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Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna

Antonio López de Santa Anna: A Man and His Times


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Santa Anna's army came very close to winning a victory during the Battle at La Angostura, yet he decided to withdraw his troops. What does this decision tell us?

Once an historian said that Santa Anna was "the general of permanent defeats." Perhaps the battle at La Angostura was the moment in which he was closest to victory, but the conditions were terrible. The chronicles of eyewitnesses mentioned that the conditions of the Mexican army were so bad that it was impossible to continue then though the battle was about to turn in favor of the Mexicans.

The problem was that the march from San Luis Potosí to La Angostura had been so difficult, and supplies were so scarce that when the Mexican army arrived, they were in terrible shape. In truth, to endure one more day could have led to victory, but also it could have turned into a horrible massacre due to the condition of the troops.

In any case, I think at the time that it so was hard to maintain a Mexican army, with such limited resources, that I am not surprised by Santa Anna's decision to withdraw. I think that it was a necessary decision, although not the best one for that moment.

Another interesting example of Santa Anna's leadership occurred when the Polkos Revolt broke out in Mexico City. How could Santa Anna take charge of the situation in such a short time?

That brings us again to the chameleon-like nature of Santa Anna. He was a character who could change the color of his skin according to the "color" of the conditions. The "polkos revolt" was in reaction to the radical measures that vice president Valentín Gómez Farías had tried to implement while in power for the second time in his career. The groups that opposed these policies looked to Santa Anna as the person who could resolve the situation.

Santa Anna immediately changed his position, he adapted to the "color" of the environment at the moment, and he was the one who really resolved the crisis. Since he never had made permanent alliances in his life, he was able to switch sides, take advantage of the opportunity, solve the problem, and apparently take charge of the political. Not having any fixed ideas allows a person to move in a wider space. The moment that one defines oneself and pursues an idea, one limits the options for action. So, the more ambiguous you are, the more space you have in which to move around. This was Santa Anna — he was totally undefined.

What other events give us insight into the character of Santa Anna?

While Santa Anna was a very ambiguous character, a person without precise political or ideological ideas, he also had an enormous ego. I think that Cerro Gordo was an example of how Santa Anna was incapable of accepting criticism or advice from somebody else. Santa Anna's lieutenants warned him that his choices for the placement of troops were not the best ones to defend the battlefield. Yet, Santa Anna stubbornly insisted that they carry out his orders as he had given them. The result was that the army suffered an overwhelming defeat at Cerro Gordo.

Unquestionably, the Battle of Cerro Gordo was one of the most tragic moments for Mexico as well as for Santa Anna, who had invested so much of himself in this battle. The subsequent events, including Santa Anna's escape with a group of followers, without a doubt were very difficult for him. But once again we are shown a character who is willing to search for yet another opportunity to vindicate himself from a previous defeat. The defense of Mexico City gave him that chance, and that was why it was very important for him to go back and mobilize the city in order to defend it from General Scott's invasion. I think that again we have that very important trait of Santa Anna — he was able to take advantage of an opportunity to rebuild or to restore his tarnished image.

In Mexico City, the antagonism towards Santa Anna mounted. There were increasing doubts about his ability to carry out his work, and this created greater disorganization within the army. Santa Anna's generals started making their own decisions, as in the case of General Gabriel Valencia during the Battle of Padierna. Santa Anna's inability to accept the ideas of others led him to abandon Valencia at Padierna, which, in turn, led to another military defeat. After this, the breakdown of military authority in Mexico was terrible, evident in Santa Anna's loss of prestige and in the individual actions of his subordinates.

Why didn't Santa Anna support General Valencia?

As a person, Santa Anna obviously was not willing to accept criticism, but as a military officer, neither was he able to tolerate disobedience. He believed that disobedience that Valencia showed - taking action without consulting and receiving approval from his superior - should be punished by making that individual take full responsibility for his actions. Of course, that this happened during one of the most tragic moments — with an invading army poised at the gates of the country's capital city — is also a truly incredible act on Santa Anna's part. His highest priority, the defense of the Mexico City, should have come before his rivalry with an underling. But Santa Anna's vanity was enormous. It was extraordinary. On occasion it would blind him to his own responsibility, or to his own established goals.

An armistice was signed after the Battle of Churubusco. It was signed because evidently the conditions of the Mexican army were such that Santa Anna had to sign. Newspapers published in Mexico City at the time, particularly the "Diario del Gobierno," justified the armistice saying, "It is absurd that after these defeats and under these conditions we do not listen to the new offers that the American envoy brings." Agreeing to the armistice did not mean that Mexico would accept the proposals.

Nevertheless, there was still a group who believed that "signing a peace under these circumstances means that the United States will impose its conditions on us. We have to take as firm a position as we can as long as we can in order to have something to negotiate." I think the Americans themselves were surprised that the Mexican people continued to defend themselves after so many defeats. Possibly, it had to do with being stubborn in the face of a hopeless situation, but the Mexicans were not going to yield to North American expansion without resistance.

I think Santa Anna was part of all this — at least he had to play the game because he was in the midst of it. In the first place, he could not accept a negotiation — public opinion kept him from doing that. Once again we see his vanity. He could not go against public opinion — it would confirm the rumors of treason. He would be finished forever and Santa Anna was not ready to give up his aspirations in spite of the defeats. So he fought up to the last minute. Like other Mexican people of the time, he had to exhaust all of the possibilities.

In September 1847, Santa Anna ordered the evacuation of Mexico City. What did this action signify in terms of the war and to Santa Anna himself?

I think that that night of September 13, 1847 is one of the most tragic moments in the history of Mexico. The last resource, the last possibility of defending Mexico City had been exhausted. For Santa Anna, it was a terrible thing to have to accept that he had failed again. He ordered the evacuation of Mexico City and he resigned the presidency. Later his military command would be taken away. The exodus of Santa Anna begins. He would return to Mexico in 1852 to occupy the seat of power one more time, leave and return yet again, but never to assume office.

The final years of Santa Anna's life were truly dramatic. Old, very old, ill, he lost his fortune. But he was fortunate to have a wife, his second wife, who evidently was tremendously faithful as a person and as the wife of a general. When Santa Anna was nearly forgotten in Mexico City, his wife would look for and would pay people to ask for interviews with him. This must have been terrible. Of course, Santa Anna never found out about this, but how terrible an ending this was for a man who always had tried to hold the preeminent position in Mexico, and who ended up practically abandoned, after losing his reputation and fortune. The only thing he did not lose was the loyalty of his wife.

I think that we should analyze Santa Anna in the context of Mexico. Santa Anna was an important figure, but he was never a reflection of Mexico or the Mexican people of his time. To judge Mexico by looking at Santa Anna can be very distorting. Santa Anna was a man of his times, he held power, he benefited from the conditions —or took advantage of them for his own personal interests— but he was never the prototype of Mexico in that period, either morally or politically. He was a very important person, but he was just one person. He was not the most accomplished example of what Mexicans or Mexican politicians could be during those times.

In some ways Santa Anna was a variation of a romantic who was looking to be successful in heroic ways. He was a wealthy individual, who was not obligated to take risks, but decided to sacrifice his state of tranquillity and comfort to return time and time again to the dangers of a military campaign and the battlefield. I believe that in Santa Anna's romantic notions of commitment and in his quest for fame and transcendence we can find an explanation for the phenomenon of his unique personality.

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