In his inaugural address, Avila Camacho stated that entrepreneurs would find “institutional guarantees.” Rather than extolling land reform, he pledged protection for private landowners “not only to protect those holdings which now exist, but to stimulate the formation of new private holdings on vast uncultivated expanses.”2
During the Cristero Rebellion, Avila Camacho had developed a reputation for negotiating the surrender of Cristeros rather than annihilating them as his colleagues had attempted. He now brought these same conciliatory talents into the presidency. He praised Monterrey industrialists, Cardenas’s staunchest foes, and won their loyalty. Teofilo Olea y Leyva, a founder of the National Action Party (PAN), received a Supreme Court appointment. At the same time, some Cardenistas, such as Eduardo Suarez, who had served as Cardenas’s treasury secretary, were included in his cabinet. The middle class, much of which had supported Almazan, was successfully courted. Old grudges were forgotten and backers of Calles and Almazan received positions in the Avila Camacho administration.3
As president-elect, Avila Camacho pledged that Mexico would remain neutral in the Second World War. He declared: “The current war is only a war for markets. All we should do is ensure that we cannot be conquered.”4
In less than two years, U. S. pressure and German submarine warfare changed Avila Camacho’s view on the war. A German submarine sank the Mexican tanker Potrero del Llano in May 1942. Even after the sinking, obtaining support for a declaration of war was difficult, since Britain and the United States were widely seen as enemies of Mexico, while Germany, Italy, and Japan were not. A strong pro-Axis movement in Mexico attempted to block a declaration of war. Later the same month, after the sinking of a second tanker, the Faja del Oro, public opinion turned against Germany, and Mexico declared war.5
On September 15, 1942, all six living ex-presidents, including Calles back from exile, appeared with Avila Camacho to demonstrate their commitment to national unity and the war effort. The president told the crowd gathered in front of the National Palace, “When what is at stake is the continued existence our nation, personal differences and partisan desires have no place.”6
In 1943, to provide political space for the increasingly important middle class and to blunt the appeal of the PAN and other conservative groups, the National Federation of Popular Organizations (CNOP) was founded as an officially sanctioned group within the Mexican Revolutionary Party (PRM). The CNOP became something of a catch-all, serving to organize public employees, youth groups, professionals, non-unionized artisans, shopkeepers, women, street vendors, and others who did not belong to the peasant or labor sectors.7
The CNOP courted the middle class by favoring such policies as women’s rights, limiting foreign capital, and public housing for federal employees. Its members had greater political skills, more training, and were wealthier than members of the labor and peasant sectors. As years passed, the CNOP increasingly dominated the official party, and its members were disproportionately selected to hold office, especially in the Chamber of Deputies.8
A number of factors permitted Avila Camacho to shift to the political right without facing strong opposition. Since Cardenas had moderated his policies at the end of his term, the shift in government policy was not as sharp as it would have been had Avila Camacho initiated the shift. Mexican participation in the Second World War also facilitated the rightward shift. During the war, former president Cardenas was placed on active military duty, so he was under military discipline and thus was not in a position to challenge Avila Camacho’s move the right. The pro-Soviet left was neutralized as it urged war production to aid the Soviet Union, even at the cost of a lowered standard of living for Mexican workers. The presence of pro-Axis elements in Mexico allowed Avila Camacho to be viewed as a moderate between the left and right. Within the PRM, he held the middle ground between the conservative caudillos of the Revolution and backers of Cardenas and labor leader Vicente Lombardo Toledano. The Fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War caused broader acceptance of a government move to the political center to preempt a repeat of the Spanish experience.
Avila Camacho’s ability to withdraw support from labor and peasants without entailing any organized resistance was a testimony to the control established over these groups during the Cardenas administration. Labor was immobilized as Fidel Velazquez, a pliant ally of the government, was installed to head the official labor federation, the Mexican Workers Federation (CTM).9
Under Avila Camacho, corruption reached the highest levels of government. Maximino Avila Camacho, who served as secretary of communications and public works during his brother’s presidency, so routinely took a cut from public contracts that he became known as “Mr. Fifteen Percent.” After being sworn in, he even canceled existing contracts so new ones that would include his 15 percent could be signed.10
In early 1946, his last year in office, Avila Camacho presided over the reorganization of the official party, which was renamed the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI). The reorganization resulted in the labor, peasant, and popular sectors having a reduced role. Power was further concentrated in the hands of the president and the party’s National Executive Committee. As occurred with the founding of the National Revolutionary Party (PNR) and the PRM, decisions concerning the formation of the PRI were made from the top down. In one day, the party’s convention agreed on an already-drafted declaration of principles, program of action, and statutes. Ejidatarios and trade union members continued to become automatic party members.
A new election law, approved in January 1946, greatly increased the power of the federal government in electoral matters. Before that date, elections were organized under the 1918 election law, which charged municipal authorities with drawing up voter lists and organizing elections. The 1918 law allowed candidates to run without the backing of a political party and made it very easy to organize a political party. Only a hundred members were required at a party’s founding assembly. The 1918 law, drafted in response to Diaz’s centralized political manipulation, made it difficult for the weak post-revolutionary governments to impose candidates. However, it did give local strongmen the opportunity to do so.11
The 1946 election law strengthened central government control and presidential influence over elections. Individuals were required to run as the candidate of a recognized political party. It became much more difficult to receive official recognition, since to be recognized as a political party a group was required to have 30,000 members nationwide and at least 1,000 members per state in two-thirds of the states. The law granted the secretary of the interior the power to recognize parties and cancel their registration. Through this control, anti-establishment candidates and parties could be ruled off the ballot. A new agency, the Federal Election Oversight Commission, was charged with preparing the voter list and organizing elections. At the time, this was hailed as a way to prevent local bosses with no commitment to democracy from perpetuating fraud. What was not mentioned was that this centralization of authority simply nationalized fraud management. As was intended by its drafters, this legislation discouraged electoral opposition. In 1946 the average number of congressional candidates per district was 5.3, while by 1949 it had declined to 2.0.12
Avila Camacho’s choice of his Interior Secretary Miguel Aleman to be the first PRI presidential candidate signaled a continuation of the conservative trend in government. Aleman had resigned his governorship of Veracruz to manage Avila Camacho’s presidential campaign. In his speech accepting the PRI nomination, Aleman emphasized agricultural and industrial development. Aleman, a career civilian bureaucrat, was the first of a string of professional politicians who would dominate Mexican political life for the rest of the century.13
The outlines of a new Mexican political system were clearly visible by the end of Avila Camacho’s term. He established cordial relations with the Church and the United States. Presidential power had greatly increased, accumulated on the pretext of war emergency but retained after the end of the war. The government and business began a close alliance that over the course of the next thirty years was to transform Mexico socially and economically. Foreign business interests became active participants in this alliance. Workers and peasants were left leaderless as their nominal leaders looked increasingly to the government rather than their base. Avila Camacho and his successors, rather than admitting a change in direction, extolled economic nationalism and industrialization, all of which was cloaked in the symbolism of the Mexican Revolution.14