pancho villa and emiliano zapata -- 2/17/17

Today's selection -- from Mexico City by Nick Caistor. Mexico failed in its first attempt to become a democracy and institute land reform. The U.S. was complicit in the failure. The legendary revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata were among the victims of the counterrevolution:

"[Constitutional president Francisco I.] Madero had seized power from the [dictator Porfirio Díaz] with surprising ease. In 1909, he had emerged as the head of the democratic forces opposed to yet another re-election of Díaz, who had been in power for more than thirty years. By 1910, he was the only other candidate for the presidential elections, fighting under the slogan 'effective suffrage and no to re-election.' The success he had in the run-up to the June 1910 vote was so disturbing that Porfirio Díaz made sure he was safely locked up in jail before election day, when once again, thanks to massive fraud, Díaz emerged triumphant. The veteran president soon embarked on grand celebrations to commemorate a centenary of independence. ... But few Mexicans were convinced, beyond those who benefited directly from his patronage, or those who were among the tiny number of great landowners who owed their wealth to the feudal exploitation of peasants on their great estates, while they lived in the glittering palaces and mansions of central Mexico City. In the year of the centenary, about seven million peasants were living and working on properties owned by fewer than a thousand families or agricultural companies.

"Madero, meanwhile, had succeeded in escaping from prison and had crossed over into Texas. From there he launched his plan for government, continued his verbal attacks on the aging dictator, bought guns and prepared for an armed uprising. He returned to Mexico at the head of only 130 revolutionaries, but he was soon supported by many more, among them the formidable Francisco 'Pancho' Villa, and Emiliano Zapata in the south. By May 1911 the insurgents had won the day; Díaz agreed to resign, avoided the crowds in Mexico City who now wanted to lynch him by hiding briefly in one of his friend's mansions, and left for exile in France with an uncomfortably prophetic parting shot: 'they have let loose the wild beasts -- let's see who can tame them.' ...

Pancho Villa (left) Commander of the División del Norte  (Division of the North) 

and Emiliano Zapata, Commander of the Ejército Libertador del Sur

"Madero appointed an interim president while fresh elections could be organized, but this man, [Francisco León] De la Barra, did all he could to undermine the 'apostle of democracy's' position. Madero also tried to disband the revolutionary armies, including those not only of Pancho Villa, but also of the man who had been the strongest ally of the revolution in the south, Emiliano Zapata. Neither of them would give up their arms without a start to the promised land reform that would end the rule of the great rural owners and reward the poor peasants for all their efforts as fighters. Although Madero wanted to negotiate these matters, it was soon obvious that the government troops, still commanded by Porfirio's generals, and in particular General Victoriano Huerta, wanted to crush the insurgents.

"By the time Madero was elected to power in November 1911, the seeds of his downfall were already sown. The Mexican historian Enrique Krauze described the situation thus: 'In November 1911, Madero finally became president, thanks to the freest, most spontaneous vote which he won with the biggest majority in recent Mexican history. He ruled for fifteen months, with so many problems that with hindsight his period in office seems like a miracle of survival.'

"Madero was simply overwhelmed by the forces stacked against him. In the countryside, many of the state governments were still in the hands of Porfiristas. In the capital, the press and most of the intellectuals mocked him for his caution, his simplicity or his spiritualism. The army seemed at times only nominally under his command, while Zapata and his men continued their struggle for land in the south. On top of this, General Bernardo Reyes was busy stirring up anti-government feeling in the north of the country, and Porfirio's nephew, Felix Díaz, attempted another uprising in Veracruz. Both these rebellions were put down, and their leaders imprisoned in Santiago Tlatelolco -- although Madero resisted calls for their execution, a decision he would soon come to regret.

"It was on Sunday February 9, 1913 that Madero's miracle began to crumble. On this first of 'ten tragic days' or decena trágica, several hundred rebels freed General Reyes and Felix Díaz [and attacked Madero's government] ... Because of the injury to [his most trusted general], Madero then made the fatal mistake of appointing the untrustworthy general Victoriano Huerta to take over his government's defense. ... Huerta had soon begun secret talks with Díaz, helped in the conspiracy by the United States ambassador, Henry Lane Wilson. ... Francisco Madero and Vice-President Pino Suárez were taken prisoner. ... The president's brother was shot at point-blank range, and the soldiers emptied their rifles into his body. ... Back in the National Palace, Madero and his vice-president were still being held prisoner. This time, nobody came to their aid, and on Wednesday, February 19, 1913, the two men were forced to resign. Shortly afterwards, Victoriano Huerta proclaimed himself president. [Madero and Suarez were soon executed.]

"So ended the first bid to bring democratic rule to Mexico in the twentieth century. For the next ten years, Mexico City and the countryside were swept by revolution and counter-revolution. Democratic revolutionary ideals were swept away as different leaders struggled to win and hang on to power. First Huerta was deposed, then Emiliano Zapata was killed in an ambush by troops loyal to Huerta's successor, Venustiano Carranza. Then Carranza himself was toppled by another general, Alvaro Obregón, and in 1923, Pancho Villa, the last of the original revolutionary leaders, was shot down."


Nick Caistor


Mexico City: A Cultural and Literary Companion (Cities of the Imagination)


Interlink Publishing Group


Copyright Nick Caistor 2000


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