Courtesy Reuters

Personal Government in Mexico

FOR a half a century up to 1876, the one political certainty in Mexico was that any government, regardless of party or announced purpose -- good, bad or indifferent -- would be overthrown. Only two governments in all this time lasted through their allotted periods, and even these only because they had the good luck to defeat numerous efforts to overthrow them. Almost every part of Mexico at one time or another threatened to set up a separate government, and the miracle is that only Texas carried the threat to fruition. Entire regions were independent of the federal government for years at a time.

The Díaz régime produced the great political miracle in modern Mexico -- stability. It is probably true that the Díaz régime was no more just or free from violence than the previous improvised administrations. But it did keep order. At least everyone knew where the power rested -- in the person of General Diaz. By controlling the army he controlled the country. It was under this régime that Mexico became a nation with a sense of destiny and coherence. An extensive program of development of railroads, ports, telegraphs and so on was possible, and this in turn contributed to political consolidation.

The revolution of 1910 returned the nation to chaos. Between 1910 and 1930, the country was either torn by revolution or in active preparation for revolution. The local caudillo reappeared and the federal government did not dare challenge him for fear that he and his friends -- or he and the government's numerous enemies -- would prove stronger than itself. The governments lived upon sufferance. All the astute ruthlessness of Obregón and Calles, with the deliberate killings of leaders of any uprising, was required to give the political situation a semblance of stability.

Even under Cárdenas there was a revolution, and that was as late as 1938 -- a revolution by a man who may be said to have been the last of the caudillos, Saturnino Cedillo. He was a semi-literate man who had risen to power in local fighting, unillumined by any political doctrine except a greed for personal aggrandizement. At one time, during the Cristero rebellion, he had control of more than 8,000 men who belonged to him, and whom he had armed and brought into the field. He had a certain kind of loyalty to his own, but was completely ruthless. He traveled, even on horseback, with armed guards with sawed-off machine guns right behind him, and his automobile, in which I once rode, was crowded with arms, machine guns and ammunition -- a fort on wheels. I heard him say one day to a man who had some grievance, "I ought to have you strung up." In the state of San Luis Potosí his will was the law, the rule and the way. There was no authority to which an appeal could be addressed, for even the federal government, unless it wished to stir up a rebellion, preferred not to interfere too much. The governor of the state, a nondescript little man in black, with a squeak in his voice, once said when I asked him who he was, when he made an unexpected visit to the home of Cedillo, "Who, me? I am the governor of the state. It is a job the old man gave me." Such a situation made rebellion inevitable, and revolution the natural beginnings of any election. As it turned out in this case, Cedillo rose in rebellion and was finally killed in the mountains.

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