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In Mexico, a Quixote Is Poised for Victory

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As his Chevy van careened through this capital’s manic streets--taking him from a two-hour symposium with the deaf and blind to a rally at the General Hospital--Cuauhtemoc Cardenas used every muscle in his face to make something that only remotely resembled a smile.

“See, I smile,” said the opposition leader, whose angry scowl has been a permanent fixture on Mexico’s political horizon for more than a decade. “I don’t think I’m too serious. I’ve always smiled, and I’ve always been serious. But I think the people want serious people in government.”

With just days left before the first elections for the mayor of this, one of the world’s largest, most chaotic and confounding cities, people also seem to want Cardenas’ anger.

The 62-year-old leftist, drawing on deep discontent with Mexico’s status quo, is so far ahead in opinion polls that prominent Mexican historian Enrique Krauze recently said, “One does not have to be a great psychic to predict that Cuauhtemoc Cardenas will be elected mayor of Mexico City.”

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Projecting a populist image through his trademark scowl, Cardenas is more than just the leading mayoral candidate in the upcoming elections, in which Mexican voters also will elect six state governors, a new lower house of Congress and a third of the nation’s Senate.

For many here, Cardenas has become a singular symbol of democracy and change in a city exhausted by seven straight decades of aloof ruling party mayors, all of whom have been presidential appointees in the past.

Indeed, if on July 6 Cardenas and his Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, win the mayoralty--a post so powerful it has been known by the title “The Regent"--analysts say the victory will rank among the most bitter defeats in the 67 years of power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. To some, it may perhaps be the beginning of the end of the ruling PRI itself.

“To be mayor of Mexico City is not like being the mayor of Washington, D.C., or even of New York City,” historian Krauze said in a recent speech titled “A New Era: Post-Election Mexico.”

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“Mexico City,” he noted, “has been the historic center of the country for at least 500 years--the economic, political, social and even theological center. The Aztecs called their Mexico City Tenochtitlan, ‘the navel of the moon.’ Only a place like Jerusalem or Beijing or perhaps Moscow carries the same geographical weight. Not by chance did Boris Yeltsin win the Russian presidency from his privileged platform as mayor of Moscow. And in the year 2000, at the age of 66, Cardenas too could become a Mexican Yeltsin and return to the place where he spent his childhood: Mexico’s presidential residence of Los Pinos.”

Cardenas, in fact, is the son of one of the country’s most beloved presidents, Lazaro Cardenas, who governed from 1934 to 1940. But at the core of his support here is not just his birthright. There is also his image as a stubborn, quixotic crusader, the recalcitrant victim in the 1988 presidential balloting of what many believe was fraud by his--and now the nation’s--nemesis: former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Once loved but now reviled because of allegations of drug-related and other corruption by top officials in his administration, Salinas--who has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing--is living in self-exile in Ireland.

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“This election in many ways is a referendum on the Salinas administration,” said Ricardo Pascoe, a key Cardenas advisor. “Society is literally reeling with the revelations of a decadent, corrupt regime. You can see society speaking through the kids who put on Salinas masks and devil horns every day and make a fool of him in the streets.

“In a certain sense,” Pascoe continued, “it’s a kind of poetic justice. Cuauhtemoc was just so belittled and spat upon, the object of so much spite under Salinas. And through it all, Cuauhtemoc just stiffened his position. One of his major traits is his stubbornness.”

But as Cardenas nears the prize in midterm elections that many analysts say will mark Mexico’s turning point to genuine democracy, it is his stubborn adherence to leftist ideology that worries some in big business. They privately fear that a Mayor Cardenas could scare off billions of dollars in private and foreign investment here.

Cardenas’ father is a figure worshiped by many Mexicans for kicking out U.S. oil companies and nationalizing Mexico’s petroleum industry, and the younger Cardenas unabashedly shares some of his father’s ideals.

But in a front-seat interview as his packed van wheeled through the clogged, pitted streets here, Cardenas insisted that he supports the private sector--while stressing “productive” investment over the speculative billions of dollars drawn to Mexico’s financial markets. He blamed recent warnings that his victory could trigger a flight of investment capital on ruling-party business leaders trying to feed private-sector paranoia. And yet, Cardenas said he is not offended when branded a leftist; he just doesn’t label himself that way.

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“I don’t know what they mean by that” word, he said, speaking in fluent English as cellular phones rang nonstop. “We’re in favor of improving social conditions. We’re in favor of making a priority of creating jobs. We want better education, better health care, housing for everybody, good-quality public services. I don’t know if that’s the left, the center, the right or where, but that’s what we want.”

The reserved, sometimes awkward veteran of Mexico’s political wars has brought that message into some of the capital’s worst, most dangerous neighborhoods in a three-month campaign that has spoken eloquently about how much has gone wrong in this city, which has a core population of 8 million and which is part of a megalopolis of at least 20 million. Cardenas has delivered his message in a near-monotone from street-corner stages under his party’s symbol of the Aztec sun and the slogan “Together, we will reclaim our city.”

And the response in the streets helps explain why he is so far ahead in the polls.

At a recent rally in Iztapalapa--Mexico City’s most dangerous, impoverished yet vote-rich district--Maria Dolores Lopez, 32, cradled her baby girl and said in the audience that she planned to vote for Cardenas for the first time because “We’re sick of so much deceit. We haven’t seen any progress.”

As Cardenas spoke against what he considers the No. 1 issue--police corruption and the government’s failure to stop it, despite more than 1,000 soldiers on the streets--Lopez added: “We have fallen to the bottom. There’s a lot of unemployment here. And the water, it tastes like tamarind juice. You’d think we were pigs; they don’t even give us clean water.”

Elsewhere in the crowd, Jesus Velazquez was less sure. “He’s Mickey Mouse,” the electrician said, pointing toward the lanky, big-eared politician on stage. “Look around. There are so many people with such high hopes, all of them riding on this guy. Everyone wants a change. I want a change. But nothing ever changes.

“This guy has tried twice, and he lost twice,” Velazquez said, recalling Cardenas’ record in presidential contests. “This time I’m not even going to vote.”

Cardenas has won only one major election in his long political career: He was governor of Michoacan from 1980 to 1986. And he ran as a candidate of the ruling PRI. He broke with the party in 1987 and helped found the precursor of the PRD--the first major fissure in the PRI power base, which has deteriorated rapidly under the economic crisis and spectacular revelations of corruption in Mexico in the past two years.

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Cardenas’ presidential bid the year after he left the PRI--a phenomenon by any standard--laid the groundwork for his expected victory this July. His parental roots and populist appeal in 1988 harnessed widespread discontent in villages and towns nationwide, even here in the capital, where he clearly won. But when the time came to count the ballots, the government-run election computers crashed. And when they came back, the tabulations gave Salinas victory.

“We will never know the precise results of those elections because President Salinas . . . ordered the ballots burned,” Krauze said. “But there cannot be the slightest doubt that [Cardenas] carried Mexico City that year. The people of Mexico City this year seem about to re-endorse that vote and to reward Cardenas for his tenacious opposition to Salinas.”

Ironically, Cardenas credits Salinas’ handpicked successor, Ernesto Zedillo--who roundly defeated Cardenas in the 1994 presidential race--for the sweeping electoral reforms that make a victory by him next month even possible. Zedillo decided soon after taking office in December 1994 to make Mexico City’s mayoralty an elected post, laying the groundwork for this vote.

But if 1988 was Cardenas’ political zenith, his placing a distant third to Zedillo in the 1994 contest was his nadir.

“In 1994, he felt like he was a medieval knight in his armor, and 20 armed knights were all bearing down on him,” said advisor Pascoe. “He felt as if he had the entire system against him. Now he feels he’s in a more equal situation. He feels much more relaxed.”

Despite punishing 18-hour campaign days, Cardenas has managed time off with his family. That, he said, along with watching movies, visiting museums and playing dominoes, is his greatest pleasure outside politics. Sometimes the two spheres intersect: He spent one recent weekend campaigning in Michoacan with a son who is seeking a congressional seat there.

Cardenas insisted he enjoys campaigning as much as anything in life, saying, “Contact with people, learning about different problems and possible solutions . . . this is really the only opportunity you have to find and confront every kind of problem.”

Asked why he would want to take on a city fraught with so many woes--soaring crime, choking pollution, chronic unemployment and death-defying urban sprawl--he said: “Well, it’s precisely to change these things. I’m sure that we can have a clean city, a city where people can go around securely, a city where we can improve the living standards for everybody. That’s within reach.”

That positive pitch, repeated daily, has won Cardenas support but also heightened popular expectations. Under the reforms that sanction the mayoral vote, the winner’s term will be just two years and eight months, beginning in December.

Many analysts say that leaves little time for Cardenas to achieve enough results to boost him toward what many believe is still his ultimate goal: the nation’s presidency in 2000.

As mayor, Cardenas also would have to work across party lines with Zedillo to secure federal funding to improve the capital. In describing his personal chemistry with the president, Cardenas laughed.

“None up to now,” he said.

In some ways, said Cardenas, whose billboards and banners feature a smiling candidate for the first time, he already feels victorious. He pointed to recent, independent polls that gave him double the support of his two leading rivals--the PRI’s Alfredo del Mazo and Carlos Castillo Peraza of the conservative National Action Party.

“I feel that this time we have already won the elections in public opinion,” he said. “Whatever happens in the results, public opinion already accepts that this may be the final outcome of the elections. That alone makes these times so politically different.”

At one of Cardenas’ rallies that day, in the under-equipped General Hospital that attends to the poorest of Mexico City’s poor, a young doctor in the audience offered perhaps the best explanation.

“He has no charisma, as his father did,” Juan Soriano said as Cardenas mounted the stage. “But he represents the option of change. It’s simple, really: a new hope versus the old regime.”


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