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Governing methods as important as policies, new Mexico City mayor stresses

"Viva México," the Stanford crowd cheered, prompting Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas briefly to relinquish his furrowed brow and flash a smile. "We live in significant times in Mexico," he responded, the frown returning to his long face. "Nothing has come free."

Speaking Nov. 20 in Kresge Auditorium as part of a two-day visit to Northern California, the mayor-elect of Mexico City launched into an explanation of how his new government will be distinguishable from Mexico's authoritarian past and present. The talk was not long on specifics, but Cárdenas signaled observers north of the border to expend less effort analyzing the details of his policies and more on his methods for enacting them.

On Dec. 5, the son of a past Mexican president will become the first elected mayor of Mexico City, having won an election on July 6 that was the result of compromise between Mexico's three major political parties. On that day, the ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party also lost control of Mexico's chamber of deputies, the country's lower house, for the first time since coming to power nearly seven decades ago. Cárdenas, a former member of the PRI, is now viewed as one of Mexico's key opposition leaders, having lost two previous presidential elections, one in 1988 that some evidence suggests was taken from him fraudulently by Carlos Salinas de Gortari. What happens next in Mexico's fledgling multi-party system is not predictable, Terry Karl, director of the Center for Latin American Studies, said in a lengthy introduction of Cárdenas, but it "depends heavily upon the conduct" of the newly legitimized opposition.

Faced with rampant crime, corruption, pollution and poverty problems in the world's largest city, Cárdenas said his new job won't be easy but the first step is to reinstate a "rule of law." Bribes and connections must stop determining who is rewarded and who is punished, he said. "That's the first and main condition to overcome our crisis. . . . I am optimistic we will be able to show there is a different way to govern because I start with the support of 47 percent of the voters."

Cárdenas did not say he would begin by arresting public officials accused of corruption, however. "I cannot imagine any other way of enforcing a rule of law than with people's participation and support. I think most Mexicans are willing to live under the rule of law and accountability. We have to open the possibility to organizations of people, judicial and political institutions, to demand from authorities to make themselves accountable, so they can be questioned, so they have to act with transparency."

For corruption to be undermined, he said, citizens first must be convinced that Mexico can build broad-based participation in government. He said he would "promote participation of the population in cultural activities, management of different public services and improvements to the material condition of neighborhoods. We call it change that doesn't cost more government spending," he said.

Stephen Haber, a Stanford historian who wrote the 1989 book Industry and Underdevelopment: The Industrialization of Mexico 1890-1940, tried to get the 63-year-old politician to specify how his economic policies will be different from the neoliberal policies of the national government. The ruling party has argued that it is the only political faction offering a "coherent set" of economic policy reforms, Haber said. Although its record hasn't been particularly good over the past 15 years, he said, PRI leaders have persuaded some that they at least attempted to improve the economy's efficiency by privatizing government-owned businesses and reducing the number of "semi-official" monopolies.

"We don't take an ideological stand on privatization," Cárdenas responded. "If it's necessary we will do it." But he added quickly that his party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, "does not agree" with the ruling party's practice of selling government businesses "with one hand and buying [them] with the other. . . . The Mexican privatization model is built on corruption."

Economic policies must be based on "societal goals," he said. "We are proposing the Mexican state recuperate its social responsibility. We cannot just ignore increased poverty, unemployment or the loss of quality in education."

The recent battle in Mexico's national legislature over the budget, he said, reflects one of the largest remaining obstacles to democracy in the country: national control of virtually all tax collections and appropriations. Asked what more electoral reforms the country needed, Cárdenas said that the laws were adequate but the country needs to improve its political and electoral "practices." He called for broader based participation in the commissions that supervise national, state and local elections.

In an interview at Bolívar House before his speech, Cárdenas indicated that one of the reasons for his trip was to court the political support of Mexicans living in Northern California, who may soon be allowed to vote in Mexico's presidential election in 2000. His trip included talks with labor leaders in Stockton, an area where large numbers of Mexican immigrants are employed. Many details of the trip were planned by members of Stanford's Mexican Students Association who have been active in Cárdenas' party. Imanol Ordorika, a graduate student in education, was the coordinator. The campus visit was sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies in conjunction with the Institute for International Studies.


By Kathleen O'Toole

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