11 september 2017
The loss of more than half of its territory to the United States is a trauma that has marked Mexico more than almost any other in its history.
But how much can the current economic condition of Mexico be explained by that national tragedy of more than a century and a half ago?
How different would Mexico’s economic fortunes have been if its national territory today included California, Texas and the other territories that it yielded to the American expansion of the 19th century? We investigated it as part of our collaboration with the Hay Festival de Querétaro that ended in that Mexican city over the weekend.
What was lost
What Mexico lost in the 19th century has, of course, become an emporium of wealth that dazzles the world. It is not for nothing that California is known as the “golden state” in the US.
California Current population: 39 million
Texas Current population: 27 million
Arizona Current population: 7 million
New Mexico Current population: 2 million
It is the quintessential symbol of American economic optimism, the most innovative and most prosperous state. Texas, for its part, is also today an economic megapower, the world epicenter of the energy industry and a state that has, by itself, a gross domestic product of US $ 1.6 billion, greater than that of all of Mexico, which reaches the US. $ 1,046 billion.
From this comes the most simplistic – and probably misleading – version of the argument that maintains that Mexico’s economic fortunes would be quite different if it had not lost those lands.
If one imagined the Mexican federation having those two states in their current economic dimension, Mexico would multiply its current gross domestic product by five.
When adding the current GDP of California and Texas, the Mexican economy would reach US $ 5 trillion in annual GDP, and it would be the third largest economy in the world, barely surpassed by the United States and China.
Now, there is an argument that contradicts this scenario: Would California and Texas be the dynamos of economic activity that they are today if they had continued to be part of Mexico instead of passing into the hands of the United States?
Or put another way: did these lands have to become American to become the enormous source of wealth that they are today?
Well, if that is the case, the economic history of Mexico would not have been so different if it had conserved its northern territories.
“(In the 19th century) the country was poor and sparsely populated and the State was materially incapable of integrating that territory and making it an effective part of the nation,” Sandra Kuntz Ficker, an expert from the Colegio de México and who was president, tells BBC Mundo. of the Mexican Association of Economic History.
“If it had conserved that territory, Mexico would have taken a long time to populate it, let alone take advantage of and develop its resources. The laws that imposed Catholicism as the official religion (until they were replaced by the Constitution of 1857) would have prevented the colonization of those lands by Protestant settlers, although the Mexican State would not have had the strength to fully enforce that prescription, “he adds.
“The only exception to this general rather pessimistic scenario has to do with the gold discoveries in California,” says the academic.
“If these (discoveries) had occurred even though that territory had continued to belong to Mexico, the discovered wealth would have represented a respite for the State’s finances. Although even in that situation it is doubtful that Mexico (that is, the businessmen and the Mexican State) could have exploited those resources by itself and take advantage of their benefits, “he points out.
Other academics think differently, and venture to imagine a more economically fortunate Mexico if it had not suffered from territorial dismemberment.
Among them is Carlos Marichal, an economic historian at the Colegio de México and a founding member of the Asociación Mexicana de Historia Económica.
“If Mexico had kept its great North, which it lost as a result of the war with the United States (1846-1848) it is evident that its economic development would have been markedly different,” he tells BBC Mundo.
“In the first place, it may be suggested that if California had remained under Mexican control, it is likely that it could have benefited from the greatest gold discovery in modern history. As is well known it was the gold boom since 1849 that enabled the spectacular and early California development, “he adds.
One of the arguments that have been frequently presented to argue that Mexico would never have developed these territories is the one that recalls the abandonment and depopulation in which the Mexican north was at the time of the separation.
Given this, Marichal believes that the gold boom, which benefited the United States as the owner of California, would also have had a positive population impact if the region had remained in Mexican hands.
“These were lands still somewhat sparsely populated by Mexicans, but in that case there would have undoubtedly been a huge migration from south to north,” insists Marichal, who believes that the phenomenon would not have been limited to California.
“For its part further east, Texas was already independent from Mexico since 1836, but it can be postulated that in the absence of the war, Mexico would eventually have been able to sell an enormous amount of land in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada. , for example, to the planters and settlers who were eager to occupy those territories “, adds the professor.
However, here we inevitably move into the realm of speculation.
“The problem with these speculations is that it is what is called the counterfactual story: and they do not contemplate the probability that the United States would have launched another war to appropriate the territory of the Mexican Great North later in the century,” Marichal points out.
The complex reality
Mexico faced a very difficult situation in the 19th century. It was a poor nation with a neighbor that was on its way to becoming the most dynamic economy on Earth. Faced with this, he was unable to protect the vast northern space that the United States used, initially as a source of natural resources ranging from gold to agricultural land for settlers.
But in the 20th century, that region grew more due to the peculiarities of American society than because of the natural riches buried in its soil.
The fruit orchards of a large area of Northern California were transformed into Silicon Valley, the technological capital of the world. The Southern California economy, in turn, flourished by he momentum of Hollywood, a uniquely American industry.
And Texas, without having the largest oil fields on the planet, became the world capital of oil entrepreneurs anyway.
One can speculate forever about what kinds of different paths these regions would have taken had they remained in the hands of Mexico.
But the truth is that that nation lives with the complex reality of having as neighbors lands that were theirs, but that only reached their enormous economic potential after being lost to the United States.
This article is part of the digital version of the Hay Festival Querétaro, a meeting of writers and thinkers that was heldoh in that Mexican city between September 7 and 10. And between September 22 and 24 awaits the Hay Festival in Segovia, Spain.