Mexico in the 20th Century

By Jessica Chilián
Photography “La historia del siglo XX” (1974) The University Center for Exact Scienses and Engineering (CUCEI), Guadalajara, Jalisco.
Mural. By Jose Atanasio Monroy.

Reading Time: 4 minutes


The revolution becomes an institution

At the end of Abelardo Rodriguez’s term, Lazaro Cardenas was appointed candidate for the presidency of the Republic. From the beginning of his government, Cardenas showed a determined will for change. He defended the labor and peasant movements and, with his support, stood up to General Calles, who displayed a hostile attitude towards the independent policy of Cardenas. He managed to neutralize his power, dismissed his followers in government, and eventually expelled him from the country. The Cardenista regime surpassed all previous governments in the application of the postulates of the Mexican Revolution, especially regarding the agrarian distribution, which included more than a million peasants. The working class was also favored. New union and peasant groups were created, which were the popular base of the official party, predecessor of the current PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party)

The cultural policy of Cardenismo placed special emphasis on nationalist values, indigenism and socialism. In 1938 Cardenas confronted the oil companies that refused to negotiate wage increases with their workers. Their insolent attitude caused Cardenas to nationalize the oil industry in response, with great popular support. The affected nations then promoted an international boycott against Mexican products, although without success. In 1940 Manuel Avila Camacho was elected President of the Republic. The new regime moderated the socialist discourse of Cardenismo that had created strong opposition in various sectors of the country. Agrarian reform was stopped and the inflow of foreign capital was encouraged. The Second World War allowed the economic takeoff of Mexico, which became a supplier of raw materials and labor force for the allied nations, especially the United States.

Cubs of the Revolution

Between 1946 and 1968 Mexico entered a stage of rapid economic growth and political stability. The country industrialized, numerous highways and airports were built. Telephone networks and electric power lines were extended throughout the country, private enterprise was encouraged, and vast tracts of land were opened to irrigated cultivation. The improvement of sanitation conditions allowed the explosive growth of the population, which doubled in this period. Free elementary schools have educated millions of Mexicans. Music, cinema and tourism became the means by which Mexico became known abroad. Likewise, prominent writers such as Juan Rulfo and Octavio Paz demonstrated the vitality of Mexican culture.

All of these achievements were known in the 1960s as the “Milagro Mexicano.” Modernization during the presidential terms of Miguel Aleman Valdes, Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, Adolfo Lopez Mateos and Gustavo Diaz Ordaz completely transformed Mexico; from a traditional and agrarian society to an urban and industrial one. The middle class in the cities developed rapidly and began to have a political weight that surpassed that of the workers ‘and peasants’ organizations. Foreign capitalists settled in the more developed regions of the country, causing uneven growth of the economy over time. With a growing and needy population, the countryside fed a great migratory flow towards the cities. Towards the end of this period, the political stability of the country, based on the dominance of a single party, began to be questioned.

The generation of half a century

The 1968 crackdown on the student movement in Tlaltelolco exposed some of the flaws in the Mexican political system. Faced with the immobility of the official party, which had created a trail of corruption and citizen discontent, people began to participate more in political decisions. In 1970, President Luis Echeverria tried to reduce discontent by raising workers’ wages, carrying out major public works, and creating new jobs within the government. At first the official measures, but to maintain them it was necessary to spend more money than there was. The government had to borrow from foreign banks and its debt to them tripled. Towards the end of his government, and in the midst of a financial crisis, Luis Echeverria was forced to devalue the peso against the dollar.

The discovery of large oil fields in the south of the country allowed the economy to grow again during the first years of the presidency of Jose Lopez Portillo, who continued Echeverria’s economic policy. He subsidized companies to make their products cheaper, workers’ wages were increased to keep them happy. But again, you spent more money than you had. The government debt grew like never in the history of Mexico. The fall in oil prices caused a new crisis. The currency was drastically devalued and the payment of interest on the foreign debt was suspended. To prevent the leakage of the money that was left, the banks had to be nationalized. In a climate of discontent and economic chaos, Miguel de la Madrid was elected President of the Republic.

End of the century

Starting in 1982, the Mexican government highlighted the flaws of a development model based on the official protection of national companies and excessive government spending. Miguel de la Madrid had to face all the problems derived from the crisis: he reduced government spending, eliminated subsidies and cut the number of public employees. Much of the money saved with these measures was used to pay interest on the bank debt, which is why the economy did not grow, the peso was further devalued, and people’s hardships increased. The number of Mexicans trying to cross the border with the United States in search of well-paying jobs increased, causing friction with their neighbor to the north.

Another unresolved problem is the growing power and wealth of drug trafficking groups that fuel corruption and crime in the country. In the 1988 elections, the official candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, came to power despite a strong and well-organized opposition. Salinas continued with the savings policy of his predecessor; together with a young team of economists, he managed to reduce inflation and renegotiate the obligations contracted with the banks. The Mexican economy grew slowly again and opened up to competition from abroad. At the beginning of 1994, a free trade agreement with the United States and Canada (known by its acronym as FTA) came into force, which allows Mexican products to be sold without additional taxes in those countries. This has been a time of rapid change in which the latest advances in science and technology coexist with isolated communities in need of education.


Source: “Viaje por la historia de México”
Author: Luis Gonzalez y González
Publisher: FCE – Fondo de Cultura Económica