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Watch this space: Kamala Harris and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec

14 June 2021

AGAIN? Whether she knows it or not, Kamala Harris’ meeting with AMLO is only the latest iteration of an attempt to tie business interests and “national security” concerns to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, that go back to the James Buchanan administration.

Actually, a bit before that. It was one thing for the United States to “acquire” California, and quite another to administer it with the federal government on the other side of the continent, separated by a few thousand miles of still imperfectly mapped terrain, filled with “sovereign citizens” of their own nations, who weren’t too keen on outsiders tramping through the 2500 kilometers they had the temerity to regard as their own land. Exterminating the Indians was going to take a few years, and in the meantime, with immigrants pouring into California, not to mention the British still sniffing around looking to expand their empire, and the business opportunities not just from the gold rush, but in the Pacific trade beckoning… The United States (to say nothing of US business interests) had a problem after 1850 with a state dangling off there on the Pacific, with a government squarely a bit inland from the Atlantic.

Although instructions might be sent by telegraph (assuming the lines were open the whole way), ships, adminstrators, not to mention goods and services (and above all, MONEY) had to flow “back east” by one of three ways… directly by ship sailing around Cape Horn, crossing the Isthmus of Panama and running a high risk of contracting yellow fever, being eaten by jungle animals, or killed by Panamanians; or through mountainous Nicaragua (an expensive proposition, thanks to Commoder Vanderbuilt, who’d bought up the stagecoach and steamship lines that handled the passage). The Panama passage required some approval by the Colombian government (Colombia claimed Panama, but didn’t much care who was wandering through) and Vanderbuilt had simply bought the Nicaraguan government.

A better alternative… at least on paper… lay though the Isthmus of Tehuatepec…being flat, roads were easily built; and being windy, mosquitos were less problematic. The only drawback was that there were completing governments in Mexico throughout the 1850s (the Reform Wars) until 1857. So… in 1858, negotiations began on what became the “McLaine-Ocampo Treaty”, which — relativly standard for such treaties at the time when a foreign state wanted access across a territory — would have given the US the right to build a road across the isthmus, along with a “free trade” clause allowing goods going to and from US ports to pass without customs duties, and the right of the US to protect its citizens and interests along the passage (since, in return, the United States would have paid several million dollars up front, this latter has been used ever since by historian hostile to the Juarez administration to claim the treaty would have annexed the Isthmus to the United States, and to paint Juarez as a sell out to the gringos).

Whether or not this would have been a good or bad treaty for either side was moot. With the French invasion of Mexico, and US Civil War breaking out in 1860 leading to among other things, a massive “private-public partnership” to build railroads across the continent, the treaty was never ratified, and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec was more or less off the US radar.

But, not for long. Even in Colonial days, the Tehuantepec route had been seen as the best short-cut from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Money had always been short, and the early Republic had only made fits and starts on a trans-isthmus road. With British investors, however, having made some start on a rail-line across the Isthmus, the US… seeing British investors much the same way then as they see Chinese investors now, encoured the investor class to take another look at the Isthmus.

James Eads, the civil engineer who’d “miraculously” figured out how to build a bridge across the Mississippi, was surely the man to “reverse engineer” bringing ships across land, rather than land traffic across water. And, as a government contractor, he had the ear of both Washington and Wall Street. His plan was somewhat sci-fi… or rather, this being the 19th century, steam-punk. Eads envisined dry-docks on both oceans, capable of floating a ship onto a giant flatcar, and hauled the mere 200 Km from coast to coast. This would have required building giant flat-cars spanning five tracks, pulled by a team of steam-engines… to say nothing of the dry-docks and other facilities.

Eads drew up the plans, so tracks were laid and then… he died. Coupled with a series of economic depressions in the 1880s, the project was again forgotten. ALTHOUGH… not by the Mexicans. Less ambitious, and having to turn to Britian for the financial resources, a transoceanic railway was completed in 1893. And while not the fantastic construction envisioned by Eads, a relatively successful operation. And profitable.

The French, hoping to duplicate their success in building the Suez Canal, were distant threat with their plans for canals through either Panama or Nicaragua, but the mountains, the climate, and the political situations made it more costly, and difficult than they had expected. The United States, having gobbled up what remained of the Spanish Empire in 1898, and its investors having recovered from the depressions of the 1880s, were all in for a new attempt to find a shorter sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific… and one they (or the US government on their behalf) would control Panama, being available (helped along by a Frenchman… tired of waiting around to make a killing on the incomplete French canal project, then delayed by the Colombian government’s demand for a piece of the action… cut through the red tape by going to New York, typing out a Panamanian Declaration of Independence in his hotel room, and seeking the recognition for the new republic (which would happily grant the concessions needed by the United States) in 1904.

And, so… while the Transisthmus railroad was highly profitable for a few years… up thru the 1920s, as the Panama Canal was still being built and a bit after, it eventually became a minor secondary trasnport route, and the Isthmus … and the south in general… was all but forgotten. With the increasing importance of US trade, and the massive push for industrialization in the northern border region, the Isthmus, at most, has survived as a “quaint” touristy backwater, and a headache for conservative governments, bent on controlling dissent in the region (notably the uprisingings in Oasaca at the start of the Calderón Administration). That the Panama Canal has aged, and despite widening, is no longer as capable of handling larger and larger cargo ships, that Pacific ports are able to handle the cargo and distribute eastward more easily than before, did re-ignite interest in cosidering alternative routes from Asia to eastern North America. A new Nicaraguan Canal was proposed a few years back, but for political and economic reasons (the Nicaraguan government is unfriendly to the United States, besides which the project was poorly thought out, never popular with the Nicaraguans, and environmentally unsound).

HOWEVER, with the present Mexican administration (incidentally, headed by a native southerner), with owes much of its political strength outside of Mexico City to those “forgotten” southerners, and with AMLO’s team looking to “spread the wealth” of export manufacturing more evenly through the country, AND a promise to improve economic opportunity in the forgetten Isthmus… a reborn Trans-Isthmus project, which would not only include the railroad (although, alas, not like Eads’ that would cart entire ships, merely shipping containers) but manufacturing hubs (cheap Mexican manufacturing cutting the transportation costs of cheap Chinese manufacturing), the railroad project is again viable.

The devil is in the details:

Lack of economic opportunity being one of the main drivers of emigration, and immigration from the south being a hot button in the United States, the source of most manufacting employers being the same people who “contribute” (i.e. buy) the administration in the United States, it looks very much as if the colossus of the north is looking to reinvent not just the McClaine-Ocampo agreement, but in effect create a quasi-secondary US border, effectively cutting Mexico off from it’s more natural cultural and political ties to the south.

[U.S. Vice President Kamala] Harris made it clear in a tweet posted at the beginning of [last week’s] visit: “Our economies are tied and our security depends on each other.” Without a doubt, in public terms, the big issue is migration, where, in addition to humanitarian aspects, Vice President Harris was very explicit, both in Guatemala and in Mexico, that her country will strengthen security measures on its own border. […] And it demands support from Mexico.

… As different US authorities have been saying ever since General VanHerrk, of the US Northern Command, said in testimony before the U.S. Senate that he is greatly concerned about Russian and Chinese penetration into Mexico, and that “enemies” could take advantage of criminal activity in places where the Mexican government is relatively weak.

The statement speaks of US investments in different projects in the south of the country and, above all, in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Remmber that Chinese companies have a vested interest in the interoceanic project for geopolitical reasons, something unacceptable to the United States. It’s worth recalling that the Torrijos-Carter agreements of 1999, which turned over administration of the Panama Canal to Panamanians, established that, in the event of a war or serious challenges to the national security of the United States, the US could take over control at any time. When the government of Daniel Ortega, in Nicaragua, proposed to build a new canal with Chinese companies that would cross from the Pacific to the Caribbean through that country, the United States transparently worked to prevent the project from proceding.

It is no different with the interoceanic that President López Obrador proposes. With an addition that is not new and that has been on the table for decades: the construction of that corridor, if it is implemented corrected, it would be, in fact, an artificial southern border that would allow immigration and security control […] Investing in this project, developing investments would especially benefit Chiapas, Oaxaca and Tabasco, with an efficient communication channel and with productive companies. In itself, the most important strategic project in terms of national and regional security, that the López Obrador administration, infinitely more important than the Mayan Train, Dos Bocas refinery, or the Felipe Ángeles airport. Will the magnitude be understood, what this actually implies and requires?

But, in the joint statement following the Harris-AMLO meeting should be read carefully, especially what it says about criminal organizations. The text says that: “The two countries agreed to establish an operational group specialized in combating trafficking and human trafficking through a methodology that seeks to share information and intelligence, in order to identify, interrupt and dismantle human smuggling networks in Mexico. They also agreed to hold a high-level meeting on security cooperation, with a date yet to be defined. ” This implies two things: first, that if you want to “identify, interrupt and dismantle human smuggling networks” you will have to take the same measures against organized crime groups in general, because human trafficking is a core part of criminal organizations in the country, and it is not a phenomenon alien to them.


Jorge Fernández Menéndez, “Harris y López Obrador: el componente estratégico” Excelsior, 9 Junio 2021 (my translation)

In other words… wait and see. Will the US expect to “embed” their own customs and border patrol agents in the region? The DEA, FBI, CIA, NSA…? Or will they, under some pretense of a “national security” threat to their own interests (or, more likely, their own inability to deal with their massive narcotics consumption problem) demand control over the corridor?

See also: Wendy Call, “Looking South: The Mexican Isthmus Through Gringo Glasses“, CommonPlace, the journal of early American life, July 2011.

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