During Porfirio Diaz’ rule, power in Mexico was pre-eminent among the elite – landowners, bankers, captains of industry etc. Urban and agricultural workers, the growing middle classes and peasants were excluded from any political process. Foreign financiers dominated the economy. When the inevitable revolution came there was for once no organised political party behind it, more usual in revolutions. One Francisco Madero called for democracy and rejected Diaz’s re-election as President in 1910. A rebellion, he insisted, was called for. In the north peasants grabbed machetes and went to war under the leadership of the fanatical former ‘Robin Hood’ of Mexico – Pancho Villa. Meanwhile in the southern areas, Indians whose lands had been stolen from them were led by Emilio Zapata.
As a result Diaz went into exile (1911) and Madero became President but that was not the end of anything! The new President refused to allow great swathes of formerly Indian-held land to be returned to them, so peasant fury was unabated. As nearly always happens, an army general called Huerta got the support of the middle classes and the landowners, and staged a coup against Madero – who had started the uprising. Madero was promptly arrested and ‘shot attempting to escape’. Revolutions, nearly always necessary when too much power lies in the hands of the elite, always seem to end with the country in the clever hands of the ruthless middle classes. See both the French and Russian Revolutions.
The civil war raged, and the forces of Villa and Zapata combined with the Constitutional Army led by a military landowner called Venustiano Carranza and a successful general called Álvaro Obregón. Hidden in the bushes the shadowy figure of the President of the United States Woodrow Wilson could be seen. He was arms dealing. The city of Vera Cruz was seized, depriving Huerta of essential materièl. Very soon Huerta escaped into exile.
Obregón and Carranza then set up government in Vera Cruz, engaging in battles against Villa and Zapata; the latter controlled Mexico City for five months. In April 1915 the bloodiest battle ever fought in Mexico Obregón smashed Villa at Celaya.
Pancho then managed to get to the north, where he continued the rebellion until 1920, but by then his power and image had waned. It was at this time that he had Ambrose Bierce the American writer (Devil’s Dictionary), shot for being a gringo.
The army of Emilio Zapata withdrew from Mexico and he returned to his homeland in Morelos. Carranza was not in favour of social change, but Obregón’s group saw a need for better relations with peasants and workers. The radical Constitution of 1919 was produced which separated Church and State; authorized the break-up of the great ranches and the return of land (at last) to the dispossessed Indians. It also gave rights to workers, such as permission to form trade unions and go on strike. The Government also asserted its right to control the subsoil. This led to clashes with the foreign oil companies.
Above all Carranza did not wish to see any transfer of power to ‘the lower classes’ – another regularly unacceptable part of any revolution. In 1919 Zapata was murdered, and in the following year it was Carranza’s turn. Obregón became President and remained so from 1920 – 24, and it seemed the most violent part of the Revolution was over. Pancho Villa was handed an enormous ranch which he was able to enjoy for only three years before he too was assassinated.
Obregón might have ‘had his methods’ but he began to make Mexico the most stable state in Latin America. The peasants were organized into Agrarian Leagues, and workers formed a trade union confederation known as CROM. But these organizations were actually controlled by the Government, now led by Obregón’s successor Calles, who was President from 1924 – 8. After this all presidents of Mexico were little more than puppets (1928 – 34).
There was careful land reform under Obregón and Calles, but not until the presidency of Lázaro Cardenas (1934 – 40) were there any radical changes. It was the culmination of a near forty-year social revolution.