Visits to Give L.A. Taste of Mexican Politics


The passion and controversy surrounding the 1988 Mexican presidential election are likely to erupt again this weekend when President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his chief antagonist, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, come to Los Angeles to visit their expatriate countrymen and supporters.

In an unusual turn of events, the two men on Monday will be competing for favorable publicity in different parts of the city.

The visits, which both sides portray as coincidental, point up some new realities about Mexican politics: It is now acceptable to press the flesh outside of Mexico, particularly in Los Angeles, which has the world's largest Mexican population outside Mexico City. It is the first visit here by a sitting Mexican president in 18 years.

The U.S. dollars earned by Mexican workers who have come to the United States are becoming a potent force south of the border. In addition, the allegiances of Chicanos--U.S. citizens of Mexican descent--have become more important to Mexican power brokers since former Mexican President Luis Echeverria first suggested in the early 1970s that Chicanos were as important to Mexico as American Jews were to Israel.

The idea of having some of the Mexican president's thunder stolen by Cardenas' simultaneous visit has irked some officials in Salinas' ruling party, but they are careful not to say anything that would inflame passions.

"He (Cardenas) is a free Mexican," a government spokesman said. "He can go wherever he wants for whatever purpose he has."

Cardenas, the son of a revered former president of Mexico, has charged that the election 20 months ago was stolen from him.

Cardenas is scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles tonight, while Salinas will fly in Sunday night.

"The Mexican community of Southern California rejects and repudiates the visit of the so-called president of Mexico, the usurper--Carlos Salinas de Gortari," thundered Cardenas supporter Pedro Arias, one of several Latino activists who held a news conference in Boyle Heights on Friday to protest Salinas' controversial election and his Los Angeles visit.

A Salinas spokesman, who insisted on anonymity when reached in Mexico City, retorted: "What lies. This was the fairest election in Mexico's history. The president is going to Los Angeles on an unofficial visit to unite people, even those who throw stones at us."

Cardenas, a former governor, quit the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and ran under the banner of the Democratic Revolution Party, a coalition of left-of-center groups. Although the ruling party has won elections in the past with overwhelming numbers, Cardenas received an unheard-of amount of votes for a challenger--31%.

Salinas, the ruling party's candidate, was named the winner with only 50.36%, the lowest margin of victory in the party's 61-year history. A third candidate, the late Manuel J. Clouthier, was third with 17.07%.

Despite the totals, Cardenas and his supporters charged widespread voter fraud, something the PRI has frequently been accused of.

While Salinas is constitutionally prohibited from seeking another six-year term, Cardenas has been traveling throughout the United States and Mexico since the election, seeking support for another try for the presidency in 1994. He campaigned in Los Angeles six months ago to raise funds to establish a support committee in Los Angeles.

The first shots over the weekend visits were fired Friday by Cardenas' partisans.

"We don't want him (Salinas) here," Chicano activist Virginia Reade said at Friday's news conference. "He wants legitimacy in the U.S., so he has to come here."

The Cardenistas said they plan to protest Salinas' speech Monday at a meeting of the American Newspaper Publishers Assn. in Century City. They also questioned the appropriateness of Cesar Chavez, the head of the United Farm Workers of America, meeting with the Mexican president after the speech to discuss a landmark Mexican law extending medical benefits to the Mexican families of citizens working in the fields of the United States.

Reade and others said they would try to dissuade Chavez from appearing with Salinas.

Asked about the trip and the appearance with Chavez, the presidential spokesman in Mexico City said Salinas accepted the invitation from the newspaper publishers several months ago, "some time before it was known that Mr. Cardenas would be in Los Angeles at the same time."

"The president is obligated to look after all Mexicans, wherever they live, and this legislation is part of that obligation," the spokesman said.

Under the legislation, the families living in Mexico of about 100,000 farmhands and others would receive benefits from the Mexican equivalent of the Social Security Administration. Officials in Mexico City could not immediately explain the specifics of how the program would operate.

The speech and the scheduled ceremony with Chavez are major items on the Mexican president's itinerary Monday. According to officials at the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles, he also is scheduled to meet with Mexican-American business leaders and activists in separate meetings.

He is scheduled to return to Mexico City on Monday night.

While Salinas spends Monday on the Westside, Cardenas is scheduled to give several talks near downtown Los Angeles. He is set to appear at a morning fund-raiser for his local supporters at a Chinatown restaurant.

Later, Cardenas has scheduled a meeting with editors at The Times.

Cardenas is scheduled to attend a private party tonight in Montebello shortly after his arrival.

On Sunday evening, he is one of several speakers expected to address a Santa Monica dinner staged by the Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal political action group.

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