Lázaro Cárdenas and the post Revolution Reforms in Mexico

Who was Lázaro Cárdenas?

He was the President of Mexico from 1935 to 1940. He was said to be one of the most honest and dedicated of all Mexican presidents.  During his campaign, he visited many rural villages and towns, the likes of which had a never before seen a presidential candidate far less a sitting president.  He was a man for the people and earned that title by having direct contact with his citizens.  It is believed that he did not seek to enrich himself while in office and, in fact, enjoyed a modest lifestyle. His programs of revolutionary reforms and his dedication to the revolutionary ideals are what he and his regime will always be remembered for.

Cárdenas came to power after the great Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917.  He was an instrumental member of the revolutionary party (the Party of the Mexican Revolution/ Institutional Revolutionary Party) that would maintain control in Mexico until 2000.  His term in office marked the beginning of post-revolutionary stability and reform in Mexico.

*The Partido Nacional Revolucionario was restructured and renamed the Partido Revolucionario Institucional in 1946. Wikipedia Images

The most significant and most developed of all Cárdenas’ reforms would be his program of the land distribution.  He gave out to land to the peasants according to the soil and climatic conditions. The focal point of this was a system know as the Ejido.  This was a communal piece of land where each ejidatario was entitled to use a piece of the land for his own benefit, usually to grow corn.  No part of the land could be mortgaged or alienated except under special circumstances.  Ranchos were another type of ejido found in the dry northern states of Mexico.  Here, cattle farming was prominent because of the infertile soil. The most productive form of ejido was the collective ejido or cooperative farm based on profit sharing. These were prominent in agricultural zones that supported products like cotton, rice, coffee, sugar and henequen.  A cotton growing district called Laguna was the first to embark upon this new experiment. Cotton production in the area increased dramatically for a number of years but declined sharply after a severe drought in the early 1950s.

Cárdenas himself supervised the organisation of 600,000 acres of land into a number of small farms which were cultivated by nearly 30,000 peasant families. By the summer of 1937, the project was successfully launched. The results of the ejido system by 1940 was that 45 million acres of land were distributed to nearly 12,000 villages. This was able to strike an effective blow at the Hacienda System, an issue that had partially fuelled the Mexican Revolution against injustice and inequality.  No longer were large landowners allowed to control unused productive land.  Through agrarian reform, Cárdenas was also able to quell the land hunger of the peasants, for a time.

Hacienda painting
Image taken from WorldAtlas

A fair and relatively moderate approach to reform led to a general modernisation of Mexican life and society, especially in the rural districts.  Schools were built, health care was put in place, roads and other infrastructure were put in place. There was an overall rise in the standard of living.  This rise came along with more purchasing power of the peasants.  For the first time, some of them could afford to buy radios and secondhand cars.  Their increased purchasing power led to larger internal (Mexican) markets which led to more funding for the industrialization process.  The Nacional Banco de Crédito Ejidal and the government supplied the peasants with generous donations of seeds, machinery and credit. The bank made loans amounting to almost 30,000,000 pesos.

However, the ejido system was not one of pure success. For its entire duration, it remained enmeshed in controversy. The economic viability of the system was not always evident. There were no agricultural units set up to guide the peasants and ensure that they exploited the land fully.  In Laguna, the total productivity of the area was maintained only because of an increase in the amount of land cultivated.  There was actually a marked decrease in the yield per acre.  From 1939 to 1941, it was said that the productivity levels in the agricultural sector surpassed the levels of the years since the beginning of the revolution.  However, this was only because the ejido system cultivated more land than the hacienda system used.

The aid, provided in the form of seeds, technical assistance and credit, was not always sufficient. When the larger landowners had to relinquish their properties they were allowed to keep a portion of the land and naturally they kept the best parts.  This meant that much of the ejido land was of poor quality.  The peasants received their land from the government through the Departamento Agrario, the Nacional Banco de Crédito Ejidal and a number of peasant leagues. This created a dependency on public officials for their well-being.  Such a contradiction to the system originally designed to increase the self-sufficiency of the peasants.  They were now at the mercy of sometimes corrupt and immoral officials.  One observer noted that the ejido had the potential to degenerate into another form of encomienda, under which indigenous peoples and the fruit of their labour and lands had been given as a reward for service to the Spanish Crown.  Yes, there was an increase in the standard of living, but this was more the result of loans made on easy terms, not all of which had been repaid.  By 1940, 49% of the agricultural population were paid labourers still.  60% of the Mexican land was still in the hands of only 10,000 hacendados and privately owned land was three times more than ejido land.

Under Cárdenas, there were most definitely improvements of the peasants’ conditions and help with the industrialization process, but the dependency of the peasants on the government would prove disastrous after 1940, when a new government rejected the ejido in favour of large private landholdings.

Representation of what the encomienda system meant in colonial times


Economic reform was another area in which Cárdenas excelled.  Although many of his enemies tried it to label him a socialist, he did much to promote foreign investment and industrial capitalization. He believed that a system of worker ownership based on profit sharing was far better than total government control. In 1938, following strikes in the oil-producing regions over an increased cost of living and a demand for higher wages, the North American and British owned firms refused to meet all of Cárdenas’ demands for the improvement of workers’ conditions.  As a result, Cárdenas expropriated the oil companies and nationalized and the entire industry. This was quite a victory for Mexican nationalism.  Additionally, profits from the oil industry were able to provide more funding and resources for the industrialization process throughout the country.

World War II led Cárdenas to step up the industrialization process and make a move towards import substitution industrialisation (ISI).  The buying local scenario, although not without severe drawbacks, also generated funding for the industrialization process. In 1934, Cárdenas’ government established the Nacional Financiero, a bank run on funds from the federal government and donations from domestic firms.  They financed industrial loans, public welfare projects, and issued its own insecurities.

Cárdenas supported Mexican industry through classic ISI policies such as protective tariffs, import quotas and other measures that created a captive market for high-priced Mexican products.  He did all he could to maintain fair wages. When workers demanded higher pay, he met with the company and evaluated their financial position to see just how much they could really afford to pay the workers.   Perhaps the greatest disservice Cárdenas paid to the labourers was by making them incorporate themselves in the government infrastructure. In exchange for all of his economic concessions, they had to give total support to the government.  This corporatist system of government was also used in Brazil, under Vargas, and in Argentina, under Perón.  This system may not have been a problem under Cárdenas but after 1940, new governments were not as benevolent to workers and a new surge of unionism ultimately erupted.

Cárdenas’ reforms benefited the people while he was in power but he did not take into consideration what could and did happen after he gave up the presidency.  His legacy does remain a positive one, however, in the minds and texts of generations of Mexican historians.

Featured Image: from the Aurelio Escobar Castellanos Archive, Courtesy Wikipedia

Additional Source:

Keen, Benjamin, and Keith Haynes. A History of Latin America. 6th ed., Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.


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