Why did the first revolutionary governments in Mexico fail to survive

Essay, 2002

19 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)


Why did the first revolutionary governments in Mexico fail to survive?

Francisco Leon de la Barra (interim) 1911

Francisco I. Madero 1911-1913

Pedro Lascurain (interim) 1913

Victoriano Huerta (interim) 1913-1914

Francisco S. Carbajal (interim) 1914

Venustiano Carranza 1914 & 1915-1920

Eulalio Gutierrez (interim) 1914

Roque Gonzalez Garza 1914

Francisco Lagos Chazaro 1915

Adolfo de la Huerta (interim) 1920

Alvaro Obregon 1920-1924

Plutarco Elias Calles 1924-1928

Emilio Portes Gil (interim) 1928-1930

Pascual Ortiz Rubio 1930-1932

Abelardo L. Rodriguez (interim) 1932-1934

Lazaro Cardenas 1934-1940

In the years from 1911 to 1934 Mexico witnessed fifteen presidents[1] appearing and vanishing after short periods of rule. The political, economic and social reasons for such a rapid change in governmental affairs will be discussed in this essay. Governments can be defined as “institutions responsible for making collective decisions for society. More narrowly, government refers to the top political level within such institutions” (Hague R., p. 5). It is suitable to evaluate the question of governmental survival on the background of an official period of four years till 1926 and from then on of six years. This makes it possible to recognise that the rulers in Mexico during the first 33 years following the revolution were not capable of remaining in power for a whole term and/or did not survive their removal from office in a literal sense. All those governments never reached the political stability in order to consequently produce a lasting regime. This essay will firstly deal with factors which can be applied as reasons for all regimes to some degree such as competition for power, opposition, failure to reform and a discontent population. Secondly some remarkable impediments weigh more heavily on specific regimes such as personal incompetence or foreign and clerical pressure, which made it even more difficult for them to persist. To answer the addressed question of this work, I will focus on President Madero, Huerta, Carranza, Obregón and Calles in order to represent convincing explanations for their failure to survive, exemplifying arguments for all regimes till Lazaro Cardenas.

The reasons, which should be considered of great albeit varying significance for the failure of all the disappointing and short lived rulers succeeding the dictator Díaz, will be discussed in the first part of this paper. Power struggles within the ruling elite, severe opposition, economical difficulties and the failure to reform, a discontent population and its resulting political obstacles caused the problem of unsolved political instability which was those governments undoing.

Regimes were doomed to fail because power struggles emerging inside the ruling elite made unobstructed rule impossible. Many revolutionaries betrayed their loyalty to a specific leader or a revolutionary ideal in order to achieve executive power. Such opportunistic allies made it difficult for a president to secure his authority and political stability, leaving the government vulnerable to further attacks and without the necessary support to act efficiently. The unfortunate choice of political partners made the regimes susceptible towards unforeseeable fast power changes. President Franciso Madero, who came to power in 1911, relied on the wrong people to be his associates. Calero, for instance, being an intimate friend of the dictator Díaz, had changed sides to become Madero´s ally. “Rebels and conservatives alike agreed that with Calero, Madero had picked for his cabinet one of the most opportunistic politicians in the history of the country” (Ruíz R., p. 151). Other ambitious man like Reyes, an ex-Porfirian general, however unsuccessfully, left the government vulnerable to further attacks. Reyes “plotted and schemed to make himself president, preferably by election but by force if necessary” (Cumberland C., p. 190) but his dreams were shattered when his supporters abandoned and Madero jailed him. It surely weakened the Madero administration to a certain extent because Reye´s “...overweening desire to occupy the presidential post stimulated reaction, encouraged disloyalty, and led to dissension and revolt” (Cumberland C., p. 190). Furthermore the blind trust of the president in the wrong man facilitated his own destruction. Madero confidently asked General Huerta to defend his regime. Being an opportunistic general, he betrayed Madero and his trust in the leader of his loyalist forces through the ´Ten horrible days`[2] and took the chance to gain the most influential position in Mexico. Noticing the political change and trying to save their own position, most of Madero´s early supporters abandoned him, withdrawing the necessary basis to reign the country and to uphold the president´s own standing. “Only two of his governors, José María Maytorena in Sonora and Venustiano Carranza in Coahuila, rejected Huerta´s tutelage” (Ruíz R., p. 152)[3]. As a result, after governing the country for only thirteen months, Madero lost his life in February 1913. Huerta, allied with Félix Díaz and assured by the encouragement of U.S. ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, had organized his assassination and seized power for himself. The weak Congress raised only a “few dissenting votes” (Richmond D., p. 43). Therefore it was made impossible for Madero to protect his position as the elected head of state and to ensure his survival for the whole election period, due to his powerful allied foes and a impotent opposition. The same process of disloyalty undermining the authority and eventually bringing the fall of a president can be seen in Carranza´s case. Carranza as well was first abandoned and eventually betrayed after he tried to prevent his minister of war from becoming president. In 1917 Obregón departed from Carranza´s cabinet, not wishing to be identified with the presidents regime any longer and retired to his hacienda Quinta Chilla.

While Obregón just waited for the right opportunity to achieve high public office and power, he manipulated those around him with a word of praise or by opening the door to the public trough. However “his unwillingness to tolerate potential rivals drove scores of early allies from Sonora to join the enemy camp, including De la Huerta and Salvador Alvarado” (Ruíz R., p. 171) which increased the possibility to become victim of his ambitious foes during his future presidency as well. Additionally many officials abandoned President Carranza and only few remained loyal like Generals Diéguez, Cesáreo Castro, Cándido Aguilar and Francisco Murguía. Others as Pascual Ortiz Rubio, governor and a conservative “with the backbone of a jellyfish” (Ruíz R., p. 175), deserted Carranza to join Obregón. The political game was not only made unpredictable by generals swapping sides but also by deliberately deceiving the president. General Sánchez proclaimed his undying loyalty to Carranza and after the outbreak of the rebellion persuaded the First Chief to move his government to Veracruz - the place which was under his control. His suddenly joining the others in support of the Plan of Agua Prieta[4] apparently left the Carrancistas with no place to go. Obregón had eventually initiated cuartelazo, the Sonora barracks revolt which started on April 11, 1920. Obregón, after giving Carranza an opportunity to assure his own personal safety which he rejected, was at least morally responsible for the murder of Carranza, to whom he owed his political career. With the overthrow of Carranza the objective of the Plan of Agua Prieta been achieved on May 9 1920. Future disloyalty, as a reason for governments´ failure, was encouraged through rewards for betraying, like Alvaro Obregón´s triumphant entry into the capital and the punishment for loyalty. General Mariel and the other military men who had remained with Carranza did not receive a warm welcome in Mexico City, they were placed in jail for what was called “the crime of loyalty”. President Obregón himself, who had followed Venustiano Carranza “until his appetite for the presidency overcame his loyalty”(Ruíz R., p. 176), became also a victim of a rebellion. This time the armed movement was led by Adolfo de la Huerta, who had hoped to succeed Obregón as president and was bitterly disappointed when he named Calles as his choice. The rebellion broke out in December 1923 following the failed bid for the presidency. De la Huerta´s supporters included Catholics, conservatives and again a considerable portion of the officer corps, who felt that Obregón had reversed Carranza´s policy of favoring the army at the expense of the farmer-labour sector. Obregón, however, was able to crush the rebellion and he ordered the execution of all rebel officers over the rank of major. This brutality in murdering elite enemies secured him to stay in power for a whole term, longer than Madero who had naively forgiven generals who conspired against him. Still, if Obregón managed to survive his first period as a president, he was not even able to begin his second session. After Obregón´s followers had amended the Constitution, betraying the revolutionary idea of non-reelection so that he could achieve power again after a one-term interval, he was assassinated in July 1928. The next president, Plutarco Elias Calles was still more fortunate because he was exiled instead of murdered. After Calles had managed to remain in power the four years of his presidency, the reign of his straw-man Emilio Portes Gil (1928-1930) and Pascual Ortiz Rubio (1930-1932), he felt disappointed when his boarder Cárdenas turned against him. Cárdenas pre-empted a coup on April 9, 1936 against Calles and mercifully deported him to the United States. Nevertheless also in Calles case the struggle for power within the ruling elite eventually deprived him from his position of control and authority behind the lines. In sharp contrast to the first governments, however, stands Cárdenas policy which made fighting for political control more difficult. President Cárdenas created a more effective apparatus for central control and he bureaucratised the military so that they no longer constituted a potentially autonomous power bloc which might take over the state. Yet for most governments between 1911 till 1934, the retreat of military and political support and the swapping of sides especially through high ranking authorities, not only encouraged but brought the eventual removal from office.

Furthermore bitter opposition made it difficult for governments to persist. The rebellious activities created grave problems of finance, prevented cohesive actions for reform and brought about conditions which made coup d´états possible. Madero, like most of the rulers succeeding him, did not even get close to a state of political stability because of the strong opposition movements of Pancho Villa in the North and Emiliano Zapata in the South. Added on to the men[5] who rallied to the Madero cause and who induced the dictator Díaz to resign on 21 May 1911, Villa and Zapata soon turned against Madero because of his moderate approach to realise the ideas and goals of the revolution. Madero´s presidency alienated the revolutionaries through imperceptible improvements in the matter of land distribution, provoking organised armed rebellions against his government from his previous supporters. Villa, on the one hand, with a mere definitive agenda was surrounded by devoted and heavily-armed followers which fought vigorously against Madero, Huerta and Carranza. From 1911 on, and even after 1915 after Villa´s movement had lost some of his power after the defeat by Obregón, he disturbed domestic and foreign policy through his violent raids inside Mexico and in the U.S. till he retired in 1920. For example, Villa provoked the John Pershing Expedition into Mexico by his cross-border raid on Coumbus, New Mexico in 1916, causing political tensions between the two governments. The Zapatistas[6], on the other hand, accused Madero of being incapable of giving land to those who tilled it. With the obvious contradictions in Madero´s attitude towards land reform, the number of his political enemies grew. On the one side he approved the growth of small property and promised to return all land which had been confiscated from the peasants[7]. On the other side his acceptance of the sacredness of private property made land reform very difficult, if not impossible. Hence it seems evident that Madero “never stopped thinking as an hacendado”, “branded their [the Zapatistas] actions a perverse vandalism” (Ruíz R., p. 144). He also urged safeguards for the haciendas which were attacked by guerrilla units roaming across the country, destroying and burning down many large haciendas and ranchos. Zapata, in order to regain expropriated village lands fought federal governments and made South Mexico largely uncontrollable for the government for years. Those activities spread fear and insecurity through the country, increasing the pressure onto the governments to solve this problem. Besides the two largest revolutionary movements, former Díaz supporters, cientificos like Bernado Reyes, gathered openly material for the military apparatus of an invasion. Additionally Porfirio´s nephew, Félix Díaz tried to mobilise forces to re-institute the Cientifico regime. Even those unsuccessful attempts to overthrow the government however resulted in a “heavy concentration of military forces [exhausting] scanty revenues...and a period of three months to discussing the problems of protection when they should have been considering reform” (Cumberland C., p. 189). Consequently “Madero merely tinkered with the machinery of government” (Ruíz R., p. 152) and failed to create a stable government. The assassination of Madero marked the end of the opposition against too moderate reforms and at the same time the beginning of growing unrest due to the new, in reform terms ineffective and repressive regime. After the counterrevolution which sought to restore the Porfiriato had failed, the revolution became a contest between two sets of forces- the popular movements headed by Villa and Zapata, and the Constitutionalist forces headed initially by Carranza. In the North Pancho Villa gathered enemies of the regime in power in order to fight against injustice, however always as an undirected, destructive force. Zapatistas were as well not very successful in defending their gains but in disrupting the political order. Zapata was still fighting for visions like a new type of agrarian social order, the reform of the justice system and municipal autonomy as the right of local government. The lack of enthusiasm in national-level institutions in these matters or in Huerta´s case the solemn concentration of his policies to stay in power, provoked opposition all over Mexico. The dictator Victoriano Huerta faced military campaigns from constitutionalists like Carranza and Obregón through the whole time of his reign which finally ended with the overthrow of Huerta in 1914 by Venustiano Carranza. The trouble for President Carranza, after having survived the Civil War, started in 1919 when he declared that the Sonora River was the property of the nation and tried to break up railroad strike in Sonora. In April 1920 the Sonora rebellion against Carranza started after Sonora had withdrawn its recognition of the Carranza regime and in return the Carrancistas had made use of the police to jail supporters of Obregón in Tampico. This movement of armed revolt was accompanied by the Plan of Agua Prieta, largely the work of the governor of Sonora, De la Huerta, and of Generals Plutarco Elías Calles and Salvador Alvarado, which sought to explain and justify what was being done. The opponents claimed that Carranza “had made himself head of a political party and in seeking the triumph of that party he had systematically made mockery of the popular vote and had repeatedly assaulted the sovereignty of the states” (Dulles J., p. 33). Constituting an absolute treason to the fundamental aspirations of the Constitutionalist Revolution, Carranza had also confiscated around 50 million pesos in gold from the Mexican banks. Those accusations, as well as the responsibility for having arranged the death of Emiliano Zapata by General Jesús M. Guajardo, weight heavy on Carranza reputation and made him highly unpopular. Carranza tried to fly from Mexico City to set up his government in Veracruz, failed and was murdered on the 21 May by a group led by Facundo Garrido and Ernesto Herrero in support of Obregón. Nevertheless Obregón´s period was also marked by massive, extremely violent, rural counter rebellions, as well as Calles´ term when the Chamber of Deputies voted one million pesos to put down the Yaquis down forever[8], for instance. However, especially the struggle of president Madero and Carranza was marked by the most influential proletarian upheaval of Francisco Villa and the agrarian crusade of Emiliano Zapata which made economic progress difficult and political stability impossible.


[1] 15 presidents from Francisco Leon de la Barra (interim) 1911 to Abelardo L. Rodriguez (interim) 1932-1934; http://www.northcoast.com/~spdtom/rev3.html

[2] In February 1913 Madero ordered General Huerta to defeat the opposition movement under Reyes and Félix Díaz. After destructive fights the battle came to a sudden close by the betrayal of Madero by Huerta.

[3] Maytorena took up residence across the border and only Carranza still supported Madero

[4] Plan of Agua Prieta: proclaimed the sovereignty of the people and sought to justify the armed revolt in order to overthrow President Carranza

[5] approximately 17,000

[6] mostly peasants following Zapata

[7] The transfer of land had been “entirely legal in some 90% of cases, and the Maderista policy of rectifying only illegal land seizures would barely scratch the surface of the problem” (Knight A., p. 422).

[8] finally they surrendered in late 1927

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Why did the first revolutionary governments in Mexico fail to survive
University of Southampton  (Department of Politics)
1,3 (A)
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ISBN (eBook)
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Lucia Schuster (Author), 2002, Why did the first revolutionary governments in Mexico fail to survive, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/13834


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