Cinco de Mayo

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(Host) Commentator Allen Gilbert looks at the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo for a history lesson about military invasions by foreign countries.

(Gilbert) Last week was the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo, the fifth of May. It marks the victory of Mexican forces over an invading French army at the battle of Puebla in 1862. The French had sent an army to Mexico to collect on a debt. The mission was wrapped in the flag of national honor. The French were joined by England and Spain, who were also owed money.

England and Spain collected the small sums that they were owed, and left. But the French stayed. They had bigger plans. They marched inland from Veracruz towards Mexico City to depose the Mexican government and take over the country. The Mexicans stopped them at Puebla, about 125 miles inland. The Mexican victory was short-lived, however. The French regrouped and continued their march towards the capital, which they seized the following year. The French would stay in Mexico for three more years, installing the Austrian archduke Maximilian as emperor to run the country.

The extended occupation showed that France had reasons other than collecting on bad debts, or national honor, when it invaded Mexico. The French ruler of the time, Napoleon III, had grand designs of reconquering territory that had once belonged to European countries. America’s preoccupation with its own civil war kept the Monroe Doctrine at bay.

But there was even more on Napoleon’s mind. Napoleon had close ties with French businessmen, and they convinced him that money could be made in a Mexican war. Napoleon’s family invested in some of their schemes. Besides repayment of the outstanding Mexican bonds, which sold at a deep discount prior to the invasion, money could be made selling provisions to the army. And once various development projects began in Mexico, French companies could profit from the work.

And then there was the chance of exploiting Mexico’s natural resources, most importantly its gold and silver. Much of Spain’s New World wealth had come from Mexico. Speculators and investors believed that the Mexican mountains held more riches. The French wanted to find these riches, and to use cheap Mexican labor to work the mines.

France’s grand design eventually collapsed. The end of the American Civil War in 1865 left France facing a huge standing army to the north. And Mexican guerrilla activities pushed French military losses to levels that the French public could not accept.

The French withdrew from Mexico in 1866. Napoleon himself was eventually forced from office, partly because of the turmoil created by his Mexican invasion.

While Napoleon may have lost his crown, others in France gained from the invasion. War brought profits to many businessmen and investors.

History is replete with invasions that start on a premise that later turns out to be shaky, diversionary, or false. I wonder if those who promoted our current war with Iraq are familiar with the history of Cinco de Mayo. It is a cautionary, and illustrative, tale.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a writer and parent. He is executive director of a statewide civil liberties organization.

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