H-Diplo Roundtable XVIII, 9 on Mexico’s Cold War: Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution

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Roundtable Review
Volume XVIII, No. 9
7 November 2016

Roundtable Editors:  Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Roundtable and Web Production Editor:  George Fujii
Introduction by Dustin Walcher

Renata Keller.  Mexico’s Cold War:  Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2015.  ISBN:  9781107079588 (hardback, $103.00).

URL:  http://www.tiny.cc/Roundtable-XVIII-9


© 2016 The Authors.
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

What was the Cold War?  Was the Cold War in Latin America something fundamentally distinct from the superpower struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union?  From the Global Cold War?  These seemingly simple and straightforward questions have attracted significant attention from historians in recent years.  Gilbert Joseph and Greg Grandin forcefully argue that in Latin America, the Cold War did not center simply, or even primarily, on the postwar superpower struggle.  Rather, what Grandin calls “Latin America’s Long Cold War” was defined by longstanding political repression of the popular sectors of society by political and economic elites.  While the United States played a prominent supporting role in this war, “its animal spirit was driven by a domestic reaction against the democratization of the region’s status hierarchy that had steadily advanced since the decades prior to independence.”[1]  Similarly, Tanya Harmer identifies an “inter-American Cold War” that was fundamentally about ideological and political divisions within Latin America.[2]  While the United States, the Soviet Union, and other outside actors certainly played important roles, the course of this inter-American Cold War was predominantly determined by people in Latin America.  Yet throughout those conversations, the place of Mexico in the post-World War II history of the hemispheric system has remained, surprisingly, under-examined.[3]

Renata Keller makes the first steps in rectifying that notable oversight in Mexico’s Cold War.  Somewhat surprisingly given the questions she asks about the Cold War, Keller does not explicitly engage the question of the nature of Latin America’s Cold War.  Nonetheless, she implicitly adds to that larger conversation.  In Mexico’s case, the triumph of a Communist social revolution in Cuba complicated efforts from more conservative governments in Mexico City to rhetorically appeal to the more radical legacies of the Mexican Revolution while simultaneously pursuing policies diametrically at odds with that tradition.  Keller compellingly argues that Mexico’s Cold War was about the efforts of those fundamentally conservative governments to reconcile their policy preferences, and friendly relationship with Washington, with the country’s revolutionary tradition.  The triumph of a genuine social revolution in Cuba complicated those efforts.  The leadership of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) chose not to break diplomatic relations with Cuba, but also used Mexico’s unique position as a major country open to Cuba to spy on the island nation in cooperation with the United States.  Meanwhile, the Castro government, along with former Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenes, sought to buttress Mexico’s political left and resurrect the tradition of social revolution in public policy.  As Alan McPherson observes, Keller writes principally about Mexican politics.  Ideological differences over political economy were contested at the domestic level.

Ultimately, conservative Mexican governments could only walk the tightrope between a public rhetorical embrace of social revolutionary principles, including professed friendship toward Cuba, and private support for the United States, including considerable cooperation between the two countries’ intelligence services.  When student protests erupted in 1968, culminating with the Tlatelolco massacre, the Gustavo Díaz Ordaz administration blamed Communists, including the Cuban government.  Even the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) found that connection farfetched, and certainly could not find any evidence corroborating the claim.  But Díaz Ordaz pressed on and inaugurated his country’s Dirty War, in which the state killed some 3,000 of its own citizens.

While Mexico’s Cold War is principally a book about Mexico, Keller also contributes to the expanding literature on Cuba’s role in international affairs.  The results are not exceptionally surprising, but they are well-documented and compelling.  In this case, Cuba’s revolutionary leaders sought to reorient the policy trajectory of the Mexican state in such a way that it would better align with their own.  The Castro government worked with figures on the Mexican left, most notably former President Cárdenas, who emerges as a towering regional figure.  Of course, Cuban policy was ultimately unsuccessful.  Outside of Cárdenas, who no longer enjoyed significant influence in the halls of power, Mexico’s social revolutionary tradition received only platitudes – not policy.

The reviewers of Mexico’s Cold War find much that is praiseworthy.  Andrew Paxman calls the book “lively and compelling.”  Offering exceptionally high praise for Keller’s writing, he also finds that the first chapter, “which traces the consolidation of the Mexican state from the 1920s until 1959, may be the best short history of post-revolutionary Mexico in print.”  McPherson calls Mexico’s Cold War an “engrossing and path-breaking study.”  He concludes that it “deserves to be read by anyone interested in the Cold War, Latin America, or Mexico.”  Amelia Kiddle finds that Keller “makes a remarkable contribution to the history of twentieth-century Mexico and inter-American relations.”  The book, she writes, “represents the best kind of multinational research in that it enhances our understanding of the dynamic interplay between national and international events in the formation of both domestic and foreign-relations policy.”  Finally, Aaron Coy Moulton holds that Keller “produced a fine examination of Mexican foreign relations.” 

Overall, the reviewers’ critiques are quite mild.  Moulton and Kiddle each suggest that the book would have been analytically stronger had it engaged directly the emerging scholarship on the definition of Latin America’s Cold War.  Given Keller’s skepticism about the judgments of Mexico’s Federal Security Directorate, Paxman would like to have seen her indicate “more often where she considers their findings feasible or not.”  He also suggests that more attention could be paid to the activities of the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries in Cuba.  McPherson does not find compelling evidence directly linking some groups on the left in Mexico to Cuba in any tangible way, and therefor questions their inclusion given the scope of the work. 

Finally, in a larger sense Keller’s scholarship contributes to an important trend in the literature that blurs the distinction between domestic phenomena on the one hand, and international or transnational events on the other.[4]  Political discourses surrounding social justice and nationalism that were fundamentally about the course of the Mexican national project necessarily included significant dimensions that transcended the bounds of the nation state.  Contemporary scholars of Latin American foreign relations have, consequently, increasingly worked at the intersection of the domestic and the global.  Ultimately Keller’s scholarship is emblematic of this scholarly direction, and skillfully demonstrates the merits of the approach. 


Renata Keller is an Assistant Professor of International Relations and Latin American Studies in the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. She received her PhD in History from the University of Texas at Austin in 2012 and is currently working on a hemispheric history of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Dustin Walcher is Associate Professor and Chair of History & Political Science at Southern Oregon University.  A specialist in international history, U.S. foreign relations, and inter-American affairs, he is currently revising a manuscript that examines the link between the failure of U.S.-led economic initiatives and the rise of social revolution in Argentina during the 1950s and 1960s.  With Jeffrey F. Taffet he is also completing a combined textbook and document reader on the history of U.S.-Latin American relations. 

Amelia M. Kiddle is Assistant Professor of History and Coordinator of the Latin American Studies Program at the University of Calgary. She was awarded the Premio Genaro Estrada from the Mexican Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores for the best doctoral thesis on the topic of Mexico’s foreign relations in 2010. She has published articles in the Journal of Latin American Studies and Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos and is the co-editor of Populism in Twentieth Century Mexico: The Presidencies of Lázaro Cárdenas and Luis Echeverría (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2010) and a document collection entitled La expropiación petrolera mexicana en la prensa de Latinoamérica: Antología documental (Mexico City: PEMEX, 2014). Her first monograph, Mexican Relations with Latin America during the Cárdenas Era, is forthcoming from the University of New Mexico Press in September 2016.

Alan McPherson is Professor of International and Area Studies, ConocoPhillips Chair in Latin American Studies, and Director of the Center for the Americas at the University of Oklahoma. He has published nine books, including the prize-winning Yankee No! Anti-Americanism in U.S.-Latin American Relations (Harvard University Press, 2003) and The Invaded: How Latin Americans and their Allies Fought and Ended U.S. Occupations (Oxford University Press, 2014).

Aaron Coy Moulton is a doctoral candidate at the University of Arkansas completing his dissertation, “Guatemalan Exiles, Caribbean Basin Dictators, Operation PBFORTUNE, and the Transnational Counter-Revolution against the Guatemalan Revolution, 1944-1952.” His research has been supported by the Truman Library Institute, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, Phi Alpha Theta, and the J. William Fulbright College of Arts & Sciences.

Andrew Paxman (London, 1967) is a biographer and historian of modern Mexico. His first book, El Tigre: Emilio Azcárraga y su imperio Televisa (Grijalbo, 2000; rev. ed., 2013), co-authored with Claudia Fernández, is a biography of the Mexican media mogul Emilio Azcárraga Milmo. His second, a life of the expatriate U.S. industrialist William O. Jenkins, will appear with Oxford (in English) and Penguin Random House (in Spanish) in late 2016. His next project is a biography of Carlos Slim. Paxman teaches in the history and journalism programmes at the CIDE in Aguascalientes and Mexico City.


Review by Amelia M. Kiddle, University of Calgary

In Mexico’s Cold War: Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution, Renata Keller makes a remarkable contribution to the history of twentieth-century Mexico and inter-American relations. Beginning with former Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas’s famously thwarted attempt to fly to Cuba to defend the Revolution during the Bay of Pigs invasion, Keller traces the place of the Cuban Revolution in Mexican politics and culture and argues that it framed Mexico’s experience of the Cold War. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 revealed the Mexican regime that defined itself through the legacy of the Revolution of 1910 to have been a sham, and Keller analyses how the governments of presidents Adolfo López Mateos (1954-1960) through Luis Echeverría (1970-1976) dealt with the rhetorical and real threat that the neighbouring revolutionary process posed to Mexico’s conservative status quo. She treats with equal seriousness and rigour diplomatic wrangling at the Organization of American States; domestic surveillance of left-wing activists; political cartoons criticizing the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) and its leaders; and U.S.-Mexican cooperation to suppress evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald was in contact with the Cuban embassy in Mexico prior to his assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This original and tightly conceived study is an excellent addition to the historiography that propels the literature forward on a number of fronts.

The result of a thorough multi-country, multi-archival investigation, Mexico’s Cold War represents the best kind of multinational research in that it enhances our understanding the dynamic interplay between national and international events in the formation of both domestic and foreign-relations policy. Through the inclusion of a wide array of popular sources, Keller also demonstrates how popular culture both reflected and influenced these processes. The wealth of newly-accessed materials in Cuban and Mexican archives that are explored makes this an exceptional study. Her description of Cuba’s Mexican policy, which employed a mix of covert and overt components similar to U.S. policies in Latin America, is enlightening. Cuban president Fidel Castro knew that Mexican presidents cooperated fully with U.S. intelligence gathering and that their support for the Cuban Revolution was more symbolic than real, and acted accordingly. Keller also makes excellent use of Mexican intelligence sources, and given recent re-classifications, her forays into the archives proved particularly well-timed. Keller approached these spy reports with the full knowledge that agents saw communists everywhere and exaggerated or even fabricated some of the material she read. Further complicating matters, she notes that some of the activities the agents reported upon were actually undertaken by provocateurs put in place by other branches of the government. Nevertheless, Keller argues, despite their flaws, these reports were the best information Mexican presidents had (7). Although Keller read these documents with the utmost caution, as Louise Walker and Tanalís Padilla point out in their special dossier on this archival collection, we do not know that the government read them as meticulously, or for that matter how (or even if) they were read at all.[5] The hundreds of pages agents wrote on the Latin American Peace Conference of 1961 that Keller analyses seem to be a case in point, and as she states, they mainly demonstrate the agents’ hostility towards the Conference and its participants. Throughout her study, Keller approaches her documents with the healthy dose of scepticism that is required, and uses them to build a convincing and highly readable account of the interplay between domestic and international events in Cold-War Mexico.

One of the strengths of Keller’s work is the excellent interpretive framework that she provides for understanding the emerging scholarship on Mexico after 1940. Keller provides an extremely useful synthesis of new works on movements as diverse as the railway workers’ strike (1958-1959); Rubén Jaramillo’s uprisings in Morelos (1942-1962); the democratic reform movement seen in the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional (1961-1967); the 1965 attack on the army barracks at Ciudad Madera; guerrilla movements in the mountains of Guerrero (1959-1974); right- and left-wing student activism; and urban guerrilla groups. While remaining careful to stress the domestic roots of the conflicts, by incorporating diplomatic and foreign and domestic intelligence sources into her analysis, she demonstrates how these movements fit into the larger story of what she terms Mexico’s Cold War. As Keller summarises, a new understanding is emerging of the PRI regime as a “dictablanda,” which appeared on the outside to be the “perfect dictatorship,” all the while struggling internally to maintain its hold on power, the façade of economic progress, and its monopoly on violence.[6]  Her book represents a coherent framework for understanding the period in an international context.

As useful as this narrative is, one wonders whether it is in fact a bit too tidy. Keller states that Mexico’s Cold War began with the nearly simultaneous vanquishing of the railway workers’ movement for democratic unionization and the triumph of the barbudos (bearded ones) in Cuba, and ended when “the last Mexican guerrilla army inspired by the Cuban Revolution finally disappeared” in the early 1980s (236). However, as Robert Alegre has shown in his excellent work on the railway movement, the “Cold War Idiom” that provided the context for the repression of the striking workers was decades in the making.[7] Although it certainly makes sense for Keller to root her analysis in domestic politics (or the reflection of international events in the domestic context), rather than seemingly arbitrary events like the Berlin Blockade and the fall of the wall, Mexico’s Cold War was a long time in the making and the unravelling. This points to one of the few omissions in Keller’s work: a thorough discussion of the idea of the “Latin America’s Long Cold War,” as Gilbert Joseph and Greg Grandin termed it.[8] Given that the ‘Long Cold War’ thesis posits that the roots of the ideological contest it embodied can be seen as early as the Mexican Revolution, the legacy of which is one of the chief topics of Keller’s book, it seems strange that she does not address the notion head on. Keller certainly indicates where she stands with statements like Mexico’s “Cold War began when the Cuban Revolution intensified the pre-existing struggle over the legacy of the Mexican Revolution” (5). However, it bears explaining why, if Latin America’s Cold War may have begun with the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Mexico’s Cold War did not begin until the Cuban Revolution of 1959.

That said, Keller does not shy away from making a significant contribution to another pertinent debate in the historiography; she comes down firmly against the idea of the “Two Devils,” which suggests that Latin American leftists incited right-wing repression, by presenting the well-documented conclusion that in Mexico (as in the rest of Latin America), the state was responsible for the vast majority of the violence of the Cold-War era. Keller traces carefully in the documentary record how, by ignoring domestic sources of dissatisfaction and resorting to repression in order to quash imagined international communist conspiracies, the government initiated a violent vicious cycle in which it produced the very revolutionary movements it sought to eliminate through disappearances, massacres, counterinsurgency warfare, and torture. Keller cites the necessarily rough figure of 3,000 dead, which gives credence to the argument that Mexico’s Cold War encompassed a war against the civilian population that was every bit as dirty as those to its south (197).

Throughout the Cold War, Mexico was the only Latin American country to maintain relations with Cuba. Keller’s book analyses the significance of Mexican-Cuban relations for inter-American relations; Cuban, Mexican, and U.S. foreign policy; and Mexican politics and culture. She weaves the intricate threads of these stories together to create a narrative fabric that is well-designed and extremely useful. Mexico’s Cold War is essential reading for scholars of inter-American relations and twentieth century Mexico alike, and although it may seem at times that it leaves certain areas bare or covers too much, it holds together very well because it is more than the sum of its parts -- an outstanding achievement.


In this engrossing and path-breaking study, Renata Keller asks how the Cuban Revolution impacted Mexico, and finds a dual answer. On one hand, Mexican leaders were constantly concerned about Communists in their midst. On the other, they heartily defended the Revolution even after most other Latin American countries had ceased doing so.

“Mexico was not borrowing someone else’s problems,” Keller argues in response to this contradiction; “It was confronting its own” (2). That problem, in the 1960s, was Mexico’s conservative turn after the radicalism of its own revolution of the 1910s subsided. During the long decades of political dominance by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a mixture of domestic and international tensions between radicals and conservatives remained, destabilizing Mexico.

One prominent theme in these tensions was the legacy of the Mexican Revolution, which had featured peasants struggling for agrarian reform just like in 1950s Cuba. Mexico also leapt to the defense of Cuba because of its reverence for self-determination and nonintervention. Both nations had been not only colonized by Spaniards but also later invaded by other European powers and, in the twentieth century, by the United States.

President Alfredo López Mateos had the misfortune of presiding over Mexico as Cuban leader Fidel Castro pushed through radical reforms and confronted U.S. aggression. In a pattern to be often repeated, he publicly championed Castro while cutting back on trade with Cuba, restricting travel to it, and helping the United States spy on it.

To be sure, López Mateos and others wanted to please Washington or at least keep it off their back during the tensest anti-Communist moments. But Keller argues that Mexican leaders’ intentions ran deeper and more local. The Cuban Revolution provided both a warning to elites and an example to workers, campesinos (peasants), and students, thus intensifying the confrontations between them that lingered after the Mexican Revolution.

Before 1959, Mexico arguably did represent the inward focus and stability that Hal Brands identified throughout the region.[9] The PRI government secretly funded an ‘opposition’ party to create an illusive democracy. It coopted the media and intellectuals. And it used institutions to restrain the peasantry, working class, and middle class. When manipulation failed, the state used coercion, for instance quashing student protests in the 1950s.

Still, workers, teachers, communists, and others continued to challenge the government, for instance in the 1958-1959 railroad movement. Their dovetailing with revolution in Cuba helped convince Mexico’s leaders that international communists were behind the troubles. As Van Gosse has shown for the United States, Keller demonstrates that a New Left emerged also in Mexico as it debated how Cuba should influence its own course.[10]

Former Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas was probably Cuba’s greatest Mexican ally, giving a full-throated defense of the island while on a visit to Havana and organizing the Mexico-based Latin American Peace Conference. When Cuban President Osvaldo Dórticos visited Mexico, Mexican officials made sure to orchestrate a massive reception so as not to be outdone by intellectuals and students. “However,” argues Keller, “the friendship between the Mexican and Cuban governments was superficial, more performance than substance” (85).

The 1961 failed Bay of Pigs invasion also exemplified Mexico’s ambivalence. On one hand, López Mateos loudly denounced the U.S. attack on Cuba’s sovereignty. On the other, he threatened to revoke the citizenship of Mexicans who left to join the fight in Cuba. Before and after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, President John Kennedy pressured López Mateos to break relations with Cuba in retaliation for threatening the region with nuclear annihilation. The Mexican refused, while acceding to more minor demands.

By 1968, Mexican leaders’ repression of new campesino groups supposedly inspired by Cuba, and especially the massacre of students in Tlatelolco Plaza, “created the very thing they were trying to avoid: a new revolutionary movement” (12). As the state grew increasingly wary of an international Communist conspiracy, its lack of democracy produced guerrilla warfare and the death of thousands. As in almost all Latin American regimes during the Cold War, conservative groups and officials were to blame for the great preponderance of the violence.

Mexican instability stayed below the surface for decades, and Keller does a fine detective job of uncovering its sources. From recently opened Mexican intelligence records, she finds that Mexicans collaborated more closely than previously thought with U.S. intelligence agencies. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had a hand in organizing the Department of Federal Security, which not only helped the FBI track down fugitives but also later developed a cozy working relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). By the mid-1960s, as many as two hundred Mexicans were agents of the CIA. The CIA also tapped every phone line in the Cuban embassy in Mexico City and in the residences of Cuban diplomats. Mexico also helped by tightening Cuban visas.

Still, Cuban officials in Mexico succeeded in using the embassy to spy and traffic arms in order to spread the revolution. They established a Latin American news service there, Prensa Latina. They smuggled weapons and funds to Guatemala. And they may have created Mexican student organizations.

From a 2013 declassification of Cuba’s diplomatic documents, Keller unearths internal memos in which Fidel Castro returned the favor to López Mateos and expressed disdain for the Mexican while praising him in public. This trove also allows the author to peer into Cubans’ internal comments on Kennedy’s visit to Mexico in 1962 and on the divisiveness the following year of a new-leftist Mexican political party, the National Liberation Movement. 

Unfortunately, as with many intelligence reports, those from Mexico and Cuba at times tell us more about the worries of intelligence officers, who traffic in rumors, than they do about actual events—more about paranoia than reality. 

In arguing for Mexican duplicity, Keller revises the view of Mexico as a bulwark of stability and solidarity with leftist forces throughout the Cold War. And in focusing on Mexican agency, she concludes that the United States was far from “decisive” in Mexican foreign policy formulation (9). Mexico City probably took as much account of Havana’s concerns as it did Washington’s, and certainly worried more about internal than external matters. In this way, Mexico’s Cold War is a twin to Tanya Harmer’s book about Chile.[11] Cuba, meanwhile, comes off as more cynical in its foreign policy than it does in Piero Gleijeses’s work.[12]

The internal nature of most events in the book, in fact, makes Mexico’s Cold War less about the Cold War than about Mexican politics. Keller suggests, for instance, that groups such as the Independent Campesino Center or the National Center for Democratic Students were somehow connected to Cuba (beyond perhaps being inspired by it), but there is no evidence of a direct connection to Cuba, and so it is not clear how it belongs in a book about the Cold War. In fact, it was the right—for instance the Church—that was more “inspired” by Cuba to commit or at least to condone atrocities.

Still, this book is a treasure of multinational, multiarchival research confirming many recent findings about the Cold War in Latin America and unearthing several new ones about Mexico’s complex politics. It should serve to reposition Mexico from a marginal player to a central one in the region’s Cold War, and deserves to be read by anyone interested in the Cold War, Latin America, or Mexico.


Renata Keller has not only produced a fine examination of Mexican foreign relations that joins those of Ana Covarrubias Velasco, Jürgen Buchenau, Friedrich Schuler, and others.[13] In Mexico’s Cold War, Keller offers an international history that reveals how local debates over the Mexican Revolution’s goals, dating back to the first half of the century, became intimately tied to perceptions of the 1959 Cuban Revolution. For years, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI) more or less managed myriad interest groups while consolidating its control over the Mexican government and the image of the Revolution itself. Events in Cuba, however, called into question the PRI’s leadership. On one side, New Left groups and some veterans from the Mexican Revolution saw on the Caribbean island the means to renew their own country’s revolutionary credentials. On the other side, United States officials and Mexican anti-communists denounced the ascendant revolutionary Fidel Castro’s propaganda and Mexico’s diplomatic relations with the new Cuban regime. In the middle, the PRI maneuvered between U.S. Cold War-oriented policy, its opposition to Castro, and its citizens’ passions until initiating a dirty war in the late 1960s. Rather than the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, Keller argues, these conflicts and debates over the legacy of the Mexican Revolution in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution truly defined Mexico’s Cold War. Built upon newly-available Mexican, U.S., and Cuban sources, Mexico’s Cold War stands next to Tanya Harmer’s Allende’s Chile & the Inter-American Cold War and Thomas Field’s From Development to Dictatorship as a solid case study for Cold War and Latin Americanist scholarship on the interplay between the domestic and the international that shaped the nuances of what many are now calling the Latin American Cold War.[14]

Keller opens her analysis by sketching out the history of the PRI, the party’s management of the government, the shared interests and information-gathering between Mexico’s Dirección Federal de Seguridad (Department of Federal Security, or DFS), Dirección General de Investigaciones Políticas y Sociales (Department of Political and Social Investigations, or IPS) and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Mexican communist organizations, and the PRI’s repression of domestic opposition and reformers. Before 1959, Mexican officials repeatedly negotiated with or suppressed dissidents with few repercussions, as epitomized in labor strikes on the country’s railroads at the end of the decade. It was the Cuban Revolution, though, that brought new challenges to the PRI’s monopoly on the Mexican Revolution’s image. Domestic issues in Mexico took on an international dimension as students, workers, leftists, intellectuals, and ex-President Lázaro Cárdenas summoned Cuba when denouncing the PRI in numerous protests and publications. While quietly restricting travel and gathering evidence of Cuban propaganda in their country, Mexican officials publically championed the Cuban Revolution due to its popularity. The Bay of Pigs and Cárdenas’s convening the Latin American Peace Conference in 1961 gave rise to anti-PRI organizations, the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional, the Central Campesina Independiente, and the Frente Electoral del Pueblo, which in turn saw increased activism among Mexican anti-communists.

Even as their fears of the links between the Cuban Revolution and opposition to their government escalated, the PRI skillfully adapted. Whether at the Organization of American States, facing the Cuban Missile Crisis, after U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s assassination, or during the 1964 elections, Mexican officials appeased domestic organizations by voicing their support of the Cuban Revolution and maintaining open relations with Castro’s regime. Beneath this façade, Mexican intelligence in the mid-1960s ramped up its efforts to monitor anti-PRI organizations and drew closer to the CIA. DFS and IPS agents reported on the oftentimes-alleged links between Castro’s regime and Mexican activists while paying closer attention the growing resentment with the PRI. Long silenced and marginalized both politically and violently by the Mexican government, students and guerrillas in the mid- to late 1960s unleashed a new wave of opposition. The PRI and Mexican intelligence agents, ignoring how their own policies led to such domestic challenges, blamed these uprisings upon the Cuban Revolution and international communism. In contrast to its earlier adept management of domestic and international affairs, the Mexican government inaugurated a dirty war against its citizens.

Keller is to be lauded for producing a comprehensive examination that is a fine addition to the growing literature on how Latin America interpreted and responded to the Cold War and similar international events. She not only delves into events that have been overlooked in favor of other episodes that took place in Latin America during the Cold War, such as the Cuban Revolution and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but utilizes these episodes to better examine the nuances of Mexican history, such as the rise of the country’s New Left. Thanks to her incorporation of DFS and IPS files alongside newly declassified U.S. sources and materials from Cuba’s Archivo Central del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Keller holds a strong grasp on the links between Mexico’s internal conflicts, U.S. policy, and the Cuban Revolution, allowing her to place the goals of Mexican presidents and intelligence officials against those of their U.S. and Cuban counterparts. Consequently, Mexico’s Cold War is a valuable historiographical contribution to the field. Recognizing that the Cold War’s influence arrived in different countries at varying moments and with frequently contrasting impact, Keller reclaims the very term ‘Cold War’ to better understand how Mexico’s own debates and conflicts over the Cuban Revolution shaped the country from 1959 into the late 1960s while moving away from the U.S.-Soviet rivalry itself.[15]

Keller could have argued more forcefully for her work’s deserving place in the historiography in Latin American and Cold War Studies scholarship. Her analysis of ‘Mexico’s Cold War’ resembles Harmer’s finding of an ‘inter-American Cold War’ or Greg Grandin and Gilbert Joseph’s examining ‘Latin America’s Cold War,’ where the dimensions and chronology often diverged from the international Cold War and were more closely related to the aftermath of Castro’s seizing power.[16] Most recently, Alan McPherson suggests a ‘Latin American Cold War Studies paradox’ in which, “the more historians find out about the Cold War in the hemisphere, the more that Cold War itself fades to the background.”[17] In this vein, Keller could have strengthened her work engaging more directly with these other accounts. Before 1959 and continuing into Mexico’s dirty war, numerous peoples debated the Mexican Revolution’s legacy against similar international episodes, going back to the rise of the Soviet Union, continuing through the dirty war, and moving into the Zapatistas’ critique of the Mexican state’s neoliberal and agrarian policies.[18] Although the events Keller examines in Mexico’s Cold War may have taken place during the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, that conflict repeatedly disappears, since a regional and ideological competition between the U.S. government, Castro’s regime, and self-proclaimed defenders of the Mexican Revolution took on far greater value.[19] Akin to Kyle Longley’s and Jeffrey Taffet’s questions in this very forum, one does wonder whether the terminology of the ‘Cold War’ adequately describes events in Mexico from 1959 into the late 1960s.[20] Fitting well next to Grandin and Joseph’s A Century of Revolution, Keller’s analysis might concern less of a ‘Cold War’ in Mexico but still another phase in the political violence and revolutionary upheaval that has shaped debates over the legacy of the Mexican Revolution.[21] Nevertheless, such considerations would only have reaffirmed the value of Keller’s work to Mexican history, Latin Americanist scholarship, and Cold War Studies.


Review by Andrew Paxman, Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE), Mexico City

That the Cuban Revolution was a catalyst for change and a well-spring of inspiration beyond the island’s shores is a famous feature of Latin American foreign relations. Under Communist leader Fidel Castro, Cuba energised the left from Mexico City to Montevideo for several decades, his armed forces assisted independence movements in Africa, and his fierce stance against imperialism drew admirers from French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Havana became a global symbol for standing up to the U.S. But not all who championed Cuba did so sincerely. As Renata Keller details in her lively and compelling Mexico’s Cold War, the rulers of Mexico were remarkably two-faced: lauding Castro in public while undermining his regime and resisting its influence in private.

Having taken a pro-business and pro-U.S. turn in the 1940s, Mexico’s leaders found themselves in a quandary after January 1959. Ninety miles from their country’s Caribbean coast, a fast-radicalising revolution was casting into unflattering relief the legacy of Mexico’s own uprising of 1910-1920. That might not have mattered if the ruling elite had made a clean break with its socialist aims. Yet they fronted a corporatist machine called the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and their rhetoric still tried to unify the nation by raising aloft workers and peasants as the noblest of Mexicans and by evoking the goals of such radical martyrs as the indigenous insurgent Emiliano Zapata. In the meantime, the PRI suppressed dissenting voices, co-opted unions, favoured large-scale agribusiness, and allowed industry to concentrate in the hands of a few oligopolists, who were often allied with U.S. capital. Within Mexico, therefore, Castro’s revolution unwittingly exacerbated “the tension between the country’s revolutionary past and its conservative present” (5).

Keller persuasively argues that, in order to ease that tension and limit the popular dissent it elicited, Mexico’s rulers adopted a long-running ruse. They praised Castro, feted his representatives, defended Cuban sovereignty against the aggressions of President John F. Kennedy, and, uniquely among American nations, refused to sever diplomatic ties with Havana. Behind the scenes, they wiretapped the Cuban Embassy, shared intelligence with the CIA, aided defectors, spied on Mexican sympathizers, and via proxies in Mexico’s largely pliant press did all they could to discredit communism. This Janus-like strategy was especially uniform and effective during the first five years after Castro’s rise to power, a period nearly coinciding with the presidency of Adolfo López Mateos (1958-1964). One key result: despite signs for several years that a Cuba-inspired opposition party might coalesce under the tutelage of former president Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940), the left failed to mount a significant challenge in the presidential election of 1964.

The López Mateos years form the core of Keller’s account, Chapters 2 to 4. It is a period whose Cuba-inflamed political battles several others have examined, notably in a ground-breaking early history by Olga Pellicer de Brody, a work of historical anthropology by Wil Pansters, and essays and conference papers by Eric Zolov, author of the forthcoming The Last Good Neighbor: Mexico in the Global Sixties.[22] Pellicer’s basic thesis still stands: Cuba’s example radicalized the left wing of the PRI, frightened and hardened the right wing, and so forced López Mateos into an uncomfortable balancing act. Keller’s advance is to incorporate the troves of U.S. and Mexican secret-service records that have been declassified in recent decades, which allows her to demonstrate the extent to which Mexico’s foreign policy was based upon domestic expedience rather than much-touted principal and to assert that the state often overestimated the threat that Cuba posed to its stability.

In Chapter 5 Keller discusses how López Mateos’s successor, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, tried and largely failed to pursue the same duplicitous strategy, his efforts hampered by the growing bellicosity of Castro and his Mexican admirers, who insisted that true change involve armed combat, and by his own conservative-authoritarian instincts. It is common to label Cold Warriors such Díaz Ordaz (rather like Senator Joseph McCarthy or FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover) as paranoid, but as Keller shows, not only this President, but also most of his intelligence community, considered broad armed revolt a real possibility. Below-the-radar support for communist activists emanating from Havana – which, Keller reveals, reciprocated Mexico’s overtures with a superficial friendliness of its own – only fuelled that fear. That the CIA, so often the stumbling ogre of contemporary Latin American history, consistently read the landscape with greater wisdom and less alarm, considering leftist radicals too weak to threaten the regime, is a fascinating finding of this book. The great blowback-merchant here is Díaz Ordaz. In so harshly repressing incipient leftist activism, the President fostered the very threats to social order he feared.

This vicious cycle of repression and grass-roots militancy met its infamous apogee in the massacre of student demonstrators in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco neighbourhood, just prior to the capital’s hosting of the 1968 Olympics. But as Keller reminds us in Chapter 6, despite the efforts of President Luis Echeverría (1970-1976) to reclaim the revolutionary banner, further state-sponsored violence was to follow, with the Corpus Christi massacre of 1971 and other murders and disappearances. Recent research has found that some 3,000 leftists were ‘disappeared’ – as many as in Pinochet’s Chile – and so the term ‘Dirty War,’ once kept for the repressive activities of dictatorships in South America, is now seen to be equally applicable to 1970s Mexico.[23] Keller might have noted that, following the ham-handedness of Díaz Ordaz, Echeverría’s approach was something of a return to that of López Mateos: heavy on the rhetoric of national sovereignty, and coddling the (generally older) left with one hand while clubbing the (younger, more radical) left with the other. And thanks to petrodollars, Echeverría and his successor José López Portillo – who goes unmentioned – were able to assuage much left-wing discontent via public spending and bureaucratic appointments.

Like these points, the lacunae in this book are fairly minor. Keller is rightly sceptical of many of the reports penned by Mexico’s FBI equivalent, the Federal Security Directorate (DFS), whose default mode seems to have been set to Conspiracy Theory, but she could have indicated more often where she considers their findings feasible or not. Though the book’s subtitle delimits its broad title, the implication that Mexican leftists drew overseas inspiration from Cuba alone rather ignores the role of Russia and its satellites (cultural programmes and student exchanges, for example), and its Cold-War framework should also evaluate López Mateos’s unprecedentedly numerous trips abroad. There is more to say about reception, how Cuba’s appeal was mediated by the mass media and enjoyed or rejected by the public, but perhaps that is more properly the subject of a separate study.

The great asset of Mexico’s Cold War is its integration of widely ranging primary sources – records from Cuba, Panama, and the UK as well as the U.S. and Mexico, along with a good many memoirs – into a lean and highly readable volume that meets its goal of explaining the complex relationship between Mexico, Cuba, and the United States during the long 1960s. Sharply reading official discourse against the grain, Keller is excellent on the central theme of “managing the political theater of democracy” (147). The prose is crystal clear. Chapter 1, which traces the consolidation of the Mexican state from the 1920s until 1959, may be the best short history of post-revolutionary Mexico in print. Subsequent chapters strike a deft balance between context, narrative, exemplification, and analysis. This book is both a fine addition to the historiography and an enticing text for classroom adoption.


First, I must begin by thanking Tom Maddux and Dustin Walcher for organizing this roundtable, and Amelia Kiddle, Alan McPherson, Aaron Moulton, and Andrew Paxman for their thoughtful and generous reviews. Their close readings of my book and their praise for my efforts mean more than I can say in this short response. I will resist the temptation to revisit their kind words and instead take this opportunity to explore some of the interesting larger questions that their reviews raise.

All four of the reviewers discuss, in one way or another, the Cold-War framing of the book. Kiddle asks whether the chronology is a little too tidy. She points to the argument that Robert Alegre, Gilbert Joseph, and Greg Grandin have most recently put forward that Mexico’s Cold War ‘idioms’ and struggles predated the traditionally understood post-World War II beginning of the Cold War by decades and perhaps go as far back as the Mexican Revolution.[24] McPherson suggests that “the internal nature of most events in the book, in fact, makes Mexico’s Cold War less about the Cold War than about Mexican politics,” and Paxman points out that I could have included more external facets of Mexico’s Cold War, such as President Adolfo López Mateos’s many trips abroad or Mexico’s relations with the Soviet Union. Of the four reviewers, Moulton pushes most enthusiastically—and convincingly—for greater engagement with the ongoing historiographical debates over the terminology and chronology of the Cold War. He asks for a more thorough discussion of how Mexico’s Cold-War experience pushes historians to rethink the centrality of the U.S.-Soviet conflict for other countries, and asks whether Mexico’s political struggles in the 1960s and 1970s were really ‘Cold-War’ battles per se or simply a new phase in a longer cycle of political violence and revolutionary upheaval. 

Taken together, these critiques raise an important question: What, exactly, was the Cold War? Following from that primary question, we must also ask what sets the Cold War era apart from earlier and later periods. When did it begin, and when did it end? These questions, applied both in the wider global and Latin American contexts and the specific case of Mexico, are ones I asked myself repeatedly as I researched and wrote my book. At the most basic level, I decided that since the term “Cold War”—or guerra fría—did not gain wide acceptance or usage until the late 1940s and early 1950s, it would be somewhat ahistorical to extend it backward in time. I heartily agree that many of the characteristics and struggles of the Cold-War era had deeper roots—and I trace those deeper roots for the case of Mexico in Chapter 1 of my book—but I still decided to resist the practice of applying a label that the historical actors of those earlier periods would not themselves have used or recognized.

That terminological/chronological argument aside, I still think it is fruitful and interesting to explore what exactly made the Cold War unique. In the introduction to my book I define the Cold War as “a multisided geopolitical and local contest… an undeclared state of war over questions of ideology, economics, culture, citizenship, and security” (5). Many elements of this definition could be applied to both earlier and later conflicts—what war does not have international and local aspects?—but few if any other conflicts combine all the elements. Also important is the fact that many of the people who engaged in struggles over ideology, economics, culture, citizenship, and security saw themselves as participants in the Cold War. As the attendees of the 1961 Latin American Peace Conference put it in their declaration: “North American imperialism has compromised Latin America in the politics of the Cold War” (90). The language of the Cold War thus became a useful framework for people at the time, not just for historians. Beyond this general global definition of the Cold War, I would argue that it is local conditions and the specific expressions and combinations of the elements that made the Cold War play out differently in different contexts.

All of which brings me back to the reviewers’ critiques. In the case of Mexico, McPherson is right to point out that I see the local or domestic aspects of the Cold War as predominant, and as a result I devote a greater proportion of my book to events that took place in Mexico. But even at those times when international aspects fade into the background, the fact that they remain important referents and catalysts makes the story I tell a Cold War story as much as it is a Mexican one. Kiddle, Paxman, and Moulton correctly identify various issues that I could have expanded upon; perhaps including a greater analysis of Mexican-Soviet relations would have made my book a more traditional ‘Cold War’ history. I chose to focus more on Cuba than the Soviet Union and its satellites because that is where my sources led me. Mexican intelligence agents showed much more concern about Cuban activities than Soviet ones, and Mexican citizens on both the right and left wings of the political spectrum made more references to Cuba than the Soviet Union in their writings, conferences, and other activities. Furthermore, I wanted to balance my analysis of Mexican policy with analysis of the policies of its international partners. I was able to gain access to U.S. and Cuban sources in order to do that balanced analysis, but I unfortunately lack the language skills to consult the Soviet sources. There is certainly room for more research on Mexican-Soviet relations and other aspects of Mexico’s foreign policy during the Cold War, and I would point interested readers to the exciting work being done by Eric Zolov, Soledad Loaeza, Daniela Spenser, Vanni Pettinà, Patrick Iber, Michelle Getchell, and others on these subjects.[25]

I would like to close by thanking my reviewers again for their heart-warming comments and their enthusiastic engagement with my research. It has been a true pleasure to receive such praise from peers whose own work I continue to learn from and admire.


[1] Greg Grandin, “Living in Revolutionary Time: Coming to Terms with the Violence of Latin America’s Long Cold War,” in A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence During Latin America’s Long Cold War, eds. Greg Grandin and Gilbert M. Joseph (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010): 1-42, quotation on 4.

[2] Tanya Harmer, Allende’s Chile & the Inter-American Cold War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011). 

[3] In addition to the works by Grandin and Harmer cited above, see Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Gilbert M. Joseph, “What We Now Know and Should Know: Bringing Latin America More meaningfully into Cold War Studies,” in In From the Cold: Latin America’s New Encounter with the Cold War, eds. Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniela Spenser (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008): 3-46.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Louise E. Walker and Tanalís Padilla, “In the Archives: History and Politics,” Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research 19:1 (2013): 1-10.

[6] Paul Gillingham and Benjamin T. Smith, eds., Dictablanda: Politics, Work, and Culture in Mexico, 1938-1968 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

[7] Robert F. Alegre, Railroad Radicals: Gender, Class, and Memory in Cold War Mexico (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014).

[8] Greg Grandin and Gilbert M. Joseph, eds., A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence during Latin America’s Long Cold War (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

[9] Hal Brands, Latin America’s Cold War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[10] Van Gosse, Where the Boys Are: Cuba, Cold War America and the Making of a New Left (London and New York: Verso, 1993).

[11] Tanya Harmer, Allende’s Chile and the Inter-American Cold War (University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

[12] Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), and Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[13] Ana Covarrubias Velasco, “La política de México hacia Nicaragua, 1979-1985,” tesis inédita, El Colegio de México, 1989; Ana Covarrubias Velasco, “Mexican-Cuban Relations, 1959-1988,” unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Oxford, 1994; Jürgen Buchenau, In the Shadow of the Giant: The Making of Mexico’s Central America Policy, 1876-1930 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996); Friedrich E. Schuler, Mexico between Hitler and Roosevelt: Mexican Foreign Relations in the Age of Lázaro Cárdenas, 1934-1940 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999); Sofía Várguez Villanueva, “Las relaciones México-República Dominicana, 1888-1965,” tesis inédita, El Colegio de México, 2012; Amelia M. Kiddle, Facing South: Mexico’s Relations with Latin America during the Cárdenas Era (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2016).

[14] Tanya Harmer, Allende’s Chile & the Inter-American Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Thomas C. Field, Jr., From Development to Dictatorship: Bolivia and the Alliance for Progress in the Kennedy Era (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014).

[15] Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Gilbert M. Joseph, “What We Now Know and Should Know: Bringing Latin America More Meaningfully into Cold War Studies,” in Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniela Spenser (eds.), In from the Cold: Latin America’s New Encounter with the Cold War (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 3-45.

[16] Harmer, Allende’s Chile & the Inter-American Cold War; Greg Grandin, “Living in Revolutionary Time: Coming to Terms with the Violence of Latin America’s Long Cold War,” in Greg Grandin and Gilbert M. Joseph (eds.), A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence during Latin America’s Cold War (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 1-42; Gilbert M. Joseph, “Latin America’s Long Cold War: A Century of Revolutionary Process and U.S. Power,” in A Century of Revolution, 397-414

[17] Alan McPherson, “The Paradox of Latin American Cold War Studies,” in Virginia Garrard-Burnett, Mark Atwood Lawrence, and Julio E. Moreno (eds.), Beyond the Eagle’s Shadow: New Histories of Latin America’s Cold War (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013), 307-308.

[18] Daniela Spenser, The Impossible Triangle: Mexico, Soviet Russia, and the United States in the 1920s (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999).

[19] Joseph, “Latin America’s Long Cold War.”

[20] Kyle Longley, “Roundtable Review of Greg Grandin and Gilbert M. Joseph, eds., A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence During Latin America’s Long Cold War,” H-Diplo Roundtable Review XIII, 27 (2012): 16; Jeffrey F. Taffett, “Roundtable Review of Tanya Harmer, Allende’s Chile & the Inter-American Cold War,” H-Diplo Roundtable Review XIV, 1 (2012): 23-24.

[21] Grandin, “Living in Revolutionary Time,” 1-42.

[22] Pellicer de Brody, México y la revolución cubana (Mexico City: Colegio de México, 1972); Pansters, Politics and Power in Puebla: The Political History of a Mexican State, 1937-1987 (Amsterdam: CEDLA, 1990), chapter V; for Zolov, see e.g.: “¡Cuba sí, yanquis no!: The Sacking of the Instituto Cultural México-Norteamericano in Morelia, Michoacán, 1961,” in Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniela Spenser, eds., In from the Cold: Latin America’s New Encounter with the Cold War (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).

[23] Keller, 197. See also Fernando Herrera Calderón and Adela Cedillo, eds., Challenging Authoritarianism in Mexico: Revolutionary Struggles and the Dirty War, 1964-1982 (New York: Routledge, 2012).

[24] Robert F. Alegre, Railroad Radicals in Cold War Mexico: Gender, Class, and Memory (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013); Greg Grandin and Gilbert Joseph, eds., A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence during Latin America’s Long Cold War (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

[25] Eric Zolov, The Last Good Neighbor: Mexico in the Global Sixties (forthcoming); Soledad Loaeza, “Gustavo Díaz Ordaz: Las insuficiencias de la presencia autoritaria,” in Will Fowler, ed., Gobernantes mexicanos, vol. II (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2008), 287–335, and forthcoming book on the Cold War in Mexico; Daniela Spenser, “Historia, política e ideología fundidas en la vida de Vicente Lombardo Toledano,” Desacatos 15:50 (January-April 2016), 70-87, and forthcoming biography of Lombardo Toledano; Vanni Pettinà, “Adapting to the New World: Mexico’s International Strategy of Economic Development at the Outset of the Cold War, 1946-1952,” Culture and History Digital Journal 4:1 (2015), accessed 13 May 2016; Patrick Iber, Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015); Michelle Reeves, “Extracting the Eagle’s Talons: The Soviet Union in Cold War Latin America, Ph.D. dissertation (Austin: University of Texas, 2014).