Los Angeles Times Interview : Cuauhtemoc Cardenas : Running for President in Mexico Against the All-Powerful PRI

<i> Sergio Munoz is the editor of Nuestro Tiempo, The Times' weekly Spanish-language edition. He interviewed Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in Mexico City</i>

Since 1986, the year he challenged the political apparatus of the powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, demanding open and democratic internal selection of candidates and an end to the neoliberal economic policies of President Miguel de la Madrid, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, 60, has been seeking the presidency he claims he won in the 1988 election.

For five years, while Cardenas toured the country trying to organize a viable opposition party, his rival, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, became one of the most popular presidents in the history of Mexico, orchestrating sweeping economic reforms.

But early this year, things changed for Salinas, for Cardenas and for the country. An armed insurrection in the southern state of Chiapas; the assassination of PRI candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, the man chosen by Salinas to succeed him and continue his reforms, and a succession of kidnapings of prominent Mexicans eroded the long honeymoon of Salinas.

In the meantime, Cardenas, elected by his party to seek the presidency a second time, did not do well in Mexico’s first televised political debate. He was confronted by the little-known National Action Party, or PAN, candidate, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, who clearly won the debate and jumped to second place. Cardenas’ popularity, according to an avalanche of mostly unreliable polls, dipped into single digits. In addition, he was publicly lectured by the spokesperson of the Chiapas rebellion.


None of these setbacks, however, seems to have made a dent in Cardenas’ indomitable desire to win the presidency--perhaps because Cardenas is himself the son of a president of Mexico, Gen. Lazaro Cardenas. He has been married to Celeste Batel de Cardenas for 31 years. They have three children, ranging from age 29 to 10.

No presidential contest in Mexico has been as competitive as the one that will be held Aug. 21. For the first time in 100 years, the outcome of the race is uncertain. Cardenas is convinced that, if the election is clean, he will follow in his father’s footsteps and become the second President Cardenas. The question remains, however, what would happen if he loses and feels cheated!


Question: Is Mexico at the crossroads between democracy and chaos?


Answer: There are signs of a serious social malaise and profound political crisis. The assassinations of Cardinal (Juan Jesus) Posadas and the PRI’s candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio; the rebellion in Chiapas; the kidnapings of (entrepreneurs Alfredo) Harp and (Angel) Losada--all these events underline the depth of the crisis we are in.

Q: Do you believe most Mexicans support the use of violence as a means to transit toward democracy?

A: The vast majority, including the EZLN (the Zapatista Front, which launched the Chiapas uprising,) seek a political solution to the crisis we are living. But not even they are calling the country to rise up in arms as they did on Jan. 1.

Q: The EZLN is calling for a convention that would appoint an interim president two weeks before the election. Do you agree?


A: My understanding is that this is one of the possible scenarios under consideration, but I do not see it as a plausible scenario for the country. I don’t believe they would follow that route, because I don’t believe it solves the current crisis.

Q: Will the results of the election determine whether or not there will be an eruption of violence in the country?

A: The only source of violence that can explode in the country is the government.

Q: So, if on Aug. 22, you get 12% of the vote, will your supporters perceive the election as illegitimate and turn to violence?


A: Regardless of the percentages, I hope that the elections are clean and the votes are counted properly. If that is the case, the people will accept the results.

Q: What happens if the perception is that the elections were fixed?

A: Then the government will be confronted through civil means by the citizenry.

Q: Is there a way for the PRI to win with your acceptance?


A: I don’t know if there is a way for the PRI to win--an objective analysis of the election shows that given the candidate and considering the way he was chosen, there is no way he can pull many votes.

Q: Since the race looks so close, don’t you believe that whoever wins will need the support of one of the losing candidates? If (PRI candidate Ernesto) Zedillo wins by a small margin, would you negotiate some form of coalition government?

A: The problem does not lie with the electoral percentages but in the political program that is followed. If the agenda is to prolong the permanence of a party encroached within the state, I won’t be able to collaborate with them.

Q: Ernesto Zedillo has already declared the undesirability of an official party within the government.


A: The problem is that he has not asked Jose Maria Cordoba or Carlos Salinas de Gortari for permission to change the very core of the system. I don’t believe that Carlos Hank and the Atlacomulco Group, who have taken over power within the Zedillo group, can lead to democratic change, or even to an honest government.

Q: But I understand that you have negotiated with the government in the past. With Manuel Camacho in 1988.

A: Camacho looked for me several times, but when we insisted that the only proper thing to do was to clean up the election-process results, the talks ended.

Q: What happens if Diego Fernandez de Cevallos wins?


A: That is another impossible option.

Q: But if Diego wins, would you negotiate a coalition government with him?

A: No, because his program is not democratic.

Q: Then what would be a possible option?


A: The logical outcome, and the more plausible scenario, is that I win the election.

Q: If the race is indeed tight--the margin between the three of you is close--and you win, would you be able to govern?

A: Yes, because then the winner would have a democratic and constitutional legitimacy. But also because by loosing the election and cutting off all the political and economic support to the official party, that party becomes nothing more than ashes that can be blown away with a puff of air.

Q: Once again, President Salinas has said he would like to have a dialogue with you. Why don’t you accept?


A: Because he has not set an agenda. I’ve proposed one: the correction of the electoral lists; displaying them up at the booths, and providing fair and equal access to the media for all candidates. We can meet and talk about that.

Q: All the polls indicate your popularity diminished dramatically after the debate.

A: Well, then there exists a contradiction between the polls and the huge audiences I encounter in my campaign tour throughout the country. But the odd thing is that if I can’t draw above 8% or 10% of the vote, then why is the government so concerned with me?

Q: Many of your leftist followers were disappointed with your performance during the debate because they felt you leaned too much to the center instead of advancing the ideas of the left. Do you find their criticism fair?


A: No. I believe the program we have been advancing is the most viable to lift the country from its current crisis and to spark a new stage for sustained economic growth and to achieve better social conditions for the population. Perhaps I should have answered swiftly to the accusations launched by Diego against me.

But the debate should be analyzed not only by what happened that night but also by the spin in the media immediately after it. In the end, however, both the debate and the post-debate spin turned out to be irrelevant to the people--judging by the response I’ve been getting throughout the country.

Q: Mexico defines itself as Latin American, but neither politically nor economically has there been unity of purpose with Latin America. It has been with the U.S. that real linkage, both positive and negative, has taken place. Which will be the context of your foreign policy if you become president?

A: It will be diverse. We’ll seek an effective economic and political integration with Latin America, but we’ll also maintain a close trade and economic relationship with the countries of NAFTA, while at the same time seeking a larger economic diversification toward Europe and the Pacific Basin.


Q: You opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, but now you seem to have changed your mind--

A: I never opposed NAFTA. I opposed it only because I felt we could have signed a better agreement--one that would have opened other perspectives to improve our development. Such an agreement meant investing in Mexico to diminish the existing differences between partners, to improve the social condition of our population. This meant equalizing the field among the three countries.

Q: First with George Bush and later with Bill Clinton, President Salinas was able to articulate the best relationship ever with the U.S. Do you believe Salinas was wrong in thinking the U.S. could be a partner and suspending the traditional Mexican resentment toward the United States?

A: Salinas was wrong in his policies toward Mexico--not in his foreign policies. And he was wrong because he forgot he had to work for the benefit of the country, and what he did here was to create 40 million poor people and 14 million unemployed.


Q: Many think you represent the policies of the past that did not work. To test you, they ask: Do you believe that the economic reform implemented in the past 12 years is irreversible?

A: No, of course I do not accept it as irreversible, because if I did, I would be bringing Mexico into a deeper crisis, I would be creating more unemployed, more poor people, more layoffs, more businesses closed. The free-market economy in Mexico is a right that is in our constitution, and Mexico has never tried to be an isolationist nation. But the question is how are we going to open up. We have to implement an alternative policy that creates new jobs, promotes growth instead of stagnation.

Q: There is, however, much uneasiness in the private sector in Mexico and in the U.S. with the possibility of your victory.

A: The ones that are afraid are the 24 that Salinas made billionaires because those fortunes have been made with the help of the powerful within the administration. If they had not become partners with officials in high places and been given privileges from them, they would not have made that kind of money.


We want to establish real competition in business instead of propitiating monopolies. With real competition, we could have improved many of the most dynamic sectors of the economy--such as the television, telephones, copper and cement industries. Monopolies are not healthy for the economy, or socially.

Q: If you are not convinced that the election was clean, what will you do?

A: I will defend my vote through every civil route!

Q: But that is what you did in ’88.


A: We’ll do it better this time--because we are better organized this time. We did not accomplish better results in ’88 because we had no cohesion in the command and had not worked on the possibility of a general mobilization that we now have.