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The spy who came in from the cold… for Christmas

12 December 2006

The good news is that my book on Mexican history is nearly finished.  Rather than go stark raving bonkers during my “internet challenged” period, I’ve been working on what started life back when I needed some rationale for chucking everything and moving to Mexico.  75000 words, and five years later (silly things like life kept getting in the way) what was intended as an overview of Mexican History for business people and students planning to function in history-obsessed Mexico is nearing completion. 

I finally got through the DAMN Revolution, have most of the chapter on the “Creative Revolution” finished, and just have about 50 years to go… another 10,000 or so words.  Given his ties to his role in how we celebrate Christmas in the
United States, here’s the draft of my section on Joel Poinsett…

The Masons jar Mexico

Poinsett would be the first United States ambassador to meddle in Mexican politics, but certainly not the last.  Born in 1791 into a wealthy slave-owning South Carolina family, Poinsett is a major historical figure in Mexico – and in Latin America generally — but practically unknown in his own country.  As a young man, he was educated in a British military academy, traveled widely though Europe and
Central Asia (he was the first American citizen in what is now Kygerzia).  He spoke English, Spanish, French and Russian fluently, had served as a congressman and Senator, all before he began his diplomatic career in Latin America.  At the time the United States was a “radical” government (nearly every other nation was a monarchy, and a republic of the people – excluding slaves and “Indians”, of course – was a danger to the civilized world).  Diplomats from radical revolutionary nations before and since have been suspected of plotting against their host countries.  In Poinsett’s case, it was true.  He was America’s first spymaster, a one-man (he answered only to Secretary of State John Quincy Adams) C.I.A.
In Buenos Aires (still a Spanish colony), he financed several plots to overthow the government. Run out of Argentina, he crossed the Andes into Chile (another Spanish colony), where he enjoyed more success.  Thanks to Poinsett’s plotting, the Chilean revolution started on July 4, 1821 and the Chilean flag is modeled on that of the United States.    

As the first United States representative to the new Mexican government, Poinsett found several un-American ideas to fight.  Irtubide was Emperor, Poinsett and
Adams favored a Republic.  Mexico was Catholic, and Poinsett was a Protestant representing a secular state. And Mexico would soon outlaw slavery.  Poinsett, whose personal fortune rested on slavery, was far-sighted enough to realize slavery was doomed in the United States unless the country expanded and more states where the “peculiar institution” was legal could be added to the Union. 
Irtubide was the easiest problem to settle. Almost as soon as Poinsett arrived in Mexico, he began making contact with Republican plotters like Guerrero and Santa Ana[1].  President Guadalupe Victoria may have listened to everyone, but Poinsett talked to him more than most.  Convincing the eccentric president that Mexico needed a navy was easy.  Convincing him to appoint an out of work United States admiral took some work, but David L. Porter became father of the Mexican Navy.

To further his aims of acquiring Mexican territory for the United States, Poinsett worked through the Yorkistas.  As an international organization, the Masonic Lodges were also a counterweight to the other major international organization of the time – the Catholic Church.  He had originally intended a counterweight to the British-backed “Escossas” (the British had two strikes against them – they were a monarchy and they were trying to replace the business they lost when the United States became independent with business in the former Spanish colonies).  The United States saw itself as the dominant power in theAmericas.  And, with Poinsett as leader of one Masonic Lodge, where better to find support for expanding gringo influence – including slavery – than through the Yorkistas?  The Yorkistas included most important Mexican liberals, including Vincente Guerrero and Lorenzo Zavilla.  The liberals wanted a less centralized government.  In return for his – and United States – support, Poinsett wanted a Liberal government that would sell Texas.   

In 1828, the last great surviving Insurgent leader, Vincente Guerrero, was the liberal (and Yorkista) candidate.  With some truth, the Conservatives could claim Guerrero’s “Yorkista” backing was proof of Masonic and gringo interference. The Conservatives distrusted Guerrero and the Liberals to begin with, so they ignored their own “Escosista” Masonic connections, and played up the Liberal’s Yorkista connections as “proof” of an anti-church conspiracy. The Church and the Conservatives had a less “radical” general as their candidate.  State Legislatures elected presidents, and the Conservatives could bring in enough army troops to threaten enough legislatures to throw the election to their candidate.  Guerrero accepted the results, but not the “liberal” General Santa Ana, who had overthrown Iturbide. 

Santa Ana’s attempted rebellion was quickly put down (trickster that he was, the General escaped by dressing as a nun and slipping into a convent), but there were enough Liberal rebellions in the states to finally force the Congress to accept Guerrero as President.  As a “consolation prize” to the Conservatives, an ultra-conservative, General Anastasio Bustamante, became Vice-president. Poinsett was practically a member of the Guerrero cabinet.  But he went too far.  Hoping to increase United States business influence in Mexico, Poinsett and the Yorkistas pushed Guerrero to expel the remaining Spanish citizens in Mexico.  The old gaucpachinesgachupines”  not been popular.  Rich Spaniards controlled big businesses and banking.  But most of Mexico’s remaining Spaniards were middle class people with Mexican wives and families– shopkeepers, blacksmiths, mule-route managers, inn-keepers, teachers, priests, doctors and engineers – including mining engineers.  Neither Mexico nor the United States had enough engineers to fill the void (nor the money to buy the mines from deported Spaniards):  the British ended up controlling the Mexican mines, just the opposite of what Poinsett intended.    

The only way the United States could expand slavery was to expand its territory.  And the only way to expand was into Mexican territory – specifically Texas.  The Yorkistas had always been open to gringo – or other — settlers in Texas.  Yorkistas favored a looser federal government anyway.  And they saw little harm in Protestant settlers.  But Poinsett went too far – compromising himself and the Yorkista cause.  On no authority but his own, he tried to buy Texas for the United States.  Guerrero may have been a Yorkista, and an admirer of the United States, and a personal friend of Poinsett, and he may have taken bribes from Poinsett … but in the end, he was a Mexican patriot.  In an unusual move for the time, he leaked Poinsett’s letters (including veiled threats of United States military action) to the newspapers.  It was another first for Joel Poinsett:  he was the first United States Ambassador attacked by the Mexican press, and the first American spy to have his cover blown by a foreign newspaper.    The Yorkistas still exist, and are still a powerful force in Mexican politics.  With international connections and pro-United States biases, they are now seen as conservatives (and are prominent in conservative parties, despite traditional mistrust by the Church, the other main conservative force).  In 2003, when Mexico sat on the United Nations Security Council, and was pressured to back the United States invasion of Iraq, nearly every sector of Mexican society opposed the war, and Mexican support for the United States.  Yorkistas were the only group to favor supporting the United States.  Respected journalists openly speculated on President Fox’s Yorkista membership as a factor in the decision
Mexico would take in the Security Council
.

Poinsett, for his own part, left Mexico disappointed.  If he is known at all in the
United States, it’s not as the first Latin American specialist, a world traveler or our first international spy.  In December, Mexican gardens bloom with the red and green leafed flor de nochebuena.  Poinsett first saw the plant gracing a nacimiento in a
Cuernavaca area church. He swiped the plants from the Baby Jesus and brought home – not Texas – but the Poinsettia. 


Like the future CIA, Poinsett recruited and paid future enemies.  Manuel Noriega (the Panamanian dictator and drug lord), Osama bin Ladin, the Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussain of Iraq were all paid by the CIA at one time in their careers.   Some in the Mexican media worried that George Bush, the former United States President, and father of the sitting president of the United States was also a York Rite Mason.  As it turned out, Mexico voted against the United States. 

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 December 2006 6:28 pm

    GACHUPINES, Rich, not “gaupachines”!

    Do you know the original meaning of the word?

  2. 13 December 2006 12:47 pm

    YIKES… like I said, I haven’t edited everything yet. Keep them corrections comin’ !

  3. Giourdina permalink
    21 March 2007 12:31 am

    Do you know something about Poinsett’s book “Mexico I hate you”?? I just can’t find it here in Mexico.

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