There is actually more to the holiday of Cinco de Mayo than great tacos or lively music; there are lessons to be learned hidden within the history of this holiday, which provide deeper understanding of a very perilous time in the Americas. Today Cinco de Mayo has taken on a more political significance in light of Donald Trump’s campaign promises, and his challenge as the President of the United States to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. It was one major campaign theme that helped Trump to capture the attention of the American people, as well as the votes that got him elected. Yet, once upon a time, long, long ago, the U.S. stood by Mexico to defend the nation against a genuine enemy.
Ironically, the reason that there is a Cinco de Mayo holiday was partly due to problems that confronted a newly elected Mexican president, Benito Juarez, are similar to problems that Donald Trump faces as a new president of the United States. In the middle of the 19th century, economic woes led to Mexico’s struggle for survival against a full-scale French invasion. In 1861, newly elected Benito Juarez, the first Native American elected president of Mexico (a definite outsider), faced a huge national debt left by a previous government, faced hostility from the nation’s elitist politicians, and confronted an internally organized attempt from former government officials to destroy the administration of the legally elected Juarez, a genuine representative of the people.
Although many Americans believe Cinco de Mayo, like the Fourth of July in the U.S., is an independence day, it is not. The holiday honoring Mexican Independence Day is actually in September for independence from Spain in the 1820s. Cinco de Mayo is the celebration of the short-lived victory of the Mexicans over French invaders in 1862. It came at a terrible time for Mexico, as the country had been weakened due to the Mexican Civil War of 1858, and due to the internal “reform wars” between ‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative’ (the aristocracy) factions.
This period of Mexican history had been dominated by “La Reforma,” which came to a climax when democratic-minded liberals took control of the government in 1860 with the election of Juarez. And with the Juarez victory, hopes were quite high that a more modern Mexican civil society could be realized using the United States as a model for a stronger, more capitalistic-oriented economy. Unfortunately, the Mexican nobility, or the entrenched aristocracy, did not share such sentiment. They felt desperate when Juarez was elected.
The Mexican nobility saw their control over Mexico coming to an end, and the majority of this Mexican aristocracy refused to accept the popular election of Juarez, and attempted to reverse tt. Some of the aristocracy went so far as to meet with representatives of Napoleon III to invite the French to invade and take over their nation in order to recover political power and to re-assert control over the Mexican people. Hope generated through the Juarez political victory was smashed as the hatred the Mexican aristocracy harbored against the common people led to the nightmare that exploded the internal divisions and resentments permitting a French invasion and takeover of Mexico, and the nation’s regression to its previous tyrannical state.
Napoleon III was more than happy to help Mexico return to the system that had been established under the old Spanish monarchs that had lasted for 300 years - only under a French orchestrated dominion. The excuse Napoleon III used to invade Mexico involved the debt that the previous Mexican government incurred during the suppression of the people. Soon after Benito Juarez was elected in March of 1861, he discovered the true economic peril facing his country. This was around the same time Abraham Lincoln was discovering the lack of funds in the U.S, Treasury due to the manipulation of the Buchanan administration.
Juarez had discovered that as a result of the civil war, the Mexican elitist government had desperately borrowed large sums of money from the three colonial “superpowers” in Europe. There was no money, and after serious deliberation over his options, on July 17, 1861, Juarez issued a moratorium to suspend all foreign debt payments for a period of two years. The announcement of a debt moratorium was a grave mistake, as is the case when those indebted think they can bypass terms of their financial contracts. On October 31, 1861, representatives of the governments of France, Great Britain and Spain met in London, and signed a tripartite agreement to intervene in Mexico to recover the unpaid debts.
Warships were dispatched across the Atlantic, and the ships reached Veracruz on the 8th of December. The combined military force seized control of the custom house, and the obvious intent of the troika was to stay until they collected on their respective outstanding loans. However, Juarez sent representatives to Veracruz to renegotiate the debt, which Britain and Spain were willing to do, and their troops got in their ships and sailed back to Europe.
After Spanish and British forces withdrew; the real plans of Napoleon III unfolded as French ships remained anchored in the Gulf of Mexico, and troops remained on alert. The French army had been sent across the Atlantic to ostensibly collect a debt owed to France, and the action initially appeared as a concerted effort of three European governments that had been orchestrated by Napoleon III. The collection of an outstanding debt, the French emperor had also cleverly decided to utilize the crisis to establish a French empire in Mexico, and that is what he did.
Mexican officials would not have been able to reach any satisfactory agreement due to the subversive plans of Napoleon III, and it became apparent that the emperor was interested more in French global ambitions, much like his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte.
The first battle of between the Mexican and the French occurred at the village of Puebla, on May 5, 1862, and resulted in a rout of the superior French force. This surprised the French because their army had outnumbered the Mexicans by a margin of approximately 2:1. Yet, it proved to be a short- lived victory—a temporary setback for the French. This initial Mexican victory became a thorn in the side of the Napoleon III because it delayed his plans. The following year, however, the French emperor simply sent reinforcements.
In 1863 with 30,000 troops, the French fought the second battle of Puebla. On May 17, the Mexican army surrendered, and by May 31 President Juarez was forced to flee the capital with his cabinet to the city of El Paso del Norte, which is now known as Ciudad Juarez. Here President Juarez persisted with his government-in-exile. By June of 1863, the French and the Mexican elite regained control of Mexico City and central Mexico. On April 20, 1864, the Mexican congress, members of the Mexican aristocracy and the occupying French forces installed Maximilian as Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, and essentially made Mexico a French colony.
This sordid history demonstrates a betrayal of a nation by elitists who were more concerned about retaining their own power - even in selling out their own country to foreign interests. The Mexican aristocracy had been more concerned with their status and position as the ruling elite that they employed such treasonous measures. Yet, despite all of the best laid plans of the conspirators, the U.S. was victorious over the Confederate States of America, and President Andrew Johnson dispatched Gen. Philip Sheridan with 50,000 troops to patrol the U.S. border with Mexico, and to aid in providing weapons to Juarez’s rebel forces.
President Andrew Johnson invoked the Monroe Doctrine in February 1866, and demanded that the French leave Mexico. At the same time, the U.S. Navy initiated a naval blockade in the Gulf of Mexico to intercept any possible French reinforcements attempting to enter Mexico. Eventually, Napoleon III decided to pull the French troops out and advised his puppet, Maximilian I, to vacate the premises as well. Finally, it was over.
The U.S. was pleased because the Lincoln Administration had never viewed the reign of Maximilian I as the true will of the Mexican people, and when Benito Juarez regained control of Mexico in 1867, the U.S. welcomed his return as the legitimate leader. Sadly, this old friendship has been buried as progressive-revisionist historians have focused on the enmity between the U.S. and Mexico, and bitterness ruins a potential powerful friendship today. Somewhere over the rainbow, Cinco De Mayo could serve as an opportunity to promote the friendship and the potential alliance between the two nations.
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member at West Valley College in California. He also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities Digital News.
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