Mexico”s Dilemma:
Managing the Cuban Revolution
Kate Doyle | June 28, 2004

Americas Program,
Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC)

This article continues the Archivos Abiertos series of monthly reports on U.S.-Mexico relations produced by the Americas Program in collaboration with the National Security Archive in Washington, DC and its Mexico Project. As Mexico Project director Kate Doyle explains: "The main objective of the project is to challenge the myths of foreign policy–on both sides of the border." To that end, Doyle combs nearly four decades of U.S. and Mexican archives to uncover new evidence and bring to light the hidden histories behind the bilateral relationship. The results, presented in this monthly series, offer the unprecedented opportunity to separate the rhetoric from the reality, and provide a foundation for rebuilding binational diplomacy on the basis of shared interests, transparency, and citizen involvement. The original documentation, as well as previous articles, may be found at . Your comments are welcome at < >.
The Cuban Revolution was a shock to the Mexican system. On the international stage, Mexico was forced to negotiate a position toward Cuba that allowed it to preserve some independence from the United States, which by 1960 had already declared itself the bitter enemy of Fidel Castro, while avoiding serious conflict with its powerful neighbor.

But Mexico faced an equally perplexing problem at home, where new political extremes emerged in the wake of Castro”s triumph. Most notably, Cuba prompted a revitalization of the Mexican left for the first time since the administration of President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40). And although the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) continued to speak the rhetoric of revolution after the fall of Batista in Cuba, its leaders considered the resurgence of the Mexican left a serious threat to PRI hegemony.

The Mexican government”s dilemma was further complicated by the fact that a leading proponent of the new activism was none other than Lázaro Cárdenas himself, champion of Mexican farmers and the driving force behind the country”s oil industry nationalization. Inspired by Fidel Castro”s victory, the former president broke the cardinal rule that demanded total loyalty to the PRI by founding, in 1961, the National Liberation Movement ( Movimiento de Liberación Nacional-MLN ), a “civic organization” designed to bring together the disparate tendencies of the Mexican left under one umbrella.

Faced with the increasing radicalism of one of Mexico”s living heroes, President Adolfo López Mateos had to find a way to contain Cárdenas and the MLN without betraying the PRI”s revolutionary roots. He did so through a calculated policy of coaxing, co-opting, and brutally suppressing the left, while skillfully avoiding damage to the fragile political equilibrium on which the party depended in order to maintain its power.

Exactly how López Mateos managed this juggling act-and how the United States perceived it-is a tale told in fascinating detail in declassified U.S. documents found in the National Archives and the presidential library of John F. Kennedy. The record describes, first and foremost, a government fundamentally incapable of permitting legitimate attempts to reform the political system outside of the channels sanctioned by the PRI.

U.S. officials recognized the authoritarian tendencies of the ruling party in Mexico, but the declassified documents show that fears about the spread of “Castro-communism” in the hemisphere made them unwilling to question support for the PRI. As a result, Washington and the U.S. Embassy in Mexico interpreted any effort by the MLN to promote political or social change, through the distorted lens of the Cold War. Reform was thus rendered radicalism, and the Mexican government”s coercive response was considered reasonable in the context of anti-communism.

The Rise of the Left

Galvanized by events in Cuba, General Lázaro Cárdenas, who had been relatively inactive politically for almost two decades after leaving the presidency, became one of Fidel Castro”s greatest supporters inside Mexico. Cárdenas celebrated the revolution with the Cuban leader in Havana in July 1959 and returned home to speak before enormous crowds about the promise of the revolution for Mexico. His voice was joined by those of many other prominent Mexicans, also thrilled by Cuba”s victorious young revolutionaries.

The United States reacted to these developments with alarm. Not only did Cárdenas and his followers appear to be veering down the path of socialism, but President López Mateos seemed unwilling to stop them. In a cable to Washington sent on August 11, 1960, the U.S. Embassy blamed the Mexican president”s “vacillating attitude” and a “poor knowledge of international affairs and little understanding of economic matters” for his failure to quash the left”s influence.

At the same time, the embassy ruefully acknowledged that Mexicans calling for a return to the principles of the revolution had a valid point: “PRI leadership has for the most part lost its revolutionary fervor. Political leaders and members of the ruling oligarchy have attained economic and social position. Their outlook is that of a bourgeois who has prospered under the present system and would not like to have that system disturbed or altered in any way.”

In its favor, the PRI had always guaranteed stability-at least, until now. U.S. Ambassador Thomas Mann was disturbed enough by what he perceived as the creeping radicalism of the López Mateos administration to suggest directly pressuring the Mexican president to reverse his course. On July 17, 1961, Mann sent a secret cable to the State Department discussing a $400 million loan that Mexico was seeking for new development initiatives. The ambassador proposed that the United States request the Mexicans to launch a “quiet program of action” in exchange for U.S. assistance. In addition to reassuring Washington that it supported private investment and would institute certain economic programs, the Mexican government would be asked for:

A clear and consistent repudiation of communist infiltration into the political life of Mexico followed by concrete acts quietly to remove from public office known members of the Communist Party; to combat communist influence in educational institutions and organized labor; to exercise effective control over the importation of communist propaganda from the Sino-Soviet bloc and Cuba and the publication in Mexico of Sino-Soviet financed propaganda; to eliminate communist propaganda from textbooks and other reading material used by students in primary and secondary schools; and to acknowledge responsibility for participation in hemispheric defense.

“If Mexico is not receptive,” wrote Mann, “we could withdraw from discussions in [the] friendliest and most relaxed manner, expressing understanding of Mexican policy, and then simply put a “slow man” on [the] job of passing on Mexican requests for assistance.”

The friction between López Mateos and Lázaro Cárdenas intensified when Cárdenas organized the Latin American Conference for Political Sovereignty, Economic Independence and Peace in March 1961, which-in Mann”s words-López “tried to smother.under a blanket of silence.” The conference called for social progress in the Americas, world peace, economic reforms to benefit the majority, and the defense of the Cuban Revolution. As a direct result of its resolutions, Cárdenas and a group of his adherents launched the National Liberation Movement five months later.

Although members of the Communist Party and other well-known leftists such as Heberto Castillo, Eli de Gortari, and Manuel Marcué Pardi&nacute;as joined Cárdenas in founding the MLN, the organization sought to fix the Mexican system, not overthrow it. The MLN advocated expansion of the agrarian reform, fairer distribution of wealth, control over natural resources, and an independent foreign policy. It was a program, according to author Olga Pellicer de Brody, “written within the vocabulary of reformist movements.”1

But the United States did not see it that way. In cable after cable to Washington, officials at the U.S. Embassy lambasted the MLN for its radical platform, its open support for Fidel Castro, and its critique of U.S. imperialism. Both the FBI and the CIA, which routinely referred to the MLN as a “rabidly anti-United States, pro-Cuba Communist front,” monitored the group closely. 2 American consulates around Mexico also tracked the MLN and reported back to Mexico City on its efforts to “infiltrate” local political scenes.

Most worrisome of all to the U.S. Embassy was its belief that the MLN was secretly plotting with the Mexican Communist Party to convince López Mateos to tap an extreme leftist as the PRI”s 1964 presidential candidate.

Like Father, Like Son:
Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas in Baja California

Lázaro Cárdenas was a figurehead for the MLN, but his son Cuauhtémoc served on the group”s national committee and was responsible for traveling the country to encourage the creation of regional offices. One of the MLN”s early targets was the Mexicali Valley in Baja California Norte. There, thousands of poor farmers struggled to eke out a living in the face of a crushing scarcity of land, routine government neglect, and a problem peculiar to the region-salinized Colorado River water contaminated by irrigation runoff from U.S. farms upstream.

The problem had been considered a local issue for Mexican farmers whose crops were damaged by the salty water, but it blossomed into a tricky bilateral dispute when Mexico lodged a formal protest against the United States in November 1961, calling on the U.S. government to find a way to control the water”s salinity before it entered Mexico.

That background explains why American officials reacted with alarm when Cuauhtémoc and the MLN arrived online casino in Tijuana in mid-1962 and appeared to be encouraging a local agrarian leader, Alfonso Garzón-then head of the State Agrarian League, with 12,000 campesino members-to run for state Congress. Garzón, noted by U.S. Consul Kennedy Crockett in a long cable about the situation on July 19, had been in the limelight earlier that year for rallying League members around the salinity issue on behalf of PRI Governor Eligio Esquivel. When Garzón did not receive his anticipated nomination for a political position from the ruling party as a reward for his services, he angrily quit the PRI and announced his candidacy as an independent.

“Since Garzón cannot be elected, the question arises of why the MLN is aiding and abetting him, and why Esquivel created this Frankenstein who is causing the PRI so much trouble and embarrassment,” wrote Crockett in his missive to Washington. The consul”s conclusion was that the MLN, through a complicated maneuver and with Esquivel”s help, was planning to abandon its support of Garzón on the condition that the PRI name Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas to head the Mexicali Valley Irrigation District. The job would not only put the younger Cárdenas in a key negotiating position with the United States regarding the salinity issue but would also give the MLN its first significant foothold outside Mexico City.

Both the United States and Mexico reacted to the perceived threat immediately. In a cable sent shortly after Crockett”s warning, Ambassador Mann pointed out to the State Department that if Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas was named district director, he would be in charge of a project scheduled to receive a major U.S. loan promised to Mexico to address the salinity problem. Hence, “U.S. funds in [an] important Mexicali program would contribute to launching Cuauhtémoc and his Communist sympathizers in politics on [the] national scene.” Mann concluded, “We cannot allow Cuauhtémoc”s appointment [to] this key post.”

With Washington”s approval, Mann sent word to President López Mateos of the situation, and López immediately called Lázaro Cárdenas into his office to discuss the matter. “We have now learned,” Mann wrote in a follow-up telegram on August 8, “that as a result [of] López Mateos” conversation with Cárdenas it is now definitely agreed that Cuauhtémoc will withdraw his intention [to] seek [the] Mexicali office.”

Continuing the subterfuge, the Mexican government had a further response. The problem of Alfonso Garzón”s divergence from the party line was suddenly resolved when he pulled out of the congressional race at the last possible moment. According to a secret cable sent by the U.S. consul in Tijuana on September 24, Garzón”s decision was the result of unsubtle pressures exerted on him by Mexico City. The consul told Washington that:

.a very high-ranking Mexican military officer was dispatched to Mexicali only a few days before the election to “reason” with Garzón. Federal troops in sufficient strength to back this officer up were dispersed in the Mexicali Valley. My source, who was present at the confrontation, states that Garzón was given a choice of: (1) either quieting down and fading into the background or (2) becoming a national figure in Mexico, along with Rubén Jaramillo [an agrarian leader murdered by the army five months earlier]. Garzón chose the first alternative, after some hesitation, being persuaded by the assurance that in his case he would be martyrized [sic] by hanging rather than simply being shot.”

U.S. Consul Kennedy Crockett concluded by remarking that the MLN”s enthusiasm for operating in Baja California had been severely dampened by the government”s action. “An excellent source in a position to know assured me that a program to contain the MLN in Baja California had been evolved, and orders for its execution had been directly given from Los Pinos [Mexican presidential residence] to appropriate military authorities in this area.”

The MLN in Guerrero

Not only Baja California but also the state of Guerrero was targeted for infiltration by the “communist controlled” MLN, claimed the U.S. Embassy several months later. On the night of December 31, 1962, political dissidents in Iguala in northern Guerrero attacked the city hall in an effort to prevent PRI candidates from taking office after an allegedly fraudulent election. Among the attackers was Genero Vásquez Rojas, head of the Guerrero political opposition group Guerrero Civic Association ( Asociación Cívica Guerrerense-ACG ). Army troops, already in position following a warning call from the federal Attorney General”s office, quashed the attack easily, killing seven and injuring more than a dozen. The ACG”s candidates for governor and mayor were captured, but Vásquez Rojas escaped and became the object of a statewide search.

According to American officials, the MLN and Lázaro Cárdenas were the chief forces behind the subversive attack. Moreover, José María Suárez Téllez, the defeated ACG gubernatorial candidate, was a member of the national committee of the MLN. The embassy told the State Department in a cable describing the incident on January 3, 1963: “It seems fairly clear that the ACG is one of the local state parties or “civic groups” being developed by the MLN to oppose the PRI at the municipal and state levels while itself continuing to claim that it is simply a “civic organization” loyal to the PRI without any desire to become a political party.” With Suárez Téllez and defeated Iguala mayoral candidate Andrés López Velasco captured and over 150 ACG members arrested, the U.S. Embassy considered the outcome of the incident “favorable to our interests here, as it is a clear indication that the government, using the combined strength of the Army, the Attorney General”s office, and State and municipal authorities, is prepared to engage in a carefully planned operation to thwart the Cardenistas and the MLN.”

Kennedy Visits Mexico

The failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 exacerbated tensions between Mexico and the United States, after the Mexican government criticized U.S. attempts to topple Fidel Castro. The two countries were still trying to work out a solution to their differences over Cuba when the idea of a trip to Mexico City by the popular American president, John F. Kennedy, was proposed in late 1961.

Although Ambassador Mann welcomed the opportunity to improve relations, he pointed out in a cable on December 6 that Mexico”s decision two days before at the Organization of American States to oppose collective action against Cuba was unhelpful to the United States. Until Mexico”s position improved, Mann recommended an indefinite postponement of the visit. In addition, the ambassador urged Washington to delay acting on any pending loans to Mexico and to influence international lending institutions to defer consideration of Mexican loan applications.

The trip was postponed, and there followed a series of tortured conversations between the hard-line U.S. ambassador and the ambivalent president of Mexico over the next several months to discern Mexico”s stance on Cuba. However, the Americans found it difficult to get López Mateos to make a clear statement that Washington could understand. On the one hand, López Mateos averred during one of those conversations (December 18, 1961) that he could not be responsible for reversing a historical Mexican position on nonintervention. On the other hand, Mann wrote, “López Mateos emphasized this did not mean Mexican sympathy for Castro or Communist doctrine.” Frustrated, the ambassador cabled the State Department that the “best chance of inducing change in Mexico”s attitude is maintenance [of a] firm but friendly attitude until such time as [the] light begins to dawn on Mexico that cooperation has to be a two-way street, and that Mexico needs [the] US more than we need Mexico.”

It took time, but concessions were made, and the Kennedy visit was scheduled for late June 1962. Although Mexico could not and would not publicly break with Castro or support any attempts by the Organization of American States to sanction Cuba, López Mateos had other favors to offer. First, he showed his gratitude to the Americans by rounding up known or suspected subversives-including members of the MLN-and jailing them for the duration of Kennedy”s trip, so they could not disturb the ceremonies with their posters and demonstrations. Second, the Mexican president permitted thousands of members of a new anti-communist group to line the parade route when the Kennedy”s arrived and to suppress any rabble-rousers that his own security personnel might have missed.

López Mateos even found ways to be flexible with regard to Cuba. Although the memorandum of conversation related to Cuba is vague about the points discussed between the two presidents, memoirs by Assistant Secretary of State Edwin Martin, who was present, describe López Mateos as amenable in the end-“if there were some precise measures that would be sure to hurt Castro.he might cooperate if they could be done quietly so they wouldn”t cause him political problems.”3

Martin also mentioned that in the joint communiqué signed by both presidents at the end of Kennedy”s trip, Mexico reconfirmed its Doctrine of Non-Intervention “but in a new spirit.” It not only supported national sovereignty but also the “ideals of individual liberty,” calling for opposition to “totalitarian institutions and activities which may be incompatible with the democratic principle which they maintain.”

“All pointed,” wrote Martin, “at the new enemy, world communism and its new Latin American standard-bearer, Cuba. It was a warning by Mexico to Cuba and its friends to desist from their attempts to promote a revolution in or threaten militarily any Latin American country.”4 By 1963, Mexico had adopted several additional steps to distance itself from Castro, including tightening controls on the movements of suspected subversives between Mexico and Cuba, increasing its surveillance of Cuban diplomats inside Mexico, and, later, channeling intelligence about the internal affairs of Cuba to the United States through Mexican diplomats stationed in Havana.

The Presidential Succession

Yet despite López Mateos” concessions regarding Cuba and his success in repressing dissent, Washington was frankly suspicious of the Mexican president throughout most of his term. His equivocal stance concerning Castro, his ambivalence toward private investment, and his frequent tolerance for the radicalism of Lázaro Cárdenas and company confounded U.S. officials. It was only when he chose as his successor his conservative interior secretary, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz-a man whom Washington considered a staunch ally and strong anti-communist-that the U.S. Embassy seemed to grasp the complex political game López Mateos had been playing in order to maintain power.

As the time approached for naming the PRI presidential candidate and it appeared likely that a conservative would be tapped, the U.S. Embassy conceded in a telegram to Washington on July 30, 1963, that López Mateos had skillfully balanced the pressures from the extreme right and the extreme left throughout his administration. “His deft manipulation of politics has apparently succeeded so far, and there are many observers who believe that López Mateos now has sufficient power to select his successor almost at will,” the embassy concluded.

When Díaz Ordaz was finally named, Ambassador Mann reported on “a certain amount of euphoria in Mexico City today especially among Americans. I think this is principally a sign of their relief that a pro-Communist candidate was not selected by the PRI.”5 The ambassador warned that the United States should be prepared for some of the same nationalist posturing from Díaz Ordaz they had grown to expect from López Mateos. But he also told the State Department, “We in the embassy share this feeling of relief.”

Kate Doyle is director of the Mexico Project of National Security Archives and a regular contributor to the Americas Program (online at ) of the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC, online at ).


1 México y la revolución cubana (Mexico: Colegio de México, 1972) p. 107.
2 See, for example, its telegram of May 26, 1962.
3 Kennedy and Latin America (Lanham, MA: University Press of America, 1994) p. 165.
4 Ibid. p. 168.
5 November 5, 1963.

National Security Archive
Mexico Project
Phone – DC: (202) 994 7000
Phone – Mexico: (52 555) 574 7897


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©2004. All rights reserved.
Recommended citation:
Kate Doyle, “Mexico”s Dilemma: Managing the Cuban Revolution,”
Americas Program (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, June 28, 2004).
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Writer: Kate Doyle
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