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A Tale of Two Revolutions

The Russian Revolution of 1917, and the regime that governed in its name for most of the 20th century, exerted a powerful political and ideological influence on Latin America. The revolution put its stamp on political parties, labor unions, artists, intellectuals and students, who saw the Soviet Union as an alternative to capitalism, a bulwark against United States imperialism and an example to emulate. Although the revelations of the crimes of Stalinist totalitarianism diminished the luster of the Russian Revolution in the 1950s, the surprising victory of the Communists in Cuba revived the revolutionary spirit in Latin America, inspiring guerrilla movements that alarmed military regimes allied to the United States.

Mexico was a case apart. Few countries had as much success as Mexico in neutralizing the effects of the Russian Revolution. The reason was simple. Mexico had undergone its own revolution from 1910 to 1917 and was advancing on its own revolutionary road. The nationalist and socialist ideology of the Mexican Revolution triumphed in every confrontation with the homegrown Marxist-Leninism of the Mexican Communist Party — Lenin and Trotsky could never compete with Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. And the tension between the two revolutions shaped the Mexican political process for decades to come.

The Mexican muralist movement of the 1920s was as original and dynamic as Russian Modernism, with which Mexican artists carried on a creative dialogue. Mexico, in 1924, was the first country in the Western Hemisphere to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, a move frowned upon by the United States, whose government confused Mexican nationalism with Communism. Facing this apparent rapprochement between the two revolutions, President Calvin Coolidge seriously considered military action against “Soviet Mexico.”

That changed when the banker Dwight Morrow became ambassador to Mexico in 1927. He helped restructure the Mexican debt, became an adviser to Mexican political figures and had the brilliant instinct to become a friend and patron to leftist artists. The most famous among them were of course Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and many young writers — among them the combative poet Octavio Paz — were Marxists who believed that the Soviet Union was “the land of the future.”

Declared illegal in 1929 and repressed, the Mexican Communist Party gained some influence during the term of President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40), but “domestication” once again had an effect. It was impossible to compete from the left with a government so clearly revolutionary as that of President Cárdenas, which distributed over 42 million acres of land, nationalized American — and European — owned oil enterprises in 1938 and had the support of the country’s main labor union, the Confederation of Mexican Workers.

Perhaps the most significant proof of Mexican autonomy with respect to the Russian Revolution came in 1936, when Mr. Cárdenas gave asylum to Leon Trotsky, at the request of Mr. Rivera. When the Communist Party of Mexico refused to participate in the assassination of Mr. Trotsky, carried out in 1940 by a Stalinist agent, it sealed its fate. During the Cold War, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or P.R.I., could present itself openly as a nationalist and progressive alternative to Communism, while the Communist Party remained quite marginal, supported mainly by the railroad unions and some prominent cultural figures.

Frida Kahlo, when she died in 1954, received the first official homage ever accorded to an artist, in Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts. Her coffin was covered with a banner of the hammer and sickle. This was emblematic of a resurgence of Communism in Mexico, not stemming from parties and unions but from artistic, academic and literary circles, where Marxism had begun to gain renewed vigor thanks to Jean-Paul Sartre’s writings. Nevertheless, in the arena of politics, the P.R.I. continued its undisputed reign. At least until the student movement of 1968 (when its dominion over the new middle classes began to crack), the official party was an all-powerful alliance that ran from right to left, with only the extremes on both sides excluded.

Not even the Cuban Revolution changed the situation. Showing impressive political skill, the P.R.I. regime did not condemn Fidel Castro and abstained from the vote by the Organization of American States to expel Cuba, yet it also became the buffer between the United States and the Communist tendencies of the rest of Latin America. In exchange, the United States accepted a certain degree of nationalist rhetoric by Mexico.

The compromise with Havana was clear. The expedition led by Mr. Castro in 1956 had set sail from Mexico, and Mexico would defend Cuba from the United States through diplomacy. Cuba, for its part, would not sponsor guerrilla uprisings in Mexico. Although this tacit agreement was no longer totally functional by the 1970s, guerrilla movements in Mexico had much less reach and impact than those in Central America. When such movements were brutally repressed, Havana and Moscow reacted with indifference. And when Mexican guerrillas seized planes and flew them to Cuba, Mr. Castro either immediately returned the hijackers or imprisoned them.

Although the Castro government made its arrangements with the P.R.I., the prestige of the Cuban Revolution, among recent generations, overshadowed the Mexican, which many younger people saw as antiquated and false. In the 1970s and 1980s, Marxism in all its varieties became a common language in Mexican public universities, and this cultural and academic hegemony of Marxism is a key factor in understanding the paradoxical strengthening of the Mexican left at the very moment of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Young people in the universities were the base for the popularity of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the son of the president, when in 1987 he abandoned the P.R.I., which had governed nationally since the 1930s. Partisans of the left welcomed Mr. Cárdenas and his dissident comrades.

By then, the Communist Party had merged into the Mexican Socialist Party. That party put Mr. Cárdenas up as the candidate of the left in the presidential elections of 1988. Orchestrated electoral fraud prevented his victory.

But instead of calling for an armed revolt, Mr. Cárdenas united the entire left into one party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution. Although it was defeated in the presidential elections of 1994 and 2000, the party entered the new century as a consolidated force with a strong presence in state governments and legislatures and with power in Mexico City. The city’s leader, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, greatly admired Che Guevara and Mr. Castro but was no Marxist and came, like Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, originally from the P.R.I.

Mr. López Obrador would become the populist caudillo of the Mexican left. In 2006 he ran for president, came within fractions of a percent of victory and accused the government of electoral fraud. Significantly, his closest advisers included no Communist politicians of the old guard but many academics influenced by Marxism as well as various former politicians of the old P.R.I. of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Yet one more time, the Mexican Revolution had absorbed and transformed (and sidelined) the Russian Revolution.

Published by The New York Times

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