Plutarco Elías Calles

Plutarco Elías Calles (1877-1945) was a Mexican revolutionary leader and president whose constitutional and key economic reforms provided a solid base for Mexico's later governmental stability.

Plutarco Calles was born in Guaymas, Sonora, on Sept. 25, 1877, and orphaned 4 years later. Stocky and iron-jawed, he taught school briefly and was a bartender before entering the ranks of the revolution supporting Francisco Madero against Porfirio Diaz and aiding Venustiano Carranza against Victoriano Huerta and Francisco "Pancho" Villa.

As military commander, provisional governor, and then constitutional governor of Sonora from 1915 to 1919, Calles established a record for the implementation of revolutionary ideals in terms of anticlericalism, agrarian reform, and educational progress. In 1919 he became secretary of industry, labor, and commerce in the Carranza government, resigning to participate in Álvaro Obregón's presidential campaign.

A key mover of the rebellion of Agua Prieta which overthrew Carranza, Calles served as secretary of war in the De la Barra interim government and as secretary of the interior during the presidency of Obregón (1920-1924). Obregón successfully backed Calles as his successor against the political and military challenge of Adolfo de la Huerta, who attracted conservative and dissident revolutionary support.

Calles began a decade of dominance of Mexican political life—4 years as president and 6 years as the "power behind the throne." His policy was foreshadowed by his record in Sonora. Agrarian reform was pushed, with the goal of establishing ultimately a nation of individual landholders. Labor was favored, Luis Morones and his Regional Confederation of Mexican Labor dominating the scene. The educational experimentation of the Obregón period now became national policy. Calles moved to implement and enforce constitutional provisions regarding religious matters and foreign ownership of petroleum resources.

One result was conflict between the Church and the state in the form of an economic boycott, suspension of religious services, and the armed rebellion of the Cristeros. Through the mediation of U.S. Ambassador Dwight Morrow an arrangement with the Church was worked out and made effective in 1929. Important for Mexico's future development were the establishment by Calles of the Central Bank of Mexico and the National Bank of Agricultural Credit and the initiation of programs for the construction of roads, dams, and irrigation projects.

Calles effected a constitutional change which made possible Obregón's return to the presidency. However, after election and prior to inauguration Obregón was assassinated by a religious fanatic. Calles publicly proclaimed the end of the era of caudillos, or military strong men. While not again occupying the presidency, he did remain the jefe máximo, or most powerful chief, behind three successive executives between 1928 and 1934. These were years of transition, with rule by a wealthy clique, a slowing down of revolutionary reform, and cynicism, corruption, and depression. A major military challenge in 1929 was suppressed, the official party was established as a means of ensuring peaceful transfers of power, and the Federal Labor Code was promulgated. The need for a reaffirmation of revolutionary commitment resulted in the drafting of an official Six-Year Plan in 1934 and the election of Lázaro Cárdenas as president. When Calles criticized the new executive's handling of labor disturbances, Cárdenas forced him to leave the country. Calles was permitted to return to Mexico in 1941 and died there on Oct. 19, 1945.

Further Reading on Plutarco Elías Calles

There is a serious need for biographical studies of the Mexican leaders of the 1920s. A good chronicle of political events of that period is in John W. F. Dulles, Yesterday in Mexico: 1919-1936 (1961). Howard F. Cline, United States and Mexico (1953; rev. ed. 1963), gives an excellent analysis of the policy and importance of the Sonoran "dynasty." Harry Bernstein, Modern and Contemporary Latin America (1952), discusses economic and social changes during the period. Ernest Gruening, Mexico and Its Heritage (1928), is rich in material on regional and local politics. Harold Nicolson, Dwight Morrow (1935), discusses the diplomatic negotiations between Morrow and Calles. General surveys containing relevant material include Henry Bamford Parkes, A History of Mexico (1938; 3d ed. rev. 1960), and Lesley Byrd Simpson, Many Mexicos (1941; 4th ed. rev. 1966).