¡Viva la Revolución!
— Dan La Botz
THE MEXICAN REVOLUTION, which began in 1910 and ended in 1940, transformed Mexico. During the course of those 30 years, tens of thousands of men and women fought in battles in many regions of the country to end the Porfirian dictatorship and to determine the course and goals of the revolution that had overthrown it. In a nation of 15 million, a shocking one million were killed while two million migrated to the United States to escape the violence (many of them subsequently returning), a movement which established the paths of future migrations.(1)
As a result of the revolution, the nation’s fundamental economic institutions were transformed as the basic agricultural production unit, the hacienda, was abolished and the foreign-owned oil industry was nationalized. The nation established public schools, recognized labor unions, and distributed land to peasant villages and indigenous communities. The revolution, in which women had participated as both followers and sometimes political and even military leaders, would also begin to break the hold of both indigenous and Spanish Catholic patriarchy, though the full realization of women’s rights would be a longer process.(2)
After intense political and military struggles in the 1910s among various rival political, economic and social groups, the working class and the peasantry were ultimately defeated and subordinated to new masters. There emerged a new ruling elite which promoted a more modern state, a renovated capitalist economic system, an original nationalist ideology, and a new official culture. Yet even as that new elite consolidated its power in the 1920s and 1930s, the workers’ and peasants’ experience of revolutionary struggle and the lessons learned from their earlier defeat, together with the appearance of new revolutionary ideologies and methods, left a legacy of radical populism influenced by socialism, and led to new agrarian reform, labor, democratic and socialist movements.
While the revolutionary state consolidated and institutionalized itself — eventually creating the notorious oxymoron of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — nonetheless in the 1920s and ’30s and throughout the 1940s and 1950s small revolutionary outbursts occurred. By the 1960s, the country had been utterly transformed by both the successes and the failures of the revolution, meaning that a new set of social issues and conflicts had arisen and a new left appeared with the goal of organizing a new revolution in Mexico.
Porfirio Díaz: The Dictator
We cannot begin to enter into the important discussion and debate about the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1940 and its significance without first providing a basic narrative of events. The revolution began as an attempt to overturn Porfirio Díaz, the hero of an earlier revolution turned dictator. During the 19th century, Mexico’s Liberals, who wanted a free market capitalist country like England or the United States, battled the Conservatives, who wanted a country more like Spain with its monarchy, powerful Catholic Church, and feudal hierarchy.
Díaz fought alongside Mexican President Benito Juárez, on behalf of the Liberals, and then against the French intervention brought on by the Conservatives. When the dust of 20 years of warfare settled, Díaz had emerged as a leading general and then became president in 1876. Thirty-four years later, he was still in the presidential palace in Mexico City, a city which he remade in the image of Paris, with great department stores, elegant apartment buildings with mansard roofs, and a new Palace of Fine Arts modeled after the Paris Opera. In Porfirian Mexico City the bourgeoisie rode in carriages and motor cars through the streets, while workers trudged between factory and barrio, and the Indians were banned from the parks and pushed off the sidewalks.
Once a revolutionary general, Díaz had become a reactionary. Despite his Liberal principles, he reestablished peace with the Catholic Church and with the defeated Conservative elite. He surrounded himself with a group of financiers and businessmen who called themselves in positivist jargon Los Científicos — the scientific ones — men who protected and enhanced their haciendas and promoted the economic development of Mexico through the encouragement of foreign investment.
Before Díaz, the country had been dominated by centrifugal forces and tended to fly into pieces: Guatemala flying off in the South, Texas toward the North, and the Yucatan Mayans fighting for independence in the Southeast. Díaz bound the country together with the railroads built by the Americans and the British, which held Mexico together like the steel bands around the wooden staves of a barrel, and with his army and police.
Díaz encouraged investment in the railroads and other industries with some trepidation, once remarking, “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.” Yet there seemed no alternative, so he threw open the doors to U.S. investors such as Guggenheim, Rockefeller and then ASARCO which bought mines throughout the North of the country, to men like the American Edward L. Doheny and the British Lord Cowdray who discovered oil on the Gulf Coast, and to the International Harvester company that controlled the henequen plantations of the Yucatan. William Randolph Hearst bought an enormous ranch in Chihuahua, the Wrigley family controlled the chicle for their chewing gum. To counterbalance the American corporations in Mexico, Díaz encouraged the British and French to invest, as the Germans watched with envy, looking for an opening. It was a dangerous game.
With his army of Federales and his rural police force, the Rurales, Díaz protected the hacienda owners as they took land from the villages until most peasants had been reduced from small proprietors to day laborers. Díaz crushed his political opponents, suppressed the labor unions, and waged war on and defeated the Yaquis and other indigenous groups, selling some into slavery. The foreign-owned railroads carried Mexico’s wealth to the United States and Europe, and carried the army and police to suppress the restive and rebellious among those from whom the wealth had been taken.(3)
Díaz approached 1910, the anniversary of the Mexican Independence Revolution of 1810, making elaborate preparations to see his long rule celebrated and lauded as the culmination of Mexico’s history. Things would turn out otherwise.
The Failed Anarcho-Syndicalist Revolution
The Mexican Revolution may be said to have begun as a critical movement within Liberalism itself. Liberalism in that era meant the bourgeois state’s parliamentary democracy and the capitalist free market, but it also meant the critical tradition of the Enlightenment. Developing that critical strain, the brothers Enrique and Ricardo Flores Magón established the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM), which at first criticized the Porfirian dictatorship for its lack of democracy and rights but then developed an anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist ideology that found favor among the laboring classes. The PLM led its followers in the working class in a series of strikes and uprisings against the dictatorship in 1906, but in all cases were defeated.
Persecuted by Díaz, the Flores Magón brothers fled to the United States, but there were jailed by the administration of William Howard Taft as a favor to the dictator. A later PLM attempt to seize Baja California — in alliance with the Industrial Workers of the World and soldiers of fortune — would lead to the accusation that the Floresmagonistas had led an American invasion of Mexico.(4) Although the PLM as an organization thereafter was unable to influence the future course of the revolution, its former followers became leaders in other revolutionary factions and its ideas of worker and peasant power continued to inspire many throughout the revolutionary period and long after.
While Mexico’s opposition developed a radical critique of the regime and started to elaborate a vision of an alternative, as has often been noted there was no revolutionary theory and no revolutionary party of national scope, at least not in the same sense as there were in Europe at the time. While one could find revolutionary movements of national scope, intellectual depth, and great social breadth throughout Europe — socialist in the North and anarchist in the South — in Mexico, largely because of the country’s relative economic backwardness, revolutionary ideas were common only in some regions, tended to be less developed, and had much less of an organized following. Moreover, as in Europe, America and Asia, nationalism tended to overwhelm socialism and reformism worked to dilute it.
The Opening of the Democratic Revolution
The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 as a struggle between two sections of the country’s capitalist class: the oligarchy of old wealth around Porfirio Díaz on the one hand, and a new modernizing bourgeoisie particularly strong in Northern Mexico on the other. Francisco Madero, scion of a wealthy landholding family which also possessed mines and factories, inaugurated the revolution. Madero, whose section of the Mexican bourgeoisie had been largely excluded from Porfirio Díaz’s ruling circle, hoped to create a bourgeois democracy in which the interests of hacienda landlords and industrialists from both the old oligarchy and the modernizers might be reconciled.
When in 1908 James Creelman, a U.S. journalist, published an interview with Díaz in which the dictator suggested that Mexico was ready for democracy and that he might step down, Madero decided to run for office. A spiritualist mystic who believed he was destined to lead the struggle to transform Mexico, Madero wrote The Presidential Succession (1908), and, challenging the dictator’s practice of fraudulent elections, adopted as his slogan “Effective suffrage and No Reelection.” In April 1910 the Anti-Reelectionist Party nominated him as its presidential candidate.(5)
While he talked principally about political democracy, Madero also raised the idea of agrarian reform, and it was that which brought the country’s rural masses to his side. Madero’s movement was soon swelled with people who saw in his campaign not only a chance for the political democracy that they sought, but also an opportunity to struggle for more fundamental social change. When he said “democracy,” everywhere the peasants heard “land.” No sooner had Madero’s campaign begun, however, than Díaz changed his mind about a democratic opening and in June of 1910 ordered Madero arrested and jailed.
With the help of his wealthy and politically connected family, Madero escaped to San Antonio, Texas, then returned to Mexico and issued his manifesto, the Plan of San Luis Potosí. The Plan laid out his vision of political democracy — emphasizing the issue of no reelection — and called upon the Mexican people to rise up in revolution on November 20, 1910. Unable to wait for the appointed hour, some rose up on November 18, opening a period of 10 years of tremendous violence and destruction followed by 20 years of revolutionary transformation of Mexico.
While Madero himself personally led an attack on Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, he was primarily a political rather than a military leader. It was his allies, principally the armies of Pascual Orozco, Francisco “Pancho” Villa and Emiliano Zapata, who soon defeated Díaz’s army. In May 1911, after Madero’s forces captured the important border town of Ciudad Juarez, the opposing sides signed a treaty as Díaz left for France and an interim president took power. Madero entered Mexico City in triumph on June 7, 1911, but his bourgeois democracy soon came into conflict with the peasants and their desire for land.
From Democratic toward Social Revolution
The outbreak of the revolution in November of 1910 changed the entire scenario throughout much of the country. Tens of thousands of Mexico’s 15 million inhabitants, longing for democracy and also wanting economic and social justice, began to rally to the revolutionary cause. Suddenly, as in all such revolutionary upheavals, new leaders appeared seemingly out of nowhere, raising armies out of the ranchos and villages which came out marching and riding, singing and shooting.
In the North, Francisco “Pancho” Villa and Pascual Orozco led bands of small farmers, ranch hands, miners and railroad workers, while in the South the horse trainer Emiliano Zapata headed up an army of peasants reduced to day laborers who during the Díaz regime had lost their land to the sugar plantations. Other revolutionary leaders, however, particularly in the northern states of Sonora and Coahuila — Álvaro Obregon, Plutarco Elias Calles, and Venustiano Carranza — were, like Madero, part of a modernizing capitalist class, wealthy ranchers, farmers and mine owners, who wanted a greater voice in government for their segment of the country’s bourgeoisie.
Following the overthrow of Díaz, Francisco de la Barra, a member of Mexico’s old elite, served briefly as president, giving the old régime an opportunity to reorganize. In the country’s first free elections, Madero was elected president and assumed power in November 1911, though as head of what remained of the Porfirian state. More anxious to placate his enemies than to advance the program of his allies, he filled his cabinet with Díaz supporters. Still he faced immediate rebellion on the right, when in December 1911 Bernardo Reyes, one of Díaz’s generals, led a rebellion based in Nuevo Leon. Less than a year later, Madero faced another right-wing rebellion in the Gulf state of Veracruz led by Félix Díaz, nephew of the deposed dictator.
Madero’s new government also failed to please the masses to his left. While Mexico’s bourgeoisie wanted to turn back the tide of revolution before it threatened their haciendas and mines, the plebeian revolutionaries wanted land, labor unions, public schools, and greater control over the country’s resources, which were largely in the hands of foreign capitalists. When Madero temporized on the issue of agrarian reform, Emiliano Zapata broke with the new government and issued the Plan de Ayala, a manifesto demanding that hacienda land be turned over to the peasant communities. He called upon his armed followers to take the land from the hacienda owners and distribute it among their communities.
By November of 1911, Zapata and his troops were at war with Madero’s government. In the North, Pascual Orozco also broke with Madero after being requested to lead his troops against Zapata. Orozco’s followers — mine workers, railroad workers, and ranch hands — wanted better working conditions, in particular wages paid in cash not scrip, demands Madero had neglected. With the emergence of these mass, armed movements of peasants and workers, the broad outlines of the Mexican Revolution’s great themes suddenly appeared.
While Madero sought a democratic revolution that would create a parliamentary democracy and greater power for Northern capitalists, the soldiers who made up the revolutionary armies in the field wanted land above all. Orozco and Villa in the North provided the great battalions of the revolution, but Zapata’s movement provided the dominant idea: immediate agrarian reform, or, in his words, “The land to those that work it” taken and held by men with rifles in their hands. Second, in what would be the country’s last great battle with the Catholic Church, the demand for free, public, lay education also became central.
Third, the mostly anarchist-led labor unions, which had been suppressed under Díaz, fought for their prerogatives, too, insisting on the right to organize and to strike, and demanded protective legislation for workers. Fourth, and the dominance of foreign corporations in Mexican industry and agriculture — particularly in mining and petroleum — led the opposition to the conclusion that the natural resources of Mexico should belong to its people. Those four issues — land, unions, education, and ownership of minerals and oil — would be at the center of the revolutionary struggle for the next three decades.
U.S. Intervention and Carranza’s Revolution
Madero’s weak government and its failure to suppress the revolts that had broken out against it in the North and the South worried both Mexican capitalists and foreign investors. They feared that Madero would be swept from power by the workers and peasants who had turned against him, leading to chaos or some more radical revolution.
Those considerations led U.S. President William Howard Taft’s ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson, working with the European ambassadors and members of the Mexican military and political elite, to organize a coup d’etat to overthrow Madero. There followed what are known as the “ten tragic days” of fighting in Mexico City during which Lane’s counter-revolutionary movement captured and murdered Madero. Following a meeting at the U.S. Embassy, General Victoriano Huerta became the new president of Mexico.
While he headed a counter-revolutionary movement, Huerta and his backers recognized that he could not turn the clock back. He offered reforms to the revolutionaries, and persuaded some of them, such as Pascual Orozco, to go over to his side. He promised Orozco and his working-class followers an end to the hated tienda de raya, the company store. At the same time, Huerta mobilized the most brutal repression of Emiliano Zapata’s Liberating Army of the South.
Huerta’s regime, mixing counter-revolution and reform, would prove too shallow and too unstable to survive, as throughout the country many of the same forces that had risen up against Díaz now rose up against Huerta in the revolution’s second great upheaval, one that churned up whole new layers of rebels.
A new broad revolutionary movement developed. Venustiano Carranza of Coahuila, the son of a middle-class rancher who had been educated in Mexico City to become part of the political elite, would emerge as the principal figure. He had once led a ranchers’ rebellion against Díaz’s choice of governor at the turn of the century, but despite his involvement in that brief revolt, he made peace with the dictator. Later, however, he became disgruntled after the dictator declined to choose him as candidate for the Senate. Carranza then joined Madero’s rebellion.
After Madero’s murder, Carranza stepped forward to replace the martyred president as the leader of the modernizing capitalist rebellion in the North. On March 23, 1913, Carranza issued the Plan de Guadalupe which promised a return to the Mexican Constitution of 1857, but dropped all references to the social reform program that had been sketched out in Madero’s Plan de San Luis Potosí. Once he took on the role of Primer Jefe (First Chief), Carranza would be distinguished by his determination to build a new state to replace the one that was being demolished in the course of the revolution.
Fighting against Huerta were a number of revolutionary leaders, though not all of them had signed on to Carranza’s political program. With Orozco having gone over to Huerta, Pancho Villa now became the leader of the largest revolutionary armies in the North, the Division of the North, with its famous cavalary, los Dorados, the Golden Ones. In the state of Sonora in the Northwest, Álvaro Obregón, a wealthy farmer, and Plutarco Elías Calles, a former bartender and school teacher who under Madero’s government had risen to become a local police commissioner, led large forces.
Finally, Zapata’s Liberating Army of the South in Morelos, operating independently, remained the champions of the country’s peasantry. These revolutionary generals and their followers would decide the future of the Mexican Revolution.
While Huerta had initially come to power as a result of the coup organized by U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, he soon fell out of favor with the newly elected government of President Woodrow Wilson. (The two Wilsons were not related.) Huerta, it turned out, had been drawn into the orbit of the British government through its new ambassador to Mexico, Lionel Carden, an out-spoken critic of Woodrow Wilson.
Carden worked to protect Lord Cowdray’s oil interests in the Gulf Coast and so President Wilson, fearful that Huerta would promote British interests above those of the United States, ordered the U.S. occupation of the Mexican ports of Veracruz and Tampico to prevent the arrival of a German ship carrying arms to Huerta. At the same time, President Wilson facilitated arms shipments to Pancho Villa in the North. The combination of the revolutionary movement in Mexico and the U.S. intervention soon led to the overthrow of the Huerta government. By July 1914, Huerta had been forced to resign the presidency and left the country for exile.
The Revolution Divided
The overthrow of Huerta, however, did not lead to a new revolutionary government. Quite the contrary, in 1914 the Mexican Revolution now divided into two rival currents: one bourgeois and the other plebeian. Carranza’s Constitutionalist forces aimed to create a new nationalist state which could provide stability for both the modernizing Mexican bourgeoisie and foreign investors, while the Conventionists, led by Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, desired to carry out the democratic and social reforms demanded by the country’s peasants and workers. The Mexican Revolution would revolve for the next five years around the struggle between those forces which sought to construct a new a capitalist state and those leading a plebeian revolution which sought land reform, labor unions, and schools.
The names of these groups — Conventionists and Constitutionalists — derived from two major conferences held by revolutionary leaders. The Convention, though originally called by Carranza for Mexico City, eventually took place in Aguascalientes in October and November of 1914 and was dominated by Villistas and Zapatistas. Practically the first order of business was to turn its back on Carranza and elect Eulalio Gutiérrez president. Villa was made commander-in-chief and immediately went to war against Carranza.
By mid-December Villa and Zapata occupied Mexico City, their troops sipping coffee in the elite Sanborn cafe. The two revolutionary generals, heading armies of ranchers, peasants, and workers failed, however, to consolidate their power. Villa’s army returned to the North, while Zapata’s peasants made their way back to the South. The old Porfirian state had been destroyed, but the plebeian forces failed to create a new political party or a new state in their own image. Carranza would quickly move to fill that political vacuum.
The Constitutionalists would win the civil war in large measure because they understood the significance of the labor movement, which was not only a force in every major city, but also on the railroads, on the docks, and in the mines. Urged on by Obregón and Calles, Carranza negotiated an agreement in 1914 with the anarchist Casa del Obrero Mundial (House of the World Worker). The Casa agreed to back Carranza’s government in exchange for government support for the unions. Some of the anarcho-syndicalists rejected the agreement and went off to join Emiliano Zapata and his peasant revolution, but other unions provided Red Batallions which would be used to fight him.
Carranza’s pact with the unions divided workers from peasants, and initiated a long history of state tutelage of organized labor. The superiority of Carranza’s forces was soon demonstrated. At the Battle of Celaya on April 13, 1915, General Álvaro Obregón won a decisive victory over Villa, and from then on the Constitutionalists dominated the military struggle that would, nevertheless, last another five years.
At the same time, Woodrow Wilson’s government, which had been supporting Pancho Villa, broke with him.(6) Contemplating the possible entry of the United States into the First World War which had broken out in Europe, on October 19 Wilson decided to recognize Carranza as the ruler of Mexico. Carranza’s forces now had an overwhelming military advantage, though they could not defeat the revolution’s left wing unless they had sufficiently broad support within Mexican society.
With his opponents on the run, Carranza called a constitutional convention in the city of Querétaro for September 1916. His intention was to have the assembly ratify the liberal Constitution of 1857 and eliminate or update some of its more antiquated sections. When the convention convened, however, Carranza found that his more conservative delegates, numbering around 80, were outnumbered by over 130 radicals.
While Carranza’s armies had been successful in defeating the forces of Villa and Zapata, they had not been able to defeat their program which had seeped into the Constitutionalists’ own camp. While Carranza and his delegates represented the interests of wealthy land owners and industrialists, many of the other delegates were generals leading plebeian armies who would be satisfied with nothing less than profound economic, social and political reforms embodied in a new constitution.
Carranza and his advisors soon recognized that if the revolution was to be brought to a conclusion, they would have to yield — at least on paper — to the plebeian demands, or the revolutionary forces would fracture once again. The heated debates and negotiations of the convention lasted six months and finally produced a new Constitution which settled in law — if not in fact — the principal issues of the revolution.
Article 27 provided for the breakup of the haciendas and the distribution of land to peasant and indigenous communities, and all declared that the subsoil of Mexico belonged to its people. Article 123 gave workers the right to organize unions and strike, and created protective legislation. Article 3 ended the Catholic Church’s control of education, creating free, lay public schools, while Article 130 virtually banned the church from Mexican politics and society. In May of 1917, Carranza became the new Mexican Republic’s first president.
Controlling Labor: The Sonoran Dynasty
Carranza’s forces continued to make military gains, most important the capture and assassination of Emiliano Zapata on April 10, 1919. Meanwhile, however, the Sonoran generals — Obregón, Calles, and Adolfo de la Huerta (not to be confused with the counter-revolutionary Victoriano Huerta) — who stood to the left of Carranza, had lost confidence in the First Chief. On April 23, 1920, they promulgated a new revolutionary manifesto, the Plan de Agua Prieta, rallying most of the revolutionary generals to their side. The struggle was now between the wealthy capitalists and the petty bourgeois radicals.
On May 21, 1920 the rebel forces captured and killed Carranza in the village of Tlaxcalantongo, and General Obregón took power, finally ending a decade of constant warfare and establishing a new revolutionary government. Obregón became president, holding office from 1920 to 1924 when he was succeeded by his comrade-in-arms Plutarco Elías Calles, who presided over the nation from 1924 to 1928. With virtually identical politics — one writer has called them the two-headed president — they worked to establish the new state’s social and political basis.(7)
Much of the Porfirian bourgeoisie having fled the country and with the rest of the capitalist class politically disoriented and demoralized, Obregón could count only on the revolutionary army for support as he took power, but he recognized that that was too narrow a basis for building a new state and for controlling the society. He therefore set about subduing and subordinating the labor unions and peasant organizations and turning them into the new regime’s social support.
With Zapata dead, Obregón negotiated with the remaining Zapatista leaders the distribution of land to their followers in the state of Morelos, thus eliminating what had been one of the principal problems of his predecessors. Then, working with and around the imperial ambitions of Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), he worked to transform the old anarcho-syndicalist labor movement into business unionists.
Luis N. Morones of the Regional Confederation of Mexican Labor (CROM) would become one of Obregón’s most stalwart backers, and Obregón and later Calles would help him to defeat the anarchist and the new Communist union movement. Obregón chose the radical Conventionist intellectual José Vasconcelos to become first regent of the University of Mexico and then Secretary of Education, and Vasconcelos in turn would hire the Communist painter Diego Rivera to decorate the National Palace and the Department of Education.
Finally, in order to prevent the United States from overturning the new revolutionary government, the two governments signed the Bucareli Accords, a treaty in which Mexico agreed to pay war claims and debts to the United States and promised not to expropriate the foreign oil companies. The Mexican Revolution — though still not over — would have an eight-year truce during which it would begin the process of reconstruction, while the balance between state-building and the plebeian demands for reform continued to remain fluid and unresolved.
After only eight years of relative stability, however, the assassination of Obregón in 1928 and the arrival of the Great Depression in 1929 would threaten to return Mexico to the violence and destruction of the previous decade.
[The second half of this overview of the Mexican Revolution will appear in our next issue.]
- One million migrated during the violent years of the revolution between 1910 and 1920 and another one million migrated during the Cristero Rebellion, the war between the Mexican government and the Catholic Church between 1928 and 1934.
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- Mexican women would not win the right to vote in national elections until 1953 and could not vote in a presidential election until 1958.
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- James D. Cockroft, Mexico: Class Formation, Capital Accumulation, and the State (New York: Monthly Review, 1983), passim; John Mason Hart, Empire and Revolution: The Americans in Mexico since the Civil War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), passim.
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- Lawrence Taylor, La gran aventura en México (Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1993), Vol. I, Chapter 2 “La Ofensiva Magonista,” 139-256.
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- Francisco Madero, The Presidential Succession in Mexico (New York: P. Lang, 1990), .
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- Adolfo Gilly, La Revolución Interrumpida, Mexico City: el Caballito, 1971.
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- Manuel Aguilar Mora, El Bonapartismo Mexicano, Mexico, Juan Pablos Editor, 1982.
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ATC 147, July-August 2010