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The “Ten Tragic Day”, and the Venezuelan almost-coup

1 May 2019

The old chestnut, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes” is a recurrent theme in US-Latin American relations.  That, or the other popular saying “Insanity is doing the same thing over again, and expecting different results”.  I admit being obsessed with the news from Venezuela yesterday. in goof part because I had been trying to think of how I wanted to answer a query posted in the comment section of a recent post on the Mexican coup of 1913, the “Ten Tragic Days”.

The query, from a history class (somewhere) asked for my response to ten questions about the events of 9-19 February 1913… how was I personally affected? (well, it changed Mexican history for better or worse, and I live here): when did I first hear of the coup? (just shy of a century later); and how did it affect people at the time?  (there was five more years of civil war, and a completely different kind of state than the one intended).  Simple questions, but hard to answer.


Wilson meant to overthrow…


Madero’s revolution of 1910 was a relatively straight-forward affair.  While in no way the same scenario as yesterday’s attempted uprising in Caracas,  in 1910 there was widespread belief that the presidency had been “stolen” from the opposition.  While the rationale for violent opposition to the Venezuelan government is a claim that an election was stolen, in 1910 Mexico, it was the elites who wanted to preserve the status quo and locked out the opposition, whereas in Venezuela, it is the elites wanting to restore the status quo who are in rebellion.  As they were, or are, now.

Although Francisco Madero was from the Mexican “one-percent” himself (probably the “point oh-one percent”, coming from the family of the richest landowners in the country), his support came from the middle and lower classes, avid for more than a political change, but demanding a social and cultural one, more suited to the 20th century.  Alas, Madero was no Hugo Chavez (an elected leader), able to impose change.  Madero, for all his good intentions, was unable to meet either the demands from below, nor to satisfy those of his own social class who saw what moderate changes he sought in a positive light.

… popularly elected reformer, Francisco I. Madero, in favor of…

Nor to meet the demands of U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson.  For Wilson, it didn’t much matter who ran Mexico, as long as U.S. corporate interests were protected.  Wilson, a paranoid drunk (my description comes from the Ramon Prida, at the time a young foreign office official, later a respected expert on international law), bombarded Washington with stories of intended disaster should Madero come to office, and… once he did… of the absolute economic and political disaster that the popularly elected new President was making of the country.

Madero was no Hugo Chavez:  unwilling (or unable) to make the radical changes demanded by the lower classes, nor to control populist movements and insurgents like Emiliano Zapata, what mild reforms he was able to pass did change the relationship between the Mexican state and the extractive industry… that is, oil and

… safe General Bernado Reyes… but ended up with

mining interests, who objected to any reforms in their labor or tax structure whatsoever.  That proposed oil extraction tax was, to Henry Lane Wilson, and to his cronies in the oil industry, a bridge too far.  Like the US media and government today when it comes to Venezuela, Wilson misread discontent by the masses with the pace of reforms and a breakdown in some government services (in Madero’s Mexico, bandits and insurgents — and sometimes, groups that were a little of both — left over from the 1910 Revolution pursuing their own goals, disrupted rail service and food deliveries, among other things, while the country was in a wildly inflationary era) with those nostalgic for a return of the Porfirian “peace” and openly backed the 1913 coup.

— the monster, VIctoriano Huerta.. who incidentally, toughened the labor laws to the disadvantage of US interests (mostly to try and save his own skin).

It’s easy to overlook that the Mexican coup went wrong from the beginning.  The intention was to simply put Felix Díaz (Pofiriro’s nephew) or General Bernado Reyes in the Presidency.  Reyes, having been seen as Porfirio’s logical successor, willing to make some cosmetic political changes, without touching those “special rights” enjoyed by foreign businesses, he was killed on 9 February, when he showed up to take over the National Palace… wearing his dress uniform, making him an easy target for the teenaged military cadets manning the machine guns.  Convincing his fellow drunk Victoriano Huerta to switch loyalties, Wilson’s ad hoc “Plan B” was a simulated war for the Presidency between Diaz and the national government, which would end with Huerta as temporary president, and another Diaz back in control.

Even the C.I.A. sees the Ten Tragic Days that followed as the worst US covert action blunder in history , making me wonder who in the US government, if anyone, has studied history (even superficially), and why they lack the imagination to see the parallels between one event and another.

… another Reyes, in the guise of Madero?

Madero… the young, attractive, U.S. educated would-be reformer… is a tempting stand-in for Juan Guiadó, but I would assign that role to General Reyes. HE was the one receiving the blessing of both the Mexican elites and the US business interests. My sense, given how events unfolded yesterday in Caracas, was that Guiadó, like Reyes, was merely a temporary stand-in for a return to the old regime. Historical “what-ifs?” are fruitless, but it appears Henry Lane Wilson and his cronies had no intention of permitting even the mildest changes in the Mexican oil taxes, and … had Reyes not played ball… they already had Felix Díaz waiting in the wings. Likewise, it appears Guiadó, for all his talk about “social democracy” is merely a stand-in for Leopoldo López, a member of the old elite who has been presented to the global north as the would-be “reformist hope”, despite his criminal record fomenting violence, and a past as a neo-fascist agitator.

When Reyes was unceremoniously removed from the scene, Wilson turned to subverting Huerta. Here, the US seems to have thought ahead, the US having tried (unsuccessfully) to subvert several Venezuelan leaders, although it appears they did gain the support of the (now arrested) chief of military intelligence.

I don’t know what happens next, after the coup gone wrong. One hopes Venezuela is not in for their own ten tragic days, or ten tragic weeks, or ten tragic years. Certainly Maduro’s government is unpopular, but so was Madero’s. In itself, perhaps a reason for irregular change, but not change imposed from the outside, nor done with the interests of outsiders, masked by concern for the citizens, as the rationale for intervention.

We need to learn our history… when I read, as I do regularly, that the Lopez Obrador administration (which openly looks to Francisco Madero as a model reformer) that this or that intended reform isn’t quite working out as planned (after four months?) or that corruption and crime have not magically disappeared, or that some social indicators aren’t up to those of some points in the recent past (yes, we expected domestic growth to slow down some) one wonders if there isn’t an attempt in the United States to make it’s history in Venezuela rhyme with Mexico, as it made the Mexico of 1913 attempt to rhyme with that of Venezuela yesterday.

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