- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2000

LOS ANGELES Americans who blush, faint and weep at the thought of partisanship in our politics ought to get a load of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.

Mr. Cardenas is one of several candidates for president of Mexico. He doesn't have much time for good manners in his pursuit, a vain one in the estimate of most observers, of the job now held by Ernesto Zedillo, one in a long line of men who have held the presidency for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI.

Mr. Cardenas, the governor of Mexico City, dismisses his opponents, particularly of the PRI, as crooks, thieves, cheats, swindlers and frauds.

This is his third attempt to win the presidency. The first was in 1988, when he quit the PRI, formed a coalition of smaller parties and ran against Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Mr. Salinas was everybody's candidate for Mr. Perfect Guy, lionized at home and abroad, and regarded in Washington as the John F. Kennedy of the south. Mr. Cardenas lost, and swore that he was robbed. Nobody paid much attention. Six years later, when it turned out that Carlos Salinas was a crook of a size to put Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton to shame, Mr. Cardenas ran again and a lot of people, in Mexico and out, thought he might deserve a little vindication. But 1994 was not a good year to seek revolutionary change. The PRI candidate had been assassinated and armed revolt broke out in Chiapas. Everyone wanted stability and Ernesto Zedillo seemed honest enough to guarantee stability if not necessarily justice.

Now Cuauhtemoc Cardenas is back for another shot at his impossible dream. He's campaigning in Mexico, of course, but like most Mexicans with bus fare, he spends a lot of time in Los Angeles, where Sergio Munoz of the Los Angeles Times sat him down the other day for a remarkably candid interview.

The PRI, trying to open the process of the selection of the Mexican president enough to make it appear to be open even if it may not be, established a party primary last November.

"It was just another fraudulent state election managed by the state," he says. "But I must recognize that the PRI's advertising blitz has been so efficient that a large part of Mexico's public opinion doesn't see it as the usual kind of PRI election."

He understands why the PRI has, in this view, belittled his accomplishments as the governor of the federal district. But he thinks it's unfair.

"We arrested more than 1,200 'judicial agents.' We fired or jailed about 800 police officers. We stopped the rising trend of crime and reversed it. For example, in the last four months of 1999, there were no bank robberies compared with 200 during the same period in 1998. We have brought [drinkable] water to areas of the city where there was none. We paved streets at double the pace of past administrations. We have set up offices across the city to assist women and street kids with their problems."

Not Richard Daley, perhaps, and certainly not Rudy Giuliani, but someone who tries in a city so lawless that foreigners, particularly foreigners foolish enough to wear a coat and tie or freshly pressed clean clothes in public places, are routinely regarded as begging to be kidnapped.

He concedes that the safety of plain, private people on the streets is a problem, and one that hurts the prospect of private investment. "We are talking two problems," he says. "When the standard of living of the people deteriorates, crime grows. One way to deal with crime is improving the people's standard of living. But we must also launch a frontal attack against organized crime, and that begins with cleaning up the police forces. When a governor of a state heads a band of kidnappers, as we have had in Mexico, we have a serious problem."

Since a lot of the plain people who are at risk on the streets are Americans, this inevitably impinges on the U.S.-Mexican relationship.

"From one government to another, it looks fine," he says. "But the relationship should be more equitable… . The Mexican government must work harder to make that happen. Many Mexicans die crossing the border. We have to look at the causes of migration and devise strategies like those the Europeans worked out to compensate poorer countries like Greece, Portugal and Spain so they could compete with the continent's more-developed nations."

If Mr. Cardenas goes to live at Los Pinos, the presidential palace, he'll be going home again. He lived there as an infant when his father, Lazaro Cardenas, was president four decades and more ago. But going home again is no less difficult in Mexico than anywhere else. The legacy of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas is more likely to be that of a man who spoke candor, and maybe a little truth as well, to power. Not a bad legacy.

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