North Americans who identify Santa Anna only with the Alamo and San Jacinto may be surprised to learn that he was once the Governor of Yucatán. His major project while in that office was raising an army to invade Cuba.
Hero and villain, Antonio López de Santa Anna — or with complete formality, Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón — spent only a year in Yucatán but dominated the history of Mexico for a quarter of a century.
Early in his very long career, Santa Anna performed with bravery and distinction during the War of Independence. He began in the Spanish army, but in 1821 went over to the other side, with Agustín de Iturbide and the Insurgents. He supported Iturbide as Emperor. Then, discovering republican convictions, he switched his loyalty to the generals seeking to overthrow Iturbide, leading two revolts within six months. Sensing the ascendancy of the Federalist faction headed by Guadalupe Victoria, Santa Anna threw his support to them, participated in several more minor revolts, and was placed under house arrest. The leaders of the new republic valued his contributions but were unsure how to handle this firebrand and his fickle allegiances.
In 1824 Vicente Guerrero, member of the triumvirate leading the provisional government, “rewarded” Santa Anna by sending him to distant Yucatán as military commander. Yucatán was badly in need of a firm hand, but the assignment was really a kind of exile to get him out of the way while the republican government tried to organize itself.
Santa Anna left his estate near Xalapa on April 29, sailed from Veracruz on May 17, and arrived in Campeche on May 18, 1824. The young general undertook his new job enthusiastically but must have found it difficult to be optimistic. Yucatán at the time was the poorest state in the nation, and Santa Anna was shocked by the poverty he found in Campeche. Arriving in Mérida on June 21, he found conditions there even worse. He sent a dispatch to Mexico requesting emergency financial aid, which he judged essential to keep Yucatán from leaving the central government. The concern was real. Central America had seceded from Mexico the year before.
Compounding the economic problems in the isolated peninsula was the rivalry between Campeche and Mérida. The cities had developed a profound dislike for each other and were close to open warfare. Campeche, having trade and cultural connections with Veracruz, supported union with Mexico. Mérida’s relations were primarily with Havana, and Mexico had banned trade with Spanish-controlled Cuba. The ban was not being enforced, but many Meridanos favored continuing relations with Spain and independence from Mexico. The Campeche faction tried to force the state legislature to obey the federal trade directive, which would have spelled ruin for Mérida. Mérida marched an army down to Campeche and laid siege to the town council.
On Santa Anna’s arrival, Mérida withdrew the troops. He urged the factions to seek reconciliation, back away from civil war, and unite in resistance against Spain. He found merit in Mérida’s protests and agreed to a temporary suspension of the trade ban. This won support in Mérida and the state congress, opposition in Campeche, and conflict with the state governor, who resigned. Congress elected Santa Anna as replacement governor, and he took the oath of office on July 20, barely two months after his arrival. He made heavy-handed efforts to suppress opposition and control the press, which temporarily diminished the flames of conflict. Pleas to Mexico to send funds for defense and public works went unanswered.
In January 1825 the federal government finally required an end to trade with Cuba. This seemed like a disaster for Mérida, and the state legislature turned against the governor. Santa Anna’s response was typically impetuous, with little thought about consequences: To restore trade, he vowed to invade Cuba with a Yucatecan army and liberate the island from Spanish rule.
Spain had not recognized Mexican independence and remained committed to regaining possession of its former colony. The fortress of San Juan de Ulúa, controlling the important harbor at Veracruz, remained in Spanish hands, a constant worry to the new nation. Mexico declared war on Spain in October 1823 after Spain bombarded Veracruz from San Juan de Ulúa. As a leading citizen of Veracruz, Santa Anna was strongly motivated to cut off supplies to the fortress from Cuba.
With no authorization or funding from Mexico City, Santa Anna raised an army of five hundred men and awaited orders to sail from Campeche in the spring. The Cuba project, although officially ignored or characterized as absurd, doubtless received clandestine support. For the political class in Mexico City, success of the venture would be a great victory for Mexico, and failure would rid them of the troublesome Santa Anna. What is more, a secret society — Águila Negra — was scheming for Cuban independence, and its leader in Mexico was none other than Guadalupe Victoria, soon to become the first president of the Mexican Republic. Santa Anna was undertaking an action that others had not dared.
But the plan ran solidly into international opposition. The United States, Britain, and France all had designs on Cuba and to maintain peace among themselves had decided that Spain should keep it for the time being. They certainly did not want a revolutionary Latin American country to take it over. Only Colombia showed some interest in helping and proposed to invade Puerto Rico, but this fell through because of a local revolution.
The U.S. Minister to Mexico, Joel Poinsett, took seriously the rumors of an imminent invasion from Yucatán. Mexico received a stern diplomatic message from Washington asserting in no uncertain terms that if any New World power was going to take Cuba it would be the United States.
Frustrated by international pressures, his dream of glory as liberator of Cuba dashed, Santa Anna requested permission to leave Yucatán. Fearing that he might actually attempt an invasion despite orders, President Guadalupe Victoria recalled him in April 1825. He received a semblance of punishment to assuage the United States and was given the prestigious post of Director of Army Engineers. His lack of qualifications for the assignment was obvious, and he found the job so boring that he resigned almost immediately.
Among Santa Anna’s first acts on returning home to his estate near Xalapa was to marry fourteen-year-old Inés de la Paz García y Martínez Uzcanga, who brought him a very substantial dowry.
Santa Anna’s time in Yucatán revealed much about his nature, which remained consistent through his career — his disinterest in governing or politics, his quest for adventure, his audacity. In fairness, he was not completely unsuccessful with the difficult assignment in Yucatán. He left the peninsula in peace — a significant accomplishment given the rivalry between Mérida and Campeche. He did not oppose the liberal state constitution of 1824. The trade sanctions proved less disastrous for Mérida than feared.
Hailed as hero after repelling a Spanish invasion at Tampico in 1829, Santa Anna became president for the first time in 1833. He did not bother to attend his inauguration. During a period of twenty years, he was president eleven times, occupying and abandoning the office at will. He determined the destiny of the nation even though he actually held office for only a total of six years, uninterested as always in administrative matters. Presidents followed one another in rapid succession, some holding office for just a few days, essentially place-holders until Santa Anna’s next return. He stirred divisions between political factions and led insurrections, all with little ideological basis, repeatedly returning to save the nation from the chaos he created. Under his leadership, Mexico experienced a series of international conflicts that resulted in loss of half the nation’s land area.
How did he do it? Fascinating and charismatic, Santa Anna was an unequalled opportunist, completely without political principles. He easily adapted to and manipulated whatever opinion was dominant. His only concern was to be on the winning side, and changing allegiances never troubled him. Although he was impetuous in battle and paid no attention to strategy, he was often victorious because he was audacious and brave, inspiring confidence in his troops.
Enrique Krauze, historian and all-round public intellectual, characterizes Santa Anna as “all frivolousness, thoughtlessness, rashness, impetuosity, and improvisation,” a man whose pursuits were “gambling, womanizing, cockfighting, delivering speeches, flattery, and forging commercial documents,” who “gave a thousand or so dazzling speeches in which it is hard to find one sincere phrase or even a glimmer of authenticity.”
In his last term as president, Santa Anna behaved as king, giving himself over to every excess of ostentation, military parades, and glorious uniforms. He issued decrees and imposed outrageous taxes — on wet nurses, on the number of dogs in a household. It was finally too much. In 1855 the Reform swept him out for the last time.
But in the decade before he left, Santa Anna had another significant engagement with Yucatán. In 1841, reacting to increasingly harsh centralist policies, Yucatán declared independence from Mexico. President Anastasio Bustamante assigned Santa Anna to organize an expedition to put down the rebellion. But Santa Anna, recalling with little pleasure his time in Yucatán sixteen years earlier, refused the appointment and once again retired to his estate in Veracruz. He came back again, of course, overthrew Bustamante, and spent years trying military and diplomatic approaches to bring independent Yucatán back into Mexico — but that’s another story.
By Robert D. Temple
Many memorials to Antonio López de Santa Anna exist, including his burial place in the Panteón del Tepeyac in Mexico City, although apparently there are none in Yucatán. (Mérida’s Santa Ana neighborhood — spelled with a single -n- — honors the maternal grandmother of Jesus in the Christian tradition, not Antonio.)
A solution to the long and bitter rivalry between Mérida and Campeche was to divide the Yucatán peninsula into two separate states. This was proposed during Santa Anna’s tenure in 1824 but realized only in 1862.
Mérida’s deep connections with Cuba are still evident today — from the treasured trova music to the guayabera to the José Martí Cultural Center.
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