Mexico’s Last Dictator

WHITHERSOEVER I wandered in Mexico the same two faces alternately appeared, the one smilingly turned towards foreigners athwart the golden haze that hung over the principal cities and the other, basilisk-like, gazing at the ill-starred in-habitants whom it fascinated with terror. I strove to obtain a direct insight into the actual conditions of the Republic, uninfluenced by the interpretations of other people, and with this object in view I travelled about as any member of the public might, mingling with the crowds, visiting the pestilential abodes of the poor, the outcasts and the criminals, conversing with the Indians and keeping aloof during the first period of my sojourn from politicians, cabinet ministers, journalists, consuls and other people who had specific interests to promote or protect.

It was further my fixed resolve to keep aloof from the governing authorities altogether, unless I had good grounds for believing that a meeting between them and me would further the cause of a real understanding between Mexico and the English-speaking nations. As such an adequate reason I should have recognised either an assurance from some friend of President Carranza or of Senor Luis Cabrera that these rulers, aware of the straits, national and international, to which their policy had reduced the country, were willing to discuss the whole question with me with a view to reaching a basis for settlement on acceptable terms, or else a direct invitation from either of them to see me.

On several previous occasions I had opened pourparlers between two governments at odds with each other for the purpose of discussing the subject of their misunderstanding freely and without diplomatic mental reservations, and the results generally recompensed the effort. The last occasion was in the Summer of 1914, when Greece and Turkey were preparing to wage war on each other. After several journeys between Athens and Constantinople and long debates with Talaat Bey and the Grand Vizier on the one hand and Venizelos, on the other hand, it was my good fortune to hinder hostilities and to get the two governments to agree to a Treaty which the Grand Vizier and Venizelos were to sign in my house in Brussels. The Greek Premier actually started for Brussels and had reached Munich when the quarrel between Austria and Serbia and its menacing upshot compelled him to halt. And I harboured the hope that a similar arrangement might be come to with the Carranza administration, provided that its chiefs were conscious of the difficulties and dangers that compassed them round. Some of their own friends assured me that they were alive to the existence of rocks and shoals ahead and would welcome any feasible change of tack which would enable them to steer clear of these.

One day a gentleman who had rendered sterling services to the Carranzist cause informed me that Senor Cabrera and the President had expressed a wish to have a talk with me. Accordingly I went and called on them both. Senor Cabrera welcomed me cordially, ushered me into his cabinet and began a most interesting conversation which was largely a monologue. Mexico’s actual condition, future outlook and general policy were dealt with exhaustively as were also the prospects of the Carranzist régime. And each topic was handled by the speaker, who showed a complete grasp of the theoretical side of each question, in the style of a brilliant special pleader. If Senor Cabrera had graduated in one of the best Sophist schools of ancient Athens, he could not have expounded his theses more speciously. It was one of the most masterly exposés I ever listened to. The impression it left on my mind was that if the case were thus clearly and suasively presented to an intelligent jury or to a foreign government directed by a democratic theorist, it would inevitably carry conviction and bring forth practical fruits. I further perceived, by piecing together various data which I had received from other mostly trustworthy sources, that Senor Carranza had worked out a comprehensive, rounded and ingenious plan, the object of which was to obtain the official recognition of Great Britain and France and to establish his régime on a stable foundation.

But having come from England, France and the United States where the angle at which Mexican affairs were considered was widely different from that of Senor Cabrera, I could not blink the fact that he was striving after the unattainable.

The President received me most affably. He was more communicative and less reserved than was his wont. His personal appearance, bordering on the venerable, challenged immediate respect, and the chamber with its subdued lights, mellow colours and atmosphere of tranquillity served as a fitting frame for the patriarchal figure with the flowing grey beard and the emphatic words uttered in firm deep tones. On the writing table at which he sat was a large inkstand with a silver figure of Justice. “Do you see that figure?” he asked at the close of our interview. “You know what it represents?” “Yes, it is the figure of Justice.” “Well, I frequently gaze at that little statue which suggests thoughts and queries that nerve me to new efforts for the establishment of justice in the land. For justice is the one thing necessary. It is the cement that will unite the various elements of the population. Yes, in face of that little figure I often sit and meditate. . . .” I hoped he was sincere were it only by a process of self-hypnotism.

There was, however, something artificial, something histrionic in the whole scene which reminded me of my first mission to President Paul Kruger, for the purpose of ascertaining the conditions on which he would consent to terminate the Boer War. Him, too, I found in a room which formed a perfect frame for the clumsy figure of the rugged old Calvinist. A table, three chairs and a carpet on which he freely expectorated was all the furniture of the apartment. Oom Paul sat in a chair, with a huge folio Bible on his knees, apparently poring over one of the books of the Pentateuch which he read through his vast goggles. Having marked the page before closing the volume, he pushed the glasses on to his forehead, rose slowly, coughed, spat out on the floor and extended his hand to greet me. Although my reception by Senor Carranza was not really staged, I could feel that he was intent on producing a certain well defined impression and that perceptible effort marred somewhat the general effect of his assurances.

He, too, spoke on the same lines, occasionally using the same phrases as Don Luis Cabrera. Having sketched his policy, he summarised its good results in pithy well chosen terms and with a degree of apparent detachment which befitted a successful statesman who, having achieved his life-work, could afford to view it in the dry light of history. He certainly had a clear-cut policy, showed a complete grasp of some of its bearings and displayed an intimate knowledge of the tactics by which he was resolved to carry it out. There was only one flaw in his reckoning, one unknown X in his forecast—but it was of the very essence of the problem. I could not convince him that the ship of State of which he was the master had already drifted into dangerous waters from which it was beyond his power to pilot her without altering her tack. He denied that there was a single shoal or rock on all his course which had not been carefully sounded and charted. “Plain sailing,” was his conclusion.

I had heard those words on several other historic occasions and I could therefore gauge their value. Once they were uttered by the chiefs of the Constitutional Democratic party in Russia when I urged them to support Count Witte’s Cabinet for some six or eight months and promised in his name that they would receive the reins of power. And when having en-countered an inflexible non-possumus, I observed that a formidable reaction would ensue, if they persisted in their refusal, they answered that in Russia no reaction was thenceforward possible. “It is all plain sailing now,” they said. At another historical conjuncture—before the first Balkan War—I went to Constantinople with a simple, definite proposal from a neighbouring Government which, had it been accepted, would have warded off the catastrophe. After having considered the matter for two days and hesitated for twenty-four hours, the Grand Vizier and the Minister of Foreign Affairs felt unable to accept my offer. “Have you no misgivings then about the immediate future?” I asked. “No, none,” answered the Minister. “No fear of troubles brewing?” “Local troubles, yes. We know that Greece is fermenting, but we also know that she will have to sip her own brew. We have all the threads of Balkan politics in our hands and are not apprehensive of the skein getting ravelled.” “In a word, it is all plain sailing?” I asked. “It is,” he answered, “plain sailing.” About eighteen months later in the foyer of the Vienna Opera, a man who was seated arose hurriedly and addressed me: “Do you not recognise me?” “Yes,” I replied, “you are the Turkish ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs.” “I wish to say that since I last met you I have often regretted that I did not accept your proposal. Turkey is ruined now. Did you know at the time that war would be declared so soon ?” “I did. And it was because it was coming so soon that I had to press for your answer at once.” “Why in heaven’s name did you not tell me so or at least give me a hint ?” “Because it was a secret which I was not authorised to reveal. Besides I gave you as much of a hint as I dared. But you told me that it was all plain sailing.” “Alas, poor Turkey!” he exclaimed.

With Don Venustiano it was also plain sailing. He descried no really formidable difficulties. If I spoke of the sentiments of a large section of the English-speaking peoples, he met my answer with the statement that Great Britain’s disposition was friendly and that a British Minister would shortly be sent to Mexico City, after official recognition had been ac-corded. As for the United States, the relations between Washington and Mexico City were never so cordial. All that was still needed to set the seal of stability on them was an American Ambassador who would present Mexico and Mexican affairs to his countrymen as they really are and not as if he were in quest of pretexts for intervention. “And in the domestic atmosphere too, all is serene and you discern no cloud at all on the horizon ?” I asked, convinced that my questioning was bootless. “No, none.” And then after a moment’s reflection : “I do perceive one, only one cloudlet, in the shape of possible troubles after the elections. When that has drifted away, as it certainly will, the horizon will be perfectly clear and tranquil.”

I left the presence of the Mexican Dictator, as I had left the presence of the Russian Kadets and that of the Grand Vizier at the Sublime Porte, with a pang of regret, akin to that which I might feel if I beheld a child playing on the very edge of a precipice and were unable to reach it in time to save its life.

That was on the 3rd of March, and nine weeks later—on the 7th of May–President Carranza was a fugitive from Mexico City, a doomed man. Some people are pursued by Fate. Don Venustiano pursued and overtook it.