Los Caudillos, Mexico’s masters

articles History & People

Shep Lenchek

The dictionary defines the word Caudillo as “a politician backed by a military force” and a study of Mexican history reveals a country that from its very beginning until well into the 20th Century was controlled by men whose had seized power by force rather than through the electoral process. Another definition of Caudillo is “strongman” and in this guise, they have spread from the political to the economic and even into the family structure of modern Mexico. However, it is a mistake to regard all those who in the past, fit the definition of Caudillo, as all-powerful rulers. Most controlled only fragments of the country. They were challenged by Governors of Mexican States, Presidentes (mayors) of large cities and other “strongmen” who were oft-times merely bandits. Each had HIS own priorities and paid little heed to edicts of the Federal government. They sought personal wealth, practiced nepotism and were corrupt. Their legacy still lingers.

Although Mexicans recognize September 16, 1810, the date on which Father Miguel Hidalgo proclaimed the Grito of Dolores as the start of the drive for freedom from Spain, the first efforts of the rebels focused on attempting to change a system that let those of Spanish blood, born in Spain, hold almost all high positions in both the Government and Church. It was the Crioles, Spaniards born in the New World, who were the first insurgents. It is doubtful that they envisioned a democratic Mexican Republic.

When he entered Guadalajara, Father Hidalgo claimed the title of “Serene Highness,” leading to a plausible theory that had he not been defeated, he would have been a Caudillo.

It was not until 1821 that a Spanish Viceroy of Irish descent, Juan O’Donoju, and a Mexican General, Agustin Iturbide, a Criole, who had initially thrown his lot in with those born in Spain, together became the midwives of Mexican freedom. They actually sought to perpetuate a Bourbon Monarchy, ruling the “Empire of Mexico.” Neither of them envisioned a Republic. O’Donoju, meeting with Iturbide, signed the Treaty of Cordoba, in the name of the Crown, that recognized the Independence of Mexico. Although Spain renounced the treaty, Iturbide promulgated the “Plan of Iguala.” It proclaimed Mexico a Constitutional Monarchy with a legislative body and designated Ferdinand VII or any other member of the Royal family of Spain who would accept the throne, as the Emperor. However, when no member of the Spanish nobility accepted the offer, in May of 1822 it was Iturbide who dissolved a provisional government he and O’Donoju had set up and proclaimed himself Emperor of an independent Mexican Empire. He became the first Caudillo. Only ten months later, he fled the country.

Now chaos prevailed. Oaxaca, the Yucatan, Jalisco and Zacatecas all declared themselves sovereign states and raised militias. Between 1824 and 1853 ten military men simply seized power at the national level. Provinces continued to declare their independence of the federal government and were run by regional “strongmen.” They were Caudillos in the worst sense of the word. Accustomed to employing force, unwilling to be constrained by Laws and Constitutions, it is fair to say that Mexico was actually disintegrating. One man, General Gomez Pedraza had actually had been elected President in 1828. Denied his office by other Generals, in 1832 he finally took office. By previous agreement his Presidency was to end in April 1833. Now he appointed Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, his principal ally, to the office he was vacating. This was the first time a president handpicked a successor. It established a tradition that lingered until recently.

Best known outside Mexico for his attack on the Alamo, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was to go in and out of the office of President eleven times, mostly by his own choice for he was bored by the day to day running of the country. He would retire in favor of his vice-president, Gomez Farias, a patriarch of the liberal movement, but would resume office when military action was necessary, From his first appointment to the Presidency until his last hurrah in 1855, whether in office or “retired,” he was Mexico’s “strong man.” In 1847, the United States invaded Mexico. Led by Santa Anna, the Mexican Army actually defeated the U.S. invaders just once at Jalapa. When the conflict ended it had resulted in the loss of all the land north of the Rio Grande that now make up Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Additionally, the United States now began to meddle in Mexican politics.

In 1855, with the appearance of Benito Juarez on the national scene, liberal reformers began to dominate the National Government. Their “reforms” are too well known to discuss. But because they attacked the Catholic Church and destroyed the Ejido system that protected the land rights of Indians, it was easy for local strongmen to stir up revolts. An invasion by France forced Juarez and the upper echelon of the Liberal party to flee the country and in 1864 Maximilian, was installed as Emperor by the French. Armed by the United States, Juarez returned. In 1867 Maximilian was deposed and the Liberals returned to power. With Juarez dead, General Porferio Diaz seized the Presidency and a modern style Caudillo took office. He was to hold power, except for a four-year hiatus, from 1876 to 1911. Surprisingly liberal, he gave the country a 35 year period of comparative stability.

Public education and a modernized school curriculum began to produce technocrats who impressed foreign investors. A National University, inaugurated in 1910, still educates Mexicans. He reformed the Army, started a national police force to cope with local strongmen who were really bandits and improved the infrastructure. A contemporary, the U.S. Secretary of State, Elihu Root, referred to him as the “Indispensable Caudillo.” Actually he was a benevolent military dictator who deceived to persuade, and divided the opposition to rule but never hesitated to use force. He co-opted rivals by appointing them to high positions, generally abroad. Rather than a political party, he depended on camarillas, political action groups, for support at local levels. In his last year in office he expressed a faith in Democracy, claiming that his long one-man rule, actually illegal, had been necessary to prepare the masses for self-rule. Examining his achievements in the light of his times, perhaps he was right.

He was overthrown by a revolt led by Francisco Madero. Two years later, Victoriana Huerta seized power but was not recognized by the U.S. This was followed by another parade of Presidents, either Generals or their handpicked politicians. But the country was again in chaos. Pancho Villa controlled the Northern half of the country. It was not until 1917 that a new Constitution provided for universal suffrage and it appeared that the road to the Presidency was to be through the ballot box. But in1920 defacto President, Veneustiano Carranza, was overthrown in a military coup and Alvaro Obregon, one of the leaders of the coup was elected president. Now the pattern changed in that elections were held, but all too often, the country was still dominated by a hidden “strongman”, generally the ex-president. This situation was to prevail into the twentieth century.

While in recent times the Caudillo has abandoned force as the method to secure power, the 70 year reign of the Party of the Institutional Revolution, (PRI) founded in 1929, was based on nepotism, control of the media, and other undemocratic practices. Presidents handpicked their successors, although the anointed heir now faced confirmation through an election. Presidential decisions were rubber-stamped by legislative bodies. The tradition of the Caudillo remained alive and well in Mexico until very recently. In the late 1990’s and now in the new millennium, the political and the social structures are being slowly modified but the economic system remains largely unchanged with monopolies in banking, production and distribution of petroleum, electrical power and telephone services. The economic Caudillo is still firmly in place.

Another legacy of the Caudillo mentality can be found within the Mexican family where the father is a “strongman” who rules supreme. While all of this seems to be changing, even today President Vincente Fox is under fire not only from the opposition, but also from his own party who charge him with ignoring party policy. The lone leader who pursues his own agenda is a direct reflection of the tradition of the Caudillo. Joining the President are Governors of Mexican States, Mayors of large cities and labor leaders, all with their own interpretations of the law of the land. While Mexico appears to be in no danger of coup d’etats, true democracy is still in its infancy.

How did Mexicans survive over 450 years of chaos? First and foremost they were supported by their religious faith. Additionally, the struggle for control of the country was centered in large cities. The military forces engaged in the continual struggles for power were small. Battles were of short duration. Those in the more remote areas of the country were hardly aware of events at the national level. Supported by their extended family, even today they are really only concerned about local conditions. Although cynical about politicians, more than 90% of Mexicans do exercise their right to vote. Perhaps in years to come the Caudillo will become simply ancient history.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2003 by Shep Lenchek © 2008


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