May 18, 2011

Pancho Villa: Huerta's Usurpation

Pancho VillaPancho Villa was in prison. For many, this would have been a moment of disaster and shame, but for Villa, it was an opportunity.

As a child, he had been a slave in all but name, out on a Durango hacienda; as a teenager and a young man, he had been a futigitive up in the mountains of Durango and Chihuahua; and now he was a soldier. None of this had provided much in the way of schooling.

But Villa's cell-mate was Gildardo Magaña Cerda, a Zapista teacher. He spent his days teaching Villa how to read and write. It wasn't a bad sojourn.

For all his endeavours and a raft of quite legitimate charges that could have been set against Pancho Villa, this one was false. He was in prison on chumped up charges of stealing a horse, by a man who was not winning friends and influencing people amongst the revolutionaries.

The ambitious General Victoriano Huerta had originally been an ally, switching sides as Díaz had fell, in order to head up Madero's federal forces. Villa had originally resigned his command of the same, because of differences with Pascual Orozco. Pascual Orozco

This reading of the situation now appeared very justified, as Orozco, bitter at not receiving high office in Madero's government, led an uprising in Chihuahua. Madero sent Huerta to put it down, while also asking Villa to assist him. This was, after all, Villa's home ground.

The two armies joined forces and Orozco's rebellion was defeated, though the man himself was not captured.

But close proximity had allowed Huerta to gain the measure of Villa. He could see the general's charisma and the love of the people for him. Villa was going to be a rival, if Huerta's plans at taking the presidency for himself were to continue. Villa had to be put down.

So Huerta suddenly accused Villa of stealing a horse and quickly sentenced him to death by firing squad. Villa's supporters swiftly rode to get messages to Madero, who responded instantly. At the very moment when Villa was blindfolded and the guns were being readied to fire, the horsemen returned. The sentence had been commuted by the president. It was imprisonment, not death. Thus Villa received some schooling and another story was added to his popular legend.

Pancho Villa

Madero's presidency, which Villa had so strongly supported, was not becoming a happy one. Much of the infrastructure and and civil servants, which had propped up Díaz's rule for so long, was still in place. There had been some lip-service reforms, but nothing which really affected the poor who had risen for him. Moreover, many of the haciendas seized in the Mexican Revolution, had been returned to their original owners.

Villa's response was basically to wait and see what happened. He reasoned that Madero had only just taken power and the previous dictator had been there for a long time. Unravelling things would take time, especially if the replacement system was to be sound.

Madero and Huerta (Pictured Madero (center) and Huerta (right))

However, other revolutionary leaders weren't so patient. They wanted results now. Madero sent Huerta to put them down and many atrocities occurred, as the army swept through the countryside. General Huerta wished to send a message to the people. He did that in blood. Madero openly condemned this and demoted Huerta. Villa, on the verge of rising again, stepped back down.

But Madero's enemies were not just domestic. One of his reforms had been to place a taxation on oil for foreign companies on Mexican soil. This did not go down well with the USA, who had several large oil plants, especially up in the Tampico area.

The American ambassador, with the presumed approval of Washington, arranged for Huerta and Díaz's son, Felix, to meet within the American Embassy. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson openly reported, in both official documents and to the press, that he had negotiated a settlement between them and remodelled the Mexican Constitution to better suit the interests of the USA.

The upshot was the American backed assassination of President Madero and his vice-president; and the military coup of Huerta, who became head of state, tacitly and then officially, from February 19, 1913.

Huerta and Lane
President Huerta and American Ambassador, Henry Lane Wilson

Now Pancho Villa was ready to rise again; and he had the army to do it. Phase two of the Mexican Revolution was now on.

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