Sunday, May 11, 2014

promises kept -- part i

When I was young (during the Punic Wars), I wanted to be a politician.  One of my fondest dreams was to run for re-election on the promises I had kept.

The voters of Clackamas County never allowed me to live that dream.  But I can deliver on a promise I made the other day -- how living in Mexico has changed my attitude about several things.  Today's tale is about a very specific incident.

I took my college studies seriously because I wanted to be a lawyer.  And I was not going to get there by frittering away my time on matters immaterial.

When American campuses erupted over the Cambodia incursion, a portion of the university went on strike.  That surprised a lot of us. 

Portland State University was a commuter school.  Most of the students were older -- many with families -- quite a few were Vietnam veterans.  They had to sacrifice to pay tuition.  And not having classes was not part of that sacrifice.

I talked with a federal judge -- a friend of my mother and father -- about the possibility of getting an injunction to force the professors to comply with their contracts.  Some of my other colleagues decided they would take down the barricades themselves.  My sympathies were always with the let's-get-back-to class crowd.

My views were similar in 1968.  Like my traditional liberal Democrat colleagues of the day, I was adamantly anti-Communist.  To me, it was the very essence of evil.

So, you can probably guess how I reacted to the news that a group of pro-Communist students had confronted the police in Mexico City in October 1968 -- before the Olympics were to open.  There were deaths.

Until recently, that is the myth that had lived in my head.  It turns out that almost all of it is non-factual.  Other than the terrible fact that there were student deaths.

That myth is dead.  From what I have read over the past three years, the story is far more complex than the story I was fed.  But it is still a tale of evil.

During the late 1960s, some Mexicans began challenging the one-party corporatist model of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).  They felt that the party was too "institutional" -- and not "revolutionary" enough.

That opposition was not well received by the then-president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz -- a man who believed that any disorder would bring back the internal strife of the Revolution.

Publishing houses were closed.  Striking doctors were strong-armed into settlements.  And in Morelia, a university was occupied by the army.  President Díaz Ordaz was convinced that outside foreign agitators were behind the unrest.

He feared one culprit more than other -- the dictator in Cuba.  It was no secret that Castro wanted to see his revolution spread through Latin America.  But in Díaz Ordaz's manichaeistic world, there was no difference between leftist opposition and Communist subversion.

The stage was set for disaster when the police over-reacted to a fight between two groups of high school students in July.  Four days later, an ill-fated event occurred.  A group of students protesting the police violence ran into a group of students commemorating the beginning of Fidel Castro's Communist revolution.  The two groups joined their demonstrations.

Díaz Ordaz responded by sending soldiers to occupy one of the offending high schools.  The university rector reacted by leading a demonstration of 50,000 into the city -- with cries for the people to unite.

By August, demonstrations of 100,000 were not unusual.  But, even the demands were less than radical: release of political prisoners, repeal of the penal code section that allowed random arrests, payments to people injured by the police, respect for the University's autonomy, dissolution of forces that had been "repressive," and the removal of two police chiefs.  After all, these were "sons of the Revolution."

That is how they saw themselves.  Díaz Ordaz saw them as a red menace.  And his fears were not completely baseless.  There were Communist influences among the students.  But the student leaders rejected calls for red revolution.  They were interested in reviving the spirit of the Mexican Revolution.

Díaz Ordaz was convinced that the students were trying to embarrass Mexico by demonstrating just as Mexico was to host the summer Olympics.  So, he struck with force on 28 August.  From both the police and the army.  Student demonstrators were cleared from public squares.  And the army occupied the University.  Students facing tanks.

The leaders of the student demonstration saw that they were beaten by force.  To continue demonstrations would only put lives at stake.

On 2 October, a group of student leaders called a meeting at the Plaza of Three Cultures (Aztec, colonial, and modern).  By the time the meeting began, the army had surrounded the plaza with tanks.  And young men with short haircuts and white gloves on their left hands mingled with the crowd of 5,000 to 10,000.

While the students were wrapping up their meeting, speaking from the third floor of an apartment building on the plaza, the men with the white gloves ran into the building and ordered the student leaders to drop to the floor.  Just then, two military helicopters flew over the assembled students -- and dropped flares.

What happened next is a bit confusing -- as such events are.  But we do know one thing.  Shots ran out from the upper floors of the apartment buildings -- and from the helicopters.  All directed at the students.

It turned out that the men with the white gloves were from the Battalion Olympia -- a special security force for the Olympics.  And they were also firing at the students.

Then, the army moved in and started firing, as well.  The plaza proved to be a perfect killing ground.  The access streets were blocked by tanks, and snipers in the surrounding buildings had no obstruction between themselves and the target students.  The operation would last for almost six hours -- including the arrest of thousands of students.

In the process, several soldiers, including the commander, were wounded.  Not surprisingly, since the soldiers had moved into the firing pit.  Of course, those injuries were the source of the news stories that the students had begun shooting first.

But that cover story could not extinguish the evidence that the assault had been planned by the government.  Electricity and telephone service was cut off.  The army prevented ambulances from entering the area.  The police and army prevented relatives from visiting their wounded family members in hospital.  Bodies were trucked away and burned.

It was the type of operation that would have been familiar in Cuba or Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.  So, the myth of the armed Communist students lived on in official accounts. 

Díaz Ordaz even felt free to embellish his memoirs with a fantastic tale.  The students had planned to seize the neighboring Ministry of Foreign Relations.  When the leaders arrived in four cars, they were all armed with machine guns.

In his attempt to justify his "show of force," he not only thought they were Communist gangsters, but they were extras in a James Cagney movie.

The number of people killed on that night of terror has never been determined.  At the time, the government had no interest in a formal inquiry.  After all, the president had prevented a Communist riot from seizing control of the government. 

The number does not matter; the individuals do.  What died that night was the belief that PRI was a conduit for reform.

A number of the former students are still involved in politics -- mainly of the hard Left variety.  But they are no longer "sons of the Revolution."  As they put it, they are broken men.

For them, their idealism died that night.  For Mexico, it was the start of the end for the one-state dictatorship of PRI.  To this day, political leaders are loath to show any force in the threat of public demonstrations -- no matter how disruptive the demonstrators are to the general public.

But, worst of all were the individuals who died and were tortured simply because they wanted to petition their government to address six simple grievances.

As I walked through the plaza today, I thought about them.  Other than a monolith, there is little to let the visitor know what really happened here.  But I found that to be true in Tienanmen Square and in Havana. 

Evil events do not impress themselves into the earth.  The plaza is just a place where students can play soccer and old men can reminisce about lost loves.

Benjamin Franklin may have said it best: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”  Mexico has taught me the value of those words.

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