Carranza, Venustiano (1859–1920)

views updated

Carranza, Venustiano (1859–1920)

Venustiano Carranza (b. 29 December 1859; d. 21 May 1920), first chief of the Constitutionalist forces during the Mexican Revolution (1913–1917), president of Mexico (1917–1920). Carranza was born at Cuatro Ciénegas in the northeastern frontier state of Coahuila, son of a well-to-do landed proprietor who had supported Benito Juárez. After a conventional liberal education in Saltillo and Mexico City, Carranza returned to Coahuila, where, during the Porfiriato (1876–1911), he farmed and engaged in politics. After election as mayor of his hometown in 1887, Carranza was ousted by the autocratic state governor, José María Garza Galán, against whom he successfully rebelled (1893). Porfirio Díaz acquiesced in the installation of a state government congenial to the Carranza family and sympathetic to the great caudillo of the northeast, Bernardo Reyes of Nuevo León. Carranza, a loyal Reyista, served as mayor, state deputy, and federal senator, combining cautious political advancement with the acquisition of land and other property.

During the 1900s, political opposition to Díaz mounted and Reyes became a major contender for power. As the Reyista movement boomed (1908–1909), Carranza ran for the governorship of Coahuila. However, Díaz, resentful of overly powerful subjects, froze Reyes out of national politics and ensured Carranza's defeat. In retaliation, Carranza then forged an alliance of expedience with fellow Coahuilan Francisco Madero, who dared challenge Díaz for the presidency. Although he was linked to the Madero family by old political ties and shared Madero's liberal philosophy, Carranza lacked Madero's naïve optimism; he was, rather, a crafty and hardened practitioner of realpolitik. Thus, while Carranza supported the successful Madero revolution (1910–1911), he did so with typical caution, exercising his role as revolutionary commander of the northeast from the sanctuary of Texas. He also criticized Madero for being too generous to the defeated Porfiristas when he signed the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez (May 1911).

During Madero's presidency (November 1911–February 1913) Carranza served as governor of Coahuila, adhering to a moderate liberal program that stressed municipal democracy, educational and fiscal reform, and temperance. He also built an independent state military, which defended Coahuila against rebel incursions, afforded the state government a certain political autonomy, and gave rise to serious wrangles between himself and Madero. Indeed, there were rumors that Carranza and some like-minded northern governors—"hawks" who rejected Madero's dovish conciliation of conservative opponents—flirted with outright rebellion.


In February 1913, when military rebels ousted and killed Madero, installing General Victoriano Huerta in power, Carranza refused to recognize the coup. While his admirers depict this as an act of immediate outrage, the truth was more complex. For two weeks after the coup the telegraph wires between Coahuila and the capital hummed. Carranza negotiated with Huerta, whose characteristic bullheadedness prevented a deal from being made. Instead, Carranza marshaled his forces and declared himself in revolt. His military fortunes soon faltered. A rebel attack on Saltillo was a costly failure; during the summer of 1913 he was forced to flee to the northwestern state of Sonora, where a similar rebellion had begun with greater success.

However, Carranza's stand was politically decisive. As the senior Maderista rebel, he became the figurehead—and to some extent the actual leader—of a broad anti-Huerta movement. On 26 March 1913, Carranza and his entourage drew up and promulgated the Plan of Guadalupe, in which they repudiated Huerta and promised the return of constitutional rule. (Hence Carranza became "First Chief of the Constitutionalist Army.") However—at Carranza's insistence and to the disgust of some young radicals—the Plan made no reference to broader socioeconomic reforms.

During 1913–1914, as the revolt against Huerta spread, Carranza established an alternative government in the north. He decreed, taxed, issued currency, dealt with foreign powers, and tried to control the heterogeneous Constitutionalist forces. He succeeded, to the extent that Huerta was forced from power; and he succeeded, too, in securing U.S. backing without ceding an iota of Mexican sovereignty. (Indeed, his prickly nationalism made him, in American eyes, a difficult ingrate.) But his relations with Emiliano Zapata, in the distant south, were tenuous and mutually suspicious. Francisco "Pancho" Villa, the charismatic caudillo of Chihuahua, who was victorious in the campaigns against Huerta in 1914, chafed under Carranza's persnickety authority. He resented Carranza's interference in Chihuahua and applauded the U.S. occupation of Veracruz—which tightened the noose around Huerta's neck—even as Carranza outspokenly condemned it. Differences were patched up until the fall of Huerta in July 1914.

Thereafter, the Constitutionalist revolution fragmented. The Zapatistas of Morelos had little time for Carranza, an elderly Porfirian politico whose commitment to agrarian reform was suspect. Villa, too, regarded Carranza with suspicion and personal dislike; when Villa and Zapata met in December 1914, they broke the ice by trading insults about Carranza. More important, the grand revolutionary convention that met at Aguascalientes in October 1914 proved incapable of reconciling the major caudillos of the Revolution—Carranza spurned it, and Villa effectively hijacked it. Mexico's many lesser caudillos were forced to choose, and the forces that had been briefly united against Huerta now split apart and embarked on a bloody internecine conflict.

The civil war resolved itself into a struggle between Villa, loosely allied to Zapata, and Carranza, whose chief ally was the Sonoran general Álvaro Obregón. For some historians, this last great bout of revolutionary warfare was a clear-cut conflict between a popular and peasant coalition led by Villa and Zapata and the "bourgeois" forces of Carranza. However, this interpretation overlooks the sameness of the two sides' social makeup (nationwide, the Carrancistas included many peasants, just as the Villistas included landlords and bourgeoisie) and political programs (the rival programs differed little).

But the struggle was not irrelevant to Mexico's future. For while a victory of Villa and Zapata would probably have resulted in a weak, fragmented state, a collage of revolutionary fiefs of varied political hues presided over by a feeble central government, a victory by Carranza and his Sonoran allies would—and did—lay the foundations of a more ambitious, centralizing state dedicated to national integration and nationalist self-assertion. In this respect, Carranza, a product of Porfirian politics, helped lend a "neo-Porfirian" coloration to the revolutionary regime after 1915; he served, as Enrique Krauze observes, as the bridge between two centuries.

Carranza's triumph over Villa and Zapata, like his previous successes, owed more to political shrewdness than to military prowess. During 1914–1915 he overcame his ingrained political caution and promised agrarian and social reforms, legitimizing the efforts of his more radical supporters and undercutting the popular appeal of his enemies. He allowed Obregón to form an alliance with the workers of Mexico City and dispatched proconsuls to the states of southern Mexico, compelling those states to enter the revolutionary fold and—in Yucatán—skimming off valuable export revenues.

All this would have been in vain had not Obregón triumphed on the battlefield, repeatedly defeating Villa in a series of battles between April and June 1915, forcing him to relinquish claims to national power. Carranza was therefore recognized as de facto president by the United States in October 1915, establishing his administration in Mexico City, and, following elections, inaugurated as constitutional president in May 1917.


Carranza's three years as president were difficult. Rebellion still simmered. Large areas of the country remained ungovernable. The economy was in disarray, the currency had collapsed, and 1917 became known, in popular memory, as the "year of hunger." Over two-thirds of government expenditures went to the military, on whose bayonets Carranza depended. Politics remained the preserve of the Carrancista faction (their enemies were proscribed) and elections, though boisterous, were rigged and unrepresentative. A constituent congress, summoned by Carranza, produced a new constitution (1917) embracing radical measures: labor and agrarian reform, anticlericalism, and economic nationalism. (Carranza probably wanted a more moderate document, but was content to go with the tide.) Implementation came slowly. Land reform remained minimal, while Carranza ordered the wholesale restitution of haciendas seized during the revolution. The brief alliance with the Mexico City workers ended and, in 1916, when he was de facto president, a general strike was ruthlessly crushed. When, in 1918, a new national labor confederation (the Confederación Regional Obrera Mexicana [CROM]; Mexican Regional Labor Confederation) was established, Obregón, rather than Carranza, was the chief political sponsor—and beneficiary.

As in the past, Carranza displayed more skill and consistency in the international arena. After Villa's defeat, the U.S. government grudgingly recognized the Carranza administration, without extracting any quid pro quo from the obstinate Mexican leader. When, in 1916–1917, U.S. troops entered Mexico in pursuit of Villa, Carranza demanded their unconditional withdrawal, ultimately successfully. He flirted with Germany, the better to keep the United States at bay; but he spurned the offer of an alliance, communicated in the notorious Zimmerman telegram. He also made a determined, if unsuccessful, attempt to enforce the provisions of the new constitution that claimed subsoil deposits (including petroleum) as the patrimony of the state. The booming oil companies were obliged to yield vital additional revenue to the penurious state, but they refused to acknowledge their new constitutional status. The impasse remained a source of serious contention into the 1920s.

Carranza thus stoutly defended the integrity of Mexico and the principles of the revolution in the face of foreign pressure. But domestically, Carranza soft-pedaled reform and displayed a poor grasp of the populist politics the Revolution had ushered in. After 1918 his authority waned. As the presidential election of 1920 neared, and Obregón launched a powerful campaign, Carranza attempted to impose a chosen successor, a little-known diplomat named Ignacio Bonillas. The military balked; the CROM backed Obregón; and the Sonoran leaders initiated a coup that swiftly drove Carranza from Mexico City into the Puebla sierra. There, in May 1920, he was killed at Tlaxcalantongo or, as Krauze hypothesizes, he committed suicide rather than give his enemies the satisfaction of killing him. This was to be the last successful rebellion of Mexico's revolutionary history. Obregón and the Sonorans, the architects of Carranza's rise and fall, shared his hardheaded opportunism, but they displayed a better grasp of the mechanisms of popular mobilization, allied to social reform, that would form the bases of a durable revolutionary regime after 1920. For this reason, Carranza has often been regarded as a conservative revolutionary who was overtaken by events and outflanked by younger, more "populist" revolutionaries. He did, however, forge a winning revolutionary coalition, defeating both Huerta and Villa and sponsoring the 1917 constitution. In addition, most critics concede, he was a strenuous and successful defender of Mexican sovereignty against the United States.

See alsoMexico, Constitutions: Constitution of 1917; Mexico, Wars and Revolutions: Mexican Revolution; Plan of Guadalupe.


Douglas W. Richmond, Venustiano Carranza's Nationalist Struggle, 1893–1920 (1983), is the fullest recent biography; well researched, it is uncritically charitable toward its subject. Enrique Krauze, Puente entre siglos: Venustiano Carranza (1987), is brief, intelligent, and replete with illustrations. Of several older Mexican studies, Alfonso Junco, Carranza y los orígenes de su rebelión (1955), is a telling critique of Carranza's conduct toward Madero and Huerta. Detailed general histories of the revolution, which necessarily give much attention to Carranza and the Constitutionalists, are Charles C. Cumberland, The Mexican Revolution: The Constitutionalist Years (1972).

Alan Knight, The Mexican Revolution (1986), vol. 2, Counterrevolution and Reconstruction; and Ramón Eduardo Ruíz, The Great Rebellion: Mexico 1905–1924 (1980), which sharply contrasts with Richmond's laudatory biography. Carranza's important international role has been analyzed in several good studies, including Mark T. Gilderhus, Diplomacy and Revolution: U.S.-Mexican Relations Under Wilson and Carranza (1977).

P. Edward Haley, Revolution and Intervention: The Diplomacy of Taft and Wilson with Mexico 1910–17 (1970); and an outstanding piece of research, Friedrich Katz, The Secret War in Mexico: Europe, the United States and the Mexican Revolution (1981). Robert Freeman Smith, The United States and Revolutionary Nationalism in Mexico, 1916–1932 (1972), offers a cogent analysis of economic nationalism during the Carranza years and after.

Additional Bibliography

Barron, Luis F. "Porfirian Politics in Revolutionary Mexico: Venustiano Carranza and the Mexican Revolution, 1859–1913." Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 2004.

Stout, Joseph Allen. Border Conflict: Villistas, Carrancistas, and the Punitive Expedition, 1915–1920. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1999.

                                        Alan Knight

About this article

Carranza, Venustiano (1859–1920)

Updated About content Print Article