"Mexico's Unknown Presidents"
by Morgan Bedford
April 1996

      Since Mexico became a republic in 1823, three factors have been largely responsable for giving, many Mexican presidents a fatal case of lead poisoning. Those factors have been land, religion and the Curse of Power. From 1823 to the “coronation” of Porfirio Diaz in 1876, there were 2 regencies, 2 emperors, several dictators and enough presidents and/or provisional executives to comprise no fewer than 74 regimes in 53 years.

      Now, no one but a masochist would commit to memory the names of the men who headed those 74 different government; but most people cannot name even the 11 presidents Mexico has had from 1934 to the present. Probably because it has been a period of relative tranquility: no presidencial assassinations (though there have been a few chief executives who “didn’t make it”), no invasions, no revolts.

      But the earlier years, those between Diaz and Cardenas, were filled with enough drama to last Mexico a full century. These were the years that eventually shaped Mexico into what it is today: politcal assassinations by the carload, a U.S. invasion, a full-scale revolution, and governments- in-exile. These twenty-three years had all the elements of great drama -and included those luckless men who today are called the “unknown presidents.”

      Here are the highspots of those not-so-golden years.

      With Diaz forced into exile, one Francisco Leon de la Barra served as provisional president for six months, until the election of 1911. De la Barra would become the first “revolving-door” chief executive of the Revolutionary Period. Then Fracisco Madero, the father of the revolution, was elected president in 1911; probably the only honest election up to that time. It was, however, not perfect. Of the 20,145 legally cast votes, 19,997 came from the ranks of the official party. In 1911, the average Mexican apparently didn't even know what a vote was. Yet in spite of his huge margin of victory, Madero was soon imprisoned on trumped-up charges. In 1913, General Felix Diaz, nephew of the deposed monarch Porfirio, became provisional prez, with the understanding that he would head the “ticket” in the next election.

      Only that election never came to pass. Victoriano Huerta, who had been Madero’s own general, persuaded his former boss to resign. Sometime later, Madero was “accidentally” shot, while being tranferred from one jail to another.

      General Felix Diaz lasted three days. Huerta, obviously a stickler for law and order, “persuaded” Pedro Lascurain to become lnterim President. Naturally, Lascurain immediately appointed Huerta Foreign Minister -and twenty minutes later, resigned to give way to the wily Huerta.

      Then, pretending to follow the letter of the law, Huerta called a late-night special session of Congress- and at the point of a bayonet, the legislators endorsed Huerta’s assumption of power. Remarkably, six congressman had the gumption to vote against Huerta’s raw grab for power.

      But then came the real fireworks. The true tough guys like Zapata and Villa had again entered the fray, and the vicious (though cowardly) Huerta was forced from office in 1914. Soon thereafter, a non-entity named Carbajal became provisional president, followed in rapid succession by Carranza, Eulalio Gutierrez, Gonzalez Garza and Lagos Chazaro. In this wild and wooly period, a show of arms could make almost anyone “King for a Day.”

      Then, on January 28, 1915, at a point when the situation was looking like a Marx Brothers comedy (albeit with tragic undertones), Pancho Villa tried to restore order by declaring himself Dictator of Mexico. He almost pulled it off.

      The problem came when Carranza finally received official recognition from the United States; and with the Goliath of the North in his corner, Carranza was able to reign until election time in 1920. But of course he had no intention of giving up power, and instead attempted to rig the nomination process in favor of one I. Bonsillas, an easily controllable dupe.

      But fate had in mind a different scenario. Carranza was killed while blowing town with the national treasury -which by the way was mysteriously “mislaid” and never found its way back into the coffers of the country. Adolpho de la Huerta became yet another provisional prez caught in the revolving doors of Mexican politics. He was followed by Obregon who managed to both stay alive and in office from 1920 till 1924.

      But turmoil, murder and mayhem were still on the Mexican menu. In 1924, Plutarco Calles assumed the sash of power. Rabidly anti-Catholic, he ordered every priest and nun in Mexico to report for a rollcall in the capitol. But when not a single soul showed up, he branded as outlaws all priests and nuns, and ordered their immediate arrest. Calles later deported some 200 clerics, and closed down more than seventy monasteries and convents. Thus began the era of the bloody Cristero Revolt, as Mexico was again hurled into the flames of revolution.

      The excitement (if it could be called that!) did not abate until the election of Lazaro Cardenas in 1934. Only then did the furies finally subside. Cardenas would go on to drastically change both the luck and life of the average Mexican, as well as the manner in which the government did business. In short order, the president (who today is regarded, along with Benito Juarez, the greatest chief executive in Mexican history) pushed education, organized labor, and nacionalized the railroads and the petroleum industry.

      The ideals of the Revolution had at last borne fruit. But the struggle had been long and bloody. The French Revolution had taken seven years, the American six; but the Mexican revolt lasted more than 23 years. Yet the “unknown presidents” who served during this period of intense unrest and strife had helped pay the price to usher in the modern Mexico we know today.