Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2015
Lázaro Cárdenas del Río (1895-1970). When Lázaro was born on May 21, 1895 in the little village of Jiquilpande Juárez, Michoacán, no one could have predicted that this first son of Dámaso would become the most controversial president in twentieth-century Mexican history. The family, which numbered eight children, lived in a small, adobe house and drew the bulk of its income from the family grocery store, to which a billiard parlor was attached. The Cárdenas family was well known in the village, for men congregated in the little billiard room to discuss the events of the day and others turned to Dámaso for his folk medicine skills, learned from the native Indian population. Part Indian themselves, the Cárdenas family respected the common people from whose stock they had sprung. They were just one of many such families of the latter years of the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, a dictatorship in the average Mexican counted for little. They struggled to live at the subsistence level and entertained little hope that life would ever be significantly better.
The family pinned its modest hopes on Lázaro, encouraging the child in his seriousness and sense of responsibility. Mexican families, of all social classes, educated male children before female children (if at all) and demanded that the eldest male child prepare himself to head the family in case the father died. Thus, Lázaro was sent to elementary school. The somber and serious child accepted his familial responsibilities without complaint. He studied hard and listened carefully to the words of the liberal Hilario Fajardo, who taught him why villagers were being exploited by the national social and political elites. Fajardo also passed on his anticlerical views, warning of the dangers of a state-supported church and the corruption of the clergy. At age eleven, Lázaro went to work in a print shop, the private business of the local tax collector, becoming a printer's devil. Although his formal education ended with elementary school (there was no secondary school in the village), he continued to learn from this job. As a young adolescent, he joined the local militia where he began learning the military skills which would eventually make him a major force in Mexican politics.
The Mexican Revolution gave talented, ambitious men and boys the opportunity to prove their merit on the field of battle and control the nation as it destroyed the political and social dictatorship created by Porfirio Díaz. Military ability mattered more than educational and social background, for those who commanded victorious armies prospered. There was so much fighting and devastation that one million persons (6.67% of the population) lost their lives between 1910 and 1920. Díaz fled the country in 1911, succeeded by the civilian Francisco I. Madero, who was overthrown and murdered at the behest ofVictoriano Huerta. General Venustiano Carranza led a coalition of generals to drive Huerta out of Mexico in 1914 but then fought a civil war first against rival generals as each sought to control as much as possible. Those who survived possessed both political and military skill. They trusted fellow Revolutionary generals, not civilians, and Mexico would not have another civilian president until 1946.
Political violence continued in the 1920s although at a very reduced level. In 1920, Carranza was overthrown by General Plutarco Calles and General Alvaro Obregón, former allies, because they resented his efforts to keep his clique in power. The Calles-Obregón era (Calles was president for 1920-24, Obregón for 1924-28) was a time of consolidation and prosperity but it, too, was marked by violent rebellion as General Adolfo de la Huerta, a former ally, unsuccessfully revolted against the government in 1923 and conservative Catholics fought and lost a war (the cristero rebellion of 1926-29) against the anticlerical provisions of the Constitution.
In 1913, the eighteen-year-old Lázaro Cárdenas took the first step on the long, tortuous path that would lead him to meet and, eventually, surpass all of these Revolutionary leaders. He joined the nearby army of General Guillermo Garcia Aragon, doing it in what became typical Cárdenas style. Serving as the temporary village jailer, he persuaded the lone prisoner to join him in fighting for the common man. Because he had some education and military training (few Mexicans had either), General Garcia Aragon commissioned him as a 2nd captain and made him paymaster. Lázaro was honest; throughout his long military career, he never stole money, unlike many other Revolutionary officers, who became rich. Even as a general, when almost no one would dare question his actions, he returned unused monies to the public treasury. His honesty played an important role in his emergence as a national leader.
Cárdenas fought courageously and wisely and always on the side of those he believed would help the common person. When the Huerta army beat and scattered the Garcia Aragon forces, Cárdenas returned home and hid until Revolutionary forces again went on the offensive. In 1914, he joined an army of Obregón which was fighting Pancho Villa in neighboring Jalisco state. He helped take the state capital of Guadalajara and moved eastward to fight in the mountains surrounding Mexico City. His success earned him promotion to major in the 22nd Cavalry regiment. In 1914-15, there was a lull in the fighting as Revolutionary leaders tried to settle their differences peacefully. When the fighting renewed, Lt. Colonel Cárdenas linked up with the Calles army at Agua Prieta on March 27, 1915. He was soon promoted to colonel. Colonel Cárdenas supported Calles and Obregón when they decided to overthrow the Carranza government in 1920. When they won, he was named interim governor of Michoacán.
Loyal, honest Cárdenas returned to soldiering after that short stint in the civilian political arena, supporting the government against its enemies. When General de la Huerta revolted in 1923, Cárdenas fought him. Captured at the Battle of Teocuitcatlán, he escaped execution because his captors respected his courage and professionalism. He did not execute his prisoners, and he had often walked alone into enemy encampments to persuade opponents to surrender rather than face certain defeat and death. He did not want to kill men like himself, men who had bee swept up in the maelstrom of the Revolution. Released, he soon returned to battle. In 1924, at the age of twenty-nine, he was promoted to brigadier general, the youngest in Mexican history. The thin, long-faced, shopkeeper's son had become an important man in his nation. In 1925, he was given command of the very important Tampico military zone, where foreign corporations owned the vast oil fields which made Mexico one of the world's largest oil producers. Years later, as President, Cárdenas would nationalize those oil companies but, as zone commander, his job was to protect them. In 1928, he was made general of division and participated in his last military command, this time against the cristero rebels.
Because Michoacán was a principal site of the cristero rebellion, Calles arranged the election of Cárdenas to the governorship for the 1928-32 term. The young general was loyal and anticlerical, although not as rabidly so as Calles. As governor, Cárdenas began fulfilling the promises of the Mexican Revolution. He redistributed land to the peasantry. He built roads, irrigation works, and schools and initiated drainage projects to increase the amount of arable land. Moreover, "Tata" (Uncle) Cárdenas genuinely cared about the people. He listened to what they said they wanted and then tried to help them get it. When his term ended, he quietly went back to the military, serving brief terms as Secretary of War and Navy and then as commander of the 19th military zone in Puebla state. He seemed to lack political ambition.
Political tensions brought Cárdenas back into civilian politics in 1933, for the political bosses, led by Calles, needed a loyal presidential candidate devoted to the Revolutionary ideals and noted for honesty. Most of the Revolutionary promises has been unfulfilled and the nation was controlled by a corrupt and conservative political machine. In 1929, Calles organized the National Revolutionary Party (PNR) as a government-backed political machine to divide the political spoils among the nation's strongmen. Only PNR candidates could get elected to public office. Cárdenas served as president of the Central Executive Committee of the PNR in 1930-31 and was thus well-known among the nation's politicians. Calles controlled the PNR and the three Mexican presidents between 1928 and 1934, however, and he and his friends were more interested in enriching themselves than tackling national problems. Wits referred to the Cuernavaca street where Calles and his friends built luxurious homes as the street of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. " By 1933, the year the PNR candidate was chosen for the 1934 presidential election, Mexico, like so many countries in the world, was in the depths of an economic depression. Social reformers and revolutionaries blamed Mexican capitalism for the suffering and demanded dramatic changes during the national PNR convention in 1933. In this context, the thirty-eight-year-old Cárdenas seemed the perfect choice, for he was a Revolutionary general, a former governor, honest, loyal, and a social reformer.
Cárdenas served notice immediately that he represented fundamental change, but Calles missed the signals. He mistakenly thought he could control the young, apolitical general. The 1934 presidential election was a foregone conclusion; the PNR candidate would win. Cárdenas, however, campaigned across the nation in 1933-34 as if the outcome were in doubt. He visited villages and small towns as well as metropolitan centers. He listened carefully to what people said and took notes. By the time he was elected, he had established his own identity, and had made himself one of the nation's best known people. Upon taking office, he chose to live in his own middle-class home in Mexico City rather than in the sumptuous presidential palace. He cut his salary in half. He reserved one day a week as a time when anyone, even the lowliest, could obtain a personal audience. His concern for the common people became legendary. In one oft-repeated tale, Cárdenas' secretary presented the president with a stack of official documents and a telegram. As he read each official communique (each dealing with a major national crisis), Cárdenas would refer the matter to the appropriate cabinet officer. When he read the telegram from Pedro Juan of the village of Huitzlipituzco, in which Pedro lamented that his corn dried up, his burro died, his sow was stolen, and his baby was sick, Cárdenas, according to this story, ordered the presidential train made ready so he could go to Huitzlipituzco at once! Unlike the austere, conservative, and corrupt Calles, Tata Cárdenas cared.
He cared enough to destroy the great haciendas and redistribute land to the peasantry, as the Revolution demanded and the Constitution required. Cárdenas redistributed almost twice as much land (forty-nine million acres) as all his predecessors combined. Most of the land was distributed in the form of ejidos, communal or collective farms, for there was not enough arable land to satisfy all those who wanted it. To finance ejidal production, Cárdenas created the Ejidal Credit Bank. To give farmers a greater political voice with which to protect their interests, he encouraged the creation of the National Farmers' Confederation (CNC). Agricultural production dropped with these drastic changes in the countryside but the hacienda system was forever broken and the average Mexican had a positive stake in the government.
Cárdenas introduced sweeping changes in public education as well. Spending on public education increased and then increased again. He implemented the recent constitutional amendment that required that all education be "socialist" in nature, but dropped a proposal to teach sex education. Conservatives and church officials opposed his educational programs so vehemently that in part of the nation they and pro-socialist education groups maimed and killed each other. At the state level, some governors began closing church-owned schools, which were forbidden by the constitution. Cárdenas was not trying to create a socialist society, however. He was trying to force the teaching of math, science, technology, and social science, that is, subjects which help the nation develop economically.
Cárdenas knew that Calles and his supporters would oppose these bold changes and that the army was the biggest threat to the reform program, so he quietly took control of the army. He increased spending on military education, emphasizing that a professional army stayed out of politics. He cultivated army officers, especially those in the lower ranks, giving his supporters the best assignments. In 1935, sure of army support, he began replacing pro-Calles cabinet officers with his own supporters. Calles protested publicly, hinting that Cárdenas might be overthrown. Cárdenas ordered Calles and close associates arrested and exiled from the nation.
With Calles gone, Cárdenas increased his support of organized labor in order to give urban workers higher incomes and more power. Under Calles, the strongest national labor union had been the CROM (Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers) but it had become corrupt under the leadership of Luis Morones, a Calles henchmen. Vicente Lombardo Toledano, a Marxist, convinced Cárdenas to support his CTM (Mexican Workers' Federation). Labor prospered under Cárdenas, for his government supported labor unions both during strikes and through government-appointed arbitration boards.
To institutionalize this increased power of farmers and workers, Cárdenas abolished the PNR and created the Mexican Revolutionary Party (PRM). Instead of using geographical representation, the new party had four sectors: agriculture, labor, military, and "popular." The CNC formed the core of the agricultural sector, the CTM that of the labor sector. The military was too strong to be excluded from formal participation in party politics. The popular sector was more amorphous. It included government employees' unions but also individuals who were not in one of the other sectors. This occupational representation, with the emphasis on workers and peasants, reminded some of Communism while to others it smacked of fascism. It was neither.
Cárdenas was reorganizing Mexico to insure that everyone had some say in how decisions were made. With the creation of the PRM, most Mexicans were represented, directly or indirectly, by this government-sponsored political party. The Roman Catholic Church, which had opposed the Revolution, had its own organizational structure and means to have its views heard. In addition, Cárdenas established cordial personal relations with the Mexican archbishop, thus reducing tensions between the Church and State. All but the smallest businesses were required to join the Confederation of Chambers of Commerce while industrialists became members of the Confederation of Mexican Chambers of Industries. Thus, private enterprise, which opposed the Cárdenas program, also had pressure groups with which to lobby the government and Cárdenas listened to them as well.
Cárdenas' most dramatic act, one which virtually every Mexican supported, was his March 18, 1938 expropriation of most foreign oil companies. This act appealed to Mexican nationalism. The petroleum workers' union sought higher wages and better working conditions. To settle the dispute, the government forced the union and the companies into compulsory arbitration. When the arbitration board ruled in favor of the union, the companies appealed to the Supreme Court, where they also lost. Rather than accept defeat, the companies questioned Cárdenas' honesty, began appealing to public opinion, both in Mexico and abroad, and refused to obey the law. Cárdenas had planned to find a compromise until this direct challenge to his integrity and Mexican law. Angered, he expropriated the companies involved. Mexicans of all classes quickly began contributing money and other valuables to help pay the costs and cheered this sign of Mexican economic independence. When the oil companies tried to provoke foreign intervention in Mexican affairs and tried to prevent the new government oil monopoly, Petróleos Méxicanos (PEMEX) from selling oils or buying supplies, nationalistic fervor grew.
The oil expropriation was the high point of Cárdenas' term of office, for he grew more cautious during his last two years in office. Political opposition was growing rapidly. He was worried about the growing belligerency of fascist governments in the world. The United States under Franklin D. Roosevelt certainly was, so much so that FDR supported Mexico, a needed ally, against the oil companies. Agricultural, industrial, and petroleum production were dropping while prices soared. His anticlerical stance had produced strong protests by the devout. Traditionalists detested his giving refuge to leftist exiles from the Spanish Civil War 1936-39) for fear that they would subvert Mexican ideas. Heeding the political trends, Cárdenas surprised the nation by choosing General Manuel Avila Camacho, a political moderate and practicing Catholic, as his successor. To leftists, the Mexican Revolution died when Avila Camacho became president in 1940.
By Donald J. Mabry
Camp, Roderic. Mexican Political Biographies, 1935-1981. Tucson, University of Arizona Press, 1982.
Meyer, Michael and William Sherman, The Course of Mexican History, 3rd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Johnson, William Weber. Heroic Mexico. Garden City, NY, Doubleday & Company, 1968.
Weyl, Nathaniel and Sylvia, The Reconquest of Mexico: The Years of Lázaro Cárdenas. New York, Oxford University Press, 1939.
Townsend, William Cameron. Lázaro Cárdenas, Mexican Democrat. Ann Arbor, George Wahr Pub. Co., 1952.
Ashby, Joe C. Organized Labor and the Mexican Revolution under Lázaro Cárdenas. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1967.
Mabry, Donald J. Mexico's Acción Nacional: A Catholic Alternative to Revolution. Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 1973.
Hamilton, Nora. The Limits of State Autonomy: Post-Revolutionary Mexico. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1982.