WHY have the Communists not done better in Mexico? To a casual observer, conditions in that country have long seemed to favor them, and from the early twenties through the late thirties many Americans feared that they would eventually gain control of the country. Not only have the Communists failed to do that, they have not even gained significant strength. In looking for an explanation we should first recall that where the Communists have obtained complete control--Russia, Eastern Europe and China--they did so during especially critical periods involving the collapse of existing authority during or following a world war. In Mexico, such a situation did exist in the second decade of this century, but when the Communists arrived on the scene they found themselves thwarted by the success of the Mexican Revolution, which had gained sufficient momentum to withstand any encroachment. At times the Communists have seemed to be gaining a disturbing influence; but the character of the Mexican, the devotion of the leaders to the ideology of their own revolution, their success in creating enough stability to permit the gradual economic development of the country, together with the impact of the United States, have so far combined to defeat them.

The Mexican Revolution started its active phase in 1910 as a revolt against the strong one-man rule of Porfirio Díaz. Though it was marked by violence in various forms during the first decade, it had a good deal to show for itself by the time the Russian Communists began sending their propaganda and their agents out into the world. Whatever the Communists seemed to be promising, the Mexican revolutionists were able to equal, and even to better. Agrarian reform, nationalization of industry, and social security were carried out by the Mexicans under their own momentum and with little, if any, help from the Communists. To the extent that labor ideology played a part, the Mexican Revolution grew out of an anarcho-syndicalism rather than Marxism. The brothers Flores Magón were the prophets of the Revolution during the first decade of the twentieth century, and though Karl Marx was respected by them and their disciples, he was not their main inspiration. The I.W.W. (International Workers of the World) was the non-Mexican organization with which the active Revolution was most closely associated.

The ideals of the Mexican Revolution were incorporated in the 1917 Constitution and, in the 40 years that have since elapsed, a constitutional government has brought Mexican practice remarkably close to those ideals--closer than many people would have predicted a few years ago. Remarkably, too, these ideals have dominated the army. Except for one or two disgruntled generals in the early days, who carried few followers with them, there has never been any indication of Communist success in infiltrating the Mexican Army. This is important, because the Communists have not triumphed anywhere without first winning and then using the military.

The Communists have also failed to find themselves a real leader. No Mexican revolutionary leader unfurled the Communist banner. The nearest proximation, Vicente Lombardo Toledano, came from the intellectual class, not from the military or the workers. He has lived in opulent style and has never dared to break with the Government. As a consequence the workers have considered him merely another politician, with undertones of insincerity and opportunism. He accepted a mission from Moscow during the later stages of the Mexican Revolution, and carried it out intelligently and efficiently, but his leadership was more respected abroad than in Mexico.

The official Communist Party (P.C.M.) is small and getting smaller. The leaders seem to be afraid of new members and new ideas, while the members themselves are reluctant to discuss anything that looks controversial. A little more vitality, but very little, is shown by the Communist-supported Partido Obrero Campesino de México. Neither the P.C.M. nor the P.O.C.M. had enough support to register as a party in the last election. There is more life in the Partido Popular (P.P.), of which Lombardo Toledano has retained control with great difficulty and after a bitter party fight. In the last election it was officially credited with only 75,000 votes, although the actual number may have been somewhat larger. Indeed, the official government party, the Party of Revolutionary Institutions (P.R.I.), is thoroughly in control of the political situation and appears unchallenged from any quarter.

To be sure, Communists occupy a number of important posts in the field of education, and some schools are dominated by Communists. Much of the economic literature reflects Marxist thinking, and during the last few years there has been a recrudescence of Communism in the universities, although those who talk the line are often ridiculed by their colleagues. The Petroleum Workers Union is infiltrated with Communists and in the area of Monterrey the Railway Workers Union appears to be controlled by them. The Electrical Workers Union has one Communist in high office. The principal workers' organizations, however--notably the Confederation of Mexican Workers and the Miners Syndicate--are all in the hands of anti-Communists. Tolerance of Communists enables them to exploit local situations under special circumstances, and sympathy with Soviet Russia is often shown by individuals, such as Lázaro Cárdenas, as a hedge against United States influence, or perhaps out of spite. But Communist activity in Mexico adds up to very little in comparison to that in other countries which seem at first glance to be similarly situated.

II

The failure of the Communist Party to make a better showing in Mexico is not due to lack of trying, at least for the first two decades. Communist agents came to Mexico as early as 1917. Among them were the Hindu, Manabendra Nath Roy, and Linn E. Gale, a deserter from the United States Army. They had some initial success but fought each other and both were eventually expelled by the Government for interfering in Mexican labor organizations. The Soviets sent over other foreigners: a Japanese named Sen Katayama; Borodin, sometimes described as a Russian and sometimes as an American of Russian origin; an American, Roberto Haberman; a girl of Russian origin named Natasha Hichelowna; and later, foreigners of Latin American origin. They started fighting amongst themselves, however, and one faction, controlled by Haberman, exposed the others as Russian spies, with the result that eventually the lot of them were expelled from Mexican labor organizations.

In 1924, Mexico recognized the Soviet Union and a Russian Legation was established in Mexico City. One of its officials remarked in private that the historic mission of the Mexican proletariat would be to sacrifice itself as "shock troops" in the approaching battle against the United States, to save the international proletariat from one of the strongest protectors of capitalism.[i] Apparently in furtherance of this plan, the Legation obtained invitations for many labor and peasant leaders, as well as intellectuals, to travel to Russia. Upon their return from Moscow they showed their appreciation by joining a society called "The Friends of the U.S.S.R."

The Communists organized, at least on paper, the Confederación Latino-Americano de Trabajadores, an inter-American labor organization, and its Mexican member, the Confederación Sindical Unitaria de Mexico. Their Moscow connections were exposed, however, and both organizations fell to pieces. Soviet interference in the agrarian reform movement and the Communist infiltration into the 1926 railway strike caused the Mexican Government to take steps to repress their activities. The Russians played up to Portes Gil when he became President in 1928, but their prosperity was short-lived. In 1929, President Ortiz Rubio started an anti-Communist campaign, deporting two active Russian agents, Blanckwell and Rozovski, and in the following year he severed relations with the Soviet Union, expelling the entire Legation.

When Cárdenas stepped into the Presidency in 1936, attempts were made again by the Russians to interfere in government affairs. Cárdenas at first repulsed them, but after he and Calles had their falling out, the National Revolutionary Party (P.N.R.) accepted Communist members, and Cárdenas also recognized the Communist Party. Vicente Lombardo Toledano, who had allied himself with Cárdenas, was invited to Moscow, and upon his return he embraced the Communist leader, Hernán Laborde, in public. During this period the Communists sought to establish a Popular Front, and they managed to convince many sectors of the public that they were the power behind the throne. President Cárdenas' leftist bent and his recognition of the Communist Party caused many people to espouse the Communist cause because they thought they had to do so in order to get jobs in the Government.

Cárdenas' leftist policies in connection with the land reform and the expropriation of the oil companies' properties, while admittedly parallel to Communist thinking, were actually Mexican in origin. They were based on principles which had been written into the 1917 Constitution. Cárdenas was basically anti-American in his outlook and he was not above using the Communists to offset the influence of the United States. He did not, however, resume diplomatic relations with the U.S.S.R., and his freedom from complete subjection to international Communism is shown by his inviting Trotsky to take asylum in Mexico. And when Trotsky was assassinated, Cárdenas delivered a thorough condemnation of Stalinism. He also denounced the Russians when they invaded Finland. His attacks on the Communists before the end of his administration actually placed them in a difficult situation in Mexico, and the Stalin-Hitler Pact compounded their confusion. That Cárdenas was not committed even to an inflexible leftist philosophy is indicated by the choice of his successor. He strongly endorsed, if he did not actually choose, General Manuel Avila Camacho, who was certain to incline the Government to the right.

With Germany's attack on Russia, sentiment changed and, under pressure from the United States after Pearl Harbor, diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union were resumed. To represent them in Mexico, the Russians sent the notorious Ambassador Oumansky, who was outspoken in his plans for the development of Communism both in Mexico and in all Latin America. Taking advantage of the popular sympathy which it commanded, the Soviet Union made a strong effort during this period to build up the Communist following below the Rio Grande, including Mexico. Oumansky's death in an airplane accident put the brakes on what seemed to be a movement of great danger to the United States and its position in the hemisphere.

Since the end of the war the American press has carried many reports of Communism in Mexico. The statements of Diego Rivera and the movements of Lombardo Toledano have been duly recorded. The Soviet Embassy has indeed been active. Yet, for a variety of reasons, the trend of Mexican politics and labor has actually been away from Communism. We may now turn to a more generalized answer to the question, why the Communists have done so poorly in Mexico.

III

Mexicans are deeply religious. Although the Mexican Revolution was to some degree a revolution against the power of the Church, and although the Church was often persecuted with all of the power of the Government, particularly during the tenure of President Calles, this did not make the Mexican people any less religious. Religion to the Mexicans is related to a nationalism that is deeper than mere patriotism and deeper than any loyalty to the Revolution. It is symbolized in the tradition of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Mexicans, high and low, believe that the Virgin bestows special favors on Mexicans. She is a national symbol, a unifying force, stronger than the Royal Family is for England or the Constitution for the United States. As a symbol, the Virgin is more personal, more protective--the ideal mother of all Mexicans, worshipped by all Mexicans.

It must not be forgotten that the Mexican Revolution, though to some extent carried out at the expense of the Church, was imbued with a kind of Christian-like spirit; its purpose was to help the underdog. Religion was not destroyed, and because of his religion the Mexican has something to look forward to. There is no atheistic void awaiting the arrival of a Communist faith. In comparison to many Roman Catholic countries with considerable Communist strength, Mexico is a land where the sincerity of religious conviction is strong relative to the power of the Church.

Another obstacle to Communism is the character of the Mexican himself. One of his outstanding traits is what in Spanish is called desconfianza--a distrust combined with cynicism and even fear. It is probably the result of generations of Spanish, French, English and United States domination of the Indian, accompanied by the white man's constant assertion of superiority and the constant downgrading of anyone with Indian blood. In the pure Indian this has been partly counterbalanced in recent times by the growing recognition of indigenous arts and crafts. The mestizo, or person of mixed Spanish and Indian blood who forms the dominant group in present-day Mexico, combines this distrust with something of the egotism and individualism seen in his Spanish forebears. His complex character is illustrated in his frequent use of the word "gana." Tener gana (just "to want to") seems to be an accepted reason for actions ranging from flirting with a pretty girl to committing murder. The use of the expression in explaining someone's strange action is a sort of recognition of the individual's right not to have his motives probed into too deeply. This psychology enables the Mexican to accept what he has obtained or thinks he can get from his homemade revolution, but makes him distrustful of any organization or ideology that can be shown to have a foreign sponsorship. The identification of Vicente Lombardo Toledano with Soviet Communism has undoubtedly been a prime factor in his declining prestige since his pre-Communist days when President Cárdenas elevated him to a commanding position in the labor movement.[ii]

The United States and its citizens have played an important rôle in creating the desconfianza of the Mexican and at times we have been the principal target of this distrust. But it would be wrong to assume that all Mexicans are anti-American. The Mexican both admires and fears the United States. He admires our democracy, but fears our "imperialism." He tends to feel inferior racially and in terms of economic and political developments, but superior in culture and spiritual affairs. Yet, for good or for ill, American culture is having a tremendous impact in Mexico, especially among the newly rich class. The young people of the upper and middle classes imitate American habits, including a liking for Elvis Presley. It is interesting to note that in a recent poll of Mexican school children, in answer to the question, "Would you like to be an American?", 57 percent of the boys and 67 percent of the girls replied, "Yes." Once upon a time, France was the country to which the educated Mexicans sent their boys for study, but today it is the United States. As in many countries which have come late to the industrial age, Mexicans are having difficulty distinguishing between aspects of United States culture which they wish to adopt and those they would like to reject in order to preserve their own cultural integrity.

Many of the Mexican's political concepts came from the United States. For example, the first Mexican Constitution was formulated on the basis of ours. But the principal American influence is exercised through economic channels, and this eventually affects politics. The mass of the people may be unconscious of the impact of the United States, but since the great economic expansion of Mexico an increasing number are aware that they are at least indirectly dependent upon the United States for their material existence. During the administrations of Presidents Avila Camacho, Alemán and Ruíz Cortínes, private enterprise has been given many opportunities. Recently there have been signs of a swing in the other direction, but on the whole it can be said that the Mexican Government is committed to promoting private enterprise. A considerable portion of this is financed by American capital and this association creates pressures on Mexico to adjust its policies to those of the United States.

Even labor circles in Mexico have looked toward the United States. Samuel Gompers had close connections with Mexican labor leaders and contacts have been maintained up to the present time. Although Mexican labor has at times seemed to be inclined towards Communism, in general it considers the United States a better model to follow than the U.S.S.R.

Of course, too, the very nearness of American power has been an important factor in Mexico's resistance to Communism, especially in the critical period of the 1920s. Like many peoples, Mexicans respect power, and that of the United States is very close. It has been said that Mexicans fundamentally fear the United States will some day use its power in the way that they themselves would use it if they had it. Though Mexicans may be tolerant towards Communism and Communists within their country, and though they are very sensitive to any American interference in their internal affairs, they believe that the United States would not sit idly by watching the triumph of Communism within their borders.

The most decisive element in Mexican resistance to Communism during most of the period since 1920 has been the power of the Mexican Government at home. It is often said that the Latin countries are still experimenting with different forms of government in an effort to find one that is suitable for their peoples. Mexico may have found the answer, at least for itself. The political stability of Mexico during the last 35 years has been remarkable. Each change of administration has been peaceful and constitutional. The president cannot succeed himself and, although he has had the decisive word in the choice of his successor, it is noteworthy that succeeding presidents have asserted their independence, sometimes to the point of repudiating their predecessors' policies. Calles, for example, selected Cárdenas, who reversed Calles' policies and forced him out of the country; and Cárdenas must have foreseen that his leftist policies would be revised when he gave his blessing to the candidacy of Avila Camacho. The process of selection is not completely arbitrary, for it involves consultation with many different people, including ex-presidents and the leaders of the various factions of the P.R.I. But the president must make the final decision, and the man he selects is sure to be elected; the Government party has never failed to put its candidate in office. This is not democracy in our sense of the term, for the people have no real choice; they merely ratify the selection made by the ruling group, headed by the outgoing president. Yet the system has worked for nearly four decades and has given a stability to the country while national energies were devoted to economic and social development.

Once selected, the candidate for the presidency has the whole P.R.I. organization under his orders. He chooses the candidates for the Supreme Court, the Congress and the state governorships. Once elected, he does not have to account to anyone, although he must conciliate the interests of those who helped him to power. He chooses his cabinet, of which the most important members for controlling the country are the Ministers of Defense, of Government (Interior) and of Labor; they are likely to be strong men whose loyalty to the president and to the P.R.I. is beyond question. The Minister of Government controls the police; and the Minister of Labor has great power in his field; he licenses unions to operate (a privilege that can be withheld), he declares strikes to be legal or illegal, and, by means of political patronage, holds labor leaders responsible for keeping social peace in their unions.

The Government controls the superstructure of Mexican society through the Cámara Nacional de Industria, the Cámara Nacional de Comercio, the Cámara Nacional de Industria de Transformación, the Cámara de Hierro y Acero, and the Banco de Mexico. It controls the press through the distribution of newsprint. Direct contacts are maintained between officials of the Government and the editors or publishers of newspapers. All papers at times attack the Government and this gives the semblance of a free press. Government interference is on an ad hoc basis, so that unless instructions are received publications are fairly free. Through its control of the press, the Government effectively limits the opportunity afforded leftist intellectuals to publicize their views. In view of these controls of the political machinery, the labor unions and the press, there is very little chance for Communism or for any other ideology to make much headway unless the Government wishes it to do so.

A successful tactic of the Government party is to absorb elements from the right and from the left that may look threatening. The P.R.I. is all-inclusive, embracing all shades of opinion. Leftist leaders are brought within the party fold, not to direct, but to be controlled. The only means of getting ahead politically in Mexico is to belong to the P.R.I. This discourages other parties and keeps them small. The P.R.I. is widely criticized and can hardly be said to have the admiration of the people, but they do not dispute its power.

Another technique, already mentioned, is to "tolerate Communists." One of the Mexican's characteristics is his liking for the underdog. Communists have never been persecuted in Mexico, and as a result, there are no Communist martyrs among the Mexicans. Cárdenas' favors to the leftists actually created a reaction toward the right, even in the universities. The policy of tolerance has, therefore, actually aided Mexico's resistance to Communism.

Still another factor has been the rise of the middle class. The lowest class of Mexicans probably lives no better now than it did in the time of Porfirio Díaz, and in absolute numbers this class has increased. Relatively speaking, however, the middle class has grown much faster, and this is composed of people who not only believe that by fair means or foul they can advance themselves in the world, but have done it or seen it done. The P.R.I. is devoted to the establishment of a mestizo capitalist class to replace the foreigners who have been so important economically in the past. One of the party's methods is to use "regulated graft" for furthering industrialization. The opportunities that this affords for the accumulation of property leaves little room for temptation by a Communist ideology.

The rise of the middle class has been made possible by the economic progress of Mexico in the last 15 years or more. First there was the wartime boom born of the great demand for Mexican raw materials, and since World War II Mexico has followed the upward economic surge that has characterized the United States. The economy might be called a "directed economy." Official intervention has developed needed industries but has left large sectors open for private initiative. It is estimated that 14 percent of the national income is reinvested each year through taxation and currency devaluation. An index of the increasing prosperity is given by comparing the 300 million peso budget of 1942 with the 1956 budget of 5,700 million pesos. Even allowing for the decline in value of the peso--from 4.65 to 12.50 for the dollar--the increase in the budget (from $64,500,000 to $456,000,000) shows an enormous increase in taxable resources. Although this prosperity cannot be considered a permanent element in Mexican resistance to Communism, it has been significant during the postwar years.

One important point remains to be considered in explaining Communism's lack of success in Mexico. It has been suggested that the Communists have not tried to create a large movement there. The basis for this thinking is that Mexico, by giving asylum to all kinds of refugees--and they include King Carol of Rumania, Leon Trotsky, Spanish Republicans, Guatemalan exiles and American Communists fleeing from the F.B.I.--has become a convenient center for Soviet propaganda and espionage. Communist exiles, especially from the Western Hemisphere, are welcome there and can serve as liaison with their co-religionists in other American countries. Through them propaganda can be carried on throughout the hemisphere. Moreover, the Rio Grande is relatively easy to cross and Mexico is therefore an ideal base of operations for Communist espionage in the United States. It follows, according to this line of reasoning, that a large Communist movement in Mexico would only attract attention and would cause the other countries of the hemisphere, especially the United States, to increase their precautions.

Whether these assumptions are valid today we cannot tell. But we have seen that in the '20s, '30s and early '40s the Communists did try to create a strong position in Mexico and it appears that they failed because of the internal resistance they encountered. The possibility remains that since the death of Ambassador Oumansky they have realized that they were making no progress and have reduced their effort there. It does not necessarily follow that the Soviet Union is happy with the situation. A stable government, a rising middle class, general prosperity and the accomplishment of objectives which the Communists call their own do not serve their interests in other parts of Latin America or of the world.

IV

Forty years ago Mexico was underdeveloped, unstable and ripe for leftist leadership. Considering its apparent vulnerability and strategic importance, it is remarkable that Mexico escaped the Communist embrace. But the Mexican Revolution had gotten a head start and this nationalist movement went ahead on its own momentum, almost oblivious to the challenge of the foreign ideology. It showed a remarkable capacity for peaceful change of leadership and flexibility in moving toward its goals. The leadership by the Government has been strong but adaptable. It has sensed when and where it could be ruthless and when and where it was more advantageous to be tolerant. The power of the Church was challenged and broken but the religious feelings of the people were not dulled. The economy of the country was disrupted by the seizure of the large agricultural holdings and the foreign oil properties, but conditions were created that permitted large numbers of individuals to better themselves materially and a middle class to emerge. Although tolerant of individual dissidents, including Communists, the Mexican Revolution and the political machinery which it established have provided a haven for all the politically ambitious, those of varying colorations being absorbed into the revolutionary party.

As a result of these factors, combined perhaps with the proximity of the United States, Communism has had little appeal, whether as a theory, a discipline, or as a road for material advancement. So far Mexicans have shown that an indigenous nationalistic movement can run its course under its own steam, refuting the frequent assumption that nationalism is inevitably used by the Communists for their own ends.

[i] Ricardo Treviño, "El Espionaje Comunista y la Evolución Doctrinaria del Movimiento Obrero en México." Mexico City: A. del Bosque, 1952, p. 26.

[ii] Space does not permit a thorough discussion of Mexican psychology, but for those who would delve more deeply I highly recommend "El Perfil del Hombre y la Cultura en México," by Dr. Samuel Ramos. A recent and revised edition is published by Espasa-Calpe Argentina S.A., Buenos Aires-Mexico.

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  • S. WALTER WASHINGTON, lecturer in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Foreign Affairs, University of Virginia; First Secretary of Embassy in Mexico, 1945-48, and in Madrid, 1948-50.
  • More By S. Walter Washington