Sexenios in a changing world: Mexican Presidents Lopez Mateos and Diaz Ordaz

articles History & People

Jim Tuck

Adolfo López Mateos (1909–1970) and Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1911–1970)

In 1958, the year Adolfo López Mateos became president of Mexico, the world was relatively tranquil. The Korean War was over and Vietnam was in a lull between the defeat of the French in 1954 and the formation of the National Liberation Front (Vietcong) at the end of 1960. In France, Charles de Gaulle had averted civil war by becoming chief of state. Fidel Castro was still a guerrilla in the mountains of Cuba — and a highly popular one. The corrupt Batista dictatorship was universally despised and the conventional wisdom on Castro (which he did nothing to discourage) depicted him as a democratic nationalist rather than a revolutionary Marxist.

Eisenhower was at the peak of his prestige, Joe McCarthy had died of alcoholism the year before, and an era of national paranoia had succumbed to one of good feeling and material progress in which the Four Aces sang no songs of protest and Ozzie and Harriet reigned supreme over their squeaky-clean household.

Preceding López Mateos in the presidency was another Adolfo — Ruiz Cortines. A Mexican “Ike,” this former governor of Veracruz gave Mexico a frugal, sober and efficient government aimed at growth but curbing the lavish public spending of his predecessor, the flamboyant Miguel Alemán.

Without overworking the comparison, it could be said that in a limited way López Mateos played “Kennedy” to Ruiz Cortines’s “Eisenhower.” Where the outgoing president was 67, his successor was twenty years younger. Having served as secretary of labor, López Mateos had support among liberals and trade unionists and had infinitely more personal charisma than his predecessor. Where the latter was an indifferent speaker, the former was one of the finest orators in Mexico. Since the last three presidents — Avila Camacho, Alemán and Ruiz Cortines — had been conservative and business-oriented, it was now felt that a move to the left was indicated. But not too drastic a move. As the president-elect himself put it: “I am left within the Constitution.”

López Mateos was born on May 26, 1909, at Atizapán de Zaragoza in the state of Mexico. His father was a small-town dentist and his mother a schoolteacher. The father died when the boy was young and the mother moved to Mexico City, serving as director of an orphanage to support the family.

Adolfo attended primary school on a scholarship and in 1929 graduated from the Scientific and Literary Institute of the state of Mexico, located in the state capital of Toluca.

It was at this time that he received his political baptism of fire — a baptism that was almost a funeral. López Mateos had been a follower of José Vasconcelos, the brilliant educator who ran as an opposition candidate against Pascual Ortiz Rubio, handpicked candidate of former president and perennial strongman Plutarco Elías Calles. He and fellow student vasconcelistas were attacked by callista gunmen and one of his best friends was killed. López Mateos had to flee to Guatemala, returning in 1930 when he saw that the pressure had eased. Chastened, he decided the most prudent course was to enter the government bureaucracy.

Where López Mateos had opposed one strongman, he now became the protégé of another — Mexico state political boss Isidro Fabela. Fabela, who admired his intelligence and political skills, shepherded López Mateos into such posts as director of the state Literary and Scientific Institute, alternate federal senator, and then senator. López Mateos also established a close friendship with Ruiz Cortines. When the latter became president, he made López Mateos minister of labor. At the end of his term, Ruiz Cortines bestowed on his friend the all-important dedazo (“pointing finger”) which meant that he would be candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a nomination guaranteeing his accession to the presidency.

As a self-proclaimed “left within the Constitution” president, López Mateos soon made clear that he had no patience with those he considered left of the Constitution. After a crippling strike, he imprisoned the head of the railroad union, Demetrio Vallejo, on charges of “social dissolution.” Also jailed was the head of the teachers union and the internationally known painter (and militant Communist) David Alfaro Siqueiros.

But, within parameters he set for himself, López Mateos was no parlor radical. He parceled out more land to the peasants than any president since Lázaro Cardenas, he nationalized U.S. and Canadian owned electric companies, he brought the government into the field of low-cost housing (with rents deliberately kept down), he expanded the social security (IMSS) apparatus, he waged an aggressive public health campaign, and he vigorously attacked illiteracy.

In the field of foreign policy, López Mateos managed the tightrope feat of remaining on excellent terms with the United States while declining to go along with U.S. initiatives on Cuba. Mexico voted against Cuba’s expulsion from the Organization of American States, refused to go along with economic sanctions and remained the only country in the Western Hemisphere to retain diplomatic relations with Cuba.

At the same time, Mexico rejected alignment in any form with the developing Moscow-Havana axis and condemned the placing of missiles in Cuba. López Mateos’s independent policy in the global conflict won him the admiration of President Charles de Gaulle, who was also aiming at a neutral position in the East-West struggle.

A signal diplomatic triumph for López Mateos was the return, in the summer of 1963, of the Chamizal to Mexico. This was a 600-acre strip of formerly Mexican territory that had ended up in Texas when the Rio Grande changed course. The Chamizal pact had been worked out in the course of a friendly 1962 meeting in Mexico City between López Mateos and President John F. Kennedy.

But trouble loomed as López Mateos neared the end of his term. For one thing, his health was precarious. Although a relatively young man, he had long suffered ferocious migraines, these the result of swollen blood vessels in his brain. A few days before his inauguration, an attack had forced him to be carried out on a stretcher. The health problem caused López Mateos to delegate more and more authority to his interior minister and successor, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. As leftist militancy rose in the middle and late sixties, it was a collision course situation between increasingly militant students and workers on one side and a hard-line authoritarian like Díaz Ordaz on the other. Though López Mateos agreed with the action, it was Díaz Ordaz who masterminded the smashing of the teachers’ and railway workers, unions. Now he would soon be in power officially. As for López Mateos, he suffered a crippling stroke almost as soon as he left office. When he died, in 1970, he had been in a coma for six years.

Gustavo Díaz Ordaz

Gustavo Díaz Ordaz was born in Puebla on March 12, 1911. Authoritarianism ran in the family. His father, Ramón, had been a local political chief under Porfirio Díaz. Losing his position when the old dictator was overthrown, he worked at any position he could to maintain his family — for a time he was a hacienda administrator and then a bookkeeper. The family was poor and one time suffered the humiliation of being evicted for nonpayment of rent.

A further negative was Gustavo’s extreme ugliness — with a big mouth and huge, protruding teeth. This is significant because personal taunts from students are believed to have ignited the murderous rage that led to the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. Díaz Ordaz could engage in self-deprecating humor about his looks, once commenting to Lyndon Johnson that political enemies had called him two-faced. “If I had another face,” he quipped, “do you think I’d go around with this one?” Though he could be humorous in give-and-take with U.S. presidents, insults from screaming mobs of youthful revolutionaries was quite another matter.

But poverty and ugliness would be overcome by intelligence, a capacity for hard work, driving ambition and an inflexible will. Also, Díaz Ordaz resembled López Mateos in having a “rabbi” — an influential man who appreciated his qualities and took him under his wing. He became the protégé of General Maximino Avila Camacho, brother of former president Manuel Avila Camacho. Unlike his presidential brother, who had a conciliatory nature, Maximino was a brutal tyrant who gained the nickname El Carnicero El Carnicero (“The Butcher”) during the Cristero War. In Díaz Ordaz he spotted a comer, a tough young hard-liner who wore the espolones (“spurs”) of a fighting cock. With the patronage of Maximino, his “fighting cock” rose quickly in the ranks of the state and federal apparatus. In 1939 he became president of the state Superior Court, followed by election to the state legislature and then to the federal senate. López Mateos was also a senator and the two became close associates and fast friends. Though it seemed like a classic “odd couple” relationship — one genial and expansive, the other somber and driven — the two complemented each other well. While López Mateos was an attractive and articulate front man, Díaz Ordaz ably performed the donkey work. Respecting his friend’s skill as an administrator, López Mateos made him interior minister and then — a crowning moment — recipient of the dedazo.

Except for one dark stain, the presidency of Díaz Ordaz was a signal success. Inflation remained low, the increase in gross national product averaged a healthy 6 percent annually, and the percentage of the budget expended on education was one of the highest in the world. In making Latin America a nuclear free zone, Mexico played a leading part at international conferences. In such northern cities as Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana and Matamoros, urban renewal projects made them highly attractive to tourists. During the turbulent years to come, the Díaz Ordaz administration’s fiscal prudence and intelligent management of the economy would make Mexico look to some like a paradise lost.

The stain of course was Tlatelolco. Though these were relatively prosperous times, the revolution on campuses was one of rising expectations. Students devoured Marx and Marcuse and thrilled to the derring-do of Che Guevara.

All this filled Díaz Ordaz with rage. Mexico had won her bid to be host country at the 1968 Olympics and the last thing the president wanted was the Olimpiada disrupted by street violence and student unrest. What probably made Tlatelolco inevitable was an August 27, 1968, demonstration ending with a mob of students marching on the presidential palace and shouting the words: ¡SAL AL BALCON, CHANGO HOCICON! — “Come out on the balcony, monkey with a big snout!” Though Díaz was not rash enough to appear on the balcony, he did make his sentiments known to a writer friend. “Youth!” he exploded. “Those sons of bitches are not youth! They’re nothing! Blood-sucking parasites! … Stinking filth! And they don’t even have the balls to really stand up and fight…”

But Díaz Ordaz did. The National Autonomous University, a hotbed of anti-establishment feeling, was occupied by army troops on September 18. On October 2, a week before the Olympics were scheduled to begin, a mass meeting began at 5 p.m. at the Place of the Three Cultures, in the Tlatelolco neighborhood. Tlatelolco, with a huge temple, had been one of the most important centers of the Aztec civilization. it was estimated that between five and ten thousand people were on hand.

Then the firing began. There were three groups of attackers — police, uniformed soldiers and young men in civilian clothes wearing white gloves or knotted white handkerchiefs as an identification badge. These were members of Batallon Olimpia, a paramilitary force trained to provide security at the Olympic games. Later, there were also attacks from helicopters. The firing died after six but started again before seven and didn’t let up until eleven. Jean François Held, a journalist with the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, had been in Vietnam and in the Middle East. “Never have I seen a crowd fired on like that,” he said.

How many died at Tlatelolco? Though official government sources admitted first eight, then eighteen, then forty-three deaths, unofficial estimates ran as high as four hundred. Nobody believed the official government version — that the massacre began when “terrorists” in nearby apartment buildings fired on the police — or the version in Díaz Ordaz’s memoirs — that the demonstrators were trying to seize the nearby Ministry of Foreign Relations.

There was widespread belief, however, that much of the blame could be placed at the door of Luis Echeverría Alvarez, Díaz Ordaz’s interior minister and designated successor. Echeverría, as we shall see, was so disturbed by the accusation that he would devote his entire administration to expunging the stain of Tlatelolco.

As for Díaz Ordaz, he stubbornly continued to insist that the events of 1968 gave him a chance to serve his country and save it from disorder. “I do not have my hands stained with blood,” was his final comment. Appointed ambassador to Spain in 1977, he resigned within a week. Shortly afterwards he died of colon cancer.

Published or Updated on: October 1, 1999 by Jim Tuck © 1999


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