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Revenue enhancement, the old fashioned way

15 June 2013

I don’t think we’d ever sell  A History of Lower California (The Only Complete and Reliable One) by Pablo L. Martinez, translated by Ethel Duffy Turner (widow of John Kenneth Turner), self-published in an edition of 3000 by the author in 1960.  So, I just took it home.

While perhaps it is “the only complete and reliable” history of the Baja up through 1960, it wasn’t exactly the most exciting of reading (which … my sleep cycle being off… was kind of the point).  Still — despite the bad writing (and, I am afraid, rather clumsy translation) — there were a few eye-opening passages.

Sent to Mexicali to put down the short-lived and doomed anarchist  uprising in the Baja in 1911, Major Esteban Cantú was nothing, if not flexible.  A soldier in the service of Porfirio Díaz, he served the Madero government, supported Huerta (who, as a reward, promoted Cantú to Colonel and left him basically in charge of what is now Baja California Norte, but at the time was  sub-district of the remote, largely ungovernable and under-populated territory of Baja California).  With Huerta’s overthrow, and not quite sure the Constitutionalist government of Venustiano Carranza was going to be around all that long, Cantú basically ran an independent fiefdom.

With the back and forth fighting on the mainland, “Cantúlandia” more or less had to fend for itself, and for the first time in its history, was economically viable.  From its late incorporation into Mexico (in the 1600s) up until the time Martinez was writing, the Baja’s history was one of  a forgotten appendage.  Under the Viceroys, it just wasn’t worth the time and expense of settling the place, so it was turned over to the Jesuits… who could only support modest developments by depending on outside income (Specifically, they set up an endowment fund of a sort… convincing wealthy supporters to buy the Society cattle ranches on the mainland, and dedicating the profits — at least in theory — to Church activities in California).  When the Jesuits were expelled from New Spain, the Franciscans, and later the Dominicans, took a crack at turning the Baja into something more than a drain on the public treasury, to no avail.

The region’s post-independence history was mostly one of a financially unstable federal government only reluctantly sending a few troops when it could, and mostly forgetting about the place.  That the country held on to the territory after the 1848 forced annexation of northern territories to the United States was more a matter of protecting the mainland states facing the Baja (Sinaloa and Sonora) from the U.S. than any concern for its inhabitants.

In the latter part of the 19th century, Don Porfirio’s governments did get some financial return out of the Baja, mostly by granting concessions to U.S. and British corporations seeking to “develop” the property in some way (usually convincing suckers that there was water out there).  By Cantú’s time, the foreign companies (which, on paper, owned about 90 percent of what became Baja California Norte) and, other than a few small settlements along the coasts and the Colorado River, was still a desolate, economically marginal place.

Cantú, ca. 1919

Cantú, ca. 1919

What Cantú did… when he decided the Baja was “neutral” in the Mexican revolution (meaning he’d side with whoever won… maybe), was to keep on collecting federal taxes, but not send them along to the Capital, as well as impose some local taxes (including an income tax).  Keeping the federal funds in reserve (which, in the end, is what saved him from being considered a traitor to his country), he is highly praised by Martinez for investing the state funds in development.

More amazing to me, is that despite the unsettled conditions in Mexico as a whole, Cantú’s irregular regime (1915-1920) was something of a golden age for education.  Schools were built and teachers extremely well paid though fostering one industry where the Baja had a distinct advantage.  Geographically and politically isolated from its own country, Cantú’s administration sought out products that it could export to the United States.

Narcotics.

As the new functionary encountered the land burned out, as the offical coffers were empty… he set about contrying [sic] to obtain funds, as a first measure, by collecting a duty on all national merchandise that entered the territory, just as was done with foreign goods.  His second act was to impost a personal tax that lasted for a long time, even after the financial crisis of the moment was over.  For the same purpose he opened gambling houses, prostitution increased rapidly, as well as the drug traffic, although for the time being this traffic was clandestine.

Abelardo Rodriguez, the future president, then an army general, was tasked with “convincing” the self-appointed Cantú to step down in 1920.  Rodriguez was then put in charge of the territory (territorial governors being appointed by the President, not elected) and had the good fortune to come into office just as the United States had outlawed liquor.  So… with Cantú having paved the way to financial security through whores and drugs, Rodriquez fostered the booze industry.

Martinez wrote that the worst blow to the Baja economy in the early 20th century was not the world-wide Depression of 1929, but the end of Prohibition in the United States in 1933.  One wonders what he’d make of calls for an end to narcotics prohibition today.

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