Cárdenas del Río, Lázaro (1895–1970)

views updated

Cárdenas del Río, Lázaro (1895–1970)

Lázaro Cárdenas del Río (b. 21 May 1895; d. 19 October 1970), president of Mexico, 1934–1940. Born in the small provincial town of Jiquilpán, in the western state of Michoacán, Mexico, Cárdenas was the oldest son of a shopkeeper. He left school after the fourth grade and worked as a clerk in the local tax office. Following his father's death in 1911, Cárdenas, a quiet, serious, conscientious youth, became a surrogate parent for his many siblings; several of his brothers emulated him by pursuing careers in the military and politics. A fierce patriotism nurtured by the liberal school curriculum and a hungry though unfocused ambition lurked behind Cárdenas's stolid mien, and in 1913, three years after the Mexican Revolution broke out, the eighteen-year-old enlisted with rebels resisting the military regime of Victoriano Huerta. After initial setbacks (he was captured in 1923, escaped, and had to lie low in Guadalajara for some months), Cárdenas began a rapid rise through the ranks, helped by the friendship and patronage of his commanding general, Plutarco Elías Calles. After campaigns against the Yaquis in Sonora, the Villistas in Chihuahua, and the rebel-bandit forces of Chávez García in his home state, Cárdenas became interim governor of Michoacán (1920) and military commander on the isthmus (1921) and in the oil country of the Huasteca (1925–1928), where he condemned the corruption and arrogance of the foreign oil companies. During these years he developed close political alliances with President Elías Calles (1924–1928), with his fellow Michoacano, the radical Francisco Múgica, and with his own chief of staff, Manuel Ávila Camacho, member of a powerful revolutionary clan in the state of Puebla. As a military leader Cárdenas was bold to a fault, his impetuosity leading to defeats in 1918 and 1923, on which occasion he was severely wounded.


In 1928 Cárdenas was elected governor of his home state, where he undertook to accelerate agrarian reforms, develop education, and foster labor and peasant organizations, which he did through the radical anticlerical Confederación Revolucionaria Michoacana de Trabajo. His creation of a solid political base, however, was compromised by several leaves of absence, which he took in order to serve as president of the nascent National Revolutionary Party (PNR) (1930–1931), as minister of government (1932), and as minister of war (1933). Politically shrewd beneath a sphinx-like exterior, Cárdenas grasped—as some rival revolutionary caudillos, such as Adalberto Tejeda of Veracruz, failed to do—that the federal government, considerably strengthened and consolidated by the presidency and maximato of Calles, was the surest ladder of political advancement. Loyalty paid off, and in 1933 Cárdenas was chosen—in effect by Calles—as the PNR presidential candidate. Calles, who had governed through the medium of three relatively pliant presidents, no doubt expected that he could control his old protégé, in which respect, political opinion concurred. However, the onset of the Depression had undermined the broadly export-oriented economic project of the 1920s, and those who favored both a more interventionist state and a greater commitment to social legislation saw Cárdenas, known as a reformist governor of Michoacán, as the best hope within the party.

Cárdenas's radicalism—a practical, populist desire for social betterment rather than any bookish Marxism—was further stimulated by his extensive presidential campaign of 1934, which set the style for a peripatetic presidency: a quarter of his six years in office were spent on the road, touring Mexico, reaching remote villages, listening to local complaints, distributing patronage and public works, often by executive fiat. The rapport Cárdenas thus achieved with popular groups, which endured long after his presidency, served him in good stead when, in 1935–1936, he challenged Calles's authority, marshaling trade unions and peasant groups, generals and politicos, in order to force the dismayed jefe máximo (highest chief) into exile. By mid-1936, Cárdenas was emphatically master in his own house; the authority of the presidency had been reinforced, an assertion of presidential power that had been unusually bloodless.

During the middle years of his sexenio, Cárdenas enacted a raft of reforms that changed the political face of Mexico. Most important, he confiscated some 45 million acres of private land and distributed it in the form of ejidos—peasant communities in which the land was individually worked or, as on the big Laguna cotton estates, collectively farmed. With the ejidos came a rapid expansion of rural schools, now commited to a form of socialist education which sought to instill nationalism, class consciousness, and anticlericalism. Welcomed by some, this ambitious program of social engineering offended many, especially devout Catholics. In the face of protests, parental boycotts, and a good deal of local violence, Cárdenas, who had never shared Calles's dogmatic anticlericalism, reined in revolutionary anticlericalism, declaring that material betterment was the greater priority. Meanwhile, the president encouraged the political organization of the peasantry under the aegis of a national confederation which, in 1938, formally incorporated itself into the offical party as the National Campesino Federation (CNC).

A similar process of mobilization and incorporation affected the considerably smaller working class. During the maximato, the hegemony of the once-dominant Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM) was splintered, and the ravages of the Depression, though less severe and prolonged in Mexico than in some other Latin American countries, encouraged a new working-class militancy, upon which Cárdenas could capitalize, especially as the economy revived after 1933. Major industrial unions were formed in the leading sectors of industry—oil, mining, railways—and they began to press, strenuously and effectively, for national collective contracts. Meanwhile, the Mexican Federation of Labor (CTM), led by the flamboyant Marxist Vicente Lombardo Toledano, arose from the ashes of the CROM; and, by virtue of a politically close alliance with the president, Lombardo and the CTM came to play a role in the 1930s similar to that of Luis N. Morones and the CROM in the 1920s. The CTM benefited from sympathetic official arbitration in strikes and, in return, it backed the government, as did the Mexican Communist Party (PCM), which, pledged to a collaborationist popular-front strategy, now enjoyed a brief heyday as a political, ideological, and cultural force. In 1938 the CTM joined the CNC as corporate pillars of the new official party, the Party of Mexican Revolution (PRM).


The radical thrust of the Cárdenas administration was evident in a series of nationalizations. Several mines and factories that threatened closure became workers' cooperatives. In 1937–1938 the railways were nationalized and placed under a workers' administration (conservative critics pointed to the inefficiency of the operation; radicals contended that the workers—seeking to run a decrepit system at low cost—made the best of a bad job). Most dramatic of all was the petroleum nationalization of March 1938, the first major seizure of oil assets by a developing country. Confronted by a long-running labor dispute, intransigent managers, and a perceived threat to Mexico's economic well-being and national sovereignty, Cárdenas expropriated the Anglo-American companies and established a state oil company, Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX). Two consequences followed. Relations with the United States, which had been tolerably cordial since the late 1920s, cooled. But Cárdenas reassured the United States that oil was a special case, that further nationalizations were not contemplated, and that an adequate indemnity would be paid. And President Roosevelt, pilloried by big business at home and alarmed by the rise of fascism overseas, was reluctant either to champion the companies or to offend a friendly, anti-fascist Mexico. Indeed, with his condemnation of fascist aggression in Europe, Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), and China and his vigorous support of the Spanish Republic (a policy that elicited strong criticism from pro-Franco Mexicans), Cárdenas now appeared as a stalwart ally of the democratic powers. The United States therefore refrained from political or military reprisals and entered negotiations over the proposed oil indemnity, which was agreed to in 1942.

The oil crisis, followed by an oil company boycott of PEMEX, harmed the Mexican economy. Exports, the peso, and business confidence declined. Inflation quickened. Workers in the nationalized industries were required to tighten their belts and Cárdenas spent much of his final two years in office wrestling with the problems of the oil and railroad industries. Meanwhile, the presidential succession began to absorb political attention. International tensions—in particular, the global fascist-popular front confrontation—affected domestic politics. Right-wing groups, on the defensive since the Depression, staged a comeback. The National Sinarquista Union (UNS), a popular, Catholic, quasi-fascist movement founded in 1937, inveighed against Cardenista collectivism and "atheism." Conservative elements also mobilized behind dissident caudillos, on the right of the PRM, and in the pro-business, pro-Catholic National Action Party (PAN), founded in 1939. Some working-class Cardenistas broke ranks. Fearing destabilization, Cárdenas tacked to the center, reining in his radical policies and opting for a right-of-center successor, Ávila Camacho, rather than the radical Francisco Múgica. In the July 1940 presidential election Ávila Camacho easily defeated the challenge of the conservative caudillo Juan Andréu Almazán, but did so amid scenes of fraud and violence. The Cárdenas presidency, which had indelibly marked Mexican political life, thus ended in dissent and controversy.

After 1940, the rightward drift of official policy was accelerated. Agrarian reform slowed, socialist education ended, détente with the church and the United States advanced. The structures set in place by Cárdenas—PEMEX, the corporate party, the collective ejido—remained, but they now contributed to a national project dedicated to industrialization and capital accumulation, goals that Cárdenas had neither set nor endorsed. The ex-president, however, remained loyal to the system he had helped create. He served as minister of war in 1942–1945, reassuring nationalist sentiment as Mexico collaborated increasingly closely with the United States. During the 1950s and 1960s he headed two major regional development projects, working, as in the past, for the material betterment of the poorer regions of southern and southwestern Mexico, thereby reinforcing his popular and populist reputation (a factor that would prove significant with the rise of neo-Cardenismo, the leftist movement headed by Cárdenas's son, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, in the late 1980s). Loyalty to the system did not, however, prevent him from exercising significant influence: against the proposed reelection of President Miguel Alemán in 1951–1952; against the Vietnam War and U.S. policy toward Cuba in the 1960s; and in favor of political dissidents within Mexico. At the time of his death in 1970, Cárdenas was criticized by some as an authoritarian populist and a dangerous fellow-traveler, and revered by others, particularly in the Cardenista countryside, as the greatest constructive radical of the Mexican Revolution.

See alsoMexico, Organizations: National Peasant Federation (CNC); Mexico, Political Parties: National Revolutionary Party (PNR); Mexico, Political Parties: Party of the Mexican Revolution (PRM).


Luis González, Historia de la Revolución Mexicana: Los días del presidente Cárdenas (1979) is a deft, sensitive narrative of the Cárdenas presidency.

Nora Hamilton, The Limits of State Autonomy: Post-revolutionary Mexico (1982) gives a perceptive Marxist analysis of the post-revolutionary state, focusing on the 1930s.

Alan Knight, "The Rise and Fall of Cardenismo, c. 1930–c. 1946," Mexico since Independence, edited by Leslie Bethell (1991), provides a recent general overview and contains a bibliography.

Enrique Krauze, General misionero: Lázaro Cárdenas (1987) is an intelligent popular biography, critical of Cárdenas and well illustrated. A hagiographic biography by a United States admirer of Cárdenas is William Cameron Townsend, Lázaro Cárdenas: Mexican Democrat (1952). For a succinct, sympathetic analysis of Cardenista politics and philosophy see Tzví Medín, Ideología y praxis política de Lázaro Cárdenas (1972).

Additional Bibliography

Becker, Marjorie. Setting the Virgin on Fire: Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan Peasants, and the Redemption of the Mexican Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Fallaw, Ben. Cárdenas Compromised: The Failure of Reform in Postrevolutionary Yucatán. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.

                                        Alan Knight

About this article

Cárdenas del Río, Lázaro (1895–1970)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article