Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Pastry War

Mexico has long had a love/hate relationship with France.  Most people are aware that the French invaded Mexico in the 1860's and imposed a puppet monarchy, which resulted in a lengthy and bloody war before Mexico eventually regained its independence.  Less well known is that there was actually an earlier violent French invasion, known as the Pastry War.

After gaining its independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico was far from stable:  in its first twenty years, there were twenty presidents—most of whom seized power by force.  Additionally, every new president faced the same hurdle—raising enough money to pay the army that had brought him to power, 

In one year (1800), Mexico produced prodigious amounts of silver—so much so that Mexico was the economic engine that ran the Spanish Empire—but during the decades of wars for independence, the men had been pulled from the mines to fight.  The abandoned mines quickly flooded and caved in.  It was almost a century before the mines regained the production levels they had reached during colonial times.

Note.  A visitor from another planet comparing the two dominant countries of North America would have easily predicted which country was destined for greatness.  Possessing great natural resources, vastly larger in territory, one country was clearly more advanced.  Her cities were much larger, had more cultural amenities, and a more integrated society.  Mexico was clearly ahead, and when you factored in the slaves of the United States, had a higher per capita income.  Unfortunately, independence brought stagnation and decay to Mexico.  Less than 50 years later, Mexico lagged far behind the United States.

Desperate for cash, most of the incoming presidents were forced to use the same sources of revenue: forcing loans from the wealthy elite of Mexico—especially foreigners still residing in the country.  Naturally, these loans were almost never repaid.  These individuals would protest to their respective governments, who in turn, would protest to the Mexican government and demand repayment.  Unfortunately, constantly changing administrations, fluctuating exchange rates, and a chronic shortage of funds in the Mexican treasury meant these claims were rarely settled.

In 1828, the shop of a French baker, Remontel, in Mexico City was emptied by the hungry Mexican Army.  Remontel protested to King Louis Philippe of France, who demanded 600,000 pesos in repayment.  Today, this is a meaningless number, but take my word for it:  the French King was asking for a vast fortune.  The average daily wage in Mexico at that time was no more than a single peso per day.  They must have been really good French pastries.

The claim, of course, was not settled.  In the interim, Mexico had another series of presidents, including Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, who—after defeating the defenders of the Alamo—had lost Texas at the Battle of San Jacinto:  Mexico was hardly in the position to repay any of her debts.

In 1838, the French King issued an ultimatum:  either Mexico would pay her debts, or France would take military steps to enforce repayment.  During their early years, most Latin American countries derived their tax revenues almost exclusively from import duties collected at port cities.  Foreign countries, seeking to recover debts, could simply seize port cities and confiscate tax revenues until the debt was recovered.

Seizing ports and tax revenues evolved into a convenient excuse for European countries to attempt to seize New World countries.   This was the same excuse France used when it imposed Maximilian on Mexico a generation later.  In 1916, the United States seized the customs houses of the Dominican Republic to preempt European countries from doing the same thing.  For decades, the US Marines collected import taxes, dividing the revenue between debt repayment and tax revenue for the island nation.  While the Dominicans were unhappy about the occupation, they did note that the half revenue they received was substantially more revenue than they had received when their own people had run the customs houses, themselves.

When Mexico still refused to settle the debt, France sent a fleet to capture Veracruz, Mexico's main port.  The port was protected by a massive fortress, San Juan de Alua, on an island in the harbor.  An imposing structure, it had withstood pirate attacks for centuries.  Unfortunately, this was a different age and the fortress was no match for the modern artillery of the French fleet.  The fleet's exploding artillery rounds quickly ignited the fortress' magazines, making the attack one of the first examples of the futility of stone forts against naval gunnery—which was noticed by military leaders around the world.

France rather quickly captured the entire Mexican navy, bottled up all the ports, and cut off all trade in and out of Mexico while it demanded repayment of the debts.  Mexico tried to smuggle goods into the country, and was forced to land ships as far away as Corpus Christi, Texas and bring the goods overland. 

In the battles of Veracruz, Santa Ana returned from retirement, becoming something of a hero after he was wounded and lost his left leg after having his horse shot out from under him.  This set the stage for his role in the Mexican-American War, just seven years later.

Eventually, both sides tired of the conflict, so Mexico agreed to pay the 600,000 pesos and France agreed to stop the embargo.  Naturally, Mexico borrowed the funds. 

1 comment:

  1. And now we see where this all started. Actually Donald Trump should get along with the Mexicans really well. He too built his empire with "other people's money". I'm sure they could quickly reach a deal on immigration that neither one of them would honor and both would tell their people that they had come out the better on. Isn't that how winners do things?