Presidents of Mexico

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the history of the presidency of Mexico, as well as looking briefly at some of the policies and legacies of the men who have been president in the modern era.


Mexico has an incredibly diverse history that is rich in culture and tradition. From its indigenous people to European and American conflicts, Mexico's borders, language, religion and government has significantly changed over the last 400 years.

In this lesson, we will dive into Mexico's history, in particular the role of president.


Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821 after a protracted, decade-long revolution. The first constitutionally elected President, Guadalupe Victoria, took office in 1824 and Mexico's 1824 Constitution passed soon after. The fledgling Mexico government experienced a multitude of upheavals in the next century. For example, Spain invaded Mexico in 1829 and attempted to retake her former colony. Other leaders suspended the Constitution or were overthrown through coup or rebellion.

Mexican politics did not settle down into a regular, democratic cycle until the early 20th century. This followed nearly a decade of intermittent civil war after the ousting of Porfirio Diaz, who controlled Mexican politics for nearly 35 years before he was ousted in 1911.

The tumult did not end immediately with the return of democratic elections in 1917. Indeed, the first constitutionally elected president was assassinated in 1920. The following presidents, though elected, were more or less chosen by powerful Mexican politicians like General Adolfo de la Huerta or Plutarco Calles, himself president from 1924-1928.

However, in the 1930s the presidency was reformed to diminish the ability of one person or a group to control Mexican politics and the presidency. Most importantly, the presidential term was extended from four years to six years, but with no possibility of reelection. Still, the National Revolutionary Party (today, called the Institutional Revolutionary Party) maintained a stranglehold over the position, with one of its members always occupying the presidency until 2000.

Presidents Since 1934

With the institution of the sexenio, or six-year term, the presidency and politics in general in Mexico settled down considerably. Below is a list of these presidents and a brief note about their accomplishments in office.

Lazaro Cardenas, 1934-1940

Lazaro Cardenas ran on a platform of widespread social and economic reform, but was handcuffed in his first years by the specter of Plutarco Calles, who still held considerable power in the army and government. As part of his reforms, Cardenas distributed an enormous amount of land to previously landless farmers.

Lazaro Cardenas
Lazaro Cardenas

Most importantly, Cardenas reorganized his party and allowed for the general public to become voting members. This reorganization helped reduce the possibility of a single person to control the presidency for long stretches of time.

Manuel Avila Camacho, 1940-1946

Manuel Avila Camacho picked up where Cardenas left off. He was a devout Catholic and allied Mexico more closely with the United States by declaring war on the Axis powers in World War II.

Miguel Aleman Valdes, 1946-1952

Miguel Valdes' presidency was marked by corruption and a significant pullback in the agrarian reforms began by Cardenas. Valdes, however, oversaw the growth of major industry and economic growth in Mexico.

Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, 1952-1958

Adolfo Ruiz Cortines was instrumental in women being granted the right to vote in Mexico. He also combatted corruption in the Mexican government and decreased federal spending.

Adolfo Lopez Mateos, 1958-1964

Adolfo Lopez Mateos was a champion of the Mexican poor. He instituted new agrarian reforms and land redistributions and initiated numerous social welfare programs, including childcare services.

Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, 1964-1970

Gustavo Diaz Ordaz is best remembered as an anti-labor, authoritarian president who broke several labor strikes by force. In 1968, he ordered the Mexican Army to occupy the National Autonomous University of Mexico after demonstrations there.

Luis Echeverria Alvarez, 1970-1976

Luis Echeverria Alvarez initiated more land redistributions, expanded social programs, and released many who had been imprisoned during Ordaz's time in office.

Jose Lopez Portillo, 1976-1982

Jose Lopez Portillo was a lawyer and academic who pulled back on the social reforms of his predecessor. Instead, Portillo began the massive exploitation of Mexico's oil and gas reserves and encouraged industrial job growth.

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