Mexican Political Heads Beat Path to Southland and Find Applause


Los Angeles, whose Mexican-origin population is the second largest outside Mexico City, appears to have become the northern front of Mexican politics.

In a new page of Mexican politics, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his chief rival, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, paid separate visits to Los Angeles on the same day last month.

The timing of their visits, while supposedly coincidental, pointed up a new facet of Mexican politics: It is now acceptable to seek political support outside of Mexico. The pattern was set when Cardenas, son of revered ex-President Lazaro Cardenas, was in Southern California last fall for a series of fund-raisers to set up a local committee of his Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

During his daylong visit, Salinas won warm applause when he reassured American newspaper publishers meeting in Century City that Mexico is striving to streamline its economy and political process to make it a stable, more democratic neighbor.

He mixed in a tough message for the Bush Administration, criticizing the abduction to this country of Humberto Alvarez Machain, a Guadalajara physician accused of having a role in the death of American drug agent Enrique Camarena.

And Cardenas, a former governor of Michoacan who bolted Mexico's ruling party, was urged on by groups of enthusiastic supporters when he reiterated the charge that the 1988 presidential election was stolen from him by Salinas' party--the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

"Who's the president of Mexico? Here I am," Cardenas said to the roaring delight of a breakfast audience of Latino supporters at a Chinatown restaurant.

Cardenas had arrived ahead of Salinas, first attending a private fund-raiser in Montebello and later addressing a meeting of the Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal political group. While generally critical of Salinas' plan to modernize the Mexican economy in his remarks to the ADA, Cardenas saved his most bitter criticism for the breakfast meeting at the Velvet Turtle restaurant in Chinatown.

He mocked Salinas' claim that Mexico is a more open country politically, contending that more than 100 PRI opponents, most of them journalists or Cardenas supporters, have been killed in violence that has swept the country since the 1988 election, in which Salinas won the presidency with 50.36% of the vote.

Some within Mexico, he said, have used fraud and violence to ensure PRI's dominance.

"You have to respect the vote of the people," Cardenas said, pointing out that Chile and Nicaragua enjoyed peaceful transfers of power when leaders there heeded the election results.

"They didn't do that in Panama and look what happened."

Cardenas also said he supported something almost unheard of in Mexico--extending the vote to Mexican citizens who live outside of their homeland.

Under Mexican law, citizens cannot vote in presidential and local elections if they leave the country, and there is no absentee balloting. "It's another process to make Mexico more democratic," Cardenas said.

If there was something Cardenas was vague about, it was whether he planned to run again for the presidency of Mexico in 1994.

"There are no candidates of the PRD for the presidency in 1994," he said. "That decision will be made in '93."

While Cardenas was in Chinatown that Monday, Salinas flew into Los Angeles with the full trappings of the Mexican presidency to address a luncheon at the 104th convention of the American Newspaper Publishers Assn. He was toasted by those attending the luncheon, a practice usually reserved for the President of the United States.

Not only was it the first Los Angeles visit by a sitting Mexican president in 18 years, but it was also the first time a Mexican president had addressed the publishers group.

In his remarks, Salinas said Mexico is undergoing sweeping changes that require stable economic growth.

He reiterated plans to turn state-owned companies, such as Telefonos Mexicanos, into privately owned enterprises, to control government spending, and to promote foreign investment and Mexico's role in the international war against drugs.

The Mexican president also met separately in private with some Mexican-American businessmen and Chicano activists.

Salinas topped off the day by joining labor leader Cesar Chavez in presiding over a historic ceremony in which families in Mexico of eligible members of the United Farm Workers of America will be extended medical benefits by the Mexican Institute of Social Security (IMSS). It was the first time that Mexico extended such benefits to the families of citizens who live outside of Mexico.

The program will be funded by premiums deducted from the workers' paychecks by the UFW, which in turn will send the payments to the Mexican social security institute.

The program, which could affect as many as 50,000 Mexican nationals who are members of the UFW, was enthusiastically welcomed by more than 100 people who were invited to witness the ceremony at the Century Plaza.

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