Long Read | The legacy of Mexican exile

The Latin American country has a long history of offering sanctuary to the world’s radicals and revolutionaries. Now it has opened its doors to one more: Bolivia’s ousted president.

Evo Morales may have been the first indigenous Bolivian to become president in his country – a feat he pulled off on a socialist ticket – but he’s certainly not the first dissident to be offered political asylum in Mexico. The country has a long history of giving sanctuary to an extraordinary constellation of left-wing activists, along with radical writers including Gabriel García Márquez and Roberto Bolaño.

Morales was deposed from office by a military coup, backed by fascist forces in Bolivia and, of course, United States President Donald Trump. Immediately after the coup, Morales, along with his former deputy president, Álvaro García Linera, a major leftist intellectual, headed straight for Mexico.

On his arrival in Mexico City aboard a Mexican military plane that fetched him from La Paz, a relieved Morales thanked Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s left-wing president, widely known as Amlo, for saving his life: “We are here safe thanks to Mexico and its authorities, but I also want to tell you sisters and brothers, as long as I’m alive, we’ll continue in politics,” Morales said. “As long as I’m alive, the fight continues, and we are sure that the peoples of the world can liberate themselves.”

Morales joins an impressive pantheon list of left-leaning and socialist activists, thinkers and leaders who sought sanctuary in Mexico when things got too hot at home. Some of the famous exiles who have found shelter in the country include José Martí, Leon Trotsky, Victor Serge, Luis Buñuel, Max Aub, Fidel Castro, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Rigoberta Menchú and many others. 

Thriving on Mexican soil

The Cuban Revolution was planned and executed on Mexican soil. Fidel Castro had arrived in Mexico City in July 1955 after being in a Cuban jail when his first attempt to oust Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista from power through an insurrection failed. He was 28. He spent 18 months in Mexico City. Years later, in his memoir Warrior Across Time, Castro recalled his life in Mexico City, where he lived on rice and beans, trying to raise funds to launch a revolution in Cuba. He took to Mexican life well, appreciating the country’s spicy cuisine and going to bullfights with his younger brother, Raúl, most Sundays.

Using Mexico City as a base, Castro launched a fund-raising campaign that took him to the United States as he sought the support of Cuban immigrants. Very little resulted from this initiative. “It was hard to ask them for money since most were so poor, but they made small contributions,” Castro remembered. “The trip was a political success, but not much of an economic one because most of our audiences were poor, humble people. I think we collected about $1 000.” 

While in Mexico, Castro met Che Guevara, a doctor from Argentina who became instrumental in the planning and execution of the Cuban revolution. But it almost didn’t happen. Mexican police arrested Castro and his comrades after they were caught stockpiling weapons. It took the personal intercession of Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas to secure the release of the band of Cubans. 

Cárdenas, a general in the Mexican revolution that took place between 1910 and 1920, ruled Mexico between 1934 and 1940 and cemented its leftist tradition. As president, Cárdenas introduced wide-ranging reforms in Mexico, including the nationalisation of foreign-owned industries and the country’s oil industry. He also oversaw a massive land reform programme that benefited impoverished peasants. Cárdenas also supported labour movements. Perhaps he saw his younger self in the revolutionary Castro. 

Castro, for his part, was inspired by the legacy of the Mexican revolution, which had taken place 50 years earlier. “Mexico was a country that had carried out a great revolution in the second decade of the 20th century, a revolution that had a lot of prestige and left behind a lot of progressive thinking and a stable government,” Castro recalled. “Every other nation in the region was ruled by tyrants.” 

On 2 December 1956, Castro and his band of 81 armed rebels stealthily sailed from Mexico in a second-hand yacht bound for Cuba and landed on the pages of history.

Circa June-July 1956: (From left) Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara in the Miguel Schultz jail in Mexico City. This may be the first photo showing Castro and Guevara together. (Photograph by Apic/Getty Images)
Circa June-July 1956: (From left) Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara in the Miguel Schultz jail in Mexico City. This may be the first photo showing Castro and Guevara together. (Photograph by Apic/Getty Images)

A haven for leftists 

Before lending support to Castro’s mission, Cárdenas famously welcomed 20 000 Spanish refugees who had been marooned in France following the brutal Spanish Civil War, which raged between 1936 and 1939. This bloody conflict pitted left-leaning republicans, anarchists and communists, against fascist nationalists led by General Francisco Franco, who eventually emerged victorious, creating a fascist dictatorship that only ended with his death in 1974. Russia and Mexico supported factions of  Republicans while the fascists in Germany and Italy sided with the Nationalists. 

Among notable Spaniards who chose Mexican exile was Luis Buñuel, a foremost surrealist film director who was fiercely anti-Franco. Before moving to Mexico, he spent the remainder of World War II in New York City where he worked as an archivist for the Museum of Modern Art. After the war, he resumed making successful films in Mexico and France. 

Most of the Spanish exiles were drawn from the middle classes: teachers, lawyers and other professionals, along with politicians and intellectuals. In 2015, King Felipe VI of Spain, while on his first state visit to Mexico, paid tribute to his host country for sticking out its neck to shelter the Spanish refugees in the 1940s. “It was a migration filled with intellectuals who helped build prestigious institutions and enriched the universities,” said the king. “In Spain, Mexico is respected, well-known, well-liked, and we feel we have a true friend when we think about Mexico.”

Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, a political theorist from Peru who founded the leftist democratic political movement in Latin American and was a major figure in Peruvian politics for half a century, is another exile who used his time well in Mexico. In 1924, Haya founded the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (Apra), which drew mass support from the poor in Peru as it challenged the supremacy of the conservative oligarchy and its military backing in Peru. He envisioned his political philosophy spreading to the rest of Latin America. “I have always preferred doing to discussing,” he once said. 

Inspired by the Mexican revolution and the Russian revolution, he travelled extensively in Mexico, England, Soviet Union and the United States, studying, writing and refining his ideas. But his party never got into power in Peru. He was twice denied the presidency of Peru when it seemed to be within his grasp. Each time, the military intervened after disputed polling. 

Throughout his political career, Haya endured relentless persecution by the military dictatorship: he was either in jail or in hiding. Eventually, he went into exile in Paris where he died of lung cancer in 1979. He was 84. Today, Apra is Peru’s oldest party.

Before Haya, José Martí, another giant of the leftist landed on Mexican shores. He was a Cuban poet, essayist, patriot and martyr whose name became synonymous with Cuba’s quest for independence from Spanish rule. Imprisoned for his political activism, he was later exiled to Spain where he continued his studies. He lived in France, Mexico and Guatemala, teaching and writing. Towards the end of his life, before dying on the Cuban battlefield, he lived in New York City, working as a journalist and ambassador for many Latin American countries. Castro claimed him as an inspiration for his own revolution. 

Rigoberta Menchú is another Latin American activist who benefited from being in Mexican exile. Menchú is a highly regarded indigenous human rights activist from Guatemala. Born into a poor peasant family, Menchú became, from a young age, an activist in the women’s rights movement and an advocate for social reform in Guatemala. Her activism is inspired by her religious beliefs, particularly liberation theology, which champions the interpretation of the gospel of Jesus Christ through the lived experience of the poor. In this theology, Jesus becomes a “liberator” who is always firmly on the side of the poorest of the poor.

For her stance, her family was brutally persecuted. Facing persecution from the military government, in 1981, Menchú fled to Mexico. She settled in Chiapas, just across the border from Guatemala, only returning to her country in 1988 when a civilian government took the reins. 

Mexican exile helped Menchú’s cause: it allowed her space to launch an international crusade to highlight the plight of indigenous Guatemalans. She also joined the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations. In 1983, while visiting Paris to promote her cause, she told her life story – about her impoverished youth and about the brutal killing of her father, mother and brother, and general ill treatment of the indigenous poor – to Elizabeth Burgos, a Venezuelan anthropologist. This story became an acclaimed book I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, which has since been translated into more than a dozen languages. The book brought her international recognition and shined a spotlight on the hardships faced by indigenous people in Guatemala. 

In 1992, Menchú was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace “in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples”. Today, her Nobel medal is on display in Mexico City’s Templo Mayor Museum, which houses some of the country’s most important collections of Aztec artifacts.

An exile of tragic endings

While many radical thinkers and personalities briefly stayed in Mexico before moving on, for some Mexico meant the end. The most famous case is that of  Leon Trotsky who failed to shake off the people who pursued him through his peripatetic exile. The Russian revolutionary who fought alongside Lenin to usher in the world’s first socialist nation in October 1917, and a man who brilliantly commandeered the Red Army during the Russian Civil War between 1918 and 1921, was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929 after losing a power struggle to Joseph Stalin. He came to Mexico after stints in Turkey, France and Norway. For condemning Stalin’s tyranny, which Trotsky claimed betrayed the ideals of the October Revolution, he was condemned to death by Moscow. Trotsky was a dead man walking.

When the Soviet government put pressure on Norway to place Trotsky under house arrest, Mexico offered him asylum in 1936. He and his second wife, Natalia Sedova, left Norway in an oil tanker to reach Mexico in January 1937. There, the Russian exiles lived with the great painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo at Kahlo’s family home known as the Blue House in the Coyoacán borough. Trotsky eventually fell out with Rivera. Some say it was over ideology. Others claim it was because of an affair between Trotsky and Kahlo. The Trotskys then moved to their own house on nearby Avenida Viena in the same borough.

Despite the vast geographic distance between Moscow and Mexico City, and despite the menace of belligerent Germany on his doorstep, Stalin could not take his mind off his old nemesis. In May 1940, armed Soviet agents attacked the old revolutionary’s house on Avenida Viena, shooting wildly, but they failed to kill him. Trotsky had to bolster security around him, virtually turning the house into a fortress. But Stalin’s axe finally fell on 20 August 1940 when a Soviet agent known as Ramon Mercader plunged an ice pick into the back of Trotsky’s head inside his home office. 

The old revolutionary had incautiously looked away as he read something Mercader had written and on which he had sought Trotsky’s comment. Like a wounded lion, Trotsky fought off Mercader – even biting his hand – to prevent him from delivering a second, potentially decisive blow. Hearing Trotsky’s cry and the sound of the commotion, guards rushed to the scene. They roughed up Mercader, almost killing him, but Trotsky, with blood profusely dripping down his face, intervened: “No, he must not be killed. He must talk.” 

Soon after, Trotsky collapsed and was taken to the hospital in a coma. He died the next day. He was 60. Robert Service, Trotsky’s biographer, labelled the killing of the larger-than-life revolutionary “the most spectacular assassination since the death of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914”. Ferdinand’s killing triggered the First World War. Trotsky was buried in the garden at his Avenida Viena villa, which has since been turned into a Leon Trotsky Museum. 

9 January 1937: Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky (second from right) and his wife, Natalia Sedova (far left), are greeted by Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and Polish-born Marxist Max Shachtman in Tampico, Mexico, after being deported from Norway. (Photograph by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
9 January 1937: Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky (second from right) and his wife, Natalia Sedova (far left), are greeted by Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and Polish-born Marxist Max Shachtman in Tampico, Mexico, after being deported from Norway. (Photograph by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Bizarre twists in this tale of murder followed. In police custody, Mercader, whom Trotsky had known as Frank Jacson, refused to name his handlers or divulge any useful information to help solve the crime. He also refused to plead for mercy and was sentenced to 20 years in jail. No one knew who he really was. While in prison, a mysterious benefactor supplied him with a monthly allowance of $100. At the end of his sentence, he secretly went to Prague and then Moscow, where he received a hero’s welcome and was awarded the rank of KGB general. Disappointed by life in Soviet Russia, he eventually settled in Cuba, where he died of cancer in 1978. 

Another legendary Russian revolutionary who met a tragic end in Mexican exile was writer, poet and activist Victor Serge. Born Victor Lvovich Khibalchich in 1890 to impoverished Russian anti-Tsarist exiles in Brussels, Serge was a stateless firebrand and anarchist and one of the leading communists who played a huge role in entrenching socialism in Russia. He saw the events of history from the front seat. 

He was born in a slum and his family lived just above the poverty line, but their passion for conspiracy politics and hope for a new Russia never dimmed. Years later, Serge recalled his humble beginnings: “On the walls of our humble and makeshift lodgings there were always the portraits of men who had been hanged.” He never finished school. Later, he moved to France where he became a central figure in the individualist anarchist movement. Between 1912 and 1917, he served time in a French prison. 

In 1919, after a time in Spanish anarchist circles, he rushed to join the revolution that was unfolding in Russia, a homeland he had heard so much about but had never seen. Arriving in St Petersburg, he found the nascent socialist state embroiled in a bloody civil war between the ruling Bolsheviks and the reactionary White Armies. Serge chose the Bolshevik side and worked in the press services of the Comintern, a body led by Grigory Zinoviev, one of the principal Bolshevik leaders who would perish in Stalin’s Great Purge of the 1930s, like many in the old guard.

Serge’s troubles in Russia began after he had thrown his lot with the Trotsky camp that opposed Stalin’s totalitarian regime. After being booted out of the Communist Party in 1928, he was briefly arrested. On his release without charge he turned to writing fiction and history. He wrote with an amazing and incendiary urgency. He was arrested again in 1933 and sent to a prison camp in Orenburg in the Urals. Concerted international protests by militants and prominent writers such as André Gide and Romain Rolland secured his release. In 1936, just as Stalin’s Great Purge got under way, Serge secured a one-way exit from the Soviet Union. He was stripped of his Russian passport, making him stateless. Judging by the subsequent tragic fates of imprisoned Soviet dissenters like him, the revolution he helped entrench nearly devoured Serge. He was lucky to escape. He settled in France, where he continued to write scathing attacks on the dictatorship in Russia, bearing witness to what he had seen and gone through. For a time, he helped Trotsky translate his work but the two later fell out ideologically. 

When the Nazis overran France in 1940, Serge sought asylum from various countries, but none was prepared to accept him. His situation was complicated by the fact that his criticism of Stalinist Russia made him an enemy to many communists in Europe and elsewhere. What’s more, his being an unrepentant Marxist made him a persona non grata in Western liberal democracies. The United States was now a wartime ally to Stalin and there was no question he could go there. Serge was trapped, the reality of being stateless sinking in. When the Nazis marched into Paris, Serge fled to Marseille, in the south of the country, from where he and his son, Vladimir, fortuitously found passage on the last ship bound for Mexico in 1940. Danger still lurked. Father and son were briefly detained in Martinique and the Dominican Republic. In early 1941, only a few months after Trotsky’s grisly end, they finally reached Mexico, where Serge was to spend the last six years of his life.

Arriving on Mexican soil, he tasted freedom. “In the Mexican street, I taste a singular sensation. I am no longer an outlaw, no longer a hunted man, due any minute to be interned or to disappear. Only I am told now: ‘There are certain revolvers you must beware of …’ That goes without saying. I have lived too long to live anywhere but in the immediate present. For me, the gracious lights of Mexico are superimposed over the prospect of distant cities, restless, devastated and plunged into blackout, and in these I see men walking, the most hunted men in the world, whom I have left behind me.”

Ultimately, though, Serge suffered for having the courage to recalibrate his thinking, for refusing to be unquestioningly tethered to the reduction of the socialist idea in a particular state. He believed that socialism was necessary but that it needed to incorporate free speech and democracy. He viewed Stalinism as a tragic deviation from socialism. At the same time, he detested how Trotskyism had hardened into a dogma of its own, and he broke away from it. Thinkers of various stripes saw him as an ideological turncoat, a loose cannon needing to be silenced. The Mexican Communist Party, for one, viewed him as an irritant interloper so soon after it had had to contend with the headache of Trotsky. Consequently, the party made sure Serge’s life in Mexico was miserable, harassing publications that carried his writings and violently disrupting meetings where he spoke, sometimes physically harming the few associates he still had. On one occasion, Serge was shot at. 

Shunned by nearly everyone, Serge was destitute in Mexico and his family barely managed to buy food. His exile was characterised by isolation, poverty, peril and grief. When he struggled to find publishers for his writing, he resigned himself to writing “for the desk drawer”. 

While in Mexico he produced a classic memoir Memoirs of a Revolutionary as well as two brilliant novels: The Case of Comrade Tulayev, a panoramic novel about the Great Purge, as well as Unforgiving Years, a visionary and thrilling political novel. These books were published posthumously, including, in recent months, Notebooks 1936-1947, which clearly outlined the evolution of his political thinking. Though Russian by birth, Serge wrote in French, the language of his formative years. He was a prolific writer of prose, poetry, novels and history. 

Serge’s end reflected the difficulties of his circumstances in Mexico. On 17 November 1947, Serge went to the Central Post Office in Mexico City with the intention of posting a poem he had just written to his son. He was excited about the poem and could not wait to share it. Afterwards, he hailed a taxi, and got inside, but before he could give an address of his destination, he suffered a massive heart attack and died in the back seat. He was 56. Not knowing what to do, the driver took his body to a police station where Serge’s son found it later that day. Serge was in thread-bare clothes and the soles of his upturned shoes had holes in them. 

A few days later, his son received Serge’s last poem in the mail. 

Since he had been stateless, no Mexican cemetery was keen to bury Serge until a Spanish comrade arranged for him to be buried in a French cemetery as a Spaniard alongside other émigrés. When, seven years later, the term of his burial plot expired, he was exhumed and buried in a common grave.

A new chance for Morales

Mexico has an astonishing legacy of welcoming revolutionaries fleeing persecution. Morales should be inspired: Life allows second acts. In Bolivia, he laid the foundation for real change. José Ariel Blanco, a 25-year-old owner of a stationery store two blocks from the legislature in La Paz, thanks Morales for tackling the racism the indigenous have suffered for centuries. “My grandmother couldn’t walk into a bank in her indigenous clothes until Evo became president,” he says. “Now she can and that won’t change.”

It remains to be seen how Mexican exile treats Morales. Could it turn out to be a springboard for his second act?

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