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Miguel de la Madrid: Former President of Mexico who tried to assuage economic meltdown


Miguel de la Madrid was President of Mexico through much of the 1980s, presiding over the country's worst economic and debt crisis in living memory. His term in office, from 1982 until 1988, is seen by many as marking the beginning of the end of the hegemony of his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled Mexico uninterrupted since 1929. During his tenure, the PRI began losing its aura of omnipotence and would gradually lose power to the National Action Party (PAN), albeit more than a decade later in 2000.

When he donned the tricolour presidential sash on 1 December 1982, the "Mexican Miracle", based on industrialisation but also on debt, was over and De la Madrid inherited a nation tottering on the edge of economic collapse. An 11 per cent plunge in world oil prices – Mexico's main export – as well as spiralling interest rates and 100 per cent inflation, presented him with $85bn in foreign debt. In addition, billions of dollars were leaving the country as the better-off sought a safe haven for their money, mostly across the Rio Grande in US banks.

That forced him to go cap in hand to international bankers and launch an austerity plan which devalued the peso, slashed imports, cut government subsidies, froze wages and sold off many of the country's overly bureaucratic state enterprises to the private sector. The latter move turned many of Mexico's wealthy élite from millionaires to billionaires almost overnight. La deuda externa (the external debt) became a catchphrase on the streets of Mexico, even among those who had no idea what it meant, and it popped up in popular songs and TV comedy sketches.

De la Madrid was almost halfway through his sexenio (six-year term) when the capital, Mexico City, was devastated by a mighty earthquake on 19 September 1985, killing up to 20,000 people. Initially playing down the death toll, and too proud to accept offers of international help, De la Madrid was seen as fiddling while chilangos – as the city's residents call themselves – tore away at the rubble of schools and hospitals with their bare hands. Living in Mexico City at the time, I was among them. It was only 36 hours later, after a second quake – slightly smaller at 7.6, but perhaps even more terrifying because of the frayed nerves – that De la Madrid appeared on TV and accepted offers of assistance, mainly from his big neighbour to the north, who then poured in rescue workers. Mexicans never quite forgave him, or his party, for putting pride before necessity, and the opposition grew in confidence and strength through the next decade and a half until the PRI's demise in 2000.

De la Madrid did win respect for improving historically uneasy relations with the US, for getting Mexico into GATT in 1986, and for tackling the nation's endemic corruption in all walks of life, not least the police force and the PRI itself. He ordered the detention of the notorious former chief of Mexico's transit police, Arturo Durazo Moreno, nicknamed el Negro, for multiple homicides, trafficking in drugs and arms, extortion and a host of other charges. The former director of the state oil company, Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), was also locked up for corruption by manipulating oil prices to line his own pocket. De la Madrid also won credit for his work within the four-nation Contadora Group, which helped end the various Central American wars of the 1980s – in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado was born to an upper-middle-class professional Catholic family of colonial Hispanic origin in the city of Colima, capital of the state of the same name on Mexico's 4,400-mile-long Pacific coastline in 1934. His father, Miguel de la Madrid Castro, a lawyer known for defending local farmers of indigenous Nahua roots, died when the young Miguel was only two, so his mother, Alicia Hurtado, took him and his baby sister, also Alicia, to her hometown, el Distrito Federal – the Federal District, better known as Mexico City. After going to school in the capital, he enrolled in the law faculty of the country's biggest university, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in 1952.

Upon graduating, he became a lecturer in constitutional law at UNAM and would later gain a further degree, a Master's in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. In 1963, aged 28, he did what you had to do to get ahead in the Mexico of the time; he joined the PRI, effectively the state party in a quasi-democracy. With the party came prestige, promotion, perks and, not least, pesos through mutual back-scratching. One of his former professors at UNAM, José López Portillo, a rising figure within the PRI, took him under his wing.

In 1965, López Portillo's connections won De la Madrid a senior job with the Hacienda, the Mexican finance ministry, where he rose through the ranks for almost 14 years, with a two-year gap (1970-72) as a financial director at Pemex. In 1979, López Portillo, by then President, appointed his protégé Minister for Planning and Budget, a key cabinet role putting him in control of the income from Mexico's vast new discoveries of petroleum.

As per the PRI's tradition, De la Madrid was given el dedazo (the big tap of a finger) by López Portillo in 1981, a year before the end of the latter's term, as his chosen successor. Since the PRI at the time controlled the electoral apparatus, Mexicans knew that De la Madrid would be their next President. He was elected on 4 July 1982 with almost 75 per cent of the vote, but the lowest turnout in 30 years, and took office on 1 December.

De la Madrid bowed out in 1988 after his successor, the PRI's Carlos Salinas de Gortari, "won" an election most Mexicans believe was rigged to prevent the popular leftist candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas from terminating the PRI's 60-year reign. After early results showed Cárdenas surging ahead, the official computer system, essentially controlled by PRI officials, mysteriously collapsed. When it was eventually restored, Salinas was declared the winner with a fraction over 50 per cent of the votes. Only a few years ago, De la Madrid said in an interview that he believed that the PRI had in truth lost the election, but hard-line PRIistas retorted that age had impaired his faculties.

De la Madrid, a lifelong smoker, suffered for many years from emphysema and had been hospitalised with breathing difficulties last November. He is survived by his wife Paloma, sons Miguel, Enrique, Federico and Gerardo, and daughter Margarita.

Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, law professor, politician and former president of Mexico; born Colima, Mexico 12 December 1934; married Paloma Cordero Tapía 1957 (four sons, one daughter); died Mexico City 1 April 2012.