Sunday, March 26, 2017

facing the notes

Nezahualcoyotl can take five.

It is time to celebrate the centennial of the Mexican Constitution of 2012. And the 100 peso note does not require the image of the poet-philosopher warrior that has graced its face since 1996.

Since my return from The Antipodes, I have only needed the services of an ATM twice. I knew that the Bank of Mexico was issuing its 100 peso note to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Mexican Constitution, but I had not yet seen one.

Last week, my six thousand peso bounty included only two 100 peso notes. Both featured the noble features of Nezahualcoyotl. But, I hit pay dirt this morning. The two 100 peso notes were the new variety. There they were in all of their stiff paper glory. Spiffy as a new Buick.

Commemorative notes are not new in Mexico. Those of us who were here in 2009 remember the two banknotes printed to celebrate the bicentennial of independence with a rather fierce Miguel Hidalgo on the front of the 200 peso note, and, to celebrate the centennial of the Revolution, the locomotive that was instrumental in transporting insurgent troop to their ultimate victory, on the front of the 100 peso note. Occasionally, one shows up in my wallet.

But, it is now time for a new celebration. The Revolution may have started in 1910, but it did not get its governing document until 1917. (There are some historians who claim the Revolution did not come to an end until 1930 when the government came to terms with the Cristeros. I tend to agree with them.)

The constitution reflected what was to be Mexico's greatest political and social watershed (the Revolution) until the introduction of political democracy in the 1990s. Various Mexican factions (primarily the Liberals and the Conservatives) had been fighting since Independence -- often in open warfare -- to define what the Mexican nation would be. The Revolution answered that question. The Constitution of 1917 memorialized it.

The convention that drafted the constitution was remarkably bourgeois (made up primarily of middle class members of the Mexican Liberal Party) considering some of the radical assertions in the document. President Carranza (that is him with the Father Christmas beard on the front of the new note) was not a radical. He was soon to be assassinated by another faction of the Revolution. But he approved the constitution knowing the parts of which he disapproved could be rewritten or ignored. (Some provisions of the constitution still have no legislation to support their implementation.)

The Revolution was initially fought on the premise that elections should be fair and that no president should be reelected. The latter was immediately added to the constitution to prevent another Porfirio Diaz becoming dictator for life. As for fair elections, that would wait for another 80 years.

But the constitution changed far more.

  • The Liberals started the process of stripping the Catholic church of its property and political power in the 1850s. The 1917 Constitution made the split permanent.
  • The constitution gave positive liberties (as opposed to the American concept of negative liberties protecting the people from the government) such as, the rights to education, health, and housing, and freedom from discrimination.
  • Foreigners are prohibited from participating in the political process and from owning real property in the restricted zones -- a provision based on the perceived extent of foreign influence in the government of Porfirio Diaz.
  • Citizens are guaranteed the right to own firearms within their homes.
  • Some commentators note that the constitution contains the essence of socialism. "The property of all land and water within national territory is originally owned by the Nation." It is not a radical statement. It is quite conservative in its concept; a Spanish monarchist would say no less. The provision was cribbed from Spanish law.
  • The rights of workers to an 8-hour day, the right to strike, the right to a day of rest, and the right to indemnification for improper termination are all part of the constitution -- though supporting legislation has not been enacted to enforce all of those rights.
There are, of course, many more provisions. But they each attempt to uniformly answer the question who is a Mexican and what is her relationship with her nation and government.

It is, of course, appropriate for Venustiano Carranza and Luis Manuel Rojas to share top billing on the front of the note. The former was the president of Mexico in 1917, and the latter was the president of the congress that approved the constitution.

And, on the reverse, are the members of the congress who drafted the constitution -- caught in their Roman salute swearing allegiance to what they had just approved. Considering some unpleasant incidents in the 1930s and 1940s, that salute is a bit creepy.

Like most such commemorations, we will soon forget about the special banknote and what it stood for. But Mexicans will continue to operate their political affairs under its provisions. It is Mexico's longest-lasting constitution.

But there is a presidential election next year. And several of the current provisions will be at issue. Who knows? Maybe we will have a Constitution of 2019.

And a completely new set of bank notes in 2119.

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