Mexican Revolution

Mexican Revolution And The Great War
Revolution And Reaction In The 20th Century
Author: Stearns, Peter N.;Adas, Michael;Schwartz, Stuart B.
Date: 1992

Two cataclysmic events launched Latin America into the 20th century and
set in motion trends that would determine much of the region's subsequent
history. The first of these events was the ten-year civil war and political
upheaval of the Mexican Revolution, which erupted because of the internal
situation in that country. Eventually, however, the Mexican Revolution was
also influenced by the other major event, the outbreak of World War I. While
most Latin-American nations avoided direct participation in the Great War, as
World War I was called at the time, the disruption of traditional markets for
Latin-American exports and the elimination of European sources of manufactures
caused a realignment of the economies of a number of nations in the region.
Forced to rely on themselves, a spurt of manufacturing continued the process
begun after 1870, and some small steps were taken to overcome the traditional
dependence on outside supply. Finally, at the end of World War I, the United
States emerged as the dominant foreign power in the region replacing Great
Britain in both economic and political terms. That position created a reality
that Latin Americans could not ignore and that greatly influenced economic and
political options in the region.

Mexico's Upheaval

The event that announced a new age in Latin America and launched it into
the 20th century was the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The regime of Porfirio
Diaz had been in power since 1876 and seemed unshakable. During the Diaz
dictatorship, tremendous economic changes had been made, and foreign
concessions in mining, railroads, and other sectors of the economy had created
a sense of prosperity among the Mexican elite. This progress, however, had
been bought at considerable expense. Foreigners controlled large sectors of
the economy. The hacienda system of extensive landholdings dominated certain
regions of the country. The political system was wholly corrupt and any
complaint was stifled. The government took repressive measures against
workers, peasants, and Indians who opposed the alienation of their lands or
the unbearable working conditions. Political opponents were often imprisoned
or forced into exile. In short, Diaz ruled with an iron fist through an
effective political machine.

By 1910, however, Diaz was 80 years old and seemed willing to allow some
political opposition. Francisco Madero, a wealthy son of an elite family,
proposed to run against Diaz. Madero was no radical, but he believed that some
moderate democratic political reforms would relieve social tensions and allow
the government to continue its "progressive" economic developments with a
minimum of popular unrest. Madero's moderate challenge was not much, but it
was more than Diaz could stand. Madero was arrested, a rigged election put
Diaz back in power; and things returned to normal. When Madero was released
from prison, he called for a revolt.

A general rebellion developed. In the north, small farmers, railroaders,
and cowboys coalesced under the colorful former bandit and able commander,
Pancho Villa. In Morelos, an area of old conflicts between Indian communities
and large sugar estates, a peasant-based guerrilla movement began under
Emiliano Zapata whose goal of land reform was expressed in his motto "Tierra y
Libertad" (Land and Liberty). Diaz was driven from power by this coalition of
forces, but it soon became apparent that Madero's moderate programs would not
resolve Mexico's continuing social problems. Zapata rose in revolt demanding a
sweeping land reform and Madero steadily lost control of his subordinates. In
1913, with at least tacit agreement of the American ambassador in Mexico, a
military coup removed Madero from government and he was then assassinated.

General Victoriano Huerta sought to reimpose a Diaz-type dictatorship
supported by the large landowners, the army, and the foreign companies, but
the tide of revolution could not be stopped so easily. Villa and Zapata rose
again against the government and were joined by other middle-class political
opponents of Huerta's illegal rule. By 1914 Huerta was forced from power, but
the victorious leaders now began to fight over the nature of the new regime
and the mantle of leadership. An extended period of warfare followed as the
tides of battle continually shifted. The railroad lines built under Diaz now
moved large numbers of troops and their accompanying women soldaderas who
sometimes shouldered arms. Matters were also complicated by United States
intervention and by diplomatic maneuverings after the outbreak of World War I
in Europe. Villa and Zapata remained in control in their home territories, but
they could not wrest the government from control of the more moderate
political leaders in Mexico City. Alvaro Obregon, an able general who had
learned the new tactics of machine guns and trenches from the war raging in
Europe and had beaten Villa's cavalry in a series of bloody battles in 1915,
emerged as leader of the government.

As much as the Mexican Revolution had its own internal dynamic, it is
interesting to note that it was roughly contemporaneous with revolutions in
other agrarian societies which had also just undergone a period of rapid and
disruptive modernization. The Boxer Rebellion in China (1899-1901) and the
toppling of the emperor in 1911, the 1905 revolution in Russia and a
revolution in Iran in the same year underlined the rapid changes in these
societies, all of which had received large foreign investments from either the
United States or western Europe. In each of these countries governments had
tried to establish strong centralized control and had sought rapid
modernization, but in doing so had made their nations increasingly dependent
on foreign investments and consequently on world financial markets. Thus a
world banking crisis like that of 1907 and 1908 cut Mexico and these other
countries off from their needed sources of capital and created severe strains
on their governments. This kind of dependency, and the fact that in Mexico
over 20 percent of the nation's territory was owned directly by United States'
citizens or companies, fed a growing nationalism that spread through many
sectors of society. That nationalist sentiment played a role in each of these

By 1920 the period of civil war was ended and Mexico began to consolidate
the changes that had taken place in the previous confused and bloody decade.
Obregon was elected president in that year, and he was then followed by a
series of presidents from the new "revolutionary elite" who sought to
consolidate the new regime. There was much to be done. The revolution had
devastated the country: one-half million people had died, major industries
were destroyed, ranching and farming were disrupted. But there was great hope
because the revolution also promised (although it did not always deliver) real

What were some of these changes? A new constitution of 1917 promised land
reform, limited the foreign ownership of key resources, guaranteed the rights
of workers, placed restrictions on clerical education and Church ownership of
property, and promised educational reforms. The workers who had been mobilized
were organized in a national confederation and were given representation in
the government. The promised land reforms were slow in coming, but under
President Lazaro Cardenas (1934-1940) over 40 million acres were distributed,
most of it in the form of ejidos, or communal holdings. The government
launched an extensive program of primary and especially rural education.

Culture And Politics In Postrevolutionary Mexico

Nationalism and indigenism, or the concern for the Indians and their
contribution to Mexican culture, lay beneath many reforms. Having failed to
integrate the Indians into national life for a century, Mexico now sought to
"Indianize" the nation through secular schools that emphasized nationalism and
a vision of the Mexican past that glorified its Indian heritage and denounced
Western capitalism. Artists such as Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco
recaptured that past and outlined a social program for the future in stunning
murals on public buildings designed to inform, convince, and entertain at the
same time. The Mexican muralist movement had a wide impact on artists
throughout Latin America even though, as Orozco himself stated, it sometimes
created simple solutions and strange utopias by mixing a romantic image of the
Indian past with Christian symbols and Communist ideology. Novelists such as
Mariano Azuela found in the revolution itself a focus for the examination of
Mexican reality. Popular culture celebrated the heroes and events of the
revolution in scores of ballads that were sung to celebrate and inform. In
literature, music, and the arts, the revolution as well as its themes provided
a stimulus to a tremendous burst of creativity.

The gains of the revolution were not made without considerable
opposition. While it had preceded the Russian Revolution of 1917 and had no
single ideological model, many of the ideas of Marxian socialism were held by
leading Mexican intellectuals and a few politicians. The secularization of
society and especially education met strong opposition from the Church and the
clergy, especially when in some states Socialist rhetoric and anticlericalism
was extreme. In the 1920s a conservative peasant movement backed by the Church
erupted in central Mexico. These "Cristeros," backed also by conservative
politicians, fought to stop the slide toward secularization. Fighting lasted
for years until a compromise was reached.

The United States had intervened diplomatically and militarily during the
revolution. An incident provoked a short-lived United States seizure of
Veracruz in 1914, and when Pancho Villa's forces had raided across the border,
the United States sent an expeditionary force into Mexico to catch him. The
mission failed. For the most part, however, the war in Europe had distracted
American foreign policy until 1918. The United States was suspicious of the
new government and a serious conflict arose when American-owned oil companies
ran into problems with workers. The companies called for United States
intervention or pressure when President Cardenas expropriated the companies in
1934. An agreement was worked out, however, and Mexico nationalized its
petroleum industry in a state-run monopoly. This nationalization of natural
resources was considered a declaration of economic independence. It symbolized
the nationalistic basis of many of the revolution's goals.

As in any revolution, the question of continuity arose when the fighting
ended. The revolutionary leadership hoped to institutionalize the new regime
by creating a one-party system. This organization, presently called the Party
of the Institutionalized Revolution (PRI), developed slowly during the 1920s
and 1930s into a dominant force in Mexican politics. It incorporated labor,
peasant, military, and middle class sectors and proved flexible enough to
incorporate new interest groups as they developed. While Mexico became in
theory a multiparty democracy, in reality the PRI controlled politics and, by
accomodation and sometimes repression, maintained its hold on national
political life. Some presidents governed much like the strong men in the 19th
century had done, but the party structure and the need to incorporate various
interests within the government coalition limited the worst aspects of
caudillo, or personalist, rule. Presidents were strong, but the policy of
limiting the presidency to one six-year term ensured some change in
leadership. The question of whether a revolution could be institutionalized
remained in debate. By the last decades of the century, many Mexicans believed
that little remained of the principles and programs of the revolutionaries of

[See Mural By Siqueiros: During and after the Mexican Revolution, artists like
David Alfaro Siqueiros called for murals in public places, worker
neighborhoods, and sport stadiums, as well as on large buildings to record the
history of Mexico and to emphasize the actions of the people. Siqueiros's"
Struggle For The Banner" (1957) portrays workers and peasants seixing the
national flag from th hands of oppressors.]

Latin-American Economies And World War I

The Mexican Revolution had a limited immediate impact beyond the borders
of Mexico, but the outbreak of World War I affected most of the region
directly. Throughout much of Latin America, the effects of the economic boom
of the late 19th century had continued into the first decades of the 20th
century. Each nation had its specialized crop or set of exports - coffee for
Colombia, Brazil, and Costa Rica; minerals from Bolivia, Chile, and Peru;
bananas from Ecuador and Central America; and sugar from Cuba. As long as
European demand remained high, groups in control of these exports greatly

For a while, World War I produced some immediate effects on the
Latin-American economies. Cut off from supplies of traditional imports, a
spurt of industrial growth took place in what economists call "import
substitution industrialization." Latin Americans had to produce for themselves
some of what they had formerly imported. Most of this involved "light"
industry such as textiles. Latin America continued to suffer from a lack of
capital, limited markets (because so many people had so little to spend), and
low technological levels. Still, changes had taken place. Moreover, during the
war there was also increased European demand for some products. World War I
had provided a stimulus to the economy but it was a false start. After the war
a general inflationary trend meant that the real wages of the working classes
declined and their worsening condition contributed to increasing political

That unrest also resulted from population growth, which was rapid in some
countries. Immigrants continued to pour into Argentina, Brazil, and some of
the other temperate countries, swelling the ranks of the rural and urban
working classes. Cities grew in size and importance. Often the old pattern of
a capital city and its port dominating the rest of the country became
reinforced during this period. This has been a continuing problem in Latin
America, where cities such as Lima, Montevideo, Quito, and Mexico City have so
dominated the economic and political resources of their countries that growth
outside the capital has been difficult. By 1920, for example, 20 percent of
Argentina's total population lived in Buenos Aires; 14 percent of the
population of Chile and Cuba lived in their capitals of Santiago and Havana.
Latin America had a strong urban tradition since colonial times, but in the
20th century rapid urban growth created a series of social problems that
reflected the transformation of Latin America from basically agrarian to
industrializing societies.

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