Shaking the Invisible Hand: Oil Nationalization and Mexico’s “United Front” before the Cold War

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 11:20 AM
Maryland Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Gregory Malandrucco, University of Ontario Institute of Technology and Trent University
Amid the dual and interrelated global crises of economic depression and surging fascism, Mexico’s President Lázaro Cárdenas took to the public airwaves on March 18, 1938 to announce the nationalization of all foreign-owned oil fields and properties, valued at $400 million ($6.8 billion today).

This bold maneuver set off a third crisis with hemispheric implications. Under pressure from Standard Oil and British Petroleum, the U.S. and Great Britain imposed a trade embargo on Mexico, crippling its ability to ship oil overseas. In consequence, sales rapidly declined; Mexican oil exports fell from roughly 200,000 barrels a day in early March 1938 to 15,000 per diem a month later. Coupled with growing threats of military intervention, destabilization efforts ricocheted throughout the Americas just as leaders in other nations contemplated similar claims on subsoil minerals.

In the context of these intersecting crises, my paper examines Mexico’s founding of a new labor international, the Confederación de Trabajadores de la América Latina (CTAL), in Mexico City during September 1938 under the leadership of Vicente Lombardo Toledano, president of the powerful Confederación de Trabajadores de México (CTM). Labor leaders from throughout the Americas (as well as France and India) participated in the founding conference spanning several days. Among the distinguished participants were John Lewis, American CIO president, and President Cárdenas, whose speech was attended by an estimated 50,000 people.

Relying on a mix of primary documents from Mexico and the U.S. State Department, as well as media coverage of the event from throughout the Americas, I argue that the CTAL provided a platform for establishing a discourse of confederation among Latin American nation states based upon principles like anti-imperialism, anti-fascism, sovereignty, and labor rights. This I maintain was critical for representing a viable counter-hegemonic bloc to U.S. supremacy in the Americas before the Cold War.