The New Conquistadores

Mexico City.

When Christopher Columbus sailed out of the port of Huelva on Spain’s Atlantic coast in 1492, heading east towards the Mysterious Orient to conquer new markets for his king and queen, the business of his mission was business, and, after accidentally bumping into the New World en route, Columbus and his bosses did exactly what any average avaricious businessperson would do – they set up shop on American shores, stole the gold, slaughtered the Indians, and converted those who remained to the Spaniards’ brand of God.

By 1519, on the Good Friday morning that Hernan Cortez dropped anchor off Veracruz, that business had flourished into an empire. Cortez, a private entrepreneur, set out to conquer Mexico in a prototypical hostile takeover. His weapons were the Cross and the Cannon and the Plague, his horses, bristly beards, and clunky suits of armor – and the treachery of those native peoples who had grown disaffected with Aztec domination, and, in the end, he toppled Moctezuma’s dynasty, took over the franchise, and re-named the place, what else? New Spain.

500 years down history’s highway, the Conquistadores have returned to the New World. From Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego, the “Reconquista” is in full swing:

*Item – Repsol, the Spanish energy consortium, signs fat contracts with Argentina, battles Evo Morales for the right to exploit Bolivia’s immense natural gas deposits, and is in the mix to pick up a chunk of the about-to-be privatized Mexican giant, PEMEX.

*Item – “Shut up!” Spanish King Juan Carlos de Borbon imperially snaps at Hugo Chavez as if he were a “zambo” (black) servant at an Ibero-American summit last fall. The Ibero-American summits are instrumental to the Spanish Crown’s strategy to take its historical place as the principal overseas power in the Americas.

*Item – Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapotero offers to send troops to the borders of Colombia to defend President Alvaro Uribe, an important trading partner, against Chavez’s red hordes. “200 years later, the Conquistadores have returned to defend their investments,” Colombian novelist Laura Restrepo snorts, her nationalist hackles inflamed. “It’s ridiculous. Colombia is as dependent on Spanish investment as it was when Simon Bolivar rose against the Crown.”

Spanish “Gachupines” (spur wearers) are hated only slightly less than North American “gringos” in Latin America.

Here in Mexico City, the gleaming new Spanish Cultural Center towers between the ruins of the Aztecs’ “Templo Mayor” (Great Temple), which the Conquistadores once leveled, and the Metropolitan Cathedral, built up from the ruins of the temple to celebrate their Christian god. It’s almost as if the Spanish Crown never left New Spain.

The Spaniards landed on these shores in many waves. After the Conquistadores came the colonos who blended into the criollos – the Spanish born in America. Intermarrying with indigenous royalty as symbolized by Cortez and his consort Malinche, the Europeans and the Indians supposedly produced a “Cosmic Race” – but the divide yawns large between the tiny white “Spanish” overclass and the dusky Indian and mestizo masses.

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), Mexico’s then-“Bolshevik” president Lazaro Cardenas offered sanctuary to 50,000 Republican refugees. Although their grandparents arrived on these shores penniless, the scions of those refugees have become wealthy industrialists, lauded intellectuals, and fine restaurateurs – paella and fabada are on the menu every day in the better restaurants of this capital’s old quarter.

The “Re-Conquista” of Mexico has not come with the Cross and the Plague this time around – Zara, the high-end Spanish clothing line and deep pockets investment have proven more effective weapons of conquest. Spain is now the number two foreign investor in Mexico, right behind the U.S.A. and trade between the two countries has boomed from $1.5 billion USD ten years ago to over $6 billion last year.

Spanish banks – Santander and BBV (which owns Bancomer, Mexico’s second bank) now account for 40% of the Mexican banking business with 14,000,000 customers. Spanish corporations now run Mexico’s airports – the moment you touch down in Mexico, your security is provided for by the Madrid-based Eulen Corporation, which also provides security for the soon-to-be-privatized oil monopoly, PEMEX.

20 million Chilangos (Mexico City residents) ride Spanish subway cars to and from work every day. Mexicans could not cook without Gas Natural provided to their kitchens by the Spanish energy company that does business under that name. Nor could many locals turn on the lights without buying the wattage from three major Spanish electricity purveyors – Iberdrola, Union Fenosa, and Gas Natural – who control 70% of private electricity generation in Mexico, about a third of the total customers.

Spanish publishing kingpin Prisa dominates the Mexican textbook industry and is building a communications conglomerate that includes daily newspapers and a chain of radio stations. Spanish hoteliers like Sol Melia motor the tourist industry, having all but annexed the Mayan Rivera along the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo next door to Cancun. Spanish entrepreneurs control 127 hotels with a capacity of 50,000 rooms nightly. buys up the back covers of every glossy magazine on the rack. And, of course, Repsol is on tap to pick up a piece of PEMEX once that petroleum giant gets privatized.

On the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, Spanish solidarity with the rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation has been vital to keeping the Indians’ flame alive.

The re-conquest of Mexico was spurred by two-term Prime Minister Jose Marie Aznar, whose right-wing Popular Party replaced the post-Franco regime of Felipe Gonzalez in 1996. Early on in his reign, Aznar astutely struck an alliance with right-wing Mexican counterparts in the PAN party with the intention of reviving the Christian Democrat movement in Latin America as a personal powerbase. The Spanish Prime Minister found a perfect foil in ex-President Vicente Fox who now heads up the Christian Democrat directorate in the Americas – the PAN’s former party boss Manuel Espino is the secretary general of the ODCA (Organization of Christian Democrats of the Americas)

During the run-up to the hectic 2006 presidential election here, Aznar flew to Mexico to personally endorse Fox’s successor Felipe Calderon and condemn leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) in violation of Constitutional article 33 that bars intervention in Mexican politics by “extranjeros” (lit. “strangers” or foreigners.)

Since the Aznar government was displaced from power in the aftermath of the Madrid terrorist bombings in March 2004 by the so-called “Socialist Workers Party” (PSOE), the right-wing PP has pushed further right, embracing a troglodyte Catholic hierarchy, championing the “victims” of Basque separatists, attacking the wearing of the “hijab” in public schools, and lending credibility to a Falange-like “National Democracy” movement, a crypto-fascist, pro-Franco coalition of neo-Nazis that brought Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke to Barcelona last year. Now Aznar’s surrogate, Mariano Rajoy, is poised to return to power in March 8th elections when he takes on the weak-kneed Zapotero.

The Spanish Right, lineal descendants of Francisco Franco, is consolidating in their former colony across the Atlantic too. In January, dubiously-elected president Felipe Calderon appointed his young chief of staff, Juan Camilo Mourino, a Spanish citizen, as Secretary of Interior (“Gubernacion”), “the second most powerful position in Mexico” (dixit Mourino’s hometown newspaper in Vigo, Spain.) Interior is responsible for the conduct of politics in Mexico in addition to overseeing the justice and security apparatuses.

Juan Camilo, 35, a thin-lipped, beady-eyed young man whose pals call “Ivan El Fino” (“Ivan the Fine”) was born in Madrid in 1971 to a tycoon father with vast holdings in Galicia, a wealthy north Atlantic province, and a mother who claims to have been born in Mexico City although the family has yet to produce a birth certificate – the “Faro de Vigo” (“The Vigo Lighthouse”), that port’s daily, insists Mourino’s mama is a native of Avion, a Galician farm town.

The distinction is significant, at least to young Mourino’s political fortunes. The Mexican Constitution bars the holding of high office to anyone who cannot establish that at least one of his or her parents was born on Mexican soil.

Although Juan Camilo swore in as a Mexican citizen when he turned 18 in 1989, questions remain. In August 1996, “El Fino” used a Spanish passport to enter Mexico according to press reports – which automatically disqualifies him from Mexican citizenship, opines Dr. Elisur Arteaga, a leading constitutionalist lawyer. In order to become a Mexican citizen under Article 32 of the Constitution, one most renounce his or hers’ previous citizenship, observes National Autonomous University law professor John Ackerman. If, indeed, Mourino is not a citizen he must give up his Interior Ministry post and, once more, could not run for president to succeed Calderon in 2012 which many think is his ultimate destiny – the Interior Ministry is historically a springboard to the presidency.

The Mourino family emigrated from Galicia in 1978, not long after Franco was finally buried. Juan Camilo’s father – Carlos Mourino Andantes – is deeply invested in developing the Galician coastline and has long-standing ties with ultra-rightist Manuel Fraga, Franco’s one-time tourist minister, and the deposed boss of provincial politics.

In a recent interview with the Faro de Vigo, young Mourino compared himself to the thousands of “sons of Galicia” who have been forced to leave their homeland to find fortune across the seas. Defending his choice of Mexican citizenship, he told the paper “it is not just that I am naturalized by Mexico but I feel Mexican in the marrow of my bones.”

The Mourino fortune has blossomed on both sides of the Atlantic. In Campeche, the Yucatan peninsula state where the family set up housekeeping, the Mourino’s’ GES group (“Grupo Energetico de Sureste”) runs a string of 38 gasoline stations and has nailed lucrative transportation contracts from PEMEX. GES is now partnering with a Spanish group headed by the elder Mourino to open up the Mexican wind energy market (Iberdrola, the Spanish electricity powerhouse, runs a huge wind farm on the Oaxacan isthmus.)

Back in the old country, the Mourino family has controlling interest in Galicia’s top steelworks and has made a fresh fortune in prime real estate development but Carlos Mourino’s investment in the local soccer franchise, Celta de Vigo, has been troubled –
The team’s management is accused of illegally contracting players and scandal brews around land purchased for a new stadium site. In late January, Juan Camilo reportedly flew over to Vigo for a 24-hour visit to cheer on his beloved Celta but the team lost and was demoted to the second division.

To consolidate their political power, the New Conquistadores need the power of the press. Prisa, the media empire built by the late Jesus de Polanco, publisher of El Pais, Spain’s paper of record, and driven by its publishing arm Santillana, has taken on the task. Santillana publishes about 40% of all Mexican textbooks and 11 out of 40 basic primary school texts for the Secretary of Public Education (SEP) plus ten top non-academic imprints.

Some commentators like Julio Hernandez, dean of political columnists for the left daily La Jornada, speculate that El Pais’s poison-pen, anti-Lopez Obrador tilt in the disputed 2006 election was inspired by Santillana’s expectations of expanded SEP contracts if Calderon was awarded the presidency.

Prisa’s support for Calderon is emblematic of the way the Spaniards do business in new Latin American markets, ventures Proceso magazine media writer Jenaro Villamil – accommodate those in charge regardless of their political vision. Business is business.

On the newspaper side, Prisa publishes a daily Mexican edition of El Pais which doesn’t sell nearly as many copies as the conglom’s other venture, “La Prensa”, a blood smeared scandal sheet in which the gachupines hold a 49% interest and is the biggest selling paper in the country. El Pais also publishes newspapers further south and has a controlling interest in Bolivia’s “La Razon” which that nation’s ambassador to Mexico, Jorge Mansilla, accuses of backing secessionist states in the Andean country’s current constitutional head to head.

Prisa also partners with mega-communication corporation Televisa in an international chain of radio stations that includes Radio Caracol in Colombia and outlets in Venezuela, Panama, Argentina, and Miami. In Mexico, the Prisa-Televisa station is the “W”, Televisa Radio’s bedraggled flagship station. Six years ago, when Carmen Aristegui, a fresh-faced and fearless reporter, signed on and turned the 6 Am to 10 AM slot into the most listened-to news broadcast on Mexican radio, the W’s fortunes began to soar.

But Aristegui transgressed during the 2006 electoral donnybrook, when she exposed cybernetic fraud engineered by Calderon’s brother-in-law – Aristegui was the only mainstream media voice to question the election’s legitimacy and often gave Lopez Obrador a platform. But her greatest sin was to diss the so-called “Televisa Law” that gave the TV monopoly a renewable 30-year concession on the entire electro-magnetic spectrum, the property of the nation.

This January, after months of behind the scene hassling, Carmen Aristegui was finally silenced. Although Prisa, which built its credibility on opposition to Franco’s authoritarianism, fought to keep the popular reporter on the air – sign-waving protestors were banging on the studio doors – Televisa prevailed. Business is business.

That’s just what Columbus and Cortez concluded five centuries ago when they set out to conquer the New World for Spain the first time around.

JOHN ROSS is currently slumming in northern California in anticipation of his 70th birthday bash Sunday March 9th at the Café Boheme on 24th and Mission (4 to 8 PM.) Be there or be cuadrado.





JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to