During its colonial era, Latin America was a culture highly stratified by race and social status. In 1800, a small influential group of Europeans, known as peninsulares, and numbering about 30,000 headed society as church officials, large landowners, and colonial administrators. Though governed by peninsulares, Latin American colonies all had a large, wealthy, and powerful class of American-born descendants of Europeans, known as creoles, numbering approximately 3.5 million. The majority of these societies were people of mixed, indigenous, and African blood. Despite the colonies’ large population – about 10 million in all – of less privileged classes, Latin America was clearly dominated by its elites, and even still creoles continued to expand their power during the 18th century as they increasingly established plantations and participated in the burgeoning trade with Spain and Portugal.
As creoles’ wealth expanded so too did their grievances. Inspired by Enlightenment political thought, creoles occasionally took part in tax revolts and popular uprisings against colonial governments that were seen as tyrannical. So when the news of Napoleons’ invasion of Spain and Portugal reached Latin America, revolutionary ideals traveled beyond Saint-Domingue and struggles for independence broke out in Argentina, Venezuela, and Mexico in the face of weakened colonial authority. However, the creoles desired neither the social reform of the French Revolution nor the egalitarianism of the Haitian Revolution. Basically, they sought political independence free of oppression by displacing the peninsulares while retaining their privileged position in society. Between 1810 and 1825, creoles led movements that brought independence to all Spanish colonies in the Americas – except Cuba and Puerto Rico – and established creole-dominated republics. Following the example of the United States, creole elites usually established republics with written constitutions for the newly independent states of Latin America. Yet constitutions were much more difficult to frame in Latin America than in the United States. Before gaining independence, Latin American leaders had less experience with self-government because Spanish and Portuguese colonial regimes were far more autocratic than the British imperial government in North America. Creole elites responded enthusiastically to Enlightenment values and republican ideals, but they had little experience putting their principles into practice. The peninsulares returned to Europe, but Latin American society remained as rigidly stratified as it had been in 1800. Indeed, independence brought little social change in Latin America.
Creole elites also dominated the newly independent states and effectively prevented mass participation in public affairs. The new states permitted the continuation of slavery, confirmed the wealth and authority of the Roman Catholic church, and repressed the lower orders. Less than 5% of the male population was active in Latin American politics in the 19th century, and millions of indigenous peoples lived entirely outside the political system. Without institutionalized means of expressing discontent or opposition, those disillusioned with the system had little choice beyond rebellion.
Additionally, the newly independent states often ceded military authority to local strongmen, known as caudillos, who challenged the authority of elected officials. The wars for independence had lasted well over a decade, and they provided Latin America with military rather than civilian heroes. After independence, military leaders took to the political stage, appealing to populist sentiments and exploiting the discontent of the masses. Caudillos were often instrumental in restoring order by using reconciling competing interests in authoritarian fashion. However, limiting freedoms and undermining the republican ideals that gave rise to the new nations also fueled opposition movements that aimed to overthrow the caudillos and work for liberal reforms that would promote democratic forms of government.
Aggravating political instability were differences among elites. Whether they were urban merchants or rural landowners, Latin American elites divided into different camps as liberals or conservatives, secularists or Roman Catholics. As a result, several Latin American lands lurched from one constitution to another as leaders struggled to create a machinery of government that would lead to political and social stability. Ultimately, the only clear beneficiaries of independence in Latin America were the creole elites.
In 1810 Mexico was Spain’s wealthiest and most populous colony. Its silver mines were the richest in the world, and the colony’s capital, Mexico City, was larger than any city in Spain. The large number of peninsulares in Mexico dominated its government, church, and economy. Less than 1% of Mexico’s population owned 85% of its land.
The first stage of the revolution against Spain occurred in central Mexico. In this region wealthy ranchers and farmers had aggressively forced many lower class communities from their agricultural lands. At the same time, miners and urban poor faced higher food prices and rising unemployment. Coupled with Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, fear and anger spread sparking the most serious peasant rebellion in Mexico led by a parish priest, Father Hidalgo, who rallied indigenous peoples and mestizos against colonial rule. Many contemporaries viewed Hidalgo’s movement for independence from Spanish rule as social and economic warfare by the masses against the elites of Mexican society. Conservative creoles soon captured Hidalgo and executed him, but his rebellion continued to flare for three years after his death.
In an effort to preserve their own power, creoles allied and general Augustin de Iturbide declared independence from Spain, ending colonial rule in 1821. The conservative origin of Mexico’s transition to independence was highlighted by the decision to create a monarchial form of government and crown Iturbide emperor. Neither Iturbide nor his empire lasted for long. Though an able general, Iturbide was an incompetent administrator, and in 1823, he was forced from office and a republic was established.
Independent Mexico experienced a succession of governments, from monarchy to republic to caudillos rule, and the government in power often faced both foreign and domestic challenges to its authority. Although a liberal government was with a constitution in 1824 that guaranteed basic civil rights, maldistribution of land and poor education plagued the masses. Additionally, British and American companies controlled most of Mexico’s railroads, mines, and plantations. The plight of the masses and out of touch liberal leadership, led to violent reactions and the assumption of power by regional strongman, General Santa Anna. Between 1835 and 1854, Santa Anna, in typical caudillo fashion, utilized intermittent authoritarian rule to shape politics in Mexico.
Weary from authoritarian rule, a new wave of liberals swept into power with a new constitution and new energy for a reform agenda, La Reforma. Led by President Benito Juarez between 1857 and 1872, La Reforma aimed to limit the power of the military and church, create a rural middle class, and guarantee universal male suffrage. Juarez sought to help peasants through land reform programs that redistributed land and get Mexico on more stable financial footing. However, postponing debt payments to foreign powers and challenging the position of conservative elites led to virtual civil war and brief foreign rule between 1861 and 1867. In the end, the efforts of Juarez were unsuccessful. The poverty of peasants and wealth of elites meant that much of the lower class gradually sold their and the redistributed ended up in the hands of large landowners.
After the fall of the overly ambitious, liberal Juarez government, conservative interests placed dictator, Porfirio Diaz in power, who ruled between 1876 and 1910. Diaz favored freedoms for rich hacienda owners and foreign investors to acquire more land in order to take advantage of Mexico’s labor, soil, and natural resources. Mexico City became a showplace of paved streets, rail lines, and electric street lighting. But this material progress benefitted only a handful of well-connected businessmen as the average Mexican saw his standard of living decline. Though a mestizo himself, Diaz discriminated against nonwhites and sought to eradicate Mexico’s rustic traditions. To the educated middle-class, the devaluation of Mexican culture became a symbol of the Diaz regime’s failure to defend national interests against foreign influences. Mexico ended the long 19th century on the verge of revolution, yet again.