As far to the left as the Constitution allows…
Today is the 45th anniversary of the death of Adolfo López Mateos, who presidency seeems so remarkable in retrospect, only because, as leader of the Party of the Institutional Revolution, he really did seek (and largely suceeded in) Institutionalizing so many of the goals of the Revolution.
Born in Atizapán de Zaragoza, State of Mexico shortly before the Revolution (26 May 1910), López Mateos was a true son of that revolution. His family, having come down somewhat in the world as a result of the Revolution, moved to Mexico City, where his mother… one of Mexico’s first “career women” found a position as an orphanage administrator. La Señora Mateos, a whole-hearted modernist, hosted literary salons, where people like Diego Rivera, young Salvador Novo and foreign residents like Katherine Anne Porter felt at home. Having been sent to the then prestigious Colegío Francais, young López Mateos would go on to study literture at the University of Toluca before, as befitted a future politician, earning a law degree at UNAM.
A gifted student from a family known for its intellectual gifts, and a jock (he was an accomplished mountain climber) as well as a prize-winning orator, he was well-positioned to join the cultural elites. It is only natural that López Mateos fell under the spell of José Vasconcelos, the philospher and educator whose defense of “Bolivarian” values (meaning, not — as in our time — a multicultural pan-Latin political culture, but a return to the “traditional” Iberian and Catholic cultural values that united the Latin American nations’ elites). A student activist in Vasconcelos’ 1929 Presidential election, proved his baptism into the rough and tumble of Mexican politics. The future president’s own activities were such that he moved to Guatemala for at least a few months, somehow talking himself into a job in the Guatemalan Presidential Palace… call it an internship in politics. Eschewing Vasconcelos and his increasingly right-wing opposition movement, López Mateos returned to Mexico, where he put his considerable gifts to work within the existing power structure, and moved further and further to the left, as Mexico itself was doing during the Lazaro Cárdenas administration of the 1934-1940.
Serving mostly in posts related to cultural affairs, López Mateos was elected to the Senate from the State of Mexico at the age of 36, serving one term, after which he worked as campaign manager to the relatively elderly (for a Mexican politician) and colorless (especially for a Mexican politician) Adolfo Ruiz Cortines. Ruiz Cortines may have had the persona of a “grumpy old man”, but he was a thorough progressive, and one who sought to clean up Mexican politics wherever possible. Himself scrupulously honest (again, an anamoly among Mexian pols), he expected no less from his cabinet, including his Secretary of Labor, López Mateos.
An economist and statistician by training, Ruiz Cortones is best remembered not only for enfranchizing Mexican women, but also for his obsessive concern for the physical well-being of his people… fostering industries (like poulty raising) that would increase the protein intake of the average Mexican and for supporting policies that would make consumer goods more accessible to the average person. Recognizing his own bland personality and not particularly enjoying politics (he once said he’d sooner eat toads than campaign), Ruiz Cortones sought to continue his progressive policies when he chose the handsome, sophisticated López Mateos as his sucessor.
Progressive, sophisticated, but not without the toughness needed in an head of state. In the spring of 1958, railway workers went on stike, demanding a higher wage to keep up with inflation. As Secretary of Labor, López Mateos had the unenviable task of not only saying “no” to the stikers, which would have ended the discussion, if the railway workers had not been led by Demetrio Vallejo. With the strike speading to telegraph workers and other labor organizations, the government labeled Vallejo a “Communist”, claimed he was attempting to overthrow the government, clapped him (and other union leaders and Communists, including artist David Alfaro Siqueiros) in prison, and — calling out the army — broke the strike, and installed a tame leadership beholden to the PRI.
Still, with the PRI not facing any real opposition on the right, and the left either cowed, or “with the program”, López Mateos’ only campaign promise of note was to “move Mexico as far to the left as the Constitution allows”. Which he did. Nationalization of the elecrical industry, rural electricication, the Mexican national health and social security system (IMSS), and open access to the universities are his legacies.
With oil having already been nationalized during the Cárdenas Administration, López Mateos turned to other energy sources. With the last of the payments agreed to as compensation for the seized oil companies due in 1962, the money was available to buy out the mostlhy foreign owned electric companies, and to begin a long-overdue project of rural electricification. Which also meant the rural population for the first time had access to radio, and everyone in that era had access to a new news and entertainment medium, television. With good looks, and a suave personality, the President was a natural, and… besides… the new state owned television network was seen as an extension not of a public dialog, but of a showcase for the new Mexico, “as far to the left as the Constitution would allow” of the López Mateos vision.
In foreign policy, López Mateos´finest hour was during the Cuban Missile Crisis. While his government unofficially had supported the Cuban Revolution, domestically, he had to maintain a semblance of official neutrality. With the United States pressuring Latin American nations to boycott Cuba, Mexico’s independent stand was sold in the U.S. as necessary to Mexico’s own domestic tranquity, while in Havana it was seen as a quid pro quo… in return for not supporting U.S. efforts, the Cubans would not attempt to export their revolution to their main Latin benefactor, but would limit their push for regime changes to other nations in the hemisphere. When the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted, Mexico… having friendly relations with both Havana and Washington was the go-between. While the Mexican Ambassador, Gilberto Bosques Saldivar, was able to depend on his considerable diplomatic experience and his personal friendship with the Castro brothers, López Mateos worked round the clock to keep Washington and Havana talking to each other while the U.S. and Soviets worked out their understanding to remove the missiles. Mexico’s reward… and it seemed a small thing at the time, but of great symbolic importance, was Chamuzel, the small pocket of land formed by a change in the course of the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande that led to U.S. occupation of what had been, even after the 1848 cessesation of territory under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico territory.
Having come from an intellectual background, and something of an intellectual himself, the President not only encouraged mass university education and the arts, he turned to writers and artists for informal advise on policy, including, so it is rumored, the anarchist German exile novelist B. Traven. Traven’s Spanish-language editor being the President’s sister, its a believable rumor. Less believable, but certainly one fostered by López Mateos, was a string of affairs with glamourous film divas. While in some ways this was meant to distinguish him from his predecesor at Los Pinos (Ruiz Cortines, it was said, was so proper, even his mistress was respectable!), the playboy image was also a calculated attempt to hide from the public López Mateos’ own poor health and periods of enforced inactivity.
Suffering from undcontrolled high blood pressure, and having had an aneurysm in his early 20s, during his periods of illness, López Mateos came to depend more and more on his Interior Minister (Secretaría de Gobernación). Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. A completely different sort of man… ugly, where López Mateos was handsome; where López Mateos was a negotiator, only turning to violence when all else had failed, Díaz Ordaz brooked no opposition; where López Mateos walked a fine line between leftist policies at home, and suport for leftists aboard even if the United States government officialy disapproved, Díaz Ordaz was quick to put down any internal movement that might be seen by the United States as working against their interests in Latin America.
And, his health deteriorating and his term about to expire, López Mateos reluctantly chose Díaz Ordaz to run as his sucessor. Although appointed to head the committee organizing the 1968 Summer Olympics, López Mateos was perhaps
fortunate in having a massive stroke. He was spared the tragedy of seeing the students and intellectuals whose numbers and influence were growing thanks to his government, were being slaughtered by his sucessor. And that in reluctantly taming a union, he had opened the door to union leaders of the future who would see their role as protecting their position and currying favor with the party, and not with the working conditions of their members and the well-being of the State. And, that in bringing mass media to the people, he was moving Mexico not “as left as the constitution will allow”, but into constant bombardment of propaganda for neo-liberal consumerism and class envy.
Aldolfo López Mateos, Instituto Nacional de Estudios Históricas de las Revoluciónes de México
Mexican railroad workers strike for wages and union rights, 1958-1959 (Global Non-violent Action Database, Swathmore College)