I recently enjoyed reading Enrique Krauze’s “Mexico, a biography of Power 1810 to 1970”
It approaches the history of the country through the biographies of the succession of strong leaders who dominated the country for the last 200 years, starting with the revolutionary priest, Miguel Hidalgo, the theatrical General Santa Anna, the French backed Emperor, Maximilian, through the pure blooded Indian Benito Juarez, to the modernizer who would not give up power, Porfirio Diaz.
Then came the Revolution of 1910 which ushered in almost 20 years of civil war, first between the revolutionaries themselves, and then between the Revolution and Catholic guerrillas, the ”Cristeros,” who objected to the restrictions the Revolution was placing on the work of the church.
He deals with the formation of the PRI, the party that dominated Mexican politics for most of the twentieth century and which has recently returned to the Presidency again after an absence of 12 years.
In some respects the conflicts of the twentieth century Mexico had their origin in the colonial period when Mexico was part of the Spanish monarchy. The Catholic Church became an instrument of government under the Spaniards but also supplied much of the leadership of Mexican society, including the priest leaders who shook off Spanish rule.
After independence, the church was allied with conservative forces in Mexican society. When the French backed Hapsburg Emperor of Mexico, Maximilian was overthrown, with US support, by Benito Juarez in 1867, most of the churches privileges and property were taken away
It is therefore something of a mystery, not explained in the book, as to why the “Liberal” generals, who, 40 years later, led the Revolution of 1910, were so hostile to the Catholic Church, seeking to licence and limit the activities of priests, and close church schools.
This led to a bloody guerrilla war, chiefly in western Mexico, where lightly armed but mobile “Cristero” guerrillas defied the battle hardened, but immobile, Mexican army for years. Some these same passions arose in the Spanish Civil War, which broke out in 1936, only a few years after the Cristero rebellion ended.
Like all Latin American countries, a theme of Mexican history is the relationship between the European settlers and the native American populations. In some countries like, Argentina and Uruguay, the natives were almost wiped out by disease and land grabbing. In Mexico, the population was reduced to almost a fifth of its former size by the introduction of European diseases to which the natives had no immunity. As a result, Mexico and Ireland had the same population in 1840!
Land rights were a hugely contentious issue, with the natives asserting ancient rights to common land, and modernizing, European or mixed race, farmers wanting to take the land over for commercial production. Interestingly the Emperor Maximilian gave more support to native land rights than did any of Mexico’s own leaders, including the man who overthrew and executed him, Benito Juarez, who was himself of native blood.
Mexico is one of the emerging economic powers of the world, and understanding its history is a worthwhile exercise.