Anti-U.S. sentiment tinges debate on country's name

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

December 14, 1993|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Mexico City Bureau

MEXICO CITY -- To be the United Mexican States? Or to be Mexico? That is the question being debated here in newspapers, universities and congressional meeting rooms.

While this country is called Mexico by most of its citizens and is known by that name around the world, its constitutional name is the United Mexican States, a designation that irritates a nation desperate to move from beneath the shadow of the United States of America.

Recently, a group of legislators from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) proposed changing the constitution so that the country is legally named Mexico. The generated debate shows that while Mexicans look forward to a closer trade relationship with the United States, anti-American sentiments still run deep.

"Since I was young, I hated the name United Mexican States. It was something that in my infant mind seemed to be an effort to imitate our grand neighbor of the north," said historian Mario Ojeda Gomez.

"Because of it, I felt a sort of internal embarrassment and I didn't understand why we cowered beneath this name, trying to be like them, depreciating our own name, our own personality, our own identity."

The name United Mexican States stems from 1824 after Mexico won its independence from Spain. The name was chosen because the authors of the constitution wanted a decentralized form of government.

Article 40 of the constitution says that it is the will of the Mexican people to "form a representative, democratic and federal republic, made up of states that are free and sovereign in all that concerns its internal affairs; but united in a federation established by the principles of this fundamental law."

However, in a recent two-day debate over the name, participants pointed out that Mexican states have never achieved real sovereignty. The Mexican system of government is very centralized, and almost all power rests in the hands of the president.

Some participants in the discussion over Mexico's name have suggested that the country be named the Republic of Mexico because it would be more accurate.

Others say the law should match reality. Maria de Los Angeles Moreno, a leading member of the PRI in the Chamber of Deputies, said Mexican citizens refer to their country as Mexico. Therefore, that should be its name.

"When I have mentioned the idea of changing the name in the constitution to Mexico, I have received favorable reaction," she said. "People have told me, 'Yes, that is what we call ourselves. Isn't that the way it is already in the constitution?' "

Opponents of changing the constitution are suspicious of the PRI's motives. They also use nationalistic arguments when making their case.

Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, a leftist presidential candidate, said that persuade the U.S. government to adopt the North American Free Trade Agreement, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari promised to legally change his country's name so there would not be two signatories with "United States" in their names.

"This is a show of the servile attitude that the government representatives of Mexico have had," he said in a campaign speech. "[The United States] apparently wants the change for unimportant reasons, like it would look literally better if the agreement were signed between the United States of America, Mexico and Canada."

Other opponents point out that changing Mexico's name could impose a significant cost on taxpayers because new currency and legal documents would have to be printed.

Carlos Ramirez, a columnist usually critical of the government, accused the government of trying to change the name of a country as if it were a board of directors deciding to change the name of a corporation.

He says the question should be presented to voters in a referendum and it should be debated for a couple of years before the Mexican Congress votes.

"If the decision is frozen, then it will show that there are no external pressures, nor secret agreements," he said.

"But if [the PRI insists] on continuing the pressure to change the name of the country the way a PRI deputy changes shoes, then Mexicans will have the right to suspect that in the [trade negotiations] with the United States, there were secret decisions of which they are not aware."

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