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López Portillo, José (1920–2004)

López Portillo, José (1920–2004)

José López Portillo was president of Mexico from 1976 to 1982. López Portillo took office at a time when Mexico first began undergoing a series of political and economic crises, beginning a long cycle of problems extending to the 1990s. When his predecessor, Luis Echeverría, left office, he also left a legacy of devaluation, an unstable peso and inflation (for the first time in recent history), the distrust of the private sector, and a populist political heritage. Those disenchanted with the Echeverría administration were hopeful when López Portillo was inaugurated. The new president, with some intellectual credentials, and without a long career in the federal government, seemed to offer something new to expectant Mexicans. To mend fences with the alienated business leadership, the president made it clear that he would need its assistance to reverse the economic deficits created by his predecessor and that the government wanted to reestablish a cooperative relationship with the business community. With the participation of many of Mexico's leading capitalists, he succeeded in creating the Alliance for Production. Initially, this association enjoyed considerable success, and until the last year of his administration, the economy appeared to be growing steadily. But by 1982, after another devaluation, and the near bankruptcy of Mexico's leading industrial enterprise, Grupo Industrial AIFA, confidence in the government declined precipitously and capital flight rose to new highs. Mexico's foreign debt reached an estimated $83 billion. In desperation, the president took the extraordinary measure in his 1 September 1982 State of the Union address of nationalizing the domestically owned banking industry, blaming the bankers and, indirectly, the private sector for Mexico's economic woes. The president's decision to nationalize the banks not only failed to restore public confidence in the economy but also raised doubts about his ability to govern. His political decisions brought Mexico to the point of its lowest political legitimacy in modern times, leaving his successor, Miguel de la Madrid, with nearly insurmountable political and economic problems.

Politically, López Portillo, under the direction of Jesús Reyes Heroles, briefly flirted with serious party and electoral reforms, but failed in his attempts. The president, perhaps fearful of internal instability as well as problems caused by the presence of Central American refugees in Mexico, increased the size and budget of the Mexican military, beginning a pattern of increasing modernization. On the intellectual front, he further alienated support when, in the last year of his administration, he censored his most vociferous critic, the leftist weekly Proceso, publicly announcing in April that he would require all government agencies to withdraw advertising from the magazine. His actions produced a pall over the media, underlining their dependency on government goodwill. The level of popular dissatisfaction with his political and economic legacy was reflected in the vote tallies for Miguel de la Madrid in the 1982 elections, in which he obtained 71 percent, leaving López Portillo with the lowest figure up to that date for a government party candidate.

López Portillo was the son of engineer José López Portillo y Weber, a military officer, and Margarita Weber y Narvárez, and the grandson of a prominent political figure in the administration of Victoriano Huerta (1913–1914). He was born on June 16, 1920, in Mexico City, where he completed all of his schooling. He and his predecessor, Luis Echeverría, were high school classmates. After graduating from the National University in 1946, he became a professor of general theory of the state there and founded the course in political science and government policy in Mexico. He obtained a doctorate in law from the University of Santiago, in Chile. During these years he also practiced law.

López Portillo did not hold his first public office until 1960, when he became director general of the federal board of material and moral improvement of the secretariat of national properties. In 1965, he served as director of legal advisers to the secretariat of the presidency, and three years later, became the assistant secretary of the presidency. In 1970, in the administration of Luis Echeverría, he became assistant secretary of national properties. During a mid-term cabinet shuffle, the president appointed him secretary of the treasury May 29, 1973, and he served in this capacity until his September 22, 1975, nomination as the official party presidential candidate. With at least half a dozen potential candidates, López Portillo was considered a dark horse. After leaving the presidency he lived both abroad and in Mexico. He died in Mexico City on February 17, 2004, of a pneumonia-related heart problem.

See alsoMexico, Political Parties: Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) .


Susan K. Purcell, ed., Mexico-United States Relations (1981).

Miguel Basáñez, La lucha por la hegemonía en México (1982).

Judith A. Hellman, Mexico in Crisis, 2d ed. (1983).

Roberto G. Newell and Luis F. Rubio, Mexico's Dilemma: The Political Origins of Economic Crisis (1984).

Peter Ward, Welfare Politics in Mexico: Papering Over the Cracks (1986).

Daniel Levy and Gabriel Szekeley, Mexico: Paradoxes of Stability and Change, 2d ed. (1987).

Judith A. Teichman, Policymaking in Mexico: From Boom to Crisis (1988).

José López Portillo, Mis tiempos: Biografía y testimonio político, 2 vols. (1988).

Additional Bibliography

Castañeda, Jorge G. La herencia: Arqueología de la sucesión presidencial en México. Mexico: Aguilar, Altea, Taurus, Alfaguara, 1999.

Robledo, Elisa. El presidente y sus amadas. Mexico: Océano, 2002.

                                          Roderic Ai Camp

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