History of Mexico

From Revolution to Governance, 1940-82

Ávila Camacho's Wartime Presidency, 1940-46

Cárdenas's nomination of Manuel Ávila Camacho, a relatively unknown career military officer, as the PRM candidate for the presidency in 1940 surprised many Mexicans. Numerous party members were aware of Ávila Camacho's conservative tendencies. Moreover, in contrast to the anticlerical position held by most Mexican politicians since the Revolution, during the presidential campaign Ávila Camacho had stated that he was a believer and a Roman Catholic. The new president took office on December 1, 1940, and, as expected, did not push for enforcement of the most populist articles of the constitution. Land reform was slowed down, and its emphasis shifted from reconstituting ejidos to promoting private ownership of land.

The conservative bent of the new administration was especially evident in the administration's attitude toward labor. Fidel Velásquez, a more conservative labor leader, replaced Lombardo Toledano as head of the CTM. The government withdrew much of its support for organized labor, and controls were placed on the rights of strikers. By 1942 the CTM had lost textile and building industry workers, who felt alienated from the new leadership. Although the Ávila Camacho administration created the Mexican Institute of Social Security (Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social--IMSS), the program initially benefited only a small portion of the labor force.

Changes were also apparent in education as the Ávila Camacho administration introduced new education programs. Greater emphasis was placed on private schools, and the government started a campaign that encouraged each literate citizen to teach another person to read and write. Launched with much fanfare, the impact of the campaign was short-lived, however.

Ávila Camacho's administration witnessed the expansion of World War II in Europe. Exercising its independence from the United States, Mexico initially attempted to remain neutral after the United States entered the war in December 1941. However, when two Mexican tankers were sunk by German submarines in May 1942, Mexico declared war on Germany. The declaration received full support from congress and most of the Mexican population. On September 16, 1942, several former presidents held an unprecedented meeting at the National Palace for a public display of solidarity in the face of war. Those present included former presidents de la Huerta, Calles, Portes Gil, Ortiz Rubio, Rodríguez, and Cárdenas. A comprehensive national security policy was developed to counter Axis espionage against Mexico and to defend Mexican oil fields and military industries. Mexico participated in the war effort mainly as a supplier of labor and raw materials for the United States, although a Mexican fighter squadron fought and sustained casualties in the Pacific theater.

In 1942 the Mexican and United States governments negotiated a program to enlist migrant Mexican workers (braceros ) to assist in harvesting United States crops. The program was initially intended to supplement the depleted rural labor force in the United States, who had been displaced by the war effort. The bracero program, which continued into the 1960s, subsequently lured hundreds of thousands of Mexican laborers with and without legal documentation to seek employment across the border.

By early 1946, the PRM's political power base included new groups in Mexican society. The party now had representatives of the business and industrial communities within its popular sector. As a sign that the official party viewed the transitional phase of the Revolution as ended, officials decided to rename the party the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional--PRI). The same January 1946 convention nominated Miguel Alemán Valdés to be the PRI candidate for the presidential term of 1946-52.

The Alemán Sexenio, 1946-52

The Alemán presidency marked a turning point in contemporary Mexican politics. With the election of Alemán (a lawyer by profession), the torch was passed to a new generation of civilian politicians who had not participated in the military campaigns of the Revolution. The age of the generals in Mexican politics was over. Henceforth, the military assumed a low profile, surrendering many of its institutional prerogatives to a civilian-dominated PRI.

Alemán's presidency was also noteworthy because it represented the consolidation in power of a PRI faction that was more probusiness and less nationalistic than the Cárdenas wing of the party. One of Alemán's first acts as president was to reaffirm amicable postwar relations between Mexico and the United States. In a symbolic gesture of rapprochement, United States President Harry S Truman and President Alemán visited each other's countries. On September 2, 1947, Mexico was among the signatories of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Treaty), which outlined a system of mutual defense on the part of Western Hemisphere nations against outside aggression.

The Alemán administration attempted to promote industrialization and economic growth by embarking on an extensive program of infrastructure improvements. Major flood control and irrigation projects were built in northern Mexico, greatly expanding the opportunities for large-scale agribusiness. The exploitation of cheap hydroelectric power and the expansion of the national road network were undertaken to help spur heavy industry and tourism. By the end of Alemán's sexenio in 1952, Mexico had four times as many kilometers of paved roads (roughly 16,000 kilometers) as in 1946. Another legacy of the Alemán era was the completion in 1952 of a new campus--in what was then suburban Mexico City--for the flagship of the Mexican university system, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México--UNAM).

Alemán was viewed as much less sympathetic than his immediate predecessors to the demands of labor and the rural populations of central and southern Mexico. To promote growth without generating high inflation, the government acted through the PRI-affiliated unions to suppress the wage demands of labor. The government also began a new strategy of "stabilizing development." The new program was based on promoting industrialization through import substitution, heavy subsidies of industry, and maintaining low inflation by suppressing real wages.

Further straying from the ideals of the Revolution, Alemán's administration became noted for its tolerance of official corruption. The government's growing involvement in the economy provided ample opportunities for kickbacks and other forms of illicit enrichment, and several senior government officials became wealthy while in office. The scale of official venality was enough to spark a public outcry and protests from within the PRI. To restore popular faith in the ruling party, Alemán nominated Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, a former governor of Veracruz, minister of interior, and a man noted for his impeccable character, to succeed him in 1952.

The Ruiz Cortines Sexenio, 1952-58

Despite his friendship with Alemán, Ruiz Cortines set out to eliminate the corruption and graft that had tainted the previous administration. In his inaugural speech on December 1, 1952, Ruiz Cortines promised to require complete honesty from officials in his government and asked that they make public their financial assets. He later fired several officials on charges of corruption.

The economy continued to grow with government support. The government, for example, devaluated the peso, a move that helped to encourage investors from abroad. Ruiz Cortines did not promote a new construction boom but rather channeled money into public health programs. The IMSS, under the directorship of Antonio Ortiz Mena, was expanded to provide medical services at hospitals and clinics throughout the country, and a more comprehensive system of benefits for eligible workers and their families was created.

By the end of Ruiz Cortines's sexenio in 1958, three consecutive administrations had pursued probusiness policies that departed significantly from the agrarian populism practiced by Cárdenas. Import-substitution industrialization had generated rapid growth in urban areas, while land reform was scaled back and redefined to emphasize individual private farming. Meanwhile, Mexico's population more than doubled in less than thirty years, from 16 million in the mid-1930s to 34 million in 1960. The resulting population pressure, as well as the concentration of services and new jobs in urban areas, encouraged massive urban migration--most notably in and around Mexico City. The proliferation of urban shantytowns in the capital's outskirts became a growing symbol of the imbalance between urban and rural development in postwar Mexico.

With wartime calls for unity and austerity now well past, the Cárdenas faction of the PRI reemerged as a powerful force acting on behalf of the party's core agrarian and labor constituencies. Former President Cárdenas (who continued to wield considerable influence in national politics) persuaded the party to nominate one of his followers, Adolfo López Mateos, as the PRI candidate for the 1958 presidential election.

López Mateos and the Return to Revolutionary Policies, 1958-64

The election of López Mateos to the presidency in August 1958 restored to power the PRI faction that had historically emphasized nationalism and redistribution of land. As in past elections, the PRI won handily over the conservative candidate of the opposition National Action Party (Partido de Acción Nacional--PAN) with an overwhelming 90 percent of the vote. Although the PRI regularly engaged in vote buying and fraud at the state and local levels, presidential races were not credibly contested by the opposition, and little interference was required to keep the official party in office. Although the 1958 election was the first in which women were able to vote for the president, the enfranchisement of women did not significantly affect the outcome of the presidential race.

López Mateos was widely viewed as the political heir of Cárdenas, whose nationalism and social welfare programs had left a lasting impact on Mexican political culture. After nearly two decades of urban bias in government policy, López Mateos took tentative steps to redress the imbalance between urban and rural Mexico. His administration distributed more than 12 million hectares of land to ejidos and family farmers and made available new land for small-scale cultivation in southern Mexico. In addition, the IMSS program was introduced into rural areas, and major public health campaigns were launched to reduce tuberculosis, poliomyelitis, and malaria.

Whereas the government regained much of the support of agrarian interests, López Mateos's relations with organized labor were strained. As Ruiz Cortínes's labor minister, López Mateos had gained a reputation for fairness and competence in the settlement of labor disputes. As president, however, he opposed the growing radicalization and militancy among elements of organized labor and acted forcefully to put down several major strikes. Reflecting a growing ideological polarization of national politics, the government imprisoned several prominent communists, including the famed muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. Relations between labor and the government eased somewhat in 1962, when López Mateos revived a constitutional provision that called for labor to share in the profits of large firms.

Following Cárdenas's example, López Mateos restored a strongly nationalist tone to Mexican foreign policy, albeit not with the fervor that had characterized his populist predecessor. In 1960 the government began to buy foreign utility concessions (as opposed to expropriating them, as Cárdenas had done). Some of the larger companies bought were Electric Industries (Impulsora de Empresas Eléctricas) (from the American and Foreign Power Company of the United States), Mexican Light and Power Company (from a Belgian firm), and Mexican Electric Company (Industria Eléctrica Mexicana) (from the United States-based California Power Company). The film industry, previously owned by United States firms, was also brought under Mexican control. Mexican nationalism was most evident in its response to United States-led efforts to isolate the communist regime of Fidel Castro Ruz in Cuba. Alone among the members of the Organization of American States (OAS), Mexico refused to break diplomatic relations with Cuba or to observe the hemispheric embargo of the island approved at the OAS's Punta del Este Conference in 1962.

Authoritarianism Unveiled, 1964-70

By choosing his minister of interior, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, to succeed him, López Mateos yielded to growing concerns within the PRI about maintaining internal order and spurring economic growth. As government minister, Díaz Ordaz had been responsible for some very controversial policy decisions, including the arrest of Siqueiros, the violent suppression of several strikes, and the annulment of local elections in Baja California Sur, in which the PAN had received most of the votes.

Business interests once again received priority, and students and labor were kept under control so as not to disrupt economic growth. Antigovernment protests reached unprecedented proportions, however, in the demonstrations of the summer of 1968, just prior to the Summer Olympic Games that were to be held in Mexico City in October. From July through October, academic life in the city and throughout Mexico was halted as students rioted. The antigovernment demonstrations were ignited by student grievances, but many discontented sectors of society joined the students.

As the Olympic Games approached, the PRI and Díaz Ordaz were preparing the country to show foreign visitors that Mexico was politically stable and economically sound. Student unrest grew louder and more violent, however. Student demands included freedom for all political prisoners, dismissal of the police chief, disbanding of the antiriot police, guarantees of university autonomy, and the repeal of the "law of social dissolution" (regulating the punishment of acts of subversion, treason, and disorder). Luis Echeverría Álvarez, the new interior minister, agreed to discuss the issues with the students but changed his mind when they demanded that the meeting be televised. The students, their demands unmet, escalated the scale and frequency of their protests. In late August, they convened the largest antigovernment demonstration to date, rallying an estimated 500,000 protesters in the main plaza of the capital. Seeking to bring a halt to the demonstrations, Díaz Ordaz ordered the army to take control of UNAM and to arrest the student movement leaders.

To show that they had not been silenced, the students called for another rally at the Plaza of the Three Cultures in Mexico City's Tlatelolco district. On October 2, 1968, a crowd of about 5,000 convened on the plaza in defiance of the government crackdown. Armed military units and tanks arrived on the scene and surrounded the demonstrators, while military helicopters hovered menacingly overhead. The helicopters began to agitate the crowd by dropping flares into the densely packed gathering. Shortly thereafter, shots rang out (according to some accounts, the shooting was started by the military, while others claim the first shots were fired at soldiers by antigovernment snipers in the surrounding buildings). The panicked crowd suddenly surged toward the military cordon, which reacted by shooting and bayoneting indiscriminately into the crowd. Estimates of the number of people killed ranged from several dozen to more than 400. Despite the violence, the Olympic Games proceeded on schedule. However, the Tlatelolco massacre had a profound and lasting negative effect on the PRI's public image. The authoritarian aspects of the political system had been starkly brought to the surface.

Reconciliation and Redistribution, 1970-76

Despite the groundswell of urban protest unleashed against the government, the PRI candidate easily won the 1970 presidential election. The new president, Echeverría, was expected to continue his predecessor's policies. Contrary to expectations, however, once in office Echeverría swung the ideological pendulum of the regime back to the left. The government embarked on an ambitious public relations campaign to regain the loyalty of leftist intellectuals and the young. To solidify the support of its core labor and agrarian constituencies, the PRI also launched a barrage of social welfare programs.

Echeverría was determined to coopt the dissatisfied elements of the middle class that had become radicalized during the 1960s. Government patronage became an important mechanism of rapprochement. Thousands of intellectuals and young leftists were given posts in the government's bloated bureaucracy, and prominent student leaders were brought into the president's cabinet. To attract support from the young--who now represented a majority of the population--Echeverría lowered the voting age to eighteen, and the ages for election to the Senate and Chamber of Deputies to thirty and twenty-one, respectively. In addition, he freed most of the demonstrators arrested during the raid on UNAM and the Tlatelolco massacre.

Despite his aversion to domestic communist movements, Echeverría became a champion of leftist causes in Latin America. He was a strong advocate of the proposed "new international economic order" to redistribute power and wealth more equitably between the industrialized countries and the developing world. Demonstrating his independence from the United States, Echeverría became only the second Latin American head of state to visit Castro's Cuba. In 1974 he warmly received Hortensia Allende, widow of leftist Chilean president Salvador Allende Gossens, as a political refugee from Chile's right-wing military dictatorship.

In domestic economic affairs, the Echeverría administration ended the policies of stabilizing development that had been pursued since the early 1950s. Echeverría abandoned Mexico's commitment to growth with low inflation and undertook instead to stimulate the economy and redistribute wealth through massive public-spending programs. The new policy of "shared development" was premised on heavy state investment in the economy and the promotion of consumption and social welfare for the middle and lower classes.

The focus of Echeverría's social welfare policies was the Mexican countryside. Despite ample evidence that the ejidos were less efficient than private farming, Echeverría resumed the redistribution of land to ejidos and expanded credit subsidies to cooperative agriculture. The government also pursued an extensive program of rural development that increased the number of schools and health clinics in rural communities. By refusing to defend rural property owners from squatters, the Echeverría government encouraged a wave of land invasions that reduced land pressure in the countryside but seriously undermined investor confidence.

In addition to providing broad subsidies for agriculture, the government embarked on several costly infrastructure projects, such as the US$1 billion Lázaro Cárdenas-Las Truchas Steel Plant (Sicartsa) steel complex in Michoacán state. State subsidies to stimulate private and parastatal investment grew from 16 billion pesos (US$1.2 billion) in 1970 to 428 billion pesos (US$18.6 billion) by 1980. Although this type of spending generated high economic growth throughout the 1970s, much of the money was either wasted in unnecessary and inefficient projects or lost to corruption. The government relied heavily on deficit spending to finance its domestic programs, incurring heavy debt obligations with foreign creditors to make up the shortfall in public revenues.

Under Echeverría, the historically uneasy relationship between the PRI and the national business community took a sharp turn for the worse. Echeverría's antibusiness rhetoric and the government's interference in the economy deterred new foreign and domestic investment. Although the government avoided full-scale expropriations, it increased the state's role in the economy by buying out private shareholders and assuming control of hundreds of domestic enterprises. By the end of Echeverría's term, the government owned significant shares in more than 1,000 corporations nationwide.

Despite warning signs of a looming financial crisis, deficit spending continued unabated throughout Echeverría's sexenio . The public sector's foreign debt rose by 450 percent to US$19.6 billion in six years, while the peso was allowed to become overvalued. By the end of his sexenio , Echeverría was facing the consequences of his administration's unrestrained spending. In August 1976, mounting currency speculation, large-scale capital flight, and lack of confidence in Mexico's ability to meet its debt repayment schedule forced the government to devalue the peso for the first time since 1954. The outgoing president bequeathed to his successor, José López Portillo y Pacheco, an economy in recession and burdened by severe structural imbalances. The only bright spot in an otherwise bleak economic picture was the discovery in the mid-1970s of vast reserves of oil under the Bahía de Campeche and in the states of Chiapas and Tabasco.

Recovery and Relapse, 1976-82

President López Portillo was inaugurated on December 1, 1976, amid a political and economic crisis inherited from the previous administration. A rising foreign debt and inflation rate, a 55 percent currency devaluation, and a general climate of economic uncertainty that had spurred capital flight plagued the economy. The new administration also faced a general lack of confidence in government institutions. Unexpected help arrived as a result of the confirmation of the large oil reserves. The Mexican government chose to follow a policy of increasing oil production only gradually to prevent an inflationary spiral that would disrupt economic recovery. Nevertheless, by 1981 Mexico had become the fourth largest producer of oil in the world, its production having tripled between 1976 and 1982. While production increased, so did the price per barrel of crude oil.

The immense revenues generated by oil exports during the administration of López Portillo gave Mexico a greater degree of confidence in international affairs, particularly in its ever important relations with the United States. The government, for example, refused to participate in the United States-led boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow. When the two countries could not agree on the price of natural gas, Mexico flared its excess resources rather than sell to the United States below its asking price. Also in defiance of United States wishes, Mexico recognized the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front rebels in El Salvador as a representative political force. These steps occurred although the United States remained Mexico's major oil customer and its major source of investment capital.

As in so many developing countries, oil did not solve all of Mexico's problems, however. The oil industry grew rapidly but could not employ the ever-increasing ranks of the unskilled. Oil made Mexico a rich nation in which a majority of the people continued to live in poverty. Foreign banks and the international lending agencies, seeing Mexico as a secure investment with abundant energy resources, flooded the country with loans that kept the peso overvalued.

Mexico History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress