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Former president passes at age 77

April 17, 2012

Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, who presided over one of the most turbulent periods in recent Mexican history and was responsible for the liberalization of the national economy, died earlier this month.

De la Madrid, 77, who ruled from 1982 to 1988, died April 1 in Mexico City. The cause of death remains undisclosed, but he had been hospitalized since December for respiratory ailments.

President Felipe Calderon said he was “profoundly sorry” at the passing of the former president.

A member of  the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), de la Madrid eased a lingering economic crisis in Mexico, but was widely criticized for reacting slowly to a devastating earthquake which struck the capital midway through his term, and for presiding over a fraudulent election to name his successor.

De la Madrid was born in Colima in 1934. He studied at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), before earning a graduate degree at Harvard University, making him the first Mexican president to have studied in the United States and speak fluent English.

Upon taking office, de la Madrid inherited a financial crisis, the result of his predecessor Jose Lopez Portillo’s overspending during the late 1970s. Mexico’s state-controlled economy had been over-reliant on inflated oil prices, which duly collapsed, leaving the country with an inflation rate of over 150 percent and an foreign debt of almost 100 billion dollars, then more than half of the national gross domestic product.

De la Madrid responded by overseeing a free-market transformation of Mexico’s economy. He privatized about 750 of the 1,155 state-owned companies, raised taxes, ended subsidies on products such as tortillas, slashed the government budget, increased interest rates and renegotiated debt conditions. As a result, inflation dropped to about 50 percent.

De la Madrid also led Mexico to join the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the precursor to the World Trade Organization (WTO), and signed international free-trade treaties that paved the way for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico, the United States and Canada in 1994.

The problems facing de la Madrid throughout his presidency were not only financial ones. Around 9,000 people were killed in September 1985, when Mexico City was ravaged by an earthquake measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale.

With no experience in disaster management, de la Madrid handled the crisis badly. He initially turned down international aid and in many cases devastated Mexico City residents were left to form impromptu rescue brigades with little official help.

Such was his unpopularity, that when Mexico hosted the soccer World Soccer Cup the following year, the president attended games only to be met with a humiliating chorus of boos broadcast live around the world.

De la Madrid’s presidency ended in 1988, with the ensuing elections proving highly controversial. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the founder of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), enjoyed strong support, but he was defeated by de la Madrid’s hand-picked successor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

The PRI had won every election since taking power in 1929, but with victory in doubt the government stopped releasing the vote count. De la Madrid declared Salinas the victor without formal results, causing widespread suspicion of electoral fraud. The ballots, never recounted, were burned three years later.

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