Why is there a statue of Benito Juarez in the US capital?

09/07/2020

On his long-awaited visit to the U.S. capital, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador laid flowers on Wednesday at the foot of the bronze statue of Benito Juárez (1858-1872), whom he considers an example in public service.

Monument to Benito Juarez in Washington. Photo: Wikipedia
Monument to Benito Juarez in Washington. Photo: Wikipedia

López Obrador's first official act in Washington D.C. was the floral offerings to the effigy of Benito Juárez, the Benemérito de las Américas, and to the monument of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865).

His trip comes at a time when there is a debate in the United States about the need to remove from public space the statues of slave generals who fought on the Confederate side during the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), as some groups consider them to be racist symbols.

The statue of Benito Juárez has not been attacked and, on the contrary, is considered a symbol of Mexico's contributions to American culture. What is its history and how did it come to be in the United States?

A statue exchange with 50 years of history

More than half a century ago, in 1966, then U.S. President Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969) visited Mexico City to give Mexicans a statue of Lincoln, which was a replica of the monument that the famous architect Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculpted for Chicago.

The statue that Johnson gave to Mexico is currently located in Lincoln Park, in the southern part of Polanco in Mexico City.

The figure of Lincoln is popular in Mexico because, as one of the legislators in the U.S. Congress, he strongly opposed U.S. intervention in Mexico (1846-1848) and, later as head of state, rejected French interventions in Mexico.

In response to Johnson's gesture of friendship, Mexico presented the American people with a statue of Benito Juárez.

The statue was unveiled on 7 January 1969 by then Mexican Foreign Minister Antonio Carrillo Flores and his American counterpart Dean Rusk, who said during the ceremony: "We have shared with Mexico one of our great heroes and now Mexico is behaving with us to one of its great sons," The Washington Post reported.

The statue of Benito Juárez, a replica of the original 1891 image by sculptor Enrique Alciati, stands at the intersection of New Hampshire and Virginia avenues, near the Watergate Hotel, scene of the scandal that led to the resignation of U.S. President Richard Nixon (1969-1974).

A rugged journey from Mexico to the United States

The most difficult part of the statue of Benito Juarez was the journey from Mexico to American soil. From Mexico, it traveled by truck to Laredo, Texas, USA, where it was loaded onto a railroad car to be transported to Washington D.C., where it arrived with cracks and a nearly broken arm.

As The Washington Post reporter Martin Weil wrote fifty years ago: "When the box was opened on December 16 (1968), officials, to their dismay, found that the statue's right arm, designed to point outward, was cracked, sunken and nearly cut off. Other cracks ran through the plaster legs.

Then, in a hurry, the U.S. Government asked a local store to repair the statue so that it would be ready for the unveiling ceremony.

A statue full of symbols

The statue was left as good as new and today it continues to watch over the walkers, many of them employees of the U.S. State Department, which is just a few blocks away.

On the pedestal, one can read in Spanish and English the phrase: "Respect for the rights of others is peace", which Benito Juarez pronounced in 1967 and which Lopez Obrador repeated in January 2019 on the occasion of the international debate on intervention in Venezuela.

On the statue, Benito Juárez appears with his right arm raised, pointing to the horizon, while in his left hand he holds a book with the word "Reforma".

Finally, at its granite base, the monument hides an urn with soil from Guelatao, Oaxaca, where Benito Juárez was born and which López Obrador has visited on several occasions.

By EFE