presented to the Raleigh Tavern Philosophical Society, Tomball, TX, USA on November 7, 2002 by

Clifton R. Fox
Professor of History
Tomball College


In recent years, the government and people of the United States have paid increasing to relations with Mexico.  Mexico is not only the neighbor of the United States, and the largest source country of illegal immigration into the U.S., but Mexico has also recently outstripped Japan to become the second largest trading partner of the United States in overall volume of trade, exceeded only by Canada.  Mexico is second in both imports and exports, and it is fifth in the balance of trade deficit behind China, Japan, Canada and Germany.  The growing trade relationship has been bolstered by the legal relationship embodied by NAFTA. 

On October 7, 1992, United States President George W. H. Bush, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signed the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] in San Antonio.  NAFTA entered into force after ratification on January 1, 1994. The upshot of these legal agreements and the formation of a regional trade bloc is that the United States in its domestic arrangements will be bound more and more by international agreements and executive decisions rather than by acts of Congress in areas such as business, labor and environmental regulation, as well as border control and immigration.  This is a direct consequence of the “supremacy clause” in the United States Constitution.  When trade agreements are signed with Mexico and other countries, they contain provisions which will operate as statutory law inside the United States without normal Congressional enactment.  This is particularly interesting in light of the undertaking to launch a Free Trade Area of the Americas [FTAA] in 2004.

The growing legal partnership with Mexico is a reality, but what kind of partner will Mexico be?  For example, on the day NAFTA came into force, the Zapatista rebels revolted in Chiapas, and Mexico soon experienced one of her periodic peso crises.  President Salinas, as it emerged, had “cooked the books” to create an illusion of prosperity.  The new president, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, was left to face the mess.  Had President Bush been flim-flammed in the NAFTA negotiations by Salinas?  The whole truth of this will probably remain elusive; Salinas now lives in Spain to evade prosecution in Mexico on a variety of corruption charges, as well as possible conspiracy to murder charge related to the deaths of two senior political figures.

However, the Salinas affair is only the tip of the iceberg in understanding the realities of Mexico.  The reality of Mexico, like the reality of every nation, is a product of its history.  Mexico’s history is full of turbulent eras which have left their mark on the country.  This essay explores the Mexican Revolution which exploded in 1911, and whose echoes have not died away.  Even if the Mexican Revolution had no implications for policy, it would still be a story very much worth telling.


At the opening of the twentieth century, Mexico was a country which be seen in one of two ways: either Mexico was a poor country advancing slowly but surely towards modernity with the help of an experienced government and intrepid foreign investors, or else Mexico was a country which languished under an iron-fisted and corrupt dictator who sold out his people to rapacious exploiters, both domestic and foreign, and did little for their happiness and well-being.  Both versions of reality were partly of the truth, and it was central to both versions of the truth that Mexico’s stability depended on one man, President Porfirio Diaz, who celebrated his 70th birthday in 1900.  With Diaz, our story begins.

The Times of Porfirio Diaz

Porfirio Diaz was born in 1830.  His home state was Oaxaca, and Diaz trained as a lawyer under Oaxaca’s favorite son, Benito Juarez.  Juarez trained Diaz in law, and filled Diaz’s mind with the heady brew of Juarez’s Liberal ideals.  Juarez’s brand of 19th century Liberalism envisioned Mexico’s entrance into the modern world as possible only when the political and social power of the landholding aristocracy, the hacendados, and the Catholic Church had been broken.  Like many people in the 19th century Catholic world, Juarez and Diaz were anti-clerical in opposing the political and social power of the Church, but Diaz [unlike Juarez] was never hostile to the Catholic faith as such. 

Diaz followed Juarez in the struggle to make Mexico a Liberal society. moving from the courthouse to the battlefield when the need arose.  Diaz fought in Juarez’s Liberal forces in the civil war with the Conservatives, the conflict known as the War of Reform [1857-1861]. He also fought against the French intervention in Mexico [1862-1864] and the Mexican Empire of Maximilian [1864-1867]. Memorably, Brigadier General Porfirio Diaz commanded the Mexican right wing at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862 [Cinco de Mayo].

The defeat of Maximilian in 1867 did not bring tranquility to Mexico or Diaz.  Porfirio Diaz did resign his army commission and return to Oaxaca, but he soon became concerned that Juarez had become a dictator.  Diaz was a rebel in arms against his only mentor at the time of Juarez’s death.  He was even less happy with Juarez’s successor, Sebastian Lerdo, a radical anti-clericalist.  Unexpectedly, Diaz found himself cast in the new role of de facto Conservative, especially as defender of the Church.  In 1876, Diaz rose up in armed rebellion, drove Lerdo from power and arranged his own election.  Like Lerdo, Diaz pledged “no re-election” – a pledge that he surprisingly kept in 1880.  Diaz recruited his close friend Manuel Gonzalez to run for president, and assured Gonzalez’s victory, but Diaz had lived up to his pledge of “no re-election” – at least no consecutive re-election.

However, Diaz concluded that only he himself could lead Mexico.  In 1884, Diaz succeeded Gonzalez in the presidency.  The “no re-election” pledge was forgotten.  Diaz was elected again in 1888, 1892, 1896, 1900 and 1904.  Before the 1904 election, Diaz had altered the Constitution to give himself a six year term; he would not run again until 1910.  His control of the political system seemed complete.  Diaz had brought stability to Mexico, a stability unknown since the birth of the Republic.  Stability had attracted American and other foreign investment: railroads were built, mines operated, commerce flourished.  Diaz placed great hope in these developments pointing the way to the future.  In this sense, Diaz was a man of his time touched by the same currents of thoughts which rippled through Washington, London and Paris.

Unfortunately, the great majority of Mexicans were poor agricultural workers, campesinos, who still lived under the thumb of the hacendados, often in peonage.  The changes in which Diaz placed such hope meant little or nothing to these people.  If anything, the poor seemed oppressed more than ever as the cultural and social world of their masters, the hacendados, grew more modern and more capitalistic.  The hacendados expected more profit from their lands and more work from their campesinos.  The campesinos could not read, and were untouched by the ideas and the dreams which meant so much to the educated.  Indeed, many campesinos could not even speak Spanish.  In Diaz’s Mexico, languages such as Nahautl and Zapotec remained the primary languages of millions of people.

Outbreak of Revolution

Early in February 1908, Diaz announced that he would not run in 1910.  He would retire at the age of 80.  In 1910, Diaz changed his mind and ran another term anyway.  Very likely his announcement of 1908 had been a ploy designed to flush out his enemies into the open.  One of his enemies was Francisco Madero.  Francisco Indalecio Madero, born in 1873, was the son of one of Mexico’s richest families.  He had been educated in the United States and Paris, and then returned to his hometown of Parras de la Fuente in the state of Coahuila.  Madero was no radical, but resembled an American progressive of his era: he wanted honest elections and mass participation in politics, but he wanted no reforms that would interfere with property or development.  Indeed, Madero believed democracy to be the only way to prevent social revolution.  All this he said in his book La Sucesión Presidencial en 1910 [published in 1908].

When Diaz “changed his mind” and ran in 1910, he decided to permit only one candidate to challenge him.  He selected Madero for this dubious honor, no doubt because Madero seemed to offer no real danger of spreading radical ideas.  The election was conducted in the ordinary Mexican style --  rigged.  In the end, Congress declared Diaz re-elected.  However, beneath the surface the ground was shifting.  The coincidence in time with economic problems played a role.  Every force of opposition to Diaz looked to Madero for leadership, intellectual and peasants, businessmen and workers.  Everyone saw in Madero what they wanted to see; every group invented his own Madero.  Above all, campesino rebels misplaced in Madero their own dreams of social revolution, their dream of controlling the land they farmed.

Madero himself had concluded that only an armed uprising could get rid of Diaz.  On October 7, 1910 – after his defeat had been certified by Congress – Madero crossed into Texas at Laredo.  In San Antonio, Madero composed a manifesto known as the Plan of San Luis Potosi which called for armed rebellion on November 20.  On the appointed day and in the weeks that followed, rebel bands assembled in every state of Mexico against Diaz.  In many places, troops and police suppressed riots and rebels with considerable bloodshed, but the resource of the government were actually quite limited.  Rebels could not be dislodged from mountainous or remote areas; they could not be prevented from cutting roads and isolating cities.  While Federal troops could maintain order in the cities, they had limited range outside the cities in most of the country. 

The resistance of Diaz’s forces was also undermined by Diaz’s advanced age and poor health.  Diaz could not last much longer in power or in life.  Why risk life or career for him?  If Madero became president, would it really make any difference?  How many officials and commanders really had a stake in the Diaz regime?  Some did have a personal stake, of course.  For example, Porfirio Diaz’s nephew Felix Diaz was police chief of Mexico City.  He aspired to succeed his uncle in power, but Felix Diaz was an exception.  The Maderista forces had their greatest success in the state of Chihuahua. Local fighters under leaders including Francisco [Pancho] Villa had blockaded the Federal army in Chihuahua in Juarez, opposite El Paso by early 1911, On May 10, 1911, the Federal troops in Juarez surrendered. 

On May 21, Madero met with Federal government representatives in Juarez.  Four days later, Diaz left Mexico City.  He died in Paris in 1915.  Madero won the presidential election, and he took the oath of office on November 6, 1911.  He hoped to settle the country, to disarm the men with guns and pacify the country.  Madero had wanted democracy, not revolution, but the men who had taken up the gun in Madero’s name wanted massive changes which Madero himself would never accept.  They would not put the gun done again for many years.  Madero had groped in the dark, and he had uncorked the wrong bottle.  Madero, who opposed revolution, had uncorked the bottle of revolution, and Mexico would drink every drop.

The Presidency of Francisco Madero

The problems facing Madero were clear even before he had taken the oath of office.   After arriving in Mexico City, Madero had a meeting with Emiliano Zapata, the peasant rebel leader from the state of Morelos.  In his meeting with Madero, Zapata proposed a plan for massive land reform to free the campesinos from the domination of the hacendados.  At the same time, Zapata rejected the idea of individual land ownership.  He wanted the land divided into village communes under collective ownership.  Zapata’s scheme was exactly the kind of social revolution that Madero opposed, and Madero made this clear to Zapata.  He demanded that Zapata disarm his men and send them home.  Had Madero been a less honest man, he would have deceived Zapata with promises to be forgotten later. 

Elsewhere in Mexico, rebels who had supported Madero did not turn against Madero as violently as Zapata, but they did not disarm either.  A case in point was Francisco Villa of Chihuahua.  Villa, like Zapata, had goals of social revolution beyond Madero’s interest, but Villa’s ideal was not communualism [like Zapata], but a Mexico of small farmers and entrepreneurs.  When Madero took power, Villa concluded the Madero would be outwitted by wily Mexico City politicians, bureaucrats and generals.  For Villa, Madero was an icon, but an innocent who would be fleeced by city slickers.  Therefore, Villa determined to continue his fight on the local level against the hacendados and Federal troops. 

Other important Maderista commanders in the northern states were Alvaro Obregon of Sonora and Venustiano Carranza of Coahuila, Madero’s own home state.  Like Zapata and Villa, these represented forces that Madero could not control.  Nor could Madero trust the regular army that he had inherited from Diaz.  In particular, General Victoriano Huerta was not a good man to trust.  He appeared to serve Madero after Madero assumed the presidency, but Huerta turned against Madero, and started to plot Madero’s overthrow after Madero started to inquire into Huerta’s creative financial management of the army budget.

In February 1913, Felix Diaz, Porfirio Diaz’s nephew, led troops loyal to his family in an attack on Mexico City remembered as the Decena Tragica [Ten Tragic Days].  On February 18, 1913, Diaz and General Victoriano Huerta met in the office of the United States to Mexico City, Henry Lane Wilson [representing the administration of William Howard Taft, who would be leaving office in a few weeks].  Diaz and Huerta, with Ambassador Wilson’s blessing, agreed to remove Madero from power.  The role of Wilson in “Pact of the Embassy” was critical.  Taft had opposed Madero’s revolution of 1910-1911, and he had been frustrated by Madero’s extensive employment of Texas as a base of operations.  However, given the weakness of Federal law at the time, and the predominance of progressive Democrats in Texas  [Gov. Thomas M. Campbell], Madero had had little difficulty in making use of Texas territory.  For example, The United States Border Patrol did not yet exist.  The Texas Rangers, answerable to the State of Texas alone, patrolled the border.

In any case, Huerta acted swiftly after his deal with Felix Diaz.  Madero, who did not suspect Huerta’s treachery, was arrested and shot.  Huerta then summoned the Mexican Congress into session that evening.  Congress rubber-stamped quickly Huerta’s ascent to the presidency.  Huerta quickly double-crossed Diaz.  Felix Diaz was denied any role in new government.  Huerta had needed Diaz in his own bid for power, but then marginalized him.  In October 1913, Diaz fled to the United States.

The Presidency of Victoriano Huerta

Huerta faced opposition throughout the country.  Within weeks of Madero’s murder , on March 26, Venustiano Carranza of Coahuila,  Francisco Villa of Chihuahua and Alvaro Obregon of Sonora signed the Plan of Guadalupe vowing to drive Huerta from power.  They dubbed themselves Constitutionalists.  Carranza titled himself “First Chief of the Revolution” as Madero’s political heir.  Carranza established a military commander structure with his own lieutenant Pablo Gonzalez, Obregon and Villa as  division commanders in the Northeast, the Northwest, the North respectively.  Carranza also made overtures to Emiliano Zapata, recognizing Zapata as commander of the Liberating Army of the South, although Zapata did not trust Carranza as he had not trusted Madero, and he would not sign the Plan of Guadalupe or acknowledge Carranza as First Chief.  Nonetheless, Zapata fought Huerta.  Huerta faced armed opposition on every hand.

Huerta also faced opposition from the United States.  Woodrow Wilson became President of the United States on March 4, 1913.  He had admired Madero, and was furious with the conduct of Ambassador Wilson [no relation].  President Wilson ordered Ambassador Wilson home and closed the American Embassy in Mexico City.  Wilson dispatched American forces to take steps against Huerta.  In April 1914, a United States Navy task force under Admiral Frank F. Fletcher occupied the port of Veracruz, and a U.S. Army brigade under General Frederick Funston occupied the port city.  This action prevented Huerta from receiving shipments of modern arms that he had ordered from Europe, and also denied Huerta the customs revenue from Mexico’s largest port.

President Wilson’s occupation finally forced the resignation of Huerta in July 1914, but the occupation of Veracruz almost backfired.  Patriotic Mexicans, furious at American intervention, actually rallied around Huerta.  The Constitutionalists were forced to issue ringing denunciations of American actions even as Carranza and Villa both availed themselves of back channels to communicate to Wilson that they actually approved.  Huerta fled to Europe, and later to the United States; he died in El Paso.  Mexico found itself with no legitimate government.  The country was in chaos, divided among military chieftains.

Carranza managed to move his troops into Mexico City, and gain control of the facilities of the central government.  On August 20, 1914, Carranza declared himself provisional president.  Villa and Obregon refused to recognize Carranza as president.  The two joined with Zapata to demand the meeting of a Revolutionary Convention representing all the fighting forces to form a new government, and later a new constitution.  With Villa and Obregon both against him, Carranza saw no choice but to accept the idea of a Revolutionary Convention, to meet at Aguascalientes, more than 300 miles northwest of Mexico City.

The Convention of Aguascalientes presented the possibly of ending Mexico’s strife and bringing peace, but it was a possibility not easy to realize.  Mexico had descended into chaos, and could not easily climb out again.  The human toll of the conflict began to mount.  Rebel armies were often undisciplined, more bandits than soldiers; they looted, murdered and raped with abandon.  Commanders often turned a blind to horrendous atrocities, particularly when they lacked any other way to “pay” their troops.  Boys and men were conscripted against their will, and rebel commanders collected “taxes” from landowners and business.  Estimates of death are difficult to make.  In addition to violent death brought by war and chaos, one needs to count the deaths from disease, famine and lack of medical care.  In a poor land where disease, famine and lack of medical care is rampant, one can only estimate the statistics of “excess” death.  In all, two million dead is a likely figure.


The Convention of Aguascalientes failed achieving the goal of peace.  The men who met there had no interest in its success – no interest in a viable government that would strip themselves of their own powers.  Mexico still faced the terrible face of war, with the prospect of the nation becoming pounded together by a strongmen.  Three strongmen ruled in succession: Carranza, Obregon and then, Obregon’s fellow Sonoran Plutarco Calles.  Only the last of these escaped an assassin’s bullet.  Calles would became the father of a new Mexican politics.  The suffering of the Mexican people continued.

Convention of Aguascalientes

The Convention of Aguascalientes opened on October 31, 1914.  Debate centered on who ought to be President of Mexico.  Consensus developed around a neutral figure, and Eulalio Gutierrez was named to the post on November 6. Gutierrez came from Coahuila, the same state as Madero and Carranza.  Apparently Obregon had proposed Gutierrez to placate Carranza, but Carranza boycotted the Convention completely.  Villa and Zapata agreed to combine forces to install Gutierrez in office at Mexico City.  Obregon was alarmed enough by this move to leave the convention and join Carranza.  Carranza and Obregon were forced to leave Mexico City in December.  They entered Veracruz early in 1915, where American troops had just departed.  There was no coincidence in the American action.  President Wilson had decided to support Carranza as the best figure to unite and modernize Mexico.  Carranza, in Wilson’s eyes, was the rightful heir of Madero.

Villa and Zapata fell out with each other after reaching Mexico City.  There ideas Mexico’s future were deeply at odds.  President Gutierrez, installed by Villa and Zapata, soon feared for his life – he fled in January 1915.  Meantime, Obregon had become Minister of War in Carranza’s government.  Obregon led the army of the Carranza government back into Mexico City.  Zapata withdrew southward, and Obregon did not pursue.  Villa, however, remained dangerous in Obregon’s eyes.  In April 1915, Obregon defeated Villa in the largest pitched battle of the Mexican Revolution, the Battle of Celaya.  Villa fled north with the remnant of his forces to his home state of Chihuahua.  Obregon’s victory granted Carranza great credibility.  In October 1915, President Wilson extended diplomatic recognition to Carranza was provisional president.

Villa was furious with Wilson, and found additional grounds of anger against the United States soon enough.  On November 1, just south of the Arizona border, Villa suffered an serious defeat at the hands of the Carrancistas.  This defeat had been made possible by the Carranza’s troops being allowed to cross United States territory and attack Villa from the north.  Villa planned revenge.  On March 9, 1916, Villa and 500 men attacked the American town of Columbus, New Mexico, garrisoned by the 13th Cavalry.  Eighteen Americans were killed, but Villa lost 90 attackers.  President Wilson ordered General John J. Pershing to led nearly 10,000 American troops into Mexican to capture Villa, if possible, and to destroy his forces.

Wilson’s reaction was exactly what Villa had wanted.  Villa was determined to make himself a patriotic hero defending Mexico against invaders.  He wanted to expose Carranza as a puppet of the Americans who would not protect Mexican territory.  Wilson selected Pershing as commander because he was confident that Pershing would not recklessly extended a “punitive expedition” into a full-fledged war.  Earlier in his career, Pershing had ended warfare with the Moro Sultan in the Philippines by displaying a tactful degree of cultural sensitivity [studying the Quran, for example] which few American military officers of the age could have mustered.  Pershing was under strict orders in Mexico to leave the civilian population alone and not to confront Mexican Army troops.  Carranza, for his part, ordered Mexican Army troops to give Pershing wide berth.  Although Pershing did not catch Villa, he did satisfy American indignation without provoking full-scale war.

For Carranza, the presence of American troops on Mexican soil was a major headache.  He had to denounce the United States without disrupting relations.  Fortunately, Wilson and Carranza needed each other.  Wilson needed a stable Mexico to free up the United States for the European war, and only Carranza could deliver.  Carranza, for his part, sought to legitimate his government by writing a new constitution.  The Constitution of 1917 was promulgated on February 5, 1917 as American troops departed the country.  The Constitution banned the re-election of the president.  Carranza term of office was backdated to December 1, 1916, to extend four years, although Carranza did not actually take the oath under the new Constitution until May 1, 1917.  The limitation of the presidential term was a gesture to Obregon who complained that Carranza showed little interest in social reforms towards which Obregon had more sympathy.  Obregon quit the cabinet and returned home to Sonora, but the promise of eventual supreme power seemed concrete.

The Presidency of Venustiano Carranza

While Alvaro Obregon became a rich gentleman farmer selling garbanzo beans to the United States government in World War One [a deal negotiated with U.S. Food Adminstrator Herbert Hoover], Venustiano Carranza governed Mexico.  In his policies, Carranza really was Madero’s heir.  He made his peace with business, both foreign and domestic, with the Church and with the hacendados.  Carranza succeeded in restoring the authority of the central government in much of the country.  He achieved these results often by buying off military commanders, and forgetting the past.  But he remained far short of uniting Mexico.  In two particularly important cases, Carranza did not succeed.  He could not end the insurgencies of Villa or Zapata.  If anything, these two men had enjoyed a revival in their fortunes in 1917 and 1918.

On April 10, 1919, Emiliano Zapata was assassinated in compliance with President Venustiano Carranza’s wishes.  The mastermind of the scheme was Carranza’s trusted lieutenant Pablo Gonzalez.  Gonzalez learned that Zapata had been attempting to convince an Army colonel to join the Zapatista cause.  Gonzalez ordered the colonel to set a trap.  The colonel started doing favors for Zapata, including executing certain men that had betrayed Zapata and joined the government side.  Then, the colonel promised to deliver a load of ammunition to Zapata if Zapata himself would come to pick it up himself at the Chinameca hacienda.  When Zapata entered the hacienda to join the colonel for lunch, a squad of soldiers posing as an honor guard opened fire on Zapata and killed him.

Carranza’s desire to eliminate Zapata was plain enough given the course of past events and his ideological conflict with Zapata.  However, another factor was the approaching presidential election of 1920.  Carranza developed the idea of obeying the constitutional ban on re-election, but retaining power by running a presidential candidate who could be his puppet.  In the fall of 1919, Carranza endorsed the presidential candidacy of Ignacio Bonillas, Mexican Ambassador to the United States.  Needless to say, this announcement made Alvaro Obregon furious.  The elimination of Zapata removed a possible ally for Obregon.  From Carranza’s point of view, the continued activity of Francisco Villa was less of an irritant.  Obregon and Villa hated each other, and the possibility of ana alliance seemed slender.  In a showdown, Villa would probably prefer to accept Bonillas.

The showdown came early in 1920.  Obregon rebelled against Carranza.  The army rallied to Obregon.  Carranza fled the capital, but was caught and killed by troops loyal to Obregon on May 21.  For appearances sack, Obregon installed his fellow Sonoran Adolfo de la Huerta as provisional president until “elections” could be held.  Obregon now had a surprise coming.  Without Obregon’s knowledge, Adolfo de la Huerta contacted Francisco Villa to make some deal before Obregon took office.

Villa accepted a deal.  He agreed to disband his forces and not fight again in return for amnesty and the retention of the personal fortune he had accumulated.  Villa probably decided to get while the going was good, before his enemy Obregon was president.  Huerta announced the deal in July 1920 before Obregon knew of it.  Huerta, as provisional president, had full legal authority to set the deal in stone himself.  Obregon was furious when he first heard the news, but practical considerations led home to accept it.   Huerta also made deals with other, lesser known, revolutionaries.  In his short term in office, Adolfo de la Huerta made a significant contribution to Mexico’s stability and order.  Obregon opened his official term as president on December 1, 1920.

The Presidency of Alvaro Obregon

Obregon’s presidential term from 1920 to 1924 contains some noteworthy items.  He actually carried out a significant land reform, and recognized the rights of organized labor.  Most important of all, Obregon appointed Jose Vasconcelos as Minister of Public Instruction.  Vasconcelos, a noted intellectual, had appointed Rector of the National University by Carranza.  In Obregon’s administration, Vasconcelos initiated a policy of universal education and literacy.  Although Vasconcelos left the administration in 1923, his policies continued and were gradually implemented.  In many ways, the development of education, extensive of literacy and the universal speaking of Spanish in Mexico were the greatest positive legacies of the Mexican Revolution.  Vasconcelos deserves the primary credit for these changes, but Obregon himself must be given credit as well.

However, the struggle for the power in Mexico never receded too far from view.  Obregon had no option but to retire after one term – who would follow him in the presidency?  Many in Mexico had been impressed by the provisional presidency of Adolfo de la Huerta, and pressed Obregon to endorse Huerta as his successor.  Obregon, however, had a different thought.  He decided that Plutarco Elias Calles would to be the next president.  Calles, like Obregon and Huerta, was a Sonoran.   Many suspected that Obregon preferred Calles to Huerta because Calles would follow Obregon’s instructions.  Huerta, as he had demonstrated in the pardon of Francisco Villa, was prepared to be his own man.  One supporter of Huerta was Francisco Villa.  Villa lived on his estate at Canutillo, Chihuahua.

On July 20, 1923, Francisco Villa was assassinated in the town of Parral.  While Villa sat in the backseat of his moving car, shooters hidden in a apartment building pumped dozens of Dumdum bullets into the vehicle.  Villa himself was hit nine times, and died.  Who instigated the shooting?  One telling point is that the Mexican Army garrison commander in Parral, a friend of Villa’s, had been suddenly called away from Parral with his entire force to participate in a ceremonial occasion thirty miles off.  No one has imagined this to be a coincidence.  Official connivance, if not instigation, seems certain.  Unquestionably, Villa had many personal enemies who wanted his death.  Any number of people might have pulled the trigger, but arranging the absence of the soldiers indicates a more powerful hand than a mere personal enemy.  Was Obregon behind it?  Or Calles?

Frederick Katz, a recent biographer of Villa, argues that Obregon was surprised  by news of Villa’s death, and should not be regarded as responsible in spite of his old hatred for Villa.  Katz suggests that Calles had the most to gain from Villa’s death.  Villa had gained a political following since his “retirement” in 1920, and would support Huerta against Calles.  Moreover, Obregon announced his endorsement of Calles soon after Villa’s death.  Huerta, and many others, regarded the designated of Calles as Obregon had viewed Carranza’s designation of Bonillas, a ploy to evade the “no re-election” provision of the Constitution.

In December 1923, Adolfo de la Huerta and his supporters rebelled against Obregon.  Huerta made his headquarters in Veracruz.  He attracted support from the business community, middle class professionals, labor unions and intellectuals.  However, the bulk of the Army remained loyal to Obregon, who remained their idol.  The revolt failed, and Huerta fled to the United States.  He lived in Los Angeles as an exile until 1936 – returning home when Calles went into exile. When the army officers who played a vital role in the defeat of Huerta was a young colonel from Michoacan named Lazaro Cardenas.  For his efforts, Obregon promoted Cardenas to brigadier general in 1924, aged twenty-nine years.  We shall meet him again!  In the meantime, the results of the 1924 election were foreordained: Plutarco Elias Calles was elected President of Mexico.

The Presidency of Plutarco Calles

The assumption of many in Mexico that the presidency of Calles would be no more than extension of the Obregon administration proved to be incorrect.  Calles took Mexico in a new direction in one vital area.  Calles launched an unprecedented assault on the Catholic Church in Mexico.  Anti-clericalism, of course, was nothing new in Mexican politics.  Porfirio Diaz had made his peace with the Church, but when the Mexican Revolution in 1910-1911, many revolutionaries viewed the Church as one of the pillars of the Diaz dictatorship.  For them, Mexico had to return to the anti-clerical agenda of Juarez and Lerdo.  Carranza  had inserted strong anti-clerical provisions been in the Constitution of 1917, although both Carranza and Obregon only applied these measures selectively.  Carranza and Obregon thought of these provisions as a gun pointed at the head of the Church to assure the Church’s good behavior [staying out of politics].  Carranza and Obregon did not intend to pull the trigger unless forced to it. 

Calles, however, decided to implement the measure of anti-clericalism permitted under the Constitution.  In June 1926, Calles issued the “Ley Calles” providing specific criminal penalties against Catholic clergy for a variety of infractions.  In protest, the Mexican bishops suspended public worship in Mexico, and asked Catholics to go on an economic strike against the government until the Ley Calles was rescinded.    Calles responded by sending army troops on a series assaults on churches that left dozens dead by the end of the year.  The Mexican Congress, usually a rubber stamp, registered its dissatisfaction by amending the Constitution in October 1926.  The amendment extended the term of office of the next president [to be elected in 1928] and all later presidents to six years.  Moreover, the existing ban on presidential re-election so that presidential service before 1924 did not count.

The direct meaning of this was simple – it made Obregon eligible to run in 1928 and serve a six year term.  Here was a harsh slap at Calles, but what did it mean in a larger sense?  Was this a real protest against Calles’ anti-clericalism policy, or had Obregon simply taken an advantage of a national crisis to find a way back into power?  In any case, the prospect of Obregon returning to power did not resolve the crisis since he was no friend of the Catholic Church.  A lay Catholic organization called the “Liga Nacional de la Defensa de la Libertad Religiosa” [LNDLR],  with the tacit consent of the bishops, planned to launch a full-scale armed insurrection to open on January 1, 1927.  The rebellion came to called the Cristero rebellion after the war cry “Viva Cristo Rey!”

The Cristero rebellion was suppressed with great brutality.  Many of the executed priests have since been canonized as martyrs of the Church.  The original leader of the LNDLR, Rene Capistran Garza, was an idealistic Catholic lawyer, but he proved to be an inadequate leader.  Capistran fled the country in June 1927.  The Cristeros resorted to hiring a professional soldier named Enrique Gorostieta Velarde to command their forces.  Weirdly, Gorostieta himself was an anti-clerical, but he led Cristero forces for two reasons: Gorostieta was very well paid, and he thought that he could overthrow Calles and make himself president.

In the midst of the fighting, the presidential election of 1928 was held.  Unsurprisingly, Alvaro Obregon was elected president, but before he could take office he was assassinated.  On July 17, 1928, Jose Leon Torral, a Cristero, killed Obregon.  Obregon joined Madero, Zapata, Carranza, and Villa among major revolutionary leaders who ended their lives by violence.   By default, Calles would carry on as Mexico’s leader, but in compliance with the Constitution he vacated the presidency on schedule.  Instead, Congress appointed Emilio Portes Gil, a lawyer from Tamaulipas State, as temporary president, with the premise of a special election in 1929 to fill the remainder of the six year term which Obregon had been scheduled to complete.  Portes, of course, would dutifully follow the lead of Calles, now known as “El Jefe Maximo,” the Supreme Chief.


The Cristero Rebellion was the last spasm of mass violence in the Mexican Revolution; the killing of Obregon was the last major assassination.  The Mexican people were left exhausted, and thirsting for peace, order and stability.  Calles offered peace, order and stability when no else could offer anything.  While the Mexican people remembered the violence of the Revolution, they accepted the political order that Calles had created.  Only in the 1960’s and 1970’s did a new generation come into political awareness.  Younger people who did not remember the violent past, but were painfully aware of the corruption in Mexican politics, of the lack of real democracy, of the continuing poverty and despair of much of the population began to demand change.  Finally, in 2000, an opposition candidate assumed the presidency.  But what had really changed?

The Maximato

A six year presidential term in Mexico has been known as a “sexenio.”  The first sexenio, from 1928-1934, was shared by three presidents, but they were less important than the man behind the scenes, Plutarco Calles.  This sexenio has been called the “Maximato,” in honor of “El Jefe Maximo.”  At first, however, Calles elected to fade into the background out of public view.  An end to the Cristero Rebellion had to be negotiated.  Both sides realized that the rebellion could not be suppressed, but the government could not be overthrown either.  Calles, however, was not the man to make peace.  Temporary President Emilio Portes Gil did make peace with the Catholic Church in June 1929.  An important intermediary in the talks was United States Ambassador Dwight Morrow, a J.P. Morgan partner, whom both the Catholic Church and Calles accepted as an honest broker.  The Church could take only a little solace from the agreement.  Anti-clerical laws stayed on the books, although enforcement returned to the sporadic form practiced by Carranza and Obregon. 

With peace concluded, the Mexican Congress authorized a special presidential election to fill out the balance of the sexenio.  At this juncture, Calles announced the formation of a political party, the Partido Nacional Revolucionario [PNR].  The party’s presidential candidate – Calles’ candidate – was Pascual Ortiz Rubio, an engineer from Michoacan.  Former Minister of Education Jose Vasconcelos actually ran against Ortiz.  Although Calles did not interfere with the Vasconcelos campaign, the actual balloting was shamelessly rigged.  Vasconcelos was credited with 2% of the vote.  On Ortiz’s inauguration day [February 4, 1930], an assassin wounded Ortiz.  Although he recovered, the attempt left Ortiz shaken.  Then, as elsewhere in the world, the Great Depression gripped.  Ortiz became paralyzed by the fear that country that fall into chaos, and his own life would be taken.  Calles, frustrated, “encouraged” Ortiz to resign, and he did.

The Mexican Congress installed Abelardo Rodriguez as temporary president, and he served out the sexenio until 1934.  The failure of Ortiz and growing economic crisis led Calles to step forward in a more active role.  His goal in forming the PNR had been not only to maintain power, but to reduce the chances of future armed conflict in Mexico by reducing the size of the army, and shifting power to civilian bureaucracies.  The Great Depression complicated Calles’ policy.  Mexico’s labor unions were making increasing demands.  In the past, Calles had been able to control the unions by buying off its leaders, such as Luis Morones, Secretary-General of CROM [Confederación Obrera Regional Mexicana].  Morones had helped Calles to finance the PNR by shaking down employers.  However, as the Depression deepened, radical forces within the Union movement led by Vicente Lombardo Toledano, an independent Marxist, could no longer be neutralized by Morones or Calles.

Calles attempted to face left opposition by announcing the nomination of Lazaro Cardenas to be the presidential candidate of the PNR in 1934.  Cardenas had served as Governor of Michoacan from 1928-1932.  He had played a major role in establishing state branches of the PNR across Mexico, but he was dismayed by the continuing lack of real reform to benefit the Mexican people.  Recognized as the leader of the left wing of the PNR, Cardenas saw his nomination to the presidency as a golden opportunity.  In his campaign, he put forward an ambitious agenda of social reforms.  Calles, of course, intended to retain control after Cardenas became president and prevent the implementation of these plans.  Calles intended to use Cardenas to put a good face on his regime towards the unions, just as he had used Portes to make peace with the Church.  Cardenas, however, proved to be a more resourceful player than Calles had anticipated.

In 1934, Cardenas took the oath of office as Mexican President.  At this point, something ought to be said about ideological perceptions of the Mexican Revolution.  After the Russian Revolution of 1917, many observers in the United States, wanted to know how Mexican leaders stood on the political spectrum.  Calles, for example, when engaged in violent anti-clericalism, provoked comments from Catholics around the world comparing his actions to the persecutions of Christians conducted in the Soviet Union.  In short, Catholics often called Calles a Communist.  Calles, in response, went to great pains to maintain close ties from American business and with Ambassador Dwight Morrow.   Senior United States government apparently never lost sleep over Calles’ supposed Communism.  In the 1920’s, of course, anti-Catholicism was part of the American political landscape, and the Protestants who ran the U.S. did not worry about anti-Catholicism in Mexico.

The Presidency of Lazaro Cardenas

Cardenas did not prove to be the pliant instrument that Calles desired.  Cardenas really intended to carry out sweeping reforms.  When Calles blocked Cardenas’ efforts, Cardenas took to the offensive.  Cardenas enlisted the aid of Vicente Lombardo Toledano, the Marxist labor leader.  Lombardo tore control of the Mexican labor movement away from Luis Morones, Calles’ man, by organizing the CTM [Confederación de Trabajadores de Mexico] to oppose CROM.  Calles intended to retaliate by organizing a coup to depose Cardenas, but when Calles held a meeting in 1936 of his key supporters [including Morones], troops loyal to Cardenas arrested the bunch.  Here is the interesting part: Calles, Morones and company were neither shot or jailed, but placed on a plane, and flown to Los Angeles.  When the plane landed, FBI agents took the men into custody as “illegal aliens.”  Cardenas’ government by refusing to take back these men, left them in a legal limbo, in the indefinte custody of the United States as “undeportable illegal aliens.”

No great personal suffering was involved.  Calles and company remained comfortably housed in Los Angeles at Calles’ expense until 1941, but strictly guarded by the FBI, and out of Mexican politics.  Certain aspects of the business seem mysterious: the FBI agents were clearly waiting at the airport by pre-arrangement.  No less a person than President Franklin D. Roosevelt seems to have authorized American action on Cardenas’ behalf.  Cardenas greatly admired Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Roosevelt desired to support Cardenas’ reforms.  Roosevelt had also launched two years earlier his “Good Neighbor Policy” towards Latin America.  Roosevelt wanted to shift United States policy towards Latin America away from a policy of forced hegemony [as crafted by Theodore Roosevelt], and towards a policy of primus inter pares.

The importance of the “Good Neighbor Policy” and the Cardenas-Roosevelt understanding was underscored in 1938 when Mexico nationalized the property of American and British oil companies.  The move was very popular within Mexico.  Under Spanish and Mexico law, subsurface traditionally had belonged to the state.  When Porfiro Diaz had granted oil rights to foreign companies, many Mexicans viewed these grants as signs of Diaz’s tyranny and his contempt for the Mexican people.  When the nationalization decree was issued, the American business community reacted with fury, and threats of war came from Wall Street and Congress.  However, there was no likelihood of war, as Cardenas probably knew, since Franklin Roosevelt took much secret pleasure in the humiliation of his “big business.”  In addition, with war clouds gathering in Europe, Roosevelt unquestionably thought the oil safer in Cardenas’ hands then in the hands of American oil companies.  In the Spanish Civil War, American oil companies had sold oil to Francisco Franco in spite of the Neutrality Act of 1937 by sending the oil through off-shore subsidiaries.  Roosevelt always believed that business was full of people whose patriotism was for sale.

Cardenas implemented his reform to a significant degree, as much as possible given Mexico’s limited financial resources.   Cardenas also tried to democratize the operations of ruling party, which he renamed the Partido de la Revolucion Mexicana (PRM).  He placed the party under control of a council with representation by “mass organizations,” including the CTM and the CNC [Confederación Nacional Campesina – National Peasant Confederation.  Needless to say, the success of this democratization was limited, in both concept and execution.  Cardenas considered multiparty democracy a sure road to civil war, given the recent history of Mexico, and believed that democratization within the party was the only way to generate an element popular control.  In the long run, the realization of intra-party democracy depended on the integrity of the leaders themselves.

In the case of Cardenas, few doubted his personal integrity and honesty.  He was a rarity among Mexican leaders in that he did not become rich in office from graft, influence-peddling and “business deals.”  Cardenas actually lived on his salary.  It was a sad commentary on the times, that mere honesty was regarded across Mexico as a sign of saintliness.  Nonetheless, such was the case, and Cardenas became admired and venerated as the “clean president.”  Cardenas also did not attempt to outstay his welcome.  In 1940, the PRM nominated General Manuel Avila Camacho to become the next president.  This choice plainly represented a swing to the right within the party.  Cardenas made no fuss at the time, and did not interfere with Avila’s shifts in policy after Cardenas’ sexenio ended.

The Presidency of Manuel Avila

President Manuel Avila Camacho was the last general to serve in the Mexican presidency.  Although more conservative than Cardenas, he nonetheless consolidated the enduring gains of Cardenas’ sexenio.  Avila, on the other hand, indulged no radical experiments in social reform.  He sought stability, and the end of revolution.  He removed Vicente Lombardo Toledano from the leadership of the labor movement, and replaced him with Fidel Velasquez, who remained leader of the CTM under 1993, and did not die until 1997.  The union became a cooperative element in the government structure, not a source of turmoil.  Nonetheless, the government still responded to traditional demands of labor, if only to reconcile the unions to the change of leadership.  In 1943, a Mexican social security system was created. 

Avila’s search for social stability was connected to his expectations of the approaching war in Europe and Asia.  He saw that Mexico needed to protect itself by sticking close the United States.  Six months after Pearl Harbor, Mexico declared war on the Axis powers after German submarines torpedoes Mexican oil tankers.  Avila appointed Cardenas Minister of National Defense.  Cardenas spent the war working with United States military and national commanders in defending the Mexican coasts.  In a show of national unity, Avila and the six living ex-presidents [Cardenas, Rodriguez, Rubio, Portes, Calles and Huerta] stood together on the balcony of Los Pinos, the presidential residence; a symbolic denouement of revolution.  Avila also paid some compensation to the American and British oil companies for the expropriation of 1938.

Mexicans played a limited combat role in the war.  A Mexican Air Force Squadron, the 201st Fighter Squadron, did deploy to the Pacific theater and fly as part of the U.S. 5th Air Force.  Mexicans were permitted as individuals to join the United States forces if they wished.  Although no exact number is known, estimates place these volunteers at several hundred thousand.  In terms of manpower, Mexico’s largest contribution to the Allied cause was the Bracero program.  The program started with the Bracero Agreement of August 4, 1942 signed in El Paso, a guest worker program to employ Mexicans inside the United States to relieve American labor shortages.  The Bracero program should be understood in the context of earlier immigration of Mexicans into the United States to find work.

Before the First World War, there had been no net immigration from Mexico into the United States.  There had been much coming and going without concern for borders or immigration laws, but since there was no wage differential for Mexicans between the United States and their own country, there was no demand pull.  Even the chaos of the Mexican Revolution produced no significant migration [except among affluent Mexicans, who would not need jobs] in the absence of work north of the border.  The growth of industry in Southern California changed the picture from 1917 onward.  Concern with illegal immigration led to the formation of the United States Border Patrol in 1924, but the Border Patrol was spread thin and had little support from business interests or local law enforcement.  The Bracerco Agreement was an attempt to regularize a situation which would occur as labor grew short, like it or not. 

Avila had to show his concern to the Mexican people for how Mexican workers were treated, and the United States worried about incidents such as the Los Angeles “Zoot Suit” riots [which had already started before the agreement was signed].  The Bracero program provided valuable labor to the American war effort, and most of the earnings were returned to Mexico.  The program had curious aspects, especially in Texas where local authorities had to decide whether Mexicans were “White” or “Black” by the standards of Texas’ “Jim Crow” laws.  In 1944, the Texas State Legislature passed the “Caucasian Race Resolution,” which declared Mexicans to be “White.”  For Mexico, the Second World War was a great success.

PRI in Power

After the war, Avila reorganized the ruling PRM by removing the last vestiges of military control  from the party.  To mark the change, the party was renamed again, Partido Revolucionario Institucional [PRI], the name it retains today.  The PRI nominated Miguel Aleman Valdes to serve as president in 1946-1952 sexenio.  From Miguel Aleman Valdes until Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, nine civlian presidents served out their sexenio, and then retired.  Each of these men was the anointed leader of the PRI.  The PRI had never represented a democratic ideal, even at its best under Cardenas, but gradually became less and less democratic.  The PRI leaders became a self-perpetuating oligarch, and the presidents were a kind of serial dictatorship.  Yet, it is easy to see why Mexican accepted this arrangement for a long time.  Anyone who remembered or heard vivid tales of violence and suffering did not want to go back to a less orderly and less stable society.  In the 1940’s and 1950’s, and even for the older generation in 1960’s and 1970’s, it seemed obvious that stability outranked democracy.

The hegemony of the PRI spared Mexico many of the dramatic oscillations that characterized political life elsewhere in Latin American.  When democratic governments indulge in radical reforms which a poor country simply cannot afford, than inflation destroys the currency, the military seizes power, and bloody repression comes.  Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil: but not Mexico.  Mexico had no Castro or Allende, and no Pinochet or Peron.  None of the nine PRI presidents was much more than a colorless, if self-aggrandizing, bureaucrat.  None of them was memeorable or “interesting.”  Still, it is good to remember that the Chinese expression “May you live in interesting times” is a curse.

In 1960’s, however, Mexico grew restive, as did many parts of the world.  Students were at the forefront, and the Mexican government reacted with harsh repression.  In the Tlatelco Massacre in Mexico City [1968], hundreds of protestors were killed or wounded.  A “dirty war” against opponents of the government continued under Presidents Diaz and Echeverria.  But what was the government defending?  Social order or the power of the PRI?  The corruption of the PRI grew apace when world oil prices soared.  The government owned oil company, PEMEX, fattened the party elites.  Leaders no longer even tried to be discrete.  When Jose Lopez Portillo retired from the presidency in 1982, he and his brother [Mexico City police chief] had become billionaires, although both had spent their careers in the public sector.  How did that happen?

It was with a PRI president that NAFTA was signed in 1992, as it nothing had changed.  Just the same, the wheels of change were in motion.  Dissatisfaction with the PRI had risen both on its right and its left, and worst of all, within the PRI, rather like certain Communist parties, it was not clear if anyone believed in the party as anything but a vehicle of personal advancement.  On the left, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, son of President Cardenas, founded the PRD [Partido de la Revolución Democrática] as a party that sort to unite the disputatious factions of the Mexican left.  To the right, chanpion business interests, is PAN [Partido Acción Nacional].  The PAN was founded in 1939 by Manuel Gomez Morin, who died in 1972.  The PRI had allowed the PAN to operate as proff of its own democratic credentials, secure in the knowledge that the elections were safely rigged.

In 2000, the PAN candidate Vicente Fox Quesada won the presidential election.  Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive, was formerly Governor of Guanajuato.  The official PRI candidate finished second, and Cardenas finishing third.  As a ruling party, the PRI is finished, but it is far from doomed.  The more far-sighted PRI leaders are trying to reshape the party into a left of center social democratic party to balance PAN.  They will have to establish some credibility, and steal the thunder of Cardenas and, even, the Zapatistas.  Only time will tell – but the recent Brazilian presidential election is suggestive.

Mexico remains a country divided.  For every Mexican who benefits from the growth of industry and free trade, another Mexican losses out.  For example, since the passage of NAFTA, U.S. corn imports into has brought the price of corn to U.S. levels, roughly $2.50 per bushel, but this represents a 50% price drop for Mexican domestic producers since NAFTA came into force.  Good for Mexico’s urban consumers, but what of rural Mexico?  One-fifth of the labor force is still in agriculture, and much of the service sector is tied to the rural society. 

On point is clear: Mexico is a developing country with profound problems of poverty.  National income per capita is one-quarter of that in the United States.  Mexico’s democratic institutions are both new and fragile, struggling to emerge from under the rubble of authoritarianism and corruption.  Too many Americans speak of Mexico, as we often do of many nations, as if they were simply piles of economic resources – so much labor, so much oil, and so on – awaiting the magic fairy dust of American capital, as if culture and history meant nothing.  In any case, given the common border of the United States and Mexico, Mexico and her problems cannot be ignored by Americans.  Moreover, if in the development of the global situation, the United States grows more estranged from China, the Islamic World and even Europe, then our own good fortune will depend on the friendship, partnership and well-being of Mexico and our other “Good Neighbors” to the south.

[this list omits brief administration contained within a single calendar year]









Porfirio DÍAZ [1st time[








Porfirio DÍAZ [2nd time]




Francisco MADERO




Victoriano HUERTA








Venustiano CARRANZA








Plutarco CALLES