Adolfo Gilly
"Historical Perspectives on Contemporary Mexico"

October 4, 2001

On October 4th, 2001, UNAM Professor Adolfo Gilly participated in the panel discussion, "Historical Perspectives on Contemporary Mexico," with Professor Alan Knight of Oxford and Professor Alicia Hernandez Chavez of Colegio de Mexico. The panel took place at the Center for Latin American Studies and was moderated by UC Berkeley Professor of History Margaret Chowning. Below is a summary transcript, translated from Spanish to English, of Gilly's remarks.

Prof. Adolfo Gilly (left), Prof. Alan Knight (center), Prof. Alicia Hernández Chávez (right)

The Punitive Expedition of President Bush

The events that have followed from September 11th are the unforeseen and nevertheless logical result of what has been denominated "globalization," a process whereby the vertiginous increase of exchanges is the other face of the growing disappearance of legal regulations and the dismantling of individual and societal rights. 

Horror and tragedy fell side by side this September 11th from New York and Washington.  This instantaneous worldwide repercussion of the criminal attacks, included in the design of the terrorists, appeared as another of the faces of the actual state of things in the world.  The war, as happened in the 20th century, threatens in the 21st century to be the new rising and ineludible step of globalization. 

In other words, the irreversible process of globalization assumes this perverse characteristic.  There is intention, long before it culminates in a single world economic system (and we are far from that, if we consider the thousands of millions of human beings marginalized or detached from "the markets" as we have understood them), to establish a single world order and a supporting unification of military force.  It is not possible or desirable to oppose globalization and commercial, technological, and cultural exchanges.  Is it possible to avoid the violence and war that accompanies them like their shadow?

The government of the United States proclaims, as its right and its duty, the enforcement of law at a worldwide scale.  From there would follow its right to the interpretation of law and definition of justice.  Consequently, its attributes would be military power, financial power, judicial power, and punitive power.  An army, a law, a justice, and a right to castigate as a legitimate universal monopoly of the United States are, in effect, the tendency and project contained in the words and deeds of President Bush's government as of September 11th and, in particular, in Bush's September 20th discussion.  This is the present form of existence in world reality reached due to globalization.  If we review past history of the constitution of world systems, we observe that this warring ending, under this form or another, was almost inevitable, although in the way one can affirm once success is assured. 

A singular feature of this conflict of modernity is that the two opposing military organizations, Al Quaeda and the Pentagon, don't invoke as legitimization of their actions interests or rights, whose always relative character would permit them to be included and settled within the legal marks of the United Nations.  Each one invokes two premodern absolutes: the Good and the Bad, God and Allah, Satan and the Unfaithful.  Once in this terrain, the only feasible departure is the annihilation of the Other and its allies.  Among the many victims of the perverse form taken by globalization is also human reason. 

March 9th, 1916, a column of the forces of Pancho Villa crossed the border, attacked the small city of Columbus, New Mexico, and withdrew after suffering significant losses before the local garrison.  It was the first? and until this 11th of September the only? foreign attack over U.S. territory.  President Wilson launched the Punitive Expedition in persecution of Villa.  Five thousand men headed by General Pershing penetrated Mexican territory March 16th of this year, in search of the unfindable Guerilla.  At the outset of February 1917, on the eve of the entrance of the U.S. in the world war, the Punitive Expedition withdrew from Mexico without having succeeded in capturing Pancho Villa, but having notably augmented the popularity of this among the Mexicans. 

When President Bush said that this world crisis is "the first war of the 21st Century" perhaps he exaggerated to denote "war" what has until now appeared more as a Punitive Expedition of these global and extremely technological times.  But he was perfectly right in foreseeing new wars, unpredictable and incommensurable, in the coming decades.

It took a good part of the nineteenth century, and all of the twentieth, to win the rights, regulations, and law which protected human beings and their work in all its forms in many countries, and to have what used to be Welfare States.  It took two world wars and many revolutions and rebellions to reach the balances expressed in the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Those balances are a thing of the past, and the Pentagon has a lot to do with their destruction.  During the 90s, they were demolished in almost one fell swoop, like the Twin Towers.  In their place is left this world without public law and social rights in front of the faceless dictatorship of the markets. 

You cannot discuss with "the markets."  It is not possible to organize to bargain with them.  Nor is it possible to sue them or bring them to justice.  They aren't there, they don't tangibly exist, and no one represents them.  They are an invisible spectre, omniscient and all-powerful, before which no action appears possible.  This is the state of the globalized world and of the unbearable poverty and distress in most of the countries of this planet.  The present is a crisis of the organization of the world.  As U.S.A. southern neighbor and as member of NAFTA, the current world crisis places Mexico at a historical crossroads.

From the end of the war of 1847 until the last decade of the 20th century, Mexico has maintained a friendly and respectful distance with relation to the United States--even when seventy to eighty per cent of our external commerce throughout the 20th century took place over the northern border.  Breaking diplomatic relations with Cuba, during times that the internal politics of Mexico's government were almost the opposite of Cuba's, is a good example of this conduct, rooted in national, historical, and geopolitical reasons.

Whatever its political regime, Mexico is obligated to preserve this distance for the sake of national independence, political autonomy, internal democracy, and historical protection of its territorial integrity.  If it wants to govern for itself its national affairs (one of the necessary attributes of any democratic regime), Mexico is obligated to be friendly but cautious towards the international politics of its powerful partner.

Since President Porfirio Diaz and during almost all of the 20th century, Mexico followed this line of external policy.  It maintained a cautious equilibrium between the United States, its neighbor and principal commercial partner; Europe, decisive fountain of culture and judicial principles; and Latin America, where stronger are the historical and linguistic bonds (and a common language is truly a powerful bond).

This equilibrium has been broken.  Since the meeting between President Fox and President Bush in February of 2001 and especially as of September 11th, it is the intent of the Mexican government to break this trajectory and to establish with the United States a privileged relationship, the strongest and closest of all, not only in commerce and economy, but also in politics, culture, war, and legal fundamentals of the State.

With the support of the Mexican government to the declaration of war of President Bush on September 20th, this relationship could convert into a political subordination, dangerous for Mexico and for the preservation of good relations between both countries.

This policy threatens to break a historical equilibrium with the motive of an uncertain and not clearly defined opportunity.  A rupture like this could yield an improvisation without immediate benefit for anyone that, with inevitable costs, subsequent history will be in charge of correcting.  In times of crisis and conflict Mexico, if it acts as a nation-friend, should behave as a force of restraint, peace, and independent moral support to the U.S.A. as a nation, not as a blind follower of the current revenge mood of the American establishment.

It is up to Mexico to decide.  Whatever the decision, it will be fateful.


The United States today has demands over Mexico: especially petroleum, energy, and territory (above all the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and control of the southern border).  These are not economic but geopolitical demands.  The United States needs to close the new border of Fortress America, from Alaska to Panama, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, the Mare Nostrum of the Empire, and assure the control of petroleum below this continental platform.

Mexico doesn't have to give in to these demands, much less to the compelling conclusions in which they are today planned.  For Mexico, to take a position that is strong and without generalities against terror, violence, and terrorism in the world means to cast away its historical and political weight, as a nation and as a State, for the construction of a globalization policy in which rights precede and determine the contents of economy and technology. 

If we want for globalization to be not destined to bring with it new wars like those the present crisis announces, an international policy of social globalization will be necessary.  If we don't want the violences of terror, weapons, misery, and hunger to keep growing, we will need a new international legality, a renovated Universal Declaration of Human Rights validated across national borders whose nucleus should be a Bill of Social Rights for the 21st century. 

Article Five of NATO says that an attack of one of its nations will be considered an attack of all of them.  This is a pact of military solidarity between a group of nations and their armies.  A globalization of human measurement, on the contrary, should be based on the old formula of the solidarity between workers and human beings--the motto of the Industrial Workers of the World in the United States at the beginning of the last century: an injury to one is an injury to all. 

We can commence by establishing this rule in our common territory, North America, in the manner like the IWW in the United States and Mexico proposed for a century: organizing work under all its forms on equal footing and with the same rights in our three countries of NAFTA.  This organization could have an influence as universal as the one had by the economy of North America today in its conjunction or the military force of the United States in particular. 

Terror nourishes from misery, exploitation, hunger, sickness, the negation of rights, and the everyday and unending humiliation of millions and millions of human beings.  The answer to terror is not repression or war.  It is the autonomous and democratic organization of society to get to everyone the rights for everyone.  The answer is not vengeance but justice.  Without rights for everyone, we will not have peace for anyone.



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