Mexico In Carranza's Days
( Originally Published 1921 )
THE task which confronted Obregón and his fellow-workers as soon as they took over the reins of Government was truly formidable. Even a past master in statecraft might well shrink from undertaking it when surveying the situation, taking stock of the available instruments and drawing up a plan of action. To my thinking the two easiest problems of all, which might be settled speedily and satisfactorily with a reasonable measure of good will and readiness to give and take on both sides—foreign relations and finances—bid fair to become the most arduous, because complicated by a number of extrinsic issues. Foreign relations really mean intercourse with the United States Government, and that connotes compliance with the principal demands of the American oil companies.
As for the task of internal reconstruction, it is literally deterrent in virtue of its magnitude. On the part of the principal reformer it calls for a resourceful brain, an iron will and a considerable number of years in which to carry out a settled policy. And even these conditions are hardly sufficient. The man of destiny who has embarked on the venture requires to be seconded by a staff of honest, eager lieutenants who under-stand and sympathise with his aims and can adjust means to ends. And they are not easy to find. Hitherto in Mexico the best intentions of a leader were baffled and his programme altered by the exaggerated zeal, ignorance or personal ambition of his followers. An instructive example is afforded by the pristine agrarian plan drafted by Emilio Zapata, the pedantic construction put upon it by his adviser Palafox, and the utter fiasco in which it ended. The bulk of the Mexican people are relatively easy to govern. They are peaceful, patient, for-bearing, industrious, moral and on the whole better than many more fortunate communities scattered over the globe. They possess a normal number of gifted individuals, and if they enjoyed the benefits of a stable, honest administration and efficient educational establishments, their country would undoubtedly be among the most prosperous on the planet.
But for the moment they lack these requisites and much of what they imply. And one of the consequences is the extreme difficulty of finding a capable, honest and well trained set of men to form the rank and file of the administration. As General Obregón often remarked to me: "To make a code of good laws is child's play as compared with the selection of men who will administer them impartially and in the right spirit. It is of infinitely greater moment to have high-minded officials to apply the laws than to have legislators well versed in the intricacies of Roman jurisprudence to draft them." No matter how clear visioned the Chief of a reforming Government may be, he is powerless to help his people without efficient instruments. If the instruments break in his hands, he is no better off than a tyro. And that, in my opinion, is the standing danger in Mexico where communications are difficult and the representatives of the local Governments necessarily enjoy the full measure of discretion connoted by the term "State sovereignty." Hence, unless the authorities of the individual States are actuated by the same spirit as the President, they may baffle, instead of furthering his most beneficent schemes of reform. And that has already come to pass. As the Bulgarian proverb picturesquely puts it: "The lesser saints are the ruin of God."
No one who really knows the President will hesitate to testify that he is the one man in the country capable of coping with the task of reorganisation. And if by the machinations of outsiders he should be kept from solving the many-sided problem, none of his fellow countrymen is likely to succeed in working it out to a satisfactory issue. That is why so many are eager to thwart him and bring about intervention. A faint and far away notion of the situation of the country in the beginning of the year 1920, and of the difference wrought in it since then, first by the Provisional Government of Senor de la Huerta, and especially by General Obregón, may be gathered from the impressions which I received during my travels in Mexico in January, February, March and May, 1920, as compared with those which have been borne in upon me since then.
It is no easy matter at the best of times to gauge aright the internal conditions of any foreign country with a view to fore-casting its future and ascertaining the bearings of those conditions on its international relations. And when the country under examination was the Mexico of Carranza, one found oneself attempting to decipher the hieroglyphics of national and international politics. For the Republic in his days possessed a vast variety of aspects, any one of which might fascinate the observer's gaze to the exclusion or partial effacement of the others, warp his judgment and render his conclusions worthless. For the administration of that Dictator left nothing undone to take foreign visitors in hand and prepare the impressions which he desired to convey. And many more or less independent Americans from the United States, to say nothing of those who had axes to grind, allowed themselves to be hypnotised or used as semi-conscious agents of his propaganda.
It was quite possible, under that ruler, for a foreigner, especially if he were ignorant of the history, language and psychology of the Mexican people, to pay a flying visit to their fascinating country and even to reside there for a short while and return with a picture of its present condition and future outlook as different from the reality as were the distorted shadows of Plato's imaginary men on the cave-wall from the human beings hidden from the eyes of the spectators. A tourist might, for example, start from Vera Cruz, travel to Mexico City, spend a few weeks in that bright capital, visit Puebla and Guadalajara and return via Queretaro and Laredo without suspecting that there was anything organically wrong with the greatest Latin-American Republic. The trains which started at the scheduled hours might have arrived on time at their destination. No abnormal sights or sounds would have offended the eyes or grated on the ears of the stranger, seeing that the authorities invariably adopted special precautions for keeping them away. The theatres, churches, law-courts and cinemas were as usual open and frequented. The natives, too, whom the visitor met, could with truth have assured him that the conditions of existence were much better than they had been two years before, and some might give expression to their hope that they would gradually become normal again. And the serene optimism of the authorities could hardly fail to impress him with the belief that they were confronted with no problems more fateful than those which face every normally growing and well governed State.
And yet despite the sagacity of such an observer, the unbiased character of his testimony and the correctness of the facts which he alleged in support of his conclusions, the general picture he painted would be wholly false and misleading. What such a flying visitor beheld was, so to say, the front room that had been swept, garnished and embellished, not the living apartments which stamp the dwelling with its distinctive characteristics. But there were then two Mexicos, one on the surface—smooth, polished, lustrous like a crust of ice and capable for a time of bearing the weight of a frail governmental fabric; and the other a river underneath—dark, abysmal, sweeping ceaselessly onward and rapidly eroding the layer of ice above. That the passing onlooker should take no thought of the rolling stream underneath was but natural. Surprising was the circumstance that the architects of the governmental fabric should have forgotten its existence and neglected to take its erosive action into account. They lived and breathed and worked in an atmosphere of factitious contentment and serenity which was calculated to impart to the visitor a false sense of the stability of things. Me, too, it impressed at first but without convincing. In some ways those blithe administrators resembled the self-indulgent Florentines who were enjoying a fleeting period of wild dissolute gaiety while the plague was stalking through their streets, withering human life and turning the capital into a charnel house. But the Florentines were at least conscious, if heedless, of the danger that compassed them. Not so the Carranzist rough-hewers of Mexico's destinies. These men perceived as little, suspected as little and were as self-complacent as the revellers in the palace of Babylon's last king, until the fiery finger burned the words of judgment and death into the wall of the autocratic banqueting chamber.
Now this unrealised fact that there were two Mexicos under Carranza—one of them phantasmal and the other practically inaccessible to the average outsider—is accountable for the pathetic optimism of many more or less truth-worshipping visitors to that enchanting land of unmeasured possibilities and amazing contrasts, and also for the distrust with which the new and beneficent changes of today are received by the public. And yet had he but swerved a little from the railway lines and ventured into the interior, or undertaken a journey outside the protected zones, kept an open eye and an unbiased mind, he would have awakened to the startling fact that the two aspects of the country were as unlike each other as the masks of comedy and tragedy. Every now and again the grim reality would be brought home to those who had eyes to see and ears to hear by misdeeds that left an indelible impress on the mind of the beholder.
During the first of my many visits to the Republic, I had several opportunities of contrasting the phenomena of the two Mexicos. I remember the case of an Englishman who had to take a railway journey of some eight or ten hours from the capital and then to pursue his way as best he could across country in the dark to examine a mine. His train started punctually, he arrived on time, and leaving the railroad pushed on at night accompanied by another man and after a lonely journey of some hours on horseback reached his destination. Having accomplished his work on the following day he forth-with returned and arrived in the capital with nothing unpleasant or noteworthy to report. He might have imagined him-self to be in his native land, so punctual were the trains and so safe life and property. In a word, everything appeared to be as satisfactory as in the much lauded era of Porfirio Diaz. But the very day after the Englishman's return the train on that same line was dynamited and some of the passengers killed and wounded. He was just lucky. That was all.
A somewhat analogous experience fell to my own lot. In Guadalajara I announced my intention of returning to the United States by way of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, but be-fore ordering my ticket I made inquiries of Mexican friends as to whether the trains were running tolerably well and whether there was really as much danger from attack by the bandits under Villa as people affected to believe. The answer I received was to the effect that the alarming reports were much exaggerated, that Villa had announced his intention to lie low after the elections in July and that the line was there-fore practically safe. Circumstances, however, obliged me to postpone my journey three days. Then I ordered my ticket. Two days subsequently, however, I learned from the papers that the train in which I had meant to travel had been wrecked and many lives lost. This is what occurred. The train was accompanied by armed soldiers of whom some were in an armoured car, and others, as was their wont, seated on the roof. Two powerful bombs exploded under the train, blowing the engine to shreds, whereupon the rebels rushed up and opened fire. All the soldiers on the roof were quickly killed off and the others were prevented from issuing forth from their stronghold. The trembling passengers were conducted by the rebels to a spot a mile and a half distant, where they were robbed of eighty thousand Mexican pesos and of all the valuables on their persons. Twenty thousand pesos more were taken from the postal express car. The two conductors were hauled before Villa who shot them through the heart. The passengers' turn came next. Villa summarily ordered them all to be shot and they were duly lined up for execution. But just when about to give the order to fire he suddenly changed his mind and with tears in his eyes pardoned them, saying : "Since the execution of my friend General Angeles I have been thirsting for vengeance. That's why I blew up the train. Well, I have avenged his murder. Now in memory of him I spare your lives. You may go."
I concluded that I was lucky to have postponed my journey to Ciudad Juarez and I thereupon decided not to tempt fate by trespassing through Villa's preserves. Travelling under the Carranza régime was a lottery. If one were lucky one had merely to rough it. The only two things certain about a journey were discomfort and a military escort. Death or mutilation and robbery were contingencies about which one could never be sure. But then this disquieting incertitude was an essential characteristic of everything one undertook in the Re-public. It overhung mining, farming, trading, industry, politics, finance, the administration and the régime. One never knew what the morrow might bring forth, and the first question people asked themselves when contemplating any kind of business or action, was : how will it be affected by the Unforeseen?
Thus there was ever a Damocles' sword in the shape of uncertainty and danger hanging by a frail thread over the heads of people whose avocations took them from place to place and of foreigners who resided beyond the city boundaries. They carried their lives in their hands. That there were a few railway lines over which one might travel with some degree of safety if special precautions were taken, it would be unfair to deny. But these precautions constituted a heavy price for the boon which was paid by the State and the travelling public. The former had to provide all trains with an escort of soldiers and the latter to put up with the loss of an entire night on a journey of twenty-four hours. On the line between Laredo and Mexico City, for example, the passengers had to resign themselves to spending the night at an intermediate station and resuming their journey in the morning.
Drawbacks like these brought home to me in conclusive fashion the necessity of distinguishing between the show Mexico which Carranza exhibited to ingenuous American delegates and the real Mexico as he had helped to make it and as it was known to those natives and foreigners who made it their home.
My own experience, limited in time. as in space, illustrated the chances of journeying in safety if not in comfort, as well as the risks and incidentally, too, the ever-present dread which was felt by would-be travellers. From Puebla I desired to go to Oaxaca, one of the most delightful States in the Republic. Nearly all my Mexican friends, who, I may say, were staunch supporters of the Carranza Government, endeavoured to dissuade me on the ground that the journey was both uncomfortable and perilous. My travelling companion in particular held back and employed all his power of persuasion to induce me to abandon the plan. I finally told him that I would go at any rate as far as Tehuacan—about one-third of the way. During our drive from the hotel in Puebla to the station we passed crowds of men, women and children trudging along in the same direction as ourselves, and as soon as we caught sight of the terminus we beheld a vast concourse of men, women and children, mostly Indians, who filled the little waiting room, blocked the entrance, covered the stone steps and overflowed into the streets. And every moment the crowd was swelling. We could not even get near to the door. For a railway journey was a precious boon. And it was still so early that the ticket office was not open. There was no hope, therefore, of obtaining seats even if we should contrive to purchase tickets, so after having talked the matter over with a railway servant, we returned to the hotel and put off our journey until the following day. The next morning we rose at three, had our tickets and our seats by four and waited until five for the train to start. In Mexico the traveller had to rise at an unearthly hour in the morning, first because all long distance trains started early in order to make up for the loss of time at night, and second because the sitting accommodation in the ram-shackle carriages was limited whereas the number of seats sold was not. Many passengers, therefore, had to stand around or hang on wherever they could.
When the train steamed into Tehuacan station I resolved to keep my seat and send for tickets to Oaxaca, whereupon my companion overcame his reluctance and resigned himself to share my fate. The journey was supremely uncomfortable. The windows of the carriage were broken, the doors disjointed, the ceilings damaged, the sanitary arrangements shocking. But the line appeared safe enough and the train was not later than trains generally are in France.
While I was in Oaxaca, however, the rebels took the station of Etla, about eighteen miles distant, cut off our water and light and caused a panic in the city. For two days I was without water for washing and was obliged to content myself with a candle after sundown. A short time previously the bands had attacked the town of Teliztlahuaca forty-five miles distant from Oaxaca, killing and wounding some persons and striking terror to the hearts of many more. On our return journey to Puebla an attempt was made to wreck our train near the station of Santa Catarina. Fortunately special precautions had been taken because we had a Governor on board. The arrangements for derailing the train were discovered in the nick of time, and workmen were set to remove the obstacles and clear the line, after which we resumed our journey, which was completed without further interruption. These incidents occurred in March, 1920.
Several of my planned visits were countered owing to those untoward conditions. Thus I had long desired to visit the States of Chiapas and Tabasco concerning which I had gathered various interesting data. But every one discountenanced the idea. While the matter was still under consideration the rebels there under Cal y Mayor attacked a passenger train from Tapachula on the Pan-American branch of the railways, fought the usual skirmish with the escort, killed several soldiers, left a number of dead and wounded on the field, and destroyed properties near the railroad valued at over a hundred thousand pesos. A day or two later we learned that a powerful onslaught had been made by the rebels on the capital of Tabasco, and that the fight continued for two whole days, resulting in considerable casualties to both sides. In view of these "abnormal" conditions, it was put to me that I had better postpone my visits until order was permanently restored. What that vague delay implied in years no one was rash enough to conjecture. But I was enabled to reach the conclusion that if the régime continued the interval would not be very brief, by the circumstance that President Carranza and his advisers had decided to introduce armoured cars provided with machine guns and to build blockhouses of concrete at intervals of less than three miles along the principal railway routes, at an estimated cost of three thousand pesos for each blockhouse.