Commentary Magazine


Mexico & Other Dominoes

In the debate now raging in the U.S. over the Reagan administration’s new policy toward Marxist gains in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and also toward Cuba’s role in the matter, much is made of Mexico’s position by North American supporters of Marxist movements in Latin America. This is a small group, but disproportonately influential since many of its members pass for experts on Latin American affairs, having taken an intense interest in the region over the last two decades.

Their argument is simple: Mexico knows much more about Central America and the Caribbean than we do; Mexico is much nearer the action than we are; and not only is Mexico not worried, it is actually sympathetic to the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran revolutions. This “proves” that in those countries the United States is not confronted by any Communist threat that would pose a strategic danger. What we have there is a struggle, admirable besides, of nationalist revolutionaries trying to free their peoples from U.S.-supported tyrannies: something, in other words, like what happened in Mexico starting in 1910, with which the United States has lived not unhappily ever since.

I will begin by pointing out that the whole argument can easily be reversed. The Cuban government is without question one of the nastiest at home and most aggressive abroad of all Communist regimes. On both fronts it is entirely subservient to the Soviet Union, which holds it on the tight leash of several literal lifelines. Its hand forced by overwhelming evidence, this regime has practically ceased to claim that Communism has improved the lot of the Cuban people. Now it says that improvements will have to wait upon the destruction of the last remnants of capitalism and the worldwide triumph of Communism. This is how it defends sending Cuba’s young men to do the Soviet Union’s dirty work in Africa and Asia, priding itself on being the spearhead of a world Communist revolution against the West, and most especially the United States. Yet for all this, the regime in Havana has steadily enjoyed Mexico’s support. Four consecutive Mexican presidents, different in many other respects, have followed this policy and have maintained it even after it could no longer be rationalized as a show of sympathy for a young, idealistic, nationalist revolution.

So much, then, for the foolish contention that Mexico’s apparent good will toward the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran revolutionaries somehow proves that these are strictly local reformers without any decisive links with the forces which, with a home base in the Soviet Union and a forward position in Cuba, have the well-advertised and unrenounceable goal of destroying the West.

It may be rejoined that if Mexico’s apparent sympathy for the Salvadoran guerrillas does not prove that they are not Communist-inspired and dominated, neither does it prove that they are so inspired and dominated, or that their eventual victory would lead to the establishment in El Salvador of a regime like the one in Cuba.

Indeed it does not, but for that no equivocal Mexican touchstone is needed. There is plenty of hard direct evidence that what has been happening in Central America cannot be explained in any other way. This evidence plainly points to a well-conceived plan, heir to Fidel Castro’s and Che Guevara’s grandiose scheme of the 60′s which produced the first wave of Cuban intervention in countries as diverse as Venezuela, Bolivia (where Che Guevara died), and Chile (where at one point during Allende’s government the Cuban embassy had more personnel than the Chilean foreign ministry). Castro’s 60′s adventures also produced an explosion of enthusiasm among left-wing intellectuals in Europe and the U.S. for what Régis Debray called (with reference to China) the “new long march” that was supposed to have started in Havana and would cover the hemisphere. As it turned out, the crop consisted mainly of North American left-wing academics, specialists in one or another of the social sciences or literature, who to this day have remained fidelistas (more or less) and who from their position in the universities contribute disproportionately to the formation of public opinion and even to the actual shaping of policy toward Latin America.

This time, however, the field of battle has been better chosen and the battle plan is being carried out with vastly greater means, not only foreign arms and foreign-trained combatants but a barrage of misinformation on a worldwide scale that is, in a way, the chief weapon of this contest.

For instance, the Reagan administration is criticized for attributing undue importance to El Salvador (“a small faraway country of which we know nothing,” as Neville Chamberlain called Czechoslovakia) by the same people who did not think it strange that in the first days of January, before Ronald Reagan had even taken office, the world press was being led by the nose with strident reports, duly published on all the front pages, of the Salvadoran Marxist rebels’ “final offensive” against a “fascist” junta guilty of “genocide” against the Salvadoran people. If El Salvador was so important then, why should it suddenly shrink into a little backwater war, unworthy of the attention of the United States?

It so happens that, as is now well known (though perhaps already half forgotten), the “final offensive,” armed to the teeth by the Russians through Cuba and Nicaragua, failed because it conspicuously lacked popular support. It could not achieve its aim, which was to present the new Reagan administration with a fait accompli. Therefore what has followed is a shrewd attempt to demobilize opinion in the United States (and everywhere else) on the issue of the civil war itself, while taking up a different tune, appropriate for the new turn of events: the association of any possible American actions in El Salvador with Vietnam.

It is also significant that the so-called “domino theory,” which corresponds closely with actual Communist tactics in all cases where they have not yet achieved overwhelming superiority (Khrushchev called this process “salami tactics”), has been subjected through the years, and right now very intensely with reference to Central America, to a hail of derision. The purpose is to make anyone appear ridiculous and even paranoid who dares suggest that this is exactly what is now happening in that region, with Nicaragua as the first domino, and, it is hoped, a row of collapsible pieces going south toward Panama and the Colombian and Venezuelan rim of the Caribbean, and north toward Mexico.

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Now there are very good reasons for debating the ways and means of United States policy in Central America and the Caribbean. The issue is thorny and anguishing. There is ample room for regrets and reproaches over how things were allowed to come to this crisis. It is sadly true that American policy was selfish, short-sighted, callous, lazy, and stupid in installing and supporting in this region client tyrants (like Trujillo and Somoza) with no thought for future consequences. But Communists and their sympathizers must not be allowed to use this sad truth to obscure the plain fact that we are in the presence of a deliberate and deadly threat to the Western Hemisphere in a region which Soviet strategists have evidently judged to be the soft underbelly of the Americas.

In Nicaragua the Sandinista Front, which started with the hoary but invariably effective Leninist tactic of a broad alliance of all “democratic” forces, has by now shown its true colors in a variety of ways. The victory of that alliance (and not of the Sandinista Front alone, as it is now made to appear) against Somoza was hailed the world over as a triumph of freedom. Specifically it was widely believed that Cuba, having steered carefully clear of the Nicaraguan revolution (which had all the help it needed from other sources), would not play a significant role in post-Somoza Nicaragua.

Yet within days of the Sandinistas acquiring full control, Cuba was invited in and virtually took over in areas like communications and mass education (the ideal vehicle for Marxist indoctrination). Cuba also took over the job of organizing the new police and training the new Nicaraguan armed forces. These forces are by now more than twice as large as Somoza’s National Guard, and they are armed by the Soviet Union (through Cuba) in a way ominously reminiscent of Cuba’s own Soviet-steered runaway increase in military capability in the 60′s, even now being used for anything but defending Cuba.

The Sandinista Front (which, let us be clear, is the nom de guerre of the Nicaraguan Communist party) promised political pluralism. In practice it soon expelled from positions of power all non-Communist or non-pliable elements. Freedom of the press was steadily eroded, the political opposition relentlessly cornered, the promise to hold free elections put aside (elections, if and when they are held, will be a farce).

As for foreign affairs, Nicaragua was one of the few countries which refused to vote in the United Nations against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Top Sandinista ideologist Bernardo Arce has gone on record against the Solidarity union in Poland. Fidel Castro was the hero in the distinctly Communist-style celebration of the first anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution, and on the same occasion the Chinese were given the coolest treatment short of being asked to stay away. Until pressured by the new U.S. administration, Nicaragua served as a staging point for arms sent from as far away as Vietnam and Ethiopia, via Cuba, and destined to feed the Salvadoran civil war.

The cutting off of U.S. aid in April in the face of these outrages has served as a final pretext to “steer Left,” which means abandoning all pretense of pluralism. Nicaragua is thus right on schedule: the Cuban revolution arrived at a comparable point in almost exactly the same time (mid-1960).

El Salvador, on the other hand, has so far refused to topple, although here no effort has been made to disguise the involvement of Cuba (and therefore Cuba’s Soviet masters), and although a vast misinformation campaign has succeeded in crucifying the government as identical to or worse than Somoza’s. Actually the Salvadoran government—a combination of military officers and the Christian Democratic party, the most influential in the country, and the one that won the only clean election held in El Salvador within memory—has been sincerely and strenuously attempting to implement far-reaching economic and social reforms, which a ferocious landed oligarchy is equally determined to block. If not for the assault from the extreme Left, the government might by now have succeeded and laid the ground for holding elections. As it is, with Marxist rebels and right-wing murder squads trying to outdo each other in terrorist exploits, the issue appears in doubt.

One thing, however, is certain: neither the people of El Salvador nor those of the Central American and Caribbean region would gain anything from the destruction of the present Salvadoran government. Its replacement by a Nicaraguan- or Cuban-type regime would probably be intolerable to the United States and might even lead to military intervention. The victory of the extreme Right (which is clearly the Left’s second-best choice) would vindicate the Communist version of events in Central America. Very soon all distinctions between such a government and the present one would be blurred. The United States, which would be unable to avoid backing it, would be as compromised as by intervention. Either outcome would be of incalculable political cost to the United States, both abroad and at home. That, of course, is the key to the whole Communist thrust in Central America. But either outcome would also adversely affect the prospects for democracy in the whole Caribbean basin and the security and the internal political stability of the rest of Central America and of countries like Venezuela, Colombia, and, yes, Mexico.

This being the case, what explanation can there be for Mexico’s indifference to Marxist gains in Central America; or, worse, sympathy and, at one point, nearly open support for the rebels in El Salvador? (At the time of the “final offensive,” the Salvadoran guerrillas thought that if they could hold down a sizable chunk of territory with a few towns in it, Mexico would give them formal recognition as “belligerents.”)

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No doubt I will surprise some readers by stating that President López Portillo’s aims in this region unquestionably coincide with those of the United States. Like the United States, the Mexican government wishes to slow down, and if possible to stop, Cuban and Soviet penetration in Central America.1 The essential difference is, of course, that the Mexicans want to roll with the punches, or to pretend not to be in the fight, by showing sympathy and giving limited assistance to local protagonists of Communist penetration. This is rationalized on the grounds that the status quo in Central America is indefensible and undefendable. Governments like those of Nicaragua under Somoza—or right now El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—will be swept away by the tide of history. To support them against left-wing subversion is hopeless. Better to try and establish ties with these revolutionaries and to encourage them to be independent of Havana and Moscow. Above all, political developments in Latin America, no matter how alarming, should in no case lead to intervention by the United States. Nonintervention (in principle by any country, but in practice mainly the U.S.) and self-determination were the main guidelines of Mexican foreign policy long before Tito made them mainstays of the nonaligned movement, and for the same reason: the uncomfortable proximity of a great power with a less than clean record on the matter.

This, then, is the position of the Mexican government. Then there is the party, the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary party, Mexico’s peculiar institution, broker of all power, vessel of all virtue, dispenser of all patronage. Being formally distinct from the government, the PRI has gone much further in the game of “anti-imperialism,” which is the universal code word for a complex of anti-Western and anti-U.S. feelings and political attitudes that range from resentment, distrust, and animosity to mortal enmity and earnest long-range planning with the aim of overthrowing the West.

In recent years the PRI has made a determined effort to forge a network of relations with other “revolutionary” parties in Latin America, including many from which the quotation marks should be removed. At the end of 1979 the PRI convened in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, a meeting at which were present not only Social Democratic parties, like Venezuela’s AD, Peru’s APRA, or the Dominican Republic’s PRD, but also the Marxist-controlled “Liberation Fronts” whose aim is to overthrow the present regimes of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. On the other hand, Christian Democratic parties were firmly excluded, anti-clericalism being one of the shibboleths of Mexican revolutionary mythology. The fact that Salvadoran President José Napoleón Duarte and his party are Christian Democratic could well be (absurdly) one of the main reasons the Mexican government, and much more strongly the PRI, are unable to deal with them normally, as the eminently estimable democratic leader and party they are.

Be that as it may, the Mexican establishment finds it expedient to have the PRI, as distinct from the government, conduct close and even cuddly relations with political groups in other Latin American countries whose counterparts within Mexico itself are harshly repressed. And the fact that this seems unfriendly toward the United States is regarded not as a possible objection to such a course of action, but as one of its virtues. Crossing the North Americans, short of having a damaging clash with them, is the one safe and universally popular thing that a Mexican politician can do. And for this there are reasons that North Americans should understand.

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Seen from Mexico, the United States appears as, in many ways, an admirable society, but also as a force that in the past badly mauled Mexico’s body and spirit and that even in spite of itself continues to threaten Mexico, to overwhelm the remnants of its national identity, to block its path to true independence and autonomous development. To North Americans these fears may seem groundless or at least exaggerated. In fact, although some of Mexico’s U.S.-inspired nightmares are not entirely rational (and all are diligently fed by Marxist propaganda), they have a solid basis and are derived from past experience or from current events.

The United States, writes Octavio Paz in his 1976 essay “El espejo indiscreto” (“The Uncomfortable Mirror”), seemed in Mexican eyes at the time of independence from Spain not a foreign power Mexicans should fear or oppose, but a model they ought to imitate. It was the beginning of a fascination that has never lost its intensity. The history of that fascination is, substantially, the history of political ideas in Mexico. All Mexican political and social projects, all the reforms that were supposed to transform Mexico into a modern polity, took shape in relation to—for or against—the United States. “The passion of our elites for North American civilization,” writes Paz,

swings from love to resentment, from adoration to horror. That is to say, contradictory manifestations of ignorance: from the liberal Lorenzo de Zavala, who did not hesitate to side with the Texans in their war against Mexico, to the contemporary Marxist-Leninists and their allies, the so-called “theologians of liberation,” who have turned materialistic dialectic into a hypostasis of the Holy Spirit, and United States imperialism into the forerunner of the Anti-Christ.

Paz points out the little noted or disregarded fact that Mexican conservatives are more radically anti-North American than left-wing modernizers, since in Mexico the conservative strain has its roots in the hierarchical, counter-reformist society of New Spain:

[The conservatives] are close to the United States out of self-interest, but they have never really accepted the liberal democratic ideology. Their real moral and intellectual affinities are on the side of authoritarian regimes. That is why they were Germanophiles in the two world wars.

But all Mexicans, without distinctions of class or ideology, see the United States as the other, the antagonist, radically and essentially the foreigner. The United States is the image of everything Mexico is not. It is strangeness itself. Yet Mexicans are condemned to live with that strangeness:

[The North Americans] are always among us, even when they ignore us or turn their back on us. Their shadow covers the whole hemisphere. It is the shadow of a giant. And the idea we have of that giant is the same that can be found in fairy tales and legends: a great fellow of kind disposition, a bit simple, an innocent who ignores his own strength and whom we can fool most of the time, but whose wrath can destroy us. [And] to that image of the good and somewhat dimwitted giant is juxtaposed that of the clever and bloodthirsty cyclops, which is also a childhood fantasy: the child-eating ogre of Perrault and the monster of Sade, in whose orgies his libertine friends eat steaming heaps of human flesh off the singed corpses they use as tables and chairs. Saint Christopher, but also Polyphemus. And also Prometheus: the fire of industry and of war, the two facets of progress, the automobile and the bomb.

As a matter of fact, Mexico has seen a good deal of that North American monster face. In 1845-46 the U.S. not only took Texas (which had seceded from Mexico on its own in 1836) but also made that the occasion for invading Mexico, occupying its capital city, and tearing off its body the territory of the present states of California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Understandably there is enormous bitterness in Mexico about the loss of the 1846 war and of what appears today as the most desirable half of the country’s territory. There is no way out for Mexican pride as those lands blossom and become even richer and more desirable than the North American Northeast: either they would have developed in roughly the same direction if they had remained Mexican, or they would (more likely) have still resembled Sonora and Sinaloa. Neither alternative is a thought to gladden the heart of a Mexican.

Seen in this light, Mexico’s obsession with the principles of nonintervention and self-determination emerges not as a sick fixation, but as an anxiety grounded in a historic experience not altogether dissimilar from that of the Poles. By the same token (though admittedly, the analogy should not be carried too far), who would fail to understand Polish sympathy for any political trouble within the Eastern bloc that would narrow the potential uses of naked Soviet power?

Of course the analogy ceases to function when we remind ourselves that in the case of Mexico it is the government and the party who talk and to some extent act as if they were not displeased by destabilizing political events in their vicinity which, if they continue to develop unchecked, could lead to grave social and political unrest in Mexico itself. The uncontrolled violence of the Mexican revolution is only half a century away (it did not end until 1929). This is a thought that should put a chill in the spines of all members of the Mexican establishment. For the deep conservatism of successful revolutionaries (Mao Zedong was the exception who proves the rule) is surely explained by their panic at the idea of social tensions getting out of hand and a return to the violence they know so well, if the system of political and social control should falter.

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It is here that the Mexicans find themselves in a quandary. In Communist countries control is a matter of totalitarianism and terror. The political order that emerged out of the Mexican revolution is only mildly authoritarian, and relies for its remarkable stability in the midst of acute social problems (40 percent of the adult population unemployed or underemployed, 55 million below the deep poverty line in a population of 70 million) on a torrent of double-talk about how fervently revolutionary the power structure remains or, indeed, how much more revolutionary it becomes with each passing day. Each new Mexican president achieves his anointment as the standard bearer of this (verbally) unflagging revolution by donning the mantle of nationalism, egalitarianism, anti-imperialism; he becomes a champion of the Third World, of the Indian, the peasant, the worker; and he will be the friend of revolutionaries everywhere (except in Mexico, where his police will stamp on them very hard indeed). It should be clear that this is not a matter of appeasing the poverty-stricken masses, who live on a level where such concepts are meaningless, but rather those sectors of the middle classes who might stray from the “revolutionary family” and begin agitating for true opposition or—God forbid—true revolution.

The rule that no president may succeed himself after his six-year term is another essential element of this system. It allows other contenders and their friends the hope that their moment will come, and, more important, removes every former president forever from the political scene. The swarms of followers who have clustered in widening circles around the outgoing president are forced to relinquish their positions without bruising conflict to the swarms forming around the new leader.

Still another feature of the Mexican system is the incessant and diligent cooptation of bright, young, genuine Marxists. Young men who show intellectual capability, character, and radical leanings will be courted. If they are recalcitrant, they will be repressed (and even in extreme cases assassinated). But if they respond, they are assured spectacular careers in government. A survey of high-level personnel of the Mexican bureaucracy, including the foreign service, would show a startling proportion of very young men, many or most of whom were a short time back fiery youth leaders who from the relative safety of university campuses denounced the ruling elite and the single-party system as so much dead wood and as betrayers of the very revolutioary ideals they incessantly mouth. Not a few of the dead and missing (those lying to this day in unmarked common graves) of the massacre of student demonstrators at the Plaza de Las Tres Culturas (1968) would by now, had they survived, have become chefs de cabinet in some ministry, or even full ambassadors abroad.

For those of more delicate sensibility, the system offers less openly compromising opportunities in the universities, in publishing, in the arts, in journalism. A radical fringe actually can maintain in those niches a seemingly unbending anti-government and anti-PRI attitude, while in practice contributing a precious ingredient to the appearance of pluralism and to the tending of that hologram of a revolutionary flame that is Mexico’s most important political myth.

Now it should not be thought that all young Marxists who allow themselves to be coopted thereby abandon their political beliefs. Quite the contrary. Many or most of them rationalize their accommodations as the best possible manner in which to further those beliefs. They are definitely not asked to disguise them, and they enjoy active and often effective participation in the decisionmaking process, as bureaucrats or as makers of public opinion, up to a carefully measured point beyond which (a) the power structure could be undermined and (b) serious conflict with the United States might ensue. There are mistakes. The incident at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas should have been avoided. So should voting for the Zionism-racism resolution in the United Nations. It is worth noting that Luis Echeverria, a fatuous man who made the mistake of surrounding himself with hard-line young advisers, was involved as minister of the interior in the first instance, and as president in the second.

But within limits, Marxists in the bureaucracy, in the universities, and in the media are not only listened to, but their rhetoric is welcomed and readily borrowed by the regime as a whole. In part, this is the bow to the Left of a system based on mutual tolerance among elites and on elaborate mechanisms for resolving their differences. The “revolutionary family” wants to have an extreme left wing, in fact needs it, not least to keep up-to-date on revolutionary slogans. But in part the opinion of the extreme Left is welcomed as a valuable contribution to the decision-making process.

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A look at the four most often discussed issues in Mexican-U.S. relations will show how all this works:

  1. Mexican growers of winter vegetables want better and perhaps unlimited access to the U.S. market. One would think that in any bilateral negotiations between the two countries this would be regarded as a Mexican goal and, if achieved, as a substantial U.S. concession. Yet Mexican leftists object that export of winter vegetables to the U.S. favors only “rich” farmers, and that any new exports to the United States increase Mexico’s dependence on its imperialist neighbor (the U.S. indeed takes nearly 70 percent of all Mexican exports; Japan comes next with 3 percent).
  2. A fifth or even more of Mexico’s population depends on money earned by seasonal migrants to the U.S. Is it pro-Mexico to argue in favor of a liberalization and rationalization of this immense social and economic fact? No, says the left wing of the “revolutionary family,” it is demeaning to Mexico to provide the imperialist United States with a labor underclass; migrants lose their pride and their identity (not to mention their potential for manning a real revolution back home some day); the benefits to relatives are illusory because dissipated in consumption, often of imported goods.
  3. Tourism by North Americans in Mexico is panned for similar reasons: it is a form of prostitution, of selling Mexico’s soul; the dollars earned are put to no good use and go mostly to the wrong Mexicans anyway; the spectacle of wealthy North American tourists, with their cameras and big cars, has a negative effect on the Mexican masses, who should yearn for social justice and not for the trinkets of North American consumerism.
  4. The new-found oil, with reserves nearly comparable to those of the Persian Gulf, judiciously used in bilateral negotiations with the United States, would be an enormously powerful card. But the possibility of a greater commitment of oil to the U.S. is painted in the blackest colors, as a sure way to make Mexico an appendix, irretrievably, of the U.S. economy; a candidate for U.S protection or worse in the event of an unforeseen world crisis or of the sure energy shortage that the U.S. will confront in a few years; a victim, through excessive dollar earnings, of the unbalanced, unequal, and inflation-ridden development model of other oil-exporting countries.

In the case of these and other economic issues, about which no government can afford to become too ideological, the voice of the Left is widely publicized and often parroted, but heeded only with caution or not at all. On the other hand, in the “make believe” field of foreign policy, the Mexican power system has traditionally made large and it is hoped meaningless concessions to the extreme Left. Until the Cuban revolution, Mexico’s only real foreign-policy preoccupation was the United States. Here the guidelines and the method were: to survive with dignity the uncomfortable proximity of this monstrous neighbor; to take advantage of this proximity without losing one’s identity; to have as one’s top real priority getting along with the U.S., and as one’s top fictitious priority making it appear that, as a revolutionary country condemned to live next to the center of Western imperialism, one has constant, grave, and insoluble conflicts with it.

The Cuban revolution made matters much more complicated. Fidel Castro dared to attempt the impossible, and got away with it. He played the Soviet Union off against the United States and thus managed to fulfill the ambition that secretly or openly thrives in the heart of every Latin American (even passionate anti-Communists, like the Mexican conservatives mentioned by Octavio Paz): to get back at the United States for the multiple humiliations that Latin Americans have met with, individually or collectively, from the “yanquis,” and especially for the great, all-embracing humiliation inherent in the inevitable comparison between what Latin Americans and North Americans have achieved in their respective parcels of the New World. That is why in his early days Fidel Castro was a hero to all Latin Americans. And that is why he continues to enjoy a far greater prestige than he deserves or that would seem possible under present circumstances.

Mexicans, of course, were and remain especially vulnerable to his appeal. For very good reasons, they suffer from an especially acute case of the “living-with-the-U.S.” syndrome. They are especially sensitive to the heroic, nearly reckless daring shown by Castro in actually standing up to the United States instead of merely pretending to. Every chord in the Mexican system, from its emotionally satisfying mythology to the pragmatic uses of revolutionary rhetoric, vibrates with the noises that have been issuing from Havana in the last twenty years. The trouble is that this is no longer “make believe” foreign policy. This is the real thing, and, as Cuba has drawn closer and closer to the Soviet Union, finally becoming its most submissive satellite, the Mexicans have found themselves in increasing contradiction to a cardinal rule of their system: form and substance should never be allowed to coincide.

Cuba’s is not a “limited” revolution. Cuba is a deadly earnest subversive agent and a formidable military power right on Mexico’s doorstep. By contrast, Mexico has a little ragged army, and implicitly relies on U.S. military power for its external security. In all of Latin America only Brazil (with twelve times the population) has larger armed forces than Cuba. The Soviets have given that outsize army their type of battle training and an array of formidable weapons, including a small navy and a great fishing fleet capable of instant conversion to military purposes. Acting “on their own,” as they supposedly have in Angola, the Cubans could interdict the sea routes of the Caribbean. They are a distinct threat to the new Mexican oil fields, so close to their shores that an offshore oil field reportedly discovered not long ago a few miles north of Havana would be part of the same geological formation as the Mexican fields. The paradox reaches surrealistic proportions in the fact that it is the Mexican state-oil company which has been doing the prospecting and the drilling for the Cubans, thus carrying on the pretense of a “big” revolution helping a “little” one much beyond the point when it was a game of words and gestures.

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There is one final, unspoken rationalization for Mexico’s behavior toward the whole problem of the Soviet-inspired and Cuban-based strategic thrust in Central America. It is the hope that by its show of sympathy and even support for the Cuban and Nicaraguan governments—as well as for the “Liberation Fronts” of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—Mexico will be spared foreign-backed internal subversion longer than countries which, like Venezuela, have been uncompromising in their relations with Cuba.2 This would be consistent with the fact that nowhere in Latin America has Communist subversion made headway without outside support. Time, think the Mexicans, is the great healer.

Meanwhile, and as long as they can count on Mexico to look the other way or even lend a helping hand here and there, Cuba and the Soviet Union have conspicuously ignored any repressive actions by the government against the Mexican Communist party. Much more significantly, they have left entirely on their own a few forlorn pockets of Mexican guerrillas, whose very existence is for that reason as unknown to world opinion as the Salvadoran rebels are famous.


Footnotes

1 One strong proof: the unexpected agreement by President López Portillo to Venezuela's President Herrera Campín's proposal that both countries sell oil on a concessionary basis to Central American and Caribbean countries, including Nicaragua, but also El Salvador, and not Cuba.

2 After a brief thaw following resumption of diplomatic ties in 1975, Venezuelan-Cuban relations are again very tense and near the breaking point over Cuba's refusal to honor the hallowed Latin American tradition of diplomatic asylum. It will not grant safe conduct to refugees in the Venezuelan embassy in Havana. Interestingly, it has been several years since anyone sought refuge in Mexico's embassy. The grapevine has it that it is not precisely a haven from Castro's police.

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