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Mexico and the Memory of Lazaro Cardenas


Editor's Note: In Mexico's contested presidential election, two candidates are claiming victory: Carlos Salinas, candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, candidate of the left-of-center National Democratic Front. Many news reports have noted that Mexican voters remember Cardenas' father, Lazaro Cardenas, who was President of Mexico in the 1930s. But what do Mexicans remember about the elder Cardenas that makes them vote for the younger?

In his trilogy, "Memory of Fire," from which the following excerpt is taken, Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano presents the facts of history--the history of the Americas -- as they appear in memory: vivid, brief, fragmentary and laden with partisan emotion.

Lazaro Cardenas, who named his son Cuauhtemoc for the last Aztec emperor, the one who refused to surrender to the Spanish, appears in four episodes near the center of the last volume of the trilogy. Galeano remembers the elder Cardenas for his role in the Spanish Civil War , for his defense of Mexico's non-Spanish-speaking Indians , for his defiance of the United States and Europe in reclaiming Mexican petroleum , and for the same gravity of manner that seems to have commended the younger Cardenas to Mexican voters. (See review of Galeano, Page 2.) 1937: Mexico City


Mexico does not wash its hands of the war in Spain. Lazaro Cardenas--rare president, friend of silence and enemy of verbosity--not only proclaims his solidarity, but practices it, sending arms to the republican front across the sea and receiving orphaned children by the shipload.

Cardenas listens as he governs. He gets around and listens. From town to town he goes, hearing complaints with infinite patience, and never promising more than is possible. A man of his word, he talks little. Until Cardenas, the art of governing in Mexico consisted of moving the tongue; but when he says yes or no, people believe it. Last summer he announced an agrarian reform program and since then has not stopped allocating lands to native communities.

He is cordially hated by those for whom the revolution is a business. They say that Cardenas keeps quiet because, spending so much time among the Indians, he has forgotten Spanish, and that one of these days he will appear in a loincloth and feathers.

1938: Anenecuilco

Nicolas, Son of Zapata

Earlier than anyone else, harder than anyone else, the campesinos of Anenecuilco have fought for the land; but after so much time and bloodshed, little has changed in the community where Emiliano Zapata was born and rose in rebellion.

A bunch of papers, eaten by moths and centuries, lie at the heart of the struggle. These documents, with the seal of the viceroy on them, prove that this community is the owner of its own land. Emiliano Zapata left them in the hands of one of his soldiers, Pancho Franco: "If you lose them, compadre, you'll dry up hanging from a branch. "

And, indeed, on several occasions, Pancho Franco has saved the papers and his life by a hair.

Anenecuilco's best friend is President Lazaro Cardenas, who has visited, listened to the campesinos, and recognized and amplified their rights. Its worst enemy is deputy Nicolas Zapata, Emiliano's eldest son, who has taken possession of the richest lands and aims to get the rest too.

1938: Mexico City

The Nationalization of Oil

North of Tampico, Mexico's petroleum belongs to Standard Oil; to the south, Shell. Mexico pays dearly for its own oil, which Europe and the United States buy cheap. These companies have been looting the subsoil and robbing Mexico of taxes and salaries for 30 years--until one fine day Cardenas decides that Mexico is the owner of Mexican oil.

Since that day, nobody can sleep a wink. The challenge wakes up the country. In never-ending demonstrations, enormous crowds stream into the streets carrying coffins for Standard and Shell on their backs. To a marimba beat and the tolling of bells, workers occupy wells and refineries. But the companies reply in kind: All the foreign technicians, those masters of mystery, are withdrawn. No one is left to tend the indecipherable instrument panels of management. The national flag flutters over silent towers. The drills are halted, the pipelines emptied, the fires extinguished. It is war: war against the Latin American tradition of impotence, the colonial custom of don't know, no can do.

1938: Mexico City


Standard Oil demands an immediate invasion of Mexico.

If a single soldier shows up at the border, Cardenas warns, he will order the wells set on fire. President Roosevelt whistles and looks the other way, but the British Crown, adopting the fury of Shell, announces it will not buy one more drop of Mexican oil. France concurs. Other countries join the blockade. Mexico can't find anyone to sell it a spare part, and the ships disappear from its ports.

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