Streets of Mexico
Antonio López de Santa Anna
By David Ellison
Antonio López de Santa Anna was Mexico’s first caudillo, or great national leader. He dominated the country’s politics for more than thirty years after the war for independence, a period now known as the Age of Santa Anna. He served as president eleven brief times. Finally, like Caesar, he declared himself dictator for life. Indeed, he called himself “The Savior of the Nation,” “The Napoleon of the West,” and “His Most Serene Highness”; but he abdicated or was deposed/exiled several times as well.
Santa Anna was at times an inspiring, albeit ruthless general. In one battle, his horse was shot out beneath him three times. He rebuffed Spain’s attempt to reconquer its former colony and led his country’s defense against the first French invasion, sacrificing a leg for his troubles. Even so, he lost the Texan Revolution (captured ignominiously afterward attempting to escape dressed as a peasant) as well as The Mexican-American War (stubbornly dragging out the lost cause resulting in horrific losses on both sides; and, at the end, shamelessly abandoning Los Niños Héroes to their tragic fate). Thus, Santa Anna delivered half his country to The United States.
Santa Anna did not rule well, either. With no apparent ideology except self-aggrandizement, he changed sides repeatedly, first opposing independence, then joining Iturbide in achieving it; supporting Iturbide’s monarchy, then rising in revolt against it; enabling liberal/federal reforms, then casting them aside to pursue conservative notions of a strong, central government, powerful military, and dominating church. Along with Guerrero, he established the tragic Mexican legacy of responding to electoral defeats with military coups.
Santa Anna’s final debacle involved selling yet more land to the United States, the Gadsden Purchase, a narrow strip the US needed for the transcontinental railroad. Santa Anna claimed the $10 million payment was essential to rebuild the army, but he squandered or pocketed most of it, and was soon overthrown/exiled for the last time in the Revolution of Ayutla (which began La Reforma).
Santa Anna’s amputated leg makes for a colorful story. He dug it up and brought it back to Mexico City in a parade, reburying it with full military honors. (He wept during the sycophantic eulogies.) Later, during the Mexican-American war, he lost his prosthetic replacement as well. It is still on display as a war prize in the Illinois State Military Museum.
Santa Anna died a poor, blind, cast-aside cripple…having left Mexico broke and in political disarray.
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