Ironically, the current narrative regarding tensions between the U.S. and Mexico portrays the nations as continuous enemies. Much of this is myth. The truth of the holiday reveals that once upon a time, long, long ago, the U.S. stood by a neighbor to defend Mexico against a genuine enemy. These lessons are hidden behind the history of Cinco de Mayo, which reveals how political problems that existed in Mexico in the 1860s are similar to problems Donald Trump faces as a new President of the United States now.
In 1861, newly elected Benito Juarez, the first Native American elected president of Mexico (a definite outsider), faced a huge national debt left by the previous government controlled by the Mexican nobility, faced hostility from the nation’s elitist politicians, and confronted an internally organized attempt from the political aristocracy to destroy Juarez. Such a time seems to run parallel to what is currently happening in the U.S. In 2016, Donald Trump was the outsider, and all the political elitists (the conservatives, traditionalists, liberals, and leftists) want to destroy him. Even the drama of a foreign “enemy at the gates” exists today. Currently, deep political divisions have opened seemingly gaping caverns between the major political parties, but the genuine enemy of America is not the current President.
The truth in the history preceding Cinco de Mayo, in the period known as “La Reforma,” there existed even deeper, divisions within Mexico, and the genuine enemy was not the man elected President. Mexico in the middle of the nineteenth century had been torn by civil strife for decades, and the effort at reform within the nation focused on obtaining freedom from an elitist, entrenched nobility. Mexico 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 that had been dominated by “La Reforma” came to a climax when democratic-minded liberals took control of the government in 1860, by electing Juarez, a genuine representative of the people. With the Juarez victory, hopes were high that a more modern Mexican civil society could be realized using the U.S. as a model for a stronger, more “capitalistic-oriented” economy. However, to the contrary, the Mexican nobility did not share such sentiment. They felt desperate when Juarez was elected.
The majority of the Mexican nobility saw their control over Mexico coming to an end. The aristocracy refused to accept the election of Juarez, and attempted to reverse it. Some went so far as to let it be known to representatives of Napoleon III that a French dominion over their nation would permit them to recover political power and to re-assert control over the Mexican people. Hope that had been 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.
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 previously the Mexican government under the nobles had incurred during their war against the people. Soon after Benito Juarez was elected in March of 1861, he discovered the true economic peril facing his country, which was around the same time Abraham Lincoln discovered missing funds in the U.S. Treasury due to purposeful misallocation of funds in Democrat James Buchanan’s administration.Juarez had discovered that the Mexican elitist government had desperately borrowed large sums of money from the three colonial “superpowers” in Europe. 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 reached Veracruz on December 8th. The Spanish 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. 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 parked in the Gulf of Mexico and troops remained on alert.
The French army had been sent across the Atlantic to ostensibly to collect a debt owed to France, and the action initially appeared as a concerted effort of three European nations, yet orchestrated by Napoleon III. The French emperor had also cleverly decided to utilize the crisis to establish a French empire in Mexico, and that is what he did.
The first battle between the Mexican and the French was fought at the village of Puebla, on May 5, 1862, and resulted in a rout of the superior French force. This was where the legends of Cinco de Mayo originated as the French army had outnumbered the Mexicans by a margin of approximately 2:1. Yet, the Mexican victory proved to be short-lived—a temporary setback for the French. This initial Mexican victory became a thorn in the side of 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, and on May 17, the Mexican army surrendered.
President Juarez, with his cabinet, fled the capital to the city of El Paso del Norte, which is now known as Ciudad Juarez. Here, President Juarez persisted with a government-in-exile. By June of 1863, the French and the Mexican nobility regained control of Mexico City. 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 transformed Mexico into a French colony.
This sordid history demonstrates a betrayal of a nation by political elitists who were more concerned about retaining their own power and status—even 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, U.S. President Andrew Johnson dispatched General 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. The U.S. invoked the Monroe Doctrine in February 1866, and then 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 leave as well. Finally, it was over. 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 by a contemporary focus on the enmity between the U.S. and Mexico by progressive-revisionist historians. It is not unrealistic to think that the true history behind Cinco De Mayo could serve as a foundation for a better future for friendship, which could lead to a more economically sound relationship between the two nations.