Latin America's Cold War was notoriously hot. Stephen G. Rabe entitled his survey of the period The Killing Zone. Historians and political scientists have often portrayed Mexico as the exception to the rule of polarization, upheaval, and violence so visible elsewhere. In a timely and thoroughly researched book, Renata Keller challenges this idea by tracing the Cuban revolution's many effects on Mexico's domestic politics and international relations in the 1960s and 1970s.
Chapters proceed chronologically and describe a neat narrative arc. A first chapter sets the scene and describes how Mexico's social revolution of 1910–1920 gradually morphed into a new regime. Integrating a host of new secondary research, Keller argues that, by the 1950s, the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution (PRI) exercised control that was “firm yet flexible” (p. 49). Chapters 2 and 3 describe how the Cuban revolution elicited profound enthusiasm among Mexican leftists, led by powerful former president Lázaro Cárdenas and a growing sense of disquiet and fear among conservative Catholics, students, business executives, and PRI officials. Chapter 4 shifts the focus to more traditional diplomacy and describes how Mexican president Adolfo López Mateos successfully resisted U.S. pressure to break relations with Cuba. Counterintuitively, Keller demonstrates how the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and John F. Kennedy's assassination a year later helped to consolidate U.S. acceptance of Mexico's independent policy. Chapters 5 and 6 describe the increasingly acute (and often downright paranoid) fear of Communist-orchestrated upheaval within the Díaz Ordaz administration and the state's suppression of students and leftist guerrillas. Repression was not a wholly domestic business. Even as Mexico's police, spies, and soldiers tortured and killed Mexican citizens, they enjoyed cozy relations with U.S. agencies. In turn, Mexican spies and diplomats kept a close eye on Cuban efforts to export revolution.
Keller's deep research in U.S., Mexican, and Cuban archives allows her to tack skillfully between international and domestic contexts throughout. She is particularly astute when analyzing Mexico's domestic intelligence agencies. She approaches spy reports with a healthy skepticism, cross-referencing where possible, and makes an important argument about official perception. She persuasively debunks the Mexican government's assertions that Mexico was the victim of an international Communist conspiracy. Sadly, historians will now read the analysis with mixed feelings. Keller shows the insights that can be gleaned from espionage reports, but this makes the restrictions the Mexican government has placed on them all the more galling.
Two other findings stand out. First, Keller deepens our understanding of the Janus-faced nature of Cold War diplomacy. Scholars have long suggested that Mexico's progressive foreign policy was designed to satisfy (and distract) domestic critics on the left. Keller provides the most thorough substantiation of this idea to date and also shows several lesser-known hypocrisies. Cuban officials praised the Mexican regime in public but offered blistering criticism in private, funneled propaganda into the country, and even provided training to a few would-be guerrillas. U.S. diplomats, despite their public posture, eventually came to appreciate Mexico's continued relations with Cuba for its apparent benefits: stability in Mexico and opportunities for intelligence-gathering. Second, Keller argues that much of the ideological conflict triggered by the Cuban revolution took the form of a debate over the legacy of the Mexican revolution. Mexico's revolutionary mythology is now a fairly well-worn theme for social and cultural historians, but Keller connects it to international relations in an original and revealing way, avoiding unhelpful dichotomies separating domestic and international ideologies. Cárdenas's sympathies for the Cuban revolution have long been known, but Keller provides the most detailed account yet of their depth and effects. The book thus fleshes out a crucial chapter in what we might call the “long” Cardenismo. Still, some concepts and categories deserved more extensive analysis. Keller uses the Cold War as a historiographical concept, but it is not clear how this metaphor was used in Mexico at the time.
Keller provides a working map of Mexico's Cold War terrain that historians will be eager to explore further. The book is peppered with examples of political conflicts across Mexico but does not really explore the regional dynamics that gave rise to more conflicts in some places than in others. U.S. power is largely something exercised through diplomats and spies, leaving open the question of how it related to broader processes of social and cultural integration. At times Keller's argument about official credulity in the face of conspiracy theories seems to downplay other possible explanations or to strain the evidence. Cynical intergovernmental competition and official entrepreneurship may have played a larger role in encouraging exaggerated reports than Keller allows. One might question whether Gustavo Díaz Ordaz's unpublished memoirs can really be treated as an “unfiltered” source (p. 216), given the lies they contain about repression at Tlatelolco. Finally, Keller's work will also contribute to an ongoing debate about democratization. In her conclusion, she briefly suggests that Mexico's Cold War effectively stripped the regime of its ability to claim a revolutionary legacy, but she (wisely) hesitates to give too much weight to this factor in democratization. Alongside the repression, Keller paints a picture of a flawed, corrupt, but consequential public sphere, and her book will encourage more work on this understudied theme.
This important book deserves a wide audience among scholars of the Cold War and will also provide a guide and necessary point of reference for future explorations of Mexico's turbulent recent history.