History of Mexico

The Constructive Phase, 1920-40

The Obregón Presidency, 1920-24

The four years of Obregón's presidency (1920-24) were dedicated to beginning to realize the objectives of the constitution of 1917. The military phase of the Revolution was over, and the new administration began to build the bases for the next stage of the revolutionary process of reconstruction.

Obregón's choice for secretary of education was José Vasconcelos, a distinguished lawyer and professor who had rejected the elitist positivism of the científicos . Vasconcelos adapted the curricula of rural schools to Mexican reality by teaching students basic skills in reading, writing, mathematics, history, and geography. Seeking to integrate indigenous peoples into Mexican society through education, Vasconcelos dispatched hundreds of teachers to remote villages. Between 1920 and 1924, more than 1,000 rural schools and more than 2,000 public libraries were established. Vasconcelos also believed in instructing through images, and for that purpose he commissioned works by Mexican muralists--foremost among them Diego Rivera--to decorate public buildings while depicting important events in Mexican history and the ideals of the Revolution.

Obregón's agrarian policies proved more traditional. He believed that the Mexican economy could not afford to forego productivity for the sake of radical agrarian reform. Consequently, redistribution of land proceeded slowly. During his administration, Obregón redistributed 1.2 million hectares to landless peasants, a fraction of the eligible land. Obregón was careful in handling Article 27 of the constitution, which restricted land ownership by foreigners, because of fear of intervention by the United States. Despite Obregón's moderation, United States oil companies launched a campaign against the Mexican government, fearing possible implementation of Article 27. A joint Mexican-United States commission agreed to meet on Bucarelli Street in Mexico City in 1923. Under the terms of the commission agreements, known as the Bucarelli Agreements, Mexico upheld the principle of "positive acts." Mexico agreed that if a foreign enterprise improved the land (in the case of oil, by installing oil drilling equipment), the company's holdings would not be nationalized. The United States fulfilled its part of the agreement by recognizing the Mexican government.

When the time came for the next presidential nomination, Obregón's choice was his secretary of interior, Plutarco Elías Calles. The nomination met with strong opposition from landowners, who feared Calles's radical reputation. Obregón succeeded in imposing his candidate because Calles had the support of labor unions and Mexican nationalists. Overall, Obregón's government disappointed the more radical revolutionary factions, as well as conservative interests, such as the military, wealthy landowners, and the Roman Catholic Church, but it brought Mexico a welcome degree of political stability.

The Calles Presidency, 1924-28

Calles was perhaps Mexico's strongest political figure since the Díaz dictatorship. Calles began seriously to implement agrarian reform by distributing some 3.2 million hectares of land during his term, in addition to developing agricultural credit and irrigation. Labor was still organized into one national union, CROM, run by Calles's crony Luis Morones, even though independent unions were emerging. Public education facilities continued to expand, and Calles's administration built another 2,000 schools.

A major crisis developed, however, between the government and the Roman Catholic Church. In 1926 the archbishop of Mexico City, José Mora y del Río, made public his view that Roman Catholics could not follow the religious provisions of the constitution of 1917. In defiance of the declaration by the archbishop, Calles decided to implement fully several of the constitutional provisions: religious processions were prohibited; the church's educational establishments, convents, and monasteries were closed; foreign priests and nuns were deported; and priests were required to register with the government before receiving permission to perform their religious duties. The church reacted by going on strike on July 31, 1926, and during the three years that followed, no sacraments were administered. Bloody revolts broke out in the states of Michoacán, Puebla, Oaxaca, Zacatecas, Jalisco, and Nayarit. To the call of "Viva Cristo Rey" (Long live Christ the King), bands of militant Roman Catholics, known as Cristeros, attacked government officials and facilities and burned public schools. The government responded with overwhelming force, using the army and its own partisan bands of Red Shirts to fight the Cristeros. The fighting was vicious, with both sides engaging in indiscriminate acts of terrorism against civilians and widespread destruction of property. By 1929 the revolt had been largely contained, and the Cristeros were compelled to lay down their arms and accept most of the government's terms.

The Maximato

In defiance of the "no-reelection" principle that had been one of the key political legacies of the Revolution, Calles supported Obregón's bid to recapture the presidency in 1928. Beginning with the 1928 election, the presidential term was increased from four to six years (sexenio ). Thereafter, the sexenio formed the basis for regular and orderly political succession. Obregón won the election but was assassinated by a religious fanatic before taking office on July 17, 1928. Seeking to ensure political stability, Calles opted not to violate the "no-reelection" principle and instead chose one of his supporters, Emilio Portes Gil, as interim president (December 1928 to February 1930) until new elections could be held.

During the next six years (a period known as the Maximato), Calles exercised behind-the-scenes control over Mexican politics through the actions of three presidents who were essentially his puppets. By 1929 Calles's political machine had found institutional expression as the National Revolutionary Party (Partido Nacional Revolucionario--PNR). Unlike previous parties, which existed only in name during electoral campaigns and dissolved immediately thereafter, the PNR was designed to be a permanent organization run exclusively by Calles as jefe máximo (supreme leader), through which he acted as de facto president. Henceforth, the "official" party of the revolutionary regime served as the dominant political organization in the country and the primary dispenser of official patronage.

In the special election of 1929, called to select a figurehead to serve out the remaining four years of Obregón's term, Calles chose Pascual Ortiz Rubio as the PNR candidate. Ortiz Rubio was opposed by José Vasconcelos, who decried Calles's thinly veiled authoritarian rule and the growing corruption of the older revolutionary generation. Relying on ballot stuffing and other forms of electoral fraud, Ortiz Rubio defeated Vasconcelos with 99.9 percent of the vote. Ortiz Rubio's presidency would be short-lived, however. Having demonstrated excessive independence from Calles once in office, the president was summarily removed by the "supreme leader" in September 1932 and replaced with a more compliant figure, Abelardo Rodríguez.

The last two years of the Maximato under the presidency of Rodríguez witnessed a steady rightward drift of the revolutionary regime. Deciding that the country could not forego agricultural productivity for the sake of equity, Calles ordered a near halt to further land redistribution. Organized labor, which was seen as overly sympathetic to bolshevism and not loyal enough to the PNR, was disavowed and suppressed. By the early 1930s, the government was persecuting the Mexican Communist Party and allowing fascist organizations to terrorize Mexico's small Jewish population.

As the election for the 1934-40 presidential sexenio approached, Calles came under increasing pressure from the left wing of the PNR to pursue with more vigor the social welfare provisions of the constitution of 1917. Seeking to avoid a party split, Calles mollified his party's left wing by nominating Lázaro Cárdenas, a popular state governor, to succeed Rodríguez. Cárdenas had participated in the revolutionary conflict as a constitutionalist military officer, achieving the rank of brigadier general. While governor of his home state of Michoacán, Cárdenas gained recognition for his support of public education and his good relationship with organized labor and peasant organizations. Cárdenas's modest efforts at land reform at the state level earned him a reputation as a populist. Calles, although wary of Cárdenas, nevertheless expected the new president to fall into line much as his three predecessors had done.

Cardenismo and the Revolution Rekindled, 1934-40

Cárdenas immediately showed his independence by becoming the first Mexican president to campaign for office. Once in office, he began his sexenio by adopting several popular measures. He reduced his presidential salary and decided not to move into the national palace, he ordered a resumption of land reform on an unprecedented scale, and he expressed tacit support for a wave of urban strikes. Calles followed these developments with unease, and soon sought to undermine the new president's authority. A definitive break occurred between Calles and Cárdenas when the new president fired many of Calles's followers in the federal bureaucracy and closed down a network of gambling houses owned by Calles's associates. It became apparent that Calles had underestimated Cárdenas's commitment to reform and his political skills. Calles's open opposition to Cárdenas finally earned the former leader forced exile to the United States in 1936. Conservatives from San Luis Potosí staged a rebellion in protest, but the military remained loyal to the president and brought the revolt under control.

Land reform was one of Cárdenas's major accomplishments. In the course of six years, he distributed almost 18 million hectares--more than twice as much land as all of his predecessors combined--to two-thirds of the Mexican peasantry through the system of communal farms or ejidos. Even though agriculture suffered an initial setback because of the loss of economies of scale and a lack of resources and credit, the redistribution proved tremendously popular with the majority of the Mexican people and earned Cárdenas a special place in Mexican history.

Church relations also improved during Cárdenas's presidency. Key was the intervention of Luis María Martínez, archbishop of Mexico. Martínez encouraged Roman Catholics to be more sensitive to the social and economic welfare of society, even though national education continued to be secular and had become socialist in its emphasis. The labor movement also received Cárdenas's attention. The president supported Vicente Lombardo Toledano, a Marxist who reorganized labor into the Confederation of Mexican Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores Mexicanos--CTM). The old CROM had become corrupt through the years, and the CTM became the new, quasi-official representative of Mexican workers, developing programs and pushing for improvement of working conditions and minimum wage schedules.

Cárdenas also reorganized the official Mexican party, the PNR, to broaden its political base. The party was renamed the Party of the Mexican Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Mexicana--PRM), and membership expanded to include representatives of four corporately defined "sectors" of Mexican society: labor, agrarian, military, and popular. The agrarian sector consisted of peasants and rural laborers, and the popular sector included the small but growing middle class, civil servants, and small-scale merchants.

Cárdenas's boldest act was his expropriation in March 1938 of all foreign oil operations on Mexican territory. In response to a strike by oil workers seeking higher wages, the government intervened on their behalf, demanding that the mostly United States-owned companies share more of their technical and managerial expertise with Mexican nationals. When the companies failed to comply with the worker-training demand, Cárdenas issued his sweeping expropriation of all foreign oil operations. Compensation was based on the underreported "book" value of the properties. The expropriation, which Cárdenas considered a natural outcome of the constitutional claim to national ownership of all subsoil resources, temporarily disrupted commerce between Mexico and the United States. Nationalization, however, won Cárdenas widespread praise both within Mexico and throughout Latin America, where nationalist sentiment against foreign commercial interests ran high.

In November 1941, on the eve of United States entry into World War II, Mexico and the United States finally settled their differences over the expropriated properties. Although it was a significant political victory for Cárdenas, the oil expropriation cost Mexico dearly in terms of capital flight and foreign investment. For nearly twenty years, the new national petroleum company, Mexican Petroleum (Petróleos Mexicanos--Pemex) suffered from inadequate technical expertise and outdated equipment.

By the end of his term in 1940, Cárdenas had dramatically transformed the Mexican political system. Continuing the legacy of executive predominance begun by Calles, Cárdenas further augmented presidential power by subordinating the entire apparatus of the official party under the chief executive. In addition, Cárdenas expanded the role of the state in Mexican society, establishing patron-client relationships among various state agencies and the corporately defined interest groups. The "institutionalization" of the Revolution resulted in a situation in which the state became the sole mediator among competing interest groups and the final arbiter of political disputes.

Mexico History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress