Lázaro Cárdenas was one of the most respected presidents of Mexico. His rigid honesty, integrity, and radicalism shaped his politics. He joined the Mexican revolutionary forces in 1913 and made general in 1920. As the result of his military service, he became governor of Michoacan in 1928. The concerns Cárdenas had for the poor and common people shaped his actions. Thus, he built schools and roads and organized agricultural projects for the peasants. After being a state governor, Cárdenas served as Mexico’s secretary of state, and in 1934 he was elected president of Mexico.
Cárdenas’s openness and avant-garde leadership marked his actions as president. He attempted to make real the social justice ideals of the Mexican Revolution expressed in the Constitution of 1917. Cárdenas focused directly on the articles that addressed Mexico’s propriety of the land and its natural resources as well as the commitment to achieve improved living conditions and respect for the workers’ and peasants’ rights.
The first action Cárdenas took as president was to cut his salary by 50%. He made a stance for the presidency to be a position for serving people and not a space for becoming rich and powerful, as it had been used previously. For that reason, he also dedicated one day of the week for holding public meetings, especially for the poor in order to give them an opportunity to be heard. Cárdenas organized an agrarian reform effort that included the distribution of land to campesinos (farmers). The amount of land he distributed was about 18 million hectares (or 49 million acres). Cárdenas helped the campesinos create ejidos (communal or collective farmlands) for establishing small agrarian production units for their economic independence and food self-sufficiency.
In 1938, Cárdenas expropriated and nationalized the oil industry. The oil companies had been owned by foreign interests and had exploited Mexico’s natural resources. A dispute among owners and workers sparked the conflict with Cárdenas. Cárdenas attempted mediation, but the owners’ unwillingness to yield led them to challenge and resist his resolution. Because of those differences, Cárdenas made the decision to nationalize the oil and expropriate all foreign oil companies. Mexican people from all social classes supported the action. The U.K. and the U.S. governments tried to economically boycott Mexico. However, the outbreak of World War II made oil a sought-after resource that compelled the boycotters to negotiate with Mexico for its oil supply.
Cárdenas considered education as a necessity for supporting Mexico’s progress. As an example, he created technological higher education institutions with the purpose of preparing highly qualified technical personnel for oil extraction and production. Cárdenas also was recognized for supporting political refugees from all over the world, allowing them to live in Mexico, including the likes of Trotsky from Russia and 40,000 Spaniards during Spain’s civil war. Those actions won him national acclaim; however, by the end of his life, he was criticized for supporting Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution against U.S. interests. He also advocated for the liberation of students that were incarcerated during the Mexican student movement of 1968. Although some people saw these actions as a signal of his age, it could be said that Cárdenas was just being coherent with the social justice principles he advocated for through his participation in the Mexican Revolution. He is still an icon of the Mexican left.
Mexican soldier and president (1934-40), a social reformer who helped modernize the country. During his presidency the state oil...
1895-1970 • General and President Lázaro Cárdenas was president of Mexico from 1934 to 1940, a period distinguished by a high level of peasant...
As president (1934-40) Cárdenas strove to realize many of the promises of the post-1910 revolutionary movement. He...