by Fernando Quintero
As Mexico lurches into a new era of democracy in the wake of recent political reforms, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, the country's first independently elected senator and a visiting professor in Latin American Studies, will be one of the country's key political players.
Last July when, for the first time in nearly 70 years, reforms in Mexican elections resulted in a hemorrhage of power for the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Zinser was elected to a seat in the senate on a platform of exposing government corruption.
He led a major investigation into Mexico's commodities trading agency, an agency with an extraordinarily large budget that was run by the brother of former Mexican president Carlos Salinas. Officials called Zinser a traitor to the Mexican government.
The tension of confrontations with government were felt by him and his family. At times, there was fear for his life.
Zinser will return to Mexico in November, when his term begins, to continue his fight against government corruption.
"It's good for me to be at Berkeley now, to recharge my batteries," he said. "I'll need all the strength possible."
At Berkeley, Zinser is teaching an undergraduate and a graduate course in U.S.-Mexico relations.
Zinser has maintained a specific interest in U.S.-Mexico relations for more than a decade. Because of his academic interest in international relations, he said his direct participation in politics became more intense.
From his temporary office on the seventh floor of Barrows Hall, Zinser spoke with equal intensity about the current state of Mexican politics and his field of study, both seeming to vie for his full attention.
"Mexico is in a great state of transition, a new era of opposition power, but it has only begun," he said. "We don't know where we'll arrive. But there remain many breakthroughs: The PRI is losing power in an irreversible way, and it won't be able to recover. Institutions are changing. For the first time in the 20th century, we are seeing the beginnings of the true workings of Congress. Its long-submissive relations with the president are changing."
Zinser's hope is for a new democratic order, but there are no guarantees, he cautioned.
"The task is not just to put institutions to work, but to break the spinal chord of corruption and impunity. It's a confrontational task-a bitter, complex and dangerous fight-but one we must fight," he said. "Once we've established conditions of accountability, then we'll truly be on our way."
The Mexican senator named several obstacles to Mexico's political and economic recovery.
The early repayment of $12.5 billion of U.S. emergency loans was one of "three items of good news to convey from Mexico" according to Mexican ambassador Jesus Silva Herzog. In a recent interview, he named Mexico's economic recovery and clean elections in July as the other good news, but Zinser said the repayment may come at a high cost.
"Mexico has not benefited from such huge indebtedness," he said. "The Mexican economic recovery has taken place only in numbers. The economy of Mexico has not recovered in terms of employment, quality of life."
Zinser, who studied international relations in Mexico and earned his master's degree in public administration and economic development at Harvard University, studies the evolution of economic and political relations between the United States and Mexico. He has taught at National Autonomous University of Mexico as well Georgetown University and the University of Chicago.
"I'm interested in how the relationship between the two countries evolves in a structural nature," he said. "I offer a broad view of the international relations instead of specializing in a particular topic."
Over the years, Zinser maintained contact with Berkeley's Latin American Studies department, serving as a resource on such topical issues as NAFTA and trade relations.
Eventually, the idea was developed for him to come to campus to teach a course about U.S.-Mexico relations from a Mexican perspective.
Echoing the words of Ronald Takaki, Berkeley professor of Ethnic Studies who has become internationally known for his revision of American history from a multicul-tural perspective, Zinser strongly believes that to understand the present, one must look at the past from different angles.
"Every time I teach the history of U.S.-Mexican relationships, I offer a different layer of historical dimension. History is a major source of understanding present political, social and economic conditions," he said. "If you want to make a case for history as perspective, U.S.-Mexico relations makes a perfect one.
"With young people, you need to make a case for history. The present is so compelling, so absorbing, that the past sounds a bit irrelevant to them," he said. "They ask, 'What is the point to go back to history if the present is so overwhelming?'
"My goal is to convince them that history is an important tool to understanding the difficult connection between Mexico and the U.S. When I see them coming to that realization, it's very exciting."
In his courses, Zinser explains the nature of the Mexican political system. He begins with the Mexican Revolution, continues with the rise and fall of Mexico's revolutionary regime, and ends with the authoritarian regime that dominated this century.
Zinser said he finds it especially exciting to be at Berkeley because of its diverse student population.
"Having students of Mexican-American descent, other Latinos, Asians and other backgrounds creates interesting dialogue, especially when I relate to stereotypes and notions of ethnicity," he said.
"U.S.-Mexican relations have always been presented in light of stereotypes, ways in which people perceive someone else's culture," he said. "Mexicans are seen as dark-skinned and Catholic. Latin Americans stereotype Americans as bigoted, with beliefs having largely to do with American expansionism."
Zinser partly attributed strained U.S.-Mexico relations, and a lack of understanding among politicians and the public about Mexico, to the lack of coverage about Latin America by the American press, which focuses its international reporting on Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and other distant nations.
"The only stories about Mexico that you read in the newspaper or see on television are negative stories, like drug trafficking, illegal immigration and foreign debt," he said.
"Again, we see an historical pattern in which the U.S. has centered its international dealings around an Atlantic foreign policy. In the Middle East, it's about oil. Japan has to do with competition.
"The whole ethnocentric view of U.S. foreign policy has always been a factor in the diminishing attention to Latin America. We pay attention to Latin America because it causes trouble for the U.S."
Zinser said American scholars must also pay more attention to our bordering nation.
"Most of the resources American universities receive-scholarship money, research funding-touch on an Atlantic vision," he said. "They need to expand their horizons. The U.S. will have to confront the certain difficulties of a neighboring country becoming more democratic. These difficulties will have to be examined and addressed."