A Presidential Visit
JCG-2 Calle Lancaster #25 Colonia Juarez Mexico 6, D.F. May 2, 1966
By Joseph C. Goulden

Mr. Goulden is 1965 Alicia Patterson Fund fellowship award winner on leave from The Philadelphia Inquirer. Permission to reprint this article may be sought from The Managing Editor, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 400 N. Broad Street., Philadelphia 19101.

Two-year-old Eduardo Gonzalez skipped in from nursery school the afternoon of April 14, thrust his arm into the air, and informed his mother, “Salud Johnson!” At about the same time a lawyer, section chief in the Procuraduria General de la Republica – equivalent of the U. S. Justice Department – passed a roster around the office. Everyone was expected to sign to signify his intention of attending the parade later in the day. At industrial plants on Mexico City’s eastern fringes, trucks were waiting when the assembly lines closed, and union officers handed miniature U. S. and Mexican flags to workers as they clambered onto rough wooden seats. Many youngsters didn’t go to school at all that day: Members of the youth auxiliary of Partido Revolucionario Institucional, they dressed in gleaming silk uniforms and went to assigned posts along the nine and one-half miles of roadway between International Airport and Los Pinos, the official residence of President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz in Chapultepec.

Thus did Mexico prepare last month for the visit of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The full resources of the Mexican government and of PRI – the Party of Revolutionary Institutions, dominant politically here – were used to insure that Mr. Johnson would view a large turnout. The end product, a crowd estimated at two million persons by the Mexican secret service and the Federal District traffic people, was success of the res gestae ilk (i.e., the thing speaks for itself). Too, it was a demonstration that Mexico, despite a capacity for disorganization in its daily affairs that reduces the foreigner to tongue-biting frustration, can move when necessary with the precision of a surgical team. For, beneath its veneer of “manana,” Mexico is tightly organized, and when PRI and/or the government pull the proper strings the country moves in unison. The instance of the Johnson visit affords a case study in the effectiveness of the Mexican power structure, and the response it is able to bring from its component parts.

The results, while spectacular, were also somewhat misleading. The crowd, which Mexican officials said was their nation’s largest in history for a visiting foreigner, isn’t exactly a barometer of Mexican popular feeling towards the United States. There are sore spots between the two nations – both in the history books and in everyday life – and sore spots of a sort that cannot be healed by airport speeches and wreathlayings. A week to the day after Mr. Johnson’s arrival, for example, many of the Mexicans who had greeted him participated in ceremonies marking the invasion of Veracruz, the Gulf port, by U. S. Marines on April 21, 1914. (More about the contemporary differences in a moment.)

Officially, Mexico had only 48 hours to prepare for the visit – from 5:30 P. M. Tuesday, April 12, when Antonio Carrillo Flores, Secretary of Foreign Relations, announced that the U. S. President was coming to participate in dedication ceremonies at a statue of Abraham Lincoln, until 5:60 P. M. Thursday, April 14, when Air Force One landed. In actuality, however, key government and PRI officials had known since the weekend that Mr. Johnson had accepted President Diaz Ordaz’ standing invitation to visit Mexico, and the necessary high-level preparations began at that time. Mexican officials gave the impression there were two reasons for not announcing the visit earlier: Compliance with a recommendation of the Warren Commission that presidential dates not be made “firm” until absolutely necessary, and the possibility that a sudden change in the Vietnam situation might make it impossible for the President to come. At any rate, the arrival here on Monday, April 11, of an advance party of 22 persons, ostensibly to prepare only for a visit by Mrs. Johnson, Secretary of State Rusk, and assorted Congressmen, the original dedication delegation, raised eyebrows, and the addition of Mr. Johnson to the guest list the following afternoon wasn’t much of a surprise.

By noon of the day after Carrillo Flores’ announcement color portraits of President and Mrs. Johnson filled store windows along Paseo de la Reforma, Cinco de Mayo, and other parade route streets. By late afternoon workmen had Reforma bedecked with flags, and scaffolding was in place for 40-foot high portraits of GDO and LBJ. In the city’s main plaza, the Zocalo, on which fronts the National Palace, the National Cathedral, the Supreme Court and other government buildings, crews posted a four-story banner, perhaps 150 yards long welcoming the Johnsons. The preparations had several fringe benefits for capital dwellers: For three days maintenance man had carefully swept around a dead cat on the esplanade of Reforma near my home; the corpse disappeared during the pre-Johnson cleansing. Additionally, the electrical workers union had a strike set for noon of the day before the Johnson arrival, and homeowners were buying candles in preparation for a blackout. The strike was cancelled, the negotiations resumed after Mr. Johnson left, and the workers obtained a new contract after all had appeared hopeless only a week earlier.

Police were busy elsewhere discouraging people from attending the parade. The targets were leftists, extreme nationalists, Communists and arch-right sinarquistas who were viewed as potential picketeers or anti-Johnson demonstrators. Manuel Marcue Pardinas, director of the bi-monthly news magazine Revista, organ of the Partido Popular Sociulista (People’s Socialist Party, or PPS), was summoned in by Federal police and warned against doing anything to mar the visit. Marcue Pardinas said he was told by officials of Gobernacion, the Interior Ministry, that the rights of free speech and assembly were suspended for the duration of the visit. The journalist charged that the police official acted “without any more law than that of the pistols of the gorillas under his orders.” Police also raided the office of La Voz de Mexico, publication of the Partido Communista de Mexico, and destroyed printing plates for an anti-Johnson issue. The PCM and a leftist group, Frente Electoral de Mexico (People’s Electoral Front) sent hot telegrams of protest to President Diaz Ordaz – who ignored them. Officially, PPS, largest of the leftist parties, did nothing to either endorse or oppose Mr. Johnson’s visit. The party leader, Vincente Lombardo Toledano, labor leader and member of the Chamber of Deputies, replied when asked for comment, “My opinion is that I have no opinion.” Politica got its revenge later in the month with a scathing article on the visit, charging that Mr. Diaz Ordaz had turned Mexico over to an “imperial visitor;” that for what was officially a “non-official” visit, Mexico should not have indulged in such hoopla; that Mr. Johnson’s presence at the statue dedication was “offensive to all Mexicans.” A Politica photographer at the parade got a picture of a secret service man on Mr. Johnson’s car, pistol visible under an askew coat, and captioned it, “Johnson and his pistoleros.” The carefully tutored Spanish which Mrs. Johnson used to deliver her speech at the statue dedication was derided as “disastrous” and “scarcely intelligible” (ignoring the fact that the First Lady was the only person in either party, host or guest, who spoke in public in other than the native language). Whatever grievances the Politica director might have had with the police, the magazine’s account of the visit may charitably be described as distorted and unreal.

Mobilization of the persons the government wanted at the parade was carried out with dispatch. PRI passed the word to its three sectors – firms labor and “popular” – that it wanted crowds, and the sectors responded. Unions arranged for factory closing hours early enough to permit workers to reach the route in time for the parade. The mariachi and marimba bands that perform outside Mexico City cafes and cantinas during the lunch break – 1 to 4 P. M. – were trucked to the airport. With them rode some three dozen organ grinders, all members of a PRI-affiliated union, whose simultaneous playing of three dozen different tunes was to provide one of the most unusual sounds ever heard in the Western Hemisphere. Government workers, affiliated with the popular branch of PRI, left their offices far in advance of the 3 P. M. closing time of the Mexican bureaucracy--after assuring superiors they indeed would attend the parade. School children rode, by bus and by trucks directly to the parade from class, teachers equipping them enroute with paper flags and pictures of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. As the children rode they practiced the day’s lesson: “Salud Johnson.” From the ejidos, the small state distributed farms on the perimeter of the Federal District, in rode truck loads of campesinos, faces freshly washed beneath sweat-stained straw hats. All afternoon the crowd gathered, standing behind soldiers who stood elbow to elbow at the curb.

I watched all these activities with mounting suspicion as I rode to the airport in a press bus with Mexican journalists. In my mind was the recollection of the crowd the late President Kennedy attracted when he visited Mexico City in 1962s one which, was described by those present as perhaps the most tumultuous of his Presidency. Was the Mexican government attempting to match that turnout by dint of bus, truck and mandatory attendance!

The first glimpse of the airport wasn’t reassuring. Clustered outside the main entrance were groups with large banners of the PRI sectors and their various sub-divisions. The crowd, while smiling, waving and obviously enjoying the mariachi music, looked about as spontaneous as a group of recruits leaving the draft board. Most of the persons had either a paper portrait of one of the Johnsons or a U. S. or Mexican flag. “An organized cheering section,” a Mexican journalist said cynically as we got oft the bus. At that point I was inclined to agree.

Wooden bleachers lined three sides of the reception area. Atop them stood school girls in Indian dress, bearing flapping silk banners of reds white and green – colors both of the Republic of Mexico and of PRI. On the terminal building, behind the bleachers holding Mexican army and navy officers and a battalion or so of politicians and Federal office holders, were flags of the U. S. and Mexico, constructed of flowers. The mariachi band was happy to play for a Mexican television crew while members of the diplomatic corps lined up behind the main greeting party. (All showed except the Cuban Ambassador, who is a non-person in the eyes of the U. S., and vice-versa.)

As four field artillery pieces banged out a salute, their reports echoing over the old lakebed which is the airport site, the presidents greeted each other on a red-carpeted platform, Mr. Johnson towering over his host as they embraced in an arm-over-shoulder abrazo. President Diaz Ordaz, speaking in two or three sentence bursts which were repeated in English by an interpreter, was straightforward in his welcoming remarks. First, he spoke of the “special feeling of admiration” which Mexicans have for Lincoln, comparing him with Miguel Hidalgo, who called for abolition of slavery when he revolted against the Spanish in 1810; with Jose Maria Morelos, Hidalgo’s follower, whose “words and actions affirmed man’s liberty in America and broke the barriers that could arise between men because of the color of their skin;” and with Benito Juarez, who “like Lincoln faced grave problems in order to save the integrity, independence and unity” of his country. President Diaz Ordaz said his people render “perennial homage and gratitude to the Abraham Lincoln who raised his voice in Washington in favor of Mexico and against intervention” in the War of 1848, an act which contributed to the loss of his Illinois Congressional Seat. President Diaz Ordaz didn’t attempt to gloss over the differences that have embittered U. S.-Mexican relations periodically for more than a century. But his words had a let-bygones-be-bygones mood. “In the course of time,” he said, “we have had large and small problems, unimportant and most grave. We know it wall, but we also know that we cannot turn history back, or spend our lives resentfully lamenting the happenings of the past. We can, we must and will do every honest effort, so that we may leave to our children and to our children’s children, as our legacy, a future without apprehension and distrust, based on true and loyal friendship, that is enduring. But; such a friendship only blossoms among free man who respect each other.”

Responding, Mr. Johnson went into what was to be his recurrent theme throughout the visit: an implicit declaration that the goals of his Great Society and the Mexican Revolution are interchangeable, and that both nations must work to solve “the problems of illiteracy, the problems of ignorance, the problems of disease, the problems of poverty, the problems of misunderstanding.” Never in history, said President Johnson, had the U. S. and Mexico faced fewer problems, nor had a stronger friendship than that which now exists.

Red, white and green confetti showered the presidents as they strode through the terminal building crowds into an open car. Mr. Johnson immediately took up a position atop the rear seat, in campaign fashion, and reached out to touch the scores of hands roping for him. And Mexico City was waiting for a glimpse of the resident of the United States – first the students, three and four deep along the curb, little girls in pink and white striped pinafores, lads in blue and khaki uniforms, interspersed with mariachi bands, military drum and bugle corps, the PRI groups. They jumped and they waved flags; they shouted “Viva Johnson” and “Salud Johnson;” they threw confetti and kisses.

My skepticism about the authenticity of the reception soon vanished, to be replaced with open-mouthed awe. The government and PRI had produced the crowd by making attendance easy, but no government or political party could have ordered or falsified the enthusiasm which swelled over President Johnson. And the crowd escalated in size and spirit as the motorcade got away from the “arranged” groups at the airport. An early peak come at the Ciudad John F, Kennedy, a 3,000-unit housing project built by a Mexican union with the backing of the Alliance for Progress and the AFL-CIO. Here police lines were breached for the first time, and children swarmed to Mr. Johnson’s car, and he stopped to exchange greetings.

Mexican police estimated in advance the caravan would require one hour to drive the nine and one-half miles from the airport to Los Pinos. The hour passed, and the cars hadn’t even reached downtown. The crowd, the music, the cheers, the color, began to blur together…”Happy Days are Here Again” and “Deep in the Heart of Texas”…a woman holding bawling twin boys in one arm and gesturing towards the President with the other…two switch engines drawn to the edge of the street, their headlights glaring down into the cars, making the standing Presidents appear in sharp relief in the deepening twilight, trainman waving flags from the front of the cabs … pretty teen girls waving flags of the Mexican states as the cars came out of an underpass and into downtown….people now standing from building-front to building-front, leaving a 15-foot path for cars and buses, police trying futilely to shove them back, one officer losing control of his motorcycle on the confetti-coated street and skidding into a press bus….”The Dragoon March,” century-old anthem of cadets at Mexico’s Chapultepec Military Academy… silk banners from the city’s public markets, dozens of them…firemen in blue dress uniforms with gold braid, standing with red-painted shovels at present arms …. and then the Zocalo, floodlights bathing the National Palace, the Cathedral and other buildings, wind-blown confetti drifting through the glare like a nocturnal, multi-colored snowstorm…cathederal bells in background as. Army band blared brassy medley of songs of the Mexican Revolution…” Adelita” and “La Cucaracha”…Presidential car sinking into quagmire of Mexican humanity, pulling free to roll a few feet more, then bogging down again…men and boys climbing onto trunk and hood of car, and Mr. Johnson ordering secret service to leave them along, reaching down to touch (not shake) the hands clutching for him…a Mexican Army officer finally using the flat of his drawn sword to move back onrushers…Mr. Johnson thirstily gulping from a pop bottle…secret service men, exhausted from strain of trotting in mile-high altitude, dropping back for whiffs of oxygen from portable tanks…and, finally, as three-hour parade neared its end at Los Pinos, the two-million person crowd estimate from Mexican traffic department, about twice what they had set for President Kennedy in 1962.

From my vantage point in a press bus the crowd seemed unanimously friendly, although Mexican journalists who covered the parade from the street level said they detected several cries of “Yanquis go home, Viva Cuba, and Death to Johnson,” as well as slogans attacking U. S. policies in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic. Politica also stated in its parade account that several demonstrators were clubbed by police and arrested. If Mr. Johnson saw or heard any of this, he has better eyes and hearing than anyone in the press buses. As the parade was in progress, a group of striking students at the National University of Mexico seized the campus radio station briefly and broadcast attacks on “la agresion norteamericano.” The Federal Communications Department ended this swiftly by cutting off power to the station.

The next day, at the dedication of the Lincoln Statue in a park in Polanco, a pleasant residential section to the west of downtown, the speeches followed the same format as at the airport. Carrillo Flores, the foreign minister, talked mostly about Lincoln. President Johnson talked like an old time Texas Populist. His words, by contemporary American political standards, were not particularly startling – but the location where they were spoken, the capital of a Latin American country, gave them significance. “There has never been stable democracy where economic power and privilege were concentrated in the hands of the few,” Mr. Johnson said. “With a seeming deliberate emphasis he continued: “Where the many work, let the many earn.” And he drew a cheer from a crowd painfully aware that within this century Mexico was “owned” by far fewer persons than were in the park. Mr. Johnson also talked about the “blight of hunger, the blindness of ignorance…the burden of disease; and the need for “hard work and perseverance, a not hope alone.” He said again that the U. S. is committed to “government by consent of the governed,” and that “despots” aren’t welcome in the hemisphere, and vowed that the U. S. wouldn’t attempt to meet Communism “merely by force.” He said, “We believe the struggle for social justice and more efficient and equitable use of natural resources must be led by each country in its own behalf. My administration will not be deterred by those who tenaciously or selfishly cling to special privilege from the past, and we will not be deterred by those who say that to risk change is to risk Communism.”

The remainder of the trip was filled with diplomatic routine: Luncheon with President Diaz Ordaz; a short talk to-staff members at the handsome U, S. Embassy on Reforma; the issuance of a final communique about the concrete issues discussed during the “working” meetings of the Presidents and their foreign affairs representatives.

Thus we come to two questions: First, what was responsible for the enthusiasm which the Mexican crowds displayed toward President and second, what are the irritants, major and minor, which still exist between the two notions?

A Mexican government official candidly acknowledged that the national power structure was uneasy about the reception Mr. Johnson might receive. By making the trip President Johnson inevitably invited a comparison of his visit with that of Mr. Kennedy; a cool greeting easily could have been interpreted as a Latin American judgment on U. S. foreign policy. The use of U. S. Marines in the Dominican Republic runs directly contrary to a basic principle of Mexican foreign policy (non-intervention in affairs of hemispheric nations), and the few Mexicans who have an opinion on Vietnam feel the U. S. would do wall to withdraw and permit elections, even at the risk of a Communist takeover. Yet Mexico lacks the overriding p reoccupation with foreign affairs now prevalent in the United States. (Excelsior, the leading morning newspaper, seldom prints Vietnam stories on the front page, even at times of crisis.) Also, Mexicans can disagree with a man on one subject and applaud him lustily for his actions on another. They admired President Johnson because he is “muy macho” – a man’s man – and a President of action and accomplishment, just as they admired President Kennedy as a man who stirred hope and promise. (Reading hidden meaning into a Lyndon Johnson speech is a risky business, but two sentences did jump from his Polanco talk, which wall could be a Johnsonian assessment of LBJ and JFK accomplishments in Latin America: “History will judge us not only by the nobility of our sentiments or the poetry of our words. History will judge us by the action that we take to bring these sentiments to life.” The sentences were not in Mr. Johnson’s prepared text.) Finally. Mr. Johnson is President of the United States, and as such has what we might call a high “curiosity-attraction ratio.” Prince Albert of Belguim, here later the same month, attracted negligible public notice; were it not for newspaper interviews, the average Mexican would not have known he was anywhere near Latin America.

When viewed against the backdrop of Vietnam and the troubled Atlantic “Alliance,” Mexico’s differences with the United States seem small, even petty. Consider, for instance, the law passed in 1965 limiting to $100 the amount of tax-free merchandise which tourists may bring back into the U. S., and to one quart the amount of liquor. The purpose was to slow the flow of gold from the U. S. However, the low is proving an unmitigated disaster for Mexican border merchants, particularly liquor store owners who previously had been able to sell homeward-bound tourists four quarts of tequilla, rum and other liquors. Distillers associations and chambers (if commerce in the border areas adressed full page newspaper ads to President Johnson during his stay, asking relief. (The final communique said, ”Specific problems involving border trade between the two countries were mentioned by President Diaz Ordaz. The two Presidents agreed that their two governments should study these problems with the aim of determining what measures could be taken to expand legitimate border trade in goods produced in both countries to the benefit of the border region.”) Mexican businessmen are also gravely concerned over barriers which the Johnson Administration has put in the path of investments by U. S. lenders abroad. Mexico, as is the case with other developing nations, is woefully short of investment capital and is heavily dependent upon foreign sources. U. S. Treasury Secretary Henry H. Fowler, here in late April for a meeting of the bank of International Development, agreed the rule was not desirable but termed it necessary in view of the U. S.’s precarious balance of payments position. Another problem involves cotton, Mexico’s leading export crop. Simply, Mexico wants the right to sell more cotton in the United States as a means of increasing its export earnings, and boosting the agricultural segment of its economy, upon which is dependent about half its population. The imports are opposed by U. S. growers who want to protect their own markets, and little chance is afforded Mexico, for a larger quota. About all the Presidents did on this item, as reflected in the final communique, was to express their “determination” to continue to support something called the “International Cotton Institute,” which promotes the use of cotton. In yet another area, the increased militancy of U. S. farm workers, including many of Mexican origin, along the border makes unlikely a large-scale resumption of the bracero program, under which Mexicans worked several months a year in the states, boosting significantly Mexico’s dollar income. The two Presidents did not even mention this area in the comminique.

In the field of foreign affairs, the U. S. has long since abandoned any hope of tugging Mexico into support of its policies vis. a vis. Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Mexico is the only Latin American nation which maintains diplomatic relations with Fidel Castro’s regime, and permits Cubana, Airlines to fly scheduled routes from Mexico City to Havana. This situation is due more to national tradition and internal political realities than to any love for Castro by Diaz Ordaz and his predecessor, Adolfo Lopez Mateos. Anyone who leaves the Mexico City Airport for Havana is photographed by police, and unconfirmable gossip is that the Central Intelligence Agency is on the photographer’s distribution list. But Mexico keeps a tight rein on its indigenous Communists. Distribution of certain types of Communist literature is sanctioned (Politica, for example, printed the texts of resolutions passed at the Tri-Continental Conference which Castro hosted in Havana earlier this year). However, any Communist publications which threaten the status quo here are quickly suppressed. I asked a Mexican lawyer friend to differentiate for me what literature is permissible and what is not. He tried a few moments and gave up. “I don’t know,” he said, “the communists don’t know, and sometimes I think even the government doesn’t know.” This ad hoc method of dealing with internal Communists serves to keep the ineffectual movement even more off balance than if the ground rules called for complete freedom or complete suppression. The U. S. might not be happy about Mexico’s relations with Cuba, but it apparently agrees with Mexican officials that the Mexican Revolution is viable enough and has such progressive goals as to make negligible any Communist movement hare.

The final communique, in essence, was composed of phrases about “reaffirmations” and “agreed to study.” Bill D. Moyers, the White House press secretary, discreetly cautioned newsman about becoming overly excited about a Johnson proposal for a Latin American summit meeting, saying, “I don’t think anyone at this moment is thinking about a hard and fast thing.” On the positive side the trip displayed to Mexico that Mr. Johnson is a man concerned with matters other than Marines and interventions, and that he can talk about them with sincerity. (One Western diplomat here expressed concern, however, less Mr. Johnson go back to Washington with an unwarranted “euphoria” about Latin America based solely on the Mexican experience, for there are problems here and elsewhere that are not related to crowd sizes, slogans and people’s feelings one way or another about the United States and Lyndon Baines Johnson.) But the reception, in contrast with the drubbing he takes elsewhere in the world press, could not help but warm Mr. Johnson’s feelings towards Mexico.

Perhaps most impressive of all to Mexico was President Johnson’s non-patronizing recognition that problems can be hemispheric in scope, not just national, and that the U. S. is ready to do what it can to help solve them. Mr. Johnson talked about the “challenge” of the Alliance for Progress and said he recognized it. “I saw it riding through the streets…last evening”, he said at Polanco, “I saw it in the hopeful face of young Mexico, in the hundreds of thousands of little children who are the future of this great land, I saw young people with minds to be educated, with bodies to be protected from disease. I saw young boys and girls who one day will be able to find a job and who will raise their families in peace.

“This is the challenge that faces the people of America and faces the people of Latin America. This is the challenge that we will, shoulder to shoulder, accept.”
Received in New York May 10, 1966.

©1966 Joseph C. Goulden, Jr.

Mr. Goulden is a 1965 Alicia Patterson Fund fellowship winner on leave from The Philadelphia Inquirer. Permission to publish this article may be sought from The Managing Editor, Philadelphia Inquirer.