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The Agrarian Dispute: The Expropriation of American-Owned Rural Land in Postrevolutionary Mexico

The Agrarian Dispute: The Expropriation of American-Owned Rural Land in Postrevolutionary Mexico

by John DwyerJohn Dwyer
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In the mid-1930s the Mexican government expropriated millions of acres of land from hundreds of U.S. property owners as part of President Lázaro Cárdenas's land redistribution program. Because no compensation was provided to the Americans a serious crisis, which John J. Dwyer terms "the agrarian dispute," ensued between the two countries. Dwyer's nuanced analysis of this conflict at the local, regional, national, and international levels combines social, economic, political, and cultural history. He argues that the agrarian dispute inaugurated a new and improved era in bilateral relations because Mexican officials were able to negotiate a favorable settlement, and the United States, constrained economically and politically by the Great Depression, reacted to the crisis with unaccustomed restraint. Dwyer challenges prevailing arguments that Mexico's nationalization of the oil industry in 1938 was the first test of Franklin Roosevelt's Good Neighbor policy by showing that the earlier conflict over land was the watershed event.

Dwyer weaves together elite and subaltern history and highlights the intricate relationship between domestic and international affairs. Through detailed studies of land redistribution in Baja California and Sonora, he demonstrates that peasant agency influenced the local application of Cárdenas's agrarian reform program, his regional state-building projects, and his relations with the United States. Dwyer draws on a broad array of official, popular, and corporate sources to illuminate the motives of those who contributed to the agrarian dispute, including landless fieldworkers, indigenous groups, small landowners, multinational corporations, labor leaders, state-level officials, federal policymakers, and diplomats. Taking all of them into account, Dwyer explores the circumstances that spurred agrarista mobilization, the rationale behind Cárdenas's rural policies, the Roosevelt administration's reaction to the loss of American-owned land, and the diplomatic tactics employed by Mexican officials to resolve the international conflict.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822343097
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 09/12/2008
Series: American Encounters/Global Interactions Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 404
Product dimensions: 1.30(w) x 2.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

John J. Dwyer is Associate Professor of History at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Read an Excerpt


By John J. Dwyer


Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4309-7

Chapter One


The Richardson Construction Company is primarily a land and water company. Broadly stated, the purpose of the company is to place its lands under irrigation, to sell the lands but retain the water rights, and supply water at an annual rental to the lands sold; furthermore, it will enter into the general development of the entire Yaqui Valley. DAVIS RICHARDSON, PRESIDENT OF THE RICHARDSON CONSTRUCTION CO., MAY 20, 1907 Foreigners cannot own real estate under any conditions. MEXICAN AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES MANUEL TÉLLEZ, 1926 The person and the property of a citizen are part of the general domain of the nation, even when abroad, and there is a distinct and binding obligation on the part of self-respecting governments to afford protection to the persons and property of their citizens, wherever they may be. PRESIDENT CALVIN COOLIDGE, 1927

Landownership has been a dominant issue in Mexico since the colonial period. From independence until today, Mexican officials have repeatedly used agrarian laws as an economic tool to alter landholding patterns and develop the national economy, as well as a political weapon to undermine opponents, support allies, and build broad-based popular coalitions. In other words, Mexican leaders have often used agrarian legislation as a state-building tool to increase their power and advance the nation's economy, as reflected by the era in which they governed, including periods as distinct as La Reforma, the Porfiriato, and the revolution.

After Porfirio Díaz overthrew Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada's government in 1876, he imposed a number of agrarian laws designed to promote capital accumulation in rural Mexico, empower regional allies, and chip away at communal Indian villages. The goal of Díaz's Científico advisers was to modernize the still-semifeudal countryside and promote migration to underdeveloped areas. They assumed that agricultural production and government revenue would increase with more land under cultivation-no matter the size of the holding or the nationality of its owners. By developing rural Mexico, the Porfirians hoped to transform the economy from an agriculturally based semisubsistence one to a surplus industrial one built on the nation's natural resources.

To initiate this multifaceted process and make rural Mexico attractive to both domestic and foreign investors, Díaz's administration promoted railroad construction, which would facilitate migration and trade. Also, under the agrarian law of December 1883, Díaz had all of Mexico's vacant public lands surveyed so as to begin the process of their enclosure. The survey companies, which were instrumental in privatizing and capitalizing Mexican agriculture, were entitled to keep one-third of the areas surveyed in lieu of payment. The remaining terrenos baldíos (vacant and untilled lands) were auctioned o in vast tracts at low prices to the survey companies themselves and Díaz's associates, as well as foreign and domestic speculators. His government also granted generous land and water concessions, along with tax incentives, to U.S. and Mexican land development companies in exchange for their agreement to improve the holdings that they usually acquired on the cheap. In 1890, Díaz reinstated some Liberal-era laws to hasten the redistribution of communal lands among residents of indigenous villages. The results were generally the same as before. Few Indians could afford to become growers, and local hacienda owners either cajoled those who could into selling their property or else took it by force. In 1894, Díaz decreed that lands without proper legal title were also considered vacant and subject to auction. This led to the further usurpation of millions of acres from indigenous communities and small property owners.

By 1910, fewer than eleven thousand haciendas controlled 57 percent of Mexico's national territory. Meanwhile, small farmers and ranchers together held 20 percent of the land, and communal campesino communities controlled an additional 6 percent. The remaining lands were either national or unclaimed. The year 1911 marked the highest point of landlessness in Mexican history. As for the residents of the states analyzed here, 77 percent in Sonora and 88 percent in Baja California were landless rural workers. Land concentration and the resultant increase in peonage, tenantry, sharecropping, and migratory labor, along with the rapid industrialization of certain agricultural sectors like sugar, worsened the working and living conditions for rural laborers and impelled many to take up arms in the revolution.

Mexico's revolution brought an end to the Porfiriato in 1911 and ushered in profound changes in land tenure. During both the revolutionary and post-revolutionary eras, agrarian legislation was still used as a political and socioeconomic tool by the country's ruling elite. Now, however, the agrarian laws were designed to return the land to the peasantry and ensure the political survival of competing revolutionary factions. The extensive land redistributions carried out by Emiliano Zapata in Morelos, and the more statist land reforms envisioned by Pancho Villa in Chihuahua, forced the leader of the Constitutionalist Army, Venustiano Carranza, to enact radical agrarian legislation in order to broaden his base of popular support against these rivals. On January 6, 1915, Carranza decreed the restoration of village lands and the expropriation of haciendas. He also nullified all land, water, and forest concessions issued by federal authorities since Díaz entered office in 1876 and called for the distribution of land to the peasantry. The January 1915 law marked the first significant piece of national agrarian legislation that derived from the revolution and became the basis for subsequent constitutional reforms. Two years later, Carranza, who was still trying to consolidate his power nationally, accepted the radical and nationalistic provisions contained in Article 27 of the new 1917 Constitution. Article 27 reversed sixty years of federal land tenure policies by nullifying all measures passed since the Liberal's Ley Lerdo that had alienated communal lands starting in 1856. It also placed all of Mexico's natural resources under national domain, making possible the expropriation of privately owned property by the federal government.

Both the 1915 land reform and the 1917 constitution served two important purposes. First, they empowered Mexico's rural majority. Second, they weakened three important pillars of Díaz's regime, all of whom were prominent landowners: domestic hacendados, foreign investors, and to a lesser extent, the Catholic Church.

At least on paper, the legislation of 1915 and 1917 simultaneously undercut the "revolutionary family's" conservative opponents and strengthened its working-class political base. But, the defeat of the Villistas and Zapatistas by the Constitutionalists dampened the enforcement of Article 27 in the first fifteen years of the postrevolutionary era. Land was given to the peasantry between 1920 and 1934, but it was done not to create a more equitable socio-economic system. Rather, property was redistributed predominantly for political reasons: namely, to hasten state formation by placating campesino discontent, pacifying the countryside, and establishing federal-regional alliances. The numbers illustrate the limited nature of agrarian reform in the 1920s. From 1920 to 1924, President Álvaro Obregón redistributed only 4,142,355 acres of land, and between 1924 and 1928, President Plutarco Elías Calles parceled out just 7,891,719 acres. Rather than distribute additional government-financed ejidos (land granted or restored by the government, either to individuals or to communities), both leaders promoted private landownership. In 1926, for example, Calles established the National Bank of Agricultural Credit (Banco Nacional de Crédito Agrícola) to loan money to small farmers in the hope of creating a class of smallholders.

The pace of land redistribution remained slow during the six-year Maximato (1928-34), when Calles, as el Jefe Máximo, dominated national politics through his control of three interim presidents (Emilio Portes Gil, Pascual Ortiz Rubio, and Abelardo Rodríguez) (see figure 3). Since the 1917 Constitution required the federal government to compensate property owners for their expropriated holdings, the fiscally conservative Callistas were wary of further increasing the government's indebtedness. Consequently, in 1930 and 1931, new conservative agrarian legislation known as the "Stop Laws" reduced land redistribution to its lowest level since the late 1910s. According to Mexican officials, the change in policy was necessitated by the nation's enormous agrarian debt, which in 1930 was estimated at $400,000,000. Also, since most affected rural property owners were not indemnified due to the lack of government revenue, Mexican leaders worried that the country's inability to meet its financial obligations was undermining its credit rating abroad and frightening away foreign capital. They also believed that a new direction in agrarian policy was needed because, according to Calles, "agrarianism was a failure." Since the ruling Callistas had lost faith in ejido farming-due, in part, to its limited output-they slowed land redistribution and instead promoted large-scale commercial agriculture. In the first two decades of revolutionary agrarian legislation, approximately 26 million acres of land were expropriated. Not only did this affect just 6.2 percent of Mexico's farmland, but much of the property that was given to the peasantry between 1915 and 1935 was low quality. Worse yet, most ejidatarios were not provided adequate credit, education, or material support to facilitate their transition from landless rural workers into small independent growers or communal farmers.

The limited nature of federal land reform strengthened radical agrarianism in the early 1930s, and the movement began to pose a threat to the nation's large landowners, both domestic and foreign. Spurred by the Great Depression, in the first half of the 1930s well-organized and politically active agraristas, including leaders of the National Campesino League (Liga Nacional Campesina) "Ursulo Galván" and the Confederation of Mexican Campesinos (Confederación de Campesinos Mexicanos, or CCM), pushed to liberalize Mexico's agrarian reform laws.

In December 1933, delegates from the government's official party, the National Revolutionary Party (Partido Nacional Revolucionario, or PNR) met in Querétaro, nominated Lázaro Cárdenas as president, and drew up the Plan Sexenal to guide the new administration. More radical than Calles had hoped, this nationalistic Six-Year Plan (1934-40) called for accelerating the breakup of large estates and redistributing more land in the form of communal ejidos. In addition, the plan sought to modernize the countryside through increased irrigation, reforestation, rural education, and new farming practices, while promoting minimum-wage laws, collective bargaining rights, and workers' cooperatives. The Six-Year Plan also established the federal Agrarian Department, with a director who answered only to the president and whose primary objective was land redistribution. The new plan was critical of the Sonoran economic model that Presidents Obregón and Calles had imposed between 1920 and 1934, a model that had not substantially altered the Porfirian economic system, especially land tenure patterns. The economic program of Obregón and Calles was characterized by limited agrarian reform and dependent capitalist development based on foreign investment and the export of raw materials. The new Six-Year Plan reclaimed the economic nationalism of the 1917 Constitution by reinvigorating the "interventionist state" and allowing Mexicans to enjoy the fruits of their labor. This was never more apparent than when American-owned agricultural property was redistributed to landless campesinos.

In addition to the Six-Year Plan, one new piece of legislation-the 1934 Agrarian Code-empowered landless rural workers. It extended the right to submit ejido petitions to not just peasants residing in free villages but also resident estate workers known as peones acasillados, along with seasonal workers. Also, starting in 1934, the establishment of state-level Mixed Agrarian Commissions (composed of representatives from the federal Agrarian Department, state governments, and usually six individuals from local peasant leagues) enabled community actors not only to petition for land but also to push the application along and supervise redistribution when it occurred.

Just as the 1934 Agrarian Code empowered Mexico's agricultural underclass, Cárdenas's passage of the 1936 Expropriation Law strengthened the federal government's hand in the rural sector. The law made it possible for Mexico City to expropriate lands that had previously been exempt, such as properties devoted to commercial agriculture and export-as were many American-owned estates. These three major pieces of legislation-the Six-Year Plan, the 1934 Agrarian Code, and the 1936 Expropriation Law-empowered Cárdenas's administration and landless rural workers alike; they also weakened the rural economic elite, promoted agricultural modernization, and enabled many more Mexicans to benefit directly from their country's natural resources. As was common throughout much of the country's history, and as we will see in chapters 2 through 5, the changes in agrarian laws that were enacted during Cárdenas's term in office reflected the president's rural socioeconomic agenda; they also increased his power by weakening his conservative opponents and strengthening his working-class political base.


As Mexico consolidated politically in the late nineteenth century, during the thirty-five-year Díaz dictatorship, American expansion into the Mexican countryside was led by land development companies, agribusinesses, timber and ranching companies, absentee land speculators, resident colonist farmers, and individual small-scale growers and ranchers, as well as landless rural workers. American investors who obtained large estates did so by buying the concessions that Díaz's government granted to the survey companies. According to John Mason Hart, "Fraud and corruption were inherent in the process." By the late 1920s, American-owned rural properties in Mexico were valued at $140 million. Many of these American properties were controversial holdings that local communities believed were wrongfully taken from them either by federal and state officials or private Mexican companies and individuals. In many cases, the new American property owners, like the Mexican land-grabbers who preceded them, were resented by those whose holdings were usurped. Consequently, Hart claims the Americans sometimes became embroiled in the "intense struggle between Mexico's elites and its disenfranchised." To a certain extent, this was the case on the north bank of Sonora's Yaqui River, where the Yaqui Indians violently contested the possession of their ancestral lands by Mexican and American landowners. In fact, in the first quarter of the twentieth century the largest property owner in the Yaqui Valley was a California-based company.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: The Interplay between Domestic Affairs and Foreign Relations 1

Part I. Domestic Origins of an International Conflict

1. The Roots of the Agrarian Dispute 17

2. El asalto a las tierras y la huelga de los sentados: How Local Agency Shaped Agrarian Reform in the Mexicali Valley 44

3. The Expropriation of American-Owned Land in Baja California: Political, Economic, Social, and Cultural Factors 77

4. Domestic Politics and the Expropriation of American-Owned Land in the Yaqui Valley 103

5. The Sonoran Reparto: Where Domestic and International Forces Meet 138

Part II. Diplomatic Resolution of an International Conflict

6. The End of U.S. Intervention in Mexico: The Roosevelt Administration Accommodates Mexico City 159

7. Diplomatic Weapons of the Weak: Cárdenas's Administration Outmaneuvers Washington 194

8. The 1941 Global Settlement: The End of the Agrarian Dispute and the Start of a New Era in U.S.-Mexican Relations 232

Conclusion: Moving away from Balkanized History 267

Notes 85

Bibliography 343

Index 371

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