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by Lindon Ratliff
Mexico's revolution during the twentieth century seemed to be ignored by the outside world. Many countries imaged the inner conflict would be settled by Mexicans themselves. However, at the very moment when the world was being overturned by World War II, Mexico was fortunate to have as their leader a very stable man. Manuel Avila Camacho's administration was not close to perfect but when the world as well as Mexico needed him, he stood up and allowed for prosperity and most importantly stability during the six years of his administration.
Records of Avila Camacho's early life are scarce but some facts are known about the future president. He was born at Texiutlan, Puebla, on April 24, 1897 which is a very small almost rural town.(1) His father as well as his family were farmers in the rural area.(2) In his later childhood, he received some secondary education in the field of accounting before joining the army at the age of eighteen.(3) However, unknown to most students of Mexico, as a young adult, he studied for a short while at the National Preparatory School, and was a student of Luis Cabrera. This is of importance due to the fact many countries who have undergone revolution did not allow for persons of such a background to have an opportunity like young Manuel had.(4)
His rise through the military ranks was very quick due to his education. By May, 1920 he was serving as Cárdenas's chief of staff, which gave him the rank of Colonel in the Mexican army. This shows the importance of an education within the bloody era of the revolution. Three years later, in 1923, Cárdenas assigned Avila Camacho to help defend the city of Merelia. In a peculiar circumstance the defending general of the city waived the white flag for surrender. At this moment Buelna, acting under orders from Estrada, attacked the city but it was all a deceit and the city opened fire upon the attackers, repulsed the attack and killed Buelna. After the first attack Avila Camacho and his brother, Colonel Maximino Avila Camacho were in charge of the defense due to the fact, the original general had also been killed. The next day, Estrada himself arrived on the battlefield and personally led a successful assault on the city.(5)
The future president along with his brother found themselves in the hands of angry troops demanding their deaths for the deception of the day before. Estrada, however, decided to call the captured officers to his presence and get them to sign a document promising, on their word of honor as soldiers, not again to take up arms against the Estradistas, in return for which they would be set immediately in absolute liberty. Manuel Avila Camacho, the first to be taken to the presence of Estrada, refused to sign the document. "General," he said, "although I know that my words mean that I shall be taken to the wall, I cannot sign, because I gave my word as a soldier to the government and I have only one word of honor." It was then that Estrada rose from his seat and enthusiastically extended his arms to Mexico's future President. Unconditional release was granted to the Avila Camacho brothers and their companions, and they lost no time in joining the forces of Obregón at Irapuato, Guanajuato.(6)
Avila Camacho continued to serve in the military and used it as a stepping stone to political office. In 1933, he was appointed Official Mayor of the Secretariat of National Defense.(7) At this point it is very important to understand the significance of his appointment to this office and how it helped seal his power as a politician. As a military leader Avila Camacho found himself among the many other soldiers who were looking for power. However, when he finally achieved his office he found himself within the personal clique, or camarilla. With this position he was allowed to gain influence with other leaders such as Cárdenas. Also his brother at this time was still in the army and this allowed for the brothers to jointly spread out their influence. While many historians shy away from the idea of his brother assisting his power struggle, it must be noted without him Manuel would have found it difficult to make so many contacts in his run for the presidency.
Through extensive political maneuvering Avila Camacho was finally in a position to run for President of Mexico. As the 1940 election rolled around, there came a need for a candidate who would best represent the needs of the various political parties but the final decision laid in the hands of President Cárdenas. He chose than General Avila Camacho, his Minister of Defense. To ensure the backing of groups such as the CTM and CNC he insured them the new administration would always respect them. Even with this precaution, the presidential election was one of the bloodiest days in Mexican history.(8)
When the votes were finally tallied, the controversy began. Thanks to the CTM and CNC, Avila Camacho received 1,155,675 and 1,826,515 votes. Of course this created opposition, led by the candidates. General Almazán opposed the result of the election because he said it was fixed by Cárdenas's influence over the large political groups. In fact, many people today argue Almazán really won the election because some numbers were actually altered. Violence soon broke out across the country but it died down due to the fact a definite leader never appeared.(9) This turmoil and controversy was the stage in which Manuel Avila Camacho would take over as President.
Even though the country was upset over how the election was handled, Avila Camacho was the opposite. He was sworn in as president and immediately had to face the opposition. George Creel had once told Roosevelt he felt the Mexican government was in trouble unless Almazán was president. In October, he visited Mexico and talked with Avila Camacho. Suddenly he wrote a letter to Roosevelt saying, "we have close connections with the new administration and the chances are good for us to make money and at the same time help Mexico".(10) In another event, Avila Camacho met with Brito Rosado who had written badly about him while he was running for president. Mr. Rosado, stated he feared the worse but Avila Camacho treated him with the utmost respect. Perhaps due to the fact, he won with such controversy, he realized he had to be careful around people who opposed him.(11)
The first reform the new president undertook was in the field of land distribution. Land redistribution did not stop entirely, but the pace certainly slowed. Whereas Cárdenas had distributed over 49 million acres, Avila Camacho parceled out fewer than 12 million. In addition, because he favored small, private ownership, emphasis was no longer placed on distribution to the ejido but rather to the heads of individual families.(12)
Another area of reform, that took one of the most radical turns was in the area of literacy. To combat the wide spread illiteracy that plagued Mexico, Avila Camacho introduced a program entitled "Each one, Teach one". The idea behind this was for everyone who could read to take time out of their day and teach someone who couldn't. Even the president took time out of his busy schedule to teach for an hour a day. Unfortunately, this did not catch on like everyone had hoped and after two years it had died out completely.(13)
President recruitment of military politicians reached a new low under Manuel Avila Camacho, who was the last general to serve as Mexico's President. He sent an open message to future politicians. Although military officers could take a leave of absence to participate in politics, at least in support of government candidates, and hold national office, his decision made it clear to ambitious officers that a military career was not a likely path to political success.(14) This was an attempt by Avila Camacho to end the traditional dominance of military personal in the office, even though he took the same step to become President.
Another problem facing the President was the Catholic Church and how he would handle them. During his election, someone asked him what was his opinion on the issue of the church. In response to this question he simply stated "I am a believer". With these simple words it put forth a guarantee that no changes would take place with the church and it also allowed for a sense of stability to set in. This is very important to many Mexicans, because most were practicing Catholics but they did not want the church to dominate the politics and that is what Avila Camacho insured with his statement.(15)
Even with the above actions, the most important event in Avila Camacho's presidency was World War II. When war broke out Camacho ordered a neutral stance, however, when Hitler invaded Russia the stance was shifted towards the allies. Than one Mexican ship was sunk by a German U-boat. While most of the nation cried for war, the president simply asked for full satisfaction but it came in the form of another sinking. After this final act the president asked for and received the declaration of war against Germany.(16) To show the unity of the country, on September 16, 1942 Avila Camacho and six other former presidents met on a balcony of the national palace and declared there would be unity in time of war.(17)
Even though the declaration of war was a symbolic one there was still a need for the United States and Mexico to combine in efforts. Under Avila Camacho's efforts, the U.S. government willingly pored money into the Mexican government. Also in a controversial move, the Mexican government opened the doors for the peasant workers to cross the boarder and help out with the war effort in the United States. The weakness of this program is many Mexican people were exploited by harsh supervisors who wanted to and did cheat them out of money.(18)
By the end of war, President Avila Camacho brought about some degree of national unity, while making Mexico an effective member of the United Nations after it had declared war on the Axis.(19) Of course his term did have it's critics and many people pointed out he had used the spoil system to reward his friends. He did bring Cárdenas back as Minister of Defense from 1939-1945 but this only helped to bring stability to the government because Cárdenas knew the inner working of the government.(20) He also put his brother in his cabinet but this can be justified because he knew they could get along much like they did when they fought the rebels in the Mexican revolution.(21)
History should look at Manuel Avila Camacho with a good eye. Even though inflation had grown and some people had gained wealth by questionable practices, the nation still had moved ahead. The ever present agrarian problem was still unsolved, but the people did have a Social Security institute.(22) However, the most important item to remember, is Avila Camacho kept the Mexican government on the right track during World War II and by doing so allowed the country to ally with some of the most powerful countries in the world. Even though he died outside of Mexico City in 1955, his reforms still last especially the alliance between Mexico and the United States.
1. Encyclopedia Americana International Edition Vol 2, (Danbury: Grolier Incorporated, 1994), 878.
2. Robert Alexander, ed., Biographical Dictionary of Latin American and Caribbean Political Leaders, (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), 29.
3. McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Biography Vol 1, (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1973), 308-309.
4. Roderic Camp, Mexico's Leaders: Their Educational and Recruitment, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1980), 69.
5. John Dulles, Yesterday in Mexico: A Chronicle of the Revolution, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967), 52.
6. Ibid., 243.
7. Camp, 60.
8. Frank Brandenburg, The Making of Modern Mexico, (Englewood Cliffs: Penice-Hall Inc., 1964), 92-93.
9. James Magner, Men of Mexico, (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1942), 584.
10. Friedrick Schuler, Mexico between Hitler and Roosevelt: Mexican Foreign Relations in the Age of Lazaro Cárdenas, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), 188.
11. Camp, 34.
12. Michael Meyer and William Sherman, The Course of Mexican History, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 628-629.
14. Roderic Camp, Political Recruitment Across two Centuries, (Austin, University of Texas Press, 1995), 129.
15. Patrick Oster, The Mexicans: A Personal Portrait of a People, (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1989), 204-205.
16. William Meyer, William Sherman and Susan Deeds, The Course of Mexican History, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 608-609.
17. Anita Brenner, The Wind that Swept Mexico: The History of the Mexican Revolution, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), 181.
18. William Meyer, 610-612.
19. Howard Cline, Mexico: Revolution to Evolution 1940-1960, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), 34.
20. Irene Nicholson, The X in Mexico: Growth Within Tradition, (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 73.
21. Camp, 32.
22. Russell Ewing ed., Six Faces of Mexico, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1966), 57.