Today, I will take a break from reviewing the chapters of the book La Diplomacia Consular Mexicana en los tiempos de Trump (Mexican Consular Diplomacy in Trump's Era), coordinated by Rafael Fernández de Castro.
Instead, I will present Mexico's Cultural Diplomacy towards South America, focusing on Argentina, during the intra-wars years. This is an idea that I had for at least four years, and I am happy that finally, I got the chance to research and write about it.
After reading several publications, I realized that this issue and the context when it took place were much more complicated than anticipated. Therefore, I decided that the Cultural Diplomacy strategy of Mexico needs to be visualized as multiple layers.
The three perspectives that I propose are the foreign policy goals of enhancing bilateral relationships with South America thru: a) Reciprocal establishment of Embassies; b) cultural exchanges and presentation of Mexico's points of view; and c) traditional diplomatic duties. I believe this will help understand this incredibly complex situation better.
The Cultural Diplomacy strategy implemented by the different Mexican administrations during the 1920s and 1930s was not a slam-dunk, nor was it a total failure. However, it established intellectual networks between thinkers and writers from across Latin-America that continued to develop for the rest of the century.
1. International Background.
The 1920s and 1930s were turbulent times because there were so many things going on worldwide all at once. The aftermath of World War I resulted in the weakening of European powers and the surge of a still-reluctant United States. The Great Depression broke the international trade system and affected economies across the globe.
Besides, the clash of ideas sows the ground for conflicts everywhere. Fascist, Communist, and Capitalist ideologies, combined with nationalism, fought an all-out war, many times in real battlegrounds. The confrontation eventually led to World War II.
In Latin America, there were political conflicts and social turmoil after the centennial celebrations of independence. It also saw the rise of dictatorships after coups d 'état against elected governments.
2. Situation in Mexico.
At the beginning of the 1920s, Mexico's Revolution was entering a new, less-violent stage, with the "Sonora group" consolidation, but it was still a precarious situation. Álvaro Obregón was elected president in 1920, after the "Agua Prieta" uprising and the assassination of President Venustiano Carranza. The country finally enjoyed some tranquility, but essential issues were still pending, including its relations with the outside world.
2.1 Cultural and Educational renaissance in Mexico.
José Vasconcelos, a member of the Ateneo de la Juventud,[i] was the headmaster of the cultural and educational renaissance that Mexico experienced after the Revolution.
In the early 1920s, he promoted a cultural explosion spearheaded by the muralist painters Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco. The muralist movement later became an international phenomenon.[ii]
Less well-known, but still very influential, was the big boom in literature and political thinkers, that were also members of the Ateneo. Some of them actively worked for the new governments and were the intelligentsia behind the new regime. Some, like Amado Nervo and Alfonso Reyes, were career diplomats.
This cultural renaissance is vital to understand the activities that different Mexican administrations during the 1920s and 1930s implemented towards South America. During that time, Mexico City was a magnet for all types of artists and thinkers, as well as political exiles from all over Latin America.
2.2 Mexico's Foreign Policy.
"The foreign policy of the governments of the Revolution from Carranza, and with more emphasis from Álvaro Obregón forward, had one major goal: stop the threat to the national sovereignty that represented the U.S. government and business interests. Besides the direct negotiations with Washington, the priority was to fully restore the relations with the major countries of South America, to try, once more, to establish a continental network against U.S. imperialism".[iii]
For Mexico, the issue of recognition of the government by other countries, particularly the United States, was of great relevance for several reasons. The first and foremost, it meant that rival groups were not going to get either arms, money, trade, or support from the mighty neighbor to the north, thus weakening them.
It also signified the acceptance of the new regime that embraced forward-looking concepts in its Constitution of 1917. Additionally, it meant opening the door for much needed foreign loans and investment to restart the country's economy, devastated during the Revolution.
At that time, there was a lot of pressure from abroad, particularly from the United States and the United Kingdom, regarding the implementation of Article 27 of the new Constitution,[iv] especially regarding oil, mining, and haciendas.
Additionally, Mexico had to combat the bad image that the U.S. media portraited about the country, the government, and its Revolution. Therefore, the Mexican administrations had to roll out a propaganda operation to present its own view and counter the U.S. perspective.[v]
According to Pablo Yankelevich, Mexico's foreign policy actions were a defense mechanism to counter U.S. actions against the Revolution, its ideas, and the new regime. However, the United States government and the business community saw Mexico's internal policies as almost communist actions.[vi]
3. Cultural Diplomacy strategy towards South America.
As mentioned, South American countries, particularly Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, represented a crucial diplomatic avenue for Mexico's foreign policy. Therefore, the Revolution's different governments sought a rapprochement with them to counter the U.S. aggressive policies.
The overarching goal was to have the support of the region as a buffer to U.S. policies. There were three specific objectives: the establishment of reciprocal embassies, boost exchanges of ideas and the formation of groups supportive of Mexico, and more traditional diplomatic goals such as the creation of direct transportation and communication links, trade promotion, and hosting international conferences.[vii]
To achieve these targets, Mexico implemented an ambitious Cultural Diplomacy strategy in South America. Among other activities, these were the most relevant:
a) Launch of "Cultural Embassies" and donations of books and other publications.
b) Appointment of Mexican intellectuals and writers as the country's representatives.
Here are these activities in more detail with a particular focus on Argentina:
a) Launch of "Cultural Embassies" and donations of books and other publications.
In the early 1920s, José Vasconcelos "promoted the culture and the arts associated with the Revolution thru Cultural Embassies (Embajadas Culturales)."[viii]
As part of this activity, in 1921, Antonio Caso toured several South American countries where he "gave conferences and lectures…[and] through the academia Caso sought to bring closer the Mexican culture to those of the host countries."[ix]
Later on, as representative of Mexico in Argentina from 1922 to 1924, Enrique González Martínez signed an agreement with the Buenos Aires Popular Libraries to distribute Mexico's publications thru its network, as well as to cultural and literary personalities.[x]
"As the conflict with the U.S. worsened during the [Plutarco Elias] Calles regime, there was an extra effort to gain spaces in the Latin American press, so [Mexico] increased the shipment of books, bulletins, and leaflets. Only during the first year of Calles administration, the government sent 230,000 packages of books and periodicals to other countries."[xi]
b) Appointment of Mexican intellectuals and writers as the country's representatives.
One way to achieve Mexico's foreign policy goals was the designation of renowned thinkers and famous writers as representatives to those countries. The idea was to send cultural Ambassadors, so they support, with their own prestige, the efforts of promoting the bilateral relations.[xii] Also, their status as cultural creators conveyed an image of Mexico as a civilized and pacified nation.[xiii]
From early on, Mexican revolutionary governments sent prominent cultural personalities as representatives to South America, particularly to Argentina. In Figure 1, located at the bottom of the post, you can see that most of the Mexican representatives to Argentina in those times were well-known writers, philosophers, and intellectuals, that were an essential part of the renaissance of the arts and education of the new regime.[xiv]
Even though Mexican representatives have difficulties obtaining concrete results, "the literature diplomacy (diplomacia de las letras) had the great advantage of giving credibility to most of the Mexican information regarding the Revolution and its national projects."[xv]
When Vasconcelos traveled to Argentina in 1922 as representative of president Álvaro Obregón, he and other Mexican delegates "were responsible for establishing a solid network of sympathy towards the revolutionary [regime]."[xvi]
Meanwhile, Enrique González Martínez "disseminated the rich Mexican culture, in general, and thru his poetry"[xvii] during his tenure from 1922 to 1924.
One of the greatest Mexican writers, Alfonso Reyes,[xviii] was named the first Ambassador to Argentina in 1927 and departed to Brazil in 1930. He later returned to Argentina from 1937 and 1938 before going back to Mexico.
As a two-time Ambassador in Argentina, Reyes managed to establish a close relationship with the different vanguard literature groups of Buenos Aires, participating in various initiatives such as the magazine Sur[xix] and Cuadernos del Plata.[xx]
As a result of these activities, in January 1928, Ambassador Reyes successfully signed a treaty regarding Literary and Artistic Property, the first of its type signed by two Latin American countries.[xxi]
The intellectual networks created during the years when Alfonso Reyes was Ambassador in Argentina produced a continental-wide discussion and began the evolution of the Latin-American identity.[xxii]
4. Evaluation of Mexico's Cultural Diplomacy strategy towards South America.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, to better understand and evaluate Mexico's diplomatic efforts in South America, these have to been seen from three different perspectives.
As the reader will see, Mexico's foreign policy goals in the region were not all failure or success but a mix of both. However, on the cultural side, most were a success in the long run.
I) Establishment of reciprocal Embassies with South American countries.
It was a highly desired goal by Mexican authorities, even before the Revolution. It finally succeeded during this period. So, in 1922, Brazil and Mexico designated their first Ambassadors. Later, in 1926, the same happened with Guatemala and a year later with Argentina, Chile, and Cuba. With Peru and Bolivia, the opening of embassies occurred in the late 1930s and in the early 1940s with Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
Latin American governments were interested in seeing first-hand the changes that were occurring in Mexico. Additionally, some like Brazil disregarded U.S. opposition and opened its embassy before the recognition of the Mexican government by Washington.[xxiii]
Besides, during this time, U.S. influence and intervention in the region intensified, so these countries too began to experience some of the pressures and policies as Mexico bore for a long time as its closest neighbor.
For Mexico, having embassies meant direct contact with the political elite and other relevant actors. It also opened new opportunities in different fields such as trade, cultural exchanges, and direct transport and communications links. But most importantly, it was a way to balance U.S. influence in the country.
So, regarding this foreign policy goal, Mexico was effective in finally achieving a highly-regarded objective. Therefore, its Cultural Diplomacy strategy worked. Of course, it was a mix of different situations that lead to this outcome.
II. Cultural exchanges and presentation of Mexico's points of view.
Sending highly regarded thinkers as Ambassadors to the Southern Cone, also known as the Diplomacia de las letras (literature diplomacy), allowed the Mexican government to have instant access to many groups, some of whom were closer to the ideals and policies of the Revolution.
As the reader saw, besides performing traditional diplomatic duties, Mexico's representatives engaged in multiple cultural endeavors. This resulted in the formation of significant relationships between South American and Mexican intellectuals that lasted for many years.
"..Mexican diplomacy had more success in cultural exchanges, built upon political coincidences, cultural affinities, and literary curiosity. And the shadow of that Cultural Diplomacy is still projecting over the bilateral relationship between the two nations [Mexico and Argentina]."[xxiv]
So, this effort can be regarded as successful in the long run. And if it is combined with the power of the film industry first and later with TV, most of the people in South America "knew" Mexico from its movies, TV shows, and soap operas as well as artists, musicians, and writers. This helped promote Mexico's positive image across the region for a very long time.
While Mexico's representatives worked in establishing great networks of like-minded South Americans, their official diplomatic duties were very tough considering the situation, as the reader will see in the next section.
"The great effort to present the Revolution, awaken enthusiasm in universities circles, in segments of the labor movement, in the masonic lodges and in political and intellectuals spaces of the Latin American progressivism, but in the foreign policy arena there were no visible concrete actions toward defending Mexican sovereignty."[xxv]
III. Traditional diplomatic duties.
I refer to traditional diplomatic duties as the regular activities that a diplomat has to perform, including obtaining the desired support from the host government, promoting trade and investment, and, at that time, having direct transport and communication links between Mexico and the Southern cone.
But before presenting the results of this activity, the actual situation has to be considered to appreciate the difficulties that Mexico's representatives faced at that time.
In most countries, conservatives regimes were the norm, and little by little military dictatorships controlled most of the continent by the beginning of World War II. These regimes were very close to the Catholic church. When the Cristero conflict (Guerra Cristera) [xxvi] erupted in Mexico's rural parts in 1926, Mexican diplomats had difficulty containing the situation.
For example, when Alfonso Reyes arrived in Buenos Aires as Mexico's first resident Ambassador, Argentina's internal situation helped enhance the relationship with Mexico.[xxvii] However, his arrival coincided with the height of the Cristero conflict, which was not well received by Catholics in Argentina and other Latin American countries and the Vatican.
As seen, Mexico's most important aim in South America was to balance U.S. intervention in its internal affairs. However, Mexico's "Revolution was able to awaken solidarities, but the Mexican strategy could not generate concrete actions from the Latin American governments.[xxviii]
The increasing turmoil and rise of dictatorships also presented an obstacle for Mexico's foreign policy objectives. For instance, "after the coup d 'état in 1930, Argentina's authoritarianism and its foreign policy reduced the space of political coincidences with Mexico. A relationship based on the intellectual field had little possibilities for growth with an Argentinean government that was on the opposite side of Mexico in important issues such as the Spanish Civil War and World War II."[xxix]
Besides the lack of concrete support towards Mexico's regime vis a vis the United States, other diplomatic activities did not come to fruition, such as establishing direct transportation and communication links, which affected the possibility of enhancing direct trade exchanges. Multiple obstacles, including economic structural issues, and the changing international situation, prevented the realization of a much-desired outcome.[xxx]
One bright spot was the 1923 Pan American Conference, that took place in Chile, "where Mexico could not participate directly. But the country's presence was felt, as they agreed then that a country could not be excluded from attending these conferences, because of its lack of diplomatic relations with the United States."[xxxi]
Overall, the Cultural Diplomacy strategy of Mexico towards South America during the 1920s and 1930s had mixed results, but it was positive as a whole. However, I believe it was the foundation for the Latin American intellectual movement that continued developing and mature during the rest of the century.
As Guillermo Palacios indicates, "culture was one of the avenues to maintain international contact, when other alternatives such as trade or political alliances were impossible or useless."[xxxii]
For Mexico at that time, the Cultural Diplomacy effort to engage with the region seems to be the best option, particularly considering that most South American governments were conservative, and bilateral trade was almost nil.
5. Additional Mexican Cultural Diplomacy activities in other regions.
During the same time, some international cultural activities were promoted in the United States, such as the Mexican Arts exhibition of 1930-1931 that circulated in several North American cities, as part of the overall Cultural Diplomacy strategy of Mexico. This should be another blog post as it has its own characteristics.
Besides, some Cultural Diplomacy undertakings were geared towards Europe, as can be seen in chapter 4 of the dissertation The Dilemma of Revolution and Stabilisation: Mexico and the European Powers in the Obregón-Calles Era, 1920-1928 written by Itzel Toledo García in November 2016.
[i] The Ateneo de la Juventud was an organization founded in 1909 to promote the culture and the arts. Some of its members promoted changes in Mexico before the Revolution and were the intellectual basis for the changes in the education and cultural systems post-revolution.
[ii] Alfonso Nieto states that the muralist movement was the only artistic movement outside Europe that had an international reach . Nieto, Alfonso, México y Argentina: Dos Países Unidos por la Cultura: Diplomacia Pública en acción, México, 2011, p. 82.
[iii] Palacios, Guillermo, Historia de las Relaciones Internacionales de México 1810-2010, America del Sur, Vol. 4, México, 2011, p. 183.
[iv] It changed the property rights of the land and the resources underneath it. Lajous Vargas, Roberta, Las relaciones exteriores de México (1821-2000), México, 2012, p. 174.
[v] Yankelevich, Pablo, “Diplomáticos, periodistas, espías y publicistas: la cruzada mexicana-bolchevique en América Latina” in História (Sao Paulo) Vol. 28, No. 2, 2009, p. 497.
[vi] Ibid, p. 509.
[vii] Palacios, Guillermo, 2011, p. 183-185.
[viii] Lajous Vargas, Roberta, 2012, p. 182.
[ix] Nieto, Alfonso, 2011, p. 30.
[x] Yankelevich, Pablo, “México-Argentina: Itineario de una relación 1910-1930” in TzinTzun, Revista de Estudios Históricos, No. 45, January-June 2007, p. 95.
[xi] Yankelevich, Pablo, 2009, p. 498.
[xii] Yankelevich, Pablo, 2007, p. 92.
[xiii] Neubauer, Celia Guadalupe, “Pedro Henríquez Ureña y Alfonso Reyes en Argentina (1924-1930): una presencia de México en el Río de la Plata” in Secuencia, No. 101, May-August 2018, p. 142.
[xiv] Some of the same representatives were assigned to Chile, Brazil, and other South American countries, as well as Europe during these times.
[xv] Yankelevich, Pablo, 2007, p. 93.
[xvi] Ibid, p. 96.
[xvii] Nieto, Alfonso, 2011, p. 30.
[xviii] Alfonso Reyes … “Throughout his entire life, during his years in France and Spain, as well as Mexican Ambassador to Argentina and Brazil, and upon his return to Mexico in 1939, Reyes no only facilitated the circulation of his ideas on both sides of the Atlantic, but also propagated this program [to form a Pan-American Intelligentsia], becoming a cultural agent and acting as an interface among various intellectual elites.” Friedman, Federico, “Tightening the Circle: Alfonso Reyes´ Project to form a Pan-American Intelligentsia” in Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, Vol. 34, No. 1, Winter 2018, p. 90-91.
[xix] Victoria Ocampo was the publisher of Sur, which started in 1931. Several Mexican writers and poets wrote articles for the magazine. Alfonso Reyes participated in the Foreign Council or Consejo Extranjero. See Revista Sur. (In Spanish)
[xx] Yankelevich, Pablo, 2007, p. 101..
[xxii] Neubauer, Celia Guadalupe, 2018, p. 137.
[xxiii] Palacios, Guillermo, 2011, p. 199.
[xxiv] Yankelevich, Pablo, 2007, p. 103.
[xxv] Yankelevich, Pablo, 2009, p. 510.
[xxvi] The Cristero conflict was an armed combat between Catholics and the government that took place from 1926 and 1929 in the rural areas of the center of the country. The government passed a law that regulated the exercise of the religious services and put the Church under the control of the State. In July 1928 a Catholic killed the then president elected Álvaro Obregón. Many conservative countries frowned upon Mexico´s stand against the Church, as well as other progressive policies such as the agrarian reform.
[xxvii] Lajous Vargas, Roberta, 2012, p. 175.
[xxviii] Yankelevich, Pablo, 2009, p. 510.
[xxix] Yankelevich, Pablo, 2007, p. 103.
[xxx] For a brief but complete analysis of the direct transport links and trade efforts between Mexico and Argentina see Zuleta Miranda, María Cecilia, “Alfonso Reyes y las Relaciones México-Argentina: Proyectos y Realidades, 1926-1936” in Historia Mexicana, Vol. 45, No. 4, April-June 1996, pp. 867-905.
[xxxi] Yankelevich, Pablo, 2007, p. 97.
[xxxii] Palacios, Guillermo, 2011, p. 288.
Figure 1. Representatives of Mexico to Argentina 1916-1937
Sources: Mexico y Argentina: Dos Países Unidos por la Cultura: Diplomacia Pública en acción pp. 27-35, Historia de la Relación Bilateral, SRE, and Embajadores de México en Argentina, Acervo Histórico, SRE.
Note: *Information gathered by the author of the blog and from the sources.
DISCLAIMER: All views expressed on this blog are that of the author and do not represent the opinions of any other authority, agency, organization, employer or company.
Rodrigo Márquez Lartigue
Diplomat interested in the development of Consular and Public Diplomacies.