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President Lázaro Cárdenas

During the six year period known as the Maximato, former President Plutarco Elías Calles (1924-28) exercised behind-the-scenes control over Mexican politics through the actions of three presidents who were essentially his puppets. As the election for the 1934-40 presidential sexenio approached, Calles came under increasing pressure from the left wing of the PNR to pursue with more vigor the social welfare provisions of the constitution of 1917. Seeking to avoid a party split, Calles mollified his party's left wing by nominating Lázaro Cárdenas, a popular state governor, to succeed Rodríguez. Cárdenas had participated in the revolutionary conflict as a constitutionalist military officer, achieving the rank of brigadier general. While governor of his home state of Michoacán, Cárdenas gained recognition for his support of public education and his good relationship with organized labor and peasant organizations. Cárdenas's modest efforts at land reform at the state level earned him a reputation as a populist. Calles, although wary of Cárdenas, nevertheless expected the new president to fall into line much as his three predecessors had done.

Cárdenas immediately showed his independence by becoming the first Mexican president to campaign for office. Once in office, he began his sexenio by adopting several popular measures. He reduced his presidential salary and decided not to move into the national palace, he ordered a resumption of land reform on an unprecedented scale, and he expressed tacit support for a wave of urban strikes. Calles followed these developments with unease, and soon sought to undermine the new president's authority. A definitive break occurred between Calles and Cárdenas when the new president fired many of Calles's followers in the federal bureaucracy and closed down a network of gambling houses owned by Calles's associates. It became apparent that Calles had underestimated Cárdenas's commitment to reform and his political skills. Calles's open opposition to Cárdenas finally earned the former leader forced exile to the United States in 1936. Conservatives from San Luis Potosí staged a rebellion in protest, but the military remained loyal to the president and brought the revolt under control.

General Lázaro Cárdenas, who assumed the presidency in 1934, divided the Secretariat of War and the Navy into two autonomous defense ministries, the Secretariat of National Defense (Secretaría de Defensa Nacional), which controlled the army and air force, and the Secretariat of the Navy (Secretaría de Marina Armada). As the possibility of Mexican involvement in World War II increased, Cárdenas drafted the Law of National Military Service, which established, through a lottery system, compulsory basic military training for eighteen-year-old males.

Land reform was one of Cárdenas's major accomplishments. In the course of six years, he distributed almost 18 million hectares--more than twice as much land as all of his predecessors combined--to two-thirds of the Mexican peasantry through the system of communal farms or ejidos. Even though agriculture suffered an initial setback because of the loss of economies of scale and a lack of resources and credit, the redistribution proved tremendously popular with the majority of the Mexican people and earned Cárdenas a special place in Mexican history.

Church relations also improved during Cárdenas's presidency. Key was the intervention of Luis María Martínez, archbishop of Mexico. Martínez encouraged Roman Catholics to be more sensitive to the social and economic welfare of society, even though national education continued to be secular and had become socialist in its emphasis. The labor movement also received Cárdenas's attention. The president supported Vicente Lombardo Toledano, a Marxist who reorganized labor into the Confederation of Mexican Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores Mexicanos--CTM). The old CROM had become corrupt through the years, and the CTM became the new, quasi-official representative of Mexican workers, developing programs and pushing for improvement of working conditions and minimum wage schedules. Cárdenas also reorganized the official Mexican party, the PNR, to broaden its political base. The party was renamed the Party of the Mexican Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Mexicana--PRM), and membership expanded to include representatives of four corporately defined "sectors" of Mexican society: labor, agrarian, military, and popular. The agrarian sector consisted of peasants and rural laborers, and the popular sector included the small but growing middle class, civil servants, and small-scale merchants.

Cárdenas's boldest act was his expropriation in March 1938 of all foreign oil operations on Mexican territory. In response to a strike by oil workers seeking higher wages, the government intervened on their behalf, demanding that the mostly United States-owned companies share more of their technical and managerial expertise with Mexican nationals. When the companies failed to comply with the worker-training demand, Cárdenas issued his sweeping expropriation of all foreign oil operations. Compensation was based on the underreported "book" value of the properties. The expropriation, which Cárdenas considered a natural outcome of the constitutional claim to national ownership of all subsoil resources, temporarily disrupted commerce between Mexico and the United States. Nationalization, however, won Cárdenas widespread praise both within Mexico and throughout Latin America, where nationalist sentiment against foreign commercial interests ran high.

In November 1941, on the eve of United States entry into World War II, Mexico and the United States finally settled their differences over the expropriated properties. Although it was a significant political victory for Cárdenas, the oil expropriation cost Mexico dearly in terms of capital flight and foreign investment. For nearly twenty years, the new national petroleum company, Mexican Petroleum (Petróleos Mexicanos--Pemex) suffered from inadequate technical expertise and outdated equipment.

By the end of his term in 1940, Cárdenas had dramatically transformed the Mexican political system. Continuing the legacy of executive predominance begun by Calles, Cárdenas further augmented presidential power by subordinating the entire apparatus of the official party under the chief executive. In addition, Cárdenas expanded the role of the state in Mexican society, establishing patron-client relationships among various state agencies and the corporately defined interest groups. The "institutionalization" of the Revolution resulted in a situation in which the state became the sole mediator among competing interest groups and the final arbiter of political disputes.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:01:22 ZULU