Reluctant revolutionary: the rocky road of Venustiano Carranza (1859–1920)

articles History & People

Jim Tuck

Few people have ever less fitted the conventional image of a revolutionary than Venustiano Carranza. He was a country squire rather than an intellectual, he had been part of a ruling establishment and he took up revolution at an age when most men are contemplating retirement. Yet history placed him among the leading figures in one of the twentieth century’s most tumultuous revolutionary movements.

Carranza was one of fifteen children born to Jesús Carranza and María de Jesús Garza. The father began life as a soldier, first fighting Indians and then serving in the forces of Benito Juárez. Retiring from the army as a colonel, he acquired substantial ranching and farming lands in the state of Coahuila, adjoining the small town of Cuatro Ciénegas. There Venustiano was born in 1859. He attended school in Saltillo, the state capital, and then the National Preparatory School in Mexico City. Barred from a professional career by eyes that were abnormally sensitive to light, he returned home and dedicated himself to ranching and farming. He first entered politics at the age of 28 and, through the influence of his family, was easily elected municipal president (mayor) of his home town. He served another term as mayor from 1894-98 and then joined three of his brothers in going into rebellion against Coahuila Governor, José Maria Garza Galán. Garza Galán was a Porfirio Díaz appointee but the rebellion mounted against him by the Carranza brothers can in no way be interpreted as a protest against the Díaz system. The brothers simply believed that Garza’s “reelection” was fraudulent. Díaz’s proconsul for northeastern Mexico was General Bernardo Reyes, governor of the neighboring state of Nuevo León. Respecting the Carranzas — who in turn respected him — Díaz asked Reyes to attend to the matter. He did so by appointing another governor more to the Carranzas’ liking. After that, Carranza and Reyes became close friends and political allies. With Reyes’s support, Carranza became a deputy in the state legislature, a federal deputy, a federal senator and, in 1908, was appointed provisional governor of Coahuila.

The reason behind Carranza’s break with Díaz does not do him much credit. Did he idealistically oppose the corrupt and arbitrary system of diazpotismo? Hardly. Wishing to be formally elected governor of his home state, he needed Díaz’s backing. In 1909 Madero had formed his Anti-Reelection party. Carranza, hoping to ingratiate himself with the old dictator, wrote him a fawning letter telling him that he had had Madero removed from a board judging a dispute over irrigation waters of the Nazas River. Concluded the letter: “I hope this action will meet with your approval and will serve as proof of my unvarying adhesion to the good progress of your government — today criticized by a person (Madero) of no political significance.'”

Flattery got Carranza nowhere as Díaz backed another man for governor. Reacting with the outrage of a spurned lover, he now joined Madero. But their relationship was spotty — something like an arranged marriage that isn’t going smoothly. Though Carranza didn’t play a particularly active role in the campaign against Díaz, he did show up at the siege of Ciudad Juárez and Madero named him minister of war. This outraged front-line fighters like Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco and led to their brief mutiny. Elected governor of Coahuila, Carranza frequently criticized Madero’s performance as president. He wanted an important cabinet post but Madero turned him down, privately referring to him as a pachorrudo (“sluggish old man”).

Carranza was indeed deliberate and this quality was never more apparent than when Huerta overthrew Madero and connived at his assassination. First he denounced Huerta’s coup as unconstitutional, sending telegrams to all the state governors urging them “unfurl the flag of legality (and) sustain the constitutional government chosen in the last election.” Then he appeared to be wavering. The U.S. consul in Saltillo, Philip E. Holland, reported to Washington that Carranza had changed his mind. Henry Lane Wilson, the pro-Huerta U.S. ambassador, declared in his report to the State Department that Huerta had refused to accept Carranza’s overtures and was sending troops to Coahuila to restore order. If the report is true — and Wilson was never one to let facts get in the way of his prejudices — then this was the second time that rejection had pushed Carranza into revolution.

On March 25, 1913, at a similarly named hacienda, Carranza issued his Plan de Guadalupe, charter of what has since become known as the Constitutionalist movement. A frank declaration of civil war, it disavowed Huerta and all state governors who, after thirty days, still recognized the usurper. It also named Carranza First Chief of the Constitutionalist movement.

This was the beginning of the victorious 15 month campaign that ended with Huerta’s hasty July 10 resignation and flight into exile five days later. The First Chief’s top commanders in this sanguinary civil war were Pancho Villa, with his roistering but superbly equipped Division of the North, and Alvaro Obregón, the chick pea farmer from Sonora who turned out to be the greatest natural military leader in Mexican history. In the south, Emiliano Zapata and his jungle warriors in Morelos made their contribution to bringing Huerta down.

Victory did not bring harmony. Two feuding factions emerged, one led by Villa and Zapata and the other by Carranza and Obregón. Particularly sharp was the antagonism between Villa and Carranza, with Villa enraged by such acts as Carranza holding up a shipment of coal destined for Villa’s troop train. Carranza’s action enabled Obregón, Carranza’s ally, to enter Mexico City before Villa. At a convention, held in October and November at Aguascalientes, it was agreed that the main stumbling block to real peace was the rivalry between Villa and Carranza. Both were eliminated from consideration for the post of interim president as the nod went to a relatively unknown small town politician named Eulalio Gutiérrez.

Villa agreed to recognize Gutiérrez but Carranza did not, raising all sorts of legalistic objections. On November 5 Carranza was given five days to hand over executive power to Gutiérrez. His rejection of the ultimatum (he denounced the Convention as a ” junta“) was followed by Carranza being declared in rebellion. At the same time, Villa was given command of the Convention’s military forces. It was an ironic twist: a former bandit and cattle rustler the legal head of Mexico’s armed forces and an ultra-respectable member of the establishment declared a rebel and outlaw. In December, Villa and Zapata had a dramatic meeting in Mexico City as their forces occupied the capital. As a token of respect for Zapata, the teetotaling Villa forced himself to take a swallow of aguardiente while he toasted his ally.

But that was the high point for Villa and Zapata. From then on it was all downhill. Carranza joined forces with the talented Obregón and established a base at Veracruz where he derived a steady source of income from his control of the customs. Obregón, who had studied the trench warfare tactics of World War I, smashed Villa in two decisive battles at Celaya in April 1915. Other victories followed and by the end of the year Villa — who had once commanded troop trains, artillery and even an air force — was reduced to what he had been at the beginning of the revolution: a marauder in the Chihuahua sierra. Another bitter blow came on October 19 when the United States extended de facto recognition to Carranza. Villa, who had always been strongly pro-American, was now filled with bitter resentment against the gringos.

Zapata was equally unsuccessful against the Carranza-Obregón forces. The plan hatched between him and Villa had been to strike against Carranza’s main base at Veracruz, Villa from the north and Zapata from the southeast. Zapata got as far as Puebla, which he seized in mid-December 1914. But Obregón easily recaptured the city on January 5 of the new year. Many of Zapata’s peasant soldiers, effective only in the wild jungles and mountains of Morelos, deserted and returned to their patria chica.

On March 11, 1917, Carranza was elected president with 797,305 votes, as opposed to 11,615 for General Pablo González, main enemy of the Zapatistas, and 4,008 for Obregón, though neither was an official candidate. In September 1916 he had ordered that a convention be convened for the writing of a new constitution. This charter, adopted on February 5, 1917, was based on the 1857 Constitution and is the most radical in Mexican history. In modified form, it is still in effect today. Article 123 was a Magna Carta for labor, Article 27 defined Mexico’s rights over her territory and subsoil, and there were several articles further restricting the power of the Church.

On the day of Carranza’s inauguration, Obregón resigned as secretary of war and returned to Sonora to raise chick peas. This ought to have told Carranza something — and maybe it did. Obregón was by far the ablest and most respected figure in Mexican politics. If there’s was one man who could play MacDuff to Carranza’s Macbeth, it was him. So Carranza was deeply concerned when Obregón announced his candidacy for the presidency on June 1, 1919. Obregón declared that “the First Chief’s historical personality will suffer if he does not permit the country to liberate itself from its liberators.”

These “liberators” were a ring around Carranza known as the “unconditionals,” generals and politicos who had rallied to his standard and were now busy enriching themselves. Though Carranza was personally honest, he seemed indifferent to the rampant corruption around him. In addition, his natural conservatism strongly reasserted himself, as he ruthlessly broke strikes and accomplished little in the area of land reform.

When Obregón made his announcement, Carranza had already designated a handpicked successor. He was Ignacio Bonillas, Mexico’s ambassador to the United States. Bonillas, an MIT graduate, had spent most of his life in the United States. His political enemies called him “Meester” Bonillas and there were rumors going around, probably exaggerated, that he had difficulty speaking Spanish. Obregón had a waggish sense of humor and during the campaign some obregonista railroad workers derailed Bonillas’s campaign train and caused him to miss a political meeting. Carefully planted reports immediately went out that Bonillas had cancelled the meeting because he was busy taking a Spanish lesson.

Carranza retaliated by launching a reign of terror against obregonista campaign workers. Some were shot while others were arrested and held incommunicado. The campaign got so vicious that Obregón decided that he could not win by legal means. On April 30, 1920, he declared in Chilpancingo, Guerrero, that the only solution was force of arms. There was another candidate in the race, Pablo González, and on May 4 he also went into rebellion. The following day the capital was under shellfire.

Carranza’s response was to organize a 31-car train convoy to take him to Veracruz. It was from there that he launched his comeback in 1915. But this time things were different. Instead of having the military genius of Obregón at his side he now had a claque of 10,000 parasites who had looted the city clean prior to boarding the “Golden Train.”

The convoy left May 7 but rebel attacks forced Carranza to abandon the train a week later. His party headed into the Puebla sierra, where it was received with exaggerated protestations of loyalty by a local cacique named Rodolfo Herrera. Herrera lodged Carranza and his reduced following into a miserable cluster of huts. That night — May 20 –Herrera’s men crept into the hut and a fired a fatal fusillade of bullets into the sleeping president. Herrera, a double turncoat, had recently declared for Carranza. Obregón denounced the slaying and had Herrera put on trial. He was acquitted.

For all his limitations, Venustiano Carranza accomplished much. Despite initial wavering, he ignited resistance to Huerta’s usurpation and defied the tyrant at a time when he only had a handful of followers. His legendary stubbornness and inflexibility served him ill in his undeviating loyalty to plundering subordinates — but well in his diplomacy as he jealously guarded Mexico’s sovereignty. In addition, he was the motivating force behind Mexico’s constitution. For these qualities, this flawed but essentially principled man deserves the place in Mexico’s pantheon that is his today.

See Also: V. Carranza Profile page.

Published or Updated on: October 9, 2008 by Jim Tuck © 2008


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