How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
ALL Mexican problems are closely connected with the question of transportation. If a revolution breaks out, the first act of the revolutionists is to cut the railway line so that this superior means of pursuit cannot be used when they mount their horses and flee after raiding some small village. If a new mine or oil well is discovered, the first question asked is, "How far is it from transportation?" Mexico is a vast, thinly settled country, with great extremes of climate, soil, and topography, ranging from the wide arid deserts and mountains of the north, where minerals are the only thing of value, to the densely wooded flats along the sluggish rivers of the tropical zone. Under these conditions the necessity for adequate systems of transportation was early foreseen and railroad building which began in 1842 proceeded rather steadily up to 1910, when was ushered in the period of revolutions.
If we glance at the railway map of Mexico we see a network of railways connecting the different sections of the thickly settled central plateau. Long, spidery arms reach up into the thinly settled arid deserts of the north and down into the equally thinly settled but over-watered tropical lowlands of the south. It is perhaps significant that revolutions have never broken out in the thickly settled central part where communication is easy, but have always come either from the far-distant north in Sonora or Chihuahua, or the southern reaches of Oaxaca and Chiapas. General Porfirio Diaz, who led the revolution which gave him control of the country for over thirty years, came from Oaxaca. All the later revolutions have come out of the north. Whether for good or ill, the lack of communications favors revolutions and the development of transportation systems tends toward stability.
In spite of this, however, railway building in Mexico has always been projected and carried out from the view-point of commercial and economic development rather than for military purposes. The reason is that all the railways of Mexico have been planned by foreign capitalists. Their engineers were interested in opening up new territory and increasing production, and in carrying inbound and outbound commerce with foreign countries more cheaply for the trading public at the same time that they made dividends for their stockholders.
The first railway in Mexico was built to connect the thickly-settled central plateau with Vera Cruz, the main port of communication with the outer world. The next two lines were those long arms running up to the border at Laredo and El Paso, to connect with the United States. They really were part of that great railway building movement which between 1870 and 1890 threw a network of railways over the middle-western part of the United States and reached across to the distant Pacific. Also in connection with this movement, American railway interests projected a line down the west coast of Mexico which should form a connecting link between the west coast of the United States and the populated center of Mexico. This third arm has not yet been pushed through,
but lacks only forty or fifty miles -- the section between Tepic and La Quemada. This section presents construction difficulties, but it will probably be finished up early in 1927.
Fifteen years of political turmoil have shown that these long lines of railway through sparsely-settled country are very vulnerable to incipient revolutions. It is so easy to burn a bridge, cut the wires, mount and scamper away. Nevertheless, the central government finds railways much better than nothing; the only possible method of pursuit is to send troops to the point in question, repair the bridge and start from there after the marauders. The latest revolt has broken out among the Yaqui Indians in Sonora, the one section of the country which has no railway communication with the center. Troops must be brought by sea via Manzanillo, sent overland through the mountains, or, as has been done at times in the past, sent by permission through the United States. The need of railway development from a military as well as an economic standpoint is obvious to the Mexican Government.
But this is not all. With the increasing use of the automobile in Mexico, its enormous development in the United States, and the fact that highways are not so vulnerable as railways to attacks by small forces, it has become obvious that the automobile highway can supplement the railway to advantage. The Mexican Government has therefore embarked on a highway building program which will not only contribute to the economic welfare of Mexico but will also supplement the railways as a stabilizing force in the political sense. This program has begun with work on a main north and south highway, from Laredo to Mexico City and from there southward to the Guatemalan boundary; in addition a lateral highway is to reach down to the Pacific coast from Mexico City. Other routes are contemplated, but so far efforts have been concentrated on these primary lines and expenditures have been made during the past year at the rate of about $500,000 per month.
With the development of these railways and highways, revolutions should become more difficult to organize and economic and political stability should be easier to maintain.