Revolution and Stabilization
Porfirio Díaz himself had first campaigned on the slogan ¡”No Reelección!” It expressed the idea that the president should step down after one term. Although Díaz had stepped down once in 1880, for an interregnum as Oaxaca’s governor, in 1884 he got himself elected president again and remained in office for 26 consecutive years. In 1910, Francisco I. Madero, a short, squeaky-voiced son of rich landowners, opposed Díaz under the same banner.
Although Díaz had jailed him before the election, Madero refused to quit campaigning. From a safe platform in the United States, he called for a revolution to begin on November 20. The response in Oaxaca was typical: In the countryside, a few leaders rallied around Madero’s banner, but Díaz had them rounded up and then got his nephew, Félix, installed as governor.
After all, “¡No Reelección!” is not much of a platform. But millions of poor Mexicans were going to bed hungry, and Díaz hadn’t listened to them for years.
Villa and Zapata
In May 1910, those millions of poor Mexicans began to stir. In Oaxaca, a swarm of small rebellions broke out, then coalesced into a general revolution, which toppled Félix Díaz from the governorship. Simultaneously, up north in Chihuahua, followers of Francisco (Pancho) Villa, an erstwhile ranch hand, miner, peddler, and cattle rustler, began attacking the rurales, dynamiting railroads, and raiding towns. Meanwhile, in Morelos state, just north of Oaxaca, horse trader, farmer, and minor official Emiliano Zapata and his indígena guerrillas were terrorizing rich hacendados and forcibly recovering stolen ancestral village lands. Zapata’s movement gained steam and by mid-May had taken the Morelos state capital, Cuernavaca. Meanwhile, Madero crossed the Río Grande and joined with Villa’s forces, who took Ciudad Juárez. Soon the federales, government army troops, began deserting in droves, and on May 25, 1911, Díaz submitted his resignation.
As Madero’s deputy, General Victoriano Huerta, put Díaz on his ship of exile in Veracruz, Díaz confided: “Madero has unleashed a tiger. Now let’s see if he can control it.”
Madero’s star, nevertheless, was still rising. As he paraded triumphantly into Mexico City, revolutionary state governments were blossoming all over the country. Benito Juárez’s son, Benito Juárez Maza, served briefly as Oaxaca’s maderista governor in 1911–1912 until he was killed in a local skirmish.
The Fighting Continues
Emiliano Zapata turned out to be that very tiger whom Madero had unleashed. Meeting with Madero in Mexico City, Zapata fumed over Madero’s go-slow approach to the “agrarian problem,” as Madero termed it. By November 1912, Zapata had denounced Madero. “¡Tierra y Libertad!” (“Land and Liberty!”) the Zapatistas cried, as Madero’s support faded. The army in Mexico City rebelled; Huerta forced Madero to resign on February 18, 1913, then ordered him executed four days later.
The rum-swilling Huerta ruled like a Chicago mobster; general rebellion, led by the “Big Four”—Villa, Alvaro Obregón, and Venustiano Carranza in the north, and Zapata in the south—soon broke out. Pressed by the rebels and refused U.S. recognition, Huerta fled into exile in July 1914.
Meanwhile in Oaxaca, fighting between liberals and conservatives, much like the wars for Independence and the Reforms, laid waste to the countryside, killing commerce and sending foreign investors fleeing. But unlike the rest of the country, Oaxaca had no majority class of landless campesinos and consequently no great radical cause or leader to champion it.
Disgusted with the barbaric war of attrition ravaging the rest of the country, many Oaxaca leaders publicly repudiated the “Big Four” and declared Oaxaca a “sovereign” republic and tried to deny access to revolutionary outsiders.
Moreover, Oaxacan conservatives made a serious error in betraying and murdering Jésus Carranza, brother of El Primer Jefe (First Chief) Venustiano Carranza. Soon Carranzista battalions invaded Oaxaca and quickly defeated local forces, sending Oaxacan leaders scurrying to Mexico City or to the mountains, where they fought on for years as guerrillas.
The national struggle ground on for three more years as authority see-sawed between revolutionary factions. Finally Carranza, who controlled most of the country by 1917, got a convention together in Querétaro to formulate political and social goals. The resulting Constitution of 1917, while restating most ideas of the Reformistas’ 1857 constitution, additionally prescribed a single four-year presidential term, labor reform, and subordinated private ownership to public interest. Every village had a right to communal ejido land, and subsoil wealth could never be sold away to the highest bidder.
The Constitution of 1917 was a revolutionary expression of national aspirations and, in retrospect, represented a social and political agenda for the entire 20th century. In modified form, it has lasted to the present day.
Obregón Stabilizes Mexico
On December 1, 1920, General Alvaro Obregón legally assumed the presidency of a Mexico still bleeding from 10 years of civil war. Although a seasoned revolutionary, Obregón was also a negotiator who recognized that peace was necessary to implement the goals of the revolution. In four years, his government pacified local uprisings, disarmed a swarm of warlords, executed hundreds of bandidos, obtained U.S. diplomatic recognition, assuaged the worst fears of the clergy and landowners, and began land reform.
With Obregón as an example, Oaxaca’s new governor García Vigil went to work. Despite the irritant of remnant revolutionary guerrilla bands in the countryside, Vigil pushed a successful land reform and wrote a new constitution, which is essentially in effect today. His tax reform plans, however, ran into trouble with Oaxaca’s rich landowners and came to nothing when he was assassinated in 1924.
At the national level, Obregón’s success set the stage for Plutarco Elías Calles, Obregón’s Secretaría de Gobernación and handpicked successor, who won the 1924 national election. Aided by peace, Mexico returned to a semblance of prosperity. Calles brought the army under civilian control, balanced the budget, and shifted Mexico’s revolution into high gear. New clinics vaccinated millions against smallpox, new dams irrigated thousands of previously dry acres, and campesinos received millions of acres of redistributed land.
Simultaneously, Calles threatened foreign oil companies, demanding they exchange their titles for 50-year leases. A moderate Mexican supreme court decision over the oil issue and the skillful arbitration of U.S. Ambassador Dwight Morrow smoothed over both the oil and church troubles by the end of Calles’s term.
Calles, who started out brimming with revolutionary fervor and populist zeal, became increasingly conservative and dictatorial. Although he bowed out peaceably in favor of Obregón (the constitution had been amended to allow one six-year nonsuccessive term), Obregón was assassinated two weeks after his election in 1928. Calles continued to rule for six more years through three puppet-presidents: Emilio Portes Gil (1928–1930), Pascual Ortiz Rubio (1930–1932), and Abelardo Rodríguez (1932–1934).
Calles Forms the PRI
In 1929, President Calles united three of Mexico’s major constituencies: the country poor (represented by the Confederación Nacional de Campesinos, CNC), the workers (Confederación de Trabajadore Méjicanos, CTM), and the middle classes (Confederación Nacional de Organizaciones Populares, CNOP). Calles christened his new super political party the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party), or PRI, or, pronounced simply, the “pree.”
The PRI dominated Mexican, and especially Oaxacan, politics during the 60 years after its founding. PRI presidents handpicked their PRI successors, who always got elected. Federal government contracts and salary money flowed from PRI headquarters in Mexico City to state and municipal officials, who were nearly always loyal local members of the PRI.
Oaxaca, isolated from the national economy and with no influential revolutionary ex-general to demand its fair share of national patronage, was consistently underfunded and mostly ignored by the central government. Nevertheless, despite a severe earthquake in 1931 and general economic depression, Oaxacans managed some modest public works improvements during the 1930s and early 1940s. A paved road to Monte Albán led to important archaeological discoveries; other new highways branched out from the valley to the Mixteca, the Isthmus, and to Puerto Ángel. Oaxaca City residents benefited from a few improvements, such as a new water works and restoration of the opera house. But revolution and hard times had taken their toll: In 1940, Oaxaca City’s population, about 40,000, was still the same as in 1910.
Lázaro Cárdenas, President of the People
Although he had received Calles’s blessing for the 1934 presidential election, ex-general Lázaro Cárdenas, the 40-year-old former governor of Michoacán, immediately set his own agenda. Cárdenas worked tirelessly to fulfill the social prescriptions of the revolution. As morning-coated diplomats and cabinet ministers fretted in his outer office, Cárdenas ushered in delegations of campesinos and factory workers and sympathetically listened to their problems.
In his six years of rule, Cárdenas moved public education and health forward on a broad front, supported strong labor unions, and redistributed 49 million acres of farmland, more than any president before or since.
Cárdenas’s resolute enforcement of the constitution’s Artículo 123 brought him the most renown. Under this pro-labor law, the government turned over a host of private companies to employee ownership and, on March 18, 1938, expropriated all foreign oil corporations.
In retrospect the oil corporations, most of which were British, were not blameless. They had sorely neglected the wages, health, and welfare of their workers while ruthlessly taking the law into their own hands with private police forces. Although Standard Oil cried foul, the U.S. government did not intervene. Through negotiation and due process, U.S. companies eventually were compensated with $24 million plus 3 percent interest. In the wake of the expropriation, President Cárdenas created Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the national oil corporation that continues to run all Mexican oil and gas operations to the present day.
Manuel Avila Camacho
Manuel Avila Camacho, elected in 1940, was the last general to be president of Mexico. His administration ushered in a gradual shift of Mexican politics, government, and foreign policy as Mexico allied itself with the U.S. cause during World War II. Foreign tourism, initially promoted by the Cárdenas administration, ballooned. Good feelings surged as Franklin Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to officially cross the Río Grande, when he met with Camacho in Monterrey in April 1943.
As World War II moved toward its 1945 conclusion, both the United States and Mexico were enjoying the benefits of four years of governmental and military cooperation and mutual trade in the form of a mountain of strategic minerals, which had moved north in exchange for a similar mountain of U.S. manufactures that moved south.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition