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Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna

Antonio López de Santa Anna: A Man and His Times

A conversation with Jesús Velasco-Márquez
Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México

Antonio López de Santa Anna Antonio López de
Santa Anna

What kind of man was Santa Anna?

Antonio López de Santa Anna was a complex figure not easily described in a few words. He was a man of great contradictions. On one hand, he was an extremely frivolous man, surprisingly trite and politically inconsistent. He was a wealthy man who had haciendas as defined by the standards of the period. But Santa Anna did not seek fortune but rather sought public acclaim and recognition more than money. He was a person who sought power more for the sake of its prestige than for its responsibility.

Santa Anna was a unique man and, according to memoirs of the time, was reportedly a handsome man. He did not have a strategic vision, nor was he ever a great general but he possessed an extraordinary personality and knew how to deal with people. He attracted people to him because he had a charismatic quality to do so.

When the Texas rebellion occurred, Santa Anna—who deeply loved Mexico—was brutally committed to his country when he confronted the rebels. To him, the nation's integrity, the territorial integrity of the region, was very important. He went Texas to end the rebellion and stop the group that tried to tear away a part of the nation's territory. But, when he found that the rebels were receiving the support of foreign volunteers from a neighboring country, Santa Anna faced an extraordinary situation. He could not allow a group of people to separate from Mexico because this would set a precedent and threaten the survival of the nation.

His defeat at San Jacinto and capture by the Texans were undoubtedly very serious blows to Santa Anna's reputation. His enemies and those who were against Mexico's change of government took advantage of the situation denouncing Santa Anna for signing agreements that committed him to use his influence to persuade Mexico to recognize Texas' independence. Santa Anna went to the United States and met with President Jackson, but kept a low profile after these events. He withdrew temporarily from public life.

What motivated Santa Anna's actions as a man and as a leader?

I think that two of the driving forces behind Santa Anna's personality were his incredible vanity and a need to be in the forefront. These forces made him capable of transforming situations in his favor, which otherwise would have ended tragically. Of course, Santa Anna was criticized because of this behavior but other individuals could not really counteract him. He was very capable of turning situations into favorable ones for himself — something he was able to do throughout his whole life. After a certain point, however, his good fortune ran out. He could not maintain that record forever, but he used it skillfully for a very long time.

In 1838, two years after the defeat at San Jacinto, a problem arose that led to a punitive action toward Mexico by France. Santa Anna joined the effort to defend the national territory against the invading French. During one incident, Santa Anna lost his leg but gained another opportunity, with the help of his supporters, to pronounce himself as a defender of the nation and its national interests. To some extent, this allowed him to repair the negative image that had been created by the events in Texas. Santa Anna created a whole burial ceremony around the loss of his leg and turned its amputation into a symbol of his commitment to the country. People momentarily forgot his military errors in Texas and Santa Anna was able to rebuild his reputation among the populace. This campaign based on his sacrifice and his subsequent redemption allowed Santa Anna to create new political alliances and return to power as Mexico's president. Santa Anna, however, was not interested in exercising that presidential power. He liked the prestige but not the responsibility.

I think Santa Anna was a man of great emotional instability. Once he achieved his objective of obtaining power, he would withdraw to his hacienda and leave the administrative or military responsibilities in the hands of someone else. Or he would try to exercise the authority that came with his position but would exceed his authority by committing brutal eccentricities. Formally, for two brief periods, he became a dictator, but he was never really a dictator in the truest political sense. Perhaps, Santa Anna wanted to be one and that was why his actions went beyond all limits.

The excesses of Santa Anna's authority were apparent not so much in cruelty, but in his ability to remove his political enemies by forcing them out of the country, exiling them, persecuting them, or ruining their reputations. One thing that surprises me about Santa Anna's character — he was never bloodthirsty. He cannot be accused of political assassination nor of bloody persecutions. He frequently used exile as a way of de-legitimizing his political enemies, but he was not bloodthirsty by nature, except in battle.

The changes that occurred in Mexico during this period were incredibly complex because political positions were constantly shifting. The politicians — the ideologues of the era — did not have the mechanisms to mobilize other sectors of society. They needed a kind of bridge — a speaker or a middleman. That was the role that Santa Anna played and for that reason, he returned to power.

Santa Anna was overthrown again at the end of 1844 because he took a series of measures that antagonized those who had brought him to power. Those same people now found him to be an obstacle — a leader who was no longer willing to keep his promises. They felt he must be removed.

Santa Anna's second expulsion in 1845 was a serious blow — as severe as the one he had suffered in Texas. It was very undignified because first he was jailed and then was sent into exile. I believe that when Santa Anna left the country, he could not have foreseen returning to Mexico anytime soon, but I also believe that he was going to wait for the precise moment to come back. I think he left feeling that his exile was only temporary. So, during his exile, Santa Anna carefully followed or was informed of the problems that Mexico faced — particularly of the risks implicit in the growing confrontation with the United States. It was evident that Santa Anna was willing, just as with the French occupation, to take advantage of this situation and try to once again regain his reputation and prestige.

I find the character of Santa Anna fascinating. He was a person with economic means and very well could have stayed in Havana. But no, he decided to return to Mexico and organize a military campaign. That tells me something about this person who had so discredited himself, yet cannot be defined simply in negative terms. He was a multi-faceted man who is very difficult to understand because he has elements of commitment combined with the traits of an enormous ego.

How was Santa Anna's leadership viewed by other nations and by his own Mexican government?

People of the United States thought that Santa Anna was relatively easy to corrupt and he allowed them to believe that. But Santa Anna used with this preconceived notion and mistaken impression to play a reverse game with President Polk: “You think that you can use me but I'll allow you to think that you are using me so that I can use you.” In this sense, with his use of subtleties, I think Santa Anna was a lot more intelligent than James Polk.

Santa Anna's return to Mexico in 1846, with the U.S. invasion into Mexican territory already underway, tells us clearly that he did not have a specific ideology. In this case, the federalists, the "puros," gave him the opportunity to come back to the country and take power as the defender of Mexico. Santa Anna made the best of it. His presence served the "puros" because at that time he was practically the only one willing to create a partnership with them. They had already been together once before in the mid-1830's during the federal republic when Santa Anna was president and Valentín Gomez Farías was vice president. So, for Santa Anna, who was not really committed to any one idea, his alliance with the federalists was simply a means available to allow him to return to power. It was possible for Santa Anna to change his political alliances from one group to another as long as the group could guarantee that he would be in power.

I believe that the Santa Anna's ability to appeal to the masses was a very important factor in being able to organize an army and defense that would be able to try to stop the invasion of Zachary Taylor's army. I think that Santa Anna's personality was one reason that some government officials thought it was necessary for him to return to Mexico when he did — because Santa Anna was capable of creating a certain enthusiasm among segments of the population that were not directly involved in what was happening between the United States and Mexico. I think that Santa Anna lifted the spirits of the Mexican people. Perhaps the Mexicans of the time thought if Santa Anna could sacrifice his leg for the defense of the country, he then offered an example worthy of being followed.

But Santa Anna had enemies and the attacks of his political enemies were strong. There were the young liberals who weren't totally convinced of Santa Anna motives, and then there were the conservatives who weren't very happy with his return under the auspices of Valentín Gomez Farías and the federalists. There were also opposing groups that spread rumors that Santa Anna had made an agreement with the United States government to support the cession of the territories. Some of Mexico City’s newspapers referred to Santa Anna's delay in Saltillo as part of a conspiracy — a secret plan of Santa Anna's to help the North American invasion by undermining the national defense. The Mexican press saw it as a sign that the conspiracy theory could be true as they watched still another delay in mobilizing the Army of the North to confront Taylor’s forces.

Santa Anna knew that the army didn't have enough weapons, he knew that the army did not have the needed food supplies and that they were not really able to go into battle in those conditions. But as I said earlier, prestige was very important to him. All this opposition created a strong pressure on Santa Anna to mobilize his forces in order to try to quiet the rumors that suggested he was a traitor to Mexico. So, Santa Anna made a premature decision to march north and challenge General Taylor before his troops were fully prepared.

Throughout his life, Santa Anna reacted strongly to public criticism. It was always a concern for him to project the image of a great leader. A man who is a true leader has to ignore criticism and concentrate on the task at hand at any given moment. Unfortunately, Santa Anna was too sensitive to criticism, and he reacted by taking actions that would close gaps that the criticism opened, or else he would try to quiet his critics. What people thought of him was very important to Santa Anna and extreme perceptions influenced some of his actions. That was one of his greatest problems.

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