MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Former Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid, who struggled to overcome one of the country’s worst economic crises and a devastating earthquake in the 1980s, died on Sunday at the age of 77.
A stalwart of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexico’s ruling party for most of the 20th century, de la Madrid broke with PRI orthodoxy by backing market-friendly reforms but still proved unable to tame surging unemployment and triple-digit inflation during his six-year term from 1982 to 1988.
De la Madrid died of complications resulting from pulmonary emphysema, a spokesman for the PRI said.
Prior to assuming the presidency, the Harvard-educated de la Madrid worked stints as a law professor, in the finance ministry, and as a technocrat with the state-owned oil company Pemex. He then served as budget and planning minister under his mentor and predecessor, President Jose Lopez Portillo.
President Felipe Calderon, who belongs to the conservative National Action Party (PAN) that replaced the PRI in power, on Sunday acknowledged the former leader’s services to Mexico.
“He faced difficult challenges during his term,” Calderon wrote on his Twitter account. “Rest in peace.”
In 1985, de la Madrid was forced to contend with the aftermath of a magnitude 8.1 earthquake, a catastrophe that resulted in the death of more than 10,000 Mexicans and was an enormous setback for the nation’s already teetering economy. It also dented de la Madrid’s popularity after he initially rejected international aid.
“This period was a gray chapter in the modern history of Mexico mostly due to the economic convulsions of the time,” said Ricardo Espinoza, a political scientist at the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City.
Unlike his predecessors, the conservative de la Madrid promoted foreign investment, the reduction of tariffs and the privatization of hundreds of previously state-owned industries.
In the final years of his term, sinking oil prices and mounting public debt prompted de la Madrid to impose controversial austerity measures, including thousands of public sector layoffs and wage freezes. These decisions would later be blamed for contributing to the PRI’s weaker position leading into the widely disputed presidential election of 1988.
Yet, that same election also ushered in a new era of expanded power for Mexico’s political opposition, a development largely attributed to discontent with the 40 percent reduction in inflation-adjusted wages since he assumed power in 1982.
In his final address to Mexico’s congress, amid jeers and unprecedented booing from opposition legislators, de la Madrid himself signaled a historic shift away from an all-powerful Mexican presidency.
“I do not believe we can be saved by charisma, nor can we operate in a power vacuum. I believe in institutional leadership and a democratic presidency,” he said. “The solitary acts of one man, the president of the republic, do not determine the destiny of Mexico.”
In a 2009 interview with Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui, de la Madrid famously accused his handpicked successor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, of fostering corruption and stealing public funds. But in a statement issued hours after the interview, he recanted the accusations, citing poor health.
Reporting by Manuel Rueda, Tomas Sarmiento and Michael O'Boyle; Editing by Eric Beech