The next step was to get rid of Calles, who had become increasingly critical of Cárdenas’s radicalism. To pre-empt a coup by the former strong man, Cárdenas sent a party of twenty soldiers and eight police to Calles’ hacienda on April 9, 1936. There they discovered Calles in bed with grippe, reading a Spanish translation of Mein Kampf. More merciful than other revolutionaries, Cárdenas contented himself with deporting Calles to the United States.
Cárdenas will chiefly be remembered for his expropriation of the foreign oil companies. The action was brought on by their refusal to abide by a Mexican supreme court ruling that would have granted workers a modest pay increase. The decision came in the wake of a cabinet meeting and was announced by Cárdenas in a March 18, 1938 radio address. Though Cárdenas pledged to compensate the oil companies for their losses, expropriation resulted in damaging repercussions. The United States cut off silver purchases from Mexico, Great Britain broke off diplomatic relations and the oil companies mounted a vast propaganda campaign to discredit the expropriation.
But the debt was paid –thanks largely to a massive national effort which saw workers contributing their meager savings, peasant farmers bringing chickens to market, fashionable ladies selling jewelry and industrialists writing fat checks. All sectors of society joined in and the Church, long hostile to the government, blessed the fund raising effort.
In the foreign policy area, Cárdenas aided the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War and allowed many of them to come to Mexico after Franco’s victory. Though accused by rabid right-wingers of being a Soviet sympathizer, Cárdenas demonstrated that he was his own man when he gave refuge to Stalin’s arch-enemy, Leon Trotsky.
With the 1940 election coming up, many believed that Cárdenas would throw his support to the leftist General Francisco Mugica, who had written some of the more radical provisions of the 1917 Constitution. Cárdenas’ enemies on the right had nominated General Juan Andrew Almazán, a revolutionary soldier turned millionaire industrialist.
Cárdenas, fearing that a firebrand like Mugica would provoke armed rebellion among Almazán’s followers, chose as his successor the moderate and conciliatory Manuel Avila Camacho, a general whose background was so unspectacular that he was known as “the unknown soldier.” Avila Camacho won in a disputed election which caused Almazán to flee to Cuba after making accusations of fraud. He eventually returned to Mexico and retired to private life.
With the accession of Avila Camacho, the consolidation phase of the Mexican Revolution was over. The ruling party –then PNR, today PRI– was well into a record reign that endures to this day (1998). As the era of sudden and violent armed movements, coups and counter-coups, religious fanaticism and anticlerical outrages faded into memory, Mexico entered the World War II period a nation seasoned and matured by some of the most wrenching growing pains ever witnessed in history.