Mexico and the World
Vol. 7, No 6 (End of 2002)
Review Essay On Stephan R. Niblo's Mythical View Of Mexico In the 1940's
By James W. Wilkie
UCLA Professor of History
War, Diplomacy and Development:
The United States and Mexico, 1938-1954
(Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Books, 1995)
Mexico in the 1940's:
Modernity, Politics, and Corruption, byStephen R. Niblo
(Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Books, 1999)
In examining Stephen R. Niblo’s two separate books as a Series, which Niblo asks us to do, we find a number at least three serious problems and a few successes. (The analysis here expands upon and draws from my review of Niblo's Vol. II in the American Historical Review, 107: 2, April 2002, p. 581,
The first major problem is that Niblo belies his promise (Vol. I., p. xiv) to explore in two volumes the domestic political activities that “brought an end to the economic nationalism” of President Cárdenas. Neither volume succeeds, as we will see below.
The second major problem is that Niblo has failed to heed his critics.
In terms of methodology, Niblo's Vol. II continues with the same over emphasis on suspect sources for which he was criticized upon publication of Vol. I.
In reviewing Niblo's Vol. I, David Walker well articulated the criticism of the historical profession when he wrote in September 1995: "Niblo's study relies too heavily upon U.S. State Department correspondence. . . . [and thus too often] is a study of what U.S. pundits and policymakers believed or wanted to believe about . . . Mexico's developmental policies. (H-LatinAm Book Reviews, <http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=28093851271592>.
Walker's criticism that Niblo’s Vol. 1 lacks an analysis of Mexico’s domestic economic policy is also valid for assessing Vol. II. In Walker's words, “[without such analysis] it is difficult for most readers to make informed judgements weighing the role of the United States and its developmental instrumentalities in shaping (or deforming) Mexican economic and political policy-making in this era.”
Hence the third major problem, which grows out of the second. Niblo's Series claims to focus on Mexico’s industrial push as coming from the United States, and it ignores major aspects of Mexico’s internally generated economic-development.
In Vol. II, where we might have expected Niblo's arguments to come together, rather we find a fourth major problem. Niblo is shocked to find corruption in Mexico in the 1940s. This is not the kind of reaction that Claude Rains expressed in the film Casablanca, but rather true shock. Indeed Professor Niblo purports to trace corruption in Mexico to the ten-year period beginning in December 1940, when capitalist-oriented presidents ended the “honest” government supposedly instituted during the period from 1934 to 1940 by Lázaro Cárdenas, the socialist-oriented President.
By omission, in Vol. II Niblo claims implicitly that Mexico did not suffer from massive corruption until the 1940s, when he sees the country’s first real push for industrialization as having taken place. Niblo condemns industrialization as bringing with it the themes of his subtitle: “Modernity, Politics, and Corruption.”
Ironically, for Niblo the word "corruption" merits only one entry of its own in the index, and it refers readers to “politics,” a word that is used by Niblo as synonym for corrupt practices. Niblo basically ignores the many historical roots of corruption in Mexico going back centuries; and he ignores the complexities of Mexican politics.
What is Niblo’s rationale for organizing Vol. II? Niblo writes (pp. xxii-xxiii):
[This book on Mexico in the 1940s] is intended to complement my earlier book] War, Diplomacy and Development: the United States and Mexico, 1938-1954, [which] examines the international relationship between the two countries at the level of diplomatic, military, economic, and business relations.
[Vol. II is organized as follows:]
Chapter 1 . . . “Mosaic of an Era” evokes the spirit of an age and gives glimpses of some the different realities that existed then.
Chapters 2, 3, and 4 are political histories . . . [of the presidencies of Manuel Avila Camacho (December 1940-November 30, 1946) and Miguel Alemán (1947-1952), which are on the verge of being lost].
Chapter 5 [offers some of the ways necessary to understand] the massive record of corruption in the 1940s, [and hence to avert] the forward retention of these practices.
Chapter 6 examines how in the 1940s. . . national politics became intimately linked to the power of the media as domestic entrepreneurs played an intricate game, using the new technologies that came from the advanced industrial countries while opposing powerful European and U.S. interests.
Hence, except for Niblo’s brief mention in Vol. I of Mexico's Five-Year Plan that called in 1939 for industrialization, Niblo seems unaware of the important role of President Cárdenas in laying the basis for Mexico’s industrial policy in the 1940s. It was Cárdenas, for example, who set in motion the investments by the National Investment Bank that would allow a relatively smooth transition to the Industrial Revolution of the 1940s and 1950s.
Economic interpretations by other academics are almost absent in Niblo’s two books on the 1940s. Almost no views and data of any academic U.S. economic historians are seriously discussed in the text of either book. No academic Mexican economists (such as Enrique Cárdenas, Víctor Urquidi, or Leopoldo Solís) are even mentioned in the text of Vol. II, which is supposed to examine Mexico’s domestic situation, nor are their works even listed in the bibliography.
These are important omissions because Niblo writes about political economy, but tries to reveal complexity only from “political” and “social” perspectives. In omitting the domestic economic perspective needed to complete the picture of what life was like in the 1940s, Niblo’s Mexico is one without the positive influence of braceros moving back and forth between the Mexico and the USA. For Niblo, Mexico is a country where the dramatic rise of the middle class in the1940s goes unnoticed in either volume.
In writing Mexico in the 1940’s, Niblo tells us about how he arrived at many his conclusions (p. xxii): “Although I did not first visit Mexico until the late 1950s, my years in that country were close enough to events of the 1940s to at least tap the memories of many who had lived through that period.” This sentence not only provides Niblo with justification, but also with one "methodology" for his work.
In what way did Niblo “tap the memories” of persons who had lived during the 1940s? He neither tells how with whom he spoke at the end of the 1950s, nor how he conducted his research that became so vivid for him that he felt that he had experienced first-hand having lived in the 1940s. Did he take formal surveys or engage in informal conversations. With how many people and in what depth? From which ideologies and walks of life?
The idea that “corruption” is complex and involves different dimensions and levels is not highlighted by Niblo, who shows his lack of sophistication in understanding and interpreting oral history. Thus he quotes selectively from my published oral interviews with Ramón Beteta (ideologue for both Cárdenas and Alemán) and misses Beteta’s important distinction between the unethical and the illegal.
Niblo clearly does not understand how scholars and artists can record testimony in order to pit implicitly the life justifications, selective memory, and vantage point of one person against those of another in order to let us see complexity of understanding in events. He seems unaware of Akira Kurasawa and Oscar Lewis, among others, who have shown how oral testimony can lead us to very different views of the same events. (On the theory and practice of oral history in Mexico, see the previous issue of this Web Journal, Volume 7, Number 3.)
Further, Niblo seems unaware of General Juan Andreu Almazán's important testimony (Revista Mexicana de Ciencia Política 20:77 : 59–65). As Minister of Communications and public works in 1930, Almazán joined together with President Pascual Ortiz Rubio (1930–1932), Secretary of War Joaquín Amaro, Secretary of the Treasury Luis Montes de Oca, and Governor of Michoacán Lázaro Cárdenas to form a private company to develop Acapulco in the state of Guerrero. The company acquired (by devious means) the property rights to the choice communal land on the Bay of Acapulco, where they built twenty bungalows to rent to the public. Once the partners realized in 1932 that such a deal could harm any future political career, they turned over their shares to Almazán, who was the most audacious of the group. When Almazán lost the election of 1940 to Manuel Avila Camacho, Almazán did not choose the route of military rebellion (as had been the case previously in Mexican history) for one main reason. He had a convenient and profitable place to retire peacefully—"his" Hotel Papagayo. Therefore, Avila Camacho, grateful for peace, did not challenge Almazán dubious acquisition of the hotel and land. Settled in Acapulco, Almazán contributed to Mexico's economic development in the 1940s by using that choice land to build the then-huge Hotel Papagayo, thus establishing the basis for Mexico's modern coastal tourist boom. (This paragraph is quoted from my review of Niblo's Vol. II in the American Historical Review, cited above)
The Almazán-Avila Camacho "deal" calls into question Niblo’s blanket condemnation of “corruption.” Indeed, it involves what Woodrow Borah and I in our seminars at Berkeley defined as Mexico's “primitive form of capital accumulation from the 1940s through the 1960s.” At least the capital “created” by Almazán was invested in Mexico and did open the country to income from foreign tourism, “fortuitously” spurred by the closure of travel to Europe during World War II. Later some wealthy Mexicans have become famous for accumulating Mexican capital outside of the country--to the detriment of Mexico’s development. Indeed beginning in the 1970s capital flight, spurred by the erratic policies of Presidents Luis Echeverría Alvarez and José López Portillo, saw the amount fleeing as often more than equaling the inflow of foreign direct investment.
Two questions that Niblo fails to address in Mexico in the 1940s are:
(a) What was the context of corruption and/or unethical behavior at the time? (b) Can we apply in a vacuum Niblo's current definition and understanding of corruption to only one past decade?
But enough of the book’s problems. The successes of Mexico in the 1940s are not insignificant. Niblo does tap into Mexican archives to reveal interesting insights about how government officials and private entrepreneurs dealt with each other.
Niblo does make a contribution to the literature on corruption by exposing the nefarious activities of Maximino Avila Camacho, brother of the president. The story of Maximino (Minister of Communications and Public Works and lord of the State of Puebla) is now nearly forgotten in Mexico. It also needs to be heard outside the country in order to understand how a number of presidents of Mexico are “protected” from direct charges of corruption because it is the brother who does the illegal jobs.
(Ah, yes, let us recall that Lázaro Cárdenas was known as the “White Dove; his brother Dámaso as the “Black Dove—a relationship apparently unknown to Niblo. But brotherly corruption does not always pay: Today Raúl, the brother of Former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994), sits in a maximum-security prison.)
Unfortunately Niblo’s account of how Maximino's henchmen botch the assassination of one of his critics understates the evils of political corruption that Niblo seeks to expose. Never mind—Niblo does tell with verve the hilarious story of how the intended victim and his new bride finally escape the clutches of Maximino, their honeymoon only temporarily postponed.
For Niblo, however, the real honeymoon in Mexican history comes in the era of his hero Lázaro Cárdenas. For Niblo Cárdenas and his team motivated government officials to “work for the public good and to set aside age-old practices of personal enrichment” (p. 256).
Once Lázaro Cárdenas and the cardenistas left office, according to Niblo, corruption took over, going hand-hand-hand with capitalism. Presumably, then, corruption was in a state of limbo between the "personal honesty" of (a) President Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911) and (b) President Cárdenas. For Niblo, corruption took over Mexico beginning with President Manuel Avila Camacho; and the country's politics and economics became completely corrupt under the country's implicit arch villain President Miguel Alemán.
It is interesting to note that Niblo forgives Díaz for trading "tolerance of corruption for political support" (at least recognizing that corruption existed historically, Vol. II, p. 289), but he excoriates Avila Camacho on the grounds that "the corruption went right to the top. Although Niblo admits that during his presidency "Avila Camacho enjoyed a relatively clean reputation," once he left the presidency it became clear that another view emerged. That view which Niblo quotes, oddly enough, comes from "a U.S. diplomat", who writes from Mexico City to the U.S. State Department in December 1946: "My friends no longer talk of [Avila Camacho] as 'Sir Galahad' of purity and honesty. In fact they say that he has cleaned up immense wealth, and since I have been talking to his bankers, they ought to know." In the next sentence, the "U.S. diplomat" becomes "U.S. diplomats" (plural) and the endnote is not clear if several U.S. diplomats were quoting one of their colleagues or each other. Such information can best be called "hearsay" evidence of dubious quality. Because Niblo can find so little about the corruption of Manuel, he focuses with better results on Maximino, who is discussed above..
With regard to bank accounts, Niblo found in the Archivo General de la Nación that in August 1942 there were two impliedly suspicious deposits into Avila Camacho's account at the Banco de México (II, p. 290), one for US$166,000 and one for US$333,000. Niblo's conclusion is that "even if the [latter] … represented a legitimate transaction, it show how well the president had done since entering politics"--hardly sound evidence of corruption.
Co-existing with Niblo's negative view of Mexican politics in the 1940s is
his view of Mexican social life during that decade. Niblo's best chapter is his first, in which genially he gives a warm view of life in Mexico in the 1940s, from art to film to popular customs.
Hopefully Niblo is contemplating for this "Series" a third volume, which may resolve some of the contradictions and misunderstandings discussed here.
Clearly Niblo still has a book to write, and I am sure that it will be stimulating—and controversial. (When Scholarly Resources Books publishes its volumes, I suggest that footnotes be used rather than endnotes--the “truth” is that, with new technology, the cost of preparing and printing books with footnotes is no longer the issue that it may have been when books were set in linotype; and because Scholarly Resources is not publishing books for the general public, there is no reason to make notes painfully inconvenient for scholars to use.)
In conclusion, Niblo has yet to fulfill his plan to write about Mexico's domestic economic policy so that readers can properly weigh his claim that the United States has been the nefarious factor that has distorted Mexican economic and political policy making. It is time for Niblo to end his over-reliance on the memos of U.S. diplomats. Although Niblo seems to think that the views of U.S. diplomats are more reliable than the views of Mexicans themselves, I have found in my experience in Mexico since 1955 that both Mexican leaders and U.S. diplomats have their own “truth,” and neither tells us any "final truth."