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Los Angeles Times Interview : Cuauhtemoc Cardenas : Running for President in Mexico Against the All-Powerful PRI

August 07, 1994|Sergio Munoz | Sergio Munoz is the editor of Nuestro Tiempo, The Times' weekly Spanish-language edition. He interviewed Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in Mexico City

MEXICO CITY — Since 1986, the year he challenged the political apparatus of the powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, demanding open and democratic internal selection of candidates and an end to the neoliberal economic policies of President Miguel de la Madrid, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, 60, has been seeking the presidency he claims he won in the 1988 election.

For five years, while Cardenas toured the country trying to organize a viable opposition party, his rival, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, became one of the most popular presidents in the history of Mexico, orchestrating sweeping economic reforms.

But early this year, things changed for Salinas, for Cardenas and for the country. An armed insurrection in the southern state of Chiapas; the assassination of PRI candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, the man chosen by Salinas to succeed him and continue his reforms, and a succession of kidnapings of prominent Mexicans eroded the long honeymoon of Salinas.

In the meantime, Cardenas, elected by his party to seek the presidency a second time, did not do well in Mexico's first televised political debate. He was confronted by the little-known National Action Party, or PAN, candidate, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, who clearly won the debate and jumped to second place. Cardenas' popularity, according to an avalanche of mostly unreliable polls, dipped into single digits. In addition, he was publicly lectured by the spokesperson of the Chiapas rebellion.

None of these setbacks, however, seems to have made a dent in Cardenas' indomitable desire to win the presidency--perhaps because Cardenas is himself the son of a president of Mexico, Gen. Lazaro Cardenas. He has been married to Celeste Batel de Cardenas for 31 years. They have three children, ranging from age 29 to 10.

No presidential contest in Mexico has been as competitive as the one that will be held Aug. 21. For the first time in 100 years, the outcome of the race is uncertain. Cardenas is convinced that, if the election is clean, he will follow in his father's footsteps and become the second President Cardenas. The question remains, however, what would happen if he loses and feels cheated!

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Question: Is Mexico at the crossroads between democracy and chaos?

Answer: There are signs of a serious social malaise and profound political crisis. The assassinations of Cardinal (Juan Jesus) Posadas and the PRI's candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio; the rebellion in Chiapas; the kidnapings of (entrepreneurs Alfredo) Harp and (Angel) Losada--all these events underline the depth of the crisis we are in.

Q: Do you believe most Mexicans support the use of violence as a means to transit toward democracy?

A: The vast majority, including the EZLN (the Zapatista Front, which launched the Chiapas uprising,) seek a political solution to the crisis we are living. But not even they are calling the country to rise up in arms as they did on Jan. 1.

Q: The EZLN is calling for a convention that would appoint an interim president two weeks before the election. Do you agree?

A: My understanding is that this is one of the possible scenarios under consideration, but I do not see it as a plausible scenario for the country. I don't believe they would follow that route, because I don't believe it solves the current crisis.

Q: Will the results of the election determine whether or not there will be an eruption of violence in the country?

A: The only source of violence that can explode in the country is the government.

Q: So, if on Aug. 22, you get 12% of the vote, will your supporters perceive the election as illegitimate and turn to violence?

A: Regardless of the percentages, I hope that the elections are clean and the votes are counted properly. If that is the case, the people will accept the results.

Q: What happens if the perception is that the elections were fixed?

A: Then the government will be confronted through civil means by the citizenry.

Q: Is there a way for the PRI to win with your acceptance?

A: I don't know if there is a way for the PRI to win--an objective analysis of the election shows that given the candidate and considering the way he was chosen, there is no way he can pull many votes.

Q: Since the race looks so close, don't you believe that whoever wins will need the support of one of the losing candidates? If (PRI candidate Ernesto) Zedillo wins by a small margin, would you negotiate some form of coalition government?

A: The problem does not lie with the electoral percentages but in the political program that is followed. If the agenda is to prolong the permanence of a party encroached within the state, I won't be able to collaborate with them.

Q: Ernesto Zedillo has already declared the undesirability of an official party within the government.

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