Sunday, April 28, 2013

Mexico and Central America, 1900-2013

Che, PRI, the Drug Cartels and a North American Union...

Rockport History Book Club at Rockport Public Library
Wednesday, April 24, 2013 7 p.m.
            Our History Book Club met April 24th to discuss modern Mexico and Central America.  As you will see, if you read our reviews of 4+ books, we looked at the life of Che Guevara, modern Mexico and the idea of a stronger North American Union.
            If you’re in the Cape Ann area, we invite you to join us for our next meeting, Wednesday, May 29th.  Read a book about Modern Africa—from 1900 to 2013.  It can be whatever you want to read of the history of this tremendously varied continent.  Read about Idi Amin of Uganda, or Anwar Sadat of Egypt, or about Sudan, or Timbuctu, Tanzania, Apartheid in South Africa, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and the French, or Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Angola, Botswana, Civil War in Rwanda—your choice.
            We invite you to prepare a review of your book, but this is not school.  If you’d rather come and simply brief us on the high points without the detailed reviews you see here, that’s fine!  And if you’d like to just sit in and share in the discussion, you are most welcome.
            We meet the last Wednesday of each month.  Contact me if you’d like more information.

Sam Coulbourn  978-546-7138

 Caistor, Nick, Che Guevara: A Life  ,  Interlink Press, 2010.

Beverly Verrengia writes:     I have read several references to the impact Che Guavara had in a variety of milieus: pop art, movies, teen age rebellion,  revolutions in third World countries, and, of course,  his friendship with Fidel Castro during the Cuban revolution, but I never followed up on the details of his influence .  Thus my choice of this book.  As I learned a great deal about his actions and his oft-stated beliefs, I wondered what caused a young man who grew up in an upper middle class family in South America’s most advanced country to become such a fanatic.  And more than that, was he really totally motivated by his ideology or was he meeting other needs as well?  The book I chose emphasized Che’s rigid definition of socialism and gave only hints that there might have been other pressures driving him.  
            Nick Caistor is a translator, journalist and author of non-fiction books, and is a Fellow at East Anglia University, UK.  He has spent several decades specializing in Latin American people, events, and history for a variety of media.  Reviews of his book emphasize the depth and quality of his research.  Indeed, he smoothly incorporates many quotes from Che and his compatriots that validate the picture of Che that his book presents.  Overall it is a sympathetic portrayal, but the author makes no judgment about Che’s legitimacy as a hero.   Later, a quick look at Enrique Krauze’s  chapter on Che,  reveals a frame of mind I hadn’t anticipated.
            Ernesto Guevara had developed severe asthma in early childhood, but as debilitating as that can be, he soon revealed a life-long stubbornness that pushed him to play rugby in his youth and later to survive months of rigorous living conditions during guerilla training.  In an effort to control his health, his mother home-schooled him for several years.  His mother came from a wealthy, aristocratic family. The one-to-one tutoring  must have been a positive experience as many biographies emphasize that his mother was the only female for whom Che demonstrated constant and deep affection.    The influence  was less obvious from his father, a non-achiever from a family that had been extremely wealthy in previous generations … and a man who supported leftist causes and  emphasized the fighting spirit of his Irish roots. 
            Che’s asthma-related  experience with doctors and hospitals may have inspired him, but  the author quotes him as saying he chose that field as an avenue to personal triumph.   But it was his travels that led him to the path where he eventually triumphed.   He saw poverty, exploitation, and desolation in many countries unlike anything he had ever seen in his native Argentina.   He visited hospitals for lepers, talked to indigenous Indians, and went into several mines and agricultural areas (all owned by foreigners) to view the horrible working conditions.  As always he recorded the events and thoughts of each day in his diary. By the time he was 25, he had published a book based on his observations, vowed he would improve the lives of the down-trodden he had met, and decided that the United States was to blame for all the misery he had seen.
            Guatemala was the site of his first effort at social reform when at 26 he joined an attempt to oust a government heavily influenced by the United Fruit Company.  The revolt failed thanks to the efforts of the CIA and international business interests.  The experience fueled his hatred for the United States and strengthened his belief that violence, not negotiation, was the only way to his socialist goals – a belief he often put into practice as the years passed.  Incidentally, it was in Guatemala that Ernesto got the nickname Che.  The word che is ubiquitous in Argentine speech.  It is a way of holding someone’s attention,  the equivalent of dude or  pal, or a meaningless interjection like “er”.   Che used the word constantly.
            After the failure in Guatemala , Che and his fellow rebels fled to Mexico where they joined a community of dissidents from neighboring countries.  He found work as an allergy doctor and at the same time as a photographer.  As was the case everywhere he went (and despite his reputation as a loner), he connected with people who shared his socialist sympathies.  Before long he met and impressed Raul Castro, who then introduced him to Fidel. The Cuban rebels had retreated to Mexico  after their defeat in an ill-advised raid on Batista’s fort in Santiago, later referred to as the 26th of July Movement.    It was the opportunity the Argentinean had long been preparing for.  Fidel and Che were a perfect match, and after months of rigorous training made history together as they toppled Batista’s government.   
            Although Che first signed on as the doctor for the rebels, he thoroughly impressed Castro and his followers as a role model of the ideal guerilla.  Despite suffering from recurring bouts of asthma and then malaria, he forced himself to keep up with the troops and performed all his duties effectively,  always subordinating his role as a doctor to that of a fighter.  Soon he was put in charge of recruitment and training.  He had no tolerance for those who deviated from his ideal… to the extent of shooting men who deserted or turned informer.   Convinced that reliable guerillas had to be totally committed to the socialist ideology, not just an opportunity to grab power, he initiated several means of indoctrinating his men:  workshops, a school, a news letter and a radio station.  And while busy with all that, he still made a daily entry in his diary.   
            During the revolution’s two years of sporadic attacks, Che played a pivotal role.  In leading many successful raids, he proved himself an inspiring leader and a good tactician.  After Batista was ousted, he applied those skills plus his impressive intelligence and passion for creating a new society to help Castro form a new government. First he served as chairman of the National Bank and the next year as manager of a new industrialization program when all businesses were nationalized.  He also started a news agency to counter the views of global agencies like Reuters, and he frequently traveled abroad on diplomatic missions and in search of new markets and investors.  Everywhere he went he was treated like a superstar.
            By 1964 he began pulling away from Castro whom he felt was compromising the Guavara vision of socialism in an effort to stimulate a falling economy.  He objected to Castro’s pragmatic alliance with Russia, ignoring the critical need for financial support from the communist bloc after the United States put an embargo on sugar imports.  Obviously his deep-rooted hostility to the potential pressure from foreign countries was more important to him than keeping the country’s economy afloat … and the for ensuring that there was food for the people for whom he had fought.  Instead he turned his attention from making Cuba work to finding another venue where he could create his version of socialism. 
            With Castro’s blessing, he made two attempts to spread revolution.  In April of 1964 he took a small group of Cuban guerillas to the Congo with the intent of joining the existing political opposition and enlisting local peasants to violently overthrow the government and establish the “perfect society.”  Within six months he had failed miserably.  Back in Cuba  ( having taken tine off to write another book ), he again conferred with Castro, who advised him to made Bolivia his next target.  This time it took eleven months, but the road to disaster was paved with the same mistakes.  Che had a romantic vision of the world he wanted to create for the common man.  He set his sights on countries after making superficial contacts with local dissidents --  assuming that on his arrival he would take charge and they would follow … or be dispensed with (one way or the other).  He assumed the peasants were just waiting for an inspiring leader who would give them several months of intense training and then lead them into a battle where they would be willing to die for their cause.  He assumed that his recruits (imbued with his own unyielding zeal) would fight harder than the government forces.   His most disastrous assumption was believing  that he could succeed without the steadying hand of Fidel, to say nothing of the depth of preparation and practical wisdom that Castro brought to the two year fight in Cuba
            Che was captured and killed in April of 1967.   Many books have been written about him, mostly using as source material his diaries, speeches and letters, along with quotes from those who fought with him.  Enrique Krauze’s chapter in Redeemers: ideas and Power in Latin America covers the same history and explanation of Che’s vision of an ideal society…. and then adds a new twist:  Che’s driving force and that of  the thousands of young people who adore him is a reflection of the role Catholicism plays in South America.  Che was convinced that he was the chosen redeemer,  a savior who would change the world or become a martyr in the attempt.  Krause ends by deploring the way this interpretation has inspired many rebels to seek social change via Che’s route: victory or death.

Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon, Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy,

Richard Varrengia writes:  Most of the material for the book, Opening Mexico, was drawn from interviews with 92 people; almost all of them Mexicans.  These sometimes secret dialogues were carried out between July 2000 and December 2002.  The married authors, Julia Preston and Sam Dillion, were Mexican Bureau correspondents for the New York Times from 1995 until 2000. They were part of a Times international reporting team that was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1998, for a series that exposed the drug trafficking in Mexico.  A substantial financial award from the MacArthur Foundation enabled them to undertake intensive research and travel in the year following the remarkable presidential election of Mexico’s Vincente Fox against all odds.  The interviews surprisingly revealed that even non-supporters of  Fox admitted that they either secretly voted for him or if they did not,  they felt liberated by the defeat of the notorious and corrupt  “Partido Revolucionario  Institucional"  or the PRI, who had been power for 70 years.  
            Opening Mexico reveals how a political ground swell of unorganized citizen movements ended seven decades of brutal and corrupt one party rule under the PRI. Although Mexico shared the language and the colonial past with most of Latin America, this nation of now 130 million is mostly disconnected from the rest of the region.  Even in its horrific revolutionary upheavals in the early two decades of the 20th Century, Mexico had never been tempted to adopt the Communist movement, or socialist structure that Fidel brought to Cuba. Nor did it succumb to Fascist cloning of military dictators such as some neighboring southern hemisphere nations.  Ever inward looking for private corrupt gains, the PRI was adamant in warding off Washington’s polarizing Cold War policies with much better success that  most Latin countries.
            Mexico had lived under a unique form of elected but closed from of single party rule for 70 years. The president served for six very profitable years then was required to step aside for the next heavy dipper. Surprisingly, the military never interfered because most of the leaders were beholden to the PRI for lucrative postings. The caste system was rampant in all services. 
            The authors detail the struggle of a lengthy, mostly peaceful quasi democratic revolution in the years following the 1968 Olympics.  Mexicans had to restructure their entire social institutions with extraordinary reforms to push the PRI machine aside. Control of the election machinery was paramount to the winning of the 2000 Presidency.  Well aware of the countless frauds perpetuated at the polling places by the PRI, an independent agency was devised to design one of the most modern balloting systems in the world. An array of new political parties was then allowed to challenge and defeat many of the PRI’s candidates, including its new selection for president, Cardenas, selected to run against Fox in 2000.  
            The reformers had worked to create a legislature with real clout. The national congress had been dominated by the PRI who rubber stamped any of the Presidents’ proposed bills.  The Mexican president under the PRI was a throwback “Caudillo” with six years of power which was absolute and unrestrained by either the legislature or judiciary. They were selected to run only once by secret PRI meetings.
            For many decades no single leader stepped forward to personify and guide the struggle towards new democracy. The transitional voting of 2000 elected Vicente Fox of the National Action party. It was the cleanest and most open vote in Mexican history.  The PRI regime toppled after 70 years, accepted defeat and stepped aside.  Many of their new leaders were aware that they were dragging the country to ruin. The military agreed. This was truly Mexico’s second revolution that was accomplished so peacefully that few outsiders grasped the historic dimension of the event.
            As in the aftermath of 1910’s revolt, the economic system was spared. All industrial workers, rural farming people, and even the maligned native Indians experienced the lessening of the grasp of the federal and state government overseers. But the secret of the success of Vincente Fox’s reform party was in the mostly clandestine support of the financial community and industrialists.
            In the years leading up to the approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement, he PRI had been internally wracked with the reluctance of the “dinosaur” leaders to embrace the fantastic benefits of the treaty.  When they resisted the appropriation of government seed money to grasp the global trade opportunity, the wealthy capitalist realized that Mexico was being run by selfish, grasping thieves whose time had come to be removed from power.  Business leaders needed the denied reforms to compete internationally.
            The NAFTA opened up vast new markets with money raised by selling off government owned enterprises. I988 the PRI   choose a new president.  A master of political showmanship, new President Salinas saw the benefits of global participation and he suffered the enmity of the old guard; though he left office a very wealthy ex-officio.
            Salinas realized that economic opening forced modernization of the Mexican democratic process with international scrutiny for Mexican worker abuse in all venues. Salinas also said that electoral democracy could not be attained by engaging in practices that jeopardized the country’s stability or it’s continuation of its constitution. This was an unbelievable departure from previous elected PRI presidents.
            When the writers were working to determine how and when the political changes became evident, they uncovered the rumors of political mayhem during the 1960’s. No  one has ever come forward to deny the a terrible night of the killing of unknown numbers of young students , peacefully protesting educational cut backs in a Mexico City Plaza.
The despotic rulers of the PRI, led by the then President Gustavo  Diaz, who could not tolerate disorder, ordered an overwhelming  armed force to the  Mexican Polytechnic Institute across town.  Now every college and high school took to the streets. Police were beating almost every citizen they encountered.
             The 1968 Olympic Games were to be held in Mexico City in a few weeks and work was almost at a standstill. The world was watching. Mexico was the first developing country to be chosen to host the games.  Diaz was frantic.
            The federal security bosses determined that to stop the street violence they had to attack the “head of the snake”: UNAM “National Autonomous University of Mexico, the largest in Latin America- over 100,000 students. Dias called out his “Olympia Battalion of secret police, garbed with only a single one white glove for identity. The students, about 20,000 marched to the Tlatelolco plaza. The army surrounded them, the Olympic Brigade charged them. Secretly from roof tops the security police had placed over a hundred snipers.  Over 300 students were gunned down from above. Thousands injured.  The dead were carried away, most to disappear.   With government controlling all the media, there was never any mention of deaths.  Student leaders were jailed for years. Some never released. This student massacre revealed the repressive core of the system. Even the present Mexican government has never released details of the attack, but the visual protests ended.
            In the first half of the 1980’s, the authoritarian system seemed to be recovering from 1968. It was jarred again by two events, one financial and one geological. The nationalized oil cartel, New Pemex oil finds led to a  huge spending splurge by the government.  International oil prices tanked, inflation and national bankruptcy followed.  President Portilo refused to cut spending and nationalized the banks. The country ground to a halt.  Millions fled the PRI, no longer loyal party members.
            In 1985, when Mexico seemed to gain its footing, the floor moved again.  This time it was an 8.1 scale earthquake in the center of Mexico City. An almost as severe quake followed a couple of days later.  The response of the government was pathetic and thousands died; many could have been saved .The stories of army troops looting were rampant.  Response was non-existent.
            Finally during the 2000 campaign, candidate Fox had promised to end increasing polarization between rich and poor. He outlined plans to find ways for poor folks to get government secured loans for homes and small businesses. Social Security and public health were on his wish lists.  He attached big business depleting natural resources He was aware of the rampant civil servants corrupt practices.  He pledged to make public workers accountable.
            Like President Obama he ran into legislature gridlock. He backed down without a murmur.  In a couple of years with a few setbacks, he allowed that the old ways were not so bad.  His extravagant tastes became a national disgrace and his approval rating plummeted.
            Mexicans wanted honesty and democracy, but little changed even with a new party and a new president.
            Mexico’s future, like its past will endure turbulence. They finally have achieved a division of powers with the judicial standing alone on tough issues.  The legislature is no longer the automatic “Yes” for the President and the voters have achieved freedom of expression. As the authors wrote “Mexico had seen the perfect dictatorship, now it will experience the imperfections of democracy”

 Robert A. Pastor, The North American Idea: A Vision for a Continental Future  Publisher:  Oxford University Press,   2011, 246 pp.

Rick Heuser writes: In politics, economics, and international affairs there are headlines and then there are the realities behind those headlines.  Often, there are huge gaps between headlines and realities.  Big differences that count in important ways.  Robert Pastor in his trenchant analysis for The North American Idea: A Vision for a Continental Future offers the following reflection on the United States' relations with Mexico and Canada:
            "The conventional wisdom in the United States is that Mexico and Canada are not important.  A cursory reading of the newspapers in the last decade would lead one to conclude that Iraq and Afghanistan were the most important countries to U.S. national security, China was its dominant trading partner, and Saudi Arabia was its main source of energy imports.  All three propositions are false."
            His answer would surely surprise many Americans, maybe even some in the White House and Congress and the headlines-obsessed Washington media.  He writes:  "U.S. national security depends more on cooperative neighbors and secure borders than it did on defeating militias in Basra or Taliban in KandaharCanada and Mexico have been the first and second largest markets for U.S. exports, and they are also the first and second largest sources of energy imports for most of the past decade.  In terms of trade, energy, immigration, travel, and security, there are no two countries that matter more to the United States than its proximate neighbors."
            Of course those neighbors would be Mexico and Canada, forgotten and ignored by Washington, Pastor reminds us, except when Congress wants to spend billions of dollars on border security to keep people without proper documentation from crossing into the United States to work for the lowest wages possible.
            Starting with these realities, Pastor proceeds to develop a strong thesis for a more comprehensive set of agreements between the United States, Mexico, and Canada that would increase prosperity and security for all three nations.  "The next stage of North America's development is to forge a community of three sovereign states," he argues persuasively.  In his view NAFTA has had limited success.  His vision is expansive and surely long-term. 
            "North America is still a new idea," Pastor writes.  "Few people have thought much about it, and some are frightened that it might diminish their own nation.  The opposite is more likely.  If the three countries can view themselves as part of a region in which each has a challenge that requires cooperation to succeed, then North America becomes larger than the sum of its parts."
            Robert Pastor has long been an advocate of closer, more productive political and economic arrangements with United States' neighbors, both to the north and the south.  Currently, he is Professor of International Relations and Founder and Director of the Center for North American Studies at American University in Washington DC.  Early in his career he was US national security advisor on Latin America and the Caribbean during the administration of President Jimmy Carter.  Later, he was a Senior Fellow at the Carter Center in Atlanta where he established programs on Latin America while teaching at Emory University.
            Most significantly, in 2005 he was heavily involved in writing a report published by the Council on Foreign Relations entitled "Building a North American Community" that followed the formation of the Security and Prosperity Partnership by the leaders of the United StatesMexico, and Canada at a summit in Texas.  Almost immediately, the report was severely criticized by conservatives claiming United States sovereignty was being threatened.
            There is a baffling back-story to this report Pastor tells us about that is indicative of the intense opposition to any kind of formal community with Mexico and Canada.  In The Late Great USA: The Coming Merger with Mexico and Canada, Jerome Corsi, previously the author of the devastating swiftboat attack on Secretary of State John Kerry when he was running for president, claimed that President George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, the Council on Foreign Relations, and others, including Pastor, were secretly conspiring to create a European like union in North America.  Even noted Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington was drawn into the political crossfire with his belief that Mexican immigrants threatened Anglo-Protestant culture in the United States.
            Once the controversy died down, little has been said or done about a more formal North American community as advocated by Pastor.  Strong opposition by labor unions in the United States who rightfully or wrongfully see American manufacturing jobs disappearing to Mexico keeps the administration of President Barack Obama from further action.  Conversely, Robert Pastor argues that border security and immigration policy would be greatly enhanced by greater cooperation between the United States, Mexico, and Canada
            Instead, America proceeds on its own, fortifying its southern border with Mexico and increasing the complications of travel and trade with Canada while Congress continues to dither on immigration policy.  Pastor wrote The North American Idea to keep the vision of a thriving North American community alive for the future.  He argues persuasively for its advantages, for what it would accomplish.  But the opposition is widespread and influential.
            "The vision of a North American community," Pastor writes, "begins with three sets of principles -- interdependence not dependence, reciprocity not unilateralism, and a negotiating style based on a community of interests not a quid pro quo."
            He advocates a continental framework designed to bolster neighborly connections to compete more effectively in the world and to serve as a model for other regional groups.  With his thorough understanding of the intricacies of policy making, he outlines five primary tasks that would strengthen and energize the North American economy in its global competition with Asia and Europe.
            First and foremost, Pastor calls for closing the development gap separating Mexico from the two more advanced economies, which would mean policies designed to raise economic standards in Mexico.  The second task is to negotiate and implement a North American plan for transportation and infrastructure to provide a platform for a modern, continental-wide economy.  Third, he says, the three governments need to create a consultative web to coordinate economic policies.  The fourth task is to negotiate a customs union to stimulate deeper economic integration.  The fifth and final task is for the three governments to commit to new methods to address the most difficult part of integration: regulatory convergence.
            It is an ambitious agenda, to say the least.  But with the current state of affairs in United States relations with Canada and Mexico, it would seem to be an impossible vision for the White House and Congress to even begin to work on.  Still, The North American Idea received glowing reviews upon publication two years ago.
            A reviewer for Foreign Affairs, the prestigious journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote the following:  "Pastor's book constitutes a brave master plan, a bright vision to challenge and enlighten future generations.........He presses his case with intelligence and good humor, marshaling data to demonstrate that all three nations would be better off adopting cooperative solutions to common problems."
            Echoing this praise was former Secretary of State James A Baker III: "Pastor has done a superb job of bringing to the forefront and raising insightful questions about how far the United States, Canada, and Mexico should integrate themselves.  How these questions are answered will help determine the competitiveness of all three countries in the global economy."
            Pastor may have support for his vision of a North American community from foreign affairs elites at organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations.  But in these times of backing away from global organizations and international treaties, the author's North American idea is no longer a compelling pubic policy objective.  A recent article entitled "Mexico Makes It" in the March/April edition of Foreign Affairs by Shannon O'Neil, a senior fellow at the Council, suggests a much less ambitious agenda for the United States' relationship with Mexico.
            On the one hand she is upbeat about Mexico's social and economic transformation in recent years, reporting that Mexico has shaken off an inward-looking, oil-dominated past to become one of the most open and globalized economies in the world, despite the continued violence of the drug trade.  Her recommendation to the Obama White House is to work with the new administration of Pena Nieto to strengthen economic relationships, border security, and law enforcement between the two countries.  But there is no mention of forming a North American community.  Increased ties with Canada are not included in her policy prescriptions.  Shannon O'Neil calls for forming a partnership on important issues with Mexico, nothing more.     
            This is not an age for big comprehensive international agreements.  The stresses and strains of global institutions are seen everywhere.  The United Nations is constantly under attack in the United States for usurping American sovereignty.  Little has been accomplished for years by the World Trade Organization.  Robert Pastor's advocacy for a North American community may offer many advantages and opportunities for the United States, but it seems dated to a different time and place in history.
            At one point in his enthusiasm for a North American community, Robert Pastor called for supplementing national pride with a new feeling of North American-ness.  There has never been in United States history a time when there was any kind of feeling of North American-ness.  Perhaps it will arise some day in the distant future.  But certainly not anytime soon.

 Tucker, Jo, Mexico: Democracy Interrupted,   2012 New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 286pp.

Sam Coulbourn writes: Jo Tucker arrived in Mexico in 2000 as Vicente Fox Quesada took over the presidency.   Fox, of the National Action Party (PAN), was the beginning of a new era for Mexico, because his term marked the end of solid political hegemony by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) since 1929.
            It is now 2013, and after two terms by two different PAN presidents, whose rule differed sharply, PRI is back in power, with President Enrique Peña Nieto.
            President Fox was a hearty, cheerful extrovert—a former Coca-Cola advertising executive.  He is generally adjudged to have done little in his six years in office.
            After Fox came Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, and he did a lot.  He declared war on the drug cartels, and his term was disastrous in the numbers of people, innocent and implicated in the criminal drug cartels—some 50,000 in all—killed. 
            Tucker’s book ends just as the 2012 election is approaching, and her story covers those 12 years, but does not give the reader a warm feeling of understanding much of what went on before.
            What we see is a country ruled, whether by PRI, or PAN, by men who fit comfortably into a small club of wealthy cronies.  When PRI was in charge, most state governments were run by PRI governors, and the federal government was run by PRI operatives. When PAN won the national election, many state governments remained under PRI leadership. 
            Mexican government runs on a steady lubricant of corruption.  In recent years, the drug cartels have gained more and more primacy and in some northern states, they call most of the shots.  The multi-billion dollar industry of providing drugs to satisfy the appetite of  North American drug-users, as well as those in other parts of the world, takes the lion’s share of some levels of Mexican society, particularly in the northern states.  In order to avoid getting killed, most law enforcement officers go with the flow.
            It is not a happy or encouraging picture.
            Mexico has grown as one of the world’s primary producers of narcotic drugs.  Author Tucker traces this history from the arrival of Chinese immigrants in the years after the California Gold Rush. They brought opium plants and planted them.  Mexico would not be such a powerful source of grown and manufactured drugs, and trans-shipment of them from South America, if it weren’t for the world’s richest market, the U.S.A.  After the 1960s, America’s appetite for drugs has continued to fuel a trillion-dollar drug economy.
            Tucker names President Felipe Calderón, who came into office in 2006, as the man who changed everything, with his military-led offensive against the country’s drug cartels.  In his six-year term in office, the all-out war on cartels sucked many, many innocent victims into the vortex.  Most would agree that this approach was a failure. 
            Tucker notes that cartel power began to grow as Vicente Fox entered office in 2000, and she observes that he was never really interested in the drug trafficking issue, beyond securing U.S. praise for the occasional high-profile arrest.
            Perhaps now that PRI candidate Peña Nieto is now in office, he can achieve some reduction in the violence of the cartels.
            Tucker’s account of the rule of Elba Esther Gordillo Morales, known as La Maestra, head of the National Union of Teachers (SNTE) (1.4 million members) is particularly colorful, and to me says a lot about the way things are done in Mexico.  She took over in 1989, after the previous leader was arrested, and held that post until she was arrested in February of this year.  Tucker’s account ends in 2012, but she paints the picture of one more politician, out to scoop up as much personal wealth as she can.
            Notes from other sources on Gordillo:
Gordillo was arrested by the Mexican authorities on 26 February 2013 after her private jet in which she had traveled from California landed at the Toluca airport near the capital. She was arrested for allegedly embezzling $2 billion pesos (US$156,816,000) from the Mexican National Educational Workers Union (SNTE).  Prosecutors argue she would not have been able to make several purchases on her salary. ($31,398 pesos or US$2,459 USD per month) She has been charged with embezzlement and organized crime. To head her criminal defense, Gordillo hired prominent penal lawyer Marco Antonio del Toro Carazo who is also defending labor leader Napoleón Gómez Urrutia.
The national public schools had been a system dominated by Gordillo's union in which teaching positions could be sold or inherited.
Personal life
Elba Esther Gordillo is notorious for wearing luxury brands such as Hermès and Chanel. She has allegedly spent US$2,100,000 at a Neiman Marcus department store in San Diego between March 2009 and January 2012. Gordillo allegedly used the money on properties, including in the US, a private jet, art work and plastic surgeries. She has allegedly amassed some 10 properties, including a US$1.7 million home in San Diego and a US$4 million water-front house in Coronado, California. In 2008, she bought 59 new Hummer vehicles to give her aides, only to raffle them off when the media brought the purchase to light.

            The outlook for Mexico?  When the growing middle class of Mexico gets good and fed up with the lax way that the country is governed, when there is loud support for cleaning up government and pushing the drug traffickers out, there will be changes.  Until then, nothing much will change. 

COMMENT ON TUCKMAN'S BOOK BY LYNN DEWEESE-PARKINSON,  Keeper of an International Email Network of Book Dealers, who sells mostly Bullfighting books in Tia Juana, Baja California: The author arrived in Mexico the same year the PAN won its first election.
Her view is very much colored by her timing. To think that democracy in Mexico has as little history as she seems to believe is to have an even more truncated view of history than most U.S. reporters.

The struggle for democracy in Mexico out-dates the arrival of Cortez in my opinion. It certainly is a longer struggle than the struggle of the anti-democratic parties (PRI, PAN, PRD) for power. One small historical error among many: she states that the Zapatista movement is "the biggest
group of rebel fighters since the revolution." Either she has never heard of the Cristero revolt in the 1920s, much larger than the Zapatistas, or she does not count right wing counter-revolutionaries as "rebel fighters".

But my main objection to the book is that I am of the firm view than all histories of Mexico must start from the realization that Mexican history is a very long continuum, that the European genocide was not the success that it was in the north.

The best review I have found was in the Guardian,
but I think he is a bit too kind. Then again I am seldom impressed by reporters posing as historians. In my own opinion democracy was interrupted in Mexico with the assassinations of Zapata, Villa, Flores Magon, and a host of other Mexican democratic revolutionaries up to and including the killings of protestors this last week, (WRITTEN 03-26-13)  though perhaps not so much interrupted as aborted.

Perhaps it is because I have nothing to do with the drug trade, but the violence I see here is primarily that of the governments of Mexico and the USA against democratic, primarily indigenous forces.


Wednesday, May 29th.  Read a book about Modern Africa—from 1900 to 2013.  It can be whatever you want to read of the history of this tremendously varied continent.  Read about Idi Amin of Uganda, or Anwar Sadat of Egypt, or about Sudan, or Timbuctu, Tanzania, Apartheid in South Africa, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and the French, or Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Angola, Botswana, Civil War in Rwanda—your choice.

In June (Wed., June 26) We'll read about Women's Movements, Women's Suffrage in the 20th and 21st centuries, Rise of Feminism, NOW, your choice.

In July (Wed. July 31st)  we’re looking at BRIC:  Brazil, Russia, India and China -- four big, powerful countries all in a similar stage of advanced economic development.  

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A New Look for Rockport?

The Peanut Gallery

Imagine a large residence that stretches itself along Rockport’s rocky shoreline, so that Rockport’s appearance, from the land and from the sea, is forever changed.  [The image shown inserted in the photo does not represent the structure proposed.]

            On Thursday, April 4th Ron Roma appeared before the Rockport Planning Board at a Public Hearing to consider his application for Site Plan Review for his plan to build a large  (12,000 sq. ft. gross floor area) residence on the shoreline next to the Yankee Clipper, a local inn.
            The next morning, the Gloucester Daily Times was unable to find space to publish a news story about the hearing, but it did have an editorial, which served to suggest that the whole idea of “Site Plan Review” is just an empty exercise. 

April 5, 2013
Editorial: A 'review' with no resolve
Gloucester Daily Times

The Rockport Planning Board hosted a “site plan review” hearing Thursday night regarding homeowner Ron Roma’s plans to build a second single-family home on his combined property at 129 Granite St.

That’s because, under a Rockport bylaw, a site plan review is required for any house covering more than 6,000 square feet, and Roma’s new projects calls for a house at 12,000 square feet. And neighbors, who have long decried Roma’s original brick house because, well, they just don’t like it – or that it took the place of an older home — raised a number of questions about the property.

But the fact is, Roma’s project clearly complies with town zoning bylaws and conservation mandates; he already has clearance from the town’s Conservation Commission. And while there may be some benefit to letting neighbors and other town residents know what type of work is being done at the site, the truth is, Roma has every right to listen to their input, and say thanks but no thanks for their purported “help.”

That’s because the town’s site plan review format has no means of addressing neighbors’ concerns — and as long as a project complies with zoning and other bylaws, it shouldn’t. Like an almost laughable “demolition delay” bylaw Town Meeting attendees ultimately blew out of the water last year, it has no apparent goal, other than to make a property owner and developer squirm over a perfectly permissible project on his or her own land.

Roma makes some good points when he notes that he has largely hired local builders and other contractors to work at the site, now and in the past. And his project will boost the town’s tax intake on the property as well — because he is allowed and permitted to build on his land within town regulations, and that should be one bottom line.

The other bottom line is the need for the town to scrap “reviews” such as this that have no meaningful means to a resolution — or any real resolve.

I replied with the following letter:

GDT Letter to the Editor, Tuesday, April 9, 2013: “Rockport Site Plan Review serves real purpose”   [paragraphs in blue were omitted from the version that appeared in the Gloucester Times.]

Dear Editor,

I am sincerely thankful that Ray Lamont is not on the Rockport Planning Board.  Your dismissive editorial pretty much trashes our Site Plan Review, and the whole concept of public review. [GDT Editorial: "A 'review' with no resolve" April 5, 2013.]

You state: “the fact is, Roma’s project clearly complies with town zoning bylaws and
conservation mandates. And while there may be some benefit to letting neighbors and other town residents know what type of work is being done at the site, the truth is, Roma has every right to listen to their input, and say thanks but no thanks for their purported ‘help.’”

We have had Site Plan Review in place for over a decade, and in that time, we have reviewed, and approved some fairly large projects for our town.  You are quite right that a project may comply with zoning, but Site Plan Review is intended for projects that are so large that they will have a large impact upon the town and its other residents.  Site Plan Review usually develops into a “conversation” between ladies and gentlemen who want to create a new structure, and the Planning Board, assisted by the public.  The essence of Site Plan Review is to develop a project that fits the town and the particular place where the site is located. 

When the Planning Board conducted Site Plan Review for the Shalin Liu Performance Center, the applicants appeared before the Board in public hearings, in a very respectful manner.  They patiently listened to questions and criticisms by townspeople, and prepared polite and thorough answers.  There were people who thought that such a large project in the middle of our small town would be disastrous.  The applicant, working with the Planning Board, made small changes and adjustments to their plan to meet these concerns, where it was possible.  They adjusted their work hours to permit flow of pedestrian traffic downtown.  In every way, they worked to satisfy not only zoning requirements but the need to become a cooperative neighbor. 

It was the same with the Granite Savings Bank, when they built their new building on upper Main Street.  The Planning Board, the applicant and the public worked together in the same amicable way in the long process for Old Colony Maritime.  That project, nearly killed by a serial litigator, is now being brought to life in different form by a new applicant. 

Aerial view of the shoreline just east of the projected building.  In this photo, another of Mr. Roma’s large brick residences (121 Granite St.) is shown, under construction, at right. 

You note that townspeople “have long decried Roma’s original brick house because, well, they just don’t like it – or that it took the place of an older home…”   That project, at 121 Granite Street, was designed to be just small enough to avoid Site Plan Review.  We understand that the applicant, while the building was still under construction, appeared one day in a helicopter, and seemed to be attempting to land on the flat roof of his new home.  The large bulk of this brick structure suggested to townspeople, and the Planning Board, that perhaps criteria for Site Plan Review should be widened to review such a structure. 

Town Meeting subsequently approved measures that would preclude future buildings like the brick “helopad.” 

You continued, stating that Mr. Roma “is allowed and permitted to build on his land within town regulations, and that should be one bottom line.”  

Indeed, that is correct.  And Site Plan Review is a part of those “town regulations.”  So is the “annoying” public review.   Mr. Roma showed his respect for the public at Thursday night’s public hearing.  He stated that he could plant trees in his yard any way he wanted, and the people in the hearing room muttered comments.  He then asked the Planning Board chairman if he would quiet the “Peanut Gallery.” 

In the past, the public have tremendously aided new projects heard by the Planning Board.  Sometimes they have pointed out items that had eluded town officials, and just as importantly, members of the public have had a chance to see how the applicant has tried to comply not only with strict regulations but with things that just make the project fit into the neighborhood more smoothly.

You end your editorial with: “The other bottom line is the need for the town to scrap “reviews” such as this that have no meaningful means to a resolution — or any real resolve.

There will be a resolution.  We just hope that the applicant in this case recognizes that it is a whole lot more fun to live in Rockport when you don’t storm into town acting like you already owned the place. 


Samuel W. Coulbourn
7 Mill Lane

Following is the statement of Greg Blaha, abutter, which he read at the meeting of the Rockport Planning Board, during a public hearing in the case of a Site Plan Review for a residence at 129 Granite St.

Planning Board Meeting 4/18/13

Continued Hearing re: Site Plan Review for proposed Roma III project at 129 Granite St.

Good evening and thank you for the opportunity to speak.
I am Greg Blaha of 133 Granite St.  I spoke at the last meeting on April 4th and want to note that my wife Sarah and I greatly appreciate the encouragement and support that has been extended to us by our neighbors – it’s good to know that so many share our concerns.

Tonight’s meeting is extremely important, because it not only affects all in this room, but could be a turning point for our town of Rockport.  At the last meeting, we voiced concerns and made some suggestions as to the need to minimize the adverse impacts of the proposed project - there are many.  I would like to be more specific on some of these issues tonight.

As noted at the last meeting, we are alarmed by the pace and manner in which this project has been conducted so far, and we have grave concerns going forward.

Since the last meeting, an attempt was made last week to circumvent the Site Plan Review process by obtaining a demolition permit for this project - despite the fact that Site Plan Review is not complete.  Demolition is included under Site Plan Review Section E.1.f. in our town bylaws, and in this case, would also fall under additional land disturbance – clearly the purview of Site Plan Review.  We have appealed the decision of the building inspector to issue any permit prior to completion of Site Plan Review to the Zoning Board of Appeals.  We request that the town be vigilant in ensuring that all appropriate processes are followed.  We again submit that the Rockport Conservation Commission may also wish to revisit its decision regarding the Roma project.  We also note that as of Tuesday this week, no new or revised plans were available to the public at the Town Clerk’s office for review prior to this hearing.

It is our understanding that to date Roma III has not filed a complete Site Plan application with your Board.  In order to avoid any confusion we ask you to rule clearly, for the record, that the time limit for Site Plan Review has not yet begun to run because you have not received a complete application from Roma III.

Site Plan Review is a very important process.  Once a project triggers Site Plan Review, it allows towns to scrutinize large-impact projects such as this, according to criteria that would not usually be applied to smaller projects.  It also allows towns to impose restrictions – including dimensional requirements - that may exceed minimum zoning requirements. 

There is an important example of such a case several years ago in Marblehead (Muldoon v. Planning Board of Marblehead), in which a very large brick single-family house was proposed.  We provided a written summary of this case at the last meeting. The town successfully used Site Plan Review to impose dimensional requirements – including requiring increased setbacks of 30 feet (compared to the 8 foot minimum stated in the zoning laws), and to require that the home be faced with clapboard or shingle, rather than brick.  This case has since been cited in subsequent legal cases in other towns, and the courts in Massachusetts have repeatedly upheld the right of town planning boards to use Site Plan Review to lessen the negative impacts on neighborhoods of proposed projects such as the one before us tonight.  A letter by Rockport Town Counsel dated Feb 7, 2012 references this case, but does not discuss follow-up, specifically that the case has been upheld and sited [cited] many times since then.

In addition to the requests we made in our remarks at the last meeting, we request the following specific conditions regarding the proposed construction which are relevant to site plan review.

Land disturbance/Blasting/Stone walls
Section H 1.0 requires that projects “Minimize the amount of “disturbance of land” … minimize the need for blasting, the number of removed trees 24 or more inches in circumference, the length of removed stone walls, … minimize soil erosion, impermeable surfaces and any threat of air, water, or noise pollution.”

Given the stated objective to “Minimize the need for blasting,”
- Please minimize blasting which may threaten surrounding homes, their foundations, yards, stone walls, existing water and sewer lines, and the coastal bank
- Please do not allow the extra blasting proposed in order to have a full basement and to evade height restrictions and build a taller, bigger structure

Regarding the other objectives detailed in section 1.0,
- Please require more specific justification for the significant amount of land disturbance and over 200 ft of concrete retaining walls on what is currently mostly level land
- Please require that historic stone walls along our property line be protected and any concrete retaining walls not be visible
- Please require preservation of mature plantings – especially trees along our property lines

Section H.1.2 of Site Plan review states there should be efforts to “Minimize obstruction of scenic views.” 
- Please take into account the location and size of structures and plantings in such a way as to minimize the adverse impacts on scenic views
- Please ensure neighbors’ ongoing access to sunlight – especially southern exposures in garden areas - and open air.

Amount of paved surface
Covered under section 1.0 ‘minimize…impermeable surfaces’ and section 1.3 ‘Minimize paved surfaces’
- Please require less paved area, possibly a permeable driveway, such as shell or gravel to decrease the amount of blacktop

Character and Scale
Item H.1.7 of the goal of Site Plan Review is to “Minimize departure from the character and scale of buildings in the vicinity as viewed from public and private ways and places, and abutting property.” 

As to character:
- Please require that the proposed structure be shingle, shake and/or clapboard, not brick. (as in the Muldoon case in Marblehead

Regarding Scale, we request that the Planning Board:
- Limit the height of any structure to a true 2.5 stories, and not allow 3 stories, or any enormous ‘half-story’ that is in itself larger than an entire ‘large’ house in the surrounding area
- Limit the total height to a maximum of 30 feet and disallow the excessive blasting that has been proposed to get around the height restriction
- Limit the overall size and scale of the building beyond the minimum required by zoning, taking into account the scale of residential homes in the surrounding neighborhood
- Impose dimensional requirements by requiring all setbacks to be at least 25 ft, as allowed under Massachusetts law, as in the Marblehead case

Demolition/Construction process
In addition to demolition being covered under Section E.1.f of the site plan review, section
H 1.8 states the objective to ‘Minimize any aspect of the development that could constitute a nuisance due to air and water pollution, flood, noise, odor, dust, or vibration.’  Pursuant to this,
- Please require that all utilities, air conditioners, and other mechanicals be clearly shown on the site plan.  Please require that air conditioner condensers and other mechanicals which are sources of noise pollution as well as being unattractive be located well away from neighboring property lines
- Please require a detailed plan to limit dust, debris, noise, etc and other impacts on neighboring properties
- Please limit work done on Saturdays during the summer season, such as no blasting, and no excessive noise, dust or mess
- Please require that abutters be contacted when their property is damaged – as ours has been already – by activities associated with this project, and require that a simple and timely process be in place for complaint resolution
- Please require that more detailed information be made available to neighbors/abutters as to construction staging and timing.

We remain very concerned that easements over our property are being used inappropriately to access the combined lot at 129 Granite St.. Mr. Roma has misstated the easements running over our property in the materials submitted by him to the Planning Board. We have attempted, without success, to schedule a meeting with Roma III and our respective lawyers.  Tonight we again ask Roma III to sit down with us and our legal counsel to address the issues we raised with Roma III, through counsel, in writing, more than two weeks ago.  We would appreciate an opportunity to work together to resolve these issues. 

The Planning Board should stipulate in their Site Plan conditions that all access to/egress from the worksite, and access to and from the completed residence, be exclusively via 129 Granite St’s own frontage on Granite St.  In addition, all vehicles, persons, construction equipment, and materials should be contained within 129 Granite St at all times.

It was noted at the last meeting that the Rockport Planning Board has conducted Site Plan Review for other large homes, but this case includes unique challenges.  This proposal is not for a compound on a secluded many-acre lot.  It is a proposal for a massive private home situated in a densely populated, residential neighborhood.  The proposed appearance is a huge deviation from the surrounding neighborhood.  And the home will be extremely visible – from Granite St/Route 127, from at least 91 other residential parcels (by their own calculation), from the neighboring Yankee Clipper Inn, from downtown Rockport/Bearskin Neck, and from the water.  Because of its immense size, location on a main road and jutting out into Sandy Bay, and the fact that it will not (as currently designed) blend in with its surroundings, this structure could become the most prominent landmark on Rockport’s coastline – is this what Rockport wants to be known for? 

If you do not act to impose reasonable limits – of size, of materials, and of access, you will have established a dangerous precedent that has the potential to change the character and appearance of Rockport.  Rockport reaps great rewards – measurable in real dollars to local businesses and local workers -- from its character, its appearance and its architecture.  We should not risk this.

This is not about whether homeowners have the right to build a home on property they own – they do.   But processes such as Site Plan Review exist for good reason, and when a project triggers site plan review, it should be examined very closely.  This is about whether one owner should be allowed to impose such a huge and negative impact on our neighborhood, our town, and its future. By acting – or failing to act – this Planning Board is making a choice about the future of Rockport.

Our Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled that local planning boards can use Site Plan Review to alter the course of unfortunate situations like this.  I urge our Planning Board to please do so.  Planning Boards are legally allowed to impose dimensional requirements on a project that are more restrictive than those contained in local bylaws; they are also allowed to require the use of building material - such as clapboard or shingle - that are in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.  They are allowed to impose conditions in all the areas described under Site Plan Review in our bylaws.

Please do this.  Please protect our neighborhood – increase the setbacks, limit the height and size of the building, preserve neighborhood views of the water and from the water, help maintain peace and quiet, limit access to the ample, available frontage on Granite Street, and require materials that are in keeping with the character of the Rockport we love.

Thank you.


We sincerely hope that the Planning Board will recognize that it alone has the opportunity and the responsibility to protect  our Town from the caprice of a newcomer who has the money to build what many might consider an outsize house, right smack on Rockport’s Atlantic shoreline. 

Mr. Roma has the right to build a huge home, but Site Plan Review requires due consideration be given to how the proposed structure fits into the neighborhood.  As one abutter said at the Planning Board hearing on April 5th, this building “looks like a Marriott.”   Now, there’s nothing wrong with Marriott hotels, but right next to Mr. Roma’s proposed home is an actual inn, The Yankee Clipper, that indeed does fit in with the “character and scale of the neighborhood.”

We hope that Mr. Roma will realize that the other 7500 residents of Rockport are not just yokels in “The Peanut Gallery”, but citizens who love our Town.

Samuel W. Coulbourn