November 20th: Mexico’s Revolution Day
Portfirio Diaz was the best President of Mexico that American business ever had. For just a reasonable–if continual–bribe, railroads, Standard Oil, and mining companies could exploit all that Mexico had to offer. Some of Diaz’s amassed fortune was trickling down to the populace, at least to his family, the crew of his yacht and the teenage girls who seemed to rejuvenate the elderly tyrant. However, that was not really a majority of Mexico’s population.
Diaz had been a war hero against the French in the 1860s; but 34 years of corruption seemed a sufficient veteran’s benefit. By 1910, Mexico was ready to overthrow the outrageous rascal, and the hopes and the grievances of Mexico would center around a most incongruous figure. As a revolutionary, Francisco Madero was the soul of well-mannered moderation. As a leader, he was innocuous rather than charismatic. The hope of Mexico’s impoverished masses was a wealthy aristocrat who had been educated everywhere but Mexico. But this education abroad had made him an admirer of societies that were neither feudal relics or shameless kleptocracies. Even if he did look upon Mexico from an Ivory Tower, it was with genuine compassion.
His liberal principles had earned him several bouts in a Mexican prison. However, having the advantage of being rich in the Diaz days, he could always bribe his escape. While in exile in Texas, Madero issued a call for the Mexican people to overthrow Diaz and reestablish democracy; it was on this day in 1910.
Rebellions began throughout Mexico, and even the army seemed loathe to defend the Thief-in-Chief. Six months later, Portfirio Diaz was on his yacht, cruising to Europe with his usual contingent of teenage girls; he lived happily ever after. Francisco Madero was the new President. On his private estates, he had genuinely improved his workers’ standard of living; he imagined that he could do the same with all of Mexico. Unfortunately, Mexico proved a little more difficult. Moderation seemed to please no one.
Revolutionaries wanted more drastic reforms than Madero was prepared to make. Conservatives wanted no reforms at all. Worse for Madero, his innocuous moderation terrified American corporate interests in Mexico. They evidently preferred paying bribes than taxes, and a scrupulous Mexican government might interfere with their business. The American Ambassador Henry Wilson, representing those business interests, initiated his own foreign policy: a military coup to overthrow Madero.
Assuming that everyone had his good intentions, Madero had not tried to purge the Mexican Army of Diaz’s cronies. Unfortunately, a number of generals proved quite nostalgic for the old kleptocracy and were eager to reestablish it. Ambassador Wilson had no trouble orchestrating the coup. Madero had entrusted his security to Gen. Victoriano Huerta. Huerta organized the firing squad.
If you have seen “The Wild Bunch”, “One Hundred Rifles”, or “Viva Zapata” you know what happened next. It was a free-for-all civil war. Any general could claim to be the President, and anyone could claim to be a general. The Conservatives fought the Revolutionaries, and the Revolutionaries fought each other. In hindsight, this probably was not the best environment for American businesses; it was impossible to keep track of whom to bribe.
By 1920, the civil wars had bled themselves dry, and Mexico had arrived at a political compromise that more or less has lasted to this day: a government of moderate thieves.