|José Antonio López de Santa Ana|
Generally unscrupulous and invariably self-serving, from 1833 to 1855 he occupied the country’s highest political office at least 11 times (depending on how one counts and the criteria one uses). His extensive network of loyal clients and allies, combined with his keen political acumen made him one of the nation’s most important political players throughout the early republican period, sometimes dubbed the “Age of Santa Ana.”
Born in Jalapa, Veracruz, on February 21, 1794, Santa Ana joined the Spanish military at age 16, when he became an officer cadet in his home state’s Fixed Infantry Regiment. After a stint in the north, he returned to Veracruz in 1815 as a sublieutenant conducting counterinsurgency operations against the various bands then harassing the Spanish forces.
It was in Veracruz, among the criminals and vagabonds who filled the ranks of his regiment, that Santa Ana began to hone his vaunted interpersonal skills. For five years, between 1815 and 1820, in the steamy jungles and rocky sierras of his home state, he conducted search-and-destroy operations against insurgent bands, gaining a large personal following and earning a reputation as an effective and charismatic military leader.
With the formation of Agustín de Iturbide’s “Army of the Three Guarantees” in 1821 Santa Ana abandoned his royalist allegiance and joined the independence movement. It was the first of several such about-faces that characterized his subsequent political and military career.
In 1823 two years after allying with Iturbide, he put himself at the head of the revolt that ousted the vainglorious emperor, his Plan de Casa Mata and successful uprising making him the darling of the liberals, who ruled Mexico for the next 13 years.
The period of liberal dominance generated an accumulation of grievances on the part of the military, the Church, and other conservative elements. Sensing the impending backlash, Santa Ana was elected president as a liberal in 1833, retired to his Veracruz estate, and put himself at the head of the conservative revolt that followed.
From 1833 until his fall from power in the mid1850s, his politics can be generally described as conservative and centralist, though mainly they were pro–Santa Ana. He accumulated fantastic wealth, and as head of state devised many elaborate rituals, ceremonies, and titles to honor his heroism and grandeur.
His final fall from power came in the aftermath of Mexico’s humiliating defeat in the Mexican American War of 1846–48, despite subsequent attempts to resurrect himself and his brief return to power in 1853–55. Convicted of treason after the liberal “Revolution of Ayutla” that ousted him in 1855, he was sentenced to permanent exile, though was allowed to return to his homeland in 1874.
He died a broken man two years later. Despite the central role played by Santa Ana in the political tumult of the new Mexican nation-state, scholars widely agree that he was more a symptom than a cause of the period’s chronic political instability.