Lázaro Cárdenas del Río

Lázaro Cárdenas del Río
Lázaro Cárdenas del Río

Lázaro Cárdenas del Río was president of Mexico from 1934 to 1940 and was drawn into Mexican revolutionary politics during the presidency of Francisco Madero from 1911 until 1913. Born on May 21, 1895, in Jiquilpan de Juárez, Michoacán, Lázaro Cárdenas was the eldest of eight children. When his father died, Lázaro Cárdenas was 16 years old and had to look after the family, working variously for a printer, collecting taxes, and even in the local prison.

In 1913, with the overthrow of Madero, Cárdenas joined the Constitutional Army and served under Álvaro Obregón and then Plutarco Calles. When Obregón signed the Treaty of Teoloyucan, sending rival politician Adolfo de la Huerta into exile, Cárdenas was one of the witnesses.

In 1928 he became a divisional general and also governor of Michoacán, where he became well known for his work on building roads, starting schools, and promoting land reform. Calles was president from 1924 to 1928, and Cárdenas served under him.

When Calles stepped down from office he was succeeded by Emilio Portes Gil, then by Pascual Ortiz Rubio, and then by Abelardo L. Rodríquez. All these men were seen as "puppets" of Calles, and when Cárdenas was nominated as the candidate for the ruling Partido Nacional Revolucionario (National Revolutionary Party), most people believed that Cárdenas was also under the control of Calles.

Cárdenas became president on December 1, 1934, and immediately set about trying to establish an administration that would earn the public's respect. In a surprise move, one of his first acts was to cut his own salary in half.

He then arrested Calles and many of his associates, and some of these were deported, including Calles himself. Sweeping away many of the political and business elite, Cárdenas changed the name of his political party to the Party of the Mexican Revolution. In 1946 it would be renamed the Institutional Revolutionary Party.

He also established a system of government whereby large trade unions, peasant organizations, and middle-class professionals played a major role in the political party, which took on a corporatist structure. Introducing a massive land reform program, Cárdenas granted large pay raises to industrial workers.

The money to pay for these developments was largely drawn from Mexican oil revenue, which followed the nationalization of the petroleum reserves. Cárdenas tried to negotiate with Mexican Eagle, a company controlled by Standard Oil of New Jersey, and Royal Dutch/Shell. However, oil executives refused a plan to establish a presidential commission to look into compensation for the companies.

Eventually, on March 18, 1938, the oil companies agreed to accept 26 million pesos in compensation but rejected some of the other terms. For Cárdenas, the decision came too late, and at 9:45 p.m. he nationalized the oil reserves. This resulted in some 200,000 people marching in the streets of Mexico City to celebrate for the next six hours.

On the home front, Cárdenas also had to deal with an internal rebellion led by General Saturnino Cedillo. It was believed that he had been supported by foreign oil companies, and Cárdenas tried to negotiate personally with the rebel commander. With the death of Cedillo in January 1939, Mexico's last military rebellion came to an end.

For his foreign policy, Cárdenas was resolutely left wing and issued strong condemnations of the invasion of Abyssinia by Mussolini, the Japanese actions in China, the German Anschluss of Austria, and the German persecution of the Jews. Britain severed diplomatic relations with Mexico, which, curiously, led to the Mexicans' selling oil to Nazi Germany.

With the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, Cárdenas proclaimed his support for the Spanish Republic, supplying weapons and ammunition. At the end of the war, he allowed 30,000 Spanish republicans to migrate to Mexico. After the outbreak of World War II, Cárdenas condemned the German invasions of Belgium and the Netherlands and also the Soviet Union for invading Finland.

After his term as president ended on December 1, 1940, Cárdenas became secretary of defense until 1945. Never wealthy, he retired to a modest house on Lake Pátzcuaro and died of cancer on October 19, 1970. His son, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano, contested the Mexican presidential elections in 1988, and his grandson, Lázaro Cárdenas Batel, was also prominent in Mexican politics.