Mexico - Flaws In The Constitution Of 1917
( Originally Published 1921 )
THE magnitude of the interests at stake and the serious nature of the outlook justify a brief review of the international perils with which Mexico is confronted and of the alleged nexus between them and the present Constitution.
This Constitution is by no means all evil. It possesses certain redeeming traits which are well worth retaining. At the Congress of Queretaro its authors introduced provisions into the new charter which were framed to deal with social conditions unknown in the year 1857 when the previous Constitution was drawn up. These hastily drafted enactments protect women and children and rescue them from the status of serfdom theretofore prevalent, devise a reasonable formula for regulating the question of remuneration, oblige employers to pay their workmen in legal currency, to refrain from whittling down wages by fines, to erect sanitary dwellings to be had for fair rents, to eliminate gambling dens and generally to treat the workers as human beings and free agents. And in this respect the Constitution of 1917 marked a distinct advance on that of 1857 and challenges the opposition of certain oil companies.
But its framers did not stop here. They went to extremes, unduly favouring the workman at the expense of the employer, compelling the latter in certain emergencies to continue to operate at a loss, giving the former an undetermined share in the profits and generally upsetting the equilibrium which should exist between capital, labour and intelligence and which Obregón is now bent on restoring. Thus, an amendment to the Constitution passed at a subsequent date' lays it down that neither suspension of work by employers nor a strike by the workmen is lawful without the assent of the Executive, and that if one or the other takes place without this assent, the Executive is warranted in taking over control of the business, if he deems it to be of public interest.
These and kindred enactments, it is agreed, are calculated to deter capital from seeking investments in Mexico. They are further of a nature to spur the workmen to sinister efforts to overturn the entire social system. And these, it is added, are precisely the consequences which the Constitution has already generated. Here is one of the many proofs adduced. At the Convention of the Labour Party in Pachuca the following resolution was passed unanimously : "The Mexican Labour Party has ever stood by the side of the proletariat, aiding it to win its total emancipation. It holds that the proletariat is warranted, at the fitting moment, to seize and keep the lands, machinery and all the means of production and transportation, and likewise to control production and consumption by means of a system of social organisation which shall guarantee economic equality in every branch."2 A comprehensive programme drafted by grown-up children !
An eminent Mexican publicist3 commenting on this remark-able profession of faith states that according to the Mexican press it counts upon advocates inside the Cabinet, who would fain see capitalism and private capital generally superseded by nationalisation and the overthrow of the Government of which they are members. He contends that the working men in Mexico are immune from real punishment if they break their contracts, however wantonly, whereas the employer can be held to his bargain or chastised condignly. "By terror the syndicates impose their will on the community and the Government, whereas it is exceedingly difficult for a Government to exercise constraint over the syndicates by its terrorism. . . . The syndicates are therefore irresponsible, and in law con-tracts with irresponsible parties are unknown." And he admonished his countrymen that "the bulk of the capital which operates in Mexico is of foreign origin, and the Great Powers upon whom rests the duty of protecting it will not permit it to be made the slave of Mexican Labour Syndicates. . . . In a short span of time Mexicans will be forced to the conclusion that capital is a slave which will kill, unless indeed the policy announced by General Obregón turns out to be as trenchant as the terror with which the community is assailed by the proletariat."'
This apprehension of bolshevism—for that is what it amounts to—is one of the favourite battle grounds of those American friends in Mexico who are anxious to import into that Republic the material prosperity and politico-social arrangements which prevail in Cuba. No war cry, it is rightly assumed, could be more effective than this. It appeals power-fully to financiers and men of business on whose good will the Mexican State must ultimately depend for the means of setting its house in order. Everything that scares or discourages foreign capitalists is a danger that transcends most others and must be removed, even at a heavy political sacrifice. But whether the bolshevist symptoms alleged are trace-able to the Constitution of 1917 or flow from that of 1857 which confers sovereignty upon a number of sparsely populated States, hampers the executive and frustrates the only efficient measure with which the malady can be combated—is a matter which will bear discussion and will be touched upon in another chapter as will also the allegation that bolshevism is rampant in the Republic. If it is true, as Senor Bulnes contends, that only the Central Government can stem the bolshevist tide, surely it follows that in order to produce the de-sired effect that Government must have a free hand through-out the entire Republic ; and it is equally clear that the sovereignty of the separate States must be done away with, seeing that it ties the hands of the Executive and opens the door to inexperienced administrations like that of Yucatan.
It is further asserted that scant encouragement is held ouf by the Charter of 1917 to foreign bankers. They are treated as covert enemies of the nation,—they on whose good will Mexico absolutely depends for the success of the work of reconstruction. And without reconstruction from within official recognition is but a meaningless form. Article 27 contains this provision : "Banks duly organised under the laws governing institutions of credit may make mortgage loans on rural and urban property in accordance with the provisions of the said laws but they may not own nor administer more real property than that which is absolutely necessary for their direct purposes."
Now what, one naturally asks, is the extent of the real property absolutely necessary within the meaning of that act? In order to ascertain this the words, expert opinion says, must be construed in the light of the foregoing clause which enacts that "Commercial Stock companies shall not acquire, hold or administer rural properties. Companies of this character which may be formed to develop any manufacturing, mining, petroleum or other industry, excepting only agricultural industries, may acquire, hold or administer lands only in an area absolutely necessary for their establishments or adequate to serve the purposes indicated, which the Executive of the Union or of the respective State in each case shall determine."
It is inferred from both those clauses that banks may not acquire, hold or administer rural properties, nor indeed any industrial possessions which have no direct bearing upon banking purposes. And this, it is pointed out, is tantamount to a prohibition to lend money to agriculturists who will consequently be abandoned to the clutches of the usurer. For the usual guarantee of such a loan is the hacienda or estate of the borrower, and circumstances such as inability to pay interest may oblige the Bank to take possession of the property and administer it. To dispossess it of the right to do this is to take away the only guarantee available and therefore to render such advances of money impossible. The final outcome, it is contended, is that these clauses deal a stunning blow to foreign banks and also to Mexican landlords.'
A country, it is affirmed, which upholds legislation of this suicidal character is on the high road to economic ruin. Unsuited to any contemporary State it is absolutely calamitous to Mexico whose policy must be directed to encourage foreign capital to come into the country, and the Constitution that contains it should be abolished.
On the other hand, Mexicans of a logical turn of mind, while ready to amend those loosely worded clauses, would con-fine the change to them. An article, after all, is but a fraction of the Constitution, and Mexicans feel, as do the English, that in legislation transformation is better than creation out of nothing and that to go back to a Constitution framed sixty-four years ago when most of the crucial problems of to-day were not yet mooted would be retrogression worthy only of reactionaries. Hitherto several amendments have been passed which were rendered pressing by new requirements or old errors and this process is obviously preferable to the forging of such a brand-new Constitution as foreign politico-commercial interests advocate.
One of the densest banks of storm clouds which hang over Mexico to-day is alleged to be formed by various aspects of the agrarian movement now going forward in the Republic and by the many abuses to which it has given rise. And yet it is doubtful whether an agrarian problem can be said to form part of the actualities of contemporary Mexican politics. The amount of land in the Republic still awaiting cultivation is enormous. I have myself visited a great part of the country and I write with first-hand knowledge. The soil in many districts is uncommonly fertile, in others it is potentially so. Every kind of fruit can be produced in abundance and perfection on the coast and the tableland. The most palatable strawberries, mangoes, oranges, bananas, pineapples are awaiting transport facilities to enable them to vie with those of the fruit-bearing countries which dominate the world's markets to-day. Cotton, sugar, fibre and rubber lands are extensive and relatively cheap. The northern States bid fair to become the greatest ranching country on the American Continent. In a word, there is soil enough to satisfy the acutest land-hunger that the people is likely to feel for a long sequence of years to come.
What the country is deficient in is a class of hardy enter-prising tillers equipped with technical training, capital and credit wherewith to purchase and use the requisite implements of modern agricultural industry. The writer of these pages who travelled over the whole Republic was profoundly struck with the backwardness, poverty and quietism of the people, their primitive agricultural expedients and their slow and faint response to outward stimuli. Wooden ploughs, harrows that resemble broken rakes, water carried to the fields by human beings and harvests that barely keep body and soul together are among the phenomena that attract attention. Beyond the attainment of the most meagre results the peasant seldom feels impelled to advance. "In these parts we live in poverty," said the spokesman of a delegation in the State of Chiapas to General Obregón in my presence, "but we live con-tent and we shall die content if you guarantee us peace. That is all we ask." Exactly. They are contented with too little. Soul-eating rust makes many of them fail at the critical stages of many an undertaking, that is to say, at the outset and the end. Initiative and constancy are the qualities of which they stand most in need.
That people of this type are eager to get land to till and are willing and able to till it is a statement that requires an effort of the imagination to accept. Yet this assumption has been made the starting point for a powerful movement in favour of parcelling out the great estates among the "land-hungry," of establishing peasant proprietorship on a vast scale and of raising the material life-standard of the native population. Careful Mexican writers' have been at great pains to show the fallacy of this assumption and the untrustworthy character of the data underlying it and there is little doubt that it is being used very largely as a lever to embarrass the Government. Still President Obregón could not but take cognisance of the current, however artificial its origin might be, and devise a formula for the bestowal of land upon those who could prove that they were really willing and able to cultivate it. Their right to it is beyond question. The ideas which he put for-ward in the Chamber reveal a thorough grasp of the subject and a masterly method of dealing with it, but owing to the sovereignty of the States of the Union his intentions have been temporarily thwarted from time to time. Consequently this impotence to deal with questions which are national and international in their bearings—and the land problem partakes of both characters—is an argument not against the Constitution of 1917 but against the federal system of State structure.
It has been demonstrated by statistics, which have been con-firmed by a number of concrete cases recently published, that the Indians, while eager enough to get possession of lands be-longing to others, have seldom the means or the will to cultivate them and make haste to sell them to the highest bidders. In some instances they refused point blank to take them over at all, in others they at once disposed of them to the first purchasers they could find. What they particularly covet are flourishing estates, but only with a view "to impoverish them, by subsisting on their spontaneous produce. If on the Indian's lot there happens to be nopal plantations he lives on the fruits; if woodland, he hews the trees until there are none left; if game be there, he hunts until he has caught or driven every animal away; if there be fish in the water, he fries them in his pan. This and two or three chunks of lard satisfy him and he asks for nothing better. We supplied a striking instance of this last Saturday, in the narrative of how that most flourishing estate, La Purisima, was plundered and destroyed with ruthless thoroughness. Converted into common lands, the Indian first devastated it and then transformed it into a marsh for duck-shooting. To-day that whilom source of wealth is become a desolate, pestilent, barren swamp, in which nothing is cultivated and where the very people who clamoured for it are perishing."
Since the agrarian agitation began to be utilised as an engine of political warfare, some prominent Mexican publicists solicitous for the economic well-being of their country have been bringing to the cognisance of the general public the master facts that bear upon agriculture and upon the introduction of a system of peasant proprietorship after the French model.
And these data, which tally with what is known of the temperament of the population and seem decisive, point to the absence of any widespread demand for land or indeed of any serious demand whatever for the parcelling out of large estates. This, it may be parenthetically remarked is a matter of genuine regret. Were there real eagerness among the natives to possess and till the soil as it should be tilled, Mexico's future would look brighter beyond compare. But as things now are, it seems as though the soil were doomed to pass wholly into the hands of foreign capitalists who are already the masters of so many other sources of the country's wealth. In a word, the process which is now going forward has been described as the Americanisation of Mexico, using the word American as synonymous with Yankee.
General Obregón grasps the situation, eschews extremes, and is playing the only trump card in his hand. He will not brook the survival of these latifundia, which besides being excessively large are partly uncultivated or cultivated only by antiquated methods. These he will have cut up in every case in which the public interest demands it. Other large estates properly stocked and tilled he will leave intact. The Indians shall have all the land they can cultivate, but should they be unwilling or unable to till those lots, the President will encourage the best qualified husbandmen he can find in the old world to immigrate to Mexico, settle down as agriculturists and give a stimulating example to the natives. In time they will become prosperous Mexican citizens and in the meanwhile they will have shown practically what can be got out of the land by proper treatment and have thereby awakened in their neighbours a spirit of fruitful emulation.
This is the conception of a patriot who is a statesman. And the systematic opposition which it has encountered is among the difficulties that block his way.
Some European observers who have an axe of their own to grind have recently recorded the results of their investigations, and these shed an interesting light on the reality as distinguished from the idyllic picture painted by day-dreamers and held up to the world by professional agitators. One of the most methodical and level-headed foreign economists' who gathered, sifted and published a number of illuminating data respecting the agrarian experiments already tried, is worth hearkening to. He writes: "In the district of Temax, Yucatan, the communal lands of Temax, Tzoncahuich, Tzitzantum, the town of Tzilan and the port of the same name were split up during the past ten years into normal farms of about four hectares. The eight hundred families which received their lots, with the exception of ten at the most, have already sold their farms. In the municipal territory of Causahcab, situated in the same district, a landlord got possession of the communal lands of the natives and set to work to grow hennequin11 there. The Government took possession of the lands and gave them back to the Indians without any expense to the latter. Down to August, 1907, when I visited that district, I found that out of the 300 families thus benefited only forty had kept their possessions. The other 260 had sold theirs at once to the landlord."
In Tabasco the result was similar. There the lands of twenty-one townships were also parcelled in the same way, but "out of the recipients of these allotments who numbered some 4,500 no less than 75 per cent disposed of them to third persons.
"In Pocyaxuma, a district of Campeche, the common land was partitioned among fifty-three families. And all of them, with the exception of three or four, got rid of their allotments. In Hecelchacan, situated in the same State of Campeche, the great majority of 200 families sold their farms even before they had received their title deeds. In Tenabo, in the same district, the 200 families which were to have had farms be-stowed upon them, refused to contribute to pay the fee of the surveyor who was to have delimited them."
One of the principal Mexican journals commenting on these significant manifestations of the temper of the natives, writes : "The land-hunger by which the Mexican rural class is supposed to be possessed is not noticeable. Above all, there is no token of a desire to acquire a piece of unexploited land, with a view to put value into it by labour. And in the absence of this striving are we to assume that with such a group of people we can form a class of husbandmen who will extract from the soil not merely the wherewithal for their own existence but also further produce to augment the :resources of the en-tire community? What we do behold is eagerness to get possession of lands already cultivated by others and improved by various installations, machinery, etc. And that is what, to employ the term used by the Commissions, we feel tempted to call plunder."
It is fair, however, to admit in advance that some of these phenomena may be capable of an explanation by local conditions which differs from that ascribed to it by those investigators and it is also worth noting that in the northern States the inhabitants are both able and willing husbandmen.
Those American would-be saviours of Mexico who seem bent on having the Constitution of 1917 abolished argue that the principle of nationalisation is an apple of discord which will keep the population of the Republic in a continuous ferment that may at any moment come to a head in civil war. They add that a standing menace of this gravity is a matter of deep concern to themselves and that in the interests of both countries it must be removed. This is another striking instance of the two-fold aspect of all Mexico's troubles. Every domestic problem presents disconcerting international bearings concerning the solution of which the northern Republic has a friendly word to say. It may not be amiss to glance at the nexus between the "anticipated civil war" and the principle of nationalisation as it appears to the American reformers. It is found in the gross injustice which is being done to Mexican citizens who in virtue of the law are being denied rights accorded to foreigners. The State Department in Washington is reported to have formulated an anticipatory protest against the probable subdivision of large agricultural estates. Thereupon the American chargé d'affaires, Mr.Summerlin, is said to have made a report to Secretary Hughes to the effect that he had heard indirectly that the Mexican Government had affirmed its resolve not to break up any estates belonging to American citizens.14 What that would mean is that American citizens would enjoy privileges while Mexicans are to forfeit rights.
Against this one-sided arrangement the Mexican press has uplifted its voice with passionate emphasis and curious fore-boding. "It is no secret," writes one of the principal organs, "that various foreign land-owners who protested against the encroachments on their property made by the local agrarian juntas have received redress. Mexicans, on the other hand, have been compelled to resign themselves to the abuses and to endure this spoliation." Very significantly the journal adds: "It is not we Mexicans who will protest against the 'inequality of treatment' thus meted out to residents of one and the same country under the same laws; it is unquestionable that the protests will emanate from the foreigners."
In effect, it is unquestionable. Many other analogous demands put forward by outlanders operate and are meant to operate as wedges for splitting up the actual State structure. Another of the "dangers" confidently predicted consists in this, that the Mexican landlords seeing themselves defenceless will, as a last resort, dispose of their properties to foreigners.
The sudden discovery of oil in the State of Tabasco precipitated matters. Tabasco is a State in which Mexican landlords are numerous and they naturally enough hastened to strike the iron while it was hot and make the most of their possessions. The petroleum companies, equally eager to fructify the opportunity, had their representatives hie to the spot, where transactions were effected with a speed which took the authorities by surprise. "A veritable fever has fallen upon the businessmen of the United States," writes one of the Mexican press organs "and likewise upon the foreign companies which own oil interests in Mexico, actuating them to acquire rights in Tabasco where there is no longer any doubt that the subsoil contains petroleum in vast quantities. . . . A legion of agents of the oil companies rushed hither-thither hunting for the owners of the lands from whom they pro-posed to lease or buy them on such advantageous terms that the authorities were put on their guard."
Thereupon the Central Government instructed the Governor to hinder transactions of the nature described and in-formed him that a commission would shortly be despatched to Tabasco. But here again the federal system, not the Constitution of 1917, was made the pretext for obstruction. The Governor of Tabasco proposed to have special State legislation passed on the subject, independently of the Federal Government ! On this the Ministry of Industry telegraphed pointing out that the only authority competent to make laws on the subject was the central government, to which alone, as the nation's trustee, the produce of the subsoil belonged, and that consequently transactions concluded by the landowners with agents of the oil companies would be null and void. This injunction was beyond all question warranted. For Article 27 of the Constitution of 1917 nationalises the produce of the subsoil from the date on which it was promulgated, but only from that date. Lands purchased or leased before then will have to be excepted, but none others. Now the Ministry of Industry and Commerce is said to have cognisance of crooked deals concluded between agents of oil companies and owners of lands last March in which, with the connivance of the sellers, a false date was registered, a date anterior to the publication of the Constitution of 1917, for the purpose of obtaining the benefits of the clause of non-retroactivity. The greed of gold is almost as fertile a source of ingenuity as natural hunger and a more powerful dissolvent of the moral law.
In Mexico where a long spell of anarchy has made the voice of misery imperious and that of morality often inaudible, money can accomplish things greater than in Europe, but not as great as in the most cultured States of the New Continent. Patriotism which is not a particularly hardy plant among certain sections of the Mexican population can but fitfully withstand its subtle withering force. Hence the temptation to owners of lands and agents of oil companies to conspire to defeat the law. Hence, too, the accusations so freely bandied about of late by the press organs, the one accusing the other of selling its convictions for the money of the oil companies and the retaliatory charges of blackmail launched against certain newspaper managers by the oil companies' representatives." Thus the "Universal" writes triumphantly at the close of one of these unedifying controversies : "If anybody has asked or received money from the oil men, it is the very people who some months ago dared to calumniate the 'Universal."
The fact would seem to be that in certain spheres of demagogy in Mexico as elsewhere it is occasion that makes people honest. And the task of President Obregón is rendered uncommonly difficult and dangerous by the rareness of this occasion, owing to the frequent offers of bribes. Some foreign agents have done much to foster and spread corruption. For the laws of the State and those of morality present but a frail barrier against systematic dishonesty. This unsavoury theme, however, deserves special treatment. The President surely knows that today no less than in the epoch of Moses, whenever the dance around the golden calf is as lively as it is in the oil region, the tables of the law are doomed to be broken. And he and many of his compatriots have often fervently wished that Nature had not handicapped Mexico with a sinister combination : the boon of vast material wealth, the draw-back of a listless, poverty-stricken population and the blessing of a progressive neighbour endowed with the gift of exploiting both. Patriotic Mexicans must feel tempted to repeat the words uttered by Senora Torcuata in Alarcon's story of the buried treasure : "Accursed be treasures and mines and devils and everything else that lies buried beneath the surface of the earth, excepting water and the dead bodies of the faithful."