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Lázaro Cárdenas
Seal of the Government of Mexico.svg
44th President of Mexico

In office
December 1, 1934 – November 30, 1940
Preceded by Abelardo L. Rodríguez
Succeeded by Manuel Ávila Camacho
Governor of Michoacán

In office
Preceded by Luis Méndez
Succeeded by Dámaso Cárdenas
Personal details
Born Lázaro Cárdenas del Río
(1895-05-21)May 21, 1895
Jiquilpan, Michoacán
Died October 19, 1970(1970-10-19) (aged 75)
Mexico City, Mexico
Nationality Mexican
Political party Party of the Mexican Revolution
Spouse(s) Amalia Solórzano

Lázaro Cárdenas del Río (May 21, 1895 – October 19, 1970) was President of Mexico from 1934 to 1940.

Early life

General Lázaro Cárdenas

Lázaro Cárdenas was born on May 21, 1895 in a lower-middle-class family in the village of Jiquilpan, Michoacán. He supported his family (including his mother and seven younger siblings) from age 16 after the death of his father. By the age of 18 he had worked as a tax collector, a printer's devil, and a jailkeeper. Although he left school at the age of eleven, he used every opportunity to educate himself and read widely throughout his life, especially works of history.

Cárdenas set his sights on becoming a teacher, but was drawn into politics and the military during the Mexican Revolution after Victoriano Huerta overthrew President Francisco Madero. He backed Plutarco Elías Calles, and after Calles became president, Cárdenas became governor of Michoacán in 1928. During his four years as governor, Cárdenas initiated a modest re-distribution of land at the state level, encouraged the growth of peasant and labour organizations, and made improvements to education at a time when it was neglected by the federal government. Cárdenas ensured that teachers were paid on time, made personal inspections of many classrooms, and opened a hundred new rural schools. His grassroots style of governing was such that during his time as governor, Cárdenas made important policy decisions based on direct information received from the public rather than on the advice of his confidants.[1]

Presidential career

Calles continued to dominate Mexico after his presidency with administrations that were his puppets. After having two of his hand-picked men put into the position, the PNR balked at his first choice, Manuel Pérez Treviño, in 1932. Instead they selected Cárdenas to be the ruling party's presidential candidate, and Calles went along with it, thinking he could control him as he had the previous two. This however, was not so. Cárdenas's first move once he took office late in 1934 was to have his presidential salary cut in half. Even more surprising moves would follow. After establishing himself in the presidency, Cárdenas and the Mexican Congress turned on Calles and condemned his continued war-like persecution of the Catholic Church.[2] In 1936, Cárdenas had Calles and twenty of his corrupt associates arrested and deported to the United States,[3] a decision that was greeted with great enthusiasm by the majority of the Mexican public. During the course of his presidency, Cárdenas became known for his progressive program of building roads and schools and promoting education, with twice as much federal money allocated to rural education as all his predecessors combined.[1] He also promoted land reform and social security during his time in office. Regarded as a great social reformer, Cardenas’s agrarian land reforms and extensive building programme of country schools helped better the lot of the rural poor.[4]

During his time in office, Cárdenas openly sought the National Revolutionary Party's six-year plan of social and political reform.[3] The plan called for 1) restoration of the system of ejidos (common lands) through a strong agrarian program to combat the domination of the large haciendas; 2) modern secular schools that would teach rationalist doctrines and combat the "fanaticism" of the Church; and 3) workers' cooperatives to oppose the excesses of industrial capitalism.[3] Cárdenas subsequently decreed the end of the use of capital punishment (in Mexico, usually in the form of a firing squad). Capital punishment has been banned in Mexico since that time. The control of the republic by Cárdenas and the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) predecessor Partido de la Revolución Mexicana without widespread bloodshed effectively signalled the end of rebellions that began with the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Despite the fact that Cárdenas enforced a policy of socialist education, relations with the church also improved greatly during his time in office.[5]

Cárdenas was perhaps the only Mexican President who never employed armored cars or bodyguards to protect himself. In the presidential campaign of 1934, he travelled through much of the republic that was not accessible by train, by auto and horseback, accompanied only by Rafael M Pedrajo by a chauffeur and an aide-de-camp. This fearlessness generated widespread respect for Cárdenas by the electorate. He became the first occupant of the current official presidential residence of Los Pinos, and converted the previous residence, the ostentatious Chapultepec Castle, into the National Museum of History.

Russian exile Leon Trotsky was welcomed into Mexico by Cárdenas, reportedly to counter accusations that Cárdenas was a Stalinist. Cárdenas, like his 1920s predecessor Álvaro Obregón, understood that left wing and labor union support was critical to maintain control of the republic. The bloated and corrupt CROM union of Luis Morones was marginalized as Cárdenas promoted the "purified" Confederation of Mexican Workers of socialist Vicente Lombardo Toledano. The CTM and Toledano in turn supported Cárdenas' deportation of ex-President Calles. Cárdenas was not as left-wing as Leon Trotsky and other socialists would wish, but still Trotsky described Cárdenas's government as the only honest government in the world.

Cárdenas sought to actively help the Republican government in the Spanish Civil War, but those efforts were largely thwarted by the administration of US President FDR Roosevelt. After the war ended with the defeat of the loyalist Republicans, Cárdenas gave specific instructions to his ambassador and envoys in Europe to give safe haven and protection to all exiles, including Republican President Manuel Azaña, actively sought for deportation by the victorious Nationalists and by the Vichy French. Azaña died in France under Mexican diplomatic protection, but Cárdenas was able to bring to Mexico tens of thousands of refugees, among them distinguished intellectuals who left a lasting imprint in Mexican cultural life. Not only intellectuals were granted asylum in Mexico: from the 4,559 passengers who arrive to Mexico in 1939 on board the ships Sinaia, Ipanema and Mexique, for example, the largest groups were formed by technicians and qualified workers (32%), farmers and ranchers (20%), along with professionals, technicians, workers, business people students and merchants – this last group representing 43% of the total.[6]

Cárdenas is considered by many historians to be the creator of a political system that lasted in Mexico until the end of the 1980s. Central to this project was the organization of corporatist structures for trade unions, campesino (peasant) organizations, and middle-class professionals and office workers within the reorganized ruling party, now renamed the Party of the Mexican Revolution (PRM). During Cárdenas's presidency, the government enacted a great deal of the land reform that Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata had envisioned, and redistributed 45 million acres (180,000 km2) of hacienda land to peasants.[7] Additionally, urban and industrial workers gained unprecedented unionization rights and wage increases. The railway Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México was nationalized in 1938 and put under a "workers' administration." However, Cárdenas and subsequent presidents also used the PRM and its successor, the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI, to maintain political control; leaders of the worker and campesino organizations delivered votes and suppressed protests in exchange for personal favors and concessions to their constituencies.

At first, the oil nationalization policy earned Cárdenas great respect among Mexicans and in many other Latin America countries.[5] In later years, however, Cárdenas's oil policy proved to be unpopular.[8] Vincente Lombardo Toledano took advantage of Cárdenas' unpopularity and organized pro-Communist militias.[8] This move by Lombardo would lead to the rise of right-wing militias lead by General Juan Andreu as well.[9]

In the elections of 1940, Cárdenas, in a surprise move with hopes of preventing another uprising in the country, endorsed the PRM nominee Manuel Ávila Camacho,[9] a moderate conservative.[10] Cárdnas hoped Ávila would salvage some of his liberal policies[9] and form a compromise candidate compared to his conservative opponent, Juan Andreu. Open and free campaigning was anticipated. The elections, however, did not follow the pattern Cárdenas wished. The campaign was peppered with violent incidents, and on election day the opposing parties hijacked numerous polling places and each issued their own "election results." After "official" results declared Ávila as winner, Andreu threatened revolt and then attempted to set up a parallel government and congress. Nevertheless, Ávila crushed Andreu's forces[8] and assumed office.[8] His inauguration was attended by US Vice President-elect Henry A. Wallace,[8] who was appointed by the US as a "special representative with the rank of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary" for Mexico.[8]

Oil expropriation

Also central to Cárdenas's project were nationalistic economic policies involving Mexico's vast oil production, which had soared following strikes in 1910 in the area known as the "Golden Lane", near Tampico, and which made Mexico the world's second-largest oil producer by 1921, supplying approximately 20 percent of domestic demand in the United States.

Cárdenas's efforts to negotiate with Mexican Eagle, in the managerial control of Royal Dutch/Shell and Standard Oil of New Jersey, were unavailing, and the companies rejected a solution proposed by a presidential commission. So at 9:45 pm on the evening of March 18, 1938, Cárdenas nationalized Mexico's petroleum reserves and expropriated the equipment of the foreign oil companies in Mexico. The announcement inspired a spontaneous six-hour parade in Mexico City; it was followed by a national fund-raising campaign to compensate the companies.

Even though compensation for the expropriated assets was included in this legislation, the act angered the international business community and vexed Western governments, especially the United Kingdom. The government was more worried about the lack of the technical knowledge required to run the refineries. Before leaving, the oil companies had made sure they did not leave behind anything of value to the Mexican government, hoping to force Cárdenas to accept their conditions. Although Mexico was eventually able to restart the oil fields and refineries, production did not rise to pre-takeover levels until after the entry of the United States into World War II, when technical advisers were sent by the United States as part of the overall Allied war effort.

The British severed diplomatic relations with Cárdenas's government, and Mexican oil and other goods were boycotted, despite an international ruling in favor of Mexico's government. However, with the outbreak of World War II, oil became a highly sought-after commodity. Mexico began to export oil to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.[11]

The company that Cárdenas founded, Petróleos Mexicanos (or Pemex), would later be a model for other nations seeking greater control over their own oil and natural gas resources and, 70 years later, it remains the most important source of income for the country, despite weakening finances. Seeing the need to assure the technical expertise needed to run it, Cárdenas founded the National Polytechnic Institute.

Post-presidential career

After his presidential term, Cárdenas served as Mexico's secretary of defense until 1945.

It is often said that Lázaro Cárdenas was the only president associated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) who did not use the office to make himself wealthy. He retired to a modest home by Lake Pátzcuaro and worked the rest of his life supervising irrigation projects and promoting free medical clinics and education for the nation's poor. He also continued to speak out about international political issues and in favor of greater democracy and human rights in Latin America and elsewhere. For example, he was one of the participants in the Russell Tribunal for investigating war crimes in Vietnam.

Lázaro Cárdenas died of cancer in Mexico City on October 19, 1970 at the age of 75. His son Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and his grandson Lázaro Cárdenas Batel have been prominent Mexican politicians.

In his honor, his name was given to a number of cities, towns, and a municipality in Mexico, including Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán, the municipality of Lázaro Cárdenas, Quintana Roo, Lázaro Cárdenas, Jalisco, and other smaller communities. There are also many streets that have been named after him, including the Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico City and highways in Guadalajara, Monterrey and Mexicali. Šetalište Lazaro Kardenasa (Lázaro Cárdenas promenade) in Belgrade, Serbia, is also named after him, as is a street in Barcelona, Spain, and a monument in a park in Madrid dedicated to his memory for his role in admitting defeated Spanish Republicans to Mexico after the Civil War in that country.

In 1955 Lázaro Cárdenas was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize, which was later renamed for Lenin as part of de-Stalinization.


Lázaro Cárdenas mural

President Cárdenas and his administration are given credit by socialists for expanding the distribution of land to the peasants, establishing new welfare programs for the poor, and nationalizing the railroad and petroleum industries, including the oil company that Cárdenas founded, Petróleos Mexicanos. Toward the end of his presidency, unhappy landowners and foreign capitalists began to challenge his programs and his power.

Cárdenas's party, the PRI, continued in power until 2000. This is attributed by some to electoral fraud and coercion. This legacy led his son, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, to form the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) to contest the 1988 presidential election. Since that year, the PRD has become one of the three major parties in Mexico, gaining working class support that was previously enjoyed by the PRI.

In his Political Testament, written the year before his death and published posthumously, he acknowledged that his regime had failed to make the changes in distribution of political power and corruption that were the basis for his presidency and the revolution. He expressed his dismay in the fact that some people and groups were making themselves rich to the detriment of the mainly poor majority. It was said about Cárdenas at his eulogy that, "he was the greatest figure produced by the revolution… an authentic revolutionary who aspired to the greatness of his country, not personal aggrandizement."

Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay patterned his people–oriented government on the principles which he found a biography of Cárdenas written by William Cameron Townsend.


  1. 1.0 1.1 The Course of Mexican History by Michael C. Meyer and William L. Sherman
  2. Monday, Feb. 4, 1935 (February 4, 1935). "MEXICO: Ossy, Ossy, Boneheads". TIME.,9171,788523-2,00.html. Retrieved October 15, 2011. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Tuck, Jim. "Mr. Clean: the phenomenon of Lázaro Cárdenas (1895–1970) : Mexico History". Retrieved October 15, 2011. 
  4. The Dorling Kindersley History Of The World, Plantagenet Somerset Fry, 1994
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Mexico – Cardenismo and the Revolution Rekindled". Retrieved October 15, 2011. 
  6. Pla Brugat, 1989, quoted by Clara E. Lida (1993): Los españoles en México: población, cultura y sociedad, in: Simbiosis de Culturas. Los inmigrantes y su cultura en México, Guillermo Bonfil Batalla (ed.), México DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, pp. 425–454, here p. 443.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Monday, Nov. 25, 1940 (November 25, 1940). "MEXICO: Cárdenas & Almazán Out". TIME.,9171,884186-1,00.html. Retrieved October 15, 2011. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Monday, Nov. 25, 1940 (November 25, 1940). "MEXICO: Cárdenas & Almazán Out". TIME.,9171,884186-2,00.html. Retrieved October 15, 2011. 
  10. "Manuel Ávila Camacho – Articles, Video, Pictures and Facts". Retrieved October 15, 2011. 
  11. Smith 1996, p. 79


  • Becker, Marjorie (1995). Setting the Virgin on Fire: Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán Peasants, and the Redemption of the Mexican Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520084193.
  • La Cultura de Mexico, quoted in Manual Suarez Valles, Lázaro Cárdenas: una vida fecunda al servicio de Mexico (Mexico City, 1971) p. 25.
  • Leonard, Thomas M.; Rankin, Monica; Smith, Joseph; Bratzel, John (ed.) (September 2006). Latin America during World War II. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9780742537415.
  • Lucas, Jeffrey Kent (2010). The Rightward Drift of Mexico's Former Revolutionaries: The Case of Antonio Díaz Soto y Gama. Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press. ISBN 0-7734-3665-0.
  • Riding, Alan (1986). Distant Neighbors. New York City: Vintage Books. ISBN 9780679724414.
  • Smith, Peter H.(April 1996) Talons of the Eagle: Dynamics of U.S.-Latin American Relations (2nd edition). USA: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195083040.
  • Weston, Jr., Charles H.; The Political Legacy of Lázaro Cárdenas The Americas, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Jan., 1983), pp. 383–405 Published by: Academy of American Franciscan History Stable, URL: Accessed: February 26, 2009 14:16
Political offices
Preceded by
Abelardo L. Rodríguez
President of Mexico
Succeeded by
Manuel Ávila Camacho
Preceded by
Luis Méndez
Governor of Michoacán
Succeeded by
Dámaso Cárdenas
Party political offices
Preceded by
Emilio Portes
President of the Institutional Revolutionary Party
Succeeded by
Manuel Pérez Treviño

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