U.S. adventurer Joel Roberts Poinsett. Photo: wikipedia.org


Day in and day out, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) mentions the country’s ongoing ideological war  between liberals and conservatives. Of course, he makes it a point of reminding people that he is a liberal who, he says, is now containing the conservative tide from returning to presidential power.

On Wednesday, July 29, during his daily press conference at the National Palace, AMLO once again touched on the issue, mentioning two historical facts. He said that Benito Juárez (president from 1857 through 1872) thought he had managed to bury the conservatives by executing by fire squad two of them, then-Emperor Maximilian and top general Miguel Miramón. But AMLO noted that “the conservatives were back with Porfirio Díaz,” who ruled the nation for over 32 years, from 1874 until the 1910 Revolution.

This is understandable if you know your Mexican history as a republic from 1824 to date. There is no doubt that the struggle for power between conservatives and liberals has been going on ever since. However, what is it? Where does stem from? Here are some responses:

When independence came in 1821, the nation was split between two great forces: the ancient colonial Spanish criollo society that wanted independence but not democracy, and the warrying independent fighters, who had backed the break from Spain and wanted a democratic republic. The split between conservatives and liberals was clear, but not politically defined.

As independence top soldier and a secessionist from Spain Agustín de Iturbide declared himself emperor in 1822, he truly satisfied the needs of continuity of a king by the conservatives. However, the hopes of having a republic among many liberals was strong and they mounted opposition to Iturbide, toppling him in 1823 and putting him before the firing squad months later.

In this interim, there arrived in Mexico the nation’s first gringo adventurer, Joel Roberts Poinsett, an observer and unofficial envoy of U.S. President James Monroe. Poinsett had already participated in the liberation of Chile from the British – he left on the run – and had the great asset of being fluent in Spanish.

Poinsett had a brief – about a half hour – reunion with Emperor Agustin I, which was long enough to know he did not like him. But Poinsett was most impressed by the Emperor’s carriages with horses that trotted at a devilish military speed o- Mexico City’s stone-paved streets.

Poinsett was an avowed free mason master. He immediately noted the rift between the emperor, who had on his side the new nation’s miners and hacienda owners, and the professional cadre of soldiers, who for years had fought under a republican ideal as established by José María Morelos y Pavón in his 1813 booklet “Feelings of a Nation,” outlining dependence only on the Catholic Church.

Poinsett set out almost immediately to found freemason lodges in Mexico City under the York Rite, competing with existing Scottish rite practitioners who were with the conservatives and avowed Catholics.

The York Rite lodges grew exponentially under Poinsett, teaching the liberal school of thought of U.S.-style democracy. This was the true beginning of the still-existent divide between conservatives and liberals.

In the ensuing decades, the division between these two groups became a political philosophy. As such, two great historians and writers, Lucas Alamán and José María Mora, arose. Conservative Alamán was all for returning the nation to its old colonial status under a king, while liberal Mora, a priest, was all not just against imperial rulers, but also for the separation of Church from State.

The writings of these two authors laid the groundwork that led to the 1857 Constitution, which established the separation of the Catholic Church from the civilian government, but led to the stripping of priests of all powers.

After losing, the conservatives under General Miguel Miramón brought back a Bourbon emperor, Maximilian, imposed by the French Army, crowned in 1864, and deposed on 1867. During this brief period, President Benito Juárez ruled the nation on the run, while Maximilian ruled from Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City.

There was a moment when Maximilian proposed to Juárez – both were freemasons – a brotherly embrace and joint rule, with Maximilian being a figurehead and Juárez wielding the political power. Juárez did not accept, and instead led the liberal army to the 1867 deposition and fusillade of Maximilian and Miramón.

AMLO today echoes Juárez in establishing a line between liberals and conservatives, through democratically elected governments.

AMLO says that the conservatives returned to power with the Porfirio Díaz era, and they did, only this time they did so renaming government conservatism a ruling “science,” hence, they received the moniker of “los científicos.”  “the scientists.”

By 1910, the Porfirio Diaz mandate became unsustainable and was ousted by the Mexican Revolution, led by Francisco I. Madero, whose assassination provoked a civil war that coalesced in the 1917 Constitution.

Today, AMLO calls his administration the Fourth Transformation, or 4T. Its logo shows the figures – from left to right – of founding fathers Morelos, Hidalgo and Juárez holding the flag of nationalism in the center. To the right are Madero and last of all, Lázaro Cárdenas, who had nothing to do with conservatives or liberals, but played a key role in nationalizing the nation’s oil reserves from foreign companies in 1938.

One more thing: Just like under Porfirio Díaz, when the conservatives became los científicos, since the mandate of Miguel de la Madrid (1982-1988), in Mexico’s new political lingo, the conservatives became “neoliberals,” but not in  the eyes of AMLO. The neoliberals are just the conservatives with a new name.

I hope this sketchy outline of two ideologies offers an insight into what AMLO is referring day-after-day when he marks the difference between conservatism and liberalism in Mexican history.

…July 30, 2020
















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