The Mexican Republic’s First Century

From The Banana Wars: An Inner History of the American Empire 1900-1934, by Lester D. Langley (Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1983), pp. 77-79:

The Mexican republic that Wilson so desperately sought to reform commemorated in September 1910 the centenary of the grito de Dolores, the ringing of church bells in the village of Guadalupe signaling the revolution against Spanish rule. In the nineteenth century, the republic had been governed by savants and opportunists; by statesmen with visions of a peaceful society, where politics would be infused with reason; and by despots who ruled in the tradition of central authority inherited from the Spanish monarchy. American observers considered Mexico an arrogant nation misruled by such unscrupulous leaders as the “crimson jester,” Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, until the republic lost almost half of its territory in war with the United States. After that, many Americans, notably rising Republicans like Abraham Lincoln, thought of their neighbor as a ravaged society, wasted by internecine civil war or preyed upon by European interlopers. The one figure of nineteenth-century Mexico who conveyed a statesmanlike image was Benito Juarez, who in the 1850s fought the power of the church and military and in 1867 overthrew Maximilian’s monarchy. Yet Juarez, for all his dedication to political ideals Americans cherished, remained essentially an inscrutable Zapotec Indian with suspicion of anything foreign and harbored deep distrust of the rambunctious republic to the north.

Juarez, at least, made Mexico the example of a republic that threw off its European trappings. One of his lieutenants in the antimonarchial struggle, Porfirio Diaz, who became president in 1876, presented to the world a stable, prosperous republic. He began by convincing a skeptical American government that the border between the two countries must be secured against marauders, so that the American army would not have to cross the Rio Grande to chase cattle thieves, Indians, or bandits. Resisting American pressures to send patrols into the wastelands of northern Mexico, Diaz started policing it with rurales, who kept the peace and earned Diaz American plaudits.

In the 1880s, as he centralized his authority, Diaz opened the country to speculators, engineers, and promoters of all stripes. Mexico would be modernized with foreign technology and talent. The republic joined the list of “civilized” nations on the gold standard. Its foreign trade jumped markedly; its exports diversified. And its economic ties to the United States multiplied: In 1872, when Juarez died, Americans purchased 36 percent of Mexican exports; by 1890, 75 percent. American capital and technology poured into mining, railroading, and oil exploration. The American presence was fittingly symbolized in 1881 when the New York legislature incorporated the Mexican Southern Railroad and named Ulysses S. Grant as its first president.

And Diaz patronizingly protected the foreigner, removing legal obstacles to foreign concerns and assuring a ready supply of unskilled labor for their use. Privilege went to foreigners to such degrees that it was commonly observed that Mexico was the parent of aliens and the stepparent of Mexicans. By 1910, fully 75 percent of the mines and 50 percent of the oil fields belonged to Americans.

After 1900, as his power became more entrenched, Diaz grew increasingly apprehensive about the large American presence in Mexico. His Central American gestures on behalf of Zelaya were in part aimed at offsetting American influence, and he provided concessions to British oil interests as a way of countering the enormous amount of American capital invested in Mexican petroleum.

But it was not American capital that brought Diaz down eight months after the 1910 celebration. As he aged, he became mellower; his associates, uncertain about the succession, began maneuvering furiously behind the scenes. They became even more frantic after Diaz declared in 1908 in a famous interview with an American journalist, James Creelman, that he had guided Mexico into the twentieth century and the nation was now ready for democracy. His retirement would coincide with the centennial in 1910. In the aftermath of the interview with Creelman there was a flurry of political activity. New parties appeared, and angry voices, silenced by Diaz for thirty years, spoke harshly against the political system the dictator had created.

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Filed under economics, Mexico, nationalism, U.S.

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