The Americas 61.2 (2004) 301-302
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Filibustering—the militant act by which an individual or group from one nation unofficially seizes the territory of another nation—has a venerable tradition in the Americas. The most illustrious, or infamous, of American filibusters was William Walker (1824-1860), whose forays into Mexico and Central America were dramatized in the surreal, historically themed film Walker (1989). For the most part, filibustering [End Page 301] was associated with enthusiastic American expansion in Latin America, where individuals conquered territory believing that they would be welcomed as liberators and supported back home as visionaries. Although largely confined to the past (ca. 1840 to the 1920s), filibustering still evokes considerable emotion today. In the United States, filibusters are regarded with ambivalence; we abhor their tactics but secretly admire their passionate expansionism. In Latin America, however, filibustering is generally regarded with deep suspicion.
Schemers & Dreamers is a slim but well-written introduction to the complicated subject of filibustering in one country, Mexico. After discussing early nineteenth century antecedents, Stout describes the conditions that fueled a spate of filibustering expeditions by around mid century; these include political instability in Mexico, and two factors—unbridled expansionism and regional attitudes—in the United States. Stout demonstrates that some officials in Mexico encouraged filibustering as a way of achieving ends and seizing power—a dangerous game prone to backfire. Another factor that fueled filibustering was "the low opinion that many Americans, and especially Texans, had of Mexico and Mexicans" (p. 21). But filibustering was a complex, if easy to generalize, process, and there were some surprises. Not all filibusters were American. Some, like Juan Napólean Zerman, were European, but they nevertheless encouraged and supported U.S. expansion. For their part, most Mexican officials considered filibustering actions illegal regardless of their affiliation, and urged the filibusterers be shot.
Stout sheds considerable light on enigmatic filibusterers like Zerman, who "insisted that he was not a filibuster and in his mind he may not have been, but most Mexicans considered him as such and that point was significant to United States-Mexican relations" (p. 42). His book reads like a rogue's gallery, with William Walker, Henry Crabb, Ernest Dalrymple, Augustus Merrill and more than a dozen others. He places their varied filibustering efforts in two important contexts: internal Mexican politics through the late nineteenth-century Porfiriato and the early twentieth century revolution(s), and United States politics, including the official and unofficial response of various administrations. Schemers & Dreamers not only offers a comprehensive overview of the times and their politics. It offers an interesting, even novel, perspective on international relations.
Mexico often lobbied hard to have U.S. authorities stop the filibusters, but usually to no avail. Stout's brief conclusion is that the tables have turned. The early twenty-first century now finds the United States complaining to Mexico about illegal traffic crossing the border and blaming Mexico for not "cooperating fully." For its part, Mexico responds that it "does not have the forces to stop illegal drugs and immigration from entering the U.S." (p. 107). Stout provides us several sobering history lessons about national sovereignty and the porosity of international borders in general, and the U.S.-Mexican border in particular.