke in loud voices, joking, and telling strange little stories about flying saucers. I realized that they were trying to absolve themselves of responsibility for what I had done by driving me crazy.

On Monday night a judge visited me. He came with one of the priests of my convent and the auxiliary bishop of Sao Paulo. They had learned what had happened through the prisoners at the Tiradentes Prison. One of the hospital doctors examined me in their presence, showing the scars on my body, the place where I had been stitched at the prison hospital, and the torture marks. The judge said that this was pure folly and that he would find the people responsible for it. I begged him not to be returned to the Operacao Bandeirantes, and he promised to intercede for me.

I was well treated by the military at the military hospital, except for those from Operacao Bandeirantes, who kept guard on me. The nuns of St. Vincent gave me all necessary assistance. But the judge's promise was not kept. Early on Friday morning, I was again transferred to the Operacao Bandeirantes prison. I was kept in a cell till late at right with nothing to eat. I felt giddy and weak from loss of blood, but my wounds were beginning to heal. During the night I was taken to the Tiradentes Prison, where I had been for several months.

It must be said that what happened to me was not an exception, but the rule. There are very few Brazilian political prisoners who have not suffered indescribable tortures. Many, like Chael Schreider and Virgilio Gomes da Silva, died during torture. Others were left dumb or sterile or were otherwise maimed.

These political prisoners place their hope in the Church, the only institution in Brazil that is not controlled by the military state. Her mission is to preserve and promote human dignity. When a man suffers it is the Master who suffers. It is time for our bishops to say "enough" to the tortures and injustices of the regime, before it is too late. The Church must not protect itself. We carry on our bodies the evidence of torture. If the Church does not speak up in a case like this, who will? Or is it necessary that I die for something to be done?

At times like these, silence is omission. If a word is a risk, it is also a testimony. The Church exists as a sign and a sacrament of God's justice in this world.

I make this appeal and this denunciation to prevent another death under torture in the future.

p332_Sheer, Open Terror [Argentina]

The "institutionalization" of violence in Brazil was rationalized by both Washington and corporate industry as an unpleasant but necessary corollary of development, the theory being that only a strong government could drag Brazil into the twentieth century. As long as Brazil's gross national product could show a reasonable growth, and as long as the regime's representatives spoke piously about human rights and democracy in international forums, the rest of the world would look the other way.

Not so with Argentina. Unlike Brazil, whose dictatorship was dressed up with military doctrines and economic miracles, Argentina in the late 1970s was a land of sheer, open terror. Nothing in Latin America, not even Pinochet's Chile, could equal the levels of violence that followed the military coup of March 1976. Indeed, the only regime to create a state of fear approximating that m Argentina was Hitler's Germany. (There were other parallels to Nazism, including a government-sponsored hate campaign against the country's four hundred thousand Jews.) Nor was there any economic excuse for this reign of violence, with the economy in a shambles and the inflation rate the highest in Latin America. Yet Argentina had been the most literate, best-fed nation on the continent, a country whose cultural accomplishments could rival those of Europe and the United States, one that produced the best scientists in Latin America, not excepting Brazil. That such a people could be reduced to a state of terror, in which no one was immune from the midnight knock on the door, must be seen as one of the great tragedies of Latin America in this century.

Some idea of the scope of the terror may be gained from the statistics compiled by Amnesty International, the United Nations, the Catholic Church, and the World Council of Churches: approximately twenty thousand people had been detained or had disappeared by July 1978; at least twelve thousand political prisoners were in prison or in concentration camps in September 1977. (The State Department had a list of seventy-five hundred Argentines who had been jailed or had disappeared.) Political killings were averaging seven a day in 1977. Nor were Argentines the only victims. An estimated fourteen thousand refugees from other South American military regimes were told to leave the country or face the possibility of arrest. Torture was automatic for anyone arrested, according to a spokesman for the World Council of Churches.

Although the causes of the violence in Argentina were complex, they could be traced to the tensions between, on the one hand, the military institution and its allies in the wealthy upper classes and, on the other, the labor movement and its allies in the middle class. The. fundamental issue was popular rule. Unlike other Latin-American countries where labor is largely ineffectual, Argentina had developed during the 1940s a cohesive, literate trade union movement. This was due in part to the makeup of the workers-first- and second-generation immigrants from Italy and Spain-and in part to the country's rapid industrialization. The third and crucial factor in this process was Juan Domingo Peron, who organized the labor movement as his principal power base during his first period in government (1943-55). Though Peron was overthrown in 1955, successive military and civilian governments were unable to lay his ghost, and in 1973 he was allowed to return to Argentina to win the presidency in popular elections. His death the following year set off the spiral of violence that culminated in a reign of terror in the late seventies. =

During Peron's years in exile, the man became so indistinguishable from his myth that few Argentines were able coldly to assess the failings and successes of his first period in government: if you were a Peronist, the man was a god; if you were an anti-Peronist, he was the devil. Thus Peron had enemies and allies on both the Right and the Left-everyone thought to exploit the legend; few looked at the record. The fact is that Peron was a poor economic administrator and a corrupt dictator with strong fascist leanings (Mussolini was his model). But he was also a consummate politician and a nationalist who tried to steer a course independent of the United States. By building a base in the labor movement, thus outside the traditional alliance between the military and the wealthy, he changed the balance of power in Argentina. It was a brilliant stroke, transforming Peron from just another run-of-the-mill dictator into a populist leader with a mass following.

During the sixties, when civilian governments were regularly overthrown by the military because of the threat of a Peronist coalition or election victory, the image of Peron, the monster dictator, was repeatedly invoked. But the real danger, never stated, was that posed by the working and middle classes to the alliance of military, industrialists, and large landowners. Politician that he was, Peron from his exile in Spain encouraged young Argentine leftists to mount armed attacks on the military regime, and the growth of guerrilla violence finally convinced the military, or at least those in charge at the time, to allow Peron to return and run for President, the belief being that only he could unite all Argentines. (There was no one else, in any case.) This was part of the myth, of course-the fascist dictator of the forties and fifties had not changed, but it was politically expedient for him to make the young people on the Left think so. And while some union leaders privately questioned Peron's real commitment to the poorer classes, few dared say so publicly, lest they lose the workers' support.

Once Peron was back in power, it became apparent that he could not be all things to all men, even with his considerable gift for dividing and ruling his heterogeneous following. While protecting his power base in the labor movement by encouraging the enactment of advanced labor legislation and upholding the workers' share of the national income, Peron also repressed strikes and dissident union leaders and generally supported the suppression of the center-Left by paramilitary groups. There was nothing new in this policy-much the same had happened during his previous period in government. But most of the students and union militants were too young to remember those years-their only reference was the myth. When that collapsed, the disillusioned young turned to the guerrilla movements that Peron himself had earlier encouraged. Their opposite numbers in the paramilitary and police squads on the extreme Right had deeper roots, dating to the first Peron government, and their orientation was decidedly fascist. Their authority had been expanded under the 1966-70 dictatorship of General Juan Carlos Ongania, who also shared fascist leanings, at the same time that young leftists were forming guerrilla groups with Peron's support.

Thus the stage was set for a national bloodbath when the old man died. Maria Estela (Isabel) Peron succeeded her husband in the presidency, but having neither the intelligence nor the political skill to control the antagonists, she surrendered her power to the Peronist movement's right wing, and it fed the violence by sponsoring a proliferation of such paramilitary death squadrons as the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance (AAA). By the time the military intervened in 1976, a vast repressive apparatus had been established.

The original objective of the coup-to destroy the left-wing guerrilla movement-was largely accomplished by the end of 1977. But at the same time repression became so pervasive that anyone who criticized the government was liable to be kidnapped and murdered, even if he was equally critical of leftist politicians and guerrillas. By the end of 1976 three quarters of the political deaths could be attributed to the extreme right, yet not a single Argentine from that side of the political spectrum was arrested or tried. On the contrary, the government gave dozens of paramilitary and para-police organizations a free hand to torture, murder, and blackmail their victims: thuggery was thus institutionalized on a national scale.

President Jorge Videla and his junta tried to pass the buck by claiming they could not control their subordinates. In fact, there were strong historical reasons for the repression. Argentina's military has always mistrusted civilian rule (there have been only four freely elected, relatively democratic governments since the country achieved independence), and it became particularly wary after the rise of the labor movement under Peron in the forties. The generals' refusal to countenance popular rule was largely responsible for Peron's enduring influence in absentia-civilian leaders could never hold office long enough to carry out their programs or attract a mass following-and for the rise of violence on the Left. Yet very few in the military establishment understood that their constant interference in the country's political life was itself the basic cause of instability.

The military's principal dread-a mass mobilization of workers, students, and the middle class-was also of its own making. Everyone could remember the "Cordobazo," a spontaneous uprising in the industrial city of Cordoba that toppled General Ongania in 1970, but the generals refused to see that military repression had sparked the revolt. Instead of allowing the people an outlet for their hopes and frustrations through elected government, they chose to beat the Argentines into submission. Repression against left-wing guerrillas and students was expanded to include union leaders, moderate politicians, lawyers, journalists, scientists, priests, even right-wing businessmen. It was enough to deplore the carnage to become a victim. As one Argentine general succinctly put it: "No one can be neutral or ambivalent. Some will succumb for being indifferent. Others will be shot as collaborators." Or in the memorable words of General Benjamin Menendez, commander of the Army III Corps in Cordoba and its notorious concentration camps: "While [President] Videla governs, I kill!"

Underlying this bloodthirsty boast was the military's belief that it was engaged in total war. As the Jesuit magazine Mensaje pointed out, "Anyone who was not a trusted ally, anyone who did not have a 'good-conduct pass,' was suspect as an undercover agent who somehow was or might be in league with the enemy, and who therefore had to be destroyed or neutralized.'' But since the enemy was not a foreign army but the Argentines themselves, the "war" became generalized violence.

To justify the need for such a "dirty war," Argentine officers frequently cited French doctrines of counterinsurgency, particularly as applied to Algeria's struggle for independence in the 1950s. But as three French generals wrote President Videla, such methods could lead to kidnapping, torture, and long periods of imprisonment without trial-a form of war inconsistent with military methods and traditions. We know from our own experience, they said, that military men sometimes described as "subversion" the disagreements normal to a democracy.

p338_From an American's point of view the Argentine situation was all the more tragic because of the U. S. Government's part in the carnage. CIA agents stationed in Buenos Aires during the Ongania dictatorship in the late sixties knew about the formation of right-wing paramilitary and police squads and the growing use of torture. "If you think the Brazilian police's torture methods are bad, you should see what goes on in Argentine prisons," was the comment of one CIA agent. But apparently torture was accepted as routine-in any case, the CIA Buenos Aires station had other matters to think about, including the overthrow of Allende in neighboring Chile and the elimination of the Tupamaro guerrillas in Uruguay.

p341_After World War II, Peron gave hundreds of fleeing Nazis a safe refuge. As in Germany, Argentine Jewry was singled out as a scapegoat for the country's economic and social ills whenever there was a serious political crisis. Thus there was a rash of anti-Semitic incidents in the first months after General Juan Carlos Ongania seized power in 1966. German and Argentine Nazis played on the military's gut feeling that the Jews were Marxist traitors to the Fatherland, and grasping capitalists to boot. Their principal instrument in this hate campaign was Nazi literature. In 1969 a Nazi publishing house was founded in Bariloche, an Andean lake resort in southern Argentina where many Nazis had taken refuge. It published neo-Nazi books in German and Spanish. A ten-page anonymous pamphlet was also circulated that purported to describe a secret Jewish plot to form a breakaway state, "Andinia," in the southern part of the country. Such books and pamphlets were regularly mailed to military officers and university students. Julio Weinvielle, an anti-Semitic priest and author of The Jew in the Mystery of History, encouraged the campaign as spiritual adviser to several high-ranking officers. One of the most avid readers of anti-Semitic tracts was General Menendez, the self-styled butcher of Cordoba.

But it was on Peron's return to Argentina in 1973 that anti-Semitism really surged. Editorial Milicia came out with a series of anti-Semitic classics, including works by Mussolini and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as well as books by Argentines, among them two famous Jew-baiting novels, El Kahal and Oro. It also published a series of tracts blaming the Jews for the world's problems, including capitalism, communism, and both world wars. Milicia was one of several anti-Semitic publishing houses and magazines, among them El Caudillo and Puntal. The latter received government advertising from the Ministry of Social Welfare, the original architect of the AAA, and El Caudillo is particularly remembered for printing a poem calling for a pogrom: "Nine at night is a good hour for this.... The place you already know: the Quarter of Usury. Wave a thousand truncheons; bloody a thousand heads . . . that all will be devastated."

Within months of Peron's recapture of power, Argentina had become a world center for the publication and distribution of Nazi literature, according to the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. The liberal Buenos Aires daily La Opinion also warned that Argentine Nazis with direct contacts in Germany were publishing Spanish translations of their colleagues' work in Germany.

After Peron's death and the military coup, attacks on the Jewish community escalated. Bookstores and kiosks were flooded with cheap editions of works by Hitler and Goebbels; Jewish schools, synagogues, newspapers, and businesses were bombed; prominent Jewish citizens were kidnapped, blackmailed, and generally intimidated. In August 1976 unidentified thugs drove through Buenos Aires' Jewish quarter, Barrio Once, strafing shops and synagogues with machine guns. A group calling itself the Argentine National Socialist Front, one of several Nazi organizations in Argentina, including the Tacuara and the National Restoration Guard, took credit for the attack. The story of the "Andinia plot" to create a Jewish state was again circulated, this time by the government news agency, and a series of crude anti-Semitic programs appeared on television. The walls of the city of Mendoza in northwestern Argentina were painted with swastikas and such slogans as "Be a patriot! Kill a Jew!" In April 1976 the public was invited by two groups calling themselves the Aryan Integral Nationalist Fatherland and the Pious Christian Crusade to attend Masses in the Buenos Aires cathedral "for the eternal rest of our blood brother in Christ, Adolph Hitler." (The Church refused to sanction the ceremonies.)

Jewish leaders also reported that political prisoners were treated more harshly if Jewish. According to a woman who was detained and tortured by the military, most of the officers had Nazi ideas. "The head torturer told me that he had previously worked in Algiers and that he had a Nazi ideology," she said. A partly Jewish couple-from Uruguay, arrested at the same time, were subjected, she said, to particularly barbarous treatment. "They insulted the Uruguayan man because his mother was Jewish. 'How could you marry such a filthy pig?' they asked his wife." The police showed similar Nazi sympathies, according to the Irish priest Patrick Rice (see Chapter D, who mentioned swastikas painted on the walls of the federal police headquarters in Buenos Aires. Jews were also singled out for extortion and blackmail. To secure the release of Dr. Alfredo Stein, a prominent Argentine physician, from the Campo de Mayo military barracks on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, his family was forced to pay $23,000 ransom.

President Videla's gesture in closing Editorial Milicia turned out to be empty: the publishing house continued under a new name, ODAL, and a second Nazi publishing house, Editorial Occidente, began publishing anti-Semitic books. On the other hand, the Videla government banned a Jewish magazine and closed the offices of the American Jewish Committee, harassment and threats against his life forcing the committee's representative, Jacobo Kovadloff, to leave the country. Meanwhile, government television seized upon a local financial scandal involving a prominent Jewish family to whip up more anti-Semitic feeling. Emphasizing the Jewish surnames in the case, Channel 11 commented: "Very Argentine these names, aren't they? Not all the country is like this. The rest is honest." The son of the president of the Delegation of Argentine Israeli Associations, spokesman for the Argentine Jewish community, was kidnapped in July 1977 and held in military premises where the walls were decorated with swastikas and pictures of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. Thanks to his father's prominence, he was later released, but bombings of Jewish schools and homes continued.

In this period, Nazi criminals were given official protection. Edward Roschmann, better known as the "Butcher of Riga" for his part in the slaughter of forty thousand Jews in that city, was allowed to leave Argentina in July 1977, after West Germany requested his extradition. Believed to have been the head of the ODESSA network responsible for smuggling Nazis to Latin America, Roschmann died of a heart attack shortly after arriving in his new haven, Paraguay. Heinrich Muerk, another well-known figure in Nazi circles in Argentina and once a close associate of Adolf Eichmann, was released by the government after being arrested in connection with the rape-murder of a five-year-old boy in a Buenos Aires suburb. Witnesses claimed to have seen Muerk in the boy's company the day of his death, and police sources admitted he had a long record of sexual obscenity in the neighborhood. Local newspapers speculated that ODESSA had secured his release.

p350_The " Glorious Revolution"

"What forces are so powerful that they can operate with impunity and anonymity in our midst?" the Argentine bishops had asked. "What guarantees, what rights remain the ordinary citizen?" In Argentina such questions had become rhetorical, but how can one explain similar questions in Mexico, a country so different from Argentina in history and cultural makeup, one of the few enduring democracies in Latin America? Or was it? The statistics certainly did not suggest a happy society: an average of fifty-two thousand arrests and seven thousand murders a year, thirteen murders a day in Mexico City alone. According to the popular weekly magazine Impacto, the police had become Public Enemy No. 1.65 Out in the countryside, peasants and landowners were forever clashing, often in showdowns involving thousands of people. Infant mortality was on the rise (a 10 percent increase between 1966 and 1973), the illiteracy rate was soaring, unemployment was estimated at 40 percent, and the gap between rich and poor was growing.

As in Argentina, where the Peronist myth failed to answer the country's political and social problems, Mexico's myth of the 1910 revolution gradually lost its promise. While that "glorious revolution" still figures prominently in the obligatory rhetoric of Mexican politics, it is no longer seen as a genuine social revolution-had it been such, Mexico today would be unlike any other Latin-American country. In fact, the vast majority of the people live in the abject conditions that are all too familiar elsewhere in Latin America.

Fought and won by armies of hungry peasants who had rebelled against Mexico's feudal landowners, the revolution gradually came under the control of a rising industrial class. Although many of the feudal estates were broken up and distributed to the peasants, the system of land tenancy gradually returned to the old pattern of latifundio, only now the large estates were called agribusinesses and were controlled by local political bosses, urban industrial interests, or foreign companies. By 1976 three quarters of the land belonged to such estates. This skewed pattern of land ownership was responsible for the annual migration of some 2 million Mexican farm workers to the United States, as well as for the explosive growth of the cities and the urban and rural violence.

Nearly seven decades after the revolution, Mexico was politically bankrupt, its ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) a wasteful and corrupt octopus unable to cope with the spreading social malaise or to manage a modern economy. In hock for the staggering sum of $32 billion, the country was sliding backward in many of the areas considered yardsticks for development, including literacy, nutrition, and health. Though still predominantly a rural country, Mexico was forced to import huge quantities of grain to feed its people.

As in Brazil, the source of the problem could be traced to the model of economic development. Since World War II, Mexico has concentrated its resources on industrialization, at great cost to the working class and the peasants, whose earlier gains in land reform and labor legislation were gradually effaced. The argument for industrialization was that commonly offered by developing countries: the need to substitute domestic production for imports, to increase exports and create more jobs for the growing labor force. To achieve this, Mexico welcomed foreign investment, primarily from the United States, and borrowed heavily in the international market to subsidize cheap oil, electricity, railroads, and the like for private business. But as so many developing nations have learned to their sorrow, industrialization did not reduce Mexico's unemployment, nor did it significantly alter the country's dependence on imported capital equipment. Most of the import substitute industries are concentrated in such consumer areas as packaged foods and drugs. Moreover, a high percentage are foreign-owned, and profits go not to Mexico but to the company's home country. By 1974, 40 percent of the manufacturing sector was controlled by multinationals. Three quarters of the investment, or about $3 billion in twelve hundred firms, came from U.S. interests. Altogether, four thousand companies in Mexico are foreign-controlled.

Because of its heavy dependence on the United States, the Mexican economy nosedives every time the United States suffers a slight recession. Thus Mexico suffered a trade deficit of $3 billion in 1976, largely because of economic conditions in the United States. (Or as the Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz once put it, Poor Mexico. So far from God and so near to the United States.")

p352_Unlike Brazil or Argentina, however, the Mexican Government did not have to institute a reign of terror to support its development model. The people's apathy and fatalism, the lack of national leaders, and the enduring magic of the Mexican Revolution combined to give the country a veneer of social stability and democracy.

p353_This human misery is the backbone of Mexico's $100 million-a-year vegetable business with the United States and the cause of the land invasions. As Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo himself admitted, "How would we like it if our children had to live as the peasants do, without a single piece of meat to eat all year? Well, the golden rule of life is to treat others as we would like to be treated and not demand of others what we ourselves are not prepared to give. It wasn't Marx who said that; it was Christ. Either our children will live together in harmony with the children of the common people, of the peasants, or they will confront each other in violence."

In Oaxaca in southern Mexico, where conditions are even worse than anything seen in Sinaloa, violence was so prevalent as to rival Argentina. Populated by 500,000 hungry Indians and another 1 million landless peasants, Oaxaca is a good example of the lopsided division of land in Mexico. All the best land, with adequate irrigation, belongs to the large estates, which cover over 125,000 acres. Most of the rest of the population eke out a subsistence on tiny plots or work as peons on the cattle ranches. In recent years the problem has been aggravated by speculation in timber and oil, with the landowners expanding their holdings-at the expense of Indians and peasants. In 1976, for example, eight Indian villages were razed by soldiers in the pay of the ranchers. The villages had existed for nearly a decade and the Indians' land titles were being processed by the government's Agrarian Reform Ministry. Nevertheless, the ranchers denied that the Indians had any right to the land; five Indians were killed in the confrontation. Later in the year, seventy soldiers threatened the community of Lazaro Cardenas, where the peasants have struggled for over forty years to obtain legal title to the village's 1,135 acres of communal land. Although a presidential decree deeding the villagers this land dates to 1964, a decade later they had received no titles, despite innumerable, costly trips to Mexico City to unravel the red tape in the Agrarian Reform Ministry.

Increasing repression caused the Indians and peasants to seek common cause with Oaxaca's workers and university and high school students, one result of which was a strike by urban transport workers in solidarity with the peasants. The region's landowners and businessmen responded with an armed attack on the university. By January 1977 repression had become generalized, with the arrest of hundreds of people belonging to the peasant-student-union front. When high school students demonstrated in front of the local jail for the release of thirty-eight of their fellows, the police opened fire, injuring fifty and killing two boys, aged thirteen and eleven. The bodies of three young men who had been arrested were later found on a highway, so mutilated as to be unrecognizable. Fourteen others "disappeared": that is, they also were killed. In February, twenty-nine Mixtec Indians were massacred by the local police. They had been pressuring the Agrarian Reform Ministry to process deeds for community lands that had been held up by red tape for thirteen years, according to Church sources. The head of the Oaxaca Peasant and Workers Union was also murdered.

The federal government's response to the violence was to name a general as governor and send in soldiers trained for anti-guerrilla warfare. Said one Oaxaca peasant woman, "The same thing always happens: anyone who complains that we peasants are the victims is immediately accused of being a communist, an enemy of God, and a subversive. He is tracked down, tortured, and murdered, and afterward his corpse, totally mutilated, is dumped on the road."

Cry of the People

Latin America Watch

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