Review of Renata Keller, “Mexico’s Cold War”

keller cover

My review of Renata Keller’s very fine book has now appeared in the Journal of Latin American Studies 48, no. 4 (November 2016): 868-869.

Renata Keller, Mexico’s Cold War: Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. xx + 274, $99.99hb.

Mexico and Cuba experienced the Western hemisphere’s two most important political revolutions of the twentieth century, and these unusual histories, plus their proximity to the United States, has meant that the triangular relationship between Mexico, Cuba, and the United States has generated its own scholarly literature. Renata Keller’s excellent Mexico’s Cold War pushes that story forward as far as the currently available documents make it possible to do, focusing on the period she describes as Mexico’s Cold War, from the Cuban Revolution in 1959 to the end of the Dirty War in the mid-1980s. The standard story has been that Mexico’s diplomatic tradition of respecting the internal affairs of other countries led it to resist U.S. pressure to break relations with revolutionary Cuba, even as other Latin American countries did so. But Keller demolishes this myth through creative research in U.S. archives, Mexican secret police records, and materials from the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Relations.

Keller’s argument is that Mexico’s Cold War begins in earnest with the Cuban Revolution, which intensifies political struggles in Mexico over the legacy of the Mexican Revolution. Publicly, Mexico’s president Adolfo López Mateos defended the Cuban Revolution. On a tour to other Latin American countries in January 1960, López Mateos compared Cuba’s agrarian reforms to Mexico’s own, saying “[Mexico] could not watch with anything other than positive eyes as another country with similar problems resolves them according to the interests of its own people.” (p. 61) But Cuba’s Revolution also exposed just how institutionalized and sclerotic those who claimed the legacy of Mexico’s revolution had become. On the Mexican left, groups inspired by the Cuban example began to organize politically: in the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional, for example, which prominently featured former president Lázaro Cárdenas. Cárdenas warned that another revolution was possible in Mexico, and other affiliated political and cultural figures assailed the undemocratic, and decided unrevolutionary, practices of Mexico’s political system. At the same time, the U.S. government pressured Mexico to crack down on its domestic left in the name of fighting Communism. These dynamics produced an internal “Cold War,” which layered local, regional, and international politics.

López Mateos solved his problems by maintaining two separate policies. Publicly friendly to Cuba, his government spied on those who travelled to the island. After the Bay of Pigs caused some, including Cárdenas himself, to try to reach the island to defend it, he threatened to revoke the Mexican citizenship of anyone who went to fight in Cuba. The U.S. government accepted that López Mateos’s public words were intended to satiate his critics on the left and secure domestic peace. So while Mexico allowed Cuba to operate its embassy and press service with relative freedom, Mexico collected intelligence on Cuban activities and shared it with the United States. The eventual result, solidified by 1964 when Mexico refused to vote to remove Cuba from the Organization of American States, was a secret agreement with the United States that Mexico would keep its ties to Cuba open in a way that was seen as beneficial to all. It helped make Mexico City one of the world’s great centres of Cold War intrigue, with everyone spying on everyone else.

Among Mexico’s Cold War’s most original contributions is to show that not only was Mexico’s revolutionary solidarity with Cuba a convenient fiction, so was Cuba’s revolutionary solidarity with Mexico. For here too, the myth has been that Castro reciprocated Mexico’s gestures by refusing to destabilize Mexico’s PRI governments as he did to other states in Latin America and Africa. And there are indeed some examples of would-be Mexican guerrillas being put on ice in Cuba and sent back untrained. But Keller’s pioneering work in the Foreign Relations archives of Cuba shows that Cuba’s government knew that Mexico maintained a duplicitous stance for the purposes of quelling domestic unrest. As a result, Cuba responded in kind: with official pleasantries and unofficial disdain. Mexico’s secret police documented Cuban espionage on Mexican soil, including support for political and student groups, and money and arms trafficked through Mexico for foreign revolutionaries. There are also suggestions of Cuba training Mexicans in guerrilla warfare. The only occasional frustration in Mexico’s Cold War comes as a result of the limitations of working in the “wilderness of mirrors” of espionage documents. Keller is a sharp historian, and she treats her material with the scepticism it deserves: as documentation of the concerns, and often the paranoia, of Mexico’s secret police agents. But it obviously less reliable to have a Mexican police report on actions supposedly tied to the Cubans than it is to have firm documentation from such a Cuban program itself. Still, it seems clear that Cuba’s policy towards Mexico was as characterized by two-faced pragmatism as was Mexico’s towards Cuba.

Whether its beliefs were well-founded or not (mostly not), the Mexican government, especially under López Mateos’s successor Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, decided that foreign interference was causing domestic unrest. He responded with repression that created, Keller argues, the revolutionary threats that he feared: transforming the Cold War into a Dirty War. Here, Keller joins other historians in critiquing the so-called pax príista—where political stability masks widespread political violence. Thousands were killed—many more than even Brazil, for example, where a military dictatorship ruled over roughly the same decades of “Dirty War.”

Mexico’s Cold War will be essential reading for those interested in the complexities of Mexican politics in the post-war period, and of the Latin American Cold War, where Mexico’s apparent peculiarities often mean that it gets mostly left out of the story. Through deep and considered research, Keller has shown that the supposedly triangular relationship between Mexico, Cuba, and the United States was instead a hexagonal one, with each country offering two distinct policies: one for public consumption, and the other to guide private action.


University of Texas at El Paso


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s