Escape to Mexico

Filmmakers, revolutionaries, Iranian shahs – Mexico has a long history of providing political asylum.

Ben Jones

On 12 November 2019 a Gulfstream G550 belonging to the Mexican air force landed in the Bolivian jungle. On board was Evo Morales, president of Bolivia for 14 years, who three weeks earlier had claimed his fourth election victory.

After detours to prevent a diplomatic incident, Morales set foot in his host country 15 hours later. In so doing, he became the latest in a long list of politicians, artists and activists to seek asylum in Mexico. 

Morales was the first Bolivian president of indigenous descent. His election in 2006 was a landmark in a country where the indigenous majority had been second-class citizens for 500 years. Even in the 1950s, indigenous Bolivians could not enter the Plaza Murillo, the main square in the political capital, La Paz.

Morales’ triumph proved more than symbolic. Abetted by the commodities boom, he introduced widespread social and economic reforms that brought millions of Bolivians out of poverty – doing so at a faster rate than any other country in South America.

Although he was part of the ‘Pink Tide’ of Latin American leftists in office during the 2000s, Morales’ premiership was notable for its economic pragmatism and, for ten years, he was a moderate, democratic socialist.

In 2016, during his third term, Morales called a constitutional referendum to seek another mandate. Though he remained popular, even supporters began to wonder whether he was moving towards dictatorship and his motion was defeated with 51 per cent of the votes. A year later, citing defamation during the referendum campaign, Morales successfully appealed to the constitutional court to revoke the result and let him run in October 2019.

Morales’ main rival in this election was Carlos Mesa, who was president from 2003 to 2005 and had been forced to resign following popular protests. Morales was the frontrunner in the first-round vote but, given his referendum defeat, analysts expected a serious challenge in the event of a run-off. Morales would need a margin of ten per cent to be safe. 

In the hours after the vote on 20 October, polls indicated that Morales was going to be denied an outright win. After a delay, it was announced on 24 October that Morales had secured 46.83 per cent of the vote and Mesa 36.7 per cent. 

Bolivia immediately fell into political crisis as Morales loyalists and opponents clashed across the country. Adversaries sought a check on executive power to prevent dictatorship; supporters saw a Washington-sponsored coup. On 11 November, after the military withdrew its support for Morales, he resigned and boarded the aeroplane for Mexico.

 

A well-won reputation 

Mexico has a well-won reputation for welcoming beleaguered foreign dignitaries. Although figures such as the exiled Cuban patriot José Martí had stayed during the 19th century, the precedent became more firmly established from the 1930s.

In 1934 Lázaro Cárdenas, a veteran of the Mexican Revolution, won the presidency. Like the current incumbent, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Cárdenas was a firm proponent of nationalisation. He also welcomed Spanish Republicans fleeing Franco.

The most famous Spaniard in exile was the filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Buñuel left Spain in 1938 and, after a stint in the US, arrived in Mexico in 1946. Already known for the surrealist short film Un Chien Andalou, made with Salvador Dalí, Buñuel was enticed by the Golden Age of Mexican cinema and the country’s commitment to artistic freedom. After Viridiana (1961) was banned in his homeland for blasphemy, he was grateful to be able to shoot the sacrilegious Simon of the Desert (1965) in Mexico. He would live in the country until his death in 1983. 

Deliberately following in the footsteps of Martí, the Castro brothers, planning the overthrow of General Batista, fled Cuba for Mexico in 1955. There they met another refugee – Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara – an Argentinian Marxist who had left Guatemala following the coup in 1954. Their troupe was arrested in June 1956 for amassing weapons (which was true) and on drug trafficking charges (which were not). But despite Batista seeking their extradition to Cuba, Mexico maintained its non-interventionist attitude to other nations’ affairs and Castro and company were merely told to leave. In November 1956, they left by boat for the mountains of eastern Cuba. Little over two years later, they were in power.

In June 1979, it was not a revolutionary who fled to Mexico, but a deposed monarch. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, was given a six-month visa and lived in a heavily guarded bunker in Cuernavaca, a well-heeled town 60 miles south of Mexico City. But after leaving the country in October for critical medical treatment in New York (flying, like Morales, in a Gulfstream aircraft), he was not allowed to return. In the wake of the hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran, the Mexican government was wary of reprisals against its own diplomats. After a brief and unhappy period in Panama, the shah found asylum in Egypt, where he died in July 1980.

 

Bolshevik hero

For drama, the most notable asylum-seeker in Mexico was Leon Trotsky. A hero of the Bolshevik revolution and the Russian civil war, Trotsky had lost the battle to succeed Lenin and was chased out of the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin. Mexico was the final destination of an exile that had taken him to Turkey, France and Norway.

Trotsky landed in Mexico on 9 January 1937. Waiting for his ship to dock was Frida Kahlo, whose husband, the artist Diego Rivera, had lobbied President Cárdenas to grant Trotsky asylum. A few weeks later, a Time magazine headline read: ‘Trotsky is in Mexico – the ideal country for assassination.’

With the Mexican government providing six guards, Rivera and Kahlo hosted Trotsky for over two years at their Blue House in Coyoacán, then a suburb of Mexico City. But, almost two years to the day from Trotsky’s arrival in Mexico, Rivera publicly broke with his lodger.

Part of the cause was artistic. A local painter, Juan O’Gorman, exhibited frescoes at the Benito Juárez airport that caricatured Hitler and Mussolini, threatening Mexico’s relations with buyers of its principal export – oil. Trade with Germany and Italy was especially important after Britain stopped purchasing oil in protest at Cárdenas’ nationalisations. The government ordered the frescoes to be removed.

Rivera was livid at the attack on free expression, labelling it ‘vandalism’, but Trotsky, perhaps thinking of his reliance on Cárdenas for his asylum, refused to condemn it. Trotsky called his host ‘a venomous adversary’ and, in May 1939, he moved out. 

 

Operation Duck 

A few weeks earlier, in Moscow, Pavel Sudoplatov, spymaster at the secret police, the NKVD, finalised preparations for a mission, codenamed Operation Duck.

Operation Duck comprised various assassination plots. One identified a traitor and infiltrated Trotsky’s guard. In the early hours of 24 May 1940, a ragtag, 20-strong group of Mexican communists entered Trotsky’s villa. But, despite firing over 300 shots, Trotsky was unhurt.

The attack was a high-profile and desperate failure, but preparations for a lower-key alternative were progressing.

It centred on Ramón Mercader, a handsome Catalan communist, recruited to the NKVD during the Spanish Civil War. Now he was ‘Jacques Monard’, a dilettante son of a Belgian diplomat living in Paris.

In 1938, the city hosted the congress of Trotsky’s movement, the Fourth International. It was attended by an impressionable social worker from Brooklyn’s Russian diaspora, Sylvia Ageloff. Ageloff’s sister, Ruth, was a secretary, highly regarded by Trotsky. The NKVD knew that, with an Ageloff recommendation, Mercader could gain access to the target. Introduced to Mercader by a friend who was an undercover NKVD agent, Ageloff became infatuated.

Their relationship moved quickly and Ageloff and Mercader were soon living like a married couple. With Mercader making ‘business trips’ to the US and Mexico (for which he had to take another false name), he encouraged Ageloff to take a job among Trotsky’s staff.

In January 1940, she moved to Mexico City. When he was in town, Mercader would join Trotsky’s party for outings, often acting as chauffeur. He was out of his depth intellectually, but good company. He also helped pay for the increased security measures at Trotsky’s villa.

On 20 August, Mercader paid Trotsky a visit. He had an essay – a piece on the war – and wanted the great man’s feedback. Arriving on a dry day wearing a long raincoat, he was admitted. Mercader knew that, out of politeness, Trotsky refused to have his regular visitors searched. If they had, the guards would have found a dagger over 30cm long, an automatic gun with nine bullets and $890. There was also an ice pick. 

Mercader stood behind Trotsky while he sat at his desk to review the article. Mercader withdrew the ice pick and cracked Trotsky’s skull. The ensuing shriek alerted the guards and, while Mercader tried to deliver another blow, Trotsky grappled and bit his hand. Mercader was arrested and Trotsky rushed to hospital in a coma. The following day, the man who had come to Mexico to live had died. 

Evo Morales’ asylum in Mexico lasted a month. To retain influence in Bolivia, he moved to neighbouring Argentina in December, following the inauguration of President Alberto Fernández, a fellow left-winger.

Morales’ flight to Mexico remains significant. He would have been welcomed in Cuba, Venezuela or Nicaragua, but he knew that to receive the hospitality of those allies would undermine his claims to be a democrat ousted in a coup. He remembered the pragmatism which had granted him so much previous success. In Mexico, he saw a country with a long tradition of political asylum.

 

Daniel Rey is the author of ‘Checkmate or Top Trumps: Cuba’s Geopolitical Game of the Century’, runner-up of the 2017 Bodley Head & Financial Times essay prize.

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