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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

México: Making Rules for the Global Economy

from the Aug. 23, 2023 Bulletin

Christy Thornton, assistant professor of Sociology  at Johns Hopkins University, spoke with Peter Watt about her book Revolution in Development: Mexico and the Governance of the Global Economy. He hosts the podcast The Americas Uncovered on Alborada, an independent voice on Latin American politics, media and culture recently founded in the UK. We edited for brevity and clarity.

How did you come to write this book, Revolution in Development?

I was interested in the history of economic development from a Latin American perspective. I thought it would probably be a typical simple story. But as I started researching, a weird thing kept happening — various Mexican actors kept popping up where I wasn't expecting them.

That made me wonder about the role that Latin Americans had played in the Bretton Woods conference, the conference that created the World Bank and the IMF in 1944. We have always understood Bretton Woods as a great contest featuring the US and its Treasury official Harry Dexter White versus the UK and its great economist John Maynard Keynes. It was a clash of the titans: the declining empire versus the rising empire. All that was true as far as it goes.

But when I examined the conference documents, I found two unexpected facts. One was that 18 of the 44 countries attending were Latin American — a huge representation. In 1944 the world had become post-colonial, and newly independent Latin America countries sent representatives.

Second, the entire conference was organized in three commissions, one headed by White for the US, another headed by Keynes for the UK — and a third commission headed by Eduardo Suarez, the Mexican finance minister! What the heck is a Mexican economist doing sitting at the head of that table?

In the Mexican archives I discovered the role  that early 20th century and mid-century Mexican economists, diplomats, and states people had played in all sorts of international negotiations.

The Mexican Constitution of 1917 was a progressive document, ahead of its time. But weren’t Mexico’s post-revolutionary plans simply to reform the country nationally? You’re saying that Mexico was also active in international arenas.


We, historians of México, have considered the Mexican post-revolutionary state as a purely national project because, unlike other 20th-century social revolutions like in Russia or Cuba, México didn’t try to replicate its revolution on the world stage. There was no sense that the Mexican Revolution provided a model to be followed by other nations.

Looking back at the Cárdenas presidency in the late 30s, the nationalism is incredibly evident. He is the president who nationalizes the oil industry and finally fulfills the aspirations of the revolutionary constitution of 1917.

But that didn’t mean that the Mexican post-revolutionary state didn’t have a deeply international project that complemented its national project.

United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, 1944

When you examine the Mexican foreign relations documents, Mexican economists, lawyers, diplomats, and political leaders were constantly engaging in struggle around questions of international economic governance.

From the 1920s on, they advocated for rules and institutions that would, in effect, constrain global capitalism in the North for the benefit of the countries in the South.

Bretton Woods Treaty, 1944-46

The Mexican vision for global economic governance called for representation for the countries of what became the Global South, and redistribution of the surplus capital of the Global North. They advanced new multilateral agreements, outlined innovative international institutions, and during crucial global negotiations fought for the rights of the poorer states and the duties of the richer ones — and compelled the world’s powerful countries to respond. This fight, waged over more than five decades, was Mexico’s “revolution in development.”

You make the point that racism was a key factor at Bretton Woods and beyond. Right?

The Mexican actors were well-educated, often in the US and Europe, and many came from elite landowning families. Many were much whiter than their compatriots, but when they met their counterparts from Europe and the US, they experienced an overwhelmingly racist dismissal of their competence to participate in the international world of finance. 

In the British National Archives, I found an incredible letter from a British treasury official to his boss. He's writing about the Bretton Woods conference and wondering why so many Latin Americans are invited. He states that it's ridiculous to think that a Mexican or a Brazilian economist could participate at the same level as a Belgian or a Dutch economist.

And Keynes famously calls the conference the “most monstrous monkey house” assembled for years.

How do they respond? The Mexican representatives hold up the democratic ideals of their revolution. They say to the representatives of the wealthy countries that because we are inheritors of the Mexican Revolution, we have principles of social justice.


We achieved this domestically — we created new social structures, new social protections, a new property rights regime. To create a democratic world order, we must replicate our principles in  international trade, investment, and finance. We must create rules that constrain the richest countries, corporations, and banks for the benefit of the poorest countries.


What were their views on foreign investment?


From the revolution forward, everyone involved in the Mexican state understood they needed foreign capital to pursue their economic development goals. México didn’t have capital goods themselves; they needed to buy machines to industrialize. They needed international financial institutions to make the transactions. For them, economic sovereignty meant that the Mexican state has democratic control over how foreign investment happens — where the money is invested, where the profits go.

Unfortunately, the main institutions created at Bretton Woods — the World Bank and the IMF — didn’t redistribute wealth from north to south.

Did Mexico continue to fight for its egalitarian ideals for international finance?

No. In the '30s, the Mexican leaders’ view was that Europe and especially the US got rich off the natural resources and the labor of people in Latin America. 

World Bank Headquarters, Washington, DC  photo:infobae

They were not just trying to catch up. They wanted to put the brakes on US economic expansion. They said, your development came from us, so now you must constrain your own activities to our benefit.

But once the capital started to flow in the '50s and '60s, México changed gears. It backed off its vanguard role in advocating for Latin America and the Global South. In the crisis moment of the '70s, while other Third World countries were stridently arguing against the unfairness of institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, México explicitly defended them, advocating for minor reforms instead of for overturning the system.

Before the neo-liberal '80s, México’s vision was bigger than the national economic development project. It sought to transform the domestic economy, but it also sought to devise new rules and institutions for managing the global economic systems that Mexico was increasingly a part of.

That dream echoes to this day — that a global capitalist economy, with proper institutions and rules, could ensure that the poorer, weaker, indebted countries of the world could overcome their structural disadvantages, and enjoy a share of the returns from capitalist
progress. My book tries to give México its rightful place in
the history of global finance.