I had always assumed Mexico’s history centred around struggles against Spanish overlords and American interlopers.
But a friend informed me Saturday that Cinco de Mayo celebrations actually originated with the ouster of French forces from the state of Puebla in 1862.
What were the French doing in Mexico?
Mexico was in dire financial straits in 1861. President Benito Juárez declared the country would suspend payments to foreign debtors for two years. But Spain, Britain and France would have none of that. They sent an armada across to Veracruz to demand their due.
Spain and Britain reached a settlement, but France decided it liked the lay of the land — much as Spain’s Cortez had three centuries before.
French forces defeated the regional guard and headed inland toward Mexico City.
But at Puebla, against overwhelming odds, a small Mexican army drove the invaders back. It was a huge morale-booster.
That got me thinking.
There is a different kind of international debtor today. They don’t send troops. They send bankers.
Countries that find themselves in a financial hole are bailed out by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But that money comes with an onslaught of public flogging and sweeping demands.
Not content to simply insist on sound fiscal management, today’s debtors demand a total political overhaul: government spending slashed, social welfare gutted and foreign investors welcomed unconditionally.
In 2002, Canadian activist Naomi Klein was appalled at the treatment of Argentina at the hands of the IMF.
At the time, with its economy in tatters, the country was looking for a $9-billion bailout package.
“For weeks, Argentina has been scolded like a small child that shouldn’t get dessert until it finishes dinner,” Klein wrote in a submission to The Globe and Mail.
“Despite a commitment to slash 60 per cent from provincial deficits, Argentina apparently hasn’t done enough to ‘deserve’ a loan.”
What stuck in Klein’s craw was that the IMF was even entertaining the idea of “foreign agents” taking over the country’s finances.
All this, for a country that had already sacrificed itself on the altar of the capitalist god — under a brutal dictatorship that snatched thousands of citizens from their homes, never to be seen again. Most of the country’s industries were already privatized, its resources largely drained for the benefit of foreign interests.
The same derogatory language is now reserved for Greece, a country that had held onto a luxurious system of public benefits even while its economy went into the toilet.
Greece’s bloated public service and generous pensions could never have lasted.
But the disdain and derision heaped upon the Greek citizenry in recent months has been relentless. Despite the unsustainability of the status quo, there should be no surprise that the local backlash against such pressure has been equally intense.
This weekend’s elections in France and Greece represented a palpable pushback against austerity measures. France has chosen a socialist leader, and Greece is scrambling to form a new coalition government.
It proves that while some sort of bitter financial medicine is inevitable for Europe, the derision and constant demonization of reasonable social policy can only serve to further inflame the population.
Europe is in trouble. And in the long run, it is up to the people of Europe to decide how to deal with it.
By the way, the Mexicans won the battle of Puebla, but the French eventually prevailed. Emperor Maximilian I ruled the new French empire for three years, until the U.S. was able to help the Mexican resistance oust them for good.
It was the last time European colonialists invaded North American territory.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s