Ferrocariles y vida economica en Mexico, 1850-1950: Dal surgimiento tardio al decaimiento precoz

Ferrocariles y vida economica en Mexico, 1850-1950: Dal surgimiento tardio al decaimiento precoz

Giuntini, Andrea

Sandra Kuntz Ficker and Paolo Riguzzi (eds), Ferrocariles y vida economica en Mexico, 1850-1950: dal surgimiento tardio al decaimiento precoz, Colegio Mexiquense, Mexico City (1996), 383 pp.

After a fruitful period during which scholars laid out the key theories of railway history, the literature has turned to the history of individual lines and companies in search of verification of their models. The results, particularly from railway histories in the more advanced countries, have been most valuable, although on the methodological side there has been some creative stagnation.

All the more welcome, therefore, is this book, from two young historians, Sandra Kuntz Ficker and Paolo Riguzzi, on the creation and development of the Mexican railway network. It adopts a broad approach, dealing also with methodology, and is likely to provoke discussion on the impact of railways on the infrastructure of late industrialisers like Mexico.

This is not a simple history of the Mexican railways in the descriptive sense, with a clear chronology of lines and stations opened. Rather the book represents a serious effort to link the railways with the economic life of the country. There are the classical themes of rail history, from foreign investment to institutional forms, from government transport policy to technological models, from the birth of new markets to the strengthening of industry through railway growth. The analysis of the various authors in the six chapters assembled here, as the title suggests, points to the relative failure of the Mexican experience: delay and decay are the two features on which they concentrate.

Mexico, as Riguzzi points out in the first paper, had 20,000 km of railroads in 1910, second only to Argentina among Latin American rail networks. The first line was finally opened in 1873 after a long gestation that began in 1837. As Riguzzi shows at length, a set of geographical, judicial, institutional, political and economic factors were responsible for the long delay, together with the presence of a strong American neighbour, many of whose companies were involved in the physical realisation of the network.

The delay meant that the influence of the State was fundamental in the creation of a Mexican national rail system. The panorama offered by Riguzzi, and subsequently other authors in the volume, recalls the typical development of the railways in other economically backward countries, from the importation of technology and personnel to the expectations the railways evoked amongst a modernising local ruling class. The paper by Kuntz Ficker deepens our understanding of the relationship between the railroads and the market in terms of rates and traffic. Her methodology and wide use of the available data illuminate questions such as the impact of rail rates on the prices of Mexican goods.

The papers by Arthur Grunstein Dickter and by Guillermo Guajardo deal with the role of railway politics in the construction of a modern nation state and of the impulse given by the railways to the development of the industrial sector. Their conclusion, both for the period of the Porfiriato and for the revolutionary period, appears to favour the definitive triumph of politics over the economy. The birth of the Ferrocarriles Nacionales signalled the start of a phase in which the public seal lay heavily on the railway system. Mexico suffered from the international crisis following the Wall Street crash: a railway microcosm of a crisis in Central America.

In conclusion the authors stress that Mexico was not prepared for the railway and failed to exploit its potential. The railways did not play a crucial role in economic development, although they were important in the process of nation building; they reflected a vision of political power rather than of economic development. This interpretation coincides with that of Davis, Wilburn and Robinson’s Railway Imperialism, in which Mexico assumed the exemplary configuration of an informal empire, an economic satellite dependent on the interaction of local ruling classes with imperialist European interest groups. This volume represents a convincing synthesis and the authors are to be congratulated.

Andrea Giuntini, University of Florence

Copyright Manchester University Press Mar 2000

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