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Enlightened Rule

Portraits of Six Exceptional Twentieth Century Premiers

Paul Maylam

The twentieth century has been called an ‘age of catastrophe’, characterized by devastating wars and a general poverty of leadership at government level. This book, written in a more optimistic vein, offers biographical essays on six twentieth century heads of government – three from Latin America, and one each from Africa, Asia and Europe – who were exceptions to the norm. During their terms of office each displayed admirable qualities: moral authority, integrity, an egalitarian spirit, and a firm commitment to democracy, human rights, social justice and international peace. They shunned personality cults, grandiosity and conspicuous consumption. Their governance was shaped by high ideals, in the tradition of democratic socialism or social democracy, but also marked by pragmatism and an awareness that the realization of these ideals was not always practicable. Although some of the six became iconic, venerated figures, none of them are presented here as ‘heroes’ or ‘great leaders’. Each had failings and flaws, and each has been subject to critique. They are rather presented as government heads whose leadership has been worthy of deep respect and admiration. Had other premiers emulated their style of governance, twentieth century history would have taken a very different course.


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Chapter 3 The People’s President : Lázaro Cárdenas of Mexico (1934–1940) 71


CHAPTER THREE The People’s President: Lázaro Cárdenas of Mexico (1934–1940) It is a truism that the reputations of historical figures are subject to considerable swings over time. Few reputations can have f luctuated quite so wildly, and varied so widely, as that of Lázaro Cárdenas, Mexico’s president from 1934 to 1940. He has been credited with bringing the Mexican revolution to its pinnacle and culmination. Others say he was the one who ini- tiated that revolution. Then there are the critics who contend that he betrayed that same revolution by setting Mexico firmly on a path to capitalism and authoritarian government. As Adrian Bantjes has noted, ‘confusion reigns: historians have alternately characterized the Cárdenas administration as communist, socialist, social-democratic, liberal, Bona- partist, national reformist, corporatist, authoritarian, and populist’.1 1 Adrian A. Bantjes, ‘Cárdenismo: Interpretations’, in Michael S. Werner (ed.), Encyclopedia of Mexico: History, Society and Culture (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997), p. 195. 72 CHAPTER THREE Cárdenas has been mythologized and de-mythologized. According to the myth, states Marjorie Becker, Cárdenas is styled as something of a latter-day Jesus. As a redeemer, he traveled from village to village performing wonders … he listened as campesinos detailed their troubles. Most spectacularly, while Cárdenas multiplied no loaves or fishes, he divided large estates into peasant plots. In response, campesinos crowded around to pay homage to him and his government.2 The myth gained substance in various forms: statues erected; cities, towns, highways, streets in Mexico named...

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