Plutarco Elías Calles
History’s judgment is always harsh and unjust because the circumstances of the moment are ignored or forgotten.
— Plutarco Elías Calles, 1928
Plutarco Elías Calles (1877-1945) was the president of Mexico from 1924-1928, but was the de facto ruler who controlled puppet presidents until his exile in 1936.
Well, I think that Plutarco Elías Calles’ legacy is huge. I will begin with that. That is why I say he is a father figure. For my generation, at least, he is still a father figure. He founded the idea of the state and his legacy is huge. Calles was responsible for many years of splendor in Mexico. And he was also responsible for many terrible years in Mexico. I don’t think there is such a thing as a purely benign legacy. There will always be criticism of what Calles did. And to this day, there are Calles followers who only praise him, just as there will always be Calles haters who only speak very badly about him.
To me, he managed to establish peace in a country at war — because we were a country at war with ourselves — and that was very important. The consolidation of a relatively socialist state was also extremely important for Mexico, as was keeping the Church at bay. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case anymore, and we are going to pay a high price because that institution’s voracity knows no limits. But he knew how to keep it at bay, how not to wage war against it. He was an extraordinary politician.
His legacy exists. We can’t erase it. I think his statement is mistaken. I think what he saw coming was that he would be criticized harshly. And of course he is criticized harshly, but he is also praised greatly, because he is a seminal figure. He wasn’t a president who didn’t leave a very big legacy — on the contrary. He founded institutions, but beyond that, he founded the idea of a state. The thing is, it was him doing these things, but it was also a certain moment in Mexico when these things could happen. It was a very special moment that he knew how to build upon, because it could just was well have been a moment when nothing concrete was created. He knew how to consolidate and establish something that many generations helped grow further and that later generations have been fighting.
The thing is that everyone in Mexico judges Calles, because he is a central figure in Mexico’s recent history, in 20th-century Mexican history. So, everyone feels he or she has the right to judge Calles. So you can mention Calles over coffee, and anyone within earshot is going to pass political judgment. This is true for the members of my generation. I don’t know if Calles has that kind of importance for younger generations. He has been judged by everyone, from presidents to shoe-shiners. He can be judged by anyone, because in reality he changed the lives of the shoe-shiners just as he changed the lives of the presidents and the people in power in Mexico. So, he is a figure who is likely to be criticized, to be loved or hated or some combination of the two, by all Mexicans. Not just the intellectuals and politicians, but everyone.
History’s judgment should be harsh and unjust. Fortunately it is harsh and unjust. Fortunately it is that judicious. I would have found the relationship between legality and the historian fascinating, because as much as one might try to formulate an objective idea of history, any history still evokes a certain sentencing. And the word sentencing has to do with feeling. It is not establishing truth, it is expressing truth as we feel it.
I think that Plutarco Elías Calles, or The Turk, or, as Álvaro Obregón called him, Plutarco Elías Corres (the one who runs), or the Jefe Maximo (Supreme Leader) or La Plutarca — as I have called him sometimes — is a very complex character. He has been judged for creating an authoritarian Mexican state, for his conflict with the Church, for the historic role he had in founding institutions, institutions that then depended on one figure or institution only — first him and then the presidency of Mexico.
In reacting to your film, I’d say I’m more of a Calles supporter than you. I think that this has to do with the revolutionary government’s triumph over the Cristero powers. I am grateful for that piece of history. Regardless of the fact that the conflict resulted from a multitude of provocations, it was an unresolved situation. It is not by chance that the Lateran Treaty between Fascist Italy and the Vatican was also signed around that time and that the Church was very pleased with that agreement. I definitely think that restricting the rights of Church clergy to shape public opinion is something I would have defended as an absolute rule, precisely because it allows something that looks like democracy to exist, and democracy is impossible to practice under the threat of symbolic things like heaven and hell.
Your movie asks how someone who was capable of so much violence could have been a person with a family and a personal life. It’s common to blame a person’s monstrous personality for his political violence. The source of a person’s politics is very immediate — politics may come from a place of social revenge, or the creation of incompatible hegemonies. And in criticizing violence we must, as Benjamin did, expose the motivation for violence. In other words, to criticize violence is not to condemn violence. I realize that this is an extremely unpopular position, but I think it is extraordinary how when we take the opposite position, at the first sign of change the ghosts come out.
There is one very interesting aspect to the way the post-revolution regime is remembered: the fact that Calles played a historical role because he produced an institution. I don’t think he made a single mistake in that area.
In the very document that you quote, his state of the union, he argues that Mexico will transform from a country of men to a country of institutions. Those institutions existed in the Jürgen Habermas sense, meaning that certain structures came to exist over time. I think there are other structures that persist, but I think that the process was also an act of negotiation with those much older and more complex structures. More than any kind of objective balance, I think that there are places where those ideas are useful.
This is not for the sake of creating something that rhymes with the present, but because there is a structural conflict in such places in terms of whether we have a society with a political structure based on the recognition of projects and interests, or we have a hegemony based on moral, familial, Catholic and Western discourse. And that battle is both concentrated in the past and still present today. I don’t think it is an insignificant battle, because there is legislation today that is still divided into those areas: the right to abort, gay marriage, women’s rights, the rights of those in various religious professions, access to scientific or critical discourse. All of those issues still revolve around these polemics. So, I don’t think it is inaccurate to suggest that there was a point when those all broke down in a moment of extraordinary violence, and that there needs to be some reflection on that moment of extraordinary violence. The question of whether it was avoidable is not historically interesting. The question is what it caused and what it produced afterwards and what things might have been hidden behind the polarization it produced.
I don’t know if existential philosopher José Ortega y Gasset had already said the famous phrase that is so very telling and indispensable to historians at the time or if he said it later. Ortega y Gasset once said, “I am myself plus my circumstance.” That is to say, I can’t understand, nor can I be understood, beyond my circumstances.
I think I describe Plutarco Elías Calles’ circumstances well in my book on the history of the Mexican Revolution. I really tried to stand in the general’s boots, but also in the shoes of an elementary school teacher and president of the country. He was a man surrounded on all sides. His presidency began relatively well. I wouldn’t say “very well,” because there was the La Huertista rebellion and they had to knock off many of their revolutionary comrades, the generals from the north. But the economy wasn’t bad, and in the early years the country gained institutions and the economy stabilized. Even the Church expressed its admiration for the fact that there was order after years of chaos. It isn’t that Obregón’s government (1920-1924) wasn’t a positive force, but it was quite disorderly and in some areas there was incredible corruption.
When the religious conflict began, Calles was in the middle of a serious conflict with the United States. This conflict related to oil, land reparations and agricultural issues. As a foreign policy, Mexico supported the liberals in Nicaragua when Americans intervened. Mexico was sending weapons and volunteers, officials like General Escamilla to advise the guerillas, who later became known as the Sandanistas. Back then, it wasn’t called that. It was a Mexican general who gave Augusto César Sandino his ranking as general, which is why he always wore the Mexican eagle on his hat. The Americans knew this perfectly well, even if it was all handled very discreetly and Mexico claimed to not be involved. Mexico told the volunteers if they were caught they were to say they were mercenaries, but everyone knew perfectly well it was Mexico. Then a national problem arose when Obregón wanted to be re-elected, which required that the constitution be amended. Calles was not against Obregón, but he didn’t want to violate the revolutionary program, which was “no re-election”. He thought it was a trick to say that if a re-election is not consecutive it isn’t re-election. It was the same trick that Díaz had used in the 1880s. So, Calles’ arm really had to be twisted; he really had to be obligated to do it. Then there was a Yaqui rebellion. And then there was a conspiracy, and Arnulfo R. Gómez and Francisco R. Serrano wanted to be nominated and he broke with Obregón, whom he’d always previously supported. Serrano has always been a forgotten figure. Serrano before General Amaro created the modern post-revolutionary military in Mexico. But Serrano was a rebellious figure, he needs a biography. All this is to say that Calles was navigating treacherous waters. So when the religious conflict began — this is my interpretation as someone trying to understand Calles — it was the only time that he lost his cool, because he saw it is a stab in the back. Plus, he had health issues and he had just lost his wife around that time. So that was really the moment when his anger built to a head.
There is a great document, which I found in his personal archives, but which are also in the state archives in Sonora because he must have sent a copy to his friends and relatives. It is the exact transcription of the interview he gave, probably at the insistence of many mediators and possibly General Obrégon, in which he agreed to an interview with two Mexican bishops in August 1926. Blood had already begun to flow. There had already been uprisings, but there wasn’t a true war yet. Disaster still could have been avoided. And those two bishops are the same ones who would sign the agreements in 1929. Those bishops were willing to make many concessions. The transcript reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. These two men were basically on their knees, begging the president, “Please just give us a statement that clarifies that the obligation for priests to register with the state is not a way to police the Church, but a measure for the state. If you say that, we can convince Rome and our brothers to resume religious practices.” And President Calles answered them, these are the words of Martin Luther when he had his last meeting with Emperor Charles V, the cardinals, the representatives of the Church and of the German Empire, where they beg him to be a little more moderate and Luther Answered: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God heop me. Amen.” Calles did not say God help me or Amen, but he said, “Here I stand; I can do no other.” This was the only time when he acted out of passion, but it was probably a result of the circumstances, of the stress and maybe even fear. Not that Calles was a coward. Brave men have fear, not cowards — cowards run away. Look at the serious crisis after Obregón was assassinated and the Obregónistas immediately said, “Calles had him assassinated.” And he knew that Obregón’s generals were going to rise up in arms against him if he didn’t come up with something. So he said to the Obregónistas, “Here is the assassin. You deal with the investigation.” He removed General Roberto Cruz from his post as police chief and handed everything over. He said, “I am leaving and there will be an interim president. Congress will decide who that will be.” And that is his famous speech, his political last will and testament.
So I compare the two crises to each other and I ask which one was more serious. I think Obregón’s assassination was more serious, but he didn’t lose control. He kept a very clear head. So why in the summer of 1926 was he not able to act in cold blood and accept the solution that Pascual Díaz and Leopoldo Ruiz y Flores offered him? Precisely because of the circumstances.