By David Ellison
Venustiano Carranza, a wealthy landowner, was the most conservative of revolutionaries after Porfirio Díaz’ long regime. Nonetheless, he would inadvertently enable a constitutional transformation that not even his liberal allies-turned-opponents could have imagined.
Carranza was tall, impressive, even imposing, but lacked both humor and charm. Still, he believed that he alone could restore stability in Mexico, hoping to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Benito Juárez.
Carranza gave Francisco Madero tepid support when the latter called for insurrection. But he became the revolution’s nominal leader after Victoriano Huerta had assassinated Madero to become dictator.
When he and his forces exiled Huerta, however, Carranza failed to convince fellow revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, who both demanded dramatic, comprehensive change, that he should continue to lead the country. Nonetheless, after one of his generals, Álvaro Obregón, crushed the hitherto undefeated Villa, and another one cunningly assassinated Zapata, Carranza emerged as the last revolutionary standing.
Thus, Carranza gave the first of his three, major gifts to Mexico: peace. After ten chaotic years of wanton bloodshed, the Mexican Revolution was finally over. And when Germany, with its infamous Zimmerman Telegram, suggested that Mexico take sides in WWI, he refused. He knew his country had suffered enough.
But, what to do about the imperialistic United States that had already invaded Mexico twice during The Revolution? As president, Carranza countered the Monroe Doctrine with his own Carranza Doctrine: “...equality, mutual respect for institutions and laws, and the firm and constant will never to intervene, under any pretext, in the internal affairs of other countries….” So, when the US threatened to seize the Tampico oil fields, Carranza vowed he’d burn them to the ground first. Carranza defended Mexican sovereignty with steely courage, his second great gift.
Finally, Carranza called for a convention to amend The Constitution of 1857, ratified during La Reforma. To his horror, the delegates instead crafted the amazing Constitución of 1917, which codified sweeping social, economic, land and religious reforms. (Villa and Zapata had their way after all!) Although Carranza simply chose to ignore most of them, one of his successors, Lázaro Cárdenas, would not. The Constitution of 1917 was and is an astounding legacy, no matter what Carranza thought of it.
Carranza did honor, though, the hard-won tradition of no-reelection (which Díaz had repeatedly spurned, igniting The Revolution). Carranza chose not to seek another term as president. Unfortunately, he also decided to support a civilian to replace him instead of his faithful general, Obregón. That was his undoing.
Obregón—spurned, furious—simply used his army to take what he believed to be rightfully his.
And, as Carranza fled the capital, he died—either by assassination or suicide, the circumstances remain unclear.
Poor Carranza! He deserved a better end. But at least Mexico has named a lot of city streets in his honor.
This is a selection from Dave’s forthcoming book, Niños Héroes: The Fascinating Stories behind Mexican Street Names.
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