The man in gray at the head table in a hotel penthouse salon was the consummate symbol of Mexico’s political past.
Manuel Bartlett Diaz, the gray-haired political patriarch in a tailored suit who held court this week through a two-hour lunch, has come to represent the old guard of Mexico’s ruling party--the faction known here as the “dinosaurs.”
As Mexico’s tough interior minister from 1983 until 1988, he was accused of rigging the 1988 presidential election results in favor of his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, bringing Carlos Salinas de Gortari to power.
During that same period, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents said they suspected Bartlett, as head of a secret police force believed to be linked to major drug dealers, of playing a role in the torture and killing of DEA agent Enrique Camarena. A Los Angeles grand jury still wants to question him.
And as the current governor of Puebla state, Bartlett has been accused by opposition politicians of rigging local elections, stifling criticism and generally governing with an iron hand.
But the refined 60-year-old politician invited about a dozen foreign correspondents to lunch this week not to discuss the dark side of the PRI’s past, but to share his conservative view of the party’s present, its future and the deep roots that still support it.
Breaking with a tradition of silence in the media, Bartlett also spoke openly and at length about his own past--responding to allegations that have dogged him for years. He cast himself and his beleaguered party as victims, but ones that remain viable forces in a nation in transition.
Bartlett’s new accessibility coincides with the hard-fought campaign for July 6 midterm elections; opinion polls show the PRI is likely to lose its hold on Mexico City’s government for the first time in seven decades. The PRI also could lose its majority in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress. But Bartlett stressed that polls also show the party running well ahead in five of the six gubernatorial races.
“The PRI has to offer what it has always offered. It needs to take back its force,” he said of a ruling party that has lost many key state and local races in the last two years under the weight of corruption scandals and an economic crisis.
“The PRI is a popular party. Through the distribution of land, it has created a rural class. The PRI created free textbooks for schoolchildren. . . . The PRI has always had programs designed for development. Because of this, you should vote for the PRI.”
The party’s image as a corrupt force, he asserted, is the result of a concerted opposition campaign. “The policy against us,” he said, “is to promote as many scandals as possible. . . . But the PRI isn’t those people who have been pointed out as being corrupt. The PRI is the peasants, the workers, the organizations of the middle class.”
Of his own personal scandals, Bartlett said: “I am a victim.”
He flatly denied allegations of ties to narcotics cartels, stressing that he has letters from four U.S. ambassadors to Mexico attesting to “the help and collaboration I offered in the fight against drug trafficking.”
“It hurt my reputation a lot,” he said of allegations by two witnesses in the Camarena case who tried to implicate him in the slaying, reportedly testifying that some of those convicted in the case had credentials from Bartlett’s agency.
When asked about the allegations surrounding the 1988 election results, which many Mexicans believe were doctored by Bartlett’s Federal Election Institute to lift Salinas to victory, he brought out a booklet he wrote on the subject.
Summarizing the 67 pages, the governor said: “They say that we switched off the [computer] system and fixed the numbers. In Mexico, you don’t vote through a computer, you vote with a piece of paper and a voting booth. . . . There is simply no basis” for the accusation.
Asked to speculate on his own future, Bartlett, whose term expires in 1999, smiled. “What happens after the elections is what happens after the elections,” he said. “First, we will try to win.”