If the political pendulum had swung to the left during the Presidency of Cárdenas, it almost immediately began swinging to the right again following his leaving office. His successor was Manuel Ávila Camacho, a conservative general who was born in Teziutlán, Puebla. One of his first moves was to declare "I am a believer", thereby signaling the church that it had nothing to fear from his administration and, indeed, that it could expect to find warm support from his quarter. He likewise began making conciliatory gestures in the direction of Washington, initiating in the process an unprecedented period of friendship with the United States. For its part, because Washington was occupied with fighting the Second World War during most of Camacho's term, it had little inclination to involve itself in the affairs of its southern neighbor as long as the struggle went on. Throughout the war, Mexican exports of cotton, coffee, and oil to the United States commanded high prices and brought in growing amounts of needed capital, although with most U.S. industrial production diverted into military hardware, Mexico could not satisfy its needs for imported industrial goods. As a result, its domestic manufacturers were given the incentive to develop a number of new import-substitution industries that could capitalize on the country's reservoir of cheap labor and its captive middle-class market. This, in turn, accompanied a policy shift from agrarian reform in the rural areas of the country to industrial development in its urban regions, and during the 1940's the country's population distribution increasingly reflected this structural change in its economy. Also contributing to the flow of money into Mexico were the remittances of thousands of Mexican field hands (braceros) who had been temporarily welcomed into the labor-short United States to harvest agricultural crops, so all in all, the war years were ones of relative prosperity for at least middle- and upper-class Mexicans. Perhaps one indicator of the new vision of the future which was unfolding was seen in the ruling party's decision in 1946 to change its name from the Party of the Mexican Revolution (PRM) -- now nearly a half century in the past with many of its goals already "set aside" -- to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, implying that the "revolution" had become an ongoing "institution" in Mexican life. Of course, the fact that the party had already abandoned the principles of Cárdenas made this move all the more ironic.
As he left office in 1946, Camacho designated his Interior Minister (Secretaría de Gobernación), Miguel Alemán, as his successor, thereby making him the candidate of the PRI and thus ensuring his election as the President. Alemán had earlier been the Governor of Veracruz and was the first civilian president to take office since the Revolution. As if to demonstrate how pointedly he differed from the philosophy of Cárdenas, he consciously set out to further slow the program of agrarian reform and to accelerate the industrial development of Mexico instead. At the end of the war, foreign investors were again invited back, being offered free reign in all but a few sectors of the economy over which Mexican control was deemed necessary. These included such "cultural" activities as filmmaking, publishing, and the ownership of radio and television networks, as well as the operation of land and air transport and commercial fishing. During Alemán's administration several large hydroelectric projects were undertaken and the transformation of the sleepy colonial seaport of Acapulco into a major tourist attraction was begun. Not only did he manage to enrich himself considerably in the latter venture but he also gained control over key elements of the Mexican media, including a major newspaper and a TV network. Probably his most lasting legacy was a reputation for graft and corruption on a scale heretofore unknown in Mexico.
It was during the immediate post-war period that Mexico saw the greatest expansion of the so-called paraestatales, or the heavily subsidized state-owned enterprises dedicated to the production of such basic essentials as electricity, cement, and steel. By their provision of relatively cheap goods and services to the private industrial sector and the encouragement of large-scale commercial agriculture based on export crops, the economic planners expected that free enterprise capitalism would produce a "miracle" of development which would inevitably "trickle-down" to the lower classes and improve their lot as well. What happened instead was the unleashing of an inflationary spiral that quickly pushed the prices of foodstuffs, clothing, and housing out of reach of the poor. In 1948 the value of the peso was devalued by half, and, when that failed to halt the crisis, it was devalued by another third two years later. While Mexican industrialists wallowed in profits generated by protective tariffs, generous subsidies, and low taxes, the unemployed rural poor continued to flock into the cities in the hope of finding jobs and bettering their lives.
The year 1950 once more found the United States fighting a war, this time in Korea, and once again the Mexican economy found itself revived by a greater demand for its critical exports in its northern neighbor. Northern border towns raked in a rich harvest of dollars from Yankee tourists, many of them servicemen on leave, as the war dragged on, and once again the Mexican economy saw an upward turn that encouraged local businessmen to invest in many new resort complexes as they sought to emulate the success of Acapulco.
As Alemán approached the end of his term in office, he named Adolfo Ruiz Cortines as the PRI candidate for the Presidency in the election of 1952. A lawyer by training, Ruiz Cortines' earlier career had been a carbon copy of that of Alemán, serving first as a governor of Veracruz and later as chief of the Interior Ministry. Unfortunately, as the Korean War wound down in 1952, the U.S. economy again lurched into a depression, and the Mexican economy soon followed suit. Another devaluation of the peso took place, and again the wealthy sent much of their capital out of the country. When the U.S. stopped stockpiling critical metals, the prices of lead and zinc collapsed, as did that of cotton. In the latter instance, synthetic fibers had begun replacing natural ones, and Mexican markets contracted sharply. The production of long-staple varieties in the irrigated valleys of northern Mexico could no longer meet the foreign competition, especially after 1956 when the United States started dumping its surplus cotton on the world market. With agricultural exports generating fewer revenues, domestic investments were reduced, and the national budget contracted. Adding to the country's woes was the recurrence of drought that cut the production of corn and beans so sharply that these basic staples of the Mexican diet had to be imported, further exacerbating the country's balance of payments.
The long-suffering working class, on whom much of the burden of Mexico's industrial development had been placed, now demanded higher wages to meet the spiraling cost of living. With the prospect for real social breakdown looming so large, there was no alternative but to grant them. Yet, there was still the question of how to finance them, and raising taxes of the middle and upper classes would only have antagonized these sectors of the public as well. Finding itself embroiled once again in a seemingly never-ending economic, social, and political dilemma, the Cortines administration lacked both the means and the resolve to protest to the United States in 1954 when the CIA subverted the only democratically-elected government Guatemala had ever known, although public opinion throughout Latin America was indignant at this further breach of the "Good Neighbor Policy".
Instead of attempting to expand Mexico's domestic market by improving the economic conditions of the country's rural poor, the government planners once again looked to foreign investment to bail them out of the mess in which they found themselves. In the last three years of the Cortines' administration, some $400 million of new investment was made in Mexico, most of it ear-marked for industries that produced motor vehicles, heavy equipment, and machinery of various kinds. Ironically, most of these industries required specialized, high-tech equipment, the bulk of which had to be imported from abroad. Thus, rather than utilizing the vast reservoirs of cheap domestic labor which remained underemployed on every side, this policy only increased the country's foreign indebtedness all the more.
Up until about 1950, the United States always referred supplicants for financial aid such as Mexico to private capital markets, but as the Cold War began to intensify and its fear of Communist influence heightened, Washington encouraged the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Export-Import Bank to start making substantial loans to third-world countries. Mexico was one of the "fortunate" recipients, being granted over $200 million in loans in the last two years of Alemán's tenure, and by the time Cortines left office, the total of foreign loans had risen to over $600 million. A victim of severe migraine headaches, Ruiz Cortines' most lasting contribution to the political life of Mexico was no doubt the fact that he enfranchised women in his final year in office.
By the time that Cortines' handpicked successor, Aldofo Lopez Mateos, moved into the Presidential palace in 1958, the political pendulum has swung so far to the right in Mexico that government and labor had become seriously estranged. Lopez Mateos had first been a teacher, then a senator, and had served as minister of labor in the cabinet of Cortines. He is best known in Mexico as the architect of the law of disolución social (social dissolution), an act which enabled the government to jail labor leaders who "threatened the stability of society" by daring to strike -- a total about face in official policy since the days of Cárdenas. Moreover, like Cortines before him, Lopez Mateos was so intimidated by the United States that he took no official notice of Castro's victorious revolution in Cuba, leaving only Cárdenas to hail the move as an act of national liberation similar to his own more than twenty years earlier.
Ironically, the success of the Castro revolution in Cuba in 1959 so frightened the United States that Washington once again felt impelled to goad private banks into increasing their participation in providing loans to foreign countries. By the end of that year direct U.S. investment in Mexico had reached $900 million and had increased by nearly half again by the end of the Mateos administration in 1964. With prices essentially stabilized, the subsidized domestic industries running at full capacity, and foreign investors reaping bountiful profits, many Mexicans of the middle- and upper classes were convinced that the long-awaited "economic miracle" had finally arrived. But, as usual, the "silent majority" of the poor still had little to cheer about.
Following what had become a virtual pathway into the presidency, the Minister of the Interior under Lopez Mateos, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, received the nod to move into the National Palace in 1964. Four years into his term, however, as Mexico was hosting the Olympic games, a massive student demonstration was called at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) to challenge the government's priorities, its hypocrisy, and its corruption. How was it, they asked, that a country as poor as Mexico could spend money on building mammoth athletic facilities for the Olympics when it could scarcely find sufficient funds to properly educate its burgeoning population? Why were so few lower- and middle-class students being admitted to the University and why were there no jobs for those who finally completed their studies? In response to what was considered a cause for international embarrassment, Ordaz ordered his Interior Minister, Luis Echeverrría, to put down the student riots as expeditiously as possible. The latter called in troops to disperse the crowds, who, firing into their midst, killed over 300 students, wounded as many as 1000 others, and imprisoned many more -- giving the country cause for far greater embarrassment both domestically and abroad. The so-called Tlatelolco massacre was indeed one of the darkest days in Mexico's recent history.
Yet, despite his harsh handling of the student strike, Echeverría advanced into the President's office -- one might add, "right on schedule" -- as the PRI nominee in 1970. It must have been heart-rending for Cárdenas to have witnessed the disaffection of one of his constituencies after another -- first, the campesinos and the agrarian reform had been abandoned, then labor, and now the students, who formed a sizable and active component of the so-called "popular sector". The story is told of Cárdenas visiting with an impoverished Yaqui Indian in 1970, three decades after his land had been restored to him and two decades after it had been taken away from him again. When he asked Cárdenas, "Was this the Revolution?" the latter had all he could do not to burst into tears. It was a disillusioned man indeed whom they laid to rest in late October of that year.
Once in office, Echeverría surprised almost everyone by moving to the left. In the face of opposition by the Catholic Church, he instituted family planning in 1973, apparently cognizant that, small as the economic gains had been for the masses over the last decades, they would be wiped out entirely by the country's uncontrolled population growth. Despite the fact that Mexico had received over $80 billion in foreign loans during the 1970's, the balance of payments was in such poor shape and inflation was so rampant that he was forced to devalue the peso by 50% just before leaving office in 1976.
The Mexico that José Lopez Portillo (y Pacheco) inherited was definitely one that was ailing. Trained as a lawyer, he was also a professor and his first political job was as the Minister of Finance in Echeverría's cabinet. In an effort to make some concessions to an increasingly alienated electorate, Lopez Portillo expanded the Chamber of Deputies to 400 seats, allocating a minimum of 100 seats to opposition parties. He also nationalized the banks, many of which were going bankrupt as a result of over-extending themselves on unsecured loans. Government borrowing abroad, however, went on without restraint, piling up an ever-larger foreign debt. The discovery in 1976 of major oil and gas reserves in Tabasco and Chiapas led Mexican planners to think that they could easily pay off all of their indebtedness with their vast newfound mineral wealth. On the other hand, this unexpected "bounty" also led to rampant and widespread corruption, not leaving the President himself untainted. Aside from reopening diplomatic relations with Spain in 1978 after a 38-year hiatus -- giving him an opportunity to visit the country and trace his ancestry -- José Lopez Portillo is perhaps best remembered for building himself a palatial mountain-top residence having the shape of his initials.
By contrast, his personally chosen successor as President, Miguel de la Madrid, hailed from the west coast state of Colima, was educated at UNAM, and had taken an Master's degree in public administration at Harvard. Another political conservative, he was definitely a friend of the business community. Through no fault of his own, the Mexican economy, despite its bonanza of oil and gas wealth, was sent into a tailspin by the oil glut of the 1980's. With prices cut sharply, Mexico plunged ever deeper into debt. Unemployment and underemployment became the order of the day as shops and factories closed in the cities and farm workers were let go in the countryside. Mexican exports could no longer pay for more than a fraction of what the country's upper classes were importing, and the balance of payments was becoming increasingly unfavorable. The rate of inflation was so great that the wealthy began sending their money abroad in an effort to retain its value. Mexico found itself unable to even pay the interest on its foreign debt, and finally de la Madrid felt obliged to institute an austerity program that inevitably hurt the poorer classes far more severely than the elite. To make matters worse, the ruling party was again charged with fraud in the local elections in 1985, and in September of that year, a severe earthquake struck Mexico City killing over 7000 people and inflicting massive damage on the capital city. Strapped for funds, the government was condemned for its tardiness in helping the city and its residents to recover from this disaster. Then, on the eve of de la Madrid's departure from office in 1988, Hurricane Gilbert ravaged the Caribbean resort centers at Cancún and Cozumel, killing over 200 persons and causing widespread damage to the tourist trade. Thus, throughout his entire term as President, Mexico limped from one disaster to another, while all the while the volume of drugs and illegal aliens smuggled into U.S. continue to swell into ever-greater proportions.
The man chosen by de la Madrid to bail Mexico out of the deepening morass in which it found itself was Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Born into a wealthy Mexico City family, he had completed his higher education with a Ph.D. from Harvard. Despite the fact that the PRI claimed that he had won the election with 50.36% of vote, his margin was so narrow that most Mexicans were convinced that their suspicion of fraud was amply justified, especially because of purported "computer break-downs" and numerous other irregularities which took place. Ironically, the opponent from whom he "stole" the election was Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the son of Lázaro Cárdenas, who had founded the National Democratic Front (Frente Democratico Nacional, or FDN, in an effort to put an end to the rigged elections that had become a standard means of keeping the PRI in power. Salinas made his most lasting mark on the country's history by negotiating for Mexico's admission to NAFTA on January 1, 1994, though he left office under a growing cloud of scandal resulting from the association of his brother and other close colleagues with the drug cartels whose influence over the Mexican government had reached frightening levels.
Salinas' choice of a successor was Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta, a native of a mining town in Sonora who had been educated at the Technical University in Monterrey, taken a Master's degree at Pennsylvania, and done advanced computer studies in Vienna. He began his government career in 1980 as a planner, was first elected to congress in 1985, had gone on to become a senator, and then Secretary of Social Development in the Salinas cabinet. From 1988 to 1992 he had served as head of the PRI. To continue the "technocrat" tradition that had essentially begun with the Lopez Portillo administration in 1976, Colosio was an obvious candidate for the "dedazo" -- the "fingering" of a successor by an incumbent president about to leave office.
However, the PRI was in disarray following its questionable victory in the election of 1988 and internal dissensions between old guard politicos and the younger technocrats were increasingly weakening its monolithic structure. In March 1994 when Colosio was campaigning in the border city of Tijuana, a gunman killed him under circumstances that the Mexican authorities have never completely clarified. It is still unknown whether the 23-year old assassin was working alone or with accomplices, or what his motives may have been. (Ironically, Colosio's young widow also died (mysteriously?) just eight months later.) In any case, with the election just months away, a "replacement" candidate was quickly found in Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, another of the young technocrats trained as an economist both in Mexico, England, and at Yale where he took both a Master's and a Doctor's degree. Zedillo had become the planning and budget minister under Salinas when Colosio was named to head the PRI, and had served as minister of education from 1992 to 1993.
The Mexico whose leadership Zedillo assumed in 1994 was undergoing its most serious trials in perhaps a generation. On January 1st of that year, the very day that the NAFTA agreement came into force, an Indian uprising broke out in the southern state of Chiapas as a guerrilla army calling itself the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) captured several villages in an effort to call attention to the long-suffering and disadvantaged indigenous peoples of this remote part of the country. Troops were rushed to the region and fighting killed nearly 150 persons before a tense truce of sorts was reached with the rebels. The unsolved mystery of Colosio's death still hung over the country, the scandals of the Salinas regime were increasingly coming to light, and the economy was once more on the verge of total bankruptcy. Realizing the precariousness of Mexico's situation -- particularly as it could affect financial interests in the United States -- President Clinton managed to push through Congress a $50 billion bail-out program to save the country from default. The austerity program demanded by this bailout plunged the nation into yet deeper recession, causing hundreds of thousands to lose their jobs and the value of the peso to decline by half. Yet, by taking their "pound of flesh" from the impoverished masses of the Mexican people, by January of 1997 the Zedillo government was able to repay the entire loan with interest.
Meanwhile, the Zapatista rebels and the Mexican government signed a lengthy document known as the San Andres Accords on January 18, 1996 according to which the Zedillo administration agreed that it would seek redress for the Indians' grievances. It wasn't long, however, before accusations were made that the government had gone back on its promises by constantly building up its military forces within the region and fighting a "quiet war" against its indigenous inhabitants. On December 22, 1997, a group of armed men wielding machine guns and machetes stormed into the Indian village of Acteal, killing 45 Mayans and wounding at least 25 others in a brutal massacre. They were identified as a vigilante group called the "Red Mask", apparently hired by local landlords in the region to intimidate and terrorize the Indians. Then, on April 9, 1999, Public Security Forces seized control of the Municipal President's Office in San Andres Sakamc'hen de los Pobres, site of the signing of the truce accords, further heightening the tensions between the rebels and the government.
As Zedillo's term neared its end, he made a much-heralded announcement that he would break with the long-standing PRI tradition of dedazo, or naming his successor in office, and let the democratic process itself sort out who the next candidate of the ruling party would be. Critics, of course, pointed out that Zedillo already had his "favorite" but simply wasn't going to make public his support for him. When his attorney general, Labastida Ochoa, announced his candidacy a few weeks later, most everyone assumed that he did so with Zedillo's blessing. Also announcing his candidacy for the presidency was Vicente Fox, the governor of the state of Guanajuato, who had won the nomination of the leading opposition party, PAN, or the Party of National Action. Likewise, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, who had won election as the Mayor of Mexico City in 1997 by a landslide vote, resigned from that post to run a second time as the candidate of the PRD, or Party of Democratic Reform. In doing so, however, it was with less enthusiastic support from the electorate of the country's capital than he might have otherwise expected, for his attempt to solve the staggering problems confronting the world's largest city had been less than successful. Indeed, the insolubility of Mexico City's many pressing problems would seriously compromise any politician's hopes for higher office, so Cárdenas entered the race with no better prospects than placing a poor third. Indeed, many political observers foresaw that a three-way split of the vote would make the defeat of the PRI a physical impossibility, but the likelihood that either Fox or Cárdenas would defer to the other in order to wage a joint campaign appeared to be just as hopeless.