Former U.S. President James Polk. Photo: history.com

By RICARDO CASTILLO

This is yet another article about the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, but to make sense of the matter, let me start somewhere else.

Once the U.S. star spangled banner was flying over the National Palace in Mexico City — back on Sept 13, 1847, to be exact – then-U.S. President James Polk was asked, with the new conquest of Mexico completed, why not take over the rest of the region, Central America included.

Polk, in what some historians consider a historical blunder, said no. Those were the days of the Indian wars in the Mexican northern territories (from Texas to California), and no matter what Hollywood and John Wayne have said in the glories of western movies, the native land owners had taught “the great white fathers” up in Washington that these peoples would go down fighting. Now legendary Geronimo was the last example of the braves fighting for their invaded and stolen land.

In any case, Polk declined the offer made by the conquering General Winnfield Scott with one single, but very wise, sentence, referring in particular to southern Mexico, known by anthropologists as Meso-America: “There are too many Indians.” In Polk’s mind, numbers did count.

The 1847, the invasion of Mexico did not come cheap for the U.S. Army. If you doubt it, go visit the little-known Mexico City American Cemetery, which still houses the remains of the 1,100 U.S, troops killed in the Mexico City invasion (or, as Mexicans now diplomatically call it, “intervention”).

In 1859, Mexico and the United States came up with the McClane-Ocampo Treaty to let U.S. troops cross at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, but the agreement was shot down by the then-Democratic U.S. Congress, before the nation got into the Civil War imbroglio. Southern leader Jefferson Davies did not like the McClane-Ocampo accord because he had other ideas, such as literally conquering Mexico and enslaving its indigenous people. That would have been a turn of events in continental American and even world history.

If you look at a map, definitely the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is the narrowest part of the North American side of the continent. It is 200 kilometers wide (130 miles) with 1.2 million inhabitants in between the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico seas. Nevertheless, out of those 1.2 million, 80 percent live on the Veracruz state side of the Isthmus, in oil rich cities like Coatzacoalcos and Acayucan.

In the state of Oaxaca, the population is mostly Zapotec (Binizaa, in the native tongue) particularly along the Pacific coast cities of deep sea port Salina Cruz and colorful Juchitán. There are small enclaves of people from other ethnic groups such as Zoques and Huave, most of whom speak in different dialects.

By the way, unlike what it seems, the isthmus between the oceans runs from south to north – and not east to west – as does the rest of Mexico.

Nevertheless, the Oaxaca side of the Isthmus is the largest physical part and also the least populated. The great majority of the local inhabitants are native Indians who are now feeling that the rapid four-track cargo train currently under construction might just be like the old slow rickety one, something to watch go by without ever getting on the industrial wagon that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) wants it to be.

Surely the times are ripe for the Isthmus corridor to take advantage of modern cargo tech, spearheaded by the advent of standardized containers that are the trademark of today’s merchandizing logistics.

At present, AMLO has hired Singapore development company Surbana Jurong to outline a development master plan for the Inter Oceanic Corridor between Salina Cruz and Coatzacoalcos. Their results are anxiously being  awaited. Singapore was selected because it’s an island and port linkage is part of its daily bread.

But let me go back to the beginning of the article. What’s the problem with AMLO’s master plan, which, by the way, links up perfectly to the Yucatan Peninsular Maya Train as the old railroad is part of the same rail network?

AMLO’s problem is – as Polk put it – “too many Indians.”

The real underlying problem is not merely in terms of the number of occupants, but cultural. And never mind that they are of diverse ethnic roots, but the forever-forgotten nature of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec of being integrated into the rest of the nation’s industrial development. The largest part of the land is agricultural and the indigenous communities – God bless them – have lived off tilling the soil for centuries. Translating harvesting into industrial lingo is at the crux of the dilemma.

In short, the people’s mentality for a developing train is just not there, and in the eyes of this beholder, this should be the beginning of conversion, not the end.

There are now small groups of opponents to the corridor with one common denominator: Either they do not understand what it is about or have no vision of all of the side businesses that they could develop from being next to a railroad, which means merchandise in transit.

Of course, the answer lies in developing small in-bond assembly plants and redistribution outlets that – in terms of logistics – break bulk and make bulk to ship again – or containerized cargo that needs to be downsized. These are specialties of the trade, but, can you teach this specialty business scheme to a tiller of the land? Obviously not.

The real beginning of the pompously called Inter Oceanic Corridor should be through education and industrial training. But in Mexico, administration after administration (AMLO’s is not the first one in Tehuantepec) continue to do things without taking consideration the total lack of value added worth a community could supply – if they only knew how!

 

 

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