Since 1910

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Since 1910

During the twentieth century, Mexicans experienced the world's first social revolution (1910–1946); an era of economic expansion so dramatic that it became known as the "Mexican Miracle" (1946–1982) and a time of financial, political, and natural disasters that concluded with a series of institutional and political changes that climaxed in 2000 with the election of the first president not from the revolutionary party since 1910. The overwhelming experience of the century was the revolution; its violence; and its institutionalization in government, education, the economy, and daily activities. The revolution began in 1910 as a protest against the political and economic regime of President Porfirio Díaz, who had ruled, with only a four-year gap, since 1876. Quickly it became a popular mobilization that, in many ways, reshaped government, economic activities, and even everyday life.


In 1910 the disinherited were everywhere. Despite the impressive national growth achieved in transport and exports (via mining and commercial agriculture) during the Porfirian years (1876–1911), the benefits had gone to a small group of national elites and foreigners. For the 80 percent of the 1910 population of 15 million that depended on agriculture, for the 96 percent of rural households that were landless, and for the 50 percent of the rural population tied to the great haciendas, life had become increasingly difficult. Subsistence farmers experienced continuing misery derived from their increasing descent into landlessness, a development spurred by Díaz's program of land consolidation that resulted in massive holdings that in turn led to dramatic decline in income, in corn and bean production, and ultimately in per capita consumption of these staple foods. Workers in the boom sectors of mining, transportation, utilities, and manufacturing, roughly 8 to 15 percent of the adult labor force, experienced economic contraction in the years immediately before the onset of revolution that contributed to their heightened sense of insecurity and economic jeopardy. Because the regime had been unable to attract sufficient national capital, the Díaz government permitted foreign investors to play leading roles in transport (especially railroads), mining, petroleum, industry, manufacturing, and increasingly in agriculture. This created a growing anti-foreign sentiment and provided a source of political discontent. Together these factors resulted in bitter labor conflicts, especially in the mining centers of the north. In perhaps the starkest measure of general conditions, life expectancy was only thirty years for the average Mexican. Porfirio's old, technocratic capital city associates ignored these conditions. They had developed an exclusive society and burgeoning economy based on foreign investment and on their understanding of Auguste Comte and Social Darwinian principles. The Comtian principles, incorporated into the motto of "Order and Progess," promoted economic development and political continuity and justified programs that excluded, criminalized, or ignored provincial, rural, worker, and indigenous groups across the nation, creating a disenfranchised and disadvantaged national community.

Initially, the eighty-year-old Díaz announced he would not stand for reelection in 1910, allowing other candidates to emerge. Anti-Porfirian opposition coalesced around Francisco Madero, from the northern state of Coahuila, and quickly gained supporters from across the nation. Madero's followers, who would become revolutionaries, were generally young, ambitious individuals from outside the capital city. They joined Madero in his opposition to the continuation of the Porfirian regime. Madero, himself a wealthy landowner from the north, had an agenda for political reform including no reelection of the president and effective suffrage, that is, honest voting, by the nation's voters. His supporters included disaffected provincials from nearly all classes who believed that Díaz's government offered them little opportunity for political or economic participation. Díaz's modernization project had excluded provincial elites while benefiting his inner circle. Díaz, after reversing his decision not to run again for president, ended Madero's presidential campaign by having him arrested.

Madero Becomes President

Following Díaz's successful sixth reelection in July 1910, Madero escaped house arrest, fled into exile in the United States, and issued a call for revolution in his Plan of San Luis Potosí that designated November 20, 1910 as the date for the insurrection to begin. On that day, what became the revolution barely sputtered into life, with action being taken only by tiny rebel groups led by Pascual Orozco and Pancho Villa in the state of Chihuahua; quickly, other small bands of rebels began dotting the countryside. These individuals were determined to reclaim the nation for all Mexicans. The widespread emergence of rebellions, even though each involved only small numbers of rebels, shattered both the complacency and the confidence of the president. In April 1911 the Madero forces in Chihuahua defeated federal troops and the following month entered Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, giving them a port of entry to the United States through which to import guns and ammunition and mobilize recruits. Facing the growing insurrectionary forces that had sprung up across the country and the rebel victory at Ciudad Juárez, Díaz resigned the presidency and left for exile in Paris.

Madero, elected president in 1911 on a platform of moderate political reform, quickly disappointed those within his coalition who wanted an agenda of radical social change. Revolutionary forces with a variety of social and economic goals launched a series of local rebellions that rejected Madero's cautious political reforms and demanded major social programs, in particular, land and labor reforms. The president also earned the bitter opposition of leaders of rural-based rebellions, including Emiliano Zapata of Morelos, whose call for land for those who worked it was put forward in the November 1911 Plan of Ayala, and the northern leader Pascual Orozco, who had fought for even more ambitious social reforms. Revolts by these two were followed by other rebellions against Madero's authority. Madero placed General Victoriano Huerta in charge of defeating the rebel forces. Despite Huerta's connections with anti-democratic, conservative interests, many tied to the Díaz camp, he ultimately forged an alliance with elements of the rebel forces he had been attempting to quell, declaring his intention to restore order and stability and to safeguard the nation's integrity. Huerta had the support of the U.S. ambassador, Henry Lane Wilson, who had bitterly opposed Madero's rule, actively threatening intervention and eventually participating in actions that led to a coup against the president. Huerta overthrew the Madero regime in February 1913 and connived at Madero's assassination on February 22.

Population:108,700,891 (2007 est.)
Area:761,606 sq mi
Official languages:Spanish
Languages:Spanish, Nahuatl, Maya, Zapotec, Otomi, and Mixtec
National currency:Mexican peso (MXN)
Principal religions:Roman Catholic, 76.5%; Protestant, 6.3%
Ethnicity:mestizo (Amerindian-Spanish), 60%; Amerindian or predominantly Amerindian, 30%; white, 9%; other, 1%
Capital:Mexico City (est. pop. 18,660,000 in 2005)
Other urban centers:Ciudad Juárez, Guadalajara, León, Monterrey, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tijuana, Toluca, Torreón
Annual rainfall:ranges from 10 inches in Baja California to 200 inches on the southern Gulf coast; most areas away from the coast are relatively dry, especially in the north
Principal geographical features:Mountains: Cordillera Neovolcanica, includes major peaks of Orizaba (18,701 ft), Popocatépetl (17,887) and Ixtacihuatl (17,342 ft); Sierra Madre de Chiapas, Sierra Madre del Sur, Sierra Madre Occidental, Sierra Madre Oriental,
Rivers: Balsas, Río Bravo del Norte (Rio Grande)
Lakes: Chapala
Islands: Ángel de la Guarda, Cozumel, Marías, Mujeres, Tiburón
Other: Mesa Central between the Sierra Madre Occidental and Sierra Madre Oriental forms much of the northern part of the country; deserts in the north; rainforest in the south
Economy:GDP per capita: $10,700 (2006 est.)
Principal products and exports:Agricultural: coffee, cotton, fresh fruit, sugar, tobacco, tomatoes
Manufacturing: assembly, chemicals, clothing, consumer durables, food and beverages, motor vehicles, steel, petroleum, textiles
Mining: cadmium, celestite, cement, copper, fluorspar, gold, gypsum, manganese ore, molybdenum, oil, salt, silver, sulfur, zinc
Government:Independence from Spain, 1810. Constitution, 1917. Federal republic. The president is elected by popular vote for a 6-year term, and is both chief of state and head of government. The legislature is a bicameral National Congress, with a 128-seat Senate and 500-seat Federal Chamber of Deputies. Most members of both chambers are chosen through direct, popular election. Some seats are assigned based on popular votes achieved by each party. Senators serve 6-year terms, deputies serve 3-year terms. Cabinet appointed by the president, attorney general requires approval of the Senate. 31 states and 1 federal district.
Armed forces:Army: 144,000
Navy: 37,000
Air force: 11,770
Paramilitary: 11,000 Federal Representative Police; 14,000 rural defense militia
Reserves: 300,000
Transportation:Rail: 10,976 mi
Ports: Altamira, Manzanillo, Morro Redondo, Salina Cruz, Tampico, Topolobampo, Veracruz
Roads: 72,545 mi paved; 73,892 mi unpaved
Airports: 231 paved runway and 1,603 unpaved runway airports, 1 heliport; 9 major international airports
Media:Many major newspapers, including La Prensa, El Norte, El Occidental, El Sol de Tijuana, El Sol de Tampico, El Universal, and Esto. 850 AM and 545 FM radio stations. Over 200 television stations including several government-owned stations. Privately-owned Televisa and TV Azteca are the most prominent television broadcaster.
Literacy and education:Total literacy rate: 91% (2004 est.)
Ten years of education are compulsory and free, almost all children attend school. There are more than 1,550 institutions of higher learning, including Autonomous University of Guadalajara, Autonomous University of Nuevo León, Guadalajara University, Iberoamericana University, National Autonomous University and the National Polytechnic Institute.

A Three-Year Civil War

Mexico exploded with revolution as Mexicans were determined to avenge Madero (immortalized as a martyr) and to achieve a more equitable society by excluding foreign profiteers and redistributing the nation's resources. His death created a political vacuum that unleashed a new torrent of political conflict. The revolutionaries, calling themselves the Constitutionalists and led by Venuestiano Carranza, united against Huerta. For the next three years a violent civil war raged, engulfing the country in a wave of death and destruction that finally subsided in late 1916. The Constitutionalists first drove Huerta into exile in July 1914. His ability to battle the revolutionaries had been weakened by his diplomatic conflicts with U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, which had resulted in the U.S. blockade of Tampico and the invasion of that port and Veracruz in April 1914. Once the Constitutionalists forced Huerta into exile, they destroyed the federal army and turned on each other. Pancho Villa, one of the prominent rebel generals, called a convention in Aguascalientes, held in October-November 1914, that divided the Constitutionalists. The ensuing conflict dramatically illustrated the gulf that separated rival revolutionary forces, in particular the breach between the revolution's agrarian-based elements and the revolutionaries who were chiefly interested in urban, including worker, issues.

Alvaro Obregón proved to be a brilliant Constitutionalist commander who successfully defeated the armies of the convention, pushing Zapata into his home state of Morelos and Villa into Chihuahua. In a desperate act to prevent total defeat by inciting a foreign intervention that would unite all the revolutionaries, Villa attacked the town of Columbus, in the U.S. state of New Mexico. In response, the United States sent a punitive expedition into Chihuahua, led by General John J. Pershing, who with 11,000 troops unsuccessfully pursued Villa's forces for nine months. Although opposed to the U.S. intervention, other rebels refused to join with Villa. The incessant violence of the period resulted in a staggering loss of life. The bloody toll rose to at least 1.5 million deaths, roughly 10 percent of the 1910 population. The arrival of the Spanish flu epidemic in 1919 compounded the death total, and nearly a million people fled into exile, for the most part to the United States. Few Mexican families were left untouched by the fighting, and the economic cost of the conflict was devastating.

The Constitution of 1917

Obregón's victories pacified the country to the point that Carranza could hold elections, which he won in March 1917. He had convened a convention to modify the constitution in Querétaro in December 1916. Only Constitutionalists could stand as delegates; nevertheless, major revolutionary goals were expressed in the deliberations. Divisions among the delegates revealed the deep fissure between civilian and military interests, with the civilians espousing a more moderate, liberally oriented vision while the military advocated a more nationalist, statist, interventionist, even radical agenda. The Constitution of 1917 went far beyond the president's reformist inclinations and incorporated far-reaching nationalist and social reform goals—all of which required enabling legislation and enforcement, which Carranza did not seek to enact. The document enhanced the power of the central government to confront land, commercial agriculture, and mining (including foreign) and land corporations and the Roman Catholic Church. Provisions called for land reform to restore village, including indigenous, properties; to provide land to those who worked it; and to return ownership of the subsoil, and thus minerals, oil, and water rights, to the federal government. The document contained the most advanced statement on behalf of workers at the time, giving them the rights to organize and strike, arbitration, safe working conditions, fair wages, and reasonable hours; it also protected women and children workers. The constitution attempted to ensure the general well-being of the people through anti-monopoly provisions that alluded to fair costs for food, rent, and transport and other provisions that outlined education and public health programs. The delegates nationalized all church property, removed the political rights of clerics, and restricted their social activities. Overall, the new constitution set forth a nationalist agenda.


The new political order did not return the nation to peace. For the next two decades, violence continued at high levels as revolutionary military leaders dominated the government and were challenged by others. Assassinations remained commonplace, especially to eliminate presidential challengers. The list of assassinations included Zapata in 1919, Carranza in 1920, Villa in 1923, and Obregón in 1928. These were but the most prominent individuals killed.

The nation suffered from severe war-related disruptions and economic contraction as well as rapid population and urban growth, the latter due to the intensity of the war in the countryside and the continuing deprivation faced by rural people. Obregón was elected president in 1920 and remained in office until November 1924. He was the first of the Sonoran dynasty, whose members enacted the social programs called for in the constitution. He strove for economic recovery and made some progress toward agrarian reform while undertaking only a lukewarm application of the anticlerical laws. Although Obregón and his successor, Plutarco Elías Calles, showed more commitment to the agrarian agenda than had Carranza, it would not be until the 1930s, with the advent of Lázaro Cárdenas's presidency, that the agrarian sector would become the focus of serious reform. Less than a tenth of the rural population directly benefited from the reform prior to the Cárdenas regime. In part, the reluctance to pursue agrarian reform more energetically stemmed from concerns about the potential loss of production, especially in view of the global economic recession following World War I that had hurt Mexico's exports.

Restoring Central Authority

The focus of revolutionary political normalization included the restoration of central political authority, the curbing of the ambitious local political chiefs and regional bosses, and the taming of the resentful leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, a segment of which still hoped to forestall the secular transition under way in the society—although another segment believed the church should participate in the social programs. In addition, the new leaders sought to direct the development of labor and peasant organizing efforts. While the Confederación Regional Obrera Mexicana (CROM; Regional Confederation of Mexican Labor) under Luis Morones benefited from government patronage and Obregón's support, that support was designed to establish control over the organization rather than to promote its independent development. Other unions suffered government oppression, including groups linked to the Communist and anarchosyndicalist movements as well as those identified with the church. Under Obregón, labor militancy declined and the government initiated a pattern of co-optation and incorporation vis-à-vis labor that would serve as a key to regime stability for decades.

Obregón's government initiated efforts to promote both urban and rural education. The secretary of the newly created ministry of education, José Vasconcelos, developed an extensive campaign to achieve national literacy. One leading accomplishment of the Obregón period was the successful management of the always difficult relationship with the United States, effectively staving off further direct interventions and securing U.S. diplomatic recognition for the new government in 1923. The president also tried to move toward civilian control over the revolutionary army by retiring a number of powerful generals.

The Calles Presidency

In what would become a permanent feature of the political system, Obregón designated his successor, and in 1924 another of the revolutionary generals took the presidency, albeit with benefit of a "legitimizing" election. Plutarco Elías Calles ruled from 1924 to 1928 and subsequently, following the assassination of Obregón by a radical Catholic (Obregón having been reelected president for another term), had great influence during the brief presidencies of Emilio Portes Gil (1928–1930), Pascual Ortiz Rubio (1930–1932), and Abelardo Rodríguez Luján (1932–1934). Calles gave every sign of intending to perpetuate this pattern but was stymied by ill health, the strong-minded Rodríguez, and finally by independent Lázaro Cárdenas, the next military officer selected for the presidential post, who became president in 1934.

Besides having launched a series of impressive social and economic development initiatives, Calles stepped up the pace of agrarian reform, distributing three times as much land as Obregón. Even more critical for the nation's stability was his effort to impose civilian dominance over the military, reducing military spending while working to professionalize the officer class and to divorce it from political involvements. Calles's energies were also devoted to enforcing the anticlerical features of the constitution, and the government took concrete and decisive steps to dismantle the church's infrastructure in terms of personnel and property. Most critical was Calles's successful suppression of the Cristero Rebellion (1926–1929, a pro-Catholic religion uprising,) in a struggle that eventually cost at least 90,000 lives and led to a negotiated settlement of the conflicting temporal claims between the government and the church.


At the same time, Calles's self-designation as the Jefe Máximo was emblematic of the regime's marked inattention to even the veneer of political democratization; during Calles's tenure, the government grew progressively authoritarian, with power increasingly centralized in the presidency. By no means, however, was his rule entirely self-serving. Instead, Calles had a clear vision of the developmental direction the nation should take. To achieve national prosperity, he believed that the middle class would have to be substantially expanded, along with the class of small farmers. Together, these groups constituted what Calles believed to be the most promising social and economic basis for capitalist development. Among his most important economic initiatives was the creation of a central financial institution, the Banco de México, and an array of public works projects, including roads and water supplies.

Establishing the Ruling Party

One of Calles's most important political initiatives was the 1929 organization of the new official party, the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (PNR), which would undergo several name changes and reorganizations to become the present-day the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI; Institutional Revolutionary Party). Calles's initiative derived from his interest in civilianizing the regime and creating a stable basis for mediating conflict. From the outset, the official party created by Calles was never viewed as an electoral mechanism designed to contest elections, but as a vehicle for interest aggregation and conflict mediation. The creation of the party afforded competing interests within the revolutionary circle the opportunity to negotiate the critical problem of presidential succession without resort to violence. Initially, the PNR consisted of a broad coalition of military leaders, pro-government labor and agrarian leaders, and regional political bosses. Government employees were required to join the party, and most existing political parties were forced to merge with the PNR. For Calles, the PNR proved to be an important vehicle for the pursuit of his own ambition, enabling him to continue to exercise influence even after his tenure in office had ended.

The Cárdenas Presidency

Elected in 1934 as Calles's handpicked candidate, Lázaro Cárdenas was regarded as someone who would give voice to the long-deferred social agenda of the revolution without challenging the established order. As a party loyalist and former head of the PNR, as a general of the revolution, as a personal friend of Calles and minister in the Calles government, and as a political leader with an impressive record of social reform as governor (1928–1932) of Michoacán, Cárdenas was viewed as the best choice to oversee a shift in political emphasis designed to restore confidence among those disappointed by the revolution's failure to accomplish social reform. The party also provided him with a six-year plan with renewed emphasis on social reforms, already initiated to some extend by Rodríguez.

Although Mexico had begun an economic recovery in the mid-1920s, the global depression that hit in the late 1920s stalled the economy once again, with GNP falling to below pre-revolutionary levels. Cárdenas inherited an economy in 1934 that had changed little in its overall sectoral and labor composition from pre-revolutionary days. Little had been achieved in land reform except the replacement of some traditional landholders, although some land had been distributed to the new ejidos (communal holdings, individually worked). What had begun to develop was a new entrepreneurial group linked to the state.

Mexico was not immune to the cultural and communication transformations that were the vanguard of industrial modernization; the impact of such change was notable in the urban arena. Some efforts had been launched to extend education and especially to expand instruction in Spanish among indigenous, non-Spanish-speaking groups. Further, efforts had been made to begin to broaden public health services. Unfortunately, the impact of the Great Depression undercut much of the reform initiative that had been put into place.

Internationally, the critical and highly strained postwar relationship with the United States had been largely repaired as a result of the Bucareli Conferences of 1923, which resolved a number of issues related to U.S. claims against Mexico and Mexico's efforts to protect its sovereignty under the terms of the 1917 constitution. Obregón's conciliatory position toward U.S. oil companies had further patched up the relationship.

Popular Reform

Cárdenas soon showed himself willing to chart an independent course and to establish his own authority, diminishing Calles's role in the process and eventually sending the former president into exile in 1936 after a bitter dispute over the handling of labor mobilization. During his six-year rule, Cárdenas steered politics in a new direction, one that was popular-nationalist and that took a collectivist approach to agrarianism. He created a rationale for a strong role for the state as political overseer of the popular sectors in the name of their self-defense; as the promoter of collectivist ideals, especially within popular education; and as the director of the economy.

In addition to his highly vaunted agrarian reforms that succeeded in distributing twice as much land as had his revolutionary predecessors, along with the nationalization of the railroads and the petroleum industry, Cárdenas was responsible for the creation of a corporatist political structure for the inclusion of popular sectors under regime control. He revamped the official party, renaming it in 1938 the Partido de la Revolución Mexicano (PRM; Mexican Revolutionary Party), and reinforced the corporatist design within the party for sectoral incorporation. Within this framework, labor organization evolved further, and it was with Cárdenas's support that Vicente Lombardo Toledano founded in 1933 the Confederación General de Obreros y Campesinos de México (CGOCM; General Confederation of Workers and Peasants of Mexico) and organized a new labor group, the Confederación de Trabajadores de México (CTM; Confederation of Mexican Workers). In a similar vein, the Confederación Nacional Campesina (CNC; National Peasant Confederation) was created, pulling together a broad variety of autonomous peasant organizations into an officially sponsored peasant confederation, another pillar of solid support for the regime.

On other fronts, Cárdenas pursued bold reforms that addressed the unmet expectations for the defense of national sovereignty. The nationalization of the railroads served as precedent for the nationalization all foreign-owned petroleum companies in March 1938, following years of labor disputes in the sector, largely involving U.S. companies. His seizure of these companies catapulted Cárdenas's popularity to new heights while souring relations with the United States and other nations. Cárdenas's initiatives in agriculture, in the labor sector, and with respect to foreign investment had a decisively chilling effect upon domestic and foreign private investment that persisted throughout his regime, provoking the emergence of a substantial economic difficulties. Nevertheless, despite difficulties in traditional sectors such as mining, oil, and agriculture, manufacturing production increased.

Cárdenas devoted considerable energy to the task of further subordinating the armed forces to civilian political authority. He succeeded in continuing the trend toward the centralization of political authority and the diminution of regional power. Cárdenas ultimately became one of the most influential architects of modern political evolution, incorporating popular groups and giving voice to nationalist sentiment.

The Results of Reform

Nevertheless, by 1938 Cárdenas recognized that the redistributive program alone could not bring national prosperity, so he launched a campaign of industrial development and the promotion of entrepreneurial interests within the private sector. By the end of the Cárdenas era, agriculture accounted for 10 percent of GNP, although fully 80 percent of the population remained in the countryside (albeit with larger numbers now living in rural towns and villages). The national population had risen to roughly 20 million. The percentage of illiterates in the population had declined, although the absolute number had increased. Rising numbers of indigenous people had adopted Spanish as a second language, thereby improving their educational prospects. Despite the land reform, some improvements in electrification and transportation, and the Cardenista focus on education, especially in rural areas, most people continued to suffer the poverty of traditional rural life and were excluded from the nation's modernization. For the urban population, substantial modernization was achieved as income became concentrated in manufacturing and industry.

This was also an era of cultural flowering, known as the golden age of the national film, radio, and recording industries. Many stars emerged, especially singers of both boleros and rancheros. The revolution affected all of the arts and literature, especially those related to the new mass media.

The Camacho Presidency

Manuel Ávila Camacho's victory in 1940 over the opposition candidate Juan Andreu Almazán. Cárdenas's selection of Ávila Camacho, his minister of war with a reputation as a moderate, a traditionalist, and a Catholic, reflected growing concerns about the state of the economy and the belief that more pragmatic, less politicized policies would have to be adopted in the economic realm. Ávila Camacho's administration (1940–1946) marked the continuation of Cárdenas's move toward industrialization and economic growth as necessary prerequisites for further social reform. The development of the national finance bank, Nacional Financiera (NAFIN), contributed to these efforts, and by the end of the Ávila Camacho administration, national income had tripled. Dramatic policy shifts, including the adoption of a less accommodating approach to labor and its entitlements, opened the door to direct foreign investment.

Internationally, in 1942 Mexico became one of two Latin American states to declare war against Germany, following shipping losses at German hands. Mexico's cooperation with the Allied war effort drew a favorable U.S. response and led the way to military cooperation with the United States. The Mexican Squadron 201 fought in the Pacific and won accolades for its valor. Also, the United States and Mexico agreed on the pathbreaking bracero program, which sent Mexicans as guest workers to the United States. Domestically, production grew in industry and manufacturing, helping to boost national income. Growth was notable in iron, textiles, beer, food processing, chemicals, and cement. Mexican entrepreneurs sought to become self-sufficient, in particular in manufactures utilized domestically.


The administration of Miguel Alemán (1946–1952) represented a change in generations, with younger men coming into government who were not veterans of the revolution. This young, civilian president sharply curtailed military spending and strongly emphasized the nation's economic development, shaping a protectionist strategy to stimulate the growth of local business and pursuing an aggressive program of public works. Alemán was also responsible for the further reorganization of the official party and its internal consolidation into three sectors: labor, agrarian, and the so-called popular sector, while the military sector was eliminated.

Adolfo Ruíz Cortines (1952–1958) and Adolfo López Mateos (1958–1964) maintained the broad outlines of the policy direction established in the Alemán presidency. Ruíz Cortines's election in 1952 reflected the government's continuing commitment to economic growth but also stemmed from emerging concerns about the regime's tarnished image, damaged in the Alemán years by growing corruption. Although he had served as Alemán's secretary of the interior and had been deeply involved in the political structure as the governor of Veracruz, Ruíz Cortines's anticorruption drive recaptured some credibility for the regime. In an important political reform, the government granted women the right to vote in 1953. On the economic front, the administration consolidated programs launched in the Alemán period as it presided over dynamic economic growth. New problems were gaining recognition, including the high population growth rate, high urbanization rate, low labor absorption rate in the burgeoning cities, and a worrisome pattern of rising social inequality. The nation's poorest 50 percent of families saw their income share drop from 19 percent to 16 percent during the Alemán period, whereas the top 20 percent saw their income rise to a 61 percent share. Economic growth had failed to helped many in society but had spawned the development of a middle class that benefited from the development program. By 1960 the middle class had doubled in absolute numbers since the revolution.

The López Mateos Presidency

Adolfo López Mateos's administration (1958–1964) accomplished a telling political breakthrough by crushing the challenge of a rail workers' strike and jailing its leader, Demetrio Vallejo, in 1959, demonstrating that even those leaders thought to be sympathetic to labor (López Mateos had been Ruíz Cortines's secretary of labor) were fully prepared to use force to support an industrial policy tied to cheap labor. For labor, López Mateos sought to improve wages by promoting a profit-sharing plan that had its roots in the constitution.

At the same time, in a striking departure from his immediate predecessors, López Mateos launched a series of new state entrepreneurial initiatives along with proposals for social welfare reform and rural education. Furthermore, the government pursued a vigorous land reform campaign that was outpaced only by the Cárdenas administration in terms of the amount of land distributed. This distribution did not favor the ejido collectives but individual claimants. Also, despite the acreage involved, the percentage of the rapidly growing population that could benefit from such programs diminished over time, leaving many to wonder about the feasibility of such efforts in the future. Indeed, the impressive national economic growth was outpaced by the exploding population growth rate of 3.1 percent, doubling the population between 1938 and 1958 to a total of 32 million. Not only had the population doubled, but thousands had raced to the cities from the countryside. In 1940 only 8 percent of the population resided in large cities of more than half a million residents, but by 1960 the figure had risen to nearly 20 percent. The cities could not absorb the labor influx, a situation that resulted in the development of the burgeoning informal sector.

Ordaz's Hard-Line Presidency

The relative political calm evaporated during the administration of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964–1970). Because he had been López Mateos's secretary of the interior and was a conservative from the state of Puebla, a stronghold of Catholicism, expectations concerning the new president varied as the administration took office. Politically, it became apparent that the government was prepared to press a hard political line and to reject growing calls for a political opening that had become more insistent during the López Mateos administration. Díaz Ordaz not only reversed the liberalizing intent of López Mateos's congressional representation reform but fired the reform-minded head of the PRI, Carlos Madrazo, who died in 1969 in what came to be viewed as a suspicious accident. Further, the conservative opposition party, the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN; National Action Party), saw several clear electoral victories annulled by the government, actions provoking considerable discontent.

The most serious political crisis faced by the administration involved student protests over the regime's apparent political hard line, political prisoners, and a host of other political issues, including the government's use of force against the opposition and the enormous expenditures involved in hosting the Olympics in 1968. In the final act of the escalating political crisis, on October 2, 1968, the government's security forces shot and killed hundreds of students and bystanders in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Plaza of the Three Cultures) at Tlatelolco in Mexico City. The "Generation of 1968" was born of that moment, and the government's claims to revolutionary legitimacy would thereafter ring increasingly hollow, despite impressive rates of aggregate economic growth and substantial social expenditure.

The Echeverría Presidency

The administration of Luis Echeverría (1970–1976) witnessed not only a continuation of the political turmoil that began in 1968 but also the onset of a chronic economic crisis. Politically, Echeverría sought to reestablish lost credibility as the Mexican miracle faded by energetically pursuing a "shared development" initiative that emphasized economic nationalism and a populist revival to include expanded state commitments to social development, rural development, indigenous programs, and state intervention in the economy.

His efforts to revive presidential populism along the lines of Lázaro Cárdenas saw his government adopt programs sponsoring national arts, including traditional handicrafts, and programs aimed at indigenous communities. Most important was the administration's support for regional congresses leading to the El Primer Congreso Nacional de Puelbos Indigenas de Mexico (First National Congress of Indigenous Peoples in 1975). The government also initiated the most rapid expansion of state entrepreneurial efforts in the nation's history. As a result, the Echeverría administration came to be perceived by the business community as having violated implicit understandings between the government and the private sector concerning their respective roles and responsibilities. Echeverría's escalating interventionist posture not only antagonized the private sector but also engendered grave economic difficulties for the public sector. By the end of his term, his administration faced a severe crisis in the external sector and rising deficits in the public sector. Consequently, Mexico staggered into a stabilization agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1976 that was designed to restore the state's financial health and its ability to shoulder its international responsibilities by curtailing public expenditures. Further, the protectionist policies had left Mexico's industry in an uncompetitive position, contributing to the nation's enormous balance-of-payments difficulties.

The limitations imposed on the regime as a result of the financial impasse struck at the heart of Echeverría's initiative and spurred the government to adopt new political tactics to boost the president's credentials as a spokesman for third world views and as a potential United Nations secretary-general. In the foreign policy arena, Mexico's independent stance vis-à-vis the United States on such issues as Cuba, the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende in Chile, and the U.S. role in the hemisphere generally was now bolstered by its new restrictions on foreign investment. Most notable on the domestic front was the unprecedented escalation of the expansion of the parastate along with the government's support for a series of peasant land occupations in the north, designed to undercut the president's northern antagonists who opposed his ambitious governmental initiatives.

The bitter medicine of economic stabilization and austerity imposed by the IMF would never be fully implemented because the international financial community became aware of major new petroleum reserves by 1978. The international community now came to view Mexico as eminently bankable, sitting as it was on a virtual sea of black gold. With energy price restructuring well under way in the international market, the national growth rate rose to 4 percent per annum.

Meanwhile a series of guerrilla groups appeared in Guerrero and other poverty-stricken states. The regime undertook a campaign of eliminating these insurgents, who were inspired by the Cuban Revolution and the 1968 student movement. Only in the early twenty-first century is the systematic repression of these insurgencies coming to light.

López Portillo's Administration

Domestically, the political health of the regime was tested by the failure of the standard opposition parties to contest the 1976 presidential election, forcing the PRI's candidate, Echeverría's finance minister, Jose López Portillo (1976–1982), to run virtually alone. While no opposition party had ever won a significant election since 1910, opposition candidacies provided a "democratic" veneer to the political process and facilitated the conduct of elections as primarily exercises in regime legitimation. Further concern stemmed from a growing tendency toward abstention even in "contested" elections.

In response to the dual challenges of overcoming the nation's financial impasse and restoring waning political legitimacy, the López Portillo administration launched bold initiatives on the political and economic fronts. Politically, having succeeded in destroying budding guerrilla movements, the regime undertook a major reform in 1977 that permitted the registration of new parties and offered new opportunities for representation, but importantly, it placed time limits upon the window of opportunity, forcing skeptics within the opposition to register soon or lose the opportunity. The reform succeeded in channeling political interest into the electoral arena and did much to suggest that a real political opening lay ahead.

Economically, the plans were even more ambitious. The López Portillo agenda included the rapid development of petroleum resources, paving the way to overcoming underdevelopment. The skyrocketing population, booming urban centers, and jobless millions were to benefit from the new oil wealth. The latter was urgent, because by the late 1970s the nation suffered from severe unemployment problems, with nearly 50 percent of the economically active population unemployed or underemployed.

By 1981 Mexico ranked fourth in world oil production. Unfortunately, the quality of the oil resources proved lower than initial reports had stated, and by 1982, public-sector finances once again had reached the point of collapse. Several factors combined to bring the nation from boom to bust, forcing it to declare a financial crisis in the external sector in mid-1982 that led to a U.S.-initiated financial rescue later that year. The corruption of the government investment enterprise certainly played a substantial role, but even more important was the combined impact of the collapse of the international market price for oil and a dramatic jump in interest rates. In a final act of desperation that caused widespread negative political fallout, the López Portillo administration nationalized the banking system, hoping to counter the impact of a massive capital flight out of the country.


The 1980s opened a period of dramatic decline for the economy and a plummeting of regime legitimacy from the point of view of both elites and masses. The combination of economic factors, but the devaluation in particular, forced Mexicans of every social group to adjust their day-to-day way of living. The continuing inflation made the thought of saving foolish, as the peso's value declined daily. Buying consumer goods as quickly as possible followed, but these products became the target of criminals or individuals thrown out of work, who turned to robbery to survive.

Kidnapping and carjacking became common urban practices, and rural people flooded across the northern border. Mexicans lost confidence in the government's ability to provide personal security. The regime undertook a full-scale reassessment of the development model, no doubt greatly influenced by the daily experience of citizens, the austerity package imposed by the IMF in 1982 and 1983, and the perspectives of the international financial community, which was gravely concerned about both the practical and symbolic effects of a potential governmental collapse.

Population growth continued to race ahead, reaching 80 million in 1985; wages fell dramatically, by as much as 50 percent during the 1980s, as did national investment; and domestic and foreign debt continued to skyrocket. The public sector underwent a dramatic period of austerity launched in 1983–1984 under the direction of President Miguel de la Madrid (1982–1988) and his economic czar, Carlos Salinas De Gortari, who would become president in 1988. The devastating 1985 earthquake that hit Mexico City further damaged the government's efforts to restore the nation's economic health, as did revelations concerning the extent of corruption in the previous administration. As both civilian and military leaders talked about the natural disaster, community groups undertook rescue, salvage, and rebuilding projects, established community kitchens, and organized bootstrap community projects to survive the earthquake. This activity restored the confidence of common citizens in themselves and resulted in political demands that by 2000 would displace the PRI as the ruling party.

By the end of the 1980s, PRI leaders chose to implement a "modernization" program designed to liberalize the economy, dismantle the structure of protectionism, redirect efforts toward export promotion, implement deep cuts in the scope and commitments of the public sector, and fundamentally redefine government obligations to the people. While continuing to embrace the role of leader of the economy, the administration declared its intention to deregulate and to remove itself from the production sphere, divesting itself of hundreds of public enterprises.

Economic Neoliberalism and Politics

The so-called neoliberal policy shift prompted bitter divisions within the ruling political elite, leading to the rupture that spawned the candidacy in 1988 of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, former governor of Michoacán and son of the national leader of the 1930s. Claiming that the revolution had been betrayed by the neoliberal agenda of the new ruling technocrats, who had little feel for popular aspirations, the Cardenista opposition mounted an unprecedented challenge to the regime through the Partido Revolucionario Democratico (PRD). It claimed victory in the 1988 presidential contest following the massive fraud that shut down the computerized vote count, but Salinas was declared the winner.

The conservative opposition, the PAN, had found a new basis for accommodation with the PRI, especially given the government's new economic initiatives. As a means of rebuilding legitimacy, the regime sought to normalize relations with the Roman Catholic Church. Under Salinas's leadership, the official party recaptured sufficient political ground after 1988 to restore some measure of economic growth, to reestablish a selective political opening (to the right), and to weather the political repercussions from the government's aggressive violations of electoral procedures. Salinas undertook difficult measures to change the land reforms, allowing the mortgaging or sale of ejido lands in a step that many regarded as the end of the revolution. Moreover, he introduced a program intended to utilize local community initiatives for social reforms that bypassed the national bureaucracy to avoid its inevitable skimming off of funds. Called Solidaridad in imitation of the internationally popular Hungarian Solidarity program, its striking successes outnumbered its failures. Most important to Salinas's efforts to regain the economic initiative came when Mexico joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and when Salinas was able to enter into a free trade arrangement with the United States and Canada. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that went into force in January 1994 reflected the increasing weight of trade and international investment in the economy and would have done much to refurbish the regime's image had it not been for two pivotal events in 1994 that stunned the nation: the Chiapas uprising of January 1994 by the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) and the March 1994 assassination of the official party's presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio. These events were soon followed by murder charges against the president's brother and increasing evidence of the president's personal corruption involving the deposit of millions of pesos in Swiss banks. After leaving office, Salinas sought protective exile in Ireland.

The 1994 presidential election nevertheless demonstrated once again the official party's recuperative powers. The PRI's replacement candidate, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Léon, was elected with official results showing just over 50 percent of the vote for the PRI together with a massive defeat for the Cardenistas and their standard-bearer, Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, along with some growth in support for the PAN. Some observers argued that the public had voted to retain the PRI because of fears arising out of recent instability. Others maintained that the electoral playing field still remained so uneven that the government's opponents ultimately were prevented from building more support.

In 1997 Cárdenas won election as mayor of Mexico City, where he achieved a reputation for outstanding and efficient government. The charges of corruption in the presidential election reached such a pitch that a new Instituto Federal Electoral (IFE; Federal Election Institute) was established and began developing practices to ensure fair elections in 2000. The Zedillo administration had to live with the heritage of the Salinas's regime's corrupt policies and gangster politics, the disputed presidential election, the ongoing indigenous challenge presented by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, and continuing debate on the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The PRI Loses Power

As the nation approached the turn of the century, Zedillo's government faced a host of far-reaching opportunities and challenges. With Latin America's second largest economy, Mexico anticipated reaching a population of 100 million by the turn of the century, and with unprecedented urban growth, Mexico City anticipated a population from 23 to 25 million by the end of the 1990s. In the last years before the millennium, the presidential election of 2000 overwhelmed all other issues. The PRI and the PRD both offered candidates, with the PAN candidate, Vicente Fox capturing national attention. The voting in July 2000 took place within a sea of anticipation, hope, and apprehension, and when the IFE announced the results, Vicente Fox was declared the winner. For the first time since 1910 a presidential candidate of a nonrevolutionary party had been elected. Zedillo acted with the dignity that marked his six-year term as turned the office over to the PAN president.

During the six years of Vicente Fox's administration, features of the national government previously dormant now became apparent. For all of his good intentions, Fox and the nation learned that Congress had a good deal of power when controlled by the opposition party, at this point the PRI. This ignored branch of government blocked or slowed down presidential projects. Fox also had public relations difficulties as a consequence of his new wife Marta's involvement in politics (many charged she had designs on the presidential office in the next term), of financial actions of some of his cabinet members, and of diplomatic difficulties surrounding his relationships with both the United States and Cuba. Migration represented a controversial and difficult problem as thousands of citizens continued to leave their homeland and attempt to join the many millions already residing legally and illegally in the United States. The push of these immigrants came from the fact that an estimated 40 percent of the population suffered from malnutrition, so that the pressure upon the border remained significant.

The elections of 2006 brought intense campaigning, with the PRD candidate Andrés López Obrador, mayor of Mexico City, heir to reputation of Cuauthemoc Cárdenas, and an engaging populist, the early leader. When he refused to participate with the other candidates in a national television debate, his popularity plummeted. Following statements that suggested that Hugh Chávez in Venezuela might serve him as a role model, many middle-class (including left-leaning academics) voters turned against him. In the election the PAN candidate, Felipe Calderón, narrowly won. López Obrador refused to concede and tried to establish a parallel government; his supporters in congress tried to block the inauguration. Nevertheless, as of 2007 Calderón rules a nation with a vibrant democracy and substantial challenges for the future.

See alsoAlemán Valdés, Miguel; Ávila Camacho, Manuel; Banco de México; Calles, Plutarco Elías; Cárdenas del Río, Lázaro; Cárdenas Solorzano, Cuauhtémoc; Colosio Murrieta, Luis Donaldo; Commissions Regarding 1968 Massacres in Tlaltelolco; Cristero Rebellion; Díaz, Porfirio; Díaz Ordaz, Gustavo; Echeverría Álvarez, Luis; Ejidos; Huerta, Victoriano; International Monetary Fund (IMF); López Mateos, Adolfo; López Portillo, José; Madero, Francisco Indalecio; Madrazo, Carlos A; Madrid Hurtado, Miguel de la; Mexico, Constitutions: Constitution of 1917; Mexico, Wars and Revolutions: Mexican Revolution; Morones, Luis; North American Free Trade Agreement; Obregón Salido, Álvaro; Orozco, Pascual, Jr; Ortiz Rubio, Pascual; Plan of Ayala; Plan of San Luis Potosí; Portes Gil, Emilio; Rodríguez Luján, Abelardo; Ruiz Cortines, Adolfo; Salinas de Gortari, Carlos; United States-Latin American Relations; United States-Mexico Border; Villa, Francisco "Pancho"; Wilson, Henry Lane; Wilson, Woodrow; Zapata, Emiliano; Zedillo Ponce de León, Ernesto.


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