Lázaro Cárdenas

Lázaro Cárdenas (1895-1970) was a Mexican revolutionary leader and president. During his administration he revitalized the people's faith in the revolution by implementing extensive land reforms, expropriating foreign-owned properties, and nationalizing the oil industry.

Lázaro Cárdenas was born of mixed white and Tarascan Indian ancestry in Jiquilpán de Juárez, Michoacán, on May 21, 1895. In order to support his family he worked in the local jail. When the Madero revolution broke out, he released his prisoners and together they went to join the maderistas.

After the Convention of Aguascalientes, Cárdenas fought briefly in the army of Pancho Villa but in 1915 joined the constitutionalists. In the revolt of Agua Prieta he took the side of Álvaro Obregón. During the 1923 rebellion he commanded loyal forces in Michoacán. The following year he was promoted to brigadier general and given command of military operations in the Huasteca, Michoacán, and the Isthmus. In 1928 he became governor of Michoacán, serving until 1932. He actively supported land reform. To his reputation for honest service in the military he added a comparable reputation in civil administration.

During the succeeding years Cárdenas served as president of the government party, minister of interior, and secretary of war and marine. In 1934 the Calles group, intending him to play the straw man for their continued control of the government, misjudged Cárdenas and selected him as the presidential candidate. Cárdenas, however, won and entered office with a radical mandate in the new Six Year Plan and proceeded to carry it out. He gave the people personal attention and patience. His 6-year term was marked by a reaffirmation of revolutionary faith and a revitalization of revolutionary processes.

When Calles challenged his leniency with labor, Cárdenas forced him to leave Mexico. Labor reached unprecedented power as it reorganized under Lombardo Toledano in the Mexican Confederation of Labor. Cárdenas expropriated 45 million acres of land and distributed them to the ejidos, including new collective types with large financial and technical support in the cotton region of La Laguna and the henequén area of Yucatán. The nationalization of the railroads was completed, and in 1938, in an action described as Mexico's declaration of economic independence, foreign petroleum holdings were expropriated and nationalized.

A Department of Indian Affairs was established, and Mexico hosted the First Inter-American Indigenist Congress. After some initial friction a conciliatory policy was adopted toward the Church, and Bassol's strongly socialistic educational program was moderated with greater stress on nationalistic goals. In 1938, Cárdenas crushed the last significant regional revolt which was led by Saturnino Cedillo in San Luis Potosi. Mexico opened its doors to political exiles, including Leon Trotsky and a considerable number of Republican Spanish refugees.

In the presidential election of 1940 Cárdenas backed moderately conservative Manuel Á vila Camacho and served him as secretary of defense in 1943. For more than a quarter century Cárdenas remained a political force to be reckoned with. In 1960, at the time of the Bay of Pigs episode, he took a strongly pro-Castro position, consistent with his noninterventionist sentiments. However, Cárdenas consistently confounded those who have tried to associate his name with violence and the disruption of the political process. In October 1968 he strongly urged the students to end violence, and he remained an advocate of rapid reform, but by peaceful means. He died on Oct. 19, 1970, in Mexico City.

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Further Reading on Lázaro Cárdenas

The definitive biography of Cárdenas remains to be written. A sympathetic view is William C. Townsend, Lázaro Cárdenas, Mexican Democrat (1952). An equally sympathetic account of the early years of his administration, written from a Marxist viewpoint, is Nathaniel and Sylvia Weyl, The Reconquest of Mexico: The Years of Lázaro Cárdenas (1939). Frank Tannenbaum, who was closely associated with Cárdenas, wrote one of the best analyses of his character and achievements in Mexico: The Struggle for Peace and Bread (1950). A specialized study of the labor movement is Joe C. Ashby, Organized Labor and the Mexican Revolution under Lázaro Cárdenas (1967).

Additional Biography Sources

Townsend, William Cameron, Lázaro Cárdenas, Mexican democrat, Waxhaw, N.C.: International Friendship, 1979.