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The Calles Presidency, 1924-28

Calles was perhaps Mexico's strongest political figure since the Díaz dictatorship. Calles began seriously to implement agrarian reform by distributing some 3.2 million hectares of land during his term, in addition to developing agricultural credit and irrigation. Labor was still organized into one national union, CROM, run by Calles's crony Luis Morones, even though independent unions were emerging. Public education facilities continued to expand, and Calles's administration built another 2,000 schools.

A major crisis developed, however, between the government and the Roman Catholic Church. In 1926 the archbishop of Mexico City, José Mora y del Río, made public his view that Roman Catholics could not follow the religious provisions of the constitution of 1917. In defiance of the declaration by the archbishop, Calles decided to implement fully several of the constitutional provisions: religious processions were prohibited; the church's educational establishments, convents, and monasteries were closed; foreign priests and nuns were deported; and priests were required to register with the government before receiving permission to perform their religious duties. The church reacted by going on strike on July 31, 1926, and during the three years that followed, no sacraments were administered. Bloody revolts broke out in the states of Michoacán, Puebla, Oaxaca, Zacatecas, Jalisco, and Nayarit. To the call of "Viva Cristo Rey" (Long live Christ the King), bands of militant Roman Catholics, known as Cristeros, attacked government officials and facilities and burned public schools. The government responded with overwhelming force, using the army and its own partisan bands of Red Shirts to fight the Cristeros. The fighting was vicious, with both sides engaging in indiscriminate acts of terrorism against civilians and widespread destruction of property. By 1929 the revolt had been largely contained, and the Cristeros were compelled to lay down their arms and accept most of the government's terms.

The Maximato

In defiance of the "no-reelection" principle that had been one of the key political legacies of the Revolution, Calles supported Obregón's bid to recapture the presidency in 1928. Beginning with the 1928 election, the presidential term was increased from four to six years (sexenio ). Thereafter, the sexenio formed the basis for regular and orderly political succession. Obregón won the election but was assassinated by a religious fanatic before taking office on July 17, 1928. Seeking to ensure political stability, Calles opted not to violate the "no-reelection" principle and instead chose one of his supporters, Emilio Portes Gil, as interim president (December 1928 to February 1930) until new elections could be held.

During the next six years (a period known as the Maximato), Calles exercised behind-the-scenes control over Mexican politics through the actions of three presidents who were essentially his puppets. By 1929 Calles's political machine had found institutional expression as the National Revolutionary Party (Partido Nacional Revolucionario--PNR). Unlike previous parties, which existed only in name during electoral campaigns and dissolved immediately thereafter, the PNR was designed to be a permanent organization run exclusively by Calles as jefe máximo (supreme leader), through which he acted as de facto president. Henceforth, the "official" party of the revolutionary regime served as the dominant political organization in the country and the primary dispenser of official patronage.

In the special election of 1929, called to select a figurehead to serve out the remaining four years of Obregón's term, Calles chose Pascual Ortiz Rubio as the PNR candidate. Ortiz Rubio was opposed by José Vasconcelos, who decried Calles's thinly veiled authoritarian rule and the growing corruption of the older revolutionary generation. Relying on ballot stuffing and other forms of electoral fraud, Ortiz Rubio defeated Vasconcelos with 99.9 percent of the vote. Ortiz Rubio's presidency would be short-lived, however. Having demonstrated excessive independence from Calles once in office, the president was summarily removed by the "supreme leader" in September 1932 and replaced with a more compliant figure, Abelardo Rodríguez.

The last two years of the Maximato under the presidency of Rodríguez witnessed a steady rightward drift of the revolutionary regime. Deciding that the country could not forego agricultural productivity for the sake of equity, Calles ordered a near halt to further land redistribution. Organized labor, which was seen as overly sympathetic to bolshevism and not loyal enough to the PNR, was disavowed and suppressed. By the early 1930s, the government was persecuting the Mexican Communist Party and allowing fascist organizations to terrorize Mexico's small Jewish population.

As the election for the 1934-40 presidential sexenio approached, Calles came under increasing pressure from the left wing of the PNR to pursue with more vigor the social welfare provisions of the constitution of 1917. Seeking to avoid a party split, Calles mollified his party's left wing by nominating Lázaro Cárdenas, a popular state governor, to succeed Rodríguez. Cárdenas had participated in the revolutionary conflict as a constitutionalist military officer, achieving the rank of brigadier general. While governor of his home state of Michoacán, Cárdenas gained recognition for his support of public education and his good relationship with organized labor and peasant organizations. Cárdenas's modest efforts at land reform at the state level earned him a reputation as a populist. Calles, although wary of Cárdenas, nevertheless expected the new president to fall into line much as his three predecessors had done.

Data as of June 1996

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