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Los Angeles Times Interview

Cuauhtemoc Cardenas

A Politician Born to Power Struggles to Stay in the Race

May 28, 2000|Sergio Munoz | Sergio Munoz is an editorial writer for The Times

Cuauhtemoc Cardenas moved into Mexico's presidential residence when he was only 9 months old and lived there five years. Uncomfortable with the idea of living in Chapultepec Castle, President Lazaro Cardenas, his revered father, moved his quarters later to a small house on a hill surrounded by pine trees, known as Los Pinos. Ever since, Cardenas the younger has been trying to go home again.

He first tried in 1988. After realizing that the method by which the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, chose its presidential candidate amounted to an anointing, Cardenas called for the democratization of his party. He lost and quit the PRI. He then formed a coalition of parties that chose him as its presidential candidate. Cardenas surprised everyone by seriously challenging the candidate of his former party, Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Cardenas still swears that he was robbed of victory, a charge that is hard to prove. But there is no doubt that opposition parties had virtually no chance of winning in 1988.

Cardenas ran again for the presidency in 1994, a bad year to ask citizens to vote for change in Mexico. The year before, the PRI's presidential candidate was assassinated. Then, on Jan. 1, 1994, an armed rebellion broke out in Chiapas. Mexican citizens went to the polls and voted for political stability in the person of Ernesto Zedillo.

Cardenas' chances this year are bleaker than ever. In a race that began with six candidates but is narrowing to two, Cardenas consistently ranks a distant third in the polls. Though he was elected governor of Mexico City in 1997, he has few accomplishments to brag about. He does believe, however, that things have improved during his tenure.

But Cardenas is optimistic, as usual. He's accustomed to being the underdog, he says. Furthermore, he points out that his party, the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, has a national presence now.

Cardenas has been married to Celeste for 37 years, and they have three children. The eldest, Lazaro, is a member of the Chamber of Deputies. Cardenas was interviewed in Los Angeles and in Mexico City, where he lives.

*

Question: Wasn't the PRI primary election last November a big step forward for democracy in Mexico?

Answer: It was just another fraudulent state election managed by the state, but I must recognize that the PRI's advertising blitz has been so efficient that a large part of Mexico's public opinion doesn't see it as the usual kind of PRI election.

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Q: But wasn't the PRI's internal campaign brutally competitive?

A: The campaign was brutal. But it also set in motion the PRI's electoral mechanisms that have always been so effective nationally. The opposition parties must take note of this. It worked for the PRI as a mock election nine months before the presidential election.

*

Q: How do you compare your current candidacy with those in 1988 and in 1994?

A: I feel stronger now, and there is a reason for it. The PRD is now a national party, and our organization has grown dramatically. We have won governorships in five states and offices in 300 municipalities. We have the second-largest representation in the Chamber of Deputies.

*

Q: Are you a good governor of Mexico City?

A: I worked very hard to combat corruption, to improve the infrastructure of the city, to take care of the social problems of the people . . . and I think we accomplished a lot.

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Q: Can you give me some examples?

A: We arrested more than 1,200 judicial agents. We either fired or jailed about 800 police officers. We stopped the rising trend of crime and reversed it. For example, in the last four months of 1999, there were no bank robberies compared with 200 during the same period in 1998. We have brought potable water to areas of the city where there was none. We paved streets at double the pace of past administrations. We have set up offices across the city to assist women and street kids with their problems.

*

Q: Do you believe ordinary citizens have noticed these improvements and will vote for you in July?

A: Well, I am very aware that there is a permanent campaign in the media to belittle what we have done. But I . . . am sure the people notice the improvements.

*

Q: How do you judge Mexico's transition to democracy?

A: Painfully slow.

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Q: Yet, doesn't your party govern Mexico City virtually without opposition?

A: We need to modify our electoral laws to allow for political coalitions. We have to modify the Constitution to allow for . . . the referendum, the popular initiative, plebiscites. We have to define the tools for impeachment and accountability for public officials. We have to limit the power of the president to make real the balance of powers.

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Q: What difference would a PRD government make for the people?

A: PRD governments are honest, whereas PRI governments, in general terms, are corrupt.

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Q: But all the PRD governors are former PRI members.

A: Yes, but none of them is a crook.

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Q: Are you putting your reputation on the line for them?

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