Every November 20, Mexico celebrates the beginning of its 1910 Revolution. It was a titanic struggle that changed the nation forever, greatly improving the rights and living standards of ordinary people. It was also extremely destructive. Mexico lost 1 out of every 7 of its people and a large part of its infrastructure. In this posting, I'll give you both a look at Ajijic's colorful 2013 Revolution Day parade and a brief history of the Revolution itself. It was a very complex period and I know that this explanation certainly doesn't do it complete justice. I urge those who are interested to delve further into this fascinating time.
The Revolution had its roots in the unfinished business of the War for Independence from Spain (1810-1821) and the Reform War (1857-1861). The first abolished slavery and ended the dominance of Spain over Mexico. The second reduced the political and economic power of the Catholic Church and established--at least on paper--a liberal republican constitution. Although much was promised to the indigenous people and mestizos (people of mixed race) to gain their support, neither struggle was revolutionary in its result and the same elite class of hacendados (hacienda owners), mine owners, and businessmen remained in control throughout the 19th Century. In the words of a famous rock song, "Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss..."
The Conservatives, who lost the Reform War in 1861, then invited the French to invade Mexico in 1862 and install Ferdinand Maximilian as emperor. Maximilian's "empire" met bitter resistance and lasted only five years. Benito Juarez led the Liberal forces that finally expelled the invaders and re-established a republican form of government. The Catholic Church had backed the losing side in both the Reform War and the French Occupation and Juarez demanded that its political and economic power be broken. He and his Liberal supporters objected to the Church's control over a huge percentage of the nation's arable land and its domination of education in Mexico.
Benito Juarez was a man of unshakeable integrity. Using lands seized from the Church, he hoped to create a large class of independent farmers on which to base a democratic society. Unfortunately, the ordinary people had little capital with which to buy the land, and the government desperately needed revenue from land sales to pay off the debt created by decades of war. Despite Juarez' good intentions, most of the Church land ended up in the hands of the hacendados and foreign investors. In addition, the indigenous people lost what little protection the Church had provided against hacendados who continued their arbitrary seizures of ancestral lands. Once again, the hopes of the common people for land reform and social change were dashed. Once again, the new boss bore a striking resemblance to the old one.
Juarez died in office in 1872, and was replaced by his Foreign Minister Lerdo de Tejeda. In the meantime, former General Porfirio Diaz had been maneuvering for power. Diaz had been a hero during the Reform War and the resistance against the French. He won many battles and created quite a name for himself. He was also very ambitious politically and, after the victory over the French, he led several unsuccessful revolts against Juarez. After Juarez died, Diaz continued to maneuver and eventually was elected President of Mexico in 1877. He remained in power for the next 35 years, either directly as president or by alternating with hand-picked successors. Diaz' years in power were known as the Porfiriato. During this time, he modernized many aspects of the economy. However, most of the benefits went to a handful of his political supporters and most of the costs of this wrenching change were borne by Mexico's industrial workers and peones (agricultural workers on haciendas).
During the Porfiriato, new railroads and telegraph lines criss-crossed the nation--but were largely owned by British and American companies. Wealthy Mexicans and foreigners invested heavily in mines and factories. This resulted in high levels of production, but the workers suffered from low wages and brutal working conditions. Agriculture improved in efficiency and cash crops like sugar, sisal, and agave flourished. However, Mexico's land was dominated by a hacienda system controlled by a small number of aristocratic families who made millions while their peones lived in poverty and illiteracy.
Diaz' strong rule provided the stability that enabled all this modernization and economic development. He threw open the doors to foreign investment and created laws to protect business. He aided the mine and factory owners by crushing strikes and suppressing labor organizing. Hacendados benefited when Diaz drastically expanded the Rurales (rural police). Their job was to stamp out banditry and to catch and return peones trying to escape debt slavery on the haciendas. Ironically, many of the bandits were former peones with few options other than banditry or a return to degradation on a hacienda. Famous Revolutionary General Pancho Villa was a former peon who had escaped into the mountains of Chihuahua to lead the life of a bandit after killing a local hacendado who had raped his sister.
Meanwhile, in between the clique around Diaz and the toiling masses below, a small professional class began to emerge. It was made up of doctors, lawyers, hacienda administrators, and middle managers needed by the wealthy classes to make things run. The professionals, along with some of the more forward-thinking elements among the hacendado and business classes, began to chafe under the Porfiriato. Most of them had no desire to change the basic structure of Mexican society, much less to initiate a broad social revolution. They simply hated the glass ceiling that separated them from the vast wealth and power accumulated by the Diaz clique. They thought the solution to their problem would be what people in the US now call "term limits." The theory was that if no one could be elected more than once, a strong man would not be able to maintain himself in power as Diaz had, through a series of rigged elections. The reformers called themselves Anti-reeleccionistas.
Diaz's strategy for keeping control over the restless middle class was called "plata o plomo" (silver or lead). If special favors (the silver) from the regime didn't bring you into line, an assassin's lead bullet might well be your fate. The Porfiriato was a police state operating behind a mask of "democratic elections" the results of which were never in doubt. Decade after decade, the Porfiriato rolled along, seemingly secure in its power. US and European investors prided themselves on their safe and lucrative holdings in stable, business-friendly Mexico. Unnoticed by them, or by most wealthy Mexicans, a vast upheaval was approaching. The more Diaz clamped the lid down on the boiling pot, the more the pressure built, and the longer it built, the more violent the social explosion was going to be.
Among those who objected to Diaz' seemingly endless rule was Francisco Madero, a member of a wealthy family of hacendados from northern Mexico. He took up the Anti-reeleccionista cause as his platform when he ran against Diaz in the 1910 election. Although a member of the upper class, Madero gained support among ordinary Mexicans when he spoke out against the repression of labor unions and the enslavement of the indigenous Yaqui people who had been sent in chains to work on sisal haciendas in Yucatan. Diaz promptly imprisoned Madero, but the reformer escaped to the United States where he issued his Plan of San Luis Potosi. The Plan called for armed revolution and, among other things, for the restoration of lands stolen from indigenous people by hacendados. Madero set November 20, 1910 as the date for the uprising.