Luis Echeverría Álvarez Was a Demagogue With Big Dreams

The former Mexican president aimed to transform global imbalances. But he’ll be best remembered for his repressive regime at home.

By , a doctoral candidate in history at El Colegio de México.
Echeverría is shown surrounded by reporters holding microphones and video cameras up to him.
Echeverría is shown surrounded by reporters holding microphones and video cameras up to him.
Former Mexican President Luis Echeverría is surrounded by the press in Mexico City on July 9, 2002. JORGE UZON/AFP via Getty Images

When Luis Echeverría Álvarez, president of Mexico from 1970 to 1976, turned 100 years old this January, Mexican and other Hispanic media dedicated countless television spots and profiles to him and his reign. They were overwhelmingly negative. One journalist, speaking on an El País podcast, declared him “one of the worst jackals in our history.”

The articles and television features mainly focused on three themes: Echeverría’s demagoguery, his repressive politics, and the economic crisis that marked the end of his administration. As the longest-living president from the era of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled Mexico for more than five decades––a period Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa called “the perfect dictatorship”—Echeverría came to represent everything that was wrong with that era’s governing system.

That may be a somewhat unfair characterization of Echeverría, who died a few months later, on July 8. A man of great ambition, he set out as president to tamp down social unrest by appeasing the demands of Mexico’s population, particularly its new middle class, while also transforming global power balances during the Cold War in favor of the developing world. He didn’t succeed in either case, and he certainly was guilty of much wrongdoing, yet his legacy is nevertheless more complex than generally acknowledged.

When Luis Echeverría Álvarez, president of Mexico from 1970 to 1976, turned 100 years old this January, Mexican and other Hispanic media dedicated countless television spots and profiles to him and his reign. They were overwhelmingly negative. One journalist, speaking on an El País podcast, declared him “one of the worst jackals in our history.”

The articles and television features mainly focused on three themes: Echeverría’s demagoguery, his repressive politics, and the economic crisis that marked the end of his administration. As the longest-living president from the era of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled Mexico for more than five decades––a period Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa called “the perfect dictatorship”—Echeverría came to represent everything that was wrong with that era’s governing system.

That may be a somewhat unfair characterization of Echeverría, who died a few months later, on July 8. A man of great ambition, he set out as president to tamp down social unrest by appeasing the demands of Mexico’s population, particularly its new middle class, while also transforming global power balances during the Cold War in favor of the developing world. He didn’t succeed in either case, and he certainly was guilty of much wrongdoing, yet his legacy is nevertheless more complex than generally acknowledged.

Echeverría rose to power quietly yet ruled as an extrovert. He was politically educated during the presidency of Miguel Alemán Valdés, at a time when the presidency became the center of political power in Mexico, and he later held various minor positions in the PRI. He was appointed undersecretary of the interior under President Adolfo López Mateos and later secretary of the interior under President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz.

The position of interior secretary put him in line for the presidency. Echeverría kept a low profile while working under Díaz Ordaz, particularly during and after the violent 1968 government crackdown on Mexico’s student movement. The low point during that period of repression was the Tlatelolco massacre of Oct. 2, 1968, when security forces killed at least 44 protesters (other estimates, based on eyewitness accounts, range from 300 to 400) in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City, effectively ending months of protests across the country. That spasm of violent repression has been likened by the international press to China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown for the way it “seared the conscience of an entire Mexican generation.”

Echeverría’s role in those events, however, was not fully known until 2003, when a series of declassified CIA documents identified him as the head of a “strategy committee” in charge of designing the government’s response to the student protest movement. It remains unclear what Echeverría’s exact orders were during this period. He forever denied involvement and attempted to depict Díaz Ordaz as the sole culprit for the killings and for hundreds of incarcerations.

After Díaz Ordaz tapped Echeverría as the next president of Mexico, Echeverría quickly tried to appease foes of the regime, promising democracy and social justice. He vowed to encourage greater opportunities for the youth, declaring in his inaugural address, “We will stimulate their conscious and civilized participation in political activities.” To do so, he lowered the voting age, expanded the higher education system, and revamped his government by bringing in younger administrators.

Some of the country’s best-known intellectuals were glad to back him. Convinced the choice was between “Echeverría or fascism”—referring to the escalation of anti-communism and authoritarianism during Díaz Ordaz’s government—writers Fernando Benítez and Carlos Fuentes called on Mexicans to support the president.

However, early in Echeverría’s presidency security forces again repressed a student demonstration. On June 10, 1971, a government-sponsored paramilitary group attacked thousands of protesters in Mexico City, killing at least 23 people and wounding hundreds more. This time, Echeverría assigned responsibility to Mexico City Mayor Alfonso Martínez Domínguez, who resigned from his post.

Many years later, Martínez Domínguez declared that the president himself had directed the paramilitary group to contain the protest. The former mayor did not repeat this, however, when he had the opportunity to testify against Echeverría in front of a judge decades later. Still, it is hard to believe that Echeverría was not aware or involved, especially considering the methods that his administration later used to contain leftist guerrilla groups throughout the country: extrajudicial detentions and incarcerations, torture, and executions.

For most of his term, Echeverría managed to conceal his repressive side while driving social transformation in Mexico. He had promised that the glories of the Mexican Revolution would reach everywhere—as far as the roadless desert in the northwest of the country. And, as he told a group of students carrying an image of Che Guevara at one of his rallies: In the country of Lázaro Cárdenas, the former president who had nationalized Mexico’s oil industry, “no borrowed heroes are needed.”

Echeverría wanted to play the role of national hero himself. He tirelessly toured the country, delivering long, emotional speeches, which were often hard to comprehend. Daniel Cosío Villegas, who dedicated a book to Echeverría’s “personal style of governing,” attributed the sense of bewilderment often left by the president’s remarks to his incorrect use of syntax and grammar. For his part, Echeverría maintained that “talking about problems means starting to solve them.”

The president, not lacking in imagination or ambition, was convinced that Mexico’s rich resources could fuel radical transformation. A program to grow and process barbasco—a yam then used to make contraceptive pills that grows exceptionally well in Mexico—is typical of the kind of project he and his aides devised: In a single initiative he aimed to create a national pharmaceutical industry, provide jobs for the rebellious countryside, and pave the way for population control. However, the venture eventually failed due to a mixture of bad administration, corruption, and lack of cooperation from the pharmaceutical industry.

At the same time, his administration promoted birth control education campaigns in government-sponsored telenovelas and negotiated for Mexico City to host the United Nations’ first World Conference on Women in 1975.

The president’s many colorful ideas made him a recurring object of ridicule, even though some were quite visionary. Recalling Echeverría’s government in a 1997 book, leading intellectual Enrique Krauze mocked the president’s encouragement to Mexican industry to invent an electric car—today, the Mexican carmaker Zacua has made headlines as the country’s first electric vehicle company. While not all of his high-flying ideas got off the ground, some institutions that reflect the echeverrista vision of government survive to this day: Infonavit, which facilitates mortgage loans at very low rates; Fonatur, an institution responsible for the planning and development of high-impact tourism projects in Mexico, such as Cancun, which also serves as an investment promotion agency; and Profeco, an agency dedicated to protecting the rights and interests of consumers.

Such imagination was accompanied by personal discipline—he and those who knew him said that Echeverría lived for his work and rewarded others with a similar temperament. But his dreams also relied on money the government didn’t have. During his six-year term, Mexico’s foreign debt mushroomed from $7.1 billion to $24.1 billion, and inflation reached 27 percent.

To better manage and distribute wealth, his administration tried to implement serious tax reform. However, the country’s elites, especially powerful business groups, opposed the changes, and Echeverría’s administration ultimately backed down.

Much has been written about Echeverría’s problematic relations with the left, which was divided in its perception of the president—many were suspicious that he was trying to co-opt them—yet during much of his administration, it was businesspeople and other right-wing actors who spread rumors to destabilize his government. These included a story that his administration was using vaccination campaigns to sterilize people, rumors about food shortages, and exaggerated reports about “massive” land expropriations.

Echeverría didn’t manage to fulfill most of his lofty ambitions—his biggest failure was probably his attempt to revitalize rural regions of the country—but he undeniably transformed the aesthetics of Mexican political culture. He wore guayaberas instead of the suits and ties that had been the uniform of Mexican politicians since the 19th century, and his wife, María Esther Zuno,  wore traditional Mexican dresses. European wines that once (and later) accompanied government meetings were replaced by hibiscus water.

Those who visited his house said it looked like a Fonart store—a shop run by a state enterprise for the promotion of Mexican handicrafts that was conceived during his presidency. Echeverría’s folklorist performance can be seen as part of a broad anti-imperialist movement across the developing world in the 1960s and 1970s—a movement that was paradoxically very nationalistic. In Echeverría’s case, it was also meant to decenter attention from Mexico City to embrace the rest of the country—and it was an image he thought suited him.

According to Echeverría’s own account, three episodes in Mexican history inspired him to dedicate his life to his country as a politician: the 1846 war with the United States, the 1938 nationalization of foreign oil companies, and the advent of muralism in Mexican art. It could be argued that Echeverría, in fact, not only embodied but also invented much of Mexico’s nationalist cliche.

In the broad struggle for social justice, Echeverría elevated himself as the sole judge of what was needed, and he adjusted his demands according to his own priorities. This explains the oft-cited contradiction of his tenure: He was progressive in the world and repressive at home.

Perhaps Echeverría’s greatest symbolic achievements lie in his international activism. It was Echeverría who devised and promoted the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States, a document that set out a series of rules to govern international economic relations and the use of natural resources. It was based on the idea that a just international order and a stable world could only be possible if economic inequalities between countries were addressed. Although the charter was adopted at the U.N. General Assembly in December 1974, wealthy countries actively campaigned against it and prevented it from becoming legally binding.

At home, however, Echeverría applied different standards and broached little criticism. The experience of journalist Julio Scherer García captures the contradiction between the president’s international far-sightedness and domestic myopia. In 1976, Echeverría managed to expel Scherer from his perch as the chief editor of Excélsior, a newspaper highly critical of the president, along with several other journalists. Yet at the same time, Echeverría was providing haven to Latin American dissidents from other countries.

Echeverría had openly supported Salvador Allende, for instance, before the Chilean president was overthrown in a military coup. And afterward, Echeverría gave orders to welcome thousands of Chilean political exiles, allowing many of them to sustain their political activities from Mexico. This policy would later be extended to Argentines also fleeing dictatorship.

Such policies led to some awkward moments in Mexico. A few days after Scherer was removed from his job, for instance, Hortensia Bussi, Allende’s widow, showed up at Scherer’s house. The journalist and the Chilean, who were friends, did not know what to say to each other as they struggled to avoid even mentioning Echeverría. Bussi could not speak badly of the president because she was “grateful to President Echeverría, as all other Chilean exiles were,” Scherer recalled.

Beyond censoring journalists, Echeverría blocked political reforms that would have allowed leftist parties more room to participate in elections and battled more radical opponents in what became known as the Dirty War. His security forces perpetrated human rights abuses against whole communities while trying to suppress armed leftist groups. (The extent of the abuses would not become known until later.)

These authoritarian measures undercut his own ambitions for economic and social transformation. As historian Ariel Rodríguez Kuri explained, “Perhaps a more robust presence of the left could have given fresh air” in response to the president’s diatribes against entrenched elites. At the end of his six-year term, however, the president had no allies beyond usual party loyalists.

 Some critics believe that Echeverría’s international activism, in fact, was mainly intended to divert attention from his domestic shortcomings. That critique, however, is oversimplified. At the time, U.S. President Richard Nixon was pursuing policies of militant anti-communism and economic protectionism that had a great impact on the Mexican economy. Echeverría had to navigate a path that would appeal to the social and economic demands of his people while keeping his powerful northern neighbor at bay.

“It is impossible to understand why the United States does not use the same boldness and imagination that it applies to solving complex problems with its enemies to the solution of simple problems with its friends,” he told the U.S. Congress on June 15, 1972, in regards to U.S. pollution contaminating Mexican agricultural lands. In that same speech he assured that Mexico would no longer tolerate “those who try to reduce world politics to dealings among powerful nations.”

In his efforts to be a Cold War player, Echeverría opened an embassy in Beijing, met with Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai, and voted against a U.S.-supported motion at the U.N. to allow Taiwan to maintain independent representation in the multilateral organization. Yet compared to Fidel Castro’s revolutionary path in Cuba, Echeverría’s approach appeared moderate, calling for systematic reform. His appeal in the developing world gave him some international political leverage, but never as much as he wanted.

His legacy will forever be tainted by human rights abuses that received little attention while he was in office. This April, three months after Echeverría’s centennial, his main symbolic adversary—human rights leader Rosario Ibarra de Piedra—died. Ibarra’s son, a member of the guerrilla September 23rd Communist League, had been detained and disappeared during Echeverría’s reign. Those who knew their shared history lamented that Ibarra had passed away without seeing justice in her son’s case.

In 2006, the activism of Ibarra and others resulted in a sentence of house arrest against Echeverría for human rights abuses. The sentence was imposed by the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Social and Political Movements of the Past, an initiative established during the presidency of Vicente Fox—the first non-PRI government in Mexican modern history. That attempt at justice was eventually overturned by a judge, but it ensured Echeverría would live the rest of his days as a political pariah, with no greater relevance than that granted to him by the groups that protested annually in front of his stone house in Mexico City on the anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre. His place on the wrong side of history seemed to have been confirmed.

Some years after his trial, when asked by a journalist if he had anything to regret from his time in office, the former president said, “I have always worked hard; I neither ask for forgiveness from anyone nor give it to myself.” With a slight martyr’s posture, his testimonies about the past came to reflect the loneliness of a man routinely trapped between internal and external pressures.

In the solitude of his last decades, the former president spent his days sorting through his personal archives and memorabilia. In his house, he created a personal museum—a collection of books, documents, objects, and photos worthy of an egocentric, but also of an orderly and meticulous personality. Perhaps at the heart of this effort was Echeverría’s anticipation of his own passing, and with it a new opportunity to challenge public perceptions. Perhaps he was trying to evade the end that writer Carlos Monsiváis had predicted for him: a death “surrounded by a thousand conversations that he neither undertakes nor allows to be undertaken, feverish in the hustle and bustle of a thousand actions that lead to nowhere.”

 

Ana Sofía Rodríguez Everaert is a doctoral candidate in history at El Colegio de México. She specializes in political and intellectual Latin American 20th-century history, the history of leftist social thought and movements, and feminism. She worked as an editor at the Mexican magazine Nexos for over a decade. She is the co-author of El intelectual mexicano: una especie en extinción and Las décadas de Nexos: una antología.

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