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Venustiano Carranza

Venustiano Carranza

(1859 – 1920)

Sometimes derisively called “the billy goat” by his enemies because of his long flowing beard, Venustiano Carranza called himself the “Premier Jefe” (First Chief), because of his political ambitions. Carranza was born into the middle class at the end of 1859 in the northern state of Coahuila. He went to school at the Prepa (Preparatory school) in Mexico City just around the time the young Porfirio Díaz had proven himself a great military hero and was marching triumphantly into Mexico City.

After school, Carranza became a northern cattle rancher. He entered politics early when, along with his brother and other ranchers, he opposed Porfirio Díaz’s “reelection” in 1893. Thus, his actions anticipated the Maderista movement that came almost two decades later. Despite this, in 1904, the Governor of Coahuila recommended to Porfirio Díaz that Carranza would make a good senator. Although he didn’t like the científicos, Carranza did become a senator during Díaz’s administration. But when he tried to run for Governor of Coahuila, Díaz refused to support him, and he lost. From that point on, he disliked Díaz intensely.

Carranza came late to the revolution, but he did ultimately become a strong supporter of Francisco I. Madero and his anti-reelection movement, designed to remove Díaz from power. Madero made him Minister of War shortly before the Battle of Ciudad Juárez, and as a result, Carranza was part of the peace conference that led to the resignation and exile of Porfirio Díaz. Carranza was on the podium with Madero during Madero’s famous speech to the troops at the conclusion of that battle.

Carranza finally did become Governor of Coahuila, and in that role, watched as Madero’s presidency faltered. Carranza advocated for Madero to be stronger and more ruthless as a politician. When Victoriano Huerta and his co-conspirators (including U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson) overthrew Madero, Carranza watched helplessly as Madero was executed and Huerta took power.

In response to Huerta’s brutal dictatorship, Carranza issued his Plan de Guadalupe, calling for the restoration of the 1857 Constitution, and the elimination of Huerta. In 1913, the same year Huerta took power, Carranza developed what he called the Constitutionalist Army, to overthrow Huerta and establish what he imagined would be a constitutional democracy in Mexico. With his general, Álvaro Obregón, he developed a three-pronged military strategy to take Mexico City from the North – with Obregón coming down the western side of the country, Pablo González Garza coming down the eastern side, and Francisco Villa and his División del Norte cutting down the center.

The plan basically worked, and Huerta was defeated in mid-1914. He departed for Spain, and the Constitutionalists, specifically Obregón and Carranza, took over the government. Carranza pushed Villa, whom he had never liked, out of any position of power, just as Madero had done before him.

Carranza was not universally liked by the revolutionary leaders. They convened at the town of Aguas Calientes in October, 1914 to choose another leader. The result of this conference was that the joint armies of Villa and Emiliano Zapata rode into Mexico City, while Carranza fled to Veracruz to avoid the swell of popular support that surrounded the two iconic leaders.

The pattern of fleeing to Veracruz when things got rough in Mexico City was one that Carranza followed a few times, making him seem like a coward. But one thing that Carranza was able to do as leader of Mexico (in fact, a year before he officially became president), was to call for a convention to create a new constitution for Mexico. His idea was that the new constitution would be strongly based on the one from 1857 but would be moderately updated for the 20th century. Instead, more radical forces took political control of the convention’s agenda, and as a result, the Constitution of 1917 became a model of democracy, calling for labor reform, repatriation of land back to the peasants, and far-reaching restrictions on foreign access to Mexico’s natural resources.

But many forces were working against Carranza. The trauma of the revolution had left a country that was impoverished, with not enough food or clean water for its people. Illness was rampant. And when Carranza refused to begin instituting the reforms that the Constitution called for, both Villa and Zapata came to believe that Carranza needed to be overthrown.

When Villa attacked Columbus, New Mexico in 1916, Carranza gave the U.S. permission to send troops, led by General John J. Pershing, into Mexican territory to hunt him down. It was Carranza’s hope that Pershing could eliminate the threat of Villa, but Pershing’s troops were never able to locate the revolutionary leader. A closer threat to Carranza was Emiliano Zapata, who was based in Morelos, very close to Mexico City. Carranza developed a scheme to have Zapata eliminated. In April, 1919, the plot worked. A federal general pretended to defect to Zapata’s side, and was thus able to engineer his assassination.

But only a year later, it was Carranza’s turn. As he tried for a final time to flee Mexico City for Veracruz, conspirators working on behalf of his general, Álvaro Obregón, arranged to have Carranza’s train sabotaged, and the Premier Jefe was murdered that night. Later that same year, Obregón became President of Mexico.


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