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  • The San Juan Daily Star

Luis Echeverría Alvarez, former president of Mexico, dies at 100

Luis Echeverría Alvarez in 1969 as he accepted his party’s nomination for president. He steered the country on a left-wing course, but his tenure was shadowed by his role in a massacre at the Olympic Games.

By Jonathan Kandell

Luis Echeverría Alvarez, who steered Mexico on a stormy left-wing course in the 1970s as president and who never escaped the shadow of a massacre before the 1968 Olympics, died Friday at his home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. He was 100.

His death was confirmed in a tweet by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Under Echeverría, the number of government employees tripled, state-owned businesses multiplied almost eightfold, and inflation exploded, undermining years of relative economic stability.

But Echeverría may best be remembered for accusations that he was largely responsible, as interior secretary, for the repression of student-led protests in 1968 before the Mexico City Olympic Games that culminated in the killings of scores of people, perhaps as many as 300.

Nearly four decades later, he was placed under house arrest when the case was revived, a spectacular turn for a former president.

The aftermath of the massacre helped shape his presidency, which began in 1970. Seeking to make amends, he brought left-wing intellectuals into the government, gave the government control over the economy, and embraced Third World positions in international affairs. These measures alienated the business community, the middle class and other politically conservative groups.

By the time he left office, Echeverría was being denounced by critics across the political spectrum, accused of authoritarianism and incompetence, and assailed for policies that provoked a flight of capital abroad, a steep devaluation of the peso, and economic stagnation.

Nonetheless, he campaigned for a Nobel Peace Prize and harbored hopes of becoming secretary-general of the United Nations.

Born on Jan. 17, 1922, in Mexico City, the son of a civil servant, Echeverría in many ways typified the so-called “second generation” of the political elite who emerged from the country’s bloody revolution.

In the decades after that upheaval, politics was dominated by former officers of the revolutionary armies. But by the 1940s, a degree from the prestigious law school of the National Autonomous University of Mexico had become the surest passport into politics.

After graduating from that law school, Echeverría allied himself with a strong political family by marrying María Esther Zuno, the daughter of the governor of the state of Jalisco, with whom he had eight children. He then looked around for a powerful mentor, another prerequisite for aspiring politicians. He became a protégé of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, a Cabinet minister and former state governor who was clearly headed for the presidency.

When Díaz Ordaz was elected president in 1964, he appointed Echeverría as his secretary of interior, the Cabinet official in charge of domestic political affairs. That post assured him of succeeding Díaz Ordaz. But it also placed Echeverría on a collision course with young leftists who chafed at one-party rule, censorship, a pro-business climate and the strong influence of the United States.

The protesters had staged their demonstrations in the months leading up to the October 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Díaz Ordaz ordered that the protest movement be quelled in time for the Games, and Echeverría sent troops to break up campus sit-ins.

On Oct. 2, 1968, during a peaceful rally at the Tlatelolco housing development, soldiers and government security agents opened fire on the crowd. The government claimed that about 30 people died, but witnesses said that the number was as high as 300.

Echeverría had always denied that he ordered the shooting, arguing that the soldiers who carried out the attack were not under his command.

The Tlatelolco massacre ripped away the benevolent mask covering rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had governed Mexico throughout most of the 20th century.

The wounds of Tlatelolco were still raw when Echeverría became president in 1970 with the avowed intention of carrying out what he called “a democratic opening.”

He promised industrial workers and the poor a more equitable share of the national wealth. He vowed to increase the state’s role in the economy. He began to sport the leather jackets of factory workers; his entourage dressed the same way. And the wives of politicians were asked to appear at state dinners in Mexican folk costumes instead of their usual haute couture gowns.

Echeverría was especially intent on co-opting the intellectuals. To a surprising extent, he succeeded. His speeches began to appropriate the leftist rhetoric used by dissenters during the 1968 crisis. He led Mexico into the Third World camp, and championed the cause of developing countries in their economic dealings with industrialized nations. He spoke out against the growing power of multinational corporations, once even threatening to expel Coca-Cola from Mexico unless it revealed its secret formula to local bottlers.

Echeverría often disagreed with Washington over hemispheric affairs. He strengthened Mexico’s ties with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. He was a supporter of Salvador Allende, and when the Chilean president died in a 1973 military coup, Echeverría broke relations with the new right-wing government in Chile and welcomed thousands of political refugees from that country to Mexico. Under the Echeverría government, Mexico became the foremost haven for Latin American exiles.

While the courting of left-wing intellectuals proved successful, Echeverría stuck to his former violent methods against the more radical left. Small, armed guerrilla groups were routinely suppressed by torture and assassination. Between 1971 and 1978, more than 400 people “disappeared.”

Under Echeverría, relations between government and business reached their lowest ebb in decades.

The number of state-owned corporations mushroomed from 86 to 740. Taxes on corporate profits and personal incomes rose sharply. So did public spending on education, housing and agriculture. Between 1970 and 1976, the federal deficit soared by 600%. Inflation leaped by more than 20% a year. The balance of payments deficit tripled.

As the economy soured and public opinion turned against him, Echeverría’s behavior grew erratic. Previous presidents accepted lame-duck status and a lower profile during their final months in office. But he seemed more combative than ever, setting off rumors that he intended to stage a military coup and keep himself in office despite having already picked José López Portillo as his successor.

For several years after his presidency, Echeverría stayed out of Mexico, accepting distant diplomatic posts in Australia and New Zealand. He eventually returned to play a behind-the-scenes role as a left-wing gadfly in the PRI.

Then, beginning in 2000, Echeverría was thrust back into the public eye, after an opposition government began to investigate his role in the Tlatelolco massacre and in the killing of 25 student demonstrators in 1971 by a special police unit known as Los Halcones.

Echeverría was placed under house arrest in 2006. By 2007, the cases against him had been dismissed, although he was not released from house arrest until 2009, when appeals went in his favor.

Echeverría’s wife died in 1999. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

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