The Soviet Advance on Mexico

In early December of 1959, Anastas Mikoyan, the Soviet Union’s first deputy premier and one of its most formidable political figures, shouted "Viva México!" to a group of oil workers in the small Veracruz city of Poza Rica. A loud "Viva Rusia!" in reply followed. He added: "I love Mexico because no one is afraid of the word revolution." [1]
Since the beginning of the twentieth century Mexico and the Soviet Union shared a long history of class struggle and an anti-imperialist agenda. The former was the first country in the Western Hemisphere to acknowledge the latter’s statehood in 1924, Mexican communist groups campaigned to relieve hunger in the Volga region just two years prior, and President Lázaro Cárdenas and painter Frida Kahlo were among those who warmly welcomed Leon Trotsky to their home country in 1937. [2]
Yet, relations remained relatively cool until Nikita Khrushchev personally announced the shift in policy towards support of non-Communist developing countries in order to expand Soviet influence during the 21st Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in early 1959. [3] Mexico was undoubtedly one of the targets, but some questions remain. What factors created favorable conditions for the Soviet Union to identify Mexico as a potential recipient of its influence and, on the other hand, what were Mexican motivations for opening up to rapprochement with the Socialistic Block? How did the Soviet government attempt to exert its power and how did the Mexican elites respond to these advances?

Multiple factors created favorable conditions for possible cooperation between Mexico and the USSR during the era. Mexican economic prospects appeared rather dull by the end of the 1950s. No doubt, Latin America was of great importance to the US. Still, Washington’s policymakers consistently ignored the region’s frustrations regarding the lack of postwar settlement. Latin America’s exclusion from the Marshall Plan was particularly disheartening. [4] Eisenhower’s administration pursued economic policy of lower tariffs and private investments in place of inflows of public capital. US reluctance to support potentially undemocratic or corrupt regimes restricted the area’s economic growth. [5] Meanwhile, Partido Revolucionario Institucional had to underwrite further agrarian reforms and an expansion of post-World War II industrialization efforts through private foreign capital. Unequal trade terms between the US and Mexico were creating dependency on Washington and stunted the country’s progress. [6] Ideology also contributed to the ongoing neglect as Eisenhower’s administration pursued a neoliberal agenda of private industries, weak labor codes, and limited social services. [7]
In addition to lack of financial resources and the deficit in the balance of payments (the consequences of First World protectionism), Mexican mining, farming and other industrial sectors suffered from low commodity prices. [8] As the US was accounting for 70-80% of Mexico’s foreign trade turnover during the late 1950s and early 1960s, President López Mateos was seeking to reduce the country’s dependence on Washington by participating in the Latin American free trade zone, broadening business relations with Western European countries, and opening up to the possibility of cooperation with the USSR. [9] In addition, the President was able to use the Left’s defense of the principles of sovereignty and solidarity to support his strategy of diversification and internationalism. [10] These years were crucial for the shaping of a new Mexican Third World global pivot identity and its drive to actively participate in the world-wide Non-Aligned Movement. In other words, The Soviet Offensive fell on fertile Mexican grounds.
After Stalin’s death Moscow had limited political and economic relations with Latin America. Nikita Khrushchev laid a foundation for improvements by launching a Peaceful Coexistence doctrine in 1955. He personally announced the shift in policy towards support of non-Communist developing countries aiming to solidify Soviet influence on them at the 1959 twenty-first party congress. [11] The strategy encompassed the new approach to Global South, renewed focus on the world’s peripheries, and supported liberation movements. [12] The Soviets charged the Western block with “imperialism”, “cosmopolitanism”, and destruction of cultures. The objectives were to undermine US influence, to portray a favorable picture of Soviet life, and to establish connections between various institutions - all with the ultimate goal of smoothing out the path for an eventual “ascension of local communists to power”. [13]
The Russian advance in Mexico began in November 1959 with the Soviet exhibit at the capital’s Auditorio Nacional. Anastas Mikoyan arrived in Mexico City to assist the inauguration of the Soviet Exhibition of Science, Technology and Culture. Following an aggressive advertising campaign, Mikoyan and López Mateos pronounced its official opening. [14] The exposition remained open for twenty-five days and welcomed over a million of Mexican spectators. Showcases featured vehicles, industrial oil equipment, bulldozers, coal mining machines, cultural vitrines, and agricultural tools. However, the most popular display objects were the Lunik and Sputnik spacecrafts. [15] Although not without some criticisms, the exhibit notably boosted the Soviet prestige. Leaflets, press conferences, and publications supplemented propaganda efforts. The Russian blitz also consisted of Mikoyan’s touring of industrial Mexico and his multiple speeches, including one addressing the Mexican Senate. The CIA secretly reported: “His attacks on the policies and activities of the United States and of US firms in Latin America were combined with the reiteration of Soviet interest in increased trade and willingness to extend development credits to Mexico.” [16]
The Russians appeared to offer economic enticements. The Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade S.A. Borisov accompanied Mikoyan with the intent to sell tractors, printing machines, and other industrial goods valued at about 2.8 million Mexican pesos. [17] Economic flirtation continued through Senator Manuel Moreno Sánchez’s arrival to the USSR in May 1960 and through a discussion of trade prospects between A. A. Pavlenko and Alfredo Perera Mena (head editor of “Comercio Exterior” magazine) at the Soviet embassy in Mexico City in June 1962.
The USSR deployed its power in Latin America through technologies, symbolic systems, business, communication, and culture. Cultural pursuits were ubiquitous, and, by all accounts, the most successful. Diego Rivera underwent treatment for cancer in the Soviet Union in 1956. Over a year later, the Russians send their best artists, composers, athletes, and chess masters to Mexico. The Medical scholarship program that included Latin American countries opened in 1959. [18] Around the same time the Piatnitiskiy Folk Choir was touring across the country, two Soviet film festivals and multiple classical music performances entertained Mexican intellectuals and the general public. [19]

Soviet-Mexican relations undoubtedly went through a period of intensification during the late 1950s and early 1960s. However, Moscow’s political and economic influences on Mexico lacked momentum. The country’s strategy of differentiation did not succeed mainly due to the strong economic and financial integration and interdependence that Mexico and the US maintained throughout the mid-1960s. There is lack of documentation that proves that the US exerted direct pressure, but Mexico’s markets heavily relied on US preferential credit lines, like those granted by the Export/Import Bank or the IMF. These flows could “dry up” at any time. [20] In addition, the Mexican consumers were familiar with US products, Soviet goods were not known to the public and would have required intense advertising. [21]
Yet, there were more pragmatic reasons for the fiasco; those included logistical difficulties, underdevelopment of Soviet financial credit mechanisms, some naïveté in dealing with Mexican politicians and, most importantly, internal divisions within the Mexican political establishment and the Mexican Left.
In spite of the apparent lack of success in development of the stable political and economic ties between the two states in the late 1950s and early 1960s, diplomatic and cultural bonds solidified, and initial undertakings paved the way for more successful interactions in the following decade of the 1970s. The presidency of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964–1970) was a period of cooled relations as he had turned away from the agenda of ‘independence’. [22] Moscow had to wait until 1973 to sign a bilateral commercial treaty with Mexico. [23]