Saturday, May 9, 2015

Paseo de la Reforma: Symbol of Mexico's Struggle Between Autocrats and Democrats

Paseo de la Reforma
seen from Chapultepec Castle.
Six White Columns are
Monument to the Boy Heroes
against the U.S. Invasion of Mexico
Photo by Carlos Cortés

The Paseo de la Reforma, a wide, tree-lined boulevard, is Mexico City's emblematic avenue. Its central section runs from El Bosque de Chapultepec, Chapultepec Woods, to the Alameda Central, a park a few blocks west of the Zócalo, Mexico City's central plaza. Although today it is lined with the postmodern skyscrapers of global corporations, its wide, park-like, shaded walks bounded by long stone benches that invite resting, its many fountains and statues convey a grand, even imperial, 19th century European ambience, rather like the Paris of Napoleon III's Second Empire.

Photo: JRB
(Left click to enlarge any photo)

Greek Goddess Diana, the Huntress
Photo: JRB

Paseo de la Reforma, Boulevard of the Reform,
runs diagonally from foot of the Castle of Chapultepec (lower left)
to the Alameda (upper right).
The Zócalo, central plaza, is at far right edge

(Click to enlarge)

For all its urban civility, the Paseo is actually a physical artifact of Mexico's turbulent 19th century. It was initiated in the 1860's, in the middle of the War of the French Intervention on the orders of Emperor Maximilian I, who wanted to connect his chosen residence, the Castle of Chapultepec, with the Historic Center of the City. Maximilian named the avenue Paseo de la Emperatriz ("Promenade or Boulevard of the Empress"), in honor of his wife, Empress Carlota.

Mexico's Tradition of Royal Rule

But what was an emperor with a German name doing in Mexico in the mid-19th century? How did that come to pass? Well, there were precedents. There was an earlier emperor, Emperor Agustín I, a criollo officer in the Spanish Royal Army who sought to be a substitute for the King of Spain when Independence was gained. And, during the colonial era of Nueva España, there were the Spanish kings who were also Holy Roman Emperors. But a German?

Well, Prince Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph was actually Austrian, born on July 6, 1832 in Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, seat of the Austrian Empire. He was the second son of Archduke Franz Karl, himself the second son of Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, of the House of Habsburg, whose origins went back to the 11th century. Habsburgs had been Holy Roman Emperors continuously from 1438 to 1740 and, on and off, even later.

Habsburgs occupied the throne of Spain beginning in 1496, when Philip I, son of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, married Joanna, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the first rulers of a united Spain. Philip's and Joanna's son became King Charles I of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In the New World, Hernán Cortés justified his conquest of Mexico as being in the name of Emperor Charles, "the true ruler of the world".

The Habsburgs ruled Spain until 1700, when King Charles II left no heirs, which gave rise to the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) between the Habsburgs and France to determine an heir. When France won, French Bourbons took the Spanish throne. In any case, the Habsburgs had their Spanish connection.

A Number Two Prince Looking for Something Important to Do

But how did Prince Maximilian end up in Mexico as Emperor? This complex and fascinating story arises from the coincidence of democratic rebellions in Europe and Mexico. In 1848, liberal-democratic revolutions against monarchy erupted across western Europe, including in the Austrian Empire, where Emperor Ferdinand, who had no heirs, abdicated. Maximilian's father was next in line, but ceded the crown to his elder son, who, at the age of 18, became Emperor Franz Joseph I. The rebellions were quickly and violently suppressed.

As the younger brother of the new Emperor, Maximilian didn't have a lot to do, but he was bright and ambitious. So in 1850, at age 18, he joined the Austrian Navy. Four years later, in 1854, he became its Commander-in-Chief. (It helps, as Mexicans say, to have "enchufe", connections in high places.) Very efficient and rational ("The Very Model of a Modern Major-General"), Maximilian modernized Austria's small Navy, opening a naval base and establishing a fleet in Trieste, a Habsburg principality on the Italian Coast of the Adriatic Sea.

In 1857, Emperor Franz Joseph also appointed his brother, now 25, Viceroy of the Kingdom of Lombardy–Venetia in Italy. That same year, the Prince married his second cousin, Princess Charlotte of Belgium, the daughter of Leopold I, King of the Belgians, and Louise-Marie of France. She was a first cousin of both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The newlywed couple had "mucho enchufe", but they were to have no children.

Emperor Franz Joseph, however, opposed the growing liberal republican ideas of the era such that in 1859 he removed his brother from his viceroyalty post because of his liberal positions and actions in governing Lombardy-Venetia. So, at age 27, Prince Maximilian and his wife "retired" to Trieste, near which he built a castle, Miramar (Seaview). Still "Chief of the Naval Section" of the Empire, Maximilian loved the sea, had sailed to Brazil with the Navy and planned to organize a botanical expedition back to Brazil. But then, a delegation from Mexico came knocking, offering an opportunity to do something important.

Meanwhile, Back in Mexico, Liberal Democrats Overthrow an Autocrat, Briefly

In 1855, Santa Ana—who had been President numerous times and was a caudillo (military strongman) and, hence, an autocrat—was challenged by a group of Liberals who sought to re-establish a democratic republic as set forth by the Constitution of 1824, written after the overthrow of Emperor Agustín I. The rebellion was organized around a pronunciamiento, a declaration of reasons for overthrowing the existing government. Called the Plan of Ayutla, after the town in Guerrero where it was drafted, the Plan was issued on March 1 by General Juan Álvarez and Ignacio Comonfort.

Santa Ana was quickly defeated and went into exile. On November 14, the Liberals formed a provisional government under Álvarez. Benito Juárez, a lawyer and former judge and governor from the southern state of Oaxaca, was chosen to be president of the Supreme Court. In December, Comonfort became interim president upon the resignation of Álvarez, who had decided he didn´t like being President or living in Mexico City and went home to Guerrero.

In 1856, the Liberal government began to issue a series of Reform Laws, many drafted by Juárez, that abolished Church and military fueros (their own ecclesiastical and military courts, giving them immunity from governmental legal actions), required the sale of Church and indigenous communal properties, and established civil marriages and birth registries to replace those maintained by the Church.

The Federal Constitution of the United Mexican States of 1857 was ratified on February 5. It established individual rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and the right to bear arms. It not only reaffirmed the abolition of slavery, but also eliminated debtor prison and eliminated all forms of cruel and unusual punishment, including the death penalty. It also established public education free of Catholic control and dogma. Finally, it eliminated the legal fueros of the Church and Army and decreed the sale of property belonging to the Church. This was a radical break with the past.

Comonfort and other "moderate" Liberals had wanted to restore the Constitution of 1824 [which Santa Ana had annulled] modeled after the Spanish Constitution of 1812 signed in Cadíz. This earlier Constitution maintained the Catholic Church as the only recognized and permitted religion and did not abolish Church and Army fueros

On December 17, 1857, a group of Conservative generals led by General Felix Zuloaga staged a coup d'état. They proclaimed the Plan of Tacubaya (named for an originally indigenous pueblo west of Mexico City, now a colonia, neighborhood, of the city), which decreed the Constitution nullified and marched into the city. President Comonfort submitted to the generals. On January 11, 1858, General Zuloaga demanded the President's ouster and Comonfort resigned.

According to the new Constitution, the president of the Supreme Court, Benito Juárez, became President of Mexico. In opposition, the Junta of generals and Catholic clergy declared General Zuloaga as president. Juárez and his allies fled Mexico City and established themselves in the port city of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico, where they were able to support their government with supplies and money collected as import duties.

Benito Juárez: "Indio" Turned "Ladino"

It is impossible to imagine anyone more opposite from Prince Maximilian than Benito Juárez. Not only did the two men come from opposites sides of an ocean, they came from the extreme opposite ends of the social spectrum and from cultures that were completely foreign to one another.

Benito Juárez

Juárez was born on March 21, 1806, in a small adobe house in the village of San Pablo Guelatao in the mountains of Oaxaca. He was, in his own words, the son of "indios de la raza primitiva del país", that is, "Indians of the original race of the country". Both parents died when he was three years old. Shortly thereafter, his grandparents also died. Raised by an uncle, Benito worked in the cornfields and as a shepherd until the age of 12, when he walked to the city of Oaxaca, where his sister worked as a cook. Benito wanted to go to school. When he arrived in Oaxaca City, he spoke only Zapotec.

In the city of Oaxaca, Benito took a job in the household of the Italian Antonio Maza, who employed his sister. Young Benito's intelligence and thirst for learning impressed Antonio Salanueva, a friend of the Mazas and a lay Franciscan, such that Salanueva arranged for Benito to be enrolled in the city's seminary. At the time, it was the only educational institution, but after Independence was won from Spain, a secular college oriented to liberal European ideas was established. Deciding that he wanted to be a lawyer, Benito transferred there. In 1834, he graduated and began practicing law. By 1841 he was serving as a judge. In 1847, at the age of 41, the Zapotec Indian was elected governor of the state of Oaxaca.

Benito Juárez had also become totally ladino, that is, totally acculturated not only to the Spanish language but to the customs of Mexico's educated criollo class. Politically, moreover, he had become a staunch Liberal. When Santa Ana returned to Mexico in 1853 to re-assume the Presidency, Juárez fled to New Orleans. In 1855, when the Plan of Ayutla was issued, Juárez returned to Mexico to join the rebellion.

War of Reform: Conservative Autocrats Attempt a Comeback

Twice in 1860 Conservative forces under General Miguel Miramón tried unsuccessfully to take Veracruz. The United States intervened on the side of the Liberals, blockading the port. In the same year, Conservative forces were defeated in Oaxaca and Guadalajara. In December of 1860, Miramón surrendered outside Mexico City. On January 1, 1861, Liberal forces reoccupied the capital. One week later, Benito Juárez re-entered the city in triumph.

Benito Juárez triumphant entry into Mexico City
painting in the National History Museum,
Chapultepec Castle

But there was to be little lull in the ongoing conflict between Liberal and Conservative forces.

War of the French Intervention 1861-67: Conservative Autocrats Get an Emperor

On July 17, 1861, in the face of government bankruptcy, Juárez declared the suspension of interest payments to foreign countries. This presidential action angered Mexico's three major creditors: French, British and Spanish.

On October 31, 1861, the three countries signed the Treaty of London to unite their efforts to receive payments from Mexico. In December, their troops arrived at Mexico's main port of Veracruz. After seizing Veracruz and nearby towns, the Spanish and British recognized the ambition of Emperor Napoleon III of France to conquer Mexico. So in April 1862, they withdrew their forces. Engulfed in its own Civil War, the United States did not intervene.

In the wake of initial victories by Mexican Liberal forces at Puebla on May 5, 1862, French troops received reinforcements. One year later, on May 17, 1863, the French captured Puebla. On June 7 they entered Mexico City.

On June 16, Mexican General Almonte was appointed Provisional President of Mexico by a Superior Junta and on July 10, the Junta declared Mexico a "Catholic Empire". A commisson was sent to Europe to offer the crown to Prince Maximilian, who had been recommended by Napoleon III based on the Habsburg history in Mexico, Maximilian's good "enchufe" and his availability (the Prince had little else to do).

On October 3, Maximilian agreed to accept the crown. This agreement was made official with the signing of the Treaty of Miramar in April of 1864 by French and Mexican representatives and Maximilian at Maximilian's castle. 

Maximilian receiving the Mexican delegation 
at Miramar Castle in Trieste.

On May 28, 1864, Maximilian arrived in Veracruz and was subsequently crowned Maximilian I of Mexico. Mexico's new Emperor was 32 years old.

Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico
He didn't like the accommodations at the National Palace, which were in poor condition, so he decided to have Chapultepec Castle remodeled as the imperial home, complete with elegant furnishings imported from Europe. He had  Paseo de la Emperatriz built to connect the Castle with the Historic Center.

Consistent with his progressive European political ideas, Mexico's new Emperor favored the establishment of a limited monarchy and sharing powers with a democratically elected congress. He promulgated laws to abolish child labor, limit working hours and eliminate the system of hacienda (large agricultural estates) labor that virtually amounted to serfdom for indigenous people. Maximilian even offered Benito Juárez a position in his government if he would end his opposition. Juárez, of course, refused.

Emperor Maximilian's coach
Museum of National History
Chapultepec Castle
Photo: JRB
President Benito Juárez' coach
Museum of National History
Chapultepec Castle
Photo: JRB

One Emperor Abandons Another

The civil war continued and in 1865, Liberal forces began to gain some victories. In the spring of 1866, with the end of the U.S. Civil War and a concomitant increase in U.S. pressure, as well as wars in Europe, Napoleon III announced the withdrawal of French forces. He advised Maximilian to return to Europe, but Maximilian chose to stay in Mexico. Throughout the year, Liberal forces subsequently retook many cities. 

By February 1867, all French troops had left Mexico. Maximilian was left with only Mexican Conservative forces led by Miguel Miramón and Tomás Mejía. They finally left the capital and retreated to nearby Querétero, where they were surrounded. On May 15, 1867, Maximilian and his two generals were captured.

In spite of pleas by many Europeans, including Victor Hugo, that Maximilian's life be spared, Juárez was adamant on the grounds that European powers needed to be given the clear message that Mexico was a soverign country never to be invaded again. So on June 19, on the Hill of the Bells, Maximilian, Miramón and Mejía were executed by firing squad. Maximilian's body was sent back to Austria and buried in the royal crypt at Schönbrunn Palace, his birthplace thirty-five years earlier.

The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian by Édouard Manet

Juárez and the Liberals returned to Mexico City and to governing the country. The Paseo de la Emperatriz was renamed Paseo de la Reforma. Some years later, statues of some of the heroes of the Reform War were erected along it.

Photo: JRB
Photo: JRB

Photo: JRB

The Death of Reform

In 1870, despite a constitutional prohibition against re-election, Benito Juárez ran for a second Presidential term. He was opposed by one of his Army's leading generals, Porfirio Díaz, who had won numerous battles for the Liberals in the War of Reform and the French Intervention. Despite charges by Díaz that the election was a fraud, Juárez won.

Díaz launched a rebellion against the President, the Plan of Noria. The rebellion was at the point of defeat when, on July 19, 1872, Juárez died of a heart attack while at his desk in the National Palace. He was succeeded by his Vice President, Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada. Pardoned by the new President, Díaz retired to his hacienda in Oaxaca. Four years later, in 1876, when Lerdo ran for re-election, Díaz launched a second rebellion, the Plan de Tuxtepec. This time he was successful, seizing the Presidency. Thus, the era of Liberal Reform ended and another, very different era began.

But that leads us to another chapter in Mexico's history and to another post, which will take us back to Chapultepec Castle, the Paseo de la Reforma and beyond.

In the meantime, Benito Juárez was buried in the Panteón of San Fernando, just west of where Reforma passes the Alameda. Curiously, near him were buried not only other leaders of the Liberal revolution, like General Zarzagoza, who won the first and famous Battle of Puebla, but also Comonfort, the President who waffled, and the two generals, Mejia and Miramón, who died defending Maximilian.

Tomb of Benito Juárez
Photo: JRB
Benito Juárez grieved by La Patria, The Motherland
Photo: JRB
Tomb of Ignacio Comonfort
Photo: JRB
Tomb of conservative general Tomás Mejia, who was executed with Emperor Maximilian, sits near that of liberal general Ignacio Zaragoza, winner of the first Battle of Puebla against the invading French
Photo: JRB
Curiously, thirty-some years later, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mexican Independence, the dictator Diáz had a large monument erected to honor, one might say even beatify Benito Juárez as a secular saint of democratic law and order.  

The Hemiciclo a Juárez (Semicircle to Juárez) stands on the south side of the Alameda Central, between Paseo de la Reforma and the Zócalo. It was inaugurate on Sept. 18, 1910. Two months later, the Mexican Revolution against Díaz would begin and his era, the Porfiriato would, in turn, come to an abrupt end.

Hemiciclo a Benito Juárez
Photo: JRB
Benito Juárez, clothed in the robes of a Roman Senator,
crowned by La Patria, The Motherland, and
watched over by Lady Liberty
Photo: JR

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