REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Mexican officials said former President Miguel de la Madrid, who led the country amid economic crisis and a catastrophic earthquake during the 1980s, had died today, but then they retracted the report, saying he was alive but in grave condition.
De la Madrid, 77 and a lifelong smoker, suffers from emphysema and was hospitalized for breathing problems in late November.
The first reports that De la Madrid had died (link in Spanish) came from politicians in his party, the once-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. The party sent out a Twitter feed that offered condolences to De la Madrid’s family, calling him a “great” PRI member and former president. “QDEP,” the posting ended, using the Spanish initials for "Rest in Peace."
Enrique Pena Nieto, the PRI’s current candidate for president in next year’s election, also offered condolences to the De la Madrid family via Twitter.
President Felipe Calderon, of the conservative National Action Party, followed suit, saying via Twitter that he was saddened by the report of De la Madrid's death and offering sympathy to the former president’s family. But Calderon quickly reversed course, noting in a Tweet minutes later that De la Madrid was in “grave” condition with respiratory difficulties “but has not died.” Minutes after that, Calderon issued a new Tweet, saying he had spoken with De la Madrid’s son, who confirmed that the ex-leader was still alive.
De La Madrid, who was elected in 1982 and ruled for six years, remains a popular figure despite presiding over some of the most painful moments Mexico has experienced in the last half a century.
Thanks largely to the heavy borrowing and other policies of his predecessors, De la Madrid confronted an economic crisis practically from the day he took office. Skyrocketing interest rates and inflation, aggravated by a sagging demand for the country’s oil exports, forced De la Madrid to devalue the peso and cut public spending and federal jobs as part of a broad-reaching austerity plan. He also sought to open the country to investment from abroad.
In 1985, Mexico City was hit by a powerful earthquake that killed thousands. A fumbled response by De la Madrid’s government forced residents to tackle piles of rubble with their bare hands and stirred growing disillusionment with the long-ruling PRI. The government never offered an official death toll. Many people cite the government’s failure after the earthquake as a trigger for the gradual growth of opposition parties that would eventually topple the PRI in 2000 after 70 years in power.
De la Madrid’s hand-picked successor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, won in 1988 in an election almost universally believed to have been stolen. De la Madrid made waves two years ago when he said in a media interview that he regretted having chosen Salinas, who left office a loathed figure in Mexico because of a new round of economic calamity and widely held suspicions of corruption and ties to drug-trafficking groups. De la Madrid later backtracked on his comments, saying his ill health impaired his ability to understand the questions.
Miguel De la Madrid was born in the western city of Colima on Dec. 12, 1934. Trained as a lawyer in Mexico and with a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University, he became a protege of Luis Lopez Portillo. When Lopez Portillo was elected president in 1976, De la Madrid became planning and budget minister.
He would be tapped to succeed Lopez Portillo in 1982.