February 18, 2004

Mexico's ex-president Lopez Portillo dies

MEXICO CITY (AP) --Former President Jose Lopez Portillo, who governed Mexico
through an oil-driven boom to a debt-induced bust, has died of complications from
pneumonia. He was 83.

Lopez Portillo, who led the country from 1976 to 1982, died Tuesday at a Mexico
City hospital, according to family members and medical officials.

"He died at peace with himself, with his family and with his conscience," his son,
Jose Ramon Lopez Portillo, said.

Tall, balding and blustery, Lopez Portillo often referred to himself as the last of
the country's presidents who remained loyal to the "true ideals" of the bloody
1910-20 revolution, promising to bring prosperity for all, especially to the millions
of Mexicans struggling on the edge of poverty.

He succeeded for a while.

Sworn in while Mexico was wallowing in its worst economic recession since
World War II, Lopez Portillo seized on an oil boom to bring the country
unprecedented prosperity.

But it was followed by such a huge bust that the economy worse off than before.
In his last state-of-the-nation address to Congress he wept, apologizing that he
had not done much for Mexico's legions of poor.

By then, the bottom had fallen out of the world crude oil market, Mexico's
principal source of income. As a result, the peso had to be sharply devalued three
times, the country fell deeply into debt and the economy became a shambles.

Born in Mexico City, Lopez Portillo was the eldest son of two children. His
parents, a soldier and bureaucrat, had difficulty making ends meet.

After working as a professor of political science at the National Autonomous
University, he joined the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party and climbed
through the ranks. He was serving as treasury secretary when President Luis
Echeverria tapped him as his successor, assuring his election.

But Lopez Portillo had no political experience when he took office. He also
inherited some nasty problems from Echeverria, his one-time friend who
struggled to put down leftist guerrilla outbreaks and resorted to inflationary
policies to try improve living standards.

The state petroleum monopoly Pemex had discovered big oil deposits offshore in
the Gulf of Mexico that were twice Alaska's North Slope -- doubling the nation's
reserves -- just before Lopez Portillo was elected.

He concentrated on developing petroleum production, quickly turning Mexico into
the world's fourth-richest oil nation at a time when the Organization of Petroleum
Exporting Countries cartel was squeezing top dollar out of the United States and
other big industrialized countries, creating a huge shortage.

Mexico refused to join OPEC and sold its oil only under long-term contracts of a
year or more, more than half of it to the United States.

To develop the oilfields -- as well as raise living standards _ Lopez Portillo
borrowed large sums of money abroad. In six years the foreign debt shot up from
$20 billion to $82 billion, making Mexico's foreign debt the Third World's biggest
after Brazil.

A few months before the end of Lopez Portillo's administration, things began to
sour. An oil glut developed worldwide, prices plunged and credit began to shrink.
People got frightened and started turning their pesos into dollars just in case,
sharply depleting the government's monetary reserves.

Lopez Portillo vowed to defend the value of the peso "like a dog," days before he
expropriated Mexico's private banks and imposed tight currency exchange
controls. Inflation quickly shot sky-high, businesses folded and many lost their

For years afterward, whenever Lopez Portillo appeared in public, people would
jeer and boo him. When he appeared at his favorite restaurants, patrons would
bark behind their napkins. He was often referred to as "El Perro" (The Dog) by
his detractors.

Lopez Portillo also continued the so-called "dirty war" started under Echeverria,
in which hundreds of suspected guerrillas and sympathizers disappeared. Blamed
by human rights groups for abuses, Lopez Portillo denied any knowledge of
disappearances and was never prosecuted.

In 1996, Lopez Portillo suffered a stroke. He survived and partially recovered.

He underwent emergency double bypass heart surgery in 2001 to repair damage
caused by blockage in his arteries. Doctors cited respiratory and heart problems
when the former president was hospitalized Monday.

Lopez Portillo is survived by his wife, retired film star Sasha Montenegro, and six

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press.