Lazaro Cardenas, who died October 19,1970, is a name that is very familiar to all Mexicans, and many abroad, and despite that many don't know every thing about his life and legacy, they do know the fact that he was the president who nationalized the oil industry in 1938, bringing faith to the people that the Mexican Revolution would empower the masses and not just the rich.
During his term in power (1934-1940), former President Lazaro Cardenas based his policies on a reformist project inspired by socialist ideas benefiting health, the indigenous people, land distribution, infrastructure and agriculture, and besides nationalizing all U.S. and U.K. oil companies, he also experimented with a worker-controlled railway and planned a socialist education system.
He is considered by many as the best president in Mexico's history and several historians and analysts have called him as the “perfect politician”, since he had all that a political figure needs to highly influential, respected, admired, accepted and even loved by the masses.
They say he had the charm, intelligence and a strong attitude needed to rule a country and to succeed as a prominent politician, more so amidst a bloody Revolution (many Mexican historians say that up to one million people died during the nine years of Mexican Revolution from 1910-1920). Cardenas had everything and he knew it since he was a boy.
“I believe I was born for something. For something and to be someone. I have always lived fixed on the idea that I have to conquer fame. How? I still do not know,” Cardenas wrote in his diary at the age of 16 while he was working in a tax office in his hometown, the village of Jiquilpan, located in the central state of Michoacan.
Lazaro Cardenas' Rise to Power
He was born to a lower-middle class family and studied until fourth grade. His father died when he was 16, and being the elder son he found himself forced to support his mom, becoming the paternal figure for his seven brothers and sisters. Two years later, in 1913, the Mexican Revolution expanded to his village, when he was the partner of a printing company that suffered harassment by the revolutionary opposition for publishing pro-revolutionary propaganda.
These circumstances left him no choice but to flee this hometown and seek refuge in the ranks of the Revolution he so much supported. He joined the armed movement against the then President Victroriano Huerta, achieving a successful military career that catapulted him to become a disciple and very close friend of General Plutarco Elías Calles, a prominent president who is most noted for a fierce oppression of Catholics that led to the Cristera War (1926-1929).
Cardenas proved his military skills in the battlefield resisting a three-day ambush, after which the experienced Gen. Elias Calles gave the young chieftain his black thoroughbred horse as a token of his admiration and friendship, and promoted him to colonel, although to him, Cardenas was the “chamaco” (Spanish slang for kid).
During his role in the Revolution, Cardenas was assigned to shoot a priest, but he refused, according to his writings. He understood the excesses of war, and although he was not a religious man, he was aware of the fact that most of the Mexican people were very devoted Catholics and even though his point of view was different to this thinking, he always knew how to deal with this issue proving tolerance.
Despite having been taken out of school by his father, Cardenas had a strong desire to learn more and thanks to his friend and ideological mentor Francisco J. Mugica (politician and military officer) he avidly read authors like Karl Max, which was crucial for the development of the political ideology that characterized him for the rest of his life. Mugica described Cardenas as a “loving anarchist.”
He returned to his hometown in 1920 and was appointed chief of military operations. During this time, he started analytically observing the indigenous people's situation, and realized they were treated as a second class citizens with no rights or recognition. He also noted the abuses committed by foreign-owned oil companies against Mexican workers, and that peasants were stripped of their right to own land and treated like slaves by caciques, Spanish for powerful, influential landlords.
In 1931, he was elected governor of Michoacan, and implemented a socialist model creating the first workers' organization and leading the agrarian revolution. Cardenas was accepted by almost all the people and at the same time dealth with his main opponent, the Catholic Church with great audacity. During his term as governor, he made a major contribution benefiting farm workers with the so called “ejido” or communal land for agricultural use.
Later, in 1933, he was appointed to run as presidential candidate by the Mexican Revolution Party (PRM), which later became the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI). He then began an unprecedented seven-month political campaign across the country, reaching the most isolated communities pledging progress. He gained the trust and support of indigenous people whom called him "Tata" or father. A year later, he was elected president of Mexico.
Cardenas as President of Mexico
Lazaro Cardenas became Mexico's 49th president ruling the country with modernizing and democratic policies. During his term, he promoted education at all levels, stimulating the formation of trade unions. He renewed the public administration and boosted - as no one had done before - the land reform.
Cardenas continued his history-making advances and in 1938, in response to unfair practices by the foreign-owned oil companies in Mexico, he officially expropriated all their assets. Drawing upon Article 27 of the Constitution of 1917, President Cardenas declared Mexico's oil as national property owned by its people. He made this announcement on national radio to the country's citizens before he told members of his own cabinet.
With this measure, Cardenas saddled Mexico with a huge debt, but it was one the Mexican people were glad to pay. They brought their jewelry, livestock, cash, and other assets to the federal government to contribute. It was a moment of high patriotic sentiment amongst the people. The country began reaping the benefits of taking back the oil industry, which had been in foreign hands since the days of the dictator Porfirio Diaz, who ruled three decades until 1911.
The Cardenas administration was unique in so many ways. But perhaps his most important contribution was to become the first Latin American leader to defy world powers such as the U.S. and U.K. Many analysts say that the international and geopolitical context were on his side, and that his courage served as example that was emulated by various countries such as Bolivia and Guatemala, whose governments followed suit by also nationalizing the energy industries in their respective countries.
During Cardenas government, the rebirth of Mexican art and culture that had begun in 1920, again experimented a surge. In the 1930s and 1940s, Mexico City became one of the artistic centers of the world even as World War II began in Europe.
During the Spanish Civil War, Cardenas supported the Republic cause in political opposition to fascist dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco. Lazaro Cardenas' government welcomed thousands of refugees from the bloody Spanish conflict, and also people fleeing persecution from other fascists states in Europe.
When Cardenas' term ended in 1940, Mexican politics seemed to regress, and nany of the reforms he had put into place were dismantled in the following years. From the end of his presidency until his death 44 years ago today, Lazaro Cardenas continued advocating for human rights, and was a tireless peace proponent.
His son, Cuauhtemoc, continues in his father's footsteps. He ran for president in 1988, but was defeated by Carlos Salinas de Gortari. in one of the country's most controversial, disputed and fraudulent-plagued elections. Many social movements and international organizations decried fraud, and to date many political experts and analyst assure Cuauhtemoc Cardenas actually won the elections.
Cardenas legacy and present.
The nationalization of the oil industry in Mexico and creation of the state-owned Pemex (Mexican Oil) in 1938 is Cardenas' most remarkable action and legacy. It was a progressive measure taken by him in order to stop the pressures exerted by U.K., U.S. and other imperialist countries and foreign extractionist interests, while attempting to promote the development of Mexico as a sovereign nation.
However, the expropriation had international repercussions. The foreign-owned oil companies retaliated by imposing an embargo against Mexican oil. The country's oil exports decreased by 50 percent, and the it's primary customer for oil became Nazi Germany. Expropriation also led the British, who had counted upon Mexican and Venezuelan oil exports in the event of a war with Germany, to sever diplomatic relations with Mexico.
U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt decided to back Cardena's measures because he wanted to maintain good relations with his immediate neighbor. These were war times and Roosevelt found it strategically necessary to have Mexico as an ally.
The U.S. tried to manage Mexico's oil after Cardenas left office in 1940, however they were not able to do it and preferred operating under the more favorable conditions offered by countries in the Middle East and Venezuela.
Today, Mexico is the world's 10th largest oil producer and has some of the largest reserves in the Western Hemisphere. However, most of the easy-to-access reserves have been consumed and the state oil company, Pemex, which has a constitutional monopoly over oil production, refining and commercialization, lacks the funds, resources, infrastructure and technology needed to exploit harder-to-get deep-water oil and gas reserves.
According to analysts, the bad management of Pemex has led to this crisis, and currently the company has insufficient resources to develop new technology. Mexico's recent administrations reiterated the urgent need to revise its constitution and energy sector regulations to allow private companies, possibly including foreign ones, into that industry.
After being elected as president in 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto announced a reformist agenda aimed at bolstering Mexico's competitiveness and economic growth. He concluded a pact with the main opposition parties (conservative PAN and leftist PRD), in order to develop legislation to enact that agenda that facilitated the passage of education, telecommunications, fiscal and energy reforms.
But Peña Nieto's reforms required two-thirds vote in the Mexican Congress and approval by a majority of the country's 32 state legislatures. The PRD vigorously opposed most of the reforms, but most particularly the one involving Pemex, so instead it presented a proposal focused on reforming the company while simultaneously granting it greater budget autonomy and lowering its tax burden.
In mid-August 2014, however, Mexico's Senate approved several amendments to the country's constitution that opened the door to the privatization of Mexico's vast energy sector. According to leftist leaders and organizations, the U.S. business and political elite has been pressuring Mexico for energy privatization for years, and they also claim that the new law represents the end to Cardenas' legacy and therefore, the country's oil sovereignty.
In an exclusive interview with teleSUR, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas said that the PRD will call for a public consultation next year in order to challenge the reform promoted by Peña Nieto. Cardenas insisted that the oil industry should be defended because it should serve the Mexican people and not benefit foreign interests.
According to the Mexican Constitution, a political party can ask the Supreme Court to approve a referendum on any law if it gathers at least 1.5 million signatures. These have to be verified by local authorities.