Lázaro Cárdenas del Río was born on May 21, 1895, one of eight children in a lower-middle-class family in the village of Jiquilpan, Michoacán, where his father owned a billiard hall. After the death of his father, from age 16 Cárdenas supported his family (including his mother and seven younger siblings). By the age of 18, he had worked as a tax collector, a printer's devil, and a jail keeper. Although he left school at the age of eleven, he used every opportunity to educate himself and read widely throughout his life, especially works of history.
Cárdenas set his sights on becoming a teacher, but was drawn into politics and the military during the Mexican Revolution after Victoriano Huerta overthrew President Francisco Madero in February 1913. Michoacán was far from the revolutionary action that had brought Madero to the Mexican presidency, but after Huerta's coup and Madero's assassination, Cárdenas joined a group of Zapatistas, but Huerta's forces scattered the group, where Cárdenas had served as captain and paymaster. Since revolutionary forces were voluntary organizations, his position of leadership points to his skills and his being paymaster to the perception that he would be honest in financial matters. Both characteristics followed him through his subsequent career. He escaped the Federal forces in Michoacán and moved north where he served initially with Álvaro Obregón, then Pancho Villa, and after 1915 when Villa was defeated by Obregón to Plutarco Elías Calles, who served Constitutionalist leader, Venustiano Carranza. Although Cárdenas was from the southern state of Michoacán, his key experiences in the Revolution were with northerners, whose faction won. In particular, he served under Calles, who tasked him with military operations against Yaqui Indians and against Zapatistas in Michoacán and Jalisco, during which time he rose to a field command as general, and then in 1920 after Carranza was overthrown by northern generals, Cárdenas was given the rank of brigadier general at the age of 25. Cárdenas was appointed provisional governor of his home state of Michoacán under the brief presidency of Adolfo de la Huerta.
Cárdenas benefited from being Calles's protegé, especially so when Calles formed the Partido Nacional Revolucionario in 1929 in the wake of president-elect Obregón's 1928 assassination. Calles tapped Cárdenas to be the party's president. Of the revolutionary generals, Cárdenas was considered "honest, able, anticlerical, and politically astute," He had come from a poor and marginal state of Mexico, but had risen to political prominence by his military skills on the battlefield but importantly he had chosen the correct side of decisive splits since 1913. When he was chosen as the presidential candidate in 1934, no one expected him to be anything other than being loyal to Calles, the "Jefe Máximo", and power behind the presidency since 1929.
He backed Plutarco Elías Calles, and after Calles became president, Cárdenas was appointed in 1928 as governor of Michoacán. During his four years as governor, Cárdenas initiated a modest re-distribution of land at the state level, encouraged the growth of peasant and labour organizations, and improved education at a time when it was neglected by the federal government. Cárdenas ensured that teachers were paid on time, personally inspected schools, and opened a hundred new rural schools. Due to his grassroots style of governing, Cárdenas made important policy decisions based on direct information received from the public rather than on the advice of his confidants.
As the PNR's candidate, Cárdenas's election was a foregone conclusion. It was politically impossible for his patron, Calles, to serve as president again, but he continued to dominate Mexico after his presidency (1924–28) through what were considered "puppet" administrations in a period known as the Maximato. After two of his hand-picked men held office, the PNR balked in 1932 at supporting his first choice, Manuel Pérez Treviño. Instead, they selected Cárdenas as the presidential candidate. Calles agreed, believing he could continue to control Cárdenas, who had been loyal to him and prospered politically with his patronage.
Cárdenas ran on the Six Year Plan for social and political reform that the party drafted under Calles's direction. Such a multiyear program was patterned after the just-completed Five Year Plan of the Soviet Union. The Six Year Plan (to span the presidential term 1934-40) was a patchwork of proposals from a variety of participants, but the driving force behind it was Calles, who had given a speech in May 1933, saying that the "Mexican Revolution had failed in most of its important objectives," and that a plan needed to implement its objectives. Interim President Abelardo L. Rodríguez did not get his cabinet's approval for the plan in 1933, so that Calles's next move was to present it in draft form to the party convention. "Rather than a blueprint, the Six Year Plan was a sales prospectus," and a "hopeless jumble" filled with compromises and contradictions, as well as utopian aspirations. But the direction of the plan was toward renewed reform.
The plan called fordestruction of the hacienda economy and creation of a collective system of ejidos (common lands);
modern secular schools to teach scientific doctrines and eradicate the influence of the Catholic Church; and
workers' cooperatives to oppose the excesses of industrial capitalism.
Assured of the backing of the powerful Calles and a presidential victory, Cárdenas took the opportunity to actively campaign in many parts of Mexico rather than remaining in Mexico City. His 25 megametre campaign accomplished several things, including making direct contact with regions and constituents who had never seen a presidential candidate before and thus building Cárdenas a personal power base. The campaign also allowed him to refine and articulate for popular consumption what he considered the important elements of the Six Year Plan. On the campaign trail, he acted more like someone already in office than a candidate, settling disputes between groups. He reached out to Mexican workers, as well as peasants, to whom he promised land reform. Cárdenas promised Amerindians schools and educational opportunities, and urged them to join with workers against exploitative practices.
Cárdenas's first action after taking office late in 1934 was to have his presidential salary cut in half. He became the first occupant of the official presidential residence of Los Pinos. He had the previous residence, the ostentatious Chapultepec Castle, turned into the National Museum of History. In a move that struck at the financial interests of his patron Calles's cronies, Cárdenas closed down their gambling casinos and brothels, where "prominent Callistas had invested their profits from bribery and industrial activities."
Cárdenas did not use armored cars or bodyguards to protect himself. In the presidential campaign of 1934, he travelled through much of the rural areas by auto and horseback, accompanied only by Rafael M. Pedrajo, a chauffeur and an aide-de-camp. His fearlessness generated widespread respect for Cárdenas, who had demonstrated his bravery and leadership as a revolutionary general.
Cárdenas's most sweeping reforms were in the agrarian and industrial worker sectors, with the early years of his presidency, (1934–38) being the most radical and their policies most lasting. These two sectors were where mobilization was strongest prior to Cárdenas's presidency, so there was a confluence of peasant and worker interests seeking reform and empowerment with a president who was sympathetic to their aspirations and understood the importance of their support to the Mexican state and to Cárdenas's dominant party.
During Cárdenas' presidency, the government enacted land reform that was "sweeping, rapid, and, in some respects, innovative". He redistributed large commercial haciendas, some 180,000 km2 of land to peasants. With the powers of Article 27 of the Mexican constitution, he created agrarian collectives, or ejidos, which in early twentieth-century Mexico were an uncommon form of landholding. Two high-profile regions of expropriation for Cárdenas's agrarian reform were in the productive cotton-growing region in northern Mexico, known as La Laguna, the other was in Yucatán, where the economy was dominated by henequen production. Other areas that saw significant land reform were Baja California and Sonora in northern Mexico and his home state of Michoacan and Chiapas in southern Mexico.
In 1937, Cárdenas invited Andrés Molina Enríquez, intellectual father of Article 27 of the 1917 Constitution, to accompany him to Yucatán to implement the land reform, even though Molina Enríquez was not a big supporter of the collective ejido system. Although he could not go due to ill health, he defended Cárdenas's action against Luis Cabrera Lobato, who argued that the Ejidal Bank that Cárdenas established when he embarked on his sweeping redistribution of land was, in fact, making the Mexican state the new hacienda owner. For Molina Enríquez, the Yucatecan henequen plantations were an "evil legacy" and "hellholes" for the Maya. As a lifelong supporter of land reform, Molina Enríquez's support of Cárdenas's "glorious crusade" was important.
Cárdenas knew that peasant support was important and as a presidential candidate in 1933, he reached out to an autonomous peasant organization, the Liga Nacional Campesina (National Peasant League) and promised to integrate it into the party structure. The Liga split over this question, but one element was integrated into the Partido Nacional Revolucionario. Cárdenas expanded the peasant league's base in 1938 into the Confederación Nacional Campesina (CNC). Cárdenas "believed that an organized peasantry would represent a political force capable of confronting the established landholding elite, as well as providing a critical voting block for the new Mexican state." Scholars differ as to Cárdenas's intent for the CNC, with some viewing it as an autonomous organization that would advocate for peasants regarding land tenure, rural projects, and peasant political interests, while others see the CNC as in patron-client relationship with the state, restricting its autonomy.
Agrarian reform took place in a patchwork fashion with uneven results. Over years, many regions had experienced peasant mobilization in the face of repression and "low intensity agrarian warfare." The peasant movement in Morelos had mobilized before the Mexican Revolution and had success under Emiliano Zapata's leadership extinguished the hacienda system in that state. In Cárdenas's agrarian reform, with the revolutionary regime consolidated and the agrarian problems still unresolved, the president courted mobilized agraristas, who now found the state attentive to their issue. Land reform, with some exceptions such as in Yucatán, took place in areas of previous mobilization. Peasants themselves pushed for agrarian reform and to the extent it was accomplished, they were integral agents not merely the recipients of top-down state largesse.
The other key sector of reform was for industrial labor. Article 123 of the 1917 Constitution had empowered labor in an unprecedented way, guaranteeing worker rights such as the eight-hour day and the right to strike, but in a more comprehensive fashion, Article 123 signaled that the Mexican state was on the side of labor. A labor organization already existed when Cárdenas took office, the CROM union of Luis Morones. Morones was forced out of his cabinet post in Calles's government and the CROM declined in power and influence, with major defections of Mexico City unions, one of which was led by socialist Vicente Lombardo Toledano. Cárdenas promoted Toledano's "purified" Confederation of Mexican Workers, which evolved into the Mexican Confederation of Workers or CTM. The CTM's alliance with Cárdenas was tactical and conditional, seeing their interests being forwarded by Cárdenas, but not controlled by him. As with the agrarian sector with mobilized peasants, mobilized and organized workers had long agitated and fought for their interests. Article 123 of the Constitution was a tangible result of their participation in the Mexican Revolution on the Constitutionalist side. In fact, workers organized by the Casa del Obrero Mundial, a radical labor organization, fought in the Red Battalions against the peasant revolutionaries led by Emiliano Zapata. Lombardo Toledano and the CTM supported Cárdenas's exile of Calles and in the same stroke Cárdenas also exiled CROM's discredited leader, Luis Napoleón Morones.
Cárdenas nationalized the railway system creating the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México in 1938 and put under a "workers' administration." But his most sweeping nationalization was that of the petroleum industry in 1938.
Central to Cárdenas' economic project was the nationalization of Mexico's vast oil production in order to secure both more revenues and national control over natural wealth. An oil boom had taken place following strikes in 1910 in the area known as the "Golden Lane" or "Golden Belt", near Tampico. Oil drilling in such areas resulted in Mexico becoming the world's second-largest oil producer by 1921, and supplying approximately 20 percent of domestic demand in the United States. But the Tampico fields decline markedly after 1923, and much US oil investment went to Venezuela.
Cárdenas' efforts to negotiate for a greater return from Mexican Eagle, under the managerial control of Royal Dutch/Shell and Standard Oil of New Jersey, were not successful. The companies rejected a solution proposed by a presidential commission. On March 18, 1938, Cárdenas nationalized Mexico's petroleum reserves and expropriated the equipment of the foreign oil companies in Mexico. The announcement inspired a spontaneous six-hour parade in Mexico City; it was followed by a national fund-raising campaign to compensate the private companies.
The legislation for nationalization provided for compensation for the expropriated assets, but Cárdenas' action angered the international business community and Western governments, especially the United Kingdom. The Mexican government was more worried about the lack of technical expertise within the nation to run the refineries. Before leaving, the oil companies had ensured they left nothing of value behind, hoping to force Cárdenas to accept their conditions.
Mexico was eventually able to restart the oil fields and refineries, but production did not rise to pre-nationalization levels until 1942, after the entry of the United States into World War II. The US sent technical advisers to Mexico to ensure production could support the overall Allied war effort.
In 1938, the British severed diplomatic relations with Cárdenas' government, and boycotted Mexican oil and other goods. An international court ruled that Mexico had the authority for nationalization. With the outbreak of World War II, oil became a highly sought-after commodity. The company that Cárdenas founded, Petróleos Mexicanos (or Pemex), later served as a model for other nations seeking greater control over their own oil and natural gas resources. In the early 21st century, its revenues continued to be the most important source of income for the country, despite weakening finances. Cárdenas founded the National Polytechnic Institute in order to ensure the education and training of people to run the oil industry.
At first, the oil nationalization expropriation of 1938 earned Cárdenas great respect among Mexicans and in many other Latin America countries. In later years, however, Cárdenas' oil policy proved to be unpopular. Vincente Lombardo Toledano took advantage of Cárdenas' unpopularity and organized pro-Communist militias. Lombardo Toledano's actions are considered to have contributed to the rise of right-wing militias commanded by General Juan Andreu Almazán as well.
Cárdenas created the new cabinet-level Department of Indigenous Affairs (Departamento de Asuntos Indígenas) in 1936, with Graciano Sánchez, an agrarista leader in charge. After a controversy at the DAI, Sánchez was replaced by a scholar, Prof. Luis Chávez Orozco. Cárdenas was influenced by an advocate of indigenismo, Moisés Sáenz, who earned a doctorate in education from Columbia University and had held a position in the Calles administration in the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP). Although initially an assimilationist for Mexico's indigenous, he shifted his perspective after a period of residence in a Purépecha village, which he published as Carapan: Bosquejo de una experiencia. He came to see indigenous culture as having value. Sáenz advocated for educational and economic reforms that would better the indigenous, and this became the aim of the department Cárdenas created.
The official 1940 government report on the Cárdenas administration states that “the indigenous problem is one of the most serious that the revolutionary government has had to confront.” The aim of the department was to study fundamental problems concerning Mexico's indigenous, particularly economic and social conditions, and then propose measures to the executive power for coordinated action to promote and manage measures considered to be in the interests of centers of indigenous populations. Most indigenous people were found in Veracruz, Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Yucatán, according to the 1930 national census. In 1936 and 1937, the department had approximately 100 employees and a budget of $750,000 pesos, but as with other aspects of the Cárdenas regime, 1938 marked a significant increase personnel and budget; 350 employees in 1938 and a budget of $2.77 million pesos and in 1939, the high point in the department’s budget, there were 850 employees with a budget of $3.75 million pesos. In 1940, the budget remained robust at $3 million pesos, with 650 employees.
The function of the department was primarily economic and educational. Specifically it was tasked with defending indigenous villages and communities, holders of ejidos (ejidatarios) and indigenous citizens (ciudadanos) from persecution and abuse that could be committed by any type of authority. It defended ejido officials (comisariados ejidales) and agricultural cooperatives. The goals that the department worked toward were primarily economic and education, with cultural actions second. Social measures and public health/sanitation were less important in terms of action for this department.
The department promoted a series of national indigenous congresses, bringing together different indigenous groups to meet as indigenous and discuss common issues. The government's aim in doing this was to have them move in concert toward the “integral liberation” (liberación integral), with their rights respected by the primary goal was to incorporate indigenous into the larger, national population on an equal basis. Initially in 1936 and 1937, there was one annual conference. The first one drew approximately 300 pueblos, while the second only 75. In 1938, there were two conferences with 950 pueblos represented. The last two years of the Cárdenas sexenio there were two congresses each year, but sparser attendance at around 200 pueblos each. The government attempted to engage the active participation of the indigenous pueblos, seeing that such engagement was the key to success, but the fall-off in the last two years indicates decreased mobilization. The department published 12 edited books with a total publication run of 350 as well as 170 tape recorded materials in indigenous languages.
In February 1940, the department established a separate medical/sanitary section with 4 clinics in Chihuahua and one in Sonora, but the largest number were in central in southern Mexico.
In 1940, the first Interamerican Indigenista Congress met in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, with Cárdenas giving a plenary address to the participants.
Cárdenas had pushed for women's suffrage in Mexico, responding to the pressure from women activists and from the political climate that emphasized equality of citizens. Mexico was not alone in Latin America in not enfranchising women, but in 1932 both Brazil and Uruguay had extended suffrage to women, and Ecuador had also done so. Women had made a significant contribution to the Mexican Revolution, but had not made gains in the postrevolutionary phase as women. Women who were members of the National Peasants Confederation (Confederación Nacional Campesina) or the Confederation of Mexican Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores Mexicanos) were by virtue of their membership umbrella organizations were members of Cárdenas's reorganized party, the Party of the Mexican Revolution or PRM, done in 1938. In practice, however, women were marginalized from power. Women could not stand for national or local governmental elections or vote. The Constitution of 1917 did not explicitly address women's rights, so that to enfranchise women required a constitutional amendment. The amendment itself was simple and brief, making specifying that “mexicanos” referred to both woman and men.
Many PNR congressmen and senators gave supportive speeches for the amendment, but there was opposition. Cárdenas's impending reorganization of the party, which took place in 1938, was a factor in changing some opponents into supporters. In the end, it passed unanimously and was sent to the states to ratify it. Despite the speeches and the ratifications, opponents used a loophole to block the amendment's implementation by refusing to publish notice of the change in the Diario official. Skeptics of women's suffrage were suspicious that conservative Catholic women would take instructions on voting from priests, and therefore undermine the progressive gains of the Revolution. Conservative Catholic women had mobilized during the Church-State conflict of the late 1920s, the Cristero Rebellion, giving material aid to Cristero armies, and even forming a secret society, Feminine Brigades of St. Joan of Arc.
The concern about Mexican women taking advise from priests on voting had some foundation in the example of the leftist Spanish Republic of the 1930s. Many Spanish women did indeed support the position of the Catholic Church which was opposed to the republic’s anticlerical policies. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was for Mexico a cautionary tale, the failure of a leftist regime after a military coup.
Cárdenas was unable to overcome opposition to women's suffrage, although he personally was committed to the cause. Women did not get the vote in Mexico until 1953, when the Mexican government was pursuing economic policies friendlier to business and there was a modus vivendi with the Catholic Church in Mexico.
The Partido de la Revolución Mexicana (PRM) came into being on March 30, 1938 after the party founded in 1929 by Calles, the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (PNR), was dissolved. Cárdenas's PRM was reorganized again in 1946 as the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Calles founded the PNR in the wake of President-elect Obregón's assassination in order to create some way for revolutionary leaders to maintain order and power. Calles could not be re-elected as president, but did hold power through the newly created party. Often called the “official party”, it “was created as a cartel to control localized political machines and interests.”
When Cárdenas ran as the candidate of the PNR in 1934, Calles had expected to continue to be the real power in Mexico. Cárdenas might have been one of the short-term, powerless presidents of the years 1929-1934, but instead he built a large and mobilized base of support of industrial workers and peasants and forced Calles into exile in 1935. Cárdenas further consolidated power by dissolving the PNR and creating a new party with a completely different kind of organization.
The PRM was organized in four sectors, industrial labor, peasants, a middle class sector (composed largely of government workers), and the military. This organization was a resurrection of corporatism, essentially organization by estates or interest groups. Each sector of the party had a parallel organization, so that the labor sector was composed of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), the peasant sector by the National Confederation of Campesinos (CNC), and the middle class sector by the Federation of Unions of Workers in Service to the State (FSTSE), created in 1938. The old Federal Army had been destroyed in the Revolution and the post-revolutionary military had increasingly been transformed from a collection of veteran revolutionary fighters into a military organized along more traditional lines of hierarchy and control. The military had in most of Latin America in the post-independence period viewed itself as the arbiter of power and intervened in politics by force or the threat of force. In the post-revolutionary period, presidents of Mexico, including Cárdenas, were former generals in the revolutionary army. Curbing the power of the military was instigated by Álvaro Obregón and Calles, but the threat of revolt and undermining of the state remained, as the Cristero Rebellion showed in the late 1920s, led by a former revolutionary general, Enrique Gorostieta. Cárdenas aimed to undermine the military's potential to dominate politics by making it a sector of the official party. Although some critics questioned the military's incorporation into the party, Cárdenas saw it as a way to assert civilian control. He is quoted as saying, “We did not put the Army in politics. It was already there. In fact it had been dominating the situation, and we did well to reduce its voice to one in four.” Cárdenas had already mobilized workers and peasants into a counterweight to the “military's domination of politics.”
These groups often had different interests, but rather than creating a pluralist system in which the groups competed, the corporatist model placed the President as the arbiter of interests. Thus, the organization of different interest groups with formal representation in the party gave them access to largesse from the State, but also limited their ability to act autonomously since they were dependents of the new system.
The corporatist model is most often associated with fascism, whose rise in Germany and Italy in the 1930s coincided with Cárdenas's presidency. Cárdenas was emphatically opposed to fascism, but created the PRM and organized the Mexican state on authoritarian lines. That reorganization can be seen as the enduring legacy of the Cárdenas presidency. Although the PRM was reorganized into the Institutional Revolutionary Party in 1946, the basic structure was retained. Cárdenas's calculation that the military's incorporation into the PRM would undermine its power was essentially correct, since it disappeared as a separate sector of the party, but was absorbed into the “popular” sector.
After establishing himself in the presidency, Cárdenas led the Congress in condemning Calles's persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico. In 1936, Cárdenas had Calles and twenty of his corrupt associates arrested and deported to the United States. The majority of the Mexican public strongly supported these actions.
The development bank, Nacional Financiera (México), was founded during his term as president. Although not extensively active during that period, in the post-World War II era of the Mexican Miracle, the bank was an important tool in government industrialization projects.
Cárdenas became known for his progressive program of building roads and schools and promoting education, gaining Congressional approval to allocate twice as much federal money to rural education as all his predecessors combined.
Cárdenas ended capital punishment (in Mexico, usually in the form of a firing squad). Capital punishment has been banned in Mexico since that time. The control of the republic by Cárdenas and the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) predecessor Partido de la Revolución Mexicana without widespread bloodshed effectively signaled the end of rebellions that began with the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Despite Cárdenas' policy of socialist education, he also improved relations with the Roman Catholic Church during his administration.
Cárdenas supported the Republican government of Spain against right-wing general Francisco Franco's forces during in the Spanish Civil War. Franco was given support by Germany and Italy. Mexico's support of the Republican government was "by selling arms to the Republican army, underwriting arms purchases from third parties, supporting the Republic in the League of Nations, providing food, shelter and education for children orphaned during the Spanish Civil War." After the war ended with the defeat of the loyalist Republicans, Cárdenas ordered his ambassador and envoys in Europe to provide safe haven and protection to all exiles, including Republican President Manuel Azaña, who went into exile in France. He was sought for deportation by the victorious Nationalists and by the Vichy French. Azaña died in Montauban, France in November 1940 of natural causes, while under Mexican diplomatic protection.
Although Mexico's efforts in the Spanish Civil War were not enough to save the Spanish Republic, it did provide a place of exile for as many as 20,000-40,000 Spanish refugees. Among those who reached Mexico were distinguished intellectuals who left a lasting imprint in Mexican cultural life. The range of refugees may be seen from an analysis of the 4,559 passengers arriving in Mexico in 1939 on board the ships Sinaia, Ipanema and Mexique; the largest groups were technicians and qualified workers (32%), farmers and ranchers (20%), along with professionals, technicians, workers, business people students and merchants, who represented 43% of the total. The Casa de España, founded with Mexican government support in the early 1930s, was an organization to provide a safe haven for Spanish loyalist intellectuals and artists. It became the Colegio de México in October 1940, an elite institution of higher education in Mexico, in 1940 with the support of Cárdenas's government.
In 1936, Cárdenas allowed Russian exile Leon Trotsky to settle in Mexico, reportedly to counter accusations that Cárdenas was a Stalinist. Cárdenas was not as left-wing as Leon Trotsky and other socialists would wish, but Trotsky described his government as the only honest one in the world.
The last military revolt in Mexico was that of Saturnino Cedillo, a former revolutionary general whose power base was in the state of San Luis Potosí. Cedillo was a supporter of Calles and had participated in the formation of the Partido Nacional Revolucionario. He was a “paradigmatic figure”, acting as a strong leader in his region and mediating between the federal government and his local power base. As a powerbroker with demonstrated military and political skills, he had a great deal of autonomy in San Luis Potosí, serving a term as governor (1927–32), but then modeling Calles's Maximato was the power behind the governorship. Cedillo supported Cárdenas in his power struggle with Calles. However, relations between Cedillo and Cárdenas soured, particularly as Cárdenas's new political system was consolidated and undermined the autonomous power of local caciques.
Cárdenas was ideologically more radical than Cedillo, and Cedillo became a major figure in right-wing opposition to Cárdenas. Groups around him included the fascist “Gold Shirts”, seen as a force capable of ousting Cárdenas. Cedillo rose in revolt in 1938 against Cárdenas, but the federal government had clear military superiority and crushed the uprising. In 1939, Cedillo, members of his family, and a number of supporters were killed, Cedillo himself betrayed by a follower while he was in hiding. He was “the last of the great military caciques of the Mexican Revolution who maintained his own quasi-private army,” and who constructed “his campesino fiefdom.” Cárdenas's victory over Cedillo showed the power and consolidation of the newly reorganized Mexican state, but also a showdown between two former revolutionary generals in the political sphere.
In the elections of 1940, Cárdenas, hoped to prevent another uprising or even "an outright counter-revolution throughout the Republic" by those opposed to his leftist policies, endorsed the PRM nominee Manuel Ávila Camacho, a moderate conservative. Obregonista Francisco Múgica would have been Cárdenas's ideological heir, and he had played an important role in the Revolution, the leader of the left-wing faction that successfully place key language in the Constitution of 1917, guaranteeing the rights of labor. Múgica had known Cárdenas personally since 1926 when the two were working in Veracruz. Múgica had served in Cárdenas's cabinet as Secretary of the National Economy and as Secretary of the Ministry of Communications and Public Works. In those positions, Múgica made sure the federal government pursued social goals; Múgica was considered "the social conscience of Cardenismo." Múgica resigned his cabinet post to be a candidate for the 1940 presidential election.
However, the political system was not one of open competition among candidates, although the PRM's rules required an open convention to select the candidate. Cárdenas established the unwritten rule that the president chose his successor. Cárdenas chose political unknown Manuel Ávila Camacho, far more centrist than Múgica, as the PRM's official candidate. He was "known as a conciliator rather than a leader" and later derided as "the unknown soldier." Múgica withdrew, realizing his personal ambitions would not be satisfied, and went on to hold other posts in the government. Cárdenas may well have hoped Ávila Camacho would salvage some of his progressive policies and be a compromise candidate compared to his conservative opponent, General Juan Andreu Almazán. Cárdenas is said to have secured the support of the CTM and the CNC for Ávila Camacho by personally guaranteeing their interests would be respected.
The campaign and elections were marked by violent incidents; on election-day the opposing parties hijacked numerous polling places and each issued their own "election results". Cárdenas himself was unable to vote on election day because the polling place closed early to prevent supporters of Almazán from voting. Since the government controlled the electoral process, the official results declared Ávila Camacho as winner; Almazán cried fraud and threatened revolt, trying to set up a parallel government and congress. Ávila Camacho crushed Almazán's forces and assumed office in December 1940. His inauguration was attended by US Vice President-elect Henry A. Wallace, who was appointed by the U.S. as a "special representative with the rank of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary" for Mexico, indicating that the U.S. recognized the legitimacy of the election results. Almazán also attended Ávila Camacho's inauguration.
Much to the surprise of Mexicans who expected that Cárdenas might follow the example of Calles and remain the power behind the presidency, particularly since Ávila Camacho did not appear to have major leadership skills at a time that the conflict in Europe and domestic turmoil were in evidence. But Cárdenas set the important precedent of leaving the presidency and its powers to his successor.
After his presidential term that ended December 1, 1940, Cárdenas served as Mexico's secretary of defense 1942-1945.
It is often said that Lázaro Cárdenas was the only president associated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) who did not use the office to make himself wealthy. He retired to a modest home by Lake Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, and worked the rest of his life supervising irrigation projects and promoting free medical clinics and education for the nation's poor. He also continued to speak out about international political issues and in favor of greater democracy and human rights in Latin America and elsewhere. For example, he was one of the participants in the Russell Tribunal for investigating war crimes in Vietnam.
Lázaro Cárdenas died of cancer in Mexico City on October 19, 1970 at the age of 75. His son Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and his grandson Lázaro Cárdenas Batel have been prominent Mexican politicians.
In his honor, his name was given to a number of cities, towns, and a municipality in Mexico, including Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán, the municipality of Lázaro Cárdenas, Quintana Roo, Lázaro Cárdenas, Jalisco, and other smaller communities. There are also many streets that have been named after him, including the Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico City and highways in Guadalajara, Monterrey and Mexicali. Šetalište Lazaro Kardenasa (Lázaro Cárdenas promenade) in Belgrade, Serbia, is also named after him, as is a street in Barcelona, Spain, and a monument in a park in Madrid dedicated to his memory for his role in admitting defeated Spanish Republicans to Mexico after the Civil War in that country.
In 1955, Lázaro Cárdenas was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize, which was later renamed for Lenin as part of de-Stalinization.
President Cárdenas and his administration are given credit by socialists for expanding the distribution of land to the peasants, establishing new welfare programs for the poor, and nationalizing the railroad and petroleum industries, including the oil company that Cárdenas founded, Petróleos Mexicanos. Toward the end of his presidency, unhappy landowners and foreign capitalists began to challenge his programs and his power. His choice of his close associate Manuel Ávila Camacho rather than a candidate with a distinguished record as a revolutionary leader was displeasing to many, and occasioned a possible military revolt.
The party that Cárdenas founded, the Partido Revolucionario Mexicano (PRM), established the basic structure of sectoral representation of important groups, a structure retained by its successor in 1946, the PRI. The PRI continued in power until 2000. This is attributed by some to electoral fraud and coercion. This legacy led his son, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, to form the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) to contest the 1988 presidential election. Since that year, the PRD has become one of the three major parties in Mexico, gaining working class support that was previously enjoyed by the PRI.
In his "Political Testament", written the year before his death and published posthumously, he acknowledged that his regime had failed to make the changes in distribution of political power and corruption that were the basis for his presidency and the revolution. He expressed his dismay in the fact that some people and groups were making themselves rich to the detriment of the mainly poor majority. It was said of Cárdenas in a eulogy that "he was the greatest figure produced by the revolution… an authentic revolutionary who aspired to the greatness of his country, not personal aggrandizement."
Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay patterned his people–oriented government on the principles which he found in a biography of Cárdenas written by William Cameron Townsend.