Upon leaving office in 1988, after six turbulent years as president of Mexico, Miguel de la Madrid delivered a terse appraisal of his term. “I took a country with great problems,” he said, “and leave it with problems.”
De la Madrid’s presidency was a “grim time for most Mexicans,” said the Associated Press. After a “rapid but unflashy climb” through the ranks of government, De la Madrid was tapped for office in 1982, just months before Mexico defaulted on $80 billion of debt. The new president inherited a 150 percent inflation rate and a plummeting economy. But De la Madrid “pulled Mexico back from economic collapse,” raising taxes, slashing the budget, and imposing price and wage controls.
On top of this “economic catastrophe,” said the Los Angeles Times, came a real disaster—the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which left at least 9,000 people dead. The government was shamefully slow to react to the catastrophe, and De la Madrid himself “was nowhere to be seen.” That failure of leadership energized the political opposition, and in the 1988 election, “Mexico’s hidebound political system began to open.” The president’s “hand-picked successor,” Carlos Salinas, narrowly defeated his leftist opponent in “a vote that most Mexicans believe was stolen.”
Anger over that election led to reforms that ultimately broke the authoritarian system for good in 2000, when an opposition party finally won the presidency. “What Mexico has changed for good in the past 25 years,” said Salinas, “started with De la Madrid.”