Calles, Plutarco Elías (plōtärˈkō ālēˈäs käˈyās) [key], 1877–1945, Mexican statesman, president (1924–28). In 1913 he left schoolteaching to fight with Álvaro Obregón and Venustiano Carranza against Victoriano Huerta. In 1920 he joined Obregón and Adolfo de la Huerta in the rebellion against Carranza. After Obregón's term as president, Calles, who had been a cabinet member, became the presidential nominee. Adolfo de la Huerta, claiming election fraud, revolted (Dec., 1923), but Obregón and Calles established their supremacy by force (1924); Calles became president.
Calles's administration was noted for its revolutionary zeal, which often precipitated violence. At the outset agrarian reform was pursued vigorously but recklessly. Many rural schools were built, although teachers were still scarce and underpaid. Material improvements were given special attention; vast road-building and irrigation projects were undertaken. The struggle between church and state reached a new level of bitterness. In 1926 the enforcement of anticlerical legislation provoked violence; in 1926–29 the Cristeros, largely peasant rebels whose slogan was "Viva Cristo Rey" [long live Christ the King] took up arms in the states of Colima, Jalisco, and Michoacán. Military chieftains reciprocated by victimizing innocent Roman Catholics, and government officials used the strife to political advantage. At the same time legislation over land and petroleum rights brought about a serious dispute with the United States; relations between the two countries improved when Dwight W. Morrow was appointed (1927) ambassador, and the oil question was temporarily settled.
Calles created and directed a powerful national army and dissolved the private militia that threatened internal peace. He unified the government and molded the National Revolutionary party into the dominant force in Mexican politics. Calles rapidly lost his radicalism when he gained power and became a landowner and financier; he moved toward dictatorship. Already in control of the labor movement, he made himself the force behind the Callistas, a circle of financiers and industrialists who dominated the country's economy and politics. Thus he became undisputed Jefe Máximo, or political chieftain, of Mexico.
When Obregón was assassinated (1928) after his reelection to the presidency, Calles appointed Emilio Portes Gil. In 1930 he declared the agrarian reform program a failure. In the same year he engineered the election of Pascual Ortiz Rubio. Two years later he removed him to appoint Gen. Abelardo Luján Rodríguez. The mighty labor union, CROM (see Lombardo Toledano, Vicente), was smashed. The conflict with the church, temporarily subdued (1929) by Morrow, was resumed; priests were openly persecuted. Communist unions, previously used by Calles in his campaign against the CROM, were ruthlessly suppressed, and a Callista-backed fascist organization, the Gold Shirts, harassed minority groups. As the new champion of conservatism, Calles in 1935 openly opposed the policies of his former protégé, Lázaro Cárdenas, but was defeated in the contest; in 1936 he was exiled. He was allowed to return under an amnesty in 1941.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.