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Mayor Falls Short of Expectations

Failure to ease Mexico City's crime and other woes--plus aides' inexperience--has hurt Cuauhtemoc Cardenas' popularity.

July 18, 1998|MARY BETH SHERIDAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — It was the kind of smile-a-thon Cuauhtemoc Cardenas must have expected after he overwhelmingly won election last year, catapulting from opposition hero to first elected mayor of Mexico's capital.

Dedicating a building in the capital's tony Polanco neighborhood this week, Cardenas was applauded by scores of hard-hatted construction workers, toasted with champagne by business executives, mobbed by photographers.

But outside the reception tent, the reaction to the city's first opposition party mayor was considerably cooler.

"I liked Cardenas initially, but he turned out to be all promises," said Ricardo Diaz, 25, an insurance company worker grabbing lunch at a nearby taco stand.

Chimed in his colleague, Javier Carrasco: "We expected he'd change things because he talked so beautifully. But we've seen very little of what he said."

A year after his election, Mexico's most famous opposition politician is having problems. Cardenas' popularity has tumbled as crime, pollution and unemployment continue to envelop Mexico City in a sense of crisis.

Analysts say his inexperienced team and his inability to advance his programs have hobbled Cardenas--as have voters' inflated expectations.

"There was an overselling of Cardenas and an underestimation of the complexity and difficulty of governing this monster of a city," said Luis Rubio, a prominent political analyst at a Mexico City think tank.

The disenchantment was vividly captured in a recent poll by the Mexico City daily Reforma, in which 53% of respondents disapproved of the mayor's performance, up from 45% in March.

Cardenas' rocky start could have big consequences. He has been considered a leading presidential candidate for 2000, and many see him as the left's best hope to take power after seven decades of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

Cardenas, son of a revered former president, took office last December in a whirl of hope and confetti-filled parties. Since then, he has faced one crisis after another.

Several of his appointees have been forced out in embarrassing scandals.

A top aide, Jesus Gonzalez Schmal, resigned in April after trying to demonstrate the government's anti-corruption credentials by naming dozens of people who held no-show jobs. The problem: His list was plagued with mistakes. Another personnel scandal exploded this week when a city police administrator stepped down after newspapers revealed that he is a convicted kidnapper.

The government was gagged--literally--by another crisis in May, when widespread forest fires and soaring ozone levels turned the capital's already smoggy air into a toxic soup that created a pollution emergency.

But the biggest concern of city residents is crime, which increased by more than 50% from 1994 to 1997, according to police reports.

Although Cardenas' government says crime has decreased in some categories and stabilized in others, citizens have not been impressed. The Reforma poll found that 75% of those interviewed said Cardenas was doing little or nothing to solve the problem.

Cardenas supporters point out that he inherited deep-seated problems that can't be solved in seven months. As Cardenas tries to shake things up, they say, he is facing obstacles from PRI-dominated unions and other groups that profited from ties to the previous city government.

The mayor, in an interview at the building dedication, listed another hurdle: Some Mexican media, he said, are trying to "halt the efforts of the city government," apparently to destroy his chances of winning the presidency.

But even Cardenas acknowledges that his team got off to a slow start.

"We took more time [than expected] to launch many programs," Cardenas said, adding that his officials needed to clean house and establish clear procedures for awarding public contracts. He expressed optimism that results will soon be visible.

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