Mon, 14 August 2017
Spain and England colonized the Americas in very different ways. That led to different cultural values, which led to different constitutions. Mexico has had to update and rewrite the Constitution several times since the first one in 1824, because that one was a disaster. So let’s talk about how that constitution came to life.
Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808, and sent the nation into a crisis. In September of that year King Ferdinand was captured, and he abdicated the throne. In response to this, several Spanish administrators declared themselves the new government, basically a government in resistance to the French. They formed a parliament that produced the Cadiz Constitution in 1812, which called for equality under the law, and a more democratic legal system.
Now the rulers of Latin America had to decide how to respond to this. They had been loyal to the Spanish Crown, which had put them in the positions they were in. But now Spain was preoccupied with the invasion, and so the Latin American rulers were given a little more space to make their own rules.
Independence and The Constitution
But Spain wasn’t totally distracted. A wave of independence spread over Latin America. The first movement was in La Paz, Bolivia in 1809. Spain sent troops from Peru to crush that one.
The Mexican response to the Spanish crisis was complicated by a movement in 1810 led by a priest called Miguel Hidalgo. Hidalgo and his men sacked the city of Guanajuato and then started killing every white person they could find. The line between class warfare and ethnic cleansing totally disappeared. Mexico’s elite at that time was largely white, and as they watched that little example of popular participation in local politics, they remembered the Cadiz Constitution, which called for even more popular participation. They could never embrace that kind of document.
So Mexico’s elite stayed loyal to the Spanish Crown. In 1815 Napoleon’s empire collapsed and King Ferdinand took the throne again. But he now faced mutinies and was forced to recognize the Cadiz Constitution as well as the parliament that had written it. The parliament was now becoming more radical and was calling for the abolition of slavery.
The Mexican elites watched this as well. They no longer had an ally in the Spanish Crown, so they decided independence was a better fate than adopting the Cadiz Constitution.
Those elites wanted Mexico to become its own independent constitutional monarchy. The man who led their independence movement decided that he should be the emperor. And he wasted no time giving himself dictatorial powers. He didn’t last long, but the cycle of dictatorship, coup, dictatorship, coup haunted Mexico for about a hundred years.
During those hundred years Mexico endured the disastrous misrule of Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, the guy who attacked The Alamo and lost the Mexican-American War.
The extreme political instability in Mexico during the 1800s was, obviously, disastrous. Mexico lost about half of its territory during this period, including basically all of the American southwest.
Since the arrival of the Spanish, the Mexican elite had structured their society entirely around slave labor and monopolies, AKA extractive economic institutions.
So after hundreds of years of those extractive policies, by the time the Industrial Revolution rolled around, Mexico was in no place to take advantage of it.
In the United States in the early 1900s, people from most walks of life could get a patent to develop products. Once you had a patent, you could get a loan from a bank to start a business. By 1914 there were almost 28,000 banks in the U.S., and the competition was fierce. In Mexico at that same time, there were about 40 banks, and no competition among them, meaning there was no incentive for a bank to provide a better service than the bank down the street. Since there was no competition, the banks could charge huge interest rates, which basically meant that only the superrich could get loans, and then they could use that easy access to credit as a way of gaining even more control over the country.
The American Constitution placed huge constraints on executive power in the United States, but in Mexico there were basically no restraints, and the only way for someone to get rid of a president was the same way he originally took power: By force.
Presidents in Mexico violated property rights with total impunity, they expropriated tons of land, and they granted monopolies and political favors to their supporters.
The reason the United States banking system worked better for Americans than the Mexican system was because of the political and economic institutions of both countries. The stable banking industry worked in conjunction with political institutions that were much more democratic. So American bankers and politicians could try to corrupt each other, and were often successful, but politicians could be kicked out of office during the next election. A nation with extremely unstable political institutions can’t hold people accountable in the same way.
England’s Path to the Industrial Revolution
We don’t have time for a full recap of the conditions that put England and Spain on different roads, so if you want that, you’ll have to get the book.
England’s road to the Industrial Revolution was long and winding and difficult. The elites fought every attempt to limit their power and make the nation more democratic, but in the long run those elites failed just often enough.
One important event was the signing of the Magna Carta. It was not “liberty and justice for all,” but it was a tiny step in that direction. The king was forced to sign it. Later the Pope annulled it for him, but the seed was already planted.
In the late 1400s the Lancasters won the War of the Roses. Their king, Henry VII, disarmed the aristocracy, basically giving the crown, or the nation, the monopoly of violence. Then Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell turned the government into a set of bureaucratic institutions rather than what it had been before, which was just the private household of the king.
Acemoglu and Robinson’s thesis rests on the assumption that power needs to be centralized in a kind of Goldilocks balance, not too little, not too much. Too much centralization causes North Korea. Too little centralization causes Somalia. Without centralization, political institutions are not possible.
Henry VIII fought to make himself more powerful, and the elites underneath him fought against him, and they ended up indirectly making the government more pluralistic, making a system of checks and balances (more or less).
The institutions in England were still extractive at this point, but they were laying the foundations for England’s longterm success. As both sides fought each other, they were able to centralize the state just enough, but also limit centralization just enough so that absolutism didn’t creep in and destroy their longterm success, like it did in Spain.
Later, King James I did everything he could to become an absolutist ruler, but he had to fight a civil war over it, and he was defeated and executed. But a dictator replaced him.
After this long series of conflicts came more conflicts that we don’t have time for. But since you’re a podcast listener you’ll be able to find podcasts that go into these topics in ways that I just can’t. There are probably at least 6 podcasts on the history of Great Britain.
The path to longterm national success is not obvious, and it was even less obvious in England before the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution began with transportation and textile. As you might guess, it was not a straight/simple path forward. One family invested £6000 of their money to make a river navigable, and in exchange the government granted them the right to charge people for navigation on the river. But the government tried to backpedal, and so they had to go back and forth fighting it out. The issue was resolved in favor of the family, thereby setting a precedent and demonstrating to the people that their property rights would be respected.
If we compare that with Venezuela today, we see a place where the government can walk into any private business and say, “This now belongs to me.” Nobody in Venezuela has any reason to open a tiny café or a corner store in their neighborhood and hire a few neighbors (in a country with at least 25% unemployment, by the way). People know that if their government sees them being successful, they could lose everything they worked for and have to start all over from zero. So it’s smarter to not do anything.
England avoided becoming Venezuela in part because people believed their property would be secure. There are lots of other factors, but that one is key.
At any point in England’s development, the wrong person could have come into power and could have held onto it for too long, but luck as well as virtuous cycles or positive feedback loops put England’s economy in the best position for longterm success.
So the Glorious Revolution in the late 1600s increased pluralism and led to the creation of the Bank of England, which sparked a financial revolution. People could then take out loans and start businesses, which gave more power to the commoners, which in turn created even more political changes that kept the cycle improving decade after decade.
The political and economic institutions became more favorable to innovators and entrepreneurs, and property rights got more secure. That played a role in the transportation revolution, which laid a foundation for the Industrial Revolution.
England also made smart use of economic nationalism and protectionism. Just as companies are in constant competition with each other, so are nations. The government made it illegal for foreign ships to carry products to England or its colonies, and they made it illegal to transport English products on foreign ships. English trade had to be transported on English ships. This obviously encouraged English traders and manufacturers to continue innovating and looking for profitable activities.
Property rights were improving, infrastructure was improving, more people had access to finance, and manufacturers and merchants were protected overseas. In 1760 the number of patents jumped way up as a result of people’s faith that they could benefit by going into business.
But, as I’ve mentioned at least twice now, it wasn’t simply a complete and steady improvement. People tried to set up monopolies and tried to change laws to make it illegal to compete with them, and the government tried to weasel out of agreements, but the general trend was positive.
A strong economy is a changing one. An economy is a living organism, and the only constant for a living organism is change. Death is a part of all living things. Skin cells die and get replaced by new ones just like old industries die and get replaced by new ones.
Anticapitalists like to use periodic market contractions as evidence that capitalism will soon fail, but that’s kind of like saying humanity will soon go extinct because so many of them die. Humans are not eternal, and neither are businesses or industries.
It’s a process called creative destruction. It’s a scary process. It creates winners and losers. And ultimately that is why most countries are poor. The people who are scared of creative destruction have held too much power for too long. They are scared of change because they very well could lose in a competitive economy.
As cotton started booming in England, the wool industry declined. New technologies were invented to speed up the production of cotton fabrics, and that meant people who wanted to join the cotton boom had to learn to use those new machines. People who adapted to the changes survived and prospered. People who could not adapt did not.
The world economy exploded during this era. The leaders of extractive countries could get rich by exporting natural resources to the nations that were expanding.
I’ve already talked about Mexico during the Porfiriato, which is the 30-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. If you want more about that, you can listen to the episode called Revolution 1.1.
Mexico underwent big changes during his rule. But these were what Acemoglu and Robinson call path-dependent changes.
Since these resource-rich countries with extractive institutions were already on that path, the path of extraction, the changes that took place were simply an evolution of the processes that had already impoverished them.
Globalization made the frontiers economically valuable. Large, open spaces that took forever to cross by horse were now seen as areas filled with valuable resources. The people who lived in those areas were not able to defend themselves, and so they were pushed out.
As a tangent, that moment in history, colonization and the forceful dispossession of people from their lands, gives us an extremely powerful lesson for today. Cultures that are not strong will always be trampled by people from other cultures who are hungrier and better-organized. If we take nothing else away from the history of cultures interacting with each other, we need to take that lesson. It’s true in international relations as well as business. Stronger, hungrier, and more desperate companies can put others out of business, like Amazon did to bookstores.
Remember, Amazon was not as big as Borders Books or Barnes & Noble. But it was hungrier and smarter. Apple did it to the music industry. When successful companies and successful nations grow complacent, when they get too comfortable, that’s when disruption happens.
So the newly-discovered value of those wide open spaces led to more divergence between the U.S. and Mexico, because both countries reacted to those wide open spaces in different ways.
The indigenous populations in America were pushed out of their land, and then the United States gave broad access to those frontier lands. This made those lands economically dynamic, in the words of Acemoglu and Robinson, as well as somewhat egalitarian.
In Latin America the same dispossession happened, but those lands were not then made broadly accessible to the public. They were given to the politically powerful, which allowed the elite to concentrate their wealth and expand their power even further.
Porfirio Diaz used the opening of frontier lands as a way to enrich himself and his allies. He sped up the cycle of extraction. And of course there were consequences for him, and you can’t just flat-out condemn every single thing that happened under his rule. But he continued Mexico’s path of extraction.
Extractive institutions can cause economic growth, but only for a limited time, and only in limited quantities. Extractive economic policies don’t work in the long term. And so eventually Diaz was overthrown, but Mexico was sent into at least a decade of chaos afterwards, and probably closer to 15 or 20 years of chaos.
This pattern of extraction, like I said, causes short-term growth, but it comes at a very high price to the country at large. There were civil wars, coups, revolutions, and economic stagnation all over Latin America through basically the entire 20th century as a result of the Spanish Crown’s original extractive policies. There was a revolution in Mexico in 1910, in Bolivia in 1952, Cuba in 1959, Nicaragua in 1979, and civil wars in Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Peru, and attempted agrarian reforms in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, and Venezuela. For many Latin American countries, democracy didn’t arrive until the 1990s, and even today they’re not very stable.
In my own opinion many Latin American countries have made great strides toward developing more inclusive economic and political institutions, and even where they have failed to make improvements, the internet is a tidal wave rolling over Latin America and letting the people communicate with each other and conduct business even if their governments are doing everything possible to keep the old extractive models in place.
At least in Mexico almost everyone I know who’s my age or younger has a Facebook account, which means they have regular access to the internet. The internet is probably the most powerful economic equalizer in world history.
Unfortunately 97% of those people will use the internet exactly like Americans and Europeans use it, as a way to waste as much time as possible rather than learning something valuable. You can give people an equalizer, but you can’t force them to use that equalizer to get the equivalent of a university education every two years if they’d rather watch 30-second Facebook videos all day.
The authors of Why Nations Fail illustrate the modern difference between the United States and Mexico by using the example of two of the world’s richest people: Bill Gates and Carlos Slim. They say Gates largely became successful through innovation, and they point out how the monopolistic tendencies of Microsoft were punished by the U.S. Government. In 1991 the Federal Trade Commission investigated the issue of whether Microsoft had become a monopoly. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Microsoft in 1998 claiming the company had abused monopoly power, particularly by tying Internet Explorer to the Windows operating system. In 2001 the company reached a deal with the government. They didn’t face the penalties many people had wanted, but they didn’t get off scot-free either.
Carlos Slim, on the other hand, got his money through intelligently manipulating the legal systems of Mexico. His initial success came through stock market deals and through buying and revamping failing businesses. The government privatized a telecom company Telmex in 1990 and did the thing that seems reasonable to socialists, they turned it into a state monopoly. Then they sold it to Slim, turning a state monopoly into a private monopoly.
If you’re a Mexican entrepreneur, you face huge obstacles, including expensive licenses, truly labyrinthian red tape, and a financial sector that colludes with your largest competitors.
Slim is a smart man who simply uses the system to his advantage. But Mexico is becoming more competitive, and Carlos didn’t build his empire by being the strongest competitor. He did it by finding loopholes, and loopholes are not a longterm economic strategy.
As Mexico becomes more competitive, it gets more and more important for individual citizens of Mexico to get ahead of the curve. It is the world’s 15th largest economy, and now in the internet age every business with an online presence has to compete globally. Mexico might not be the easiest place to start a business, but I see a lot of ways in which it is somewhat easier than where I come from.
I don’t want to turn this into a tangent on doing business in Mexico, so I’ll keep this short, but the level of business sophistication in Mexico is extremely low, which makes it easier for Mexicans to outperform their competition simply by being dedicated to their customers and willing to go to the bookstore and buy a couple business books every month.
I’m not saying it’s easier in Mexico, but your competitors are extremely unsophisticated and unwilling to invest profits into their business. That counts for something.
Sun, 6 August 2017
Before we get into today’s episode, I want to take a second to plug a pretty cool thing I made that can really help out anybody who has learned a little bit of Spanish and wants to go much deeper. It is the Mexican Spanish Master course.
It’s 90 minutes of video lessons about Mexican slang, culture, and profanity. You can download the videos, the audio files, as well as the transcripts, and listen to the course in your spare time.
This course did not exist when I needed it to exist, but it does exist now, and you don’t have to spend hundreds of hours listening to people say these words but not understanding them, and then slowly putting together a vocab list of new words that your teachers never bothered to tell you about because they were teaching you a generic international Spanish.
If this sounds interesting, check out digitalnomad.mx and scroll down right below the email signup form, and you can join The Mexican Spanish Master Course.
That’s it. Let’s get into the show.
Nogales VS Nogales
My research for The Mexican Revolution took me on several detours. One of those detours was the Labyrinth of Solitude. Another detour was Why Nations Fail.
If I could go back in time to when I was 18 or 19, when I was deciding to go to college and thinking about majoring in Global Studies, which is the ridiculous Marxist version of Poli Sci and International Relations, I would say tell myself first of all not to major in Global Studies because it would be a colossal waste of time, and I would tell myself, “If you really want to understand global development, college will not explain it to you. You should start with two books. One of those books is Why Nations Fail. The other is Guns, Germs, and Steel.”
In college I had to read a ton of irrelevant nonsense: Postmodern imbeciles like Horkheimer and Adorno, Foucault, and a bunch of other people whose appraisal of global development is so flawed that it’s honestly baffling to me that anybody takes them seriously in the 21st century.
These two books basically took my Bachelor’s degree, threw it in the garbage, set it on fire, and then spit in my face. They showed me that my degree is EVEN LESS VALUABLE than a Gender Studies degree. I graduated with a piece of paper that’s worth less than Comparative Literature.
But Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson, and Jared Diamond have at least helped me stop believing the total nonsense I believed in my 20’s. I can’t turn back the clock, but I can hopefully serve as a warning to anybody who’s thinking about going down the same stupid road I went down. Don’t do it. Just read the two books I mentioned.
Why Nations Fail and Guns, Germs, and Steel offer arguments that in some ways compete with each other and in some ways complement each other.
Right away in the first chapter of Why Nations Fail, they smacked me so hard that my face still hurts.
The simplest way to understand the basic argument of the book is to look at the differences between Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. And then North Korea vs South Korea.
The differences between those places are not explained by geography or culture. These are places separated only by a little fence, not by oceans and not by cultures. Just a fence.
There are differences in culture, especially between North and South Korea, but they didn’t start that way. And those cultural differences didn’t cause the South Korea to win and North Korea to fail.
Acemoglu and Robinson argue that the real determining factors in a country’s prosperity are its economic and political institutions. To put it in as plain language as I can, the countries with good institutions are prosperous while the countries with bad institutions fail. To be clear, Acemoglu and Robinson aren’t calling them “good” and “bad” institutions. I am. The language the authors use is inclusive institutions and extractive institutions. We’ll talk a bit more about those definitions later, but for now we’ll just say that inclusive institutions give people incentives to start businesses and to get involved in the democratic process, while extractive institutions either don’t incentivize people or they actively punish people for starting businesses.
What I just said should be totally obvious. Of course there are competing theories, but none of them, especially the ones coming out of Global Studies departments, come even remotely close to reality. But there is a semi-competing idea put forward by Jared Diamond.
If you’re not familiar with Jared Diamond and his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, he proposed a theory of global development that was based largely on geography. He spends 500 pages laying out his theories, and so I’m not going to even attempt to explain him adequately. But the basic argument is that Europe became a world power because they got a lucky roll of the dice geographically. His theory is very powerful and makes more sense the more you think about it.
But geography is not the whole story. And this is where Acemoglu and Robinson come in. Jared Diamond’s theory does not explain, for example, North and South Korea. And it doesn’t explain the reversal of fortune on the American continent.
What do I mean by “reversal of fortune?” I mean, why is Mexico so poor today if the Aztecs were so much more economically powerful than North American tribes before colonization? If Diamond were correct and geography was the main determinant, then Mexico would still be the dominant power in North America.
Geography is extremely important, but it’s only about half the story. Institutions are the other half.
So how did those different institutions come about? Why does Nogales, Arizona have different institutions than Nogales, Sonora? To find the answer, we have to talk about how Spain and England colonized the continent. (They did so in some very different ways.) We also have to talk about WHY Spain and England were able to begin colonization in the first place. Then we have to look at how exactly they did it, because their styles were very different.
Why did England become the primary superpower?
The Black Death, also called the Plague, was a disease that ravaged Europe in the 1300s. It lasted about seven years and killed between 75-200 million people. At that time the estimated world population was 450 million. The Black Death killed potentially HALF the world’s population.
Before the Black Death, English peasants had a bit more political power than the peasants of most other nations, especially the ones in Eastern Europe. After the Black Death, which killed roughly half of all the populations that it came into contact with, the English peasants were able to agitate for even more rights. In Eastern Europe, the Black Death only resulted in the government squeezing its people even harder.
There were small differences in peasant rights before the Black Death, but the Plague was a critical juncture that each nation’s political institutions had to respond to. It was a turning point that made the relatively small differences between nations larger. The response of each nation to that critical juncture put each country on a somewhat different path than others. Some of the most important critical junctures in Europe were the fall of Rome, the Plague, the Atlantic slave trade, the colonization of the Americas, and the Industrial Revolution.
Before Colonization of Americas
Absolutism began to crumble in England, but increased in Spain as those two societies began structuring themselves differently in response to the decline of Rome, and then to the Plague. England and Spain were more similar before the fall of Rome, but they took separate paths as Rome fell. Same with the Plague. At each critical juncture, the societies drifted further and further apart.
The nation of Spain was born in 1492 with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella. With that marriage, the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile became one. The Reconquista also happened in 1492, when Spain liberated itself from the Moors, the Arabs.
And of course Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas and began claiming territoiries for Ferdinand and Isabella, who funded his voyage.
In subsequent years, through marriages, their dynasty acquired more land in the Americas as well the Netherlands, Germany, and part of France. The Spanish monarchy was now in charge not just of the Iberian Peninsula, but of a multicontinental empire. The emperor, Charles, strengthened the absolutism that Isabella and Ferdinand started.
The North and South American territories that Spain took were rich with gold and silver. The discovery of those precious metals strengthened the Spanish crown and led to even more absolutism.
As the crown became stronger and more absolutist, the laws of the empire became more and more extractive, as Acemoglu and Robinson call it. By the year 1600 Spain was in economic decline.
Property rights were highly insecure. Jews and Arabs were forced out of Spain and were not allowed to take any gold or silver with them as they left. Spain defaulted on debts in 1557 and 1560, and 8 more times in the following 100 years. The banking families who had lent money to the Spanish crown were totally ruined by those defaults.
Spain’s colonization style funneled money to the top while England’s colonization style spread wealth much more broadly among the citizens. There was no free trade in Spanish America, and trade was highly regulated. For example, merchants in Mexico could not trade with merchants in Colombia. If the crown could not get a piece of the action, nobody could.
This policy did nothing to help Spain’s decline, and in fact it only sped it up.
Spain’s version of Parliament primarily represented a few of the biggest cities. In England, Parliament represented people in urban AND rural areas. This meant the English government represented a broader range of people with different and competing interests. As that power was spread more and more broadly in England, the people could use their influence to push for less and less absolutism. This obviously led to a virtuous cycle in which English citizens had more incentive to start businesses and innovate and create wealth. Spanish citizens had basically no similar incentives.
In the 1500s Spain was getting massive amount of wealth ffrom Latin America. Spain was much, much wealthier than England, but the crown was spending its wealth stupidly and setting up future generations for failure. Official positions could be bought and sold, or passed down through inheritance.
By the way, that system is STILL in place in some sectors in Mexico. You can just buy your way into an important job even though you have no credentials, or your mommy or daddy can give you their job when they retire.
By the end of the 1600s England was growing and industrializing while Spain declined.
The citizens of England had more incentive to innovate and to generate wealth than almost anybody in the world. And the nation prospered as a result.
But this wasn’t because the English government was just more benign, more fair. The English didn’t colonize the Americas differently than Spain just because they thought it would be a smarter longterm move. They weren’t playing 3-dimensional chess.
In fact, they originally wanted to copy the seemingly-successful Spanish model of colonization.
The authors write:
“The Spanish strategy of colonization was highly effective. First perfected by Cortes in Mexico, it was based on the observation that the best way for the Spanish to subdue opposition was to capture the indigenous leader. This strategy enabled the Spanish to claim the accumulated wealth of the leader and coerce the indigenous peoples to give tribute and food. The next step was setting themselves up as the new elite of the indigenous society and taking control of the existing methods of taxation, tribute, and, particularly, forced labor.”
Spain was richer than England at this time. England was a minor power, and suffering the effects of the War of the Roses. As such, England was in no condition to begin colonization when Spain did.
But roughly 100 years later, England had recovered a bit and they were building up their navy. Spain tried to invade England, and famously the Spanish Armada was defeated.
Spain’s navy was much more powerful, and they could easily have overthrown Queen Elizabeth and taken Britain as their own territory. But bad weather conspired against Spain, as did the death of one of Spain’s best naval commanders. So at the last minute Spain had to choose someone else to lead the attack, and the guy they picked was not a great tactician.
The English defeated Spain’s armada, which opened up the seas, meaning England now had new trade routes and could really start colonizing.
So by this time England was a latecomer in the colonization of the Americas. All the rich lands had been taken by Spain. They were left with the part nobody else wanted: North America.
Unlike Mexico and South America, the indigenous population of North America was small and spread out. Spain took advantage of dense populations in their colonies. Indigenous slaves worked in the fields and mines, and a giant percentage of the wealth generated or extracted there went straight to the Spanish Crown.
The settlers who founded Jamestown were heavily influenced by Spain’s method of conquest. They wanted to take the local ruler hostage and use him to force the locals into slavery in fields and mines.
This didn’t work. The locals were not cooperative, and they didn’t live in huge cities like the Aztecs and Incas. And there was no gold or silver.
So the English settlers were forced to work for their food.
John Smith, yes that John Smith, was in charge of the settlers. He wrote to England asking for them to send more carpenters, agricultural workers, blacksmiths, and masons, rather than adventurers and dreamers. All the goldsmiths who had come were useless. He soon instituted a new rule, “He that will not work shall not eat.” That is perhaps the only thing that helped Jamestown survive the second brutal winter.
Smith was working for the Virginia Company, which was losing money in Jamestown because of the lack of gold and free labor. So he was forced out of the colony and he went back to England. The guy who took his place tried to coerce the settlers into working. He told them that anybody who tried to leave the colony would be executed, anyone who stole food would be executed, and anyone trying to get back to England would be executed.
But his strategy did not work. So the Virginia Company had to adapt.
The Company decided to give the settlers incentives rather than coercion. They gave 50 acres of land to each male settler, and 50 more acres for each family member. Each adult male settler was given a say in the laws and institutions governing the colony. They saw that the only way to make a colony economically viable was to give the settlers incentives to work hard.
Every time the English elites tried to set up a system that restricted economic and political rights, they failed.
In Spain’s American colonies they were able to force the locals into slavery and ship all the wealth to Spain, leaving a few rich foreigners to govern the massive impoverished local population. The Spanish Crown won big in the short term but bankrupted an entire continent and screwed over future generations of Spanish citizens. Today Spain’s unemployment is around 18%. That’s almost as bad as Greece. For comparison, unemployment in the UK is around 4%.
I said in Episode 1 of the Fall of Tenochtitlan that a huge portion of Spain’s wealth today comes directly from the colonial period, and that’s true. But Spain is also feeling the negative effects of absolutism from hundreds of years ago.
So we’ve seen the very beginning of the processes that put Mexico on a different path from the United States. In the next episode we’re gonna watch how the Latin American indpenedence movements impacted Latin America’s ability to join the Industrial Revolution. And we have to talk about how all of this influenced Mexico’s first constitution.
Thank you for listening to The Mexico Podcast. And again, visit digitalnomad.mx for the Mexican Spanish Master Course. Or sign up for my email list to get the free version. It’s up to you. How deep do you want to go with Mexican Spanish? You can reach me at email@example.com with any questions or comments.
Sun, 30 July 2017
This is part 2 in a 2-part series on Labyrinth of Solitude.
In this episode I’m going to perform a quick medical diagnosis of one of the best books written about Mexico. And also one of the most self-indulgent and cringeworthy books ever written. First we’re gonna talk about teenagers, then we’re gonna talk about Coca-Cola, and then we’re gonna talk about the major, glaring flaw with this book, because huge parts of Octavio Paz’s masterpiece are completely unreadable, while other parts are completely perfect.
This is not an attempt to summarize the book. If you’ve ever read it, you probably understand how difficult a task that would be. If you haven’t read it, it’s an impossible task.
So rather than condensing it, I’ll instead point out some of the parts that were most interesting to me.
The Pachuco and Other Extremes
Paz writes that many of the thoughts that inspired him to write Labyrinth of Solitude came to him when he was in the United States. He wanted to understand American culture, but he kept seeing himself reflected in his questions about American customs.
He writes about a chicano subculture called Pachucos. They got their style of dress from a character called Tin Tan, played by the actor German Valdes, in the early 1950s. The guy was somewhere between The Fonz from Happy Days, Charlie Chaplin, and Robert De Niro’s take on The Godfather, as opposed to Marlon Brando. Octavio Paz says the Pachuco style came as a response to being Mexican in racist-Post War America. Pachucos were adolescents who didn’t want to go back to being Mexican, but also didn’t want to try to pass as white.
And in my own estimation the Pachuco falls into the trap every adolescent falls into: Trying to prove his/her distinctness and individuality by totally conforming to the rigid rules of whatever subculture or counterculture they gravitate towards.
Paz writes that the adolescent cannot forge himself, because when a person finally forges themselves, they are no longer an adolescent.
According to Paz, the Pachuco is the product of two irreconcilable worlds: Mexico and the United States. In my opinion the adolescent mind is tortured by that supposed dichotomy and therefore lashes out. The adolescent wants to fit in somewhere, because an adolescent is still a child and still wants someone to protect him. By taking on the outward appearance of a particular subculture, the adolescent hopes that subculture will protect him from the hardships of the world.
This is possibly why pop stars like Selena as well as academics find themselves struggling incessantly with biculturality. Selena was 23 when she died. That’s only slightly older than a college graduate. And anyone who spends their entire life in a college will probably not mature very much beyond that point. So we find people like Gloria Anzaldua who are much older than people like Selena but who still write about how tortured they are by being between two cultures.
The adolescent mind of a pop star in their early 20s and the adolescent mind of a career academic need to go through a long process before forging themselves into adulthood.
I’m reading another book about Mexico…which, duh, obviously. But I came across something by another writer that completely validates Octavio Paz’s explanation of mexicanness. It’s about Coca-Cola.
If you want to be politically fashionable in Western liberal democracies in 2017, you can never even imply that a gigantic multinational corporation could ever be right about anything in any way. Ever.
Well, since I turned 30 I’ve stopped caring about the contemporary political orthodoxy. So screw it.
Coca-Cola is right about something.
They wanted to boost sales of Diet Coke in Mexico, so they did a study. When a huge corporation has billions of dollars on the line, their studies aren’t arbitrary and they don’t play BS word games.
For some background here, in case you didn’t know, Coke is an absolute beast in Mexico. I’ve only met one person who didn’t like Coke here. No, I hvaen’t asked every single person I’ve ever met whether they like Coke. Anyway, Coke is huge in Mexico. There is not a single village that doesn’t have a store where you can buy Coke.
Okay, maybe there’s one. But you can even buy Coca-Cola from Zapatistas. Subcomandante Marcos probably has some Coke in his fridge.
Mexico is usually among the world’s top consumers of soft drinks, depending on the survey and the year.
Diet Coke was about 30% of all Coca-Cola products sold in the United States, but it was only 2% in Mexico. So Coke wanted to know why.
There are two important findings from their study.
One, Mexican men think Diet Coke is for girls, and they don’t want to be seen in public drinking it.
And that’s true. Diet Coke is for girls. Girls who like the taste of a dentist office. And guys who like the taste of a dentist office.
Now here’s the part where I have to again recognize the total brilliance of Octavio Paz. I’m getting this Coke story from Andres Oppenheimer, but Coke is totally validating Paz from a hardcore capitalist perspective. Here it goes:
The second finding is that Mexicans are quote unquote compensators. Compensators are a small category in the United States, but much bigger in Mexico.
A compensator will overeat and then repent the next day, and try to undo the damage, but revert to the old behavior shortly thereafter.
By the way, that’s what makes Mexican parties so great.
In the U.S. most people will either drink Coke OR Diet Coke almost exclusively. In Mexico Coca-Cola found that people will drink tons of Coke one day and just generally go overboard in every way, and the next day they’ll try to make up for it by drinking Diet Coke.
It reminds me of when I worked in a Mexican restaurant. In this example it was actually an American who would order the biggest, greasiest thing we had…and actually this happened all the time. I worked at three fast food joints and a couple restaurants, and it happened in all those places. People would get the unhealthiest thing on the menu and then “GIVE ME A DIET COKE.” I guess the only difference here is the on-the-spot repentance or compensation. Or maybe they drink it for the taste… I’m not sure which is worse.
Moving away from mass market sugar water…
Paz writes that Mexicans like to work slowly and carefully, paying attention to all the small details, and that Mexicans have an innate good taste that is an ancient heritage.
There are certainly a lot of great products made by serious artisans who are dedicated to their craft, but there’s an even greater amount of crap. That’s normal. That’s the same in any country.
There’s a huge amount of slowly and lovingly crafted stuff in Mexico. The craft beer scene is still emerging and it still belongs to people who love beer. Mexico’s big beer conglomerates haven’t caught on to the profit they could make yet, and especially in Oaxaca where I live, there are only a few brands and a few micro or nano-breweries. They use Mexican ingredients, too. There’s beer infused with mezcal, Jamaica, tejate, and I’m sure a dedicated beer connosiuer could find American or European companies making those flavors, there’s some really cool stuff happening with Mexican beer.
Then there are the mezcal and tequila artisans. Some of them stick rigidly to tradition and some of them experiment. Both avenues are wonderful. Since mezcal is getting its extended 15 minutes of fame, you can find upscale mezcal bars as well as the seedier joints, and if you know what to look for you can get great stuff in both kinds of places.
There’s not a huge variety of Mexican cheese, at least not that I’ve found, but it’s all great pretty much anywhere you find it.
I’m not gonna bother getting into what is and is not artisanry, but by any definition there is great artisanry as well as complete crap.
As I mentioned before, Vast portions of Labyrinth of Solitude are completely unreadable, and I blame that on Octavio Paz’s career as a poet. He thinks so deeply about some things that his thoughts lose all meaning. And again it’s the echo chamber that academics fall into. And then not only is he writing things that mean nothing, but he puts them into overly poetic nonsense prose. Take this passage for instance:
“Man is alone everywhere, but the solitude of the Mexican, under the great stone night of the high plateau that is still inhabited by insatiable gods, is very different from that of the North American, who wanders in an abstract world of machines, fellow citizens, and moral precepts. In the Valley of Mexico man feels himself suspended between heaven and earth, and he oscillates between contrary powers and forces, and petrified eyes and devouring mouths. Reality – that is the world that surrounds us – exists by itself here, has a life of its own and was not invented by man as it was in the United States. The Mexican feels himself to have been torn from the womb of this reality, which is both creative and destructive, both Mother and Tomb. He has forgotten the word that ties him to all those forces through which life manifests itself. Therefore he shouts or keeps silent, stabs or prays, or falls asleep for 100 years.”
If that passage made any sense, or if Paz was actually trying to say something real, then there would be too much wrong with it to even know where to begin. But ultimately they’re just pretty words that mean nothing, because the author is a poet who has spent too much time being terrified at his own solitude and now often forgets that he’s writing a thing that’s going to be read by other people who are also alone and therefore not inside of Octavio Paz’s mind, which would be the reason to publish something, so that you can explain your oh-so-poetic solitude to someone else who’s also alone in a cold/harsh/painful/oppressive world that only poetry can sweeten or illuminate.
There simply aren’t enough drugs on Earth to make that paragraph comprehensible. It’s sort of like reading dense theological justifications of things like transubstantiation or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Also, most of his writing has some really haunting similarities to critical theory, which is the academic language of Marxism. And since Paz was a Marxist at this particular point in his life, it makes sense that his writing contains those scary, mechanical, dehumanizing thoughts and fixations that most Marxist writing has.
But I do agree with his assertion that the differences between Mexico and the U.S. are not merely economic. In other words, if everyone in Mexico and the U.S. had the same income and the same access to the same products and services, the two countries would still be very different.
The major flaw with Labyrinth of Solitude is Paz’s career as a poet. The word lacerate appears on almost every page. Mexican traditions are constantly compared to a firecracker exploding in the air and disappearing, or a bullet fired into the air.
The only thing Paz likes more than the word lacerate are commas. In many, many sentences, nearly every single word will have a comma after it. Here’s an example: “Spanish Catholicism has always expressed the same will; [semicolon] hence, [comma] perhaps, [comma] its belligerent, [comma] authoritarian, [comma] inquisitorial tone.” Maybe that’s just a problem with the translation, but I doubt it. That’s what happens when writers try too hard to sound like what they imagine writers sound like, trying to impress other writers who also try too hard to sound like writers. And I think that’s why poetry never gets taken as seriously as poets want, because they make no effort to write something that non-poets can understand or would ever care about.
Thank you for listening to my absurd opinions on one of Mexico’s greatest literary treasures. I promise I will be back in one week to continue defiling this sacred cultural artefact.
Sun, 23 July 2017
This is part 1 in a 2-part series on The Labyrinth of Solitude.
The differences between the U.S. and Mexico go back long before Europe discovered North America. In what is now Mexico, there were massive and complex civilizations. Farther north there were mostly nomadic tribes. The Aztecs and Maya were economically richer than, say, the Apache and the Cherokee. Spain and England were also different, though not as different as the Aztecs and the Cherokees. The south, Mexico, had different natural resources than the north did.
I’ll talk more about the divergent paths that the U.S. and Mexico took in a future episode, but for this one we’re again talking about Labyrinth of Solitude. The author, Octavio Paz, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990, and I’d be surprised if anybody who’s ever taken a Spanish class hasn’t at least heard his name.
Paz says there’s one fundamental difference that helps to explain the modern differences between Mexico and the U.S. “In England the Reformation triumphed, whereas Spain was the champion of the Counter-Reformation.
Spain had been under Islamic oppression since roughly the year 700 until 1492, when Arab domination of the Iberian Peninsula ended. But after 700 years of something, a culture can’t really help but internalize some aspects of it. And so conversion by the sword as well as crusades and holy wars and inquisitions had become a fact of Spanish life and it became part of Spain’s brand of Catholicism, which Spain then exported to Mexico.
Paz writes that conquest and evangelization are as fundamental to Spain and to Catholicism as they are to Islam. For them, conquest meant occupying foreign lands, subjugating the people, and forcing them to convert. The conversion then legitimized the conquest.
English colonization was different in that evangelization was not quite as important.
Mexico was conquered by people who were orthodox, inflexible, dogmatic, and authoritarian about their faith, and extremely violent. The United States was conquered by people who were also very religious, but who were largely dissidents and who felt that religion should be read and understood by everyone, not just by a priestly class. Broadly speaking, the American vision was one of Protestant Reformism, while the Mexican vision was one of Catholic Orthodoxy.
Mexico’s Catholic orthodoxy was defensive rather than critical, it resisted modernity. It prevented examination and criticism.
Paz writes that these two styles of religious thought are irreconcilable, the rigidly dogmatic and the interpretive. And that irreconcilable difference played out in the structure of the religions.
The hierarchy of the Catholic church is complex, and the mass itself focuses mostly on ritual and sacrament. In the Protestant tradition, scripture is freely discussed and examined and questioned, hierarchy between the clergy and the believers is less, and the focus of mass is more on delivering an ethical message than ritual.
This difference comes from the Reformation, which was a criticism of European religion. The Reformation led to the Enlightenment. Spain closed itself off from the Reformation, and the Enlightenment never happened in Spain.
That’s going a bit too far maybe, but when anyone thinks of the Enlightenment, no Spanish names come to mind, whereas several French and English names are immediately recognizable. John Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu. Immanuel Kant was German.
For Octavio Paz, Mexico’s vision of progress comes from looking to the past, whereas America’s vision of progress comes from looking toward the future. The founding of the United States was done with a promise of a better future.
One major difference is that in Mexico there are still millions of indigenous people. In America there are few, and even then, most native people are corralled into reservations and forgotten. America was founded as a land without a past.
In Mexico, the past is still at war with itself. Cortes and Moctezuma are still alive. Emiliano Zapata’s great desire was a return to the past, a return to pre-Hispanic communal ownership of land.
Paz writes that clear-thinking Mexicans have been wondering about modernization since the 18th century. “In the 19th century it was believed that to adopt the new democratic and liberal principles was enough. Today after almost two centuries of setbacks, we have realized that countries change very slowly, and that if such changes are to be fruitful they must be in harmony with the past and the traditions of each nation. And so Mexico has to find its own road to modernity. Our past must not be an obstacle, but a starting point.”
I want to take a moment to point out that I’ve had this thought independently of Octavio Paz. Therefore I am extremely smart and impressive.
But seriously, the major discovery that I’ve had while living in Mexico is that the singer Selena was wrong, and Gloria Anzaldua was wrong, and every other whiny post-modernist was wrong in the assumption that it’s oh-so hard being bicultural.
In reality it’s a superpower. (And by the way, what the whiners fail to realize is that if they were monocultural, there would still be parts of their culture that alienated them, because no culture will ever fit anyone perfectly. Nobody in France is perfectly in tune with all aspects of French culture.)
I say that being bicultural is a superpower because you get to see the good parts and the bad parts of both cultures, and you get to see them from both an insider perspective and an outsider perspective. You can see each culture more clearly, and then you can decide for yourself which of those good and bad parts you want to keep and which ones you want to get rid of.
In Mexico, I am not normal. I am a foreigner. I haven’t been to the U.S. in about four years, and I’m sure when I go back I won’t be normal there either. I’ve discarded things I don’t like about the U.S. and I’ve discarded things I don’t like about Mexico, and I’ve combined the stuff I like about each country.
And when nobody considers you normal, when nobody expects you to be normal, you realize that it doesn’t matter whether you’re normal or not. All that matters is that you live the way you think you should live and that you strive to improve constantly.
And so my message about Mexico’s path forward is close to what Octavio Paz seems to be laying out. I don’t think Mexicans need to be like me, bicultural out of choice, but millions of Mexicans live in the U.S anyway. And besides, Mexicanness is a combination of Spanish and indigenous culture, and there are dozens of indigenous cultures in Mexico. For people living in Mexico, the biggest cultural force besides Mexican culture is American culture. And nearly every family has relatives who’ve been to the U.S. or who are living there right now. All that’s required is to awaken this dormant superpower and use it. Just take inspiration from the good parts of Spanish culture, American culture, and Mexico’s indigenous cultures, and then get rid of the crappy parts.
Not everyone is going to agree on what the good and bad parts are. That’s up to each person to decide for themselves. But in my own humble opinion, Mexico has been going about it blindly for 500 years. But Mexico isn’t alone in this; every culture moves unconsciously.
Octavio Paz writes that Mexico needs to reconcile itself with its past in order to move forward. He may not be explicitly proposing this, but in my opinion the only real practicable way to carry that out is through education. Most people don’t want education. I do, which is why I do this podcast. You do, which is why you’re listening to this podcast. But most people don’t want education, because it’s just easier to not learn. And even when we do want to learn, most teaching methods are outdated and low quality. When you think of public schools in the U.S. or Mexico, quality is probably not the first word that pops in your head.
If you think of a business school, are they teaching you how to operate in 2017? Or 1988? Yeah, 1988.
Paz then writes about how the nations that inspired Mexico’s 19th century liberals, (meaning France, the US, and England,) are no longer inspirational like they were centuries before. He wrote this particular essay in 1979, but I think his point is still valid today.
The thinkers who inspired Mexico’s liberals were people writing about freedom, writing about escaping tyranny. And they were writing about the future. They were engaging in a transformation of their cultures.
But then in the 20th century the United States went from inspiring freedom to being yet another colonizing empire. I’m oversimplifying it way too much and I have very little patience for the Noam Chomsky style of everything-bad-is-America’s-fault, but no one can deny that the U.S. has done things to make lots of people in lots of coutnries less free than they would have been had the U.S. not interfered. The country that inspired tons of independence movements later became a cynical geopolitical manipulator seeking nothing but power.
However, I also think Paz is exaggerating a bit, or at least he’s too close chronologically to see what had just happened in 1979.
In the 60s and 70s America and England went from producing inspiring intellectuals to inspiring cultural figures. Some of the greatest art in all of human history came out of the 60s and 70s. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Dylan are all such unbelievably great artists that eventually everyone on Earth has to recognize their greatness. Even those of us who wanted to rebel against our parents by pretending we didn’t like those bands…eventually had to admit that we were wrong.
And that’s just music. We don’t need to get into this whole conversation, but I think I’ve made my point that the inspiration went from intellectual to artistic.
Octavio Paz is searching for a source of inspiration for Mexicans on how to move forward as a country.
But I think he’s missing the point of classical Liberalism, which is about the sovereignty of the individual. And I think the message of the Liberals is more important today than ever. The 20th century was the great science experiment of liberalism versus collectivism, and we’ve seen the horrors that collectivism always produces.
And now in 2017 as collectivists are trying to take over Western civilization, yet again, we must draw inspiration from the classical Liberals and remind people that the only real minority is the individual and that freedom must be defended fiercely against any force that seeks to limit it.
The people who inspired Mexico’s 19th century liberals are still relevant, and they can still serve as a source of inspiration for Mexicans today, and for people of any country.
Paz points out that Mexico’s position is much better than many other countries. That was true in 1979 and it’s true today. Paz mentions Latin America’s military dictatorships, most of which were propped up by the U.S. The U.S. propped up those dictatorships in order to keep collectivism from spreading like cancer, but military dictatorships and communist purges are both terrible options.
And life in some Asian and African countries post-independence was sometimes worse than it was during colonialism.
Then at the end of his essay he gets into some things that aren’t really relevant to anybody. He was writing before the fall of the Soviet Union. His assessment of history is great. His analysis of his present was less impressive.
Mon, 3 July 2017
Cuauhtemoc was the last Aztec emperor. I’ve captured one sliver of his life in my series Fall of Tenochtitlan, but obviously he was around before and after the Spanish invaded and destroyed his city. By the way, I’m not making any moral judgements about the Spanish or the Aztecs when I say invaded and destroyed. Invasion and destruction are pretty common themes in history.
Historians don’t know exactly when and where he was born, exactly who his parents were, and they don’t know where he was buried. One town in the state of Guerrero claims to have his bones, but others say it’s not him. He was born sometime around 1500 to a noble family. He was named emperor in 1521, and he was hanged by the Spanish in 1525.
He had a wife and at least one child.
If there were any official documents about him, they were lost or destroyed during the destruction of Tenochtitlan.
After the emperor Cuitlahuac died of smallpox, Cuauhtemoc was named emperor and put in charge of the city’s defense.
When he finally accepted that he couldn’t save the city, he and some advisers tried to flee and find a better place to continue the war. He was captured and brought to Cortes. He asked to be sacrificed, because that was the expectation of any captured soldier. Before the Spanish arrived, the typical battle strategy was to capture as many people as possible rather than killing them. Live prisoners could be sacrificed to the gods. After death, the soldier would ascend to the heavens and accompany the setting sun.
The Spanish soldiers hadn’t been paid yet, and Cuauhtemoc said there was no more gold left. It’s likely that Cortes had kept most of it for himself, and when he did offer his men a bit of gold, the amount was so tiny that they all refused to take it.
There had been a few mutinies and conspiracies before the battles of Tenochtitlan, and now that Cortes wasn’t paying up, his men were getting unruly again. But Cortes had to keep them active, and so he sent them to explore and colonize other parts of Mexico and Central America.
In 1524 one of Cortes’ men, Cristobal de Olid, who had been sent to conquer Honduras, rebelled against Cortes. So Cortes went to put down the rebellion. He needed to take Cuauhtemoc with him because if he had left him behind, the emperor could have started up his own rebellion.
Along the way many of them died of hunger, and others were bitten by venomous snakes.
Eventually they got to a Mayan village in the state of Campeche. Today it’s an archeological site called El Tigre. They were received by the son of the chief. There were about 100 of them still alive. At some point during the stay in that village, Cuauhtemoc was executed.
The motives aren’t completely clear. It’s possible that he was organizing a rebellion, but it’s also possible that Cortes just wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to isolate the emperor from his people and then just get rid of him.
What happened with his body after that is an open question. The tradition for rulers of Tenochtitlan was cremation. It’s possible that his ashes were placed in an urn that his captains and advisers decided to leave in an important building at El Tigre. Or maybe he was buried in a Mayan crypt, which has since been forgotten.
But the sources I’m using are pretty certain about what did not happen to his remains.
An old church in the town Ixcateopan in the state of Guerrero, which has since been converted to a museum, claims to be Cuauhtemoc’s final resting place.
There is a skeleton under glass surrounded by paintings of the emperor. At one of the main entrances to the town there is a statue of him standing next to an eagle with a snake in its mouth perched on a cactus.
The eagle on the cactus represents Tenochtitlan’s foundational myth.
The people of the town don’t much care for the scientific studies showing that the bones are indeed not Cuauhtemoc. The town is, according to the town itself, the place where he was born and where he now rests.
September 26, 1949 is an important date for the town. That was the day that archeaologist Eulalia Guzman publicly declared that she had found the grave of the last Aztec emperor.
(Quick side note, the term emperor is not totally accurate. The word the Aztecs used was tlatoani, which was something more like Speaker. I’ll talk a bit more about that term in a future episode. But for now, emperor works.)
Eulalia Guzman had heard rumors that he was buried there, and she said a local family had documents that pointed to the exact burial location. She organized an excavation at the church and found some bones as well as some objects that appeared to back up the claims of authenticity. There was a spearhead and a plate bearing the inscription “1525-1529. King Coatemo.”
A scientific committee showed up in the same year, 1949, to analyze the findings. Then another study happened in 1950, and a third in 1970. The controversy kept going until a fourth study in 1976 looked at the bones, the spearhead and plate, the grave, and the documents describing where to find the grave. The definitive statement came out: There was no scientific basis to claim that the remains belonged to Cuauhtemoc.
The documents were forgeries, the grave had been recently dug, and the oral histories claiming he was from the town were also false.
Nonetheless, a tradition began in 1949 and has been going on ever since. People leave flowers and offerings at the grave, and dancers in costumes fill the streets. Some people go so far as to call the town the birthplace of Mexicanness.
Some people claim Cuauhtemoc was born on February 23, in that town. The first dancers start arriving the night of February 21st. The following people head to the museum with their offerings. Then there’s more dancing.
The celebration attracts locals, travelers, families, and even representatives of indigenous groups from all over Latin America. The party goes on all night and into the morning of the 23rd.
It’s a small town, and it’s usually calm and quiet. But the festivities completely transform the atmosphere.
It’s a pretty normal festival by Mexican standards, but there is one really unfortunate bit, which is that kids are taught a false version of history where Cuauhtemoc was actually born in their town on February 23 and then his remains were buried there as well. It’s just another reminder that we can’t try to force history to conform to our own personal fantasies. Sure, it would be cool if those bones actually belonged to the last Aztec emperor. But it’s just not true, at least according to the small amount of evidence I’ve found.
But facts don’t move people. Only stories do. And the people of Ixcateopan have found a story they like better than the truth. You are free to use that information as you see fit.
Daniel Diaz. “El dia que asesinaron a Cuauhtemoc.” Relatos e Historias en Mexico #95
Rosalba Quintana Bustamante. “Aqui yacen los restos de Cuauhtemoc.” Relatos e Historias en Mexico #95
Wed, 28 June 2017
The previous episode ended with Pancho Villa breaking out of prison. This episode has another prison break. This is the third or fourth or fifth high-profile prison break we’ve seen in this series. That’s got to be some kind of podcasting record.
Krauze writes that the country was better off with Madero. In the win column Krauze puts a return to business as usual, growing bank assets, growing external trade, creation of the Department of Labor, improved working conditions in textile factories, legalization of labor unions and the right to strike, changes to agrarian policies, creation of industrial and elementary schools, new highways, and numerous political reforms. The people did not support the anti-Madero rebellions. Yet despite all the good things going on, public opinion was being changed by rumors and distortions in the media.
So we’ve got Zapata’s rebellion in the south, which General Felipe Angeles is able to contain but not totally eliminate. There’s Orozco’s rebellion in the north, which General Victoriano Huerta is in charge of combating. American Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson is up to no good, which we haven’t talked about yet. On top of that, the press continued slamming Madero. And now we’re about to have a rebellion in the capital.
Generals Felix Diaz and Bernardo Reyes had been imprisoned by Madero’s army after leading their own revolts. General Mondragon took his cadets and demanded the release of the two generals. When the guy in charge of the prison resisted, he was shot, and the generals were freed.
The next part of the plan was to attack the National Palace. They might have been successful if they hadn’t been spotted by one of the Palace Generals who was walking to his office in civilian clothes that morning. He saw cadets dragging a machine gun with them, and he was able to raise the alarm and get his men ready.
General Reyes was shot and killed during the assault on the National Palace. By the end of the fighting tehre were about 400 dead and 1000 wounded.
Madero’s men defended the National Palace effectively and forced the two rebelling generals back.
The assault started at about 7:30 in the morning. President Madero was three miles away, in Chapultepec Castle. He got word of the attack at 8:00. He fled, on horseback, and went to meet with some of his advisors. Among them was Victoriano Huerta, who swore loyalty to the President. Madero made him Commander of the Army of the Capital. Huerta’s new role would put him in charge of defending the government and the president.
The President stepped out onto a balcony and addressed the public, with Huerta standing next to him. He then got back on his horse and rode to the National Palace.
By this point the surviving generals had retreated to the city armory, the ciudadela, where they stocked up on ammunition.
That evening the President left the city and went to Cuernavaca to keep fighting the Zapatistas. He was confident that the rebellion would be crushed like previous rebellions against him in the capital.
While there, he asked his Army advisors what they would think if he put Felipe Angeles in charge of defending the capital instead of Huerta. They didn’t think it was a good idea, since Felipe had only recently been promoted and was not technically a general, since Congress had not yet made his generalship official.
The next day, February 11, Huerta began bombarding the rebels, who responded in kind. Both sides began tearing the city apart.
American Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson started sending telegraphs to President William Howard Taft, saying the Mexican government had fallen.
During the 10 days, Huerta conspired with Felix Diaz and Ambassador Wilson. They struck a deal. The deal was that Huerta would switch sides and become interim president, then Diaz would become the next president.
Huerta worked from then on as a double agent, conducting battles against Felix Diaz and meeting with him in secret to plan their counterrevolution.
Assassination of Madero
On February 17, 1913 President Madero was sitting in his office when the door opened. His brother Gustavo walked in. Behind him, holding a gun, was General Huerta. Gustavo said he found out that Huerta had made a pact with Felix Diaz, the leader of the army rebellion.
Before this incident, the President’s own mother had warned him about General Huerta. She wasn’t the only person to do so.
Madero considered the situation. He gave Huerta the chance to defend himself against the accusation. Huerta swore loyalty, embraced the president, and said he would eliminate the counterrevolutionary forces within 24 hours. Huerta said his piece, and now Madero had to decide what to do.
Historian Enrique Krauze writes:
“It was a key moment. And Madero made a suicidal decision. In spite of Huerta’s previous commitments to Porfirio Diaz and Bernardo Reyes, in spite of the disrespect and mockery Huerta had shown him in Morelos in 1911, despite the fact that his own mother had warned him against the “counterrevolutionary” Huerta, despite the arrogant threats of Huerta at Ciudad Juarez, despite rumors that Huerta had earlier met with Felix Diaz, despite – at that very moment – the confirmation of his arrangements with the rebels, Madero freed Huerta, personally returned his pistol and granted him the 24 hours he requested to demonstrate his loyalty. He then reprimanded his brother, Gustavo, ‘for being carried away by his impulses.’”
At every single decision point Madero refused to listen to people’s distrust of Huerta. The question has to be Why? It’s a question I haven’t been able to find an answer to.
The next day, February 18, there was another attempt to take the National Palace. One of Huerta’s allies, General Blanquet, led the attack. After a shootout he entered the Palace and approached Madero. The President slapped him in the face and called him a traitor.
Blanquet responded by saying, “Yes, I am a traitor.” He arrested the President.
While that was going on Huerta had invited Gustavo Madero to lunch in a downtown restaurant. He casually asked to see Gustavo’s gun. When Gustavo gave it to him he pointed it at the man and told him he was under arrest. Huerta took him and the quartermaster general of the National Palace to the ciudadela.
The Cuban Ambassador to Mexico at the time, Manuel Marquez Sterling, wrote a book called The Last Days of Madero. In it he describes what followed:
“Jeers, insults, angry shouts mark their arrival. An individual named Cecilio Ocon is the judge who interrogates the defendants. Gustavo rejects all the accusations of his enemies and invokes his privileges as a legislator. But Ocon, after condemning him along with Basso to execution, slaps Gustavo brutally. ‘This is how we respect your privileges,’ he says. Felix Diaz intervenes and they lead the prisoners to another section of the ciudadela. But the mob of soldiers, full of courage, follows them in a frenetic, screaming chorus. Some of them mock Gustavo, others swing their iron fists against him. Gustavo tries to strike out at the worst of them. And a deserter from the 29th battalion pierces Gustavo’s only good eye with his sword, blinding him at once.
The mob breaks into savage laughter. The disgraceful spectacle has amused them. Gustavo, his face bathed with blood, weaves and staggers, groping his way; and the ferocious audience accompanies him with bursts of laughter. Ocon takes him to the room where he is going to be shot. Gustavo, concentrating all his energies, pulls away from the murderer who is trying to force him along. Ocon, rabid, tries to grab him by the lapel of his coat. But his adversary is stronger than he is. The pistol finally ends the fistfight.
More than 20 barrels discharge against the dying martyr, who shudders out a final sigh on the floor. ‘He is not the last patriot,’ shouts Basso. ‘There are still many brave men behind us who will know how to punish these infamies.’ Ocon, with his clouded gaze and unsteady walk, points a finger and says, ‘Now, that one.’
The old sailor, ramrod straight, walks to the place of his execution. One of the executioners tries to put a blindfold on his eyes. For what? ‘I want to see the sky,’ he says, in a strong voice, and raising his face toward the infinite sp[aces, he adds, ‘I can’t find the Great Bear . . . Ah yes! There it is, glittering,’ and then saying his farewell: ‘I am 62 years old. Let it zrbe remembered that I died like a man.’ He unbuttoned his overcoat to show his chest and he gave the order, ‘Fire!’ as if he wanted to overtake Gustavo on the threshold of another life, beyond the Great Bear.”
Unaware of his brother’s death and wanting to prevent any further violence, Madero wrote his letter of resignation.
Congress was called into session to appoint an interim president. Only one congressman, Belisario Dominguez, voted against Huerta. He was shot in the street as he left Congress. Once the interim president was chosen, his only act was to hand power over to Huerta.
Madero’s murder was supposed to look like an accident. Victoriano Huerta’s office called a car rental service. In 1913 cars were still a rarity. The owner of the car rental knew Huerta was a drunk. He wouldn’t trust the new President with his expensive cars.
So the owner sent his son, a boy of 13, to be the driver. Neither of them knew about the plot to kill Madero.
The driver was supposed to take Madero and Suarez from the prison to the military HQ, the ciudadela. The accidental assassination would be led by supposed Madero supporters who were – according to Huerta’s explanation – firing upon a car that they didn’t know Madero was in.
When the shooting started, the driver ran and hid around a corner. He saw Madero and Suarez dragged out of the car and executed. Then the ambush team sprayed the car with bullets. The boy called his father. The father called the newspapers.
Richard Grabman sums up the results of foreign intervention in this part of the Revolution:
“President Taft was outraged. Ambassador Wilson wrote a short article defending himself but left a disaster for the incoming Woodrow Wilson administration. Ironically, Huerta’s government would turn out to be much more radical than Madero’s, and the mild reformer’s murder led to the first 20th century cultural and social revolution. With the United States about to enter its first war overseas, its next door neighbor was in the middle of a full scale war between several forces, none of which trusted their northern neighbor. Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca were in control.”
Huitzilopochtli is the Aztec god of war. Tezcatlipoca is the god of trickery.
Ambassador Wilson’s excuse for conspiring with Diaz and Huerta was that a coup was necessary to keep Mexico from exploding into anarchy. In reality, the coup was exactly what Mexico needed to spark the explosion.
Wilson thought Madero would implement radical reforms that would cost U.S. business interests lots of money. But Madero himself was a landowner and the tiny political reforms he pushed were nothing compared to what the real radicals wanted. And the anarchy that resulted from the coup benefitted the radicals more than anyone.
Tue, 27 June 2017
Hey, remember how the last episode had a happy ending? Welcome to Episode 3.
The Congress that was elected in the fraudulent elections of the year before, 1910, stayed in power as part of the negotiations between Diaz and Madero. They did everything they could to undermine the new President, blocking most of his initiatives.
The press, which had fawned over Diaz during his dictatorship, now reveled in their new freedom of speech and slammed Madero.
Madero won the election, but not much changed. Most of the people in government were holdovers from the Diaz regime, and they resented the new President. Then there were the young and ambitious government workers who were disappointed at the relative lack of change.
Labor had been Madero’s biggest supporters in the election, but their working conditions hadn’t improved with the new presidency.
Other supporters wanted land reform. Chief among them was Emiliano Zapata.
The Zapata family had been defending themselves from basically nonstop attempts to steal their land since the Spanish Conquest in the 1500s. If anyone was born to carry on a family tradition, it was Emiliano.
He became an orphan at 16 but managed to support himself by taking odd jobs. He used mules to haul corn into town and to haul bricks and lime to construction workers. He farmed. Was always proud of earning his own living. Great on horseback.
In September 1908 the people in his village named him president of their defense committee. He and his secretary, Franco, spent the next 8 days poring over the documents they were in charge of.
In 1910, before Madero published the Plan of San Luis, Zapata had already launched a tiny revolution to get back land that had been stolen in 1607. He was successful. He went back to farming until he heard about the upcoming nationwide revolution. The passages in Plan of San Luis about returning land stolen by plantations resonated with the people of Zapata’s village, and they sent a representataive to Madero in Texas.
It was time for Zapata to join the Revolution. His people gathered in the town plaza to begin their march. Zapata was in the middle of the plaza, on horseback. A shot rang out. Zapata felt his hat shift on his head. He took it off and saw a hole in it.
The crowd saw a man in the town hall begin to run away. Zapata told his people not to move, and he rode toward the building. He went around the building but didn’t find the assassin.
One of his biggest local enemies was a plantation owner from Spain. The man had sent Zapata a message that was probably meant to intimidate, but it provoked the opposite reaction. The message stated that if Zapata were “so brave and so much a man, we have thousands of bullets and enough guns waiting to welcome you and your men as you deserve.”
When he heard the message, Zapata ordered an attack on the Chinameca plantation. It was his first military action. After the fight he and his men loaded up on supplies and marched on. With each town they passed, their army grew bigger.
They slowly pushed the government out of the state of Morelos. By May 1911 only two cities, Cuatla and Cuernavaca, had a strong government presence. The fighting at Cuatla went on for days, but by May 19 the Zapatistas had won.
Later on in Porfirio Diaz’s life he would reflect on those early days of the Zapatista revolt and say, “I was calm until the south rose.”
Foreign land ownership had exploded during the Porfiriato. Now that Porfirio Diaz was gone, Zapata wanted recognition from Madero’s government. The Zapatistas had dealt violently with plantation owners and land grabbers, so the elite of Morelos were now complaining to Madero. The president himself came from one of Mexico’s wealthiest families. Madero would face big problems no matter what he did or did not do about the land.
With respect to that, his Plan of San Luis, which called for Revolution, explicitly stated that all agreements between the Diaz government and foreign governments and corporations would be respected.
At this point in the narrative Madero seems to be doing everything in his power to destroy his own revolution and lose as many allies as possible. He probably would have done a fine job of it himself, but his enemies were more than happy to speed up his fall. Victoriano Huerta saw an opportunity to weaken Madero when the President met with Emiliano Zapata.
Zapata and Madero
Madero was surrounded by flatterers and yes men. Zapata saw this and was disappointed. His disappointment would only deepen later when Madero visited the state of Morelos. The leader of the Revolution was being equally generous with plantation owners and revolutionaries.
On June 21, Zapata and Madero met at Madero’s home. There was tension in the air. Zapata tried to break the tension by pointing at a gold chain hanging from Madero’s neck. Zapata posed a hypothetical situation.
If I took your watch by force, which I can do because I am armed, and our paths cross later on, and we’re both armed, would you have the right to ask me to give it back?
Madero said of course, and I would demand compensation.
Zapata spoke again, “That is exactly what has happened to us in the state of Morelos, where a few plantation owners by force have taken over village lands. My soldiers (the armed peasants and all the villages) insist that I tell you, with all due respect, that they want you to move immediately to restore their lands.”
They met a few times over a month or so. By their third or fourth meeting the combined efforts of plantation owners, the press, the interim president, and General Huerta to turn Zapata against Madero were successful.
When Madero finally came into power he met again with Zapata, who wanted the withdrawal of one federal general and a new law that would improve conditions for plantation workers. Madero was done with Zapata. He told him, “Surrender to good judgement and leave the country. Your rebellious attitude is doing serious harm to my government.”
Madero would later regret those words, but the damage could no longer be undone.
Zapata’s final letter to Madero said, “You can begin counting the days, because in a month I will be in Mexico City with 20,000 men and I will have the pleasure of coming to Chapultepec and hanging you from one of the tallest trees in the forest.”
The Plan of Ayala was signed on November 25, 1911. It was an attack on Madero and an attempt to explain the ideas behind the new revolution. Zapata accused Madero of continuing the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. Since Madero hadn’t done anything regarding land reform during his presidency, among other failures, Zapata said he had to be overthrown. Madero had begun his movement “with the support of god and the people” but had not finished it, and now was the head of a tyrannical government. The only solution was to take up arms.
More and more people were becoming dissatisfied with Madero and his conciliations to the old regime.
The Orozco revolt
Pascual Orozco and Madero’s exVP candidate, Francisco Vazquez Gomez, joined forces and took up arms against the President.
Orozco joined the revolt because his men told him they were going to revolt against Madero. They said they would follow Orozco if he joined their movement. If he didn’t, they would repudiate him. Orozco wasn’t sure he was ready to lead another rebellion, but he knew he probably wouldn’t get another chance, especially if his men abandoned him.
It’s possible that Madero offered Orozco the governorship of Chihuahua in order to keep him on his side.
Nonetheless, on March 2, 1912 Orozco joined his men and they renewed the revolt. Orozco already had Zapata’s endorsement. Back in November 1911 Zapata’s Plan of Ayala called for Orozco to be the leader of the revolution against the President.
Although Orozco and Zapata were basically on the same side of the revolution, they had very different supporters and enemies. In the south, the plantation owners and upper classes were against Zapata. In the north, those same types of people supported and even funded Orozco. Why?
Orozco had made deals with them. One example and one bit of evidence is that on one occasion during a battle he had told his men not to touch land belonging to the most powerful family in Chihuahua, the Terrazas-Creel family.
Orozco was mainly interested in acquiring power. He came from a relatively wealthy family and never really cared about the goals of the people fighting in the revolutionary armies. In some cases his men didn’t know about the deals he had made with plantation owners. Some who found out about it left. Others stayed, happy to use rich people’s money and support against them. If they could use the elite’s resources while making no concessions to them, why not?
Things went mostly according to plan for the oligarchs who funded the revolt when the rebel army was winning, but the summer of 1912 brought defeats, and the rebels began to split off from one another. One group of former rebels pursued land reforms. They distributed plantations among the laborers. Six of those plantations belonged to the Terrazas family, who had been funding Orozco’s rebellion. Other former rebels turned to banditry and general Robin Hood-ing.
Pancho gets back in the game
Pancho Villa had resigned from service to Madero, but now that Orozco’s men were engaging in their various revolts, the upper classes of Chihuahua looked to Villa to stop them.
There are many perspectives on Pancho Villa’s history and legend. Around the time of the Orozco rebellion he had settled down, gotten married, and had gone into business. Historian Friedrich Katz says that “the most articulate of Villa’s many wives,” describes his story as a classic rags-to-riches tale. He now was a successful businessman who enjoyed the support of Governor Gonzales and President Madero. His only political activity was to carry out missions for the president. According to his enemies and critics, his supposed settling down was a front so that he could continue his old banditry, but now with legal cover. He had gone from being a small town crook to a big city gangster, in their eyes.
Now his powerful friends were asking for his support in putting down Orozco’s rebellion. Villa had grown to hate Orozco after the battle of Juarez and had always hated the Terrazas family who was now funding Orozco.
He wrote a letter to one of the leaders of the Orozco revolt, asking, “Will it be a consolation to those who became widows and orphans during the last revolution to have their ranks swelled by new widows and orphans? Is it a sign of patriotism if we kill each other every time an ambitious man wants to take power?”
He wasn’t exactly thrilled to go back to battle, but he took up arms at the request of Madero and Governor Gonzalez of Chihuahua, both of whom he greatly respected. Despite their disagreements on different policies, Villa still admired them and remained loyal. He felt he couldn’t stay neutral during an armed conflict in Chihuahua. Plus, he had always hated the Terrazas family and he was convinced that Orozco had tricked him into rebelling against Madero at the Battle of Juarez.
He visited cities and towns in Chihuahua, gathering supporters. They were well-organized and well-disciplined. Villa ordered all bars and liquor stores closed when his men came through. They were received well in all towns they visited.
But Orozco had also been campaigning throughout the state and fearmongering about the evil Pancho Villa.
Orozco controlled most of Chihuahua. In one battle his men loaded a train with dynamite and drove it near a building full of federal troops, killing hundreds. The federal general of that battle later committed suicide.
After suffering a few losses against Orozco, Villa was now down to 60 men. Katz writes that Villa had an uncanny ability to do the unexpected. He could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat just as easily as he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Villa was at his least dangerous after a big victory and at his most dangerous when he seemed close to annihilation.
In the town of Parral, the federal military commander had defected to Orozco’s side. Not all of his men agreed to follow him though, and when Pancho Villa arrived with his 60 men, the federal soldiers joined him. Villa captured the defector and sent him to Mexico City, where we was imprisoned.
He appropriated all arms in the town and made the wealthiest families give him a total of 150,000 pesos. He gave them receipts and said the money would be paid back as soon as the federal government won. Anyone who refused was put in jail. Eventually everyone paid up.
He wouldn’t be so…generous…at one bank. Since the Creel and Terrazas families funded Orozco’s revolt, Pancho entered Enrique Creel’s bank and took 50,000 pesos as “spoils of war,” and he threatened to put the bank manager and his son on the front lines when the revolutionaries began their attack.
On April 2nd at 4 a.m., a cannon woke the town up. A battle had broken out on the outskirts of town. A few hours later some of the attacking soldiers began leading a team of mules up a hill. They were carrying a cannon.
An American was among those defending the city. He manned a machine gun and fired at the cannon. When he stopped shooting, the six mules carrying the cannon were dead and the ranking officer had been shot in the head. His men abandoned the mission and ran back down the hill.
Madero had won Pancho Villa’s respect after the battle at Ciudad Juarez. So when Pascual Orozco offered lots of money if Villa supported him and Zapata instead of Madero, Villa turned him down.
Something Villa didn’t like about Madero, though, was the President’s trust in Victoriano Huerta, a brutal man who had been one of Diaz’s favorites.
Pancho Villa remained loyal to Madero and volunteered to take his men to fight against Orozco and Zapata. Madero accepted, but he ordered Villa to report to Victoriano Huerta, who would be his commanding officer.
Villa and Huerta had a contentious relationship…and then it got worse. Huerta sent Villa and his men to fight on open terrain so that they would suffer more casualties and he even bombarded them with his own artillery.
Villa realized that he couldn’t keep taking orders from Huerta, so he announced that he would leave and take his men with him. Huerta took that as treason and ordered Villa to be executed, no trials, no formalities. When it came time to face the firing squad, Villa lost it. He fell to his knees, holding onto an officer’s boot and begging for his life. When he regained his composure he stood up and was taken to the wall. He waited for the gunshots.
At the last second, a message arrived from Madero, saving Villa’s life, but sending him to prison.
In prison he met with radicals and socialists and anarchists. It’s possible he learned to read in prison as well. He appealed to the president, asking for release, but was unsuccessful.
Pancho breaks out of jail.
Metal bars can’t hold the Centaur of the North. I’m gonna quote Earl Shorris here.
“On Christmas Day 1912, Pancho Villa, dressed in a severe black suit of the kind worn by lawyers, finished sawing through the bars of the window of his prison cell, climbed out into the yard, where he was met by a young attorney and, partially covering his face with a handkerchief, walked out of the prison, all the while chatting animatedly with his companion.”
They got in a car and drove to the next state over, to the city of Toluca. From there they got on a train and headed to the coast, to a city called Manzanillo. From Manzanillo they boarded a ship to Mazatlan.
Police all over the country were looking for him by now. He was nearly caught on the ship. He stayed in his cabin and had to bribe one of the ship’s officials. The bribe got him a small boat so he could leave the ship before health authorities boarded for an inspection.
From there he made his way to El Paso, and safety.
Mon, 26 June 2017
Francisco Madero is described by all my sources as a spiritualist rather than a revolutionary or a military leader or political theorist or philosopher. He came from a wealthy family. As a boy he was often sick.
He studied in the US, lived in France for a few years, and traveled through Europe. It was there that he adopted the ideas of Spiritualism (with a capital S). Spiritualism was based on communicating with spirits of the dead.
It was big. By 1854 there were more than 3 million Spiritualists worldwide. Madero writes the he didn’t just read Spiritualist books, he devoured them.
He finished business school in Paris and then studied a year in Berkeley, improving his English and learning agriculture. The constant illnesses of his childhood had made him deliberately work on becoming physically strong. He wrote a pamphlet on water rights that Porfirio Diaz praised him for. He did charity work as well, giving out homeopathic…..concoctions as well as money to sick people.
At his hacienda he fed about 60 kids, and he paid his staff well. He married in 1903, and they gave out scholarships and created schools, hospitals, and community kitchens.
He felt his mission as a Spiritualist was to be a medium for the spirits of the dead. Specifically a writing medium. He wanted the spirits to speak through him in his writings. Soon he was claiming that his brother Raul, who had died at age four in a fire, was visiting him daily. Francisco gave up smoking, became a vegetarian, and destroyed his wine cellar. His wrote, by way of Francisco, “You can have the only happiness there is in this world solely through practicing charity in the broadest sense of the word.” He later wrote, “Aspire to do good for your fellow citizens . . . working for a lofty ideal that will raise the moral level of society, that will succeed in liberating it from oppression, slavery, and fanaticism.
As government repression in Mexico increased in the first decade of the 1900s Madero came to believe that “charity in the broadest sense” meant politics. He was now seeing his future a little more clearly.
In the previous episode, Francisco Madero had called for a revolution. He said it would happen on November 20, 1910. Photo ops on November 20 made it look like spontaneous uprisings were happening all over Mexico, and there were, but they were mostly small, isolated groups. In fact, it began so gradually that by January 1911 the government thought the danger had passed.
The Revolution was on though, especially in Chihuahua, a northern state. The armies of Pascual Orozco and Pancho Villa were winning battles against the federal army.
Revolutionary fever slowly spread thanks to a weak federal army and widespread social discontent. Small groups of men on horseback rode into villages and towns. They went to the town square and read aloud Madero’s Plan of San Luis, inviting the men of the town to join them. They took the local government’s cash reserves, guns, and horses. They freed the prisoners. Then they went to the next town and did it again. And again.
The Federal army was weak. It relied on conscription – the draft – and didn’t have a single full battalion or regiment. The leaders didn’t know the terrain. Corruption was everywhere. And they were not prepared to fight small, nimble forces. By the time they arrived at a place that was being attacked, the attackers had already disappeared and were in a different area.
As the months wore on, the army had become concentrated in the areas with the most fighting, which left other places basically free of soldiers. In the states of Nayarit, Colima, and Michoacan, the revolutionaries took over the government without firing a single shot.
By May 1911 there was fighting in 26 states and the Federal District – Mexico City.
Earlier, in March, Madero attacked Casas Grandes with about 100 men. He left the battle with a wounded arm and had lost several soldiers. Historian Earl Shorris says the attack was a fiasco that showed Madero to be a poor military commander. Nonetheless, he was the last man to retreat and he earned a reputation for courage.
Battle of Juarez
If I went into much detail on the battles of the Revolution this series would basically never end. So I’m really glossing over a lot. This is episode 2 and I’m already leaving tons of things out. But the battle of Juarez deserves some attention.
Madero was encouraged by news of more and more uprisings throughout Mexico. He decided to take Ciudad Juarez, partly to control traffic to and from the United States.
The Revolutionary army marched on Juarez on April 7, 1911. It was headed up by two columns of 500 riders each. Leading the columns were Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco. Behind the columns was a force of 1,500 riders led by Francisco Madero. Until this point the army had mostly used guerrilla tactics, attacking swiftly and disappearing into their surroundings. This march was much more conventional.
They surrounded the city on three sides. The Federal Army, which had about 700-1000 soldiers, and the city itself was cut off from communication with the outside world.
Madero hesitated. If he attacked, there was a chance that stray bullets would fly into the neighboring American city of El Paso, possibly killing civilians and forcing the US to intervene. Plus, the Diaz government was now on a peace offensive, and Madero’s own family was asking him to reach some kind of compromise with the President/Dictator, whichever term you prefer.
Madero wanted to avoid bloodshed, and he thought he actually could reach an agreement with Diaz. He came from the upper class, too, and shared their fear of anarchy and possible US intervention.
He accepted a ceasefire that would allow Diaz to stay in power. That specific part of the ceasefire wasn’t made public, but rumors were circulating in the US media that a deal had been struck.
The leaders of the revolutionary army were angry at Madero for the ceasefire. Both sides were now basically in limbo. The ceasefire had been going on for days now, and Madero’s men were getting less enthusiastic and optimistic. Food was running out and they weren’t receiving the pay they had been promised.
Madero met with one of his military leaders, Pascual Orozco. He asked whether he should accept a proposal that would leave Diaz in power, or whether the president’s resignation should be a precondition for peace.
Orozco said, “Don’t ask me these things, since I understand nothing about them. Tell me that the enemy is coming from somewhere, and I shall see what I can do; but these things I know nothing about. You know what you should do.”
When Madero met with government representatives, he said he could no longer accept the terms. The peace negotiations ended, and so did the ceasefire. But Madero still hesitated to attack.
Pascual Orozco and Pancho Villa had had enough. They decided to attack without telling Madero. So they ordered their men to start shooting, and the Federal army returned fire.
Madero sent a message to the Federal commander, Juan Navarro, asking him to order his men to stop shooting. He agreed, and his men stopped. But the revolutionary army did not. They advanced on the city. Madero sent an emissary with a white flag and orders to stop. But they ignored him. The federal army was now returning fire again.
Orozco eventually had to face Madero. So he simply told him the fighting was now impossible to stop.
Not only was that probably true, but by now there were thousands of American spectators right across the river. Both the revolutionaries and the Federal army had to be careful not to accidentally send stray bullets across the border. One of those American onlookers, Timothy Turner, was a reporter. He had crossed into Juarez to watch. He wrote about the battle:
“We sat up there on the hill and saw the river oaks swarming with insurrectos moving into Juarez. They moved in no formation whatsoever, just an irregular stream of them, silhouettes of men and rifles.
Thus they began to move in and to move out along that road throughout the battle. They would fight a while, and come back to rest, sleep, and eat, returning refreshed to the front.
The European-trained soldiers raved at this, tried to turn them back, to make everybody fight at one time. But that was not the way of these chaps from Chihuahua. They knew their business and they knew it well.
That way of fighting, I think, more than any other thing, took Juarez. For by it, the insurrectos were always fresh with high spirits, while the littler brown federals with no sleep and little food or water, with their officers behind them ready with their pistols to kill quitters, soon lost their morale.”
Later Turner actually joined the……. insurrectos….. and reported on their tactics to avoid machine gun fire from the Federal army:
“I heard somebody calling me, and in the doorway was an insurrecto officer I knew, an erstwhile schoolteacher from the state capital, and I ran to where he was and then to the house. He was with some men who carried axes and crowbars in their hands, with their rifles swung onto their backs, and I saw what they were up to. They were cutting their was from one house to the other, chopping through the adobe walls dividing the structures. Thus one could walk a whole block without ever going outside a house. This made a fairly safe way of moving through the center of the town, except, of course, when one had to run across three intersections to the next block of buildings. Nobody was in any hurry.”
Navarro surrendered after two days of fighting. His men were concentrated in a few buildings and were cut off from water.
In previous battles Navarro had ordered his men to execute captured enemy soldiers with bayonets. The revolutionaries wanted to avenge the dead, so they asked Madero to execute Navarro. The request was denied. Now they demanded it, but Madero still refused.
Orozco took out his pistol and pointed it at Madero’s chest. An officer then pointed his gun at Orozco. And now it’s a standoff.
Madero walked right between the two men and out to the street. He got up on a railroad car and gave an impromptu speech that moved Pancho Villa to tears. Villa begged Madero for forgiveness. In other accounts he merely shook Madero’s hand.
It’s not clear what Madero said, just that nobody killed him and he won people to his side.
Then after winning the day with his speech, Madero angered his generals again by taking Navarro in his own car to the US border, and to safety.
Before the battle, the revolutionary soldiers wanted Navarro dead. But it wasn’t just because of the brutal way he executed their comrades. When the revolutionaries had captured federal soldiers, they had made a point of sparing their lives. Plus, Madero’s Plan of San Luis called for federal generals who violated rules of war to be executed. So Madero was going against the desires of his men as well as his stated intentions in the document where he called for revolution.
Before the meeting, Orozco told Pancho Villa to disarm Madero’s guard if Madero didn’t acquiesce to Orozco’s demands. Villa never did that, though. Instead he ran outside to get his 50 men. Later he said that he found out why Orozco wanted him to disarm the guard.
“Orozco, expecting a sum of money from Don Porfirio’s agent, promised to assassinate Senor Madero and wished to involve me. At the last moment, Orozco lacked the courage to go through with it, or to go all the way, and knowing my violent character, he planned for me to disarm the guard, so that I would appear to the be principal instigator of the shooting and the president would challenge me face to face and I would draw my gun and kill him, and everything would be done with Pascual Orozco uninvolved, and me, Pancho Villa, apparently the true and only assassin.”
The allegations are unproven, but what we do know is that Orozco met with representatives of the Diaz government at least four times between the sacking of the city and the confrontation with Madero. And Madero himself wrote a letter speaking of outside influences on Orozco.
Historian Enrique Katz says money probably played a smaller part in Orozco’s alleged assassination scheme than power, since he was the most popular revolutionary figure at the time, behind Madero, and would have had a good shot at the presidency with Madero out of the way.
If Orozco himself had murdered Madero, things might have turned out badly for him. But if a man like Pancho Villa killed Madero, Orozco’s hands would be clean and would have a chance to avenge Madero’s murder.
It’s possible that this whole complicated plot was the reason behind Orozco’s insistence that Madero court martial and execute the enemy general.
Then we come to Madero’s reasons for not court marshalling Navarro. There are a lot of theories on that as well, but one possible explanation is that he wanted to have the Federal army’s loyalty when he took office.
As the revolutionaries racked up win after win throughout Mexico, President Diaz knew it was only a matter of weeks or months before his army was completely defeated. His representatives met with Madero, and they signed the Treaty of Juarez on May 21, 1911.
Many revolutionary leaders strongly opposed the Treaty. They felt it was unnecessary. The revolutionaries already controlled most of the contested regions, and they understood what Diaz understood, that the federal army could not hold out for much longer. The revolutionaries could have a total victory on their terms without any need for negotiation. They felt the Treaty only weakened them while giving more power to people loyal to Diaz.
Pancho Villa opposed the Treaty as well. He wrote about a confrontation that happened just before the signing:
“I attended because he asked me to.” [He meaning Madero.] “But I already felt a deadly hatred for all those perfumed dandies. They had started in with speeches, and that bunch of politicians talked endlessly. Then Madero said to me, ‘And you, Pancho, what do you think? The war is over. Aren’t you happy? Give us a few words.’ I did not want to say anything, but Gustavo Madero who was sitting at my side nudged me, saying, ‘Go ahead, Chief. Say something.’
So I stood up and said to Francisco, ‘You, sir, have destroyed the Revolution.’ He demanded to know why, so I answered, ‘It’s simple: This bunch of dandies have made a fool of you and this will eventually cost us our necks, yours included.’ Madero kept on questioning me. “Fine, Pancho. But tell me, what do you think should be done?’ I answered, ‘Allow me to hang this roomful of politicians and then let the revolution continue.’”
Villa himself is the only person who reported the exchange, so it’s not likely that it took place, but you get a glimpse into his mind there. Not much later he resigned and went back to private life.
Porfirio Diaz Surrenders
After the Treaty of Juarez, Diaz surrendered. All sides would agree to stop fighting and Diaz would step down. He resigned on May 25.
The interim president, Francisco Leon de la Barra, was in charge of organizing new elections. As part of the negotiations, 14 unpopular governors were replaced.
Madero continued angering supporters by distancing himself from them. He broke away from the National Antireelectionist Party and his vice presidential candidate, forming a new party and picking a new VP.
Elections were held on the 1st and 15th of October. Madero won with 99% of the vote. His Vice President, Jose Maria Pino Suarez got 53%.
The antireelectionists had achieved their main goal, but they weren’t the only group participating in the Revolution. The middle classes had goals, the unionists had goals, the anarcho-syndicalists had goals, the land reformers had goals…They were all attached to a vague idea of democracy, but they couldn’t agree on specifics.
In any case the country finally had free elections. They didn’t remain too free for too long, but for now the system appeared to be working properly.
You might think this is where the series ends. We’ve deposed a dictator, we’ve forced out 14 governors, and we have the new President we’ve been fighting for. We’ve blown up the Death Star. Princess Leia gives everybody a medal. The Revolution is over, right?
Well… Madero’s gonna try to disarm the revolutionary army and depend entirely on the Federal army for his protection…. The army he’s just been fighting against.
How do you think that’s gonna go?
Mon, 26 June 2017
This episode is an intro, explaining the factors that led to the Revolution, and then ending just before the Revolution officially began.
The best way to explain the structure of this series is to compare it to TV shows that have seasons and episodes. Like TV shows, the individual episodes in a season will come out regularly, but the seasons will be spaced out a little more. In between the seasons, we’ll have shorter one-off episodes, some of which will be related to the Revolution but not part of the greater narrative, like an episode about an individual person in the Revolution, and there will be episodes completely unconnected to the Revolution, such as the execution of the last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtemoc, or about the Cathedral in Mexico City, or news and culture. I also want to feature more pieces by other people, like I did with the mezcal episodes.
Okay, that’s it. Let’s get to work.
The Mexican Revolution wasn’t one thing. It was a series of civil wars, betrayals, assassinations, and reforms that encompass 5-7 years in some senses, and about 20-30 years in a broader sense. Then there’s the romantic (and true) idea that the reverberations are still being felt today.
There weren’t two opposing forces fighting for clear objectives. It was more like Game of Thrones: multiple factions of idealists, opportunists, and freedom fighters making temporary alliances and then turning on each other. And almost every major figure gets assassinated. Spoiler alert.
It’s disorienting and convoluted, with several people taking the role of president, claiming the last guy was illegitimate for X reason, and then doing X.
The wars weren’t fought all over the country. They were more localized. The states of Morelos and Chihuahua were the most violent. Mexico City and the center of the country saw frequent fighting. But most of the country didn’t see much violence.
The most obvious way to explain the conditions that led to the Revolution is to talk briefly about a man called Porfirio Diaz.
He led a coup against a President who he said had served too many terms. He thought a leader should get one term and then step down. Diaz declared himself interim president. Elections were held. Diaz won.
Then he served just one term in 1876 and stepped down when his term was up in 1880. Then he served another just-one-term in 1884. Then another in 1888, 1892, 1896, 1900, and 1904.
Some sources call him a dictator, but it’s important to remember that in a few of those elections he did actually have to face an opponent. That opponent was an astrologer who lived in an expensive private mental institution. The bills were paid for by… Porfirio Diaz.
So the man who said presidents should serve one term ended up ruling for about 30 years.
What happened in those 30 years is described as both dictatorship and development. He stole vast amounts of land, violated property rights, granted monopolies to his supporters, and he made it so that the only way to remove him from power was the same way he had taken it: By force.
During his rule electricity, railroads, trolleys, and the telephone all arrived in Mexico. Gross National Product greatly increased. Life was very good for the coutnry’s elite, who were allowed and encouraged to take land and export natural resources to industrializing nations. Porfirio was stabilizing some aspects of the country, but the trade he made was modernization and increased wealth for the upper classes in exchange for returning Mexico to colonial status: The country almost literally belonged to foreign investors.
The people who worked on haciendas and ranches lived basically as slaves, even if that word wasn’t used. Whipping was a common punishment. Workers were forced to buy from the company store on the ranch or farm. Prices were much higher in those stores than in the nearby towns. Workers who didn’t purchase from those stores were whipped or docked pay.
High officials in Diaz’s government were mostly of European descent. The ideologies in vogue among them were French Positivism and social Darwinism. They called themselves cientificos – scientists.
Legal, paper-based land ownership was a new requirement that the cientificos had imposed on the country, and on people who had inhabited the same land for over 800 years. The people who lived there had never needed a piece of paper saying they lived there, and even if they would have had that custom, the Spanish conquistadors in the 15 and 1600s had been more than thorough in their destruction of indigenous books and documents.
In 1883 a law passed in Congress that allowed foreign companies to come in and take land they considered undeveloped. Now communities that had been living on the same land for generations were suddenly told by outsiders that their farms were actually haciendas belonging to some guy who had never even visited the place, and now the communities were basically forced into something so similar to slavery that we may as well just call it slavery.
They now had to work the lands while paying rent on their own homes and fields. The harvest of course went to the new owner.
A special division of police were given authority to deal with peasants trying to defend their land (or peasants who couldn’t pay the rent, or who protested).
Meanwhile Porfirio Diaz’s regime tried to paint a positive picture of Mexico to the outside world. They claimed Mexico was now safe, tamed, open for business.
The Cientificos sold land to telegraph companies and railroad companies, which allowed the transport of natural resources to port cities.
Mexico City was having a sewage problem at this time. The city is surrounded by mountains and there’s no natural drainage, and population growth was causing problems. When it rained, the sewers overflowed and streets flooded.
In 1886 they began what Richard Grabman calls one of the greatest engineering projects of the 19th century, or any century. It took 14 years, but in the end they had built a 36-mile canal and six-mile tunnel that carried the sewage to the other side of the mountains and dumped it into the Lerma River.
Mexico’s new industrialization came through use of death camps in the Yucatan peninsula and the valley of Oaxaca.
Porfirio Diaz, who was from Oaxaca, has often been called Mexico’s first modern leader, which leads me to a point of speculation. If you’re listening to this, it’s very likely that you know of Dan Carlin’s podcast called Hardcore History. In the first episode of his series on the Mongols, he compares Genghis Khan to Hitler.
He starts the episode by saying he has an idea for a book. It’s a book he wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole, but it’s a book that he’s certain will be written eventually, maybe in a couple hundred years, when the European Holocaust is no longer so close at hand.
What will people say about Hitler in a few hundred years? Dan thinks it might be similar to what people now say about Genghis Khan. They’ll say Hitler was a force for modernization, development, industrialization, etc.
I think the historians who talk about Porfirio Diaz as Mexico’s first modern leader are putting on the Genghis Khan Goggles, which are similar to beer goggles, but for historical events. Today some people wear Genghis Khan Goggles when they think about Hernan Cortes and Porfirio Diaz. Someday people might put on Genghis Khan Goggles when they think of Hitler.
The comparison to Hitler works and is not just a meaningless invocation of Godwin’s Law because Diaz in some cases pioneered the techniques that would be used by the Nazis and by Stalin. Specifically, concentration camps.
In Mexico, these concentration camps are referred to today by the lovely word hacienda. If you travel in Mexico you’ll probably see tempting offers to stay at a bed and breakfast that was an old hacienda, or eat at a restaurant that was a hacienda.
The meal after my wedding was at a restaurant on a hacienda. The neighborhood I live in used to be a hacienda as well.
The haciendas in the Yucatan and Oaxaca were ways to industrialize a place quickly while eliminating unwanted ethnic groups.
One ethnic group that put up resistance was called the Yaquis. About 30,000 of them were deported to the Yucatan peninsula, which was thousands of miles away from their land and was a much different type of climate. The Yucatan is a humid jungle. The Yaquis came from the north of Mexico, the southern US, an arid desert climate. If you’ve never been to the Yucatan jungles, the heat and humidity there is unbearable in December, on vacation.
Like the Jews in the Holocaust, the Yaquis were transported on overcrowded cattle cars. Many of them died along the way. Most of the people who arrived didn’t live long. They slept in overcrowded barracks, were underfed, and were literally worked to death.
All of this was justified to Europe and the United States as the way of civilizing an inferior people.
A reporter called John Kenneth Turner visited these death camps and his publications became very popular in the US. People were outraged, and American citizens began smuggling weapons into Mexico.
Diaz became very disliked by middle class voters in the US. The US government and American business interests thought change was coming to Mexico, and they wanted to control the outcome.
Historian Earl Shorris says there are several probable causes of the Mexican Revolution. The causes, or maybe precipitating factors, worked together. No single cause could have sparked the Revolution on its own, but several of them working all at once could.
First, Porfirio Diaz was old. In his 80s. The average age of his Cabinet was 68. And Mexico was a young country. In 1910 a third of the population was under 10. More than half were under 20, and fewer than 10% were over 50. Dictator or no, he would soon die, as would many of his Cabinet members. Change was inevitable.
Second, economics. The final two years of his rule saw contractions in the economy. These contractions hit the poor harder than anyone else, and made their lives even more difficult.
Third, haciendas. The governance system in most of the country was basically feudalism, at least outside the major cities. There were no limits on how much land someone could own. Anything considered “unused” land could be settled. Any land owned by people who lacked the recently-imposed legal documentation could be taken. An enormous amount of land was stolen.
Fourth, the decline of Positivism. Young Mexicans rebelled against the philosophy of the older generation. The Positivism of Pofrifio’s cientificos was losing its appeal. A new philosophy, sparked by Henri Bergson’s book The Creative Mind, connected with them deeply. Shorris says the impact of the new philosophy on the Revolutionaries is undeniable.
Fifth, Diaz had been quoted as saying that this would truly be his final term and that he would welcome an opposition party in the next elections. He said Mexico should be prepared to change their government at every election and not have to face armed revolution. That interview was read by some of the most influential Revolutionaries, and nobody would forget what he had said.
Sixth, freedom of the press. Diaz allowed the popular socialist polemicists, the Flores Magon brothers, to get out of jail and go to the U.S. and continue publishing articles against him. Many of their ideas made it into the 1917 Constitution, which has been called the first socialist constitution, coming even before the Soviet one.
Seventh, the federal army proved that they were not invincible. An early battle before the Revolution resulted in the massacre of an entire village called Tomochi. But the people in that town of about 200 killed several soldiers in the fighting. One of the federal soldiers who survived wrote a book about it, and he said “every rebel was worth 10 federal soldiers.” The news of the battle spread quickly.
The eighth cause or factor in the Revolution was strikes. A third of the land was owned by foreigners. Foreign investors owned about 90% of the value of industries in Mexico. The French owned the textile industry. The Americans owned mining. Various other countries owned the railroads. The British and Americans owned the oil. In all those industries the owners put their own countrymen in the best positions. In return for all this, foreign governments rewarded Diaz. He got rewards from Switzerland, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Venezuela, France, Japan, Italy, Belgium, Prussia, Hungary, Austria, Persia, Great Britain, the Netherlands, China, and Russia. There were at least 250 strikes or demonstrations during his dictatorship. The strikers mostly demanded better working conditions.
In one of those strikes dozens were killed. Local police were helpless to stop the strikers, and the Mexican military was nowhere nearby. So the governor of Sonora actually requested US military, since the strike was at an American-owned copper mine. Eventually the Mexican military arrived and demanded the American soldiers leave.
The presence of foreign soldiers protecting American interests against Mexican workers was….unpopular.
That was 1906. Things did not improve after those strikes. The pressure kept building.
In 1908 a man called Francisco Madero published a book called The Presidential Succession of 1910. He met with Diaz and suggested that he himself be nominated Vice President, rather than the man Diaz was considering. Diaz refused him. Madero later recalled that meeting, saying he was not impressed by the dictator. He must have felt what Christopher Hitchens famously described: The moment you begin interacting with statesmen and realize, to your horror, that they are even less intelligent than you are.
After Diaz refused Madero, Madero continued his own presidential campaign, calling his party the Antireelectionists. He began touring Mexico and founding Antireelectionist clubs all over the north. And he was getting more popular all the time. He was gathering the support of cowboys, railway workers, miners, small town businessmen, cattle rustlers, and indigenous leaders. For the first time, Diaz faced serious competition.
Another contender for the presidency was Bernardo Reyes. Reyes was part of the Diaz government, but he was setting up his own opposition party. Diaz sent him to Europe, ostensibly to study military recruitment systems, but the effect was exile for Reyes. Now without their candidate, his followers joined Madero’s Antireelectionists.
In April 1910 the Antireelectionists held a convention. Madero was voted in as their candidate.
Diaz had pro-Madero newspapers closed, his people attacked Antireelectionist rallies, and he jailed their leaders in several cities. Some were able to flee to safety in the US, but Madero was arrested and imprisoned in San Luis Potosi in June 1910.
In the June 26th elections, Diaz’s people blocked suspected Antireelectionists from voting, so they called Diaz out for committing voter fraud and petitioned Congress to annul the vote. Congress basically ignored them.
While in prison Madero was visited by prominent members of his anti-reelectionist campaign. He said that now was the time to take up arms. They made plans to buy weapons and recruit men willing to die for the cause. The call to arms would go out in October, after the country was done celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Mexican War of Independence.
Madero came from a wealthy family, and his father bailed him out and used his influence with the governor to allow Madero to get around the city during the day.
On October 7, 1910 he escaped his guards on horseback and fled to the US, helped by sympathetic railway workers. He went to San Antonio, TX, where his family owned a house.
The railroads were perhaps Diaz’s biggest accomplishment, and they were the key to controlling Mexico. If you control the railroads you can send soldiers quickly to any part of the country. And the key to the railroads were the workers.
Francisco Madero had the support of those workers. With their help he smuggled guns and propaganda into Mexico. From San Antonio, Texas, he wrote that the revolution would begin on November 20, 1910.