Lázaro Cárdenas became involved in the ten years of chaotic civil war that we call the Revolution of 1910 when he was 17 years old in 1912. He was the youngest of those who made names for themselves during the bedlam and profligate bloodshed of those ten years and one of the few of those to survive it. Handsome, brilliant, brave but reckless, unusually merciful in victory—prisoners were rarely taken by others–Cárdenas inspired affection in those with him, in those whom he served, and even in those whom he fought.
From his diaries written in a beautiful hand we know of his passion for the poetry of Baudelaire. From his close friends we learn that his relations with women in his youth were, as one said, an “amorous anarchy.” He special weakness was for “slender, light-skinned, gracefully moving” young women, many of whom apparently met weakness with weakness. Ultimately, he became one of the most, if not the most, beloved figures in Mexican history by Mexicans of all color and gender. Except for those very few of course.
Colonel Lázaro Cárdenas
Over the course of time, Cárdenas became a protegé of Plutarco Calles, later to become the President of Mexico in 1924. Calles referred to Cárdenas as “the kid.” In 1923 during the presidency of Álvaro Obregón, whom Calles served, yet another rebellion had broken out in Chihuahua. Calles ordered the kid to employ his two thousand horsemen only to harass the forces of perhaps the most adept general to survive the revolution who was then taking part in this rebellion under the command of the insurgent Enrique Estrada. This other young man, Rafael Buelna, was famously known as “The Gold Nugget.”
Buelna, whose tactical genius trumped that of the still young, still impetuous Cárdenas, set a trap. Cárdenas and his calvary, caught in close ambush by infantry and unable to maneuver, fought for eight hours. Cárdenas himself fought on after suffering a severe wound and losing much blood. His men must have known that sooner or later this would be their fate. The kid was too reckless. But they loved him.
Finally, Cárdenas sent a note to Buelna offering surrender and requesting his own execution in return for the lives of his remaining men. Buelna accepted the terms, and Cárdenas prepared to die. Instead, Buelna ordered that Cárdenas be carefully carried to his headquarters. From there Cárdenas was taken to a hospital in Guadalajara.
While this was being done, Buelna received an order from Estrada to do exactly what he was doing. Spare Cárdenas. Spare the kid. This is a measure of the regard in which Cárdenas was held by all and the reputation that he had established at the age of 28. Buelna was later killed in another engagement. However, it came about that Cárdenas himself captured Enrique Estrada. Cárdenas was instrumental in arranging his exile in lieu of his execution, probably without the cold blooded President Obregón’s knowledge.
In 1925 then President Calles named Cárdenas, at the age of 30, Chief of Military Operations in the main oil producing area of Mexico. American oil companies had established a state within a state there and regarded it privately as “conquered territory.” They evaded paying full compensation to the Mexican government for their extraction through various devices; they devastated the land; they left nothing of value in their wake. Calles was about to impose new rules to rein in the rapaciousness of the American oil companies. He wanted Cárdenas there amid them when he did this to handle any trouble.
One day as Cárdenas was traveling in the region he encountered a road block. In his own words:
When we met General Múgica in the oil fields of Cerro Azul and Potrero del Llano, we were detained at the gates of the companies that had closed off the roads and it was only after waiting an hour that their guards arrived to open up the way for us. And this happened to the Military Zone Commander himself!
The oil companies made a big mistake that day. Cárdenas never forgot this cavalier treatment of representatives of the Mexican government.
In 1938 an older Lázaro Cárdenas was himself President of Mexico. After years and years of ineffectual wrangling with the oil companies, Cárdenas had come to the decision that there was no alternative to radical, perhaps reckless, action. The oil industry must be nationalized.
At 10:00 at night on March 18, he addressed the nation over the radio from the National Palace to announce his decision. He asked for “the support of the people not only for the recovery of the oil but also for the dignity of Mexico that foreigners think they can ridicule after having obtained great benefits from our natural resources . . . . “
With will and a small amount of sacrifice from the people to resist the assaults of the interests affected, Mexico will come through gracefully.
It was to be an expropriation of the oil industry with reasonable compensation to be paid to the American oil companies for the loss of their concessions. Two hundred thousand people flooded into the huge main plaza of Mexico City that night to celebrate this decision. Songs were composed on the spot and sung in the street.
On the eighteenth of March, the day of the great sensation!
He nationalized the oil then! The Chief of our Nation! . . .
And so Mexico is giving the world its great lesson!
History is being redeemed through our Revolution!
They wanted to make a joke of the laws of our free nation
without noting how they were born from the roar of cannon!
There then occurred something that touches me profoundly, a phenomenon that has become legend in Mexico. Long lines of people formed spontaneously outside the Palace of Fine Arts, people from every social class, to make their own contribution to the payment of compensation to the American oil companies, this “national debt of honor.”
It is said that there were an inordinate number of women in those lines. This man Cárdenas, in so many ways a man’s man and now one of impeccable rectitude in his maturity, had nevertheless not lost his special appeal to women. Wealthy women waited to contribute their jewelry. Poor women patiently waited, holding live chickens or turkeys.
The Mexican people suffered under the embargoes that followed, but the American oil companies were paid. All gas stations here are Pemex to this day. I often think of those lines of people outside the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City in 1939 as I pull into a Pemex to have the truck filled with gasoline.
In addition to others, primarily MEXICO: Biography of Power, A History of Modern Mexico, 1810-1996, Enrique Krauze, translated by Han Heifetz, (HarperPerennial 1997) Speculations about and interpretations of the facts are my own.