Mexico – Oil And Politics

THAT Mexico’s destinies should be influenced if not dominated by the oil interests is natural and inevitable. These constitute such a paramount element in her economic life that even domestic politics in that country is now wedded to them for better or for worse.

The American oil companies in Mexico recently announced that during the first quarter of 1921 oil stood for no less than 62.1 per cent of that country’s total exports to the United States, while of its principal imports (manufactures of iron and steel) 40 per cent enter very largely into the oil industry. Thus it is petroleum that supplies the staple of Mexico’s foreign trade and industry and will have to bear the brunt of taxation. The bulk of the revenue is drawn from that, and before other forms of commerce and industry can be fully revived or be called to life to vie with oil, the treaty, it is assumed, will have been signed and the Constitution amended or abolished, or else Mexico will be on the way to Cubanisation. That is the current belief in the United States. No wonder the attention of natives and foreigners is focussed upon the sub-soil and its treasures or that the contemporary history of the Republic is soaked through and through with oil. But the allegation that the oil men have lately broken bounds and encroached upon the domain of politics should not blind one to the fact that certain of their grievances were genuine and their demand for the protection of private property justified at least in law.

The owners of the oil fields, the organisers of the independent industries, the capitalists and the shippers are mostly men of English speech. The land which they exploit was bought or leased, sometimes at very low prices and rents, but in most cases in formal accordance with the legislation in vigour at the time. Hence their titles are on the whole juridically unassailable. On other and higher grounds their titles have been called in question, but with this aspect of the matter we are not concerned. It was that legislation, then, wise or unwise, which guaranteed their rights to the produce of the subsoil and warranted a large expenditure of money, brains and labour in research and exploitation. It is true that they enriched themselves rapidly, but they also benefited indirectly and to a far too limited extent the country whence they drew and exported their wealth. And, like most foreigners of English speech, the bulk of them were well-meaning, blustering and ill-informed and their attempts to get on with the natives kindly, clumsy and unsuccessful.

One day the law which had protected their enterprise was partially altered by the legislative enactment which has given rise to the sequence of grievances, protests and problems that now threaten the sovereignty of the Republic. For at bottom the stake at present at issue is the sovereignty of the Mexican State and not merely protection of rights or redress of grievances.

According to Mexican accounts, there was no active cooperation between American investors and Mr. Fall until the down-fall of the Carranza Administration. Most of the former professed to be eager only for the enjoyment of their legal rights. They occasionally hinted at intervention in wild unmeasured terms, but their deliberate aim as expressed to others was professedly unpolitical. That was a prudent attitude. For so long as Carranza retained the reins of power there was no need of any coordinate action on the part of the politicians and the oil groups, because it was manifest to all that his policy if persisted in after March, 1921, would end by provoking intervention. And there was a general consensus of opinion that his successor would uphold that policy unflinchingly. It was for this welcome conjuncture that the Fall Report was hurriedly terminated and published. Had the salutary revolutionary movement headed by General Obregón been trampled out, as Carranza believed and assured me it would, be, there is not the slightest reason to doubt that American intervention, together with all that that implies, was a foregone conclusion, little though the late President realised the danger. And certain of the foreign interests were waiting for that and preparing to profit by it.

At this posture of affairs I visited the Republic. I came equipped with only a general knowledge of Mexican affairs at their points of contact with world politics and of Mexican history, including that of the Maya civilisation and language which I had studied many years before. My first step was to betake myself to the study of the political and social conditions, to bring to bear upon them an independent judgment and freely to record the results of my observations in the light in which they appeared to me. I was fettered by no preconceived ideas or purpose.

I found that the potential results of the great revolution which had placed Senor Carranza at the head of the Republic had been exchanged for the small money of personal and partisan aggrandisement. A revolution can justify itself only by working desirable changes, by setting up a better ordering than that which it pulled down. And this justification was lacking. Local, State, national and international affairs were going from bad to worse. The misery of the common people was widespread and intense. This I could attest as an eye witness, for I went among the lowest and most forlorn sections of the population in several cities, visited their squalid dens, conversed with the sick, came in contact with some who were homeless, diseased and dying uncomplainingly. Only the persons who have beheld the results of the Allied blockade on the children and the women of Central Europe can paint a fairly adequate mental picture of some of the scenes and types that came to my notice. Financially, economically and politically the inhabitants of one of the richest countries on the globe had sunk into a Serbonian bog of misery and disease and were fast going under. The Federal State was little more than a board of directors working for its own enrichment and that of its friends. Its every undertaking resembled a structure raised on the quicksands. The conviction was forced upon me that with Carranza or a puppet of his choice grasping the helm the Ship of State was doomed to flounder in United States waters and to receive a pilot from that Republic. That was evident to the dullest apprehension. The men of money desired only that it should be-come widely known and that the American public should be properly keyed to the coming transformation of Mexico.

The principal objects of the Carranza Government as they seemed to me were the establishment of the régime on solid foundations and the perpetuation in power of the President’s partisans. All foreign and domestic policies were at that time being carefully subordinated to those aims. I found no united nation, no self-conscious classes, rio compact organism. Before a group had time to crystallise and become the nucleus of an influential political or social organism, it was dissolved in the crucible and poured anew into the seething mass. There was no middle class, no farmers’ class, no constitutional opposition. Every section of the population which in virtue of its special interests, material or spiritual, of its traditions, aims or ideas might be expected to favour a fixed independent policy or to form a solid kernel around which other groups might rally had been disintegrated. For among the postulates of the system were an indifferent or at any rate a quiescent population and the absence of organised opposition. And these postulates were secured by threats of severe punishment. The conclusion was forced upon me that such a Government could not claim to be national, pacific, constitutional or stable and was therefore but a gliding shadow deserving no more than a chronological record.

From every view-point then Mexico seemed to me to be the embodiment of stagnation. There was no social, no political, no industrial movement in the country, no burning issues, no spiritual or intellectual life, no salutary contest between opposing principles, no established way of shaping public opinion or sentiment with a view of enlisting them in the service of men,—in a word, none of the various manifestations which denote and foster national vitality, nothing but stagnation and sullen resignation on the one hand and endless petty strife, more purposeless then the civil war of the Fronde, on the other hand. Under such conditions no political development or social growth, no satisfaction to the deepest and best elements of human nature, seemed possible. Politico-social reconstruction was out of the question so long as the Carranza régime, which was partly answerable for this deplorable condition, held the field. And many of the signs and tokens pointed to its surviving, at any rate until the advent and action of the Republican Administration in the United States. The conclusion was drawn by interested foreign observers that the regenerative force necessary and adequate to infuse a new spirit into the country could come only from without because in Mexico itself under prevailing conditions collectivity of effort was an impossibility. Hence the foreign re-formers could content themselves with watching, waiting and bruiting abroad the true state of affairs.

At the end of Carranza’s political road, therefore, which seemed bound to be disastrous, lurked intervention or worse. On the only occasion when I conversed with him I ventured to intimate to him in courteous language that I was convinced of this. For so far as one could then see there was no tertium quid worth considering. A revolution was indeed a possibility and is assumed by onlookers in the United States to be sempiternally impending. None of the interested spectators, political or industrial, anticipated an improvement from any such upheaval. On the contrary, they expected confusion to be worse confounded and intervention to be more peremptorily called for. And from this chaos they would evolve an order all their own.

And therein lay the source of their fateful miscalculation.

For while I was still investigating conditions, a sudden and root-reaching change came over the situation. A deus ex machina in the person of General Obregón appeared and put a wholly different complexion on the national and inter-national problems by introducing an element of transformation. At first neither the nature nor the vastness of this metamorphosis was realised by those foreign spectators who are wont to lump all Mexicans in one class and label it “inferior” or “benighted.” But as soon as I began to record my impressions of General Obregón, my estimate of the extent to which his influence would upset current expectations and projected policies and my conviction that in his case the line between biography and national history would shortly fade away, the attitude of those interested foreigners under-went a noteworthy change. They belittled the importance of the downfall of Carranza and the advent of the new men and sought to force an issue on the strength of the Fall Report which Obregón’s assurances had consigned to the limbo of history. They also strove by every means in their power to hinder American excursionists from visiting Mexico and published an appeal to certain Chambers of Commerce with this object. They would fain cause Mexico’s history to stop short on the last page of the Fall Report and direct the ensuing stream of public indignation against the Mexican Republic, while ignoring the complete change in the situation which the just and friendly polity of the new Administration had imported into the problem. Translated into plain English, there curious manoeuvres meant that the politico-capitalist group was determined to persist in its policy of praeter-diplomatic pressure—or in plain English, intervention, —for the purpose of depriving the greatest and wealthiest of the Latin-American Republics of its sovereignty.

Thenceforward they announced their conviction, to which they still hold fast, that no promises of the Mexican Government, no legislative acts of the Mexican Congress, can provide them with conditions which they deem advantageous enough for their enterprise. They long sighed for the halcyon days of Don Porfirio when fear of Yankee intervention was the “fantasma” which moved the Mexican Executive to accord them all that they asked for. And as none of the “coming men” whom they flattered and disciplined and prepared for presidential duties contrived to reach the goal of his ambitions, they lost heart for a time but continued to keep a look-out for the “man of destiny” who would enable them to execute their design.

After a while—so the Mexican narrative runs—they joined forces with the enterprising politician in the United States who was believed to be conversant with every phase of Mexican affairs, in fact with most matters excepting the psychology of the people. Desirous of making a dent in the history of his country, this statesman drew up a programme in which he unfolded his own conceptions of the relations that should subsist between Mexico and the United States. It included the treaty which Mr. Hughes has since made his own, the abolition of certain articles of the Constitution, preferential treatment of Americans in commerce and industry, an arrangement which would virtually give to the State Department in Washington the rights and privileges of guardianship, a sort of Platt amendment for choice. And all that is now lacking to its realisation are the occasion and the Mexican man of des-tiny. The former would have been supplied by a revolution—it too failed to come off at the date fixed—or the perpetuation of Carranza’s policy, and the latter by one of two types of President : a fanatical obstinate anti-Yankee or a subservient tool who would consent to see Mexico’s needs eye-to-eye with the groups in question and to carry out its behests.

If Mexico is still a sovereign State to-day, it is because neither the occasion nor the man has been forthcoming. There is no revolution threatening. Peace and order have been re-established. Reforms of every kind are being pressed forward. Business has revived to such an extent that in the month of May, 1921, only four countries bought more goods in the United States than Mexico, who imported more than all the countries of South America by nearly two million dollars. The Federal Army has beer. reduced from 105,000 to 77,000 men and by the autumn it will number only 50,000. Despite the defective condition of much of the railways’ rolling stock the trains run almost on time and accidents are fewer in relation to the number of passengers than in France.

In this way the anticipated occasion was brilliantly warded off—and the realisation of the guardianship project which had reckoned with a totally different situation had to be postponed. The economic grievances wrongly ascribed to Article XXVII of the Constitution were next relied upon. Fears were expressed that oil properties would be confiscated. These apprehensions, however, were speedily dispelled first by President de la Huerta and then by President Obregón. The latter has solemnly promised to respect all property rights in the country and that Mexico’s debts will be paid to the uttermost farthing and he has shown that he means what he said. But what was most resented in his public utterances was his determination to see that the people of Mexico, whose treasures have for ages been flowing ceaselessly into the coffers of strangers, shall have a fair share of what still remains in the soil.

In this way the ground was completely cut from under the feet of those restless foreign corporations which were pressing forward their scheme of readjustment. And Mexicans hoped and believed that with these dangers dislodged a complete and satisfactory understanding with the United States Government would be a mere matter of days or weeks. But the camel’s nose was suddenly thrust into the Mexican tent and a treaty insisted upon as a condition antecedent to recognition—whereupon the hopes of the would-be ethical guardians revived, that the rest of the camel would shortly follow.

That the American people whose sense of fair play is almost proverbial approves this procedure is not believed by Mexicans who have resided in the United States. A noteworthy section of the American press expresses the same disbelief. Commenting on the admirable programme set forth by President Obregón in the New York World, that journal writes: “The Executive who stands for such a programme and the followers who uphold it are worthy of more consideration than is implied in demands from our State Department for immediate legislation defining constitutional provisions. The United States in assuming to dictate what laws Mexico shall pass does what it would not permit any foreign Power in its own case even to suggest. If there are interests in the United States that desire to postpone recognition in order to weaken the Obregón régime and prepare the way for a Government as amenable to outside discipline as was that of the Dictator Diaz, the continuing barrage of active Mexican propaganda may be easily understood.”

One can hardly blame the Mexicans for ascribing the various plots and outbreaks of the month of July—especially those the scene of which was the oil country—to that discontented element which alone would have profited by their success. Suspicion, we are assured, is borne out by tangible proof. If this be true, and a genuine plot is unmasked, one cannot affect surprise if those to whom the guilt is brought home, whoever they may be, are regarded by Mexicans as the most pestilent of their enemies. The day is not far distant when that evidence —if it exists—must be produced. The statement has been published by the Mexican press that at the conspirative meetings held by Robles Dominguez Cantu, Pablo Gonzalez and General Murghia, a representative of the oil companies from Washington was present.

But for those things the Mexican mind was prepared. Hence although they might arouse resentment they could not awaken surprise. What stirred the people to the quick was the disillusion caused by Mr. Hughes demand. They had built upon his sense of justice, his fervid honesty and his breadth of practical wisdom and were buoyed up with the hope that he would recognise the change that had taken place in Mexico, rate at its just value the work of social reconstruction which is going forward there and the readjustment of its relations with the United States, and would strike out a policy at once amicable, generous and congruous with these new and deciding facts. They still think highly of Mr. Hughes’ motives but deem them more interesting to the biographer than to the historian and they feel strongly about his Mexican policy.

During the years that elapsed between the promulgation of the new Constitution and the overthrow of the Carranza régime, all that was needed to put Mexico right with foreign States was the redemption of the plighted word of her President. And nothing would have been easier for her while Mr. Lansing was Secretary of State than to have settled on equitable and easy terms with her aggrieved neighbours; for the issues were then reduced to their narrowest compass and simplest forms, and even the oil companies might conceivably have been contented with strict justice. Why should any-thing more be exacted to-day? Every demand made by the State Department in Washington during those years of storm and distress has been acquiesced in by President Obregón and more. But the requirements of the Department have grown and been made to include a claim which amounts to an implicit denial of Mexico’s sovereignty. To constrain a State to sign a treaty to which it has a rooted objection con-notes a wholly new departure in international politics. And Mexico can hardly be expected to contribute to its establishment. It goes beyond the terms put forward by Mr. Lan-sing and rejected by Senor Carranza. It transcends the former demands of the oil companies and of other American investors. It is rooted in a wholly different soil. It is a new postulate, political in character, commensurate with Latin America in extent and cosmic in its bearings. In short, it is the foundation stone of the vast fabric which is destined to keep the world divided into a dual system of which one part would temporarily recognise the overlordship of the non-American peoples of English speech and the other the hegemony of the United States.

A formal treaty with Mexico did not become an official condition of settlement, still less of recognition, until Mr. Colby was appointed Secretary of State. And a treaty embodying what Mr. Fall termed “special agreements” and “recognition of the Monroe Doctrine” has, it appears, not been seriously contemplated at any time by the State Department. Even now Secretary Hughes has not formally adopted any portion of the Fall programme but one. The preamble of the scheme fathered by Mr. Fall gathers up the many rumours, facts, accusations and calumnies that lay scattered in the unfavourable judgments passed on Mexico for a number of years. His line of reasoning is simple. The Mexican governing class is pictured as devoid of the capacity for governing or building up. The nation which it impersonates is destructive by habit if not by nature and the political atmosphere in which it lives and works is mephitic. The bulk of the people, pillaged or neglected by the ruling group, has for generations been buffeted to and fro on the waves of misery and disease. Like the blind fish in certain cave-lakes one of its senses is atrophied. The whole Republic is in an advanced stage of decomposition. It recognises no moral, no legal restraint. Its plighted troth is worthless. To-day, there-fore, do what they may, Obregón and his fellow workers cannot possibly reorganise and maintain it on a basis which would challenge and receive the approval of any righteous State. Mexico’s only chance lies in securing the active and unremitting cooperation of the United States. And this cooperation should be given only on America’s terms which include all the privileges of ethical, financial and economic guardianship. Hence the sole sheet anchor of salvation is for the Mexican President to bow to the inevitable and smooth the way for its reception by the people. This is at once his opportunity and his probationary ordeal. Patriotism and personal interest alike should prompt him to turn the turbid rill of Mexico’s history into the mighty waters of America’s destinies. His countrymen would then be admitted to a share in the boons enjoyed only by the most progressive race of the world. Bending is better than being broken. But if he be too high-spirited to play the leading part in thus patriotically knuckling down, then his greatness will entail disaster and may lead to his country’s undoing.

It is fair to say that that is a practical corollary of the arbitrary premise that all Mexican promises and reforms are valueless. For if this be true it follows that, whether they are embodied in a bilateral treaty or a one-sided legislative or judicial act, they are not worth the paper on which they would be written. Any treaty under such circumstances would be valueless unless it conferred on the United States in Mexico as in Cuba the right of making its counsel heard and its power felt to countervail Mexican remissness.

Now Mr. Hughes’ demand for a treaty antecedent to recognition is the first step towards the realisation of these designs, however little he may suspect it. In this sense one may regard it as a temporary substitute for the “occasion” which as we saw is recognised as an indispensable condition to the imposition of the new relationship between the United States and Mexico. And determined efforts have since been made by persons whose identity may possibly be revealed by the law courts before these lines have seen the light to create an “occasion” incomparably more auspicious and to champion the “man of destiny.”

As for the man fitted to play the primary rôle prepared for him in this political mystery play, he too has been found but like so many of his compeers he has not yet reached the foot-lights. His qualifications are not exorbitant : he must be weak by temperament, compliant by reflection and mentally vacuous enough to serve as the channel through which good advice from the North may uninterruptedly flow to the Government and population of the Mexican Republic. The framers of the project lost sight of the resolve of the Mexican people to lead its own life and work out its salvation in its own fashion and of the circumstance that it resents being made virtuous by act of Congress, parasitical by treaty or wealthy by proxy.

As military intervention has an ugly ring, it is now rigourously excluded from the vocabulary of the foreign junta which would fain save Mexico in spite of herself. Their plan is less simple and more specious. Having found a duly qualified President—and there is said to be one now impatiently waiting abroad—the modus operandi would be some-what as follows: The President would first come to a secret understanding with the United States Government on the subject of the Constitution of 1917 and of the other concessions deemed indispensable to the establishment of stable friendly intercourse and would receive in return the promise of moral, financial and eventually military support and assistance in carrying out the concerted plan. The first step on the part of the State Department, after a definite refusal of recognition, would be a notice issued to the Mexican nation that the people of the United States would not war with them but would take effective measures to protect the lives and proper-ties of foreigners. And as Mexico would be still without a recognised government it would send warships to Vera Cruz and “a police force consisting of the naval and military forces of our Government into the Republic of Mexico to open and maintain open every line of communication between the city of Mexico and every sea-port and every border-port of Mexico.” This force once despatched, the compliant President, “acting in the highest interests of his country,” would fulminate a fiery protest against the foreign invaders, denounce their incursion as a violation of international right and summon them to withdraw at once and permit the Mexican people to settle. the matter without constraint and congruously with its interests and duties. Thereupon the foreign police force would be withdrawn in order to enable the Republic to reconsider its position. On this the President would issue a manifesto to the nation, deprecate the violation of its territory, point out that the menace was still hanging over its head and, in view of the material impossibility of successfully resisting the overwhelming force of the invader, would ask for extra-ordinary powers to accept the best conditions to be obtained. If these powers were accorded to him, he would employ them —always in the highest interests of the nation—for the purpose of concluding the secret compact already agreed upon. Should those powers be refused or should a rebellion break out at any stage of the proceedings the United States Government would step in to aid and abet the patriotic President by every means in its power, as it offered to aid and abet President Oreste Zamor of Haiti. The procedure is evidently stereotyped.

It is an instructive and illuminating detail that a firm belief was entertained by politicians and capitalists of note in the United States who currently pass for authorities on Mexican affairs that President Obregón would lend himself as chief actor to this international melodrama. On the psychological assumptions on which that belief was based and first-hand knowledge of which is now accessible, it would be unfruitful to dwell here. It may suffice to add that to any one who can truly claim acquaintanceship with General Obregón the sup-position was preposterous. Fabricius in ancient Rome whose name has become a synonym for incorruptible patriotism and loyalty was not better panoplied against temptation and menace than is the President of the Mexican Republic.

Schemes of this nature which take it for granted that no good can come out of Nazareth have had their natural effect on the minds of Mexican statesmen. They see, as they think, clearly, the interests which are being tirelessly furthered in their country under various high-sounding names and they consider them irreconcilable with the complete independence of the Republic. Hence their sullen opposition to the insertion of what they look upon as the thin edge of the wedge, in the shape of a covenant of friendship to be imposed by sheer force.

But General Obregón does not make the unpardonable mistake of confounding certain interested groups in the neighbouring Republic with the bulk of the American people whom he sincerely admires and in whose unerring sense of justice he feels and displays Implicit confidence. What he and his fellow workers desire is an opportunity to set before that people in its daily press the elements of the question at issue, the causes of the present misunderstanding, and his country’s desire to live in genuine amity with that great nation, to profit by its example and to benefit by its friendly co-operation.