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  • The Agrarian Dispute: The Expropriation of American-Owned Rural Land in Postrevolutionary Mexico
  • Benjamin Smith
The Agrarian Dispute: The Expropriation of American-Owned Rural Land in Postrevolutionary Mexico. By John J. Dwyer. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008. 387 pp. $89.95 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

During the Porfiriato (1876–1910) U.S. investors acquired a substantial amount of Mexico's agricultural land as haciendas. In the decades following the Mexican Revolution, the federal government introduced a policy of land redistribution, which aimed to divide large haciendas among the country's peasantry. As part of this program, between January 1927 and October 1940 the Mexican government expropriated at least 6.2 million acres of agricultural land from 319 individual and corporate American owners. Despite U.S. pressure, the Mexican government gave only scant compensation to the former proprietors.

In The Agrarian Dispute, John J. Dwyer tells this tale of thwarted [End Page 347] imperialism by examining the roles of Mexican peasants, agrarian leaders, and state officials and of U.S. statesmen and landlords. In the first section of the book Dwyer looks at land reform in two regions of strong U.S. agricultural influence: the Yaqui Valley and Mexicali. In the Yaqui Valley an American company, the Compania Constructura Richardson, had acquired more than 700,000 acres, which it leased to U.S. smallholders. In Mexicali, the Colorado River Land Company had purchased 850,000 acres, which it also let to American cotton farmers. During the revolution, Mexican farmhands and Yaqui Indians had pressed for agrarian and labor reform but to no avail. By 1930 both companies still owned large tracts of valuable, irrigated land.

The election of Lázaro Cárdenas in 1934 breathed new life into peasant movements in both regions. In Mexicali, farm workers formed unions, invaded company lands, and pressed for the removal of the state governor, who opposed the expropriation. Finally, in March 1937 the federal government acted. Cárdenas replaced the reluctant governor and ordered the local agrarian commission to deal with the requests for land. By the end of Cárdenas's term, the government had redistributed 400,000 acres of company land among nearly 50,000 peasants. In the Yaqui Valley peasant demands generated a similar pattern of land reform in the face of an unsupportive state administration. Here Cárdenas distributed arms to the agraristas and created an Agrarian Reserve, which defended their right to petition against reactionary military and political officials. Eventually, in October 1937 the federal government offered the agraristas and the neighboring Yaqui Indians 1.3 million acres of land.

Dwyer's handling of the intricacies of federal policy, state politics, and peasant agency is truly masterful. Shifting between top-down and bottom-up interpretations of Mexican land reform, he demonstrates that even in regions of major federally directed redistribution, the weak Cardenista state was unable to impose central policy without substantial bargaining with "other powerful interests, both elite and subaltern" (p. 8). For example, in Mexicali, landless rural workers forced the state to abandon its initial plan of a slow colonization project and assume a more radical stance toward the U.S. owners. Furthermore, Dwyer shows that the land reform failed to precipitate either immiseration or outright corporatist control. During the early 1940s, ejidatarios increased production, earned substantially greater incomes, sent their children to school, and negotiated a working relationship with the federal bureaucracy.

In the second section Dwyer examines how the Mexican state managed to enforce the expropriation of American-owned lands without [End Page 348] substantial U.S. protest. On the one hand, Mexico benefited from a general decline in the more extreme racist attitudes of the U.S. policymaking elite. In particular, President Roosevelt and Ambassador Daniels broadly sympathized with the plight of Mexico's peasants and viewed land redistribution as a way to address poor living conditions. Less altruistically, they also believed that land reform would increase the purchasing power of the average Mexican and ease the repatriation of U.S.-based Mexican workers. On the other hand, Mexico's foreign negotiators also employed what he terms "diplomatic weapons of the weak"—"footdragging, obfuscation, non-compliance and other … tactics" (p...


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