Benito Juarez

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HOST) Commentator Allen Gilbert remembers the man Mexicans consider the father of their country: Benito Juarez.

(GILBERT) Last year the Burlington Free Press asked several prominent Vermonters whom they considered heroes. The list was interesting, it ranged from John F. Kennedy to Nelson Mandela, and from Muhammad Ali to Ethan Allen.

I’d like to nominate someone else. And it’s an appropriate nomination for today, because March 21st is my hero’s birthday, and it’s a national holiday in Mexico.

Benito Juarez was a pure-bred Zapotec Indian born in a mountain village outside Oaxaca. He rose from biblical-like humbleness – he was even a shepherd as a child — to champion individual rights and become president of his country.

Juarez was orphaned at a young age. He went to Oaxaca, where he found a position with a book-binder. Juarez learned to read, was sent to school by his employer, and eventually studied the law. He was elected a representative to the national assembly.

Mexico was a political mess at the time. It had won independence from Spain, but that didn’t guarantee smooth sailing to prosperity and a just society. The government careened from emperors to military dictators to church-state alliances to democratically elected presidents. The country faced many threats. The United States wanted more Mexican land. European countries wanted old debts repaid.

Juarez was part of a liberal government that swept into power in 1855. Reforms to benefit the poor were undertaken. Large estates were broken up. Church properties were expropriated – a major move, since the Catholic Church owned about one-quarter of all Mexican property. And Juarez refused to pay off some bonds issued by a previous government that he deemed illegitimate. That won the ire of Europeans, most notably the French. The French sent an army to collect the debt, and went on to occupy the entire country for five years. Juarez, who had become president, was forced out of office. The French replaced him with a puppet government under the Austrian archduke, Maximilian.

Juarez fought back. He lived out of a coach and wagon, often just a few miles ahead of French troops. Eventually the French army chased him to the Rio Grande, where he holed up in the town of El Paso del Norte, ready to cross to safety in the U.S. if necessary.

The Mexican occupation was costly, however, and the French public tired of the expense. The Americans, with the Civil War over, once again warned Europeans that the Monroe Doctrine meant, “Keep out.” The French army left Mexico. Maximilian remained behind but was soon caught and executed. Juarez returned to power and went on to lay the groundwork for a truly independent and vibrant Mexico. He died of exhaustion in 1872.

Juarez’s devotion to the Indian masses of his country, and his fierce determination to throw out the French occupiers, won him the respect and love of his countrymen. Go ahead and toast Mexico with a beer on the more traditional fifth of May holiday. But this week, remember a man who stood on principle and fought for a just society. He’s a hero for any place and any age.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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