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Outsider who would be Mexican president.

Five years ago, he was possibly elected Mexico's president. But 45 percent of the ballots were seized by pro-government forces and burned before they could be counted.

Today, with the next presidential election ahead in 1994, he is Mexico's major hope for democracy -- with the result that in the past four years, 232 of his Party of the Democratic Revolution, PRD, workers have been assassinated.

His name is myth and magic in Mexico. His father, Lazaro Cardenas, was Mexico's revolutionary general who became nation's great land-reforming president (1934-40). He himself, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, named after the last Aztec emperor, served as governor of the state of Michoacan in the 1980s.

Mexico has a six-year presidency. However, since 1929, the outgoing president of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, with a close coterie, has in effect always handpicked the PRI presidential successor who, by one means or another, is then elected at the polls by an overwhelming majority.

That happened most recently in 1988, when the current president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, defeated Cuauhtemoc Cardenas at the polls. Eighteen months from leaving office, Salinas is heading toward lame-duck status as political backers shift their attention to PRI men who might be his successor.

Meanwhile, few people of power are courting Cardenas, a man of mixed heritage, a civil engineer educated in Mexico and Europe -- few except those in the streets and small towns, where he is their candidate.

NCR Editor-at-Large Arthur Jones met with the 59-year-old Cardenas at his Mexico City home where, in a study filled with books, busts and vintage black-and-white photographs of his father as soldier, politician and president -- and pictures of ousted Chilean President Salvador Allende and Cuban President Fidel Castro -- he discussed his, and Mexico's, future.

NCR: In 1994, if you win the presidential election, will you be deprived of it by electoral fraud?

Cardenas: That's a good question. I think 1994 will be quite different than 1988.

Because of a heightened political awareness?

We now have a better electoral structure. We can have representatives in more voting sections, supervise the elections better than in 1988.

A very important mobilization capacity has been developed since then -- in different states popular organizations have brought down the imposed governors. [Mexico's president, in effect, appoints state governors].

In 1994, we will have a large vote.

If you win, what sort of democracy would you build? What is to stop you, the PRD, from becoming what PRI is, another one-party dictatorship?

First, you have to get respect for the vote. We don't have real elections. This is the main issue. Next, we have been struggling under very hostile conditions from the government. We have lost 232 of our people, assassinated in different parts of the country. Those responsible for these crimes remain free with impunity. No government action is taken against these killers. Also, we have a very different proposal from the PRI. We say that what we say we do, what they say they don't do. We to want establish a clean democracy, clean elections.

You have an economic as well as a political struggle. How do you look at the North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico and Mexico's economic situation?

You have to change the economic policies, and change priorities in economic policies. We think we have to stimulate productive investment, not the (present wave of) speculative investments.

But we have an alternative proposal: a continental agreement for development and trade. Our alternate is for a development agreement something similar to the European Community's when it decided to integrate Spain, Portugal and Greece into the EC. They created some kind of (economic development) fund. So, we should start developing an agreement that not only includes Mexico, but also the rest of the continental countries (Central and South America). Multilateral and bilateral agreements, yes, but taking into consideration the whole of the continent.

Looking north, is Mexico a minority partner?

We are the party in the most disadvantageous position.

A difference between NAFTA and EC agreements is that NAFTA has no mobility of labor? Do you envision that?

Yes. Do you know that this was maybe the only issue specifically left aside in NAFTA negotiations? I think we have to take labor mobility, Mexican migration into the United States into consideration. We have now 20 million Mexicans in the U.S., maybe 13 million in the census and 7 million beyond it.

We have to start talking about that problem, to devise a several-step solution -- not just go one day to the other -- that would give employment stability in the U.S. and improve social and economic conditions in Mexico, so that people would not be forced to leave the country to find a living.

What about PRD's domestic priorities? Is it education, housing, food?

I'd say employment. Education. The social problems that have to be faced. Historically, we have the largest unemployment ever, a third of the labor force. Very depressed salaries, wages have lost 60 percent of real purchasing power in the past 10 years. Living standards have deteriorated very seriously in these years of neoliberal and monetarist policies. I think that ... is the major problem besides the political problem of the vote.

America, too, is experiencing some of this to a lesser degree: losing jobs, deteriorating living standards, losing medical services. Do you feel Americans, generally, are open to listening to Mexico's problems?

I think they are turning in on themselves. Though there are certain sectors of people very aware of what is happening here, what is not clear in the U.S. is that it is not automatic that if jobs are created in Mexico (through economic development) that it would mean a loss of jobs in the United States.

The silent figure in the Mexican political structure, it seems to me, is the extremely well-armed and independent military. How do you assess that presence?

Difficult to explain: They are independent but of course institutional. They support, as their first impulse, the government.

Would they support a change of government? I think they would if it came through peaceful means within our constitutional framework.

Corruption -- in local communities, in law enforcement, in business contracts -- is the norm, apparently. Where do you start to unravel that?

It is one of our major problems. If you want to clean you have to start sweeping from the top, and I don't know bow far down.

The Catholic church's role in Mexico's sociopolitical life?

It is one of the country's main institutions (that is) not homogeneous. You may find several churches inside the Catholic church, with people inclined to different parties.

Bishops, especially in the conference, have been cautiously critical of NAFTA. As they begin to put their heads above the water on some of these things, will they be a threat to the government?

No. I don't think they will become a threat. They remain cautious and they don't push very hard.

The Vatican-Mexican diplomatic relations of 1992, did they make any difference?

They existed before (the official formalities in 1992). In practice it means no change.

Guadalajara Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas' death -- any opinions? (Posasda was slam by apparent drug thugs at the Guadalajara airport in May.)

I really don't know. What I can say is that the explanations given by the government did not convince anybody.

PRD has a strong labor component.

We are talking about democratizing our politics. We have to start democratizing the unions. Cleaning the unions. They are corporation organizations: rigid control of the workers and a very deep corruption at the top. The labor movement has to change that themselves.

Drug trafficking. Where do you start with that?

Everywhere. With the traffic, with the production -- there is some in Mexico -- and in demanding reciprocity in how you face this problem internationally, especially with the United States. There is little action against the consumer. We have to go with police actions, with education, through the health services. It is not only a police matter.

It seems only in the past two or three years that the extent of human rights abuses in Mexico has become known in the U.S.... ... and even here.

What has been that catalyst, so that the issue is surfacing?

There are more violations. People are trying to defend themselves with much more force. There are examples from other parts of the world, more consciousness here of what's happening here.

If you become Mexico's president in 1994, what do you want from Washington, D.C.? What do you need from the Clinton administration?

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Title Annotation:includes related article on the North American Free Trade Agreement; Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the Party of the Democratic Revolution
Author:Jones, Arthur; Tangeman, Mike
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jul 30, 1993
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