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Villa and Zapata – A History of the Mexican Revolution, Part 3: the Civil War and its aftermath

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Villa & Zapata, A History of the Mexican Revolution

The Mexican Revolution, or what was in reality their civil war, is an extremely complex series of events that is practically impossible to adequately discuss in just one article. Between 1910 and 1920, a multitude of events evolved that shook the Mexican nation to its very core. More plans were written about the constitutional future of Mexico than at any other point in its history.

Beginning with Francisco I. Madero's Plan de San Luis Potosi, followed by Emiliano Zapata's Plan de Ayala, Venustiano Carranza's Plan of Guadalupe, and finally Alvaro Obregón's Plan of Agua Prieta, it seemed that a new vision for Mexico was being created every six months or so. McLynn doesn't do justice to these different concepts, however, and winds up giving a mere thumbnail sketch to these very important documents that were written with every intention of a later implementation.

The fact that so many were written is a testament to the ever changing landscape of political and social reality in Mexico, not just the surreal and superficial desire of these men to put pen to paper for the enjoyment of future history classes. These plans were meant to sell their authors' vision of a new Mexico, one that would adhere to their ideologies and interests. They were used to recruit armies, garner national support, and create a movement with the author at the helm.

The Mexico of 1910 was a volatile, uneasy country which was ready to explode at the slightest spark of rebellion. President Porfirio Diaz, who had ruled the country like a dictator for over 30 years, was growing old and losing his grip on power. Over the previous decade or so, he had been giving local oligarchs more and more power to rule their regions via the their personal governmental puppets. The great majority of Mexicans were losing not just their land and their livelihoods, but also their patience with the federal government.

McLynn does a good job of explaining the discontent that was gripping the nation at this time and how the spark of rebellion, conveniently provided by Francisco I. Madero, was the straw that broke the camel's back. He wonderfully exposes the backgrounds of both Villa and Zapata prior to Madero's intervention and how these two became so prominent so fast. It is important to note, as he does well here, that Villa and Zapata were thorns in the side of Diaz's government prior to Madero's Plan de San Luis Potosi and that Madero only convinces Villa to join him. Zapata was never on his side.

But Madero needed more than just his plan to push the rest of the country into open, national rebellion. As McLynn explains, it was President Diaz's reneging on his promise not to run in the 1910 elections followed by his rigged reelection and the jailing of his main opponent, Madero that became the ultimate catalyst. The local hostilities, Villa in Chihuahua and Zapata in Morelos, suddenly took on a new level of significance and national urgency. Their local grievances became federal causes that united most of the country's poor and working class.

But when President Madero finally took office, he proved to be the same beast in different clothes. He left the states with the same command structure and refused to implement many of the solutions that had been proposed by Villa, Zapata and others. It is significant that McLynn shows this fault of President Madero as it was a major factor in the lack of support he enjoyed once in power and one of the main reasons why General Huerta was able to trick him into resigning and leaving office early. The Mexican civil war would have ended with President Madero had he shown the proper acumen once in office.

McLynn's presentation of General, and later President Huerta is also well done. This alcoholic was an opportunist and murderer who found a way to fulfill his fantasies legally by joining the army and then creating them through combat and the stress of war. As a result of his Machiavellian tactic of take-no-prisoner, he led the path of warfare down a road of all or nothing where the winning side in any battle felt justified in the inhumane slaughter of any and all survivors be they former combatants or innocent citizens.

During the ten-day period in February, 1913, known as La Decena Tragica (The Ten Day Tragedy), McLynn accurately points out where President Madero's ignorance of his own leaders became his eventual downfall and how the evil Huerta changed the rules of engagement going forward from one of soldier versus soldier, to one of total victory versus total defeat. It was here that General Huerta showed his true self, tricking President Madero into resigning and then having him shot. As a result, for the rest of the civil war all leaders knew that anyone, even their closest confidants, could potentially sell them out in order to reach the brass ring and gain the ultimate prize.

The coup d'etat that made Huerta president also reignited the regional conflicts that had begun to cool after the ouster of President Diaz and the orderly transfer of power to Madero. Once again, Villa and Zapata found the need to return to battle to stop the new dictator. It's at this point that Venustiano Carranza enters the scene with his Plan de Guadalupe. The complexities of the civil war at this juncture are multi-layered and labyrinth-like. Orozco, once the rebel leader fighting General Huerta, returns from exile to become President Huerta's chief general.

But President Huerta's term in office lasted only 17 months and by July, 1914, he was forced to flee the country. Nevertheless, during his brief tenure, he upset the US enough for President Wilson to send in US Marines to occupy Veracruz. He also reignited the emergence of the civil war armies of Villa and Zapata and he turns Carranza into a viable presidential candidate by condemning him.

With Huerta in exile, Carranza assumed the presidency and sought to end the conflicts through a new constitution to be written at Aguascalientes, one that would supposedly satisfy the various demands of the main players, Carranzas, Obregon, Villa and Zapata. But even that plan failed to unite all sides and end the fighting. By the end of 1914, Carranza and Obregon fled to Veracruz and Villa and Zapata triumphantly entered Mexico City.

Villa and Zapata, however, never intended to grab the political brass ring and left the capital vowing to take care of their respective spheres of influence only and to leave the other one alone. This governmental vacuum was soon filled by a return of Carranza to Mexico City and the beginning of Obregon's rise to military genius defeating all armies in his path.

Throughout 1915 and 1916 these factions battled it out across the country. It soon became obvious that Alvaro Obregon was the better strategist as Villa suffered one defeat after another. Meanwhile, Zapata was not faring much better against the federals in central Mexico. Carranza, at the same time, was busy consolidating his power.

But even this doesn't end the bloodshed. Zapata refuses to recognize Carranza and even though Villa was reduced to hiding from General Pershing's incursion in the north of Mexico, he still held considerable sway with the locals. Obregon finally broke with Carranza and retired from public office in 1917, ostensibly to wait for the 1920 presidential elections.

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57 year old Californian male - I've lived in four different countries, USA, Switzerland, Mexico, Venezuela - speak three languages fluently, English, French, Spanish - part-time journalist for Empower-Sport Magazine. I also write four newsletters.

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