This excellent volume, including 11 essays initially presented at a conference at the University of Texas commemorating the 50th anniversary of the expropriation of foreign oil companies, is a major addition to the economic history of Mexico. Arranged in roughly chronological order, the selections cover the period from 1880 to the early 1990s. The editors have brought together an impressive group of experts on the Mexican oil industry, illuminating both its past and its present.
The volume focuses on several themes. After a short introduction, a capable essay describing the development of foreign oil investment leads off. Then the development of unions in the period 1910–1940 is covered in three interesting articles, which conclude that the possibility of independent, democratic unions had been lost by the latter date. By that time, unions had fallen firmly under government control. As Ruth Adler puts it, this lost opportunity led to “a period in which the philosophy of developmentalism dominated the political and economic programs of subsequent regimes” (p. 149). Here, one principle of revolutionary nationalism—control of national economic resources—triumphs, while a second—workers’ rights—succumbs to a governmental desire for economic development and control.
Three valuable essays explore the expropriation itself. Lorenzo Meyer discusses the problems in Mexican-British relations that the action created. He shows clearly that by 1938, the British had little control over what would become of Anglo-Dutch oil interests in Mexico; the power lay with the United States, which was unwilling to intervene. Alan Knight’s essay insists that the expropriation led, within two years, to a confrontation between the Cardenista government and its longtime ally, organized labor. By further weakening a shaky economy, the government was forced to take a particularly hard line against strikes and other disturbances. In this conclusion, Knight echoes those of the essays on labor.
Four excellent essays on the Mexican national oil company, Pemex, round out the volume. All include discussions of labor, but here the focus shifts to management. The difficulties of directing a state company with high symbolic and economic value, of responding to both political and economic criteria, are vividly portrayed in these pages. The administrations of several directors of Pemex are ably handled in articles by Fabio Barbosa Cano and Isidro Morales. Gabriel Szekely considers the painful decade of the 1980s, when falling oil prices disrupted oil policy and revenues and the government failed to achieve stronger monopoly control. An outstanding concluding chapter by George Baker brings the reader almost up to the date of publication with an important discussion of the current condition of the oil sector in Mexico. Particularly valuable is Baker’s assessment of problems in the corporate culture of Pemex itself, as well as the lack in Mexico of public confidence in either Pemex as an institution or national oil policy.
The editors and authors are to be congratulated on a well-focused and internally coherent book, rare in edited works of this type. The volume has great value for all those interested in the economic history of Mexico and particularly in the issue of control of resources in a difficult international climate.