Mexico’s Transformation

THE Turks, of all races on the globe, have a proverb which says that fire and faggots, bloodshed and banditry, are sorry reformers. And what to English-speaking peoples may seem stranger still than the nationality of that saying is that its truth has at last been brought home to Mexico, to that restless republic which for years has been, seemingly, endeavouring to heat her house with sparks. And she has already begun to profit by it. A new spirit is springing up everywhere and new men are embodying it, a spirit of justice on the part of the country’s leaders and an incipient respect for law and order among the rank and file, and the outside world takes no note of the change.

The bulk of the nation—the people who paid and still are paying the heavy cost of all the revolutions, rebellions and risings—needed no arguments to convince them. They, indeed, had seen and suffered enough to convert them to pacificism long ago, had they stood in need of conversion. The obstacles in the way of law and order were never of their making. The main difficulty, which until quite recently seemed insuperable, was to inoculate the leaders of the people with that salutary doctrine of peaceful evolution and to render them immune against the bait offered by interested foreign mischief-makers. And of effecting this even optimists despaired. For, when-ever some semblance of a Government emerged from the reek and gore of civil war, there always remained a nucleus of agitators who, egged on by outsiders, continued the subversive work and played the part of a Bickford string, connecting make-believe ideals with bombism and bloodshed. Ideals? They knew not what they are. The English Revolution was mainly religious. The French Revolution was largely social. Most of the Mexican “revolutions” were neither, and as a consequence they often degenerated into a sequence of high-way robberies. The last change of régime was a noteworthy exception. For it was the work of a few upright, selfless men who voiced and executed the will of the inarticulate people and satisfactorily answered the question so often put by foreigners : “If the Mexicans disapprove their Government, why do they not overturn it and set up a better one?” This has now been effected by a truly progressive group of democratic leaders whose watchword is law, justice, equal opportunity for all, and whose moving spirit is General Obregón.

Anarchy and violence are apparently now at last about to pass into the history of an epoch that is no more and are to be followed by a period of strenuous building up, of moral, intellectual and economic development, of friendly intercourse with foreign peoples whose cooperation is openly recognised as an indispensable condition of success. For the governing body is at last of one mind with the bulk of the people and is determined to turn the sword into a ploughshare and the battle-fields into pastures and corn-growing lands.

While war is still destroying the achievements of civilised man in Europe, Asia and Africa, it looks then as though Mexico had really inaugurated an era of internal reconstruction—that Mexico of which it was recently and truly said that its normal condition was internal strife and anarchy. Even the casual observer can entertain no doubt that a vast change has recently come over the people and—what is more to the point —over those who now shape its destinies. To determine in advance the final outcome of this change, especially in view of the system of obstruction with which it has to cope abroad, is a task for a prophet. The utmost that a conscientious chronicler can undertake is to describe and characterise its principal signs and tokens. And such a one will have no hesitation in qualifying these as eminently favorable.

My opportunities of observation have been exceptionally great. I have journeyed with General Obregón over thousands of miles of the Republic, considerable portions of which were already known to me under the Carranzist régime, when soldiers had to escort the trains ; when we had to spend the night at Saltillo or San Luis Potosi lest brigands should derail or blow up the carriages and kill, rob, or hold to ransom the passengers.

In the month of March, 1920, the late President Carranza, in the course of an interesting conversation I had with him, assured me that he could not return the railways to their owners because no private company could run the trains in the face of such constant perils. All trains had to be accompanied by escorts of soldiers supplied by the State. But in lieu of rooting out the pests which thus preyed upon the people, he was preparing to have a line of blockhouses constructed along the principal railway routes with a view to reducing the number of outrages and rendering travel less in-secure. That reminded me of the method applied by a Russian Commune to combat the cholera; they purchased five hundred coffins! The idea of defeating Villa, for example, never seems to have entered his head as a plan to be speedily realised. Neither had he any grounded hopes of quelling General Pelaez’s rebellion in the South where the proprietors of the oil fields were compelled to pay tribute for their protection to the leader of the insurgents. And when I, an unarmed foreigner, desired to cross the Sierra from Oaxaca to Salina Cruz, it was to the rebel General Mexueira that I had to apply for a safe-conduct. But although I had absolute confidence in that General’s good faith, I had none at all in the value of his safe-conduct outside his own district. For I was warned that there was a bandit zone between his troops and those of the Federal Government through which I must pass and where the highwaymen not only took the property of the travellers but completed the work by taking their lives as well. A journey of six or seven days across the mountains in those conditions was not particularly attractive. And as I could not get any one to accompany me I had to give up the plan and alter my route.

Whithersoever I journeyed, I found the people ground down by crushing exactions, terrorised by rebels, bandits, Federal soldiers and in perpetual dread of what the morrow might bring. In the State of Michoacan and elsewhere I visited manor houses on large estates—haciendas is the Spanish name—which a few years before had been luxuriously furnished, but having been gutted by a succession of bandits, were now in an advanced state of decay. They had no baths, hardly any furniture and that of the most primitive kind. The walls in some of the rooms were riddled with bullet holes, the roofs open to the rain. And the proprietors told me that they were afraid to spend a peso in repairing their homes lest they should be wrecked again. Some of these great landed proprietors, beggared and desperate, were preparing to go into voluntary exile in order to escape worse misfortunes than those which had already overtaken them. And since then they have emigrated to England, Spain or the United States.

Thus a dense cloud of depression overhung the country and paralysed the people. Enterprise was throttled. No capitalist except the oil companies would invest money or labour in any undertaking, however promising, because he could never be sure that the fruits of his labour would be his to enjoy. Indeed, the experience of the recent past had taught him to feel that he was working for others—for those who neither toil nor reap but merely harvest in what they have failed to destroy. And not only the products of the soil, but the land itself was occasionally taken from its lawful owners and given to favourites of the Supreme Chief. I saw several houses, which, together with orchards and fields, had been disposed of in this way, and I was told that the man to whom they had been presented, fearing lest they should be restored by some subsequent government with a conscience, had made hot haste to sell them. While I was in the State of Jalisco an acquaintance—a European–told me that he had lost his house and land in this way and his appeal to the Supreme Court had only elicited a confirmation of the arbitrary decree. He added, however—and this is the point of the story—that a proposal had recently been made to him to spend three thousand pesos in bribing a certain individual who undertook to have the irrevocable judgment of the Supreme Court reversed. Thus justice, the basis of all human society—was turned into its opposite by the very men who were justifying their revolution and their tenure of power by the necessity of establishing it on a solid foundation.

A severe judgment has been passed upon the Carranza régime by the Mexican press of to-day. They describe the late President as a self-centred dictator who violated the laws, oppressed the people and was responsible to no one. Indeed, “there were no responsible persons anywhere,” writes one of the press organs of the capital. “A few of the independent newspapers did, it is true, call loudly for a return to morality and integrity in public departments and demand that the chiefs of the bureaucratic gang be called to account for their misdeeds. But their cries were in vain. Nobody was answerable for anything. . . . From the Minister to the usher each one nudged the other and gave a look of mutual understanding at his neighbour, casting a side glance at Don Venustiano the while, as much as to say : ‘The Chief has to answer for us.’ And the Chief . . . never deemed himself bound to offer explanations to any one of the good or bad use—and it was almost invariably bad,—of his versatile powers. . . Believing himself, in virtue of the Constitution of Guadalupe, to be exempt even from the last judgment he was content to contract his nostrils. . . . Mexico’s peril lies in the camarillas, in the parasites, in the abject and degenerate types who eschew fair play in the strenuous struggle for life and support them-selves by selling their flattery.7′ And one must add that it was precisely such types as these that were courted, “atmosphered” and bribed by foreign interests for their own purposes.

Such was Mexico’s condition down to April, 1920, and Carranza expected it to last. To my question whether he discerned any clouds on the political horizon, he gave answer: “None.” Then added after a brief pause: “Possibly a few tiny cloudlets in the guise of local riots after the elections. But nothing more serious. The population is contented.” That was the President’s mature judgment in the latter half of March. Nor did he modify it until he set out with a cargo of gold and a multitude of parasites on his journey to Vera Cruz which led him to the end of his earthly career. As for his tragic death, everything possible was done by the leaders of the revolution, and in particular by General Obregón, to save his life. But in vain. A plain-speaking, straightforward Mexican whom I met in Sonora thus explained the sad incident epigrammatically : “Carranza had with him a great quantity of gold and was surrounded by a gang of robbers. Is it a wonder that he was killed?”

Since May, 1920, a complete transformation has been undergone by the country, and it is interesting to note the people’s mental reactions with the purer and exhilarating moral atmosphere created by the new régime. I had observed the beneficent change everywhere among all classes and in all walks of life. I accompanied General Obregón on his various journeys from Mexico City to Guadalajara, Colima, Manzanillo, Mazatlan, Culiacan, Guaymas, Hermosillo, Nogales (Sonora) ; then on his electoral campaign to Puebla, Tlascala, Atlizco, Tehuacan, Oaxaca, Orizaba, down through the States of Chiapas, Tabasco and Yucatan, and back through Vera Cruz to the capital of the Republic. Our trains were not escorted by soldiers, we generally travelled in second-class carriages,–mingled with the people, listened to what they had to say, observed their demeanour towards the new authorities, and learned their grievances and aspirations. The reflections suggested by what we saw and heard were not unlike those which Arthur Young received during his travels in pre-revolutionary France.

Already the Government is assiduously repairing the damage caused by its predecessors and their enemies. The railways are being returned or about to be returned to their owners. Rebellions have ceased. Even Villa, who for years was the ineradicable plague of the country has repented and found salvation, and he and his partisans have become ardent tillers of the soil. The Government is dealing magnanimously with all its enemies. Gambling hells have been closed peremptorily and without a day’s grace, wherever the writ of the Federal Government runs. The liquor laws are being rigorously enforced. The autonomy of the individual States—despite the undesirable results which it occasionally produces—is being respected by the central Government. The army has been materially reduced. The law everywhere is being left to take its course. Travelling is once more perfectly safe, and it looks as though in truth a new era had already begun. In a word, this is the first of Mexico’s recent revolutions after which, to use one of Obregón’s winged words, it is not necessary to liberate the nation from its liberators.