Reclaiming Cinco de Mayo
by Matt Gonzalez

Most Americans incorrectly believe Cinco de Mayo commemorates Mexican Independence from Spanish rule – which is actually celebrated every September 16th honoring the peasant rebellion led by Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla that began on September 16, 1810 at a parish church in Dolores. The uprising sparked events leading to Mexican Independence 11 years later.

Cinco de Mayo, on the other hand, commemorates one victorious battle in a war the Mexicans lost to invading French forces 50 years later. Today, the origins of the war with France are largely forgotten, yet they are profoundly relevant to issues many nations grapple with today as they confront the realities of world economic markets and global entities like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

The French invasion of Mexico in 1862, which replaced democratically elected President Benito Juarez with Austrian Archduke Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico, started as a dispute over Mexico's decision to suspend foreign debt payments for two years. Juarez's decision, largely compelled by Mexico's financial crisis after the Mexican-American War and the ensuing civil war in Mexico, was a necessary move by a fledgling nation to protect its own economy.

England, Spain, and France reacted severely to Juarez's action and sent troops to Vera Cruz to collect on their debt. (After realizing the French intended to replace Juarez's constitutional government with a French- controlled monarchy, England and Spain signed agreements with the Juarez government arranging for future payments and withdrew their armies, wanting no part in the ensuing invasion.)

On May 5, 1862, en route to Mexico City, the French Army fought the Mexicans near the city of Puebla. Aided by muddy fields (due to rainstorms) and the ingenious use of hundreds of stampeding cattle, the Mexican force (4, 000 men) led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, defeated an army twice its size. This victory against Napoleon’s famed army, which had won victories throughout Europe, gave rise to immense national pride and Cinco de Mayo was solidified as a national day of celebration.

Though Zaragoza won the Battle of Puebla – it can be said the Mexican Army lost the war. In response to the humiliating Cinco de Mayo defeat, Napoleon III immediately dispatched reinforcements and Mexico City fell 13 months later. Maximilian was installed as Emperor of Mexico. It would take four years, once Napoleon lost interest in propping up Maximilian's regime, before Juarez regained power.

Surprisingly, Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the United States are larger than those in Mexico. The historical reasons for this are difficult to ascertain yet an interesting theory has emerged. Once he gained control of Mexico, Napoleon III was evidently interested in assisting the Confederates in the American Civil War that was raging to the North. But because of his defeat at Puebla, he was unable to divert his attention, thus allowing the Union forces to win at Gettysburg 14 months later, essentially turning the tide of the American conflict. After the surrender at Appomattox, Union Gen. Philip Sheridan decommissioned troops in Texas, provided they join the Mexicans in their efforts to repel the French. Many soldiers elected to do so -- even fighting in Mexico while wearing their American uniforms. After the monarchy was toppled and Maximilian executed at Queretaro, subsequent victory parades in Mexico City included a battalion of American soldiers. It is believed that when these soldiers returned home, they formed the foundation of North American celebrants of Cinco de Mayo.

The Mexicans of the 19th century fought against what many developing nations face today -- mounting debt and IMF/World Bank policies that overly constrain their ability to properly care for their citizens. As these countries struggle to make payments on debt, or just cover interest payments, their internal economic problems are exacerbated rather than relieved.

Benito Juarez, a full-blooded Zapotec Indian, understood firsthand what poverty in Mexico was. He suspended payments to foreign banks, electing to reinvest these monies locally. His actions were met with aggression by nations protecting their shared colonial interests.

In effect, the IMF/World Bank policies in existence today are just as insidious -- certainly as economically dramatic -- forcing cuts in government spending and promoting privatization of national resources as a means of generating revenue to repay debt. Exploitative foreign loans, coupled with foreign corporate activity, often only serves to deepen poverty, not alleviate it. Recent examples of this include privatization of water in Cochabamba, Bolivia; abolished tariff protections on domestic rice in Haiti; and the forced sale of the Demerara forests in Guyana -- all the consequence of IMF policies to repay international debt.

Sadly, Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the United States have lost their political focus, degenerating into commercial efforts to drive up beer consumption. (These efforts appear to be working. Cinco de Mayo rivals St. Patrick's Day as the No. 1 alcohol consumption holiday in the United States.) And except for a few "Mexican" trimmings, like mariachi music, Margaritas, and salsa, the historical events underlying the holiday are unknown to most celebrants.

More than anything, Cinco de Mayo commemorates a developing nation's resistance to the lending practices of wealthier foreign nations. I propose that anti-globalization activists reappropriate one of their finest victories: When celebrating Cinco de Mayo, make a toast to the radicals who fought so that Mexico could suspend unfair foreign debt payments. Raise your glass to an early victory against globalization.

[First published in a shorter version in the San Francisco Chronicle, May 5, 2003.]

Matt Gonzalez graduated from Columbia College in New York City in 1987 where he studied Political Theory and Comparative Literature. In 1990 he received his J.D. from Stanford Law School where he was an editor of the Stanford Law Review and a member of the Stanford Environmental Law Journal After 10 years as a public defender he became the first Green elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. They then elected him as the President of the Board. In 2005 he narrowly lost the mayor’s election. He has started a progressive law firm Gonzalez & Leigh with mostly Green Party colleagues.