Lazaro Cárdenas

(1895 - 1970)

Lazaro Cárdenas was President of Mexico from 1934 to 1940, and to this day is beloved and considered a hero by the Mexican people. He was the first (and perhaps only) Mexican president to truly implement the reforms outlined in the 1917 Constitution. These included wide-spread land reform in the spirit of Emiliano Zapata, the nationalization of the Mexican oil industry, and continuing the spread of education, culture, and tolerance. Mexicans had much to celebrate during Cárdenas's administration.

Born in the state of Michoacán in 1895, Cárdenas always thought he would become a teacher, but his outrage at the coup against President Madero orchestrated by Victoriano Huerta in 1913, enraged him. He enlisted in the revolution, fighting on the side of Venustiano Carranza's Constitutionalists to overthrow Huerta. Later, he served under Plutarco Elías Calles as Calles fought to bring down Francisco Villa on Carranza's behalf.

Calles was President of Mexico from 1924 to 1928, and he continued to control Mexico through the three puppet presidents who followed him (a period known as the Maximato, which lasted from 1928 to 1934). People soon grew weary of Calles's lack of follow-through in implementing the promises of the Constitution of 1917. Seventeen years had passed since its ratification, and the most important aspects of the Constitution had not precipitated real action or reform. The dominant party at the time, the PNR, established by Calles, rejected his first choice for a candidate for the presidency in 1934. But sensing that the nation demanded reform, Cardenas threw his support to Cárdenas, who was popular with the masses, and whom Calles thought he could control.

Cárdenas won the election by a landslide. It was clear from the outset that this new president was not going to engage in the corruption that was the hallmark of the administrations that had preceded his. He cut his own salary, began instituting the land reform that Emiliano Zapata had fought and died for, and gave labor a fighting chance for union autonomy by removing the corrupt Luis Napoleon Morones as head of the CROM, the most powerful union in Mexico.

Cárdenas also had Calles and Morones exiled from Mexico. In a move cheered by most of the Mexican population, Calles was arrested on the night of April 9, 1936. Calles, Morones, and other Calles “strong-men” were exiled to San Antonio, Texas, bringing the Maximato era to an end. Cárdenas had proven that he had the will to do what needed to be done and the humanitarianism to spare the former president's life. This combination of attributes would be demonstrated again and again during the Cardenas presidency and in his continuing political life for decades afterwards.

Cárdenas continued his history-making advances. In 1938, in response to unfair practices by the foreign-owned oil interests in residence in Mexico, Cárdenas nationalized the oil industry. He agreed to pay the foreign companies for their losses. At the height of the Great Depression, Cárdenas saddled Mexico with a huge debt, but it was one the Mexican people were glad to contribute toward paying down. They brought their jewelry, livestock, cash, and other assets to the federal government to help pay the bill. It was a moment of high nationalistic spirit, and the benefits of taking back the oil industry, which had been in foreign hands since the days of the dictator, Porfirio Díaz, were clear to everyone in the country.

During the Cárdenas years, the rebirth of Mexican art and culture that had begun in 1920, continued. Mexico City in the 1930s and 1940s became one of the artistic centers of the world, even as the Great Depression ended and World War II began in Europe.

In the Spanish Civil War, Cárdenas supported the Spanish Republic in political opposition to Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Thus, unlike many other South American countries, during these years, Mexico could be counted on to oppose fascism – whether in Spain, Italy or Germany. And unlike many countries around the world, including the United States, the Cárdenas administration welcomed refugees from conflict and persecution in those countries. Mexico became a beacon of hope and safety for those attempting to escape tyranny.

When Cárdenas's term ended in 1940, Mexican politics seemed to regress, in terms of the gains dictated by the precepts of the revolution. Many of the reforms he had put into place were dismantled in the years following his presidency, as one party, the PRI (the successor to the PNR, founded by Calles) rose to dominate Mexican politics for the next fifty years.

From the end of his presidency until his death in 1970, Lazaro Cárdenas championed human rights, and was a tireless fighter for peace. His son, Cuauhtémoc, continued in his father's footsteps, challenging the long-standing PRI party by running for president in 1988.