On May 4, 2009, President Obama greeted the Mexican Ambassador and others to the White House, saying “Welcome to Cinco de Quatro . . .”
Now, Cinco de Mayo is the holiday that celebrates the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Cinco de Quatro, on the other hand, means the something like “the Fifth of Four,” or maybe “Five from Four.” President Obama, with his usual aplomb, quickly corrected himself amidst friendly laughter and gave a nice speech that was very well received. Here it is.
That speech has given me the courage to write this piece. Should I make a fool of myself by stretching my limited knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history to the breaking point, it comforts me to know that I am not speaking on camera to Mexican dignitaries at the White House.
For much of the past 200 or so years, the hands of the Mexican presidents have been only loosely restrained by courts, elections, legislatures, constitutions, and laws.
This essay will begin with three colorful anecdotes that illustrate Latin American-style authoritarianism generally, and then survey the origins and history of Mexico’s presidency in particular. Next will come a biographical sketch of Jorge Ramos, the newly famous Univision news anchor. The recent decision by President Obama to expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) is then examined with an emphasis on Mr. Ramos’ contribution to that decision. In conclusion, a modest proposal is made. It is hoped that this admittedly odd juxtapositioning will provide a vantage point from which we can gain a fresh perspective on the president’s historic initiative about immigration.
That Latin American heads of government have tended to be relatively more authoritarian than American presidents is not news. Where to start? Pinochet? Perón? Samoza? Batista? Trujillo? There are so many. I know, let’s start with Esposito.
In his 1971 film Bananas, Woody Allen imagines a revolution in San Marcos, a fictitious Central American country. Esposito, the leader of the guerillas, played by Jacobo Morales, gives a victory speech from a balcony in the capital square, saying, “All citizens will be required to change their underwear every half hour! Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check!” The movie is a comedy. Here's the clip.
I read somewhere that Mr. Allen is not proud of his early work.
In February 2010, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela strode into a square in downtown Caracas with his entourage, the city’s mayor, and a TV crew. Standing in the square, he pointed to a building, asked a few questions about it, and then summarily ordered the building to be expropriated by the state. He did this over and over, with lots of buildings. He wasn’t kidding. This version is captioned in English.
Now, you tell me: Who was funnier, Esposito or Chavez?
Latin American authoritarianism is more subtly on display in the marvelous ESPN documentary, “Brothers in Exile.” It is the story of two Cuban baseball players who defected to the United States. In 1997, one of them, Orlando “El Duque” Hernández, fled the country in a small fishing boat, leaving his family behind. In 1998, John Cardinal O’Connor sent a lay emissary, Mario Paredes, to Cuban President Fidel Castro with a letter requesting that Hernández’s family be allowed to join him in the US. When Paredes entered the president’s office, Castro was watching Hernandez help the Yankees win the World Series. Upon reading the letter, Castro told the emissary that Orlando was, “a good muchacho; one of the glories of Cuba.” Castro allowed the family to fly with Paredes to New Jersey the same day. Meanwhile, Mr. Juan Hernández Nodar, a Cuban-American baseball scout, was left to languish in a hellish Cuban prison for the remaining 11 years of his 13 year sentence for the heinous crime of unsuccessfully attempting to recruit “El Duque” in Cuba two years before. Nodar's story is worth reading.
Fidel Castro is affectionately known as “El Commandante.”
As the focus now narrows to Mexico, the question arises: What stirs this authoritarian impulse?
The pre-Columbian empires and societies of Mexico, it has been said, did little to prepare their people for participatory democracy, as they were less interested in human rights than human sacrifices.
The Spanish monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church, some point out, weren’t fond of the notion of “the separation of powers.” They preferred the “top-down” model of governance.
It is also unlikely that the centuries-long Moorish occupation of Spain, the grueling Reconquista, and the Spanish Inquisition did much to create sympathy for the tradition of the “loyal opposition” or to enhance the practice of compromise in the governance of colonial or post-colonial Mexico.
The conquistadores and caudillos, others say, cared little for systems that included any significant “check” on their authority. The only real “balance” in the system was the usurper waiting in the wings. (The most frequent “balancer” might have been Antonio López de Santa Anna, the eleven-time President of Mexico. Yes, eleven.)
In Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto suggests that the “more or less continuous democratic development, constitutional propriety, and rule of law” in the US was possible because its revolution was fought before the Napoleonic Wars. The continuing “incapacitated political chaos” of Latin America he attributes, at least in part, to its revolutions being fought after “the French Revolution had dissolved the Enlightenment in blood and sanctified crimes committed in liberty’s name.” He may be right. It is certainly true that Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the same year that Napoleon died.
The theories that seek to explain the tendency toward authoritarianism are many, complex, and sometimes contradictory, but this much is clear: whether Left or Right, military or civilian, whether the result of a coup, an election, or a revolution, the government of Mexico has generally sported a robust executive branch and spindly and dependent legislative and judicial branches. There have been exceptions, of course, here and there, now and then, and things are changing, some say for the better, but the generalization stands: for much of the past 200 or so years, the hands of the Mexican presidents have been only loosely restrained by courts, elections, legislatures, constitutions, and laws.
While Mexican presidents may no longer have “near-monarchical powers,” the current one is still struggling to create a real constitutional democracy.
Enrique Krause’s book, Mexico, Biography of Power: A History of Modern Mexico 1810–1996, tells the life stories of the leaders of Mexico from the War of Independence until 1996. He conceptualizes the history of Mexico as the struggle to achieve a true democracy in a country where, as the title suggests, the presidents have wielded enormous arbitrary power and, as a result, have had disproportionate personal influence on the uneven evolution of Mexican society. Much of the book details the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa in 1990 called “the perfect dictatorship.” Krause details endemic corruption, pervasive nepotism, massive expropriations, suicides, assassinations, mass atrocities, and elections rigged with live fire. He gives praise where he thinks it due but does not pull his punches in criticizing those who have thwarted the establishment of a real constitutional democracy.
To be fair, Krause’s book was published in 1997, and thus does not include the end of the PRI’s long run in 2000, when the National Action Party (PAN) won the presidency, nor the subsequent reelection of the PRI’s candidate in 2012. Fortunately, in an opinion piece in the December 11, 2014, New York Times, Krause updated his view of the presidency of Mexico:
The long rule of the PRI became a source of corruption that led, in the final decades of the 20th century, to the enrichment of politicians with ties to major drug traffickers. Many of us believed that all this would disappear with the advent of democracy in 2000, when the PRI fell from power after 71 years. We were wrong. The sudden limitations put on the near-monarchical powers of the president had the positive effect of liberating legal local powers (governors and mayors), but it also gave new strength to illegal local powers (drug traffickers and organized crime operatives), who recognized and utilized the weakness of control within the new democratic state to expand their national influence.
So, it seems that while Mexican presidents may no longer have “near-monarchical powers,” the current one is still struggling to create a real constitutional democracy.
Even the most patient reader must now be asking what in the world all of this has to do with what whitehouse.gov calls “the President’s Immigration Accountability Executive Actions.” Bear with me.
Who is Jorge Ramos?
Jorge Ramos was born in Mexico City in 1958. Tim Padgett, writing in Time (Aug. 22, 2005), explains that “as a 24-year-old reporter in Mexico City, Jorge Ramos felt choked by more than just the capital's notorious smog. Tired of censorship from Mexico's then ruling party, the PRI, Ramos bolted for Los Angeles in 1983.” Ramos himself said in his Nov. 26, 2014, speech accepting the Benjamin Burton Memorial Award, “I came to the U.S. after they tried to censor me in Mexico.” Hispanic Culture Online confirms that when he was a young reporter for Televisa in Mexico City, his stories were often censored to placate the PRI. By 1984 he had found work as a cub reporter for KMEX-TV in Los Angeles, an affiliate of the Spanish-language network, Univision.
Now based in Miami, Jorge Ramos has been the anchor for Univision since 1986 and is the most influential Spanish-language journalist in the country. It could even be argued that he is the most influential journalist, period, given that his English-only competition is fragmented and preoccupied with chasing ratings. After all, 17% of Americans are of Hispanic origin.
In political matters, Ramos does not pretend to be neutral. As he said in the acceptance speech, “When we deal with the powerful, we have to take a stand. Yes, we have to take an ethical decision and side with those who have no power.” In the December 1 issue of Time, reporter Michael Scherer writes that Ramos “is not just a newscaster, but an advocate and an agitator” More specifically, he is a leader of Hispanics in the US, especially the undocumented. As Ramos told Scherer, “Now, with the new numbers, we are being seen. Our voice is being heard.”
Again: who is Jorge Ramos? Here’s a composite portrait: one part Jesse Jackson, spokesman and advocate for an aggrieved minority. One part Sam Donaldson, whose tenacious questioning style annoyed many presidents. Maybe one part Zorro, the mythological figure who championed poor Californios in their struggle against Spanish tyranny. And perhaps a dash of Emiliano Zapata, the hero of the campesinos in their quest to recover their land, and even a bit of Miguel Hidalgo, the Mexican creole priest who first raised the banner of rebellion against Spain. Oh, and more than a little bit of César Chávez. In a sense, one could say that Jorge Ramos is an archetypal Mexican hero.
A president who has the power to singlehandedly change one law has the power to singlehandedly change another law, and then another.
When he interviews, he easily can be imagined as a matador, poised gracefully, awaiting the charge of the bull, his sword concealed in his muleta, his small red cape, ready to deliver the estocada, the death blow. For example, Padgett relates how Jorge Ramos once asked Fidel Castro if he ever planned to have real elections. Castro’s bodyguard slugged Ramos. Really.
The transcript and video of his acceptance speech at the Press Freedom Awards is here.
On May 28, 2008, in Denver, presidential candidate Barack Obama said this to Mr. Ramos: “What I can guarantee is that we will have in the first year an immigration bill that I strongly support and that I’m promoting. And I want to move that forward as quickly as possible.”
On September 20, 2012, in Miami, a disappointed Mr. Ramos pressed Mr. Obama, “At the beginning of your governing, you had control of both chambers of Congress, and yet you did not introduce immigration reform. And before I continue, I want for you to acknowledge that you did not keep your promise.”
Ramos was undeterred by the president’s lengthy and somewhat unresponsive answer: “It was a promise, Mr. President. And I don't want to — because this is very important, I don’t want to get you off the explanation. You promised that. And a promise is a promise. And with all due respect, you didn’t keep that promise.”
The Congress did not change the law. The Supreme Court did not rule the existing law unconstitutional. Using the undersized fig leaf of “prosecutorial discretion,” President Obama himself changed the law.
Well. Let’s split a few hairs. Between those two interviews there was a global financial crisis and the start of what some have called the Great Recession. Dealing with those problems and the Affordable Care Act, the president had what might be called a full plate. Sure, the healthcare law was a choice but, in the end, the fact that there was no immigration bill that he could promote or support is really not so surprising.
It is the president’s answer to Ramos’ “broken promise” charge that is of greatest interest:
There’s the thinking that the President is somebody who is all powerful and can get everything done. In our branch of — in our system of government, I am the head of the executive branch. I’m not the head of the legislature; I’m not the head of the judiciary. We have to have cooperation from all these sources in order to get something done.
The quoted passages from the two interviews are in this video; the transcripts are from politifacts and whitehouse.gov.
The president’s response to the immigration question was unremarkable. There’s nothing in it that every high school Civics student isn’t taught. (But is Civics still taught?) He’d said it many times before and would say it many times more. In fact, on Nov. 19, 2014, Matt Wolking, a spokesman for John Boehner, compiled a chronological list of 22 quotations in which Barack Obama states that he does not have the power to reform the immigration laws on his own. Reading them is a bit like watching those old time-lapse photography sequences. At first, in 2008, like the constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago that he once was (OK, Senior Lecturer), he criticizes his predecessor for going outside the boundaries of the powers given to the president in the constitution. (“That’s what I intend to reverse when I’m president.”) Then, you can hear the frustration with Congress grow. (“I’m not a king.” “I’m not an emperor.”) The list is here. It’s worth the read.
And then, on Nov. 20, 2014, Obama expanded his constitutionally questionable DACA program to include parents, thereby deferring the deportation of up to 5 million illegal immigrants.
The Congress did not change the law. The Supreme Court did not rule the existing law unconstitutional. Using the undersized fig leaf of “prosecutorial discretion,” President Obama himself changed the law. And on Nov. 25, 2014, he said exactly that to a heckler urging him to stop all deportations. Watch.
It is said that the president “misspoke.”
It is possible that the president had concluded months earlier that he had the power to change laws unilaterally. Here he is walking with French President François Hollande in February 2014. If you listen carefully, you will hear Obama say, “That’s the good thing about being the President: I can do whatever I want.” Listen.
This comment is sometimes called a “quip” — you know, like the time Louis XIV quipped, “I am the state.” Or when Mel Brooks quipped, “It’s good to be the king.”
Mexico is present within the life of the United States and it will be so more and more through the years to come. By coming to know Mexico, North Americans can learn to understand an unacknowledged part of themselves.” — Octavio Paz, 1990 Nobel Laureate in Literature, from the dust jacket of Mexico: Biography of Power, by Enrique Krauze
A young journalist flees a land with an authoritarian presidency that censors his work to go to land that has a Constitution that actually protects his freedom of speech. He then uses that freedom to badger the president of his new home into overreaching his constitutional limits. He encourages the president to singlehandedly change a law that applies to millions of people. That the law needs changing is not the point. And it is not the fault of the now middle-aged journalist that the president succumbs to the goading. The journalist should know, however, that he has, perhaps inadvertently, even innocently, nudged the presidency of his new home in the direction of the authoritarian presidency of the land he once fled. A president who has the power to singlehandedly change one law, you see, has the power to singlehandedly change another law, and then another. Who knows? He may even change the laws governing censorship.
President Obama stood firm when public opinion and electoral results were against him to make these changes, essentially with his own two bare hands.
In 1998, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison crowned Bill Clinton “The First Black President.” It’s sadly ironic that President Obama has disappointed so many African-Americans. The hope for change that filled them has largely faded. Poverty rates, home ownership, household incomes, and net worth have not improved during his first six years. Here are the sad facts.
On the other hand, President Obama did deliver real changes for undocumented immigrants, most of whom, like Mr. Ramos, came to the US from Mexico. President Obama stood firm when public opinion and electoral results were against him to make these changes, essentially with his own two bare hands.
In recognition of the good he has done for these immigrants and because he did it in a way that approximates the “near-monarchical powers” of the presidents of the PRI party in its heyday, it is hereby proposed that Barack Obama be crowned “The First Mexican President.”
Outtake: An interesting passage from the badgering Fusion / Univision interview of Barack Obama by Jorge Ramos, Nashville, on Tuesday, December 9:
RAMOS: But if you — as you were saying, you always had the legal authority to stop deportations, then why did you deport two million people?
POTUS: Jorge, we’re not going to—
RAMOS: For six years you did it.
POTUS: No. Listen, Jorge—
RAMOS: You destroyed many families. They called you deporter-in-chief.
POTUS: You called me deporter-in-chief.
RAMOS: It was Janet Murguia from La Raza.
POTUS: Yeah, but let me say this, Jorge—
RAMOS: Well, you could have stopped deportations.
POTUS: No, no, no.
RAMOS: That’s the whole idea.
POTUS: That is not true. Listen, here’s the fact of the matter.
RAMOS: You could have stopped them.