–Hero or Villain?

By Shep Lenchek
December 2008 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 25, Number 4

      Both revered and reviled, Don Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna caused many problems but cured even more in the first 30 years of Mexican independence. Today many Mexicans call him a hero and a patriot; others brand him a traitor. But to North Americans, he is known mainly as the general who destroyed the Alamo.
      Yet Santa Anna also played a large role in the creation of modern-day Mexico. He served a staggering number of terms as president of the Republic, eleven times in all over a twenty-year period from 1833 to 1854. Because his turbulent career was marked by frequent shifts in alliances, his detractors have dismissed him as little more than a political chameleon.
      His true skill, however, was as a soldier. Many a battle thought hopelessly lost was won through his daring leadership. Yet always he was dogged by his unsavory personal reputation. His numerous amorous affairs, use of opium, temper tantrums and willingness to sell out to the highest bidder have, over the years, seriously tarnished his image, as well as his indisputable achievements.
      Born in Jalapa in 1795, Santa Anna grew up in Vera Cruz. In 1810, he joined the Royal Army of New Spain as a cadet. His first contribution to Mexican history came in 1821, when he switched sides and abandoned the Spanish effort to destroy those forces that were struggling for independence.
      Those forces, first formed by Father Hidalgo in 1810, were now led by Agustin Iturbide. Some say that Santa Anna’s change of heart was triggered by an offer of the rank of colonel in the rebel army, and the command of a province in Vera Cruz. In any event, he promptly led the rebels to victory.
      Without him, the Plan of Iguala (which called for a constitutional monarchy) might never have been implemented. The plan gave Mexico its first taste of self-government; and though as always Santa Anna’s motives were self-serving, he played a large role in ridding Mexico of the Spanish yoke.
      Santa Anna’s next “conversion” might as well be his most important. Earlier, he had pledged his fealty to Ilturbide, who rewarded the young officer by promoting him to Brigadier-General and giving him command of the entire state of Vera Cruz. But lturbide, now having proclaimed himself Emperor Agustin I, soon began to suspect that Santa Anna was conspiring to curb his power. lturbide’s suspicions proved correct. By 1823, Santa Anna was calling for a democracy, and in league with several other generals, he managed to shatter lturbide’s illusions of grandeur.
      But the revolt soon broke into two major factions, the Federalists (who wanted a federation of strong states) and the Centralists (who demanded a central government), and over the next ten tumultuous years they fought each other for supremacy. Santa Anna, however, played little part in the power struggle. Mistrusted by both sides, he was shuffled off to Yucatan, where he was not allowed to leave his post. Disgruntled, he finally resigned and returned to Mexico city. Soon afterward, he married a girl of fifteen, which created such a scandal he was forced to retire to an hacienda in Vera Cruz. At age thirty, his career seemed over, his reputation in ruins.
      If Santa Anna had done nothing else but drive out the Spanish and open the door to democracy by helping to overthrow the monarchy (no matter any personal motives), his place in Mexican history would be secure. But this was only the beginning.
      In 1829 the Spanish again invaded Mexico. Recalled to duty, Santa Anna (with the help of a hurricane) defeated the enemy, forcing them toretreat to Cuba. Now he was a national hero. Despite his being too young at age 37 to legally assume the presidency, he took over the office in 1833. But he soon became bored with the task of governing on a day-to-day basis, and pleading poor health, Santa Anna (while still retaining office) turned the duties over to his vice-president, Gomez Farias. Santa Anna would repeat this stunt four times, always returning to office in times of crisis, then “retiring” when things got dull again.
      In 1836, resuming power once more, Santa Anna led a Mexican army into Texas, where he attacked the Alamo, killing every last defender. But within one month, the Mexican Army itself would be defeated at the Battle of San Jacinto, and Santa Anna was himself captured.
      Hailed as a hero by Northerners in the U.S. who looked upon the situation In Texas as a Southern scenario to strengthen their position, he was finally taken to meet President Andrew Jackson. Legend has it that while still a prisoner, Santa Anna introduced chewing gum to the United States. In any event, permitted to return to Mexico, he again “retired” from the presidency.
      But in 1838 he was called on to turn back a French invasion of Vera Cruz. During this campaign, Santa Anna lost a leg. When the war was settled through mediation, he emerged a hero, his past sins forgotten. Thereafter he served as interim president as various claims to power were sorted out. In a very short time, he was in and out of power three times. The third time Santa Anna, apparently weary of playing political musical chairs, established a military dictatorship.
      In yet another about-face, the chameleon who had once deplored the practice of sacking the Church now went after its property with a vengeance. He had no other readily convenient source of income, as he had already bankrupted the government. After doing his worst against the Church, it seemed like a good time to again flee the scene of the crime. With his severed leg installed in a magnificent (and costly) cenotaph, Santa Anna picked another stooge to be president and retired to private life.
      A little peace and quiet, however, were not on the political menu. In 1844, falling from favor yet again, Santa Anna was banished to Cuba. But he was in exile little more than two years when Mexico again called on him to save the Republic. Once more assuming the powers of the presidency, Santa Anna was given the horrendous task of turning back an invasion by the United States. Defeated, he was promptly returned to exile.
      Amazingly, he would bounce back to power again in 1853, but for the last time. After negotiating the Gadsden Purchase, which called for the sale of the territories of New Mexico and Arizona to the U.S. for a pittance, Santa Anna was branded a traitor, and again exiled.
      His last hurrah came in 1867 when he attempted to lead a revolt against Emperor Maximilian. Failing in this, he was deported (again!), but finally came home to Mexico in 1874. Two years later, at age 81, one of history’s most resilient men lost his last battle.
      Today many Mexicans still revile his memory. Shakespeare said it best when he wrote that “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” So it was with Don Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.