Lázaro Cárdenas del Rio: Mexico’s Mr. Clean

Lazaro Cardenas del Rio
Lazaro Cardenas del Rio. Photographer Unknown

Lázaro Cárdenas del Rio (1895-1970) was President of Mexico from 1934 to 1940. Considered one of the most honest and hardworking Presidents in the history of Latin America, he provided strong, clean leadership at a time when his country most needed it. Today he is revered among Mexicans for his zeal in eliminating corruption, and many cities, streets and schools bear his name. He initiated a family dynasty in Mexico, and his son and grandson have both gone into politics.

Early Years

Lázaro Cárdenas was born into a humble family in Michoacán province. Hardworking and responsible from an early age, he became the breadwinner for his large family at the age of 16 when his father passed away. He never made it past sixth grade in school, but he was a tireless worker and educated himself later in life. Like many young men, he became swept up in the passion and chaos of the Mexican Revolution.

Cárdenas in the Revolution

After Porfirio Díaz left Mexico in 1911, the government broke down and several rival factions began fighting for control. Young Lázaro joined the group supporting General Guillermo García Aragón in 1913. García and his men were quickly defeated, however, and Cárdenas joined the staff of General Plutarco Elías Calles, who was a supporter of Alvaro Obregón. This time, his luck was much better: he had joined the eventual winning team. Cárdenas had a distinguished military career in the Revolution, rising quickly to reach the rank of General by the age of 25.

Early Political Career

When the dust from the Revolution began to settle by 1920, Obregón was President, Calles was second-in-line, and Cárdenas was a rising star. Calles succeeded Obregón as President in 1924. Meanwhile, Cárdenas was serving in a variety of important government roles. He held the posts of Governor of Michoacán (1928), Minister of the Interior (1930-32), and Minister of War (1932-1934). On more than one occasion, foreign oil companies sought to bribe him, but he always refused, earning a reputation for great honesty that would serve him well as president.

Mr. Clean Cleans House

Calles had left office in 1928, but still ruled through a series of puppet presidents. Pressure was mounting on him to clean up his administration, however, and he nominated the squeaky clean Cardenas in 1934. Cárdenas, with his sterling Revolutionary credentials and honest reputation, won easily. Once in office, he quickly turned on Calles and the corrupt remnants of his regime: Calles and some 20 of his most crooked henchmen were deported in 1936. The Cárdenas administration soon became known for hard work and honesty, and the wounds of the Mexican revolution finally began to heal.

After the Revolution

The Mexican Revolution had succeeded in overthrowing a corrupt class that had marginalized workers and rural peasants for centuries. It was not organized, however, and by the time Cárdenas joined it had deteriorated into several of warlords, each with different definitions of social justice, fighting for power. Cardenas’ faction won out, but like the others it was long on ideology and short on specifics. As President, Cárdenas changed all that, implementing strong yet controlled labor unions, land reform and protection for indigenous populations. He also implemented mandatory secular public education.

Nationalization of Oil Reserves

Mexico held vast reserves of valuable oil, and several foreign companies had been there for some time, mining it, processing it, selling it and giving the Mexican government a small portion of the profits. In March of 1938, Cárdenas made the bold move of nationalizing all of Mexico’s oil and appropriating all of the equipment and machinery belonging to the foreign companies. Although this move was very popular with the Mexican people, it had serious economic repercussions, as the US and Britain (whose companies had suffered most) boycotted Mexican oil. Cárdenas also nationalized the rail system while in office.

Personal Life

Cárdenas lived a comfortable but austere life in relation to other Mexican presidents. One of his first moves while in office was to cut his own salary in half. After leaving office, he lived in a simple house near Lake Pátzcuaro. He donated some land near his home to establish a hospital.

Interesting Facts

The Cárdenas administration welcomed leftist refugees from conflicts around the world. Leon Trotsky, one of the architects of the Russian Revolution, found asylum in Mexico, and many Spanish Republicans fled there after their loss to fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

Before Cárdenas, Mexican presidents lived in the opulent Chapultepec Castle, which had been built by a wealthy Spanish Viceroy at the end of the eighteenth century. The humble Cárdenas refused to live there, preferring more Spartan and efficient accommodations. He made the castle into a museum, and it has been one ever since.

After the Presidency and Legacy

His risky move of nationalizing oil facilities paid off for Mexico not long after Cárdenas left office. British and American oil companies, stung by the nationalization and appropriation of their facilities, organized a boycott of Mexican oil, but were forced to abandon it during World War Two, when Allied demand for oil was high.

Cárdenas remained in public service after his presidential term, although unlike some of his predecessors he did not try hard to influence his successors. He served as Minister of War for a few years after leaving office before retiring to his modest home and working on irrigation and education projects. Later in life, he collaborated with the Adolfo López Mateos administration (1958-1964). During his later years, he drew some criticism for his support of Fidel Castro.

Of all of the Presidents of Mexico, Cárdenas is a rarity in that he enjoys almost universal admiration among historians. He is often compared to American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and not only because they served at roughly the same time, but because they both were stabilizing influences at a time when their country needed strength and constancy. His sterling reputation launched a political dynasty: his son, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano, is a former mayor of Mexico City who has run for President on three different occasions. Lázaro's grandson Lázaro Cárdenas Batel is also a prominent Mexican politician.