Benito Juárez: Mexican
BY STEVE WARSHELL
Benito Juárez was born in rural Oaxaca in 1806, while Mexico was still a colony of Spain. At age 13, Juárez could neither read, write, nor speak Spanish. A Zapotec Indian, Juárez was born into a society that had been built on the brutal exploitation and oppression of the indigenous peoples.
The Spanish conquistadores imposed in Mexico a particularly brutal brand of feudal social relations—including enslavement and outright murder. In barely 100 years it reduced the Indian population to less than 1 million, which by some estimates had been more than 20 million in 1519.
To make up for the lack of labor, the Spanish rulers brought in slaves from Africa, reaching nearly 250,000 during the 17th and 18th centuries, to labor in the fields and mines. The combination of indigenous peoples, Africans, and Europeans led to a caste system that determined much about prospects of any individual in the colony.
When the toilers of Mexico rose in rebellion in 1810, led by Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos, they were fighting for their freedom—freedom from Spain; full rights for mestizos, mulattos, and Indians; an end to compulsory labor; and an end to all the privileges lorded over them by the aristocracy and Catholic clergy. They demanded land—including the best areas often held by the Church and the aristocratic families.
The revolt was crushed by the local aristocrats in alliance with the colonial army. By 1820, events in Europe had made it difficult for the Spanish crown to defend its colonial possessions. The Mexican creoles decided that their time had come at last. Having defeated the toilers’ fight for freedom, they took advantage of a political crisis in Spain and proclaimed independence in the form of a constitutional monarchy. As aristocratic conservative and liberal factions jockeyed with each other for power, the country settled into an unstable republic, still tied to the vestiges of feudalism.
In 1844, U.S. president James K. Polk was elected on a platform of annexation of Texas. The pro-slavery Democrat also demanded that the established border with Mexico be moved 150 miles to the south across the Nueces River to the Río Bravo, known in the United States as the Rio Grande. Demands were also made for the territories of New Mexico and California. Although elected by a narrow margin, the victory of the capitalist slaveholders’ candidate guaranteed war.
Mexico, dominated by the landed aristocracy, was no match for the more developed capitalist social relations of the United States, albeit distorted by slavery. While there was fierce resistance in combat, the technical superiority of the U.S. forces overwhelmed defenders. By 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo codified loss of half Mexico’s territory.
Movement to overthrow dictatorship
A friend of the family he lived with became impressed with the young Juárez and arranged for his education at a Catholic seminary. Juárez continued his studies at the Institute of Science and Art where he read works by rationalist philosophers of the Enlightenment. Before receiving his law degree in 1834, he was elected a city councilman in Oaxaca and became known as a defender of Indian rights. In 1841 he became a civil judge and in 1847 was elected governor of Oaxaca. His term in office was marked by a measure he supported allowing the confiscation of church lands.
In 1853 Antonio López de Santa Anna returned to power in Mexico City and Juárez was one of a group of liberals expelled from the country. Finding himself in New Orleans, Juárez joined forces with other liberals and organized a revolutionary movement aimed at the overthrow of the dictatorship. During his exile, Juárez supported himself by working in a cigarette factory.
The next year liberal general Juan Alvarez and other revolutionaries proclaimed the Plan de Ayutla. Juárez and the New Orleans group joined the movement, which overthrew the Santa Anna dictatorship in the fall of 1854. Alvarez became president and Juárez was appointed minister of justice, producing the “Ley Juárez,” abolishing clerical immunity by limiting jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts. That period also produced the “Ley Lerdo,” which ended church ownership of the land. Church property was nationalized with the largest holdings sold at auction.
With Mexico now a secular democratic republic, the clergy and aristocrats launched a civil war—the War of the Reform—in December of 1857. Juárez, then chief justice of the Supreme Court, was captured in Guadalajara. He was saved from execution by firing squad when the soldiers were persuaded not to shoot. Eventually Juárez escaped, reorganized the resistance, and was declared president of Mexico in 1858. He won the support of liberals and toilers both inside and outside of Mexico. He also received the support of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln. In 1861 the pro-reform forces retook Mexico City.
European monarchs intervene
As the civil war in the United States began, European monarchs looked for ways to intervene in the Americas. With Mexico now verging on bankruptcy, Juárez declared a two-year moratorium on payment of the foreign debt. In response the British, Spanish, and French crowns all sent troops to occupy the port of Veracruz. Juárez negotiated terms with the British and Spanish governments and they withdrew their forces. The French rulers rejected negotiations and launched an invasion.
After Mexico routed the invasion at the battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, the French government sent massive reinforcements and soon took the capital. They installed Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, an Austrian nobleman, as “Emperor” of the country with the support of Mexican conservatives.
As Karl Marx observed, in Mexico, before the American Civil War, “slavery is hidden under the form of peonage. By means of advances, repayable in labour, which are handed down from generation to generation, not only the individual labourer, but his family, become, de facto, the property of other persons and their families. Juarez abolished peonage. The so-called Emperor Maximilian re-established it by a decree, which, in the House of Representatives at Washington, was aptly denounced as a decree for the re-introduction of slavery into Mexico.”
The government was forced to move to Ciudad Juárez on the U.S. border to organize the resistance and continue the fight. Aided by Lincoln and the Union Army the Juaristas carried out three years of revolutionary struggle and guerrilla war. French soldiers were forced to withdraw and Maximilian was captured and executed. On July 15, 1867, Juárez returned to Mexico City and resumed the presidency, using the next five years in office to take the first steps toward building a modern nation.
The legacy of Benito Juárez is the abolition of aristocratic and church property and the class relations that came with them. These were replaced with capitalist property and bourgeois social relations without which there could be no industry, no modern nation, and most importantly, no modern proletariat—the gravediggers of the capitalist system.
History will gratefully remember Juárez for his contributions to this cause.