Echeverría Á

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Luis Echeverría Álvarez: 1922: Lawyer, Politician

When Luis Echeverría Álvarez took over as Mexico's president in 1970, he pledged to close the economic gap between the country's poor, rural peasants and its well-to-do urbanites. For six years Echeverría walked a political tight-rope as he tried to implement social programs to make life better for the have-nots, while at the same time trying not to worry capitalists with his socialist leanings. To this end, Echeverría spent staggering amounts of money on social and economic programs, creating a huge deficit. His policies, in the end, pleased no one and his administration went down in the history books as a failure. As one of the most unpopular men to ever serve as president of Mexico, Echeverría left office in 1976 amid mounting inflation, civil unrest, and a tumbling peso.

Worked Way Up Through Ruling Party

Echeverría was born January 17, 1922, in Mexico City, Mexico, to Catalina Álvarez and Rodolfo Echeverría, a cashier. After receiving an education in Mexico City's public schools, Echeverría earned a bachelor's degree in social science from a branch of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1940, and then pursued a law degree there. While studying international law, Echeverría became interested in politics and published Mexico and the University, a magazine that took an in-depth look at the problems facing the nation. He earned his law degree in 1945, and in 1947 joined the faculty at the University of Mexico to teach political theory.

On January 2, 1945, Echeverría married Maria Esther Zuno, the daughter of an influential political boss from Jalisco. It was no coincidence that around this same time, Echeverría became active in politics, joining the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI) in 1946. In no time at all, he penetrated the ruling party's inner circle and was appointed private secretary to PRI president General Rodolfo Sánchez Taboada. Echeverría moved quickly up through the ranks of the party, becoming its press secretary, and by 1952 he had joined Sánchez Taboada in the Ministry of the Navy. Clearly, Echeverría, a quiet, loyal, hard-working agent of the party, was being groomed for greater things. "I dedicated myself to working with enthusiasm in all tasks that the party and my bosses gave to me, with loyalty, with a spirit of discipline, with dedication, and promotions came one after another," Echeverría acknowledged, according to Samuel Schmidt's book The Deterioration of the Mexican Presidency: The Years of Luis Echeverría.

At a Glance . . .

Born Luis Echeverría Álvarez on January 17, 1922, in Mexico City, Mexico; married Maria Esther Zuno, 1945; eight children. Education: National Autonomous University of Mexico, BA, social science, 1940; law degree, 1945. Politics: Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI).

Career: Became private secretary for the PRI's president, 1946; taught political theory at the University of Mexico, 1947; served in the Ministry of the Navy, 1952; named secretary of the Ministry of the Interior, 1964; elected president of Mexico, 1970-76.

In 1954 Echeverría took over as head of the Ministry of Public Education, where he earned a reputation as a great negotiator. Three years later he rejoined the party's central executive committee staff and launched the campaign of PRI presidential candidate Adolfo López Mateos. Echeverría soon joined the Ministry of the Interior, working under Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. When Díaz Ordaz resigned to become president in 1964, Echeverría took over the department. As interior secretary, he held one of the nation's most powerful positions, charged with overseeing Mexico's police forces and shoring up national security.

It was in this position that Echeverría first gained infamy in the late 1960s. During this time Mexico stood in crisis, on the cusp of a revolution, because the lower classes believed the government was indifferent to their suffering. Students, demanding government reforms, began rioting on July 26, 1968, as the country geared up to host the Olympics that October. The uprising concluded in the infamous "Tlatelolco massacre." On October 2, federal troops shot at student demonstrators at the Plaza de Tlatelolco in Mexico City. Reports varied, but the troops allegedly killed and wounded hundreds of people, although official numbers were never issued. Police arrested scores of protesters and threw them in prison. As the nation's top law enforcement officer, Echeverría was blamed for the incident. Echeverría, however, maintained his innocence and insisted he had only sent in troops to preserve the rights of the students to hold a peaceful demonstration. He maintained a stony silence regarding rumors that he had ordered the drastic measures. The incident stained his image, and he spent the rest of his political career deflecting criticism. Over and over again, Echeverría defended the jailings, saying the prisoners were true criminals, not simply enemies of the state. "Not one was arrested for writing a novel or a poem or for his way of thinking," Echeverría told Time magazine.

Became Presidential Nominee

In 1969 PRI party members nominated Echeverría for president. By becoming the party's candidate, he was assured a victory, as the party had been in power since 1934. Echeverría faced only token opposition from Efraín Gonzalez Morfín of the right-wing Partido Acción Nacional.

Though there was never a chance that Echeverría would lose the election, he was discouraged that people associated him with the Tlatelolco massacre. In an effort to improve his image, Echeverría embarked on a 35,000-mile public relations campaign trek. He visited the country's 29 state capitals while touring on a bus called the Miguel Hidalgo, named for the man who sparked Mexican independence. Echeverría visited even the most remote peasant villages, all the while chanting his party's slogan, "Upward and Onward with the Revolution." While Echeverría acknowledged that the campaign was unnecessary, he maintained that it wasn't a waste of time. "We know how the election will turn out," he told Newsweek. "My main reason for campaigning is to learn about Mexico's problems." During the trek, the nearly six-foot tall, athletically built Echeverría captured the hearts of doubters with his enthusiasm, energy, and apparent concern for their plight. He promised to provide his poverty-ridden constituents with hospitals, highways, electricity, and schools.

On election day, only 42 percent of voters went to the polls. The other 58 percent realized Echeverría was already a winner because his party dominated the country. When Echeverría took office on December 1, 1970, he became the seventh consecutive PRI candidate to become president.

Struggled to Stabilize Economy, Maintain Control

Once in office Echeverría radiated confidence. He attempted to restore the public's faith in politics and labored to stimulate the economy. In order to pacify the student activists, Echeverría released the remaining prisoners of the 1968 riots but the move did little to gain that faction's trust. Because he was a talkative, opinionated president who felt the need to speak directly to the public on a regular basis, the press dubbed him el Predicador ("the Preacher").

To help meet his campaign promises of helping the poor, and to shake off the notion that the party didn't care about the country's rural peasants, Echeverría pumped vast amounts of money into social and economic programs. During his administration the number of government employees doubled. However, because of his inept handling of monetary affairs, the economy came to a near halt and inflation set in. To make ends meet, Echeverría's government borrowed money from outside its borders. Foreign debt rose from 4.2 billion U.S. dollars in 1970 to 19.6 billion U.S. dollars in 1976.

Again in 1971 there were student massacres in Mexico City. This time on June 10, 1971, a mysterious paramilitary group called Los Halcones ("The Falcons") beat student demonstrators with sticks. Echeverría forced the mayor and the police chief of Mexico City to resign, and promised a full investigation that never materialized. Once again, Echeverría distanced himself from the crime, claiming he had nothing to do with it. In response, pockets of guerrilla groups formed across the nation, at one point kidnapping Echeverría's father-in-law, as well as a U.S. diplomat.

The country's economic situation forced Echeverría to devalue the peso at end of his term in the fall of 1976. It threw the nation into a panic. The peso lost half its value, going from 12.5 to 24.5 against the U.S. dollar.

Just as Echeverría's presidency was coming to an end, he surprised the nation with one last authoritarian act by ordering 243,000 acres of lush farmland turned over to peasants, and charging wealthy landlords with fraud. The business community responded by shutting down factories in protest. In the end Echeverría reneged, turning over only 32,000 acres and declaring that the next president would have to flush out the details of any remaining land exchanges.

When he left the presidency, Echeverría became a representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and served as an ambassador to Australia. He also formed an Institute of Third World Studies. Echeverría dwindled from the spotlight until 2002, when the Mexican government ordered an investigation into the student massacres of 1968 and 1971. Maintaining he had nothing to hide, Echeverría, nonetheless refused to testify, leaving the families of victims once again clamoring for answers.



Krauze, Enrique, Mexico: Biography of Power, Harp-erCollins Publishers, 1997.

Levy, Daniel and Gabriel Székely, Mexico: Paradoxes of Stability and Change, Westview Press, 1983.

Meyer, Michael C. and William H. Beezley, eds., The Oxford History of Mexico, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Padgett, L. Vincent, The Mexican Political System, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976.

Schmidt, Samuel, The Deterioration of the Mexican Presidency: The Years of Luis Echeverría, University of Arizona Press, 1991.


Newsweek, July 13, 1970, pp. 44-45.

New York Times, July 1, 2002, p. A1.

Time, July 13, 1970, p. 27; December 6, 1976, pp. 28-31.

Lisa Frick

Luis Echeverría Alvarez

views updated Jun 11 2018

Luis Echeverría Alvarez

Luis Echeverría Alvarez (born 1922) was the president of Mexico from 1970 to 1976. Although his major interest was foreign affairs, severe economic dislocations diverted his energies to domestic policies. Forced to devalue the Mexican peso twice, he left the presidency under a cloud of despondency.

Luis Echeverría was born on January 17, 1922, in Mexico's Federal District. He received his primary and secondary education in México City schools and his law degree at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in 1945. After teaching law for several years Echeverría made his decision to pursue a political career and began working his way through the ranks of Mexico's Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI).

Political Career

National prominence came to Echeverría in 1957 when he was named chief administrative officer of the PRI's Central Executive Committee and was chosen to give the major nominating speech for the soon to be president Adolfo López Mateos. By 1964, during the presidential administration of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, he was a member of the cabinet and served for six years as secretary of gobernación. Controversy engulfed him for the first time as he was chosen to negotiate with Mexico City's leftist students threatening to disrupt the opening of the Summer Olympic Games in 1968. His negotiations proved unsuccessful, and political violence resulted in several hundred deaths prior to the opening ceremonies of the Olympiad. In unfounded charges Echeverría took much of the blame for the break down of negotiations. Sensitive to attacks from the left, he sought to mollify his critics by espousing Third World rhetoric for the next two years. The criticism eased off, at least for the time being.

Echeverría's nomination as the presidential candidate of the PRI in 1969 assured his election to his country's highest post the following year, but he conducted a vigorous presidential campaign anyhow. He visited some 900 municipalities, covering 35,000 miles in all 29 Mexican states and the two territories. He relished the opportunity to debate with students and used the opportunity to cultivate the Third World and to criticize the United States.

Presidential Years

As president Luis Echeverría traveled abroad more extensively than any previous Mexican president. In addition to visiting a number of Latin American countries, his travels carried him to Japan, the People's Republic of China, England, Belgium, France, and the Soviet Union. The trips were undertaken for the express purpose of opening new avenues of trade. Under his prodding the Mexican government supported the admission of the People's Republic of China to the United Nations. He repeatedly called for Third World countries to maintain their economic independence from the United States. The success and failures of his presidential administration, however, would be measured not on his relationship with the outside world but on his domestic policies.

Luis Echeverría embarked upon a series of policies designed to repudiate the conservative stance adopted by his predecessor, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. To the distress of the conservative Mexican business community, he argued that it was time to slow down the pace of Mexico's industrialization and to renew state initiatives in rural Mexico. In keeping with this policy he supported a new agrarian reform law which encouraged the development of the ejidos, Mexico's rural communal landholdings. He placed major emphasis on extending the rural road system and rural electrification. Perhaps out of conviction, but perhaps to curry favor with the left, in 1971 he released the student prisoners incarcerated during the pre-Olympic demonstrations of 1968. He nationalized the tobacco and telephone industries, and in 1972 he granted diplomatic asylum to Hortensia Allende, widow of the murdered Chilean president Salvador Allende. All of these measures alienated those on the right side of the political spectrum but did little to garner the support of the left.

From 1971 to 1974 President Echeverría learned that his country was not immune from the rural and urban terrorism associated with other Latin American countries. A series of bank robberies were traced to the Movimiento Armado Revolucionario when self-admitted terrorists bragged that their exploits had been undertaken in behalf of a new revolution. Political kidnappings followed in rapid succession. The victims included Julio Hirschfield, director of Mexico's airports; Jaime Castrejón, rector of the University of Guerrero; Terrence Leonhardy, United States consul general in Guadalajara; and Guadalupe Zuno Hernandez, President Echeverría's father-in-law and a former governor of Jalisco. Mexico's image as a progressive and stable republic was beginning to suffer at home and abroad. As events would soon demonstrate, however, President Echeverría's most serious difficulty was not terrorism, but rather an increasingly sluggish Mexican economy.

Economic Difficulties

The Echeverría administration was marked by a huge balance of payment deficits. Tourism, a leading source of Mexico's foreign exchange earning, declined as Echeverría's Third World rhetoric dissuaded many foreign tourists from visiting the country. Spot shortages of electric power and steel prompted a decline in the rate of economic growth. Inflation and high unemployment were rampant. In the summer of 1976 rumors began to circulate that for the first time in 22 years Mexico would have to devalue the peso. President Echeverría tried to convince his fellow countrymen that no devaluation was contemplated, but his repeated assurances did not prevent the flight of hundreds of millions of pesos as wealthy Mexicans exchanged their currency for dollars and invested them in the United States.

The inevitable devaluation came in September 1976, and the peso fell from 12.50 to 20.50 to the dollar, a 60 percent decline. A month later a second devaluation of an additional 40 percent was announced. The second devaluation in a month was psychologically more painful than the first. The president's attempts to blame all of Mexico's economic woes on multi-national corporations and on the United States convinced some, but not many. To be sure, Mexico was a dependent nation and one strongly influenced by the United States, but there was no way to disguise financial mismanagement of major proportions within the Echeverría administration.

Powerful Ex-President

Many Mexicans were relieved when Luis Echeverría turned over the presidential office to his successor, José López Portillo, in 1976. Those who anticipated that relations with the United States would improve markedly and that the Mexican economy would recover would be disappointed. The trends established during Echeverría's years in office would not be easily reversed.

Echeverría did not disappear from public life after his tenure as president. He became a cacique, a local political boss, and retained his position as president-for-life of the Center for Economic and Social Studies of the Third World. In 1995 he publicly criticized the most recent ex-president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. This broke an important rule in Mexican politics whereby ex-presidents were expected to remain silent on all political matters once they left office. Echeverría's actions caused much controversy and challenged the traditional role of the ex-president.

Further Reading

The diplomacy of the Echeverría administration is examined in Yoram Shapira, Mexican Foreign Policy Under Echeverría (1978). His domestic policy is treated in Daniel Levy and Gabriel Székely, Mexico: Paradoxes of Stability and Change (1983).

Additional Sources

Divon, Sam. "Silence is No Longer Golden for Former Presidents of Mexico." The New York Times, 24 September 1995.

Preston, Julia. "Salinas Denies New Charges by Mexico." The New York Times, 5 December 1995.

Samuel Schmidt, The Deterioration of the Mexican Presidency: The Years of Luis Echeverría. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1991. □

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