UC Berkeley News


A conversation with Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas
The former mayor of Mexico City - and a three-time candidate for Mexico's presidency - is concluding an extended campus visit . In this exchange he touches on such key issues as democratization, immigration, and NAFTA

| 23 March 2006

Una conversación con Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas
Traducción en español
For most of the 20th century, a single political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), ruled Mexico. In 2000, to the amazement of the nation, its 71-year rule ended, when the former head of Coca-Cola in Mexico, Vicente Fox Quesada of the conservative National Action Party, beat the PRI candidate at the polls.

The groundwork for that upheaval had been laid 12 years earlier, however, in the presidential election of 1988. That highly controversial contest involved a suspicious, 11th-hour crash of the central computer system that tabulated votes. A few days later, it was announced that the PRI candidate had prevailed against challenger Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano (whose top campaign aide had been murdered a few days before the election).

The drama of the 1988 election was heightened by the fact that Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas (named for the last Aztec emperor) was the son of Lázaro Cárdenas, the popular president who redistributed land to peasant farmers and in 1938 nationalized Mexico's oil industry. Furthermore, Cárdenas the younger had served as senator, then governor, of the state of Michoacán as a member of the PRI (of which his father was an early member), but left the PRI, accusing it of betraying its revolutionary principles, to form a new, independent coalition. When his 1988 bid for president failed, he helped form the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and made two more unsuccessful bids for president, in 1994 and 2000, under its banner. In between those campaigns, he won election, with 47 percent of the vote, as the first democratically elected mayor of Mexico City.

Cárdenas just spent five weeks at Berkeley as a visiting scholar. During his stay, he taught a seminar on "1988: Mexico's Transition to Democracy" organized by the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS), and gave a lecture on "The Future of U.S.-Mexico Relations." Admirers, among them Latino custodial staff and students, flocked to get a look at the renowned Mexican politician.

According to CLAS director Harley Shaiken, the outpouring of interest and admiration "is not an isolated incident; we've gone into restaurants where the kitchen staff has come out to see him." Cárdenas, he says, "has become an icon for his role in democratizing Mexico. As a result of his integrity and experience, he has emerged as a moral voice in Mexico."

Last week, Cathy Cockrell of the Berkeleyan and Teresa Garza Gomez, former editor of El Cotidiano, a magazine from the Metropolitan Autonomous University (UNAM) in Mexico City, interviewed Cárdenas at CLAS. He responded mainly in English.

Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, named after the last Aztec emperor, made three bids for the presidency of Mexico. Here he greets well-wishers during the 2000 election, in which he ran as the candidate of the newly formed Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). (Photo © Pedro Mera/Clasos Agencia International/Corbis Sygma )
You're credited with playing a key role in the democratization of Mexico. In your view, what does democratization mean for Mexico and where is your country in that process?
After the 2000 election, or as a result of the 2000 election, the party-state regime ended. We had a political system in which there was a large concentration of power in the president, and the [PRI] party and the government were more or less the same thing. That has changed; it's an important change. Now we have a real division of the three powers - executive, legislative, and judicial. Now we have elections where the vote is respected. We still have to consolidate our electoral system, our electoral democracy, but we have much better elections than before. And I expect that with this election next July, we will be able to have confidence in our electoral system.

But we still have to change the social situation of Mexico. Many people, those who voted for Fox in the 2000 election, expected not only to oust the PRI from government but also that there could be a real improvement in living standards: more income, jobs for the people who [for economic reasons] have to leave the country (most of them coming here), new opportunities for investments for business people.

And that hasn't happened; that's the change that hasn't arrived. Having a better distribution of income, having more equal opportunities for everybody - that would be the real democratization we're still expecting and struggling for.

What changes have been made to reassure voters that their vote counts, since the controversial 1988 presidential election in which you were involved?
We started to have real elections, and have the vote really much respected, beginning with the '97 midterm election. The fraud we knew in Mexico (in '88, and later on in '91 in the midterm election, and even after '94 in some local elections) can only be committed by the state. Because the state controls the voting booths and the printing of the ballots. In '88 the fraud was rough, completely rough. In 1991, it became much more sophisticated. They studied section by section, and they did what we call "electoral engineering." They knew how many votes that needed to win in this place and this place.

Karl Rove has perfected that here. How did "electoral engineering" work in Mexico?
For example, they organized PRI people to gather early and then go voting together, a group of 10, 20, 50 people. But in many cases, each of those people had 5 or 10 voting credentials, so they could vote what we call carousel. They could vote at 9 a.m. in this voting place, at 9:30 in this voting place, at 10:15 in this one. So they could do a whole circuit, voting six, seven, eight times. And there were many other schemes. Only the state can commit fraud with these characteristics; it's not just buying your vote. Because if I tell you "I'll pay you $10, or $50, or $100 for your vote," you might say "yes." But I don't know have a way of knowing if you voted the way you said you would. But all that has changed.

You have a general election coming up in July, to choose a new President and representatives to Congress. What are the most important issues that the next government will face?
The most important challenge is employment - the need to offer jobs to Mexicans. Jobs that will produce a reasonable income, with social security, not informal jobs, but jobs protected by law. And to put in motion a process of economic growth that can be sustained for a long period, for long term, to make the economy grow. Because we have an economy that's been stagnant for 20 years.

How are the major presidential candidates addressing these issues in their campaigns?
There are no important proposals from any of the candidates. I don't see a firm and serious proposal on fiscal reform, on international policy, on Mexico's policies regarding Latin America - in particular the integration processes that are under way right now in different parts of Latin America, for example Mercosur and the South American Community of Nations [two new Latin American trade organizations; the latter, founded in 2004, is modeled on the European Union and aims to create a common currency, parliament, and passport].

So I don't see a platform that could become attractive for many people. If you go through the newspapers, and listen to opinions from people who are more or less analyzing Mexico's political situation, you'll find this: that there's no solid proposal, or only very weak proposals. And when there is a proposal, it's more a buen deseo [wishful thinking], but they don't tell you how are they going to achieve this or that, what are the measures, what are the steps to reach a certain goal, a certain objective.

"We want to create jobs." Well, everyone wants to create jobs. "We don't want Mexicans to leave the country." Well, what are you going to do to meet your objectives? People are expecting much clearer proposals.

How is the presidential election shaping up, in your opinion?
Right now the three most important candidates are close one to the other in the polls. The PRD [Party of the Democratic Revolution, on the left] is a little ahead, but in a declining trend. The PAN [National Action Party, on the right] is slowly growing. And the PRI - I don't think the PRI, in the end, will be competing in the election. I think the election will polarize between the PRD and the PAN.

President Fox has talked of trying to improve relations between Mexico and the United States, particularly with regard to immigration. What is your view of the current state of U.S.-Mexico relations?
If we are talking of the governed relations, the relationship between the two governments is a good relationship, in general, even if the Mexican is in many ways subordinate to U.S. policies, in general.

On immigration, it may be an issue in the next U.S. election - the migration of half a million Mexicans to the U.S. each year here. U.S. politicians are becoming conscious that they have to do something with this illegal immigration that the United States has been experiencing.

I don't think that we will reverse our immigration problem. It will stay as it is. What do I mean by this? Those Mexicans who come here trying to make their living, they would prefer to stay in Mexico, in general. If they could find a way to make a living there, more or less comfortably, they would stay in Mexico.

So both countries have to think together, "What do we have to do so people don't migrate to the United States? And that means creating jobs in Mexico, developing certain regions, creating jobs in those regions that are at this moment losing population.

Do you consider the continuing exodus of Mexican workers as a reflection on the last four neoliberal regimes?
Neoliberal policies have produced this huge Mexican migration to the United States, because the policies implemented by those governments - this government and the previous government - have given no attention, or very little attention, to social conditions: increasing income, creating jobs, opening opportunities, improving the quality of education and health, trying to develop backward regions. I consider that these last governments - not that the others ones were not - but these are much more responsible for the present situation. Every new government has the possibility to correct, to change, certain things. Which they haven't done. And we've had four administrations with these neoliberal policies and with a very, very negative social impact on Mexico.

There are a number of current proposals in the U.S. Congress regarding immigration reform. What is your assessment of these proposals, as they affect Mexico and U.S.-Mexico relations?
You have around 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. A decision has to be made, what to do with these immigrants. Some say "We cannot go to an amnesty, because that would mean accepting that they broke the law, and we would be, one way or another, rewarding the fact that they broke the law. That's a point of view. Others say, McCain-Kennedy [Senate sponsors of the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005] for example: "Three-year temporary workers, a second term of three years, and then they can regularize their situation here." There's another proposal saying: "Three years, and then three more years, and then back to their country." But the immigrants won't go back. If they knew they have to go back, maybe they would apply for this temporary worker's program for the first three-year term, and they wouldn't apply for the second three-year term. Or at some moment they would just change and continue illegal as they've been for many years. I've met people here in the States, who have been 10, 20 or 30 years illegal, who have their homes, have a good job, have a car, the family's going to private schools.

Eleven million people is a lot of people to send home.
I don't imagine the U.S. government making the decision to send 11 million people away. What should be done? Will they be concentrated? Where? How? They're all around the country. I've met with undocumented Mexicans in Pennsylvania, in Oregon, in Washington State, all over in California, Colorado - all over the country. In '88, there were no Mexicans in the New York City area; right now it's more than a million. How many planes, ships, buses will be needed to send them back?

"Both countries have to think together, 'What do we have to do so people don't migrate to the United States?' And that means creating jobs in Mexico, developing certain regions, creating jobs in those regions that are at this moment losing population." (Cathy Cockrell photo)
Has the Mexican government weighed in on this issue?
One thing being said in Mexico is that the Mexican government should be more aggressive in protecting the rights of Mexicans here - illegal Mexicans - their civil rights, their labor rights. I think the Mexican government should launch a campaign to inform the U.S. public as to what the contribution of Mexicans, legal or illegal, is for this country, in different kinds of industries, in production, in general income, in culture, in taxes. Because legal or illegal, they pay taxes. Whether their Social Security card is legal or illegal, they pay taxes.

So in Mexico, one position is protect Mexicans in the United States. And the other is that the United States has to finally understand that this is a problem of the United States. It needs Mexican labor, and should find a way to legalize it - by providing amnesty or some other measure - but accept that it's a fact: they are here; they're working here; they're needed here. That should be recognized. Whether they entered legally or illegally, that's a different problem.

But I don't think that the Bush government or the next government will take any important step regarding this problem. My impression is that they will leave it just as it is, talking of it from time to time but doing nothing that goes to the root of the problem.

One proposal in Congress is to construct a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexican border. What would be the repercussions for U.S.-Mexico relations if such a wall were erected?
It's an aggressive symbol that most Mexicans don't like; it's an aggressive measure towards a friendly country. And it's inefficient; it serves for nothing. It won't work. Building fences will not stop the immigrants from coming here; they'll find a way.

You mentioned that immigration is related to issues of economic development, or underdevelopment, in Mexico, especially in the countryside. That ties in with what is happening with the global economy. What is your general attitude toward globalization?
Mexico has to participate, and to find a way to participate on a more equitable basis, so the benefits are fairly distributed. We cannot and should not try to escape globalization; that would be a big, big mistake. But we must try to participate on fair terms, receiving benefits, as others also should receive benefits.

The North American Free-Trade Agreement came into effect in 1994, so it's now been in place for more than a decade. In your view, what have been its impacts, economically and socially, for Mexico?
NAFTA has to be revised in certain aspects, in certain chapters. Agriculture, for example. The impact on grain producers in Mexico has been very, very negative; this has to be revised and changed. Since NAFTA has been in effect, Mexican exports have tripled, something around that; I don't remember the exact figures. But this hasn't meant a real development of Mexico's industry or Mexico's productive structures.

Could you elaborate on that point?
Most exports are from maquila [assembly plants, also called maquiladora, on the Mexican side of the border] and most exports are internal transactions of the large corporations. So it's from the office or the factory in Mexico to the warehouse in the United States of the same company. So it's internal movement of products. But, for example, in the 1970s, and '80s, before NAFTA, for every export dollar, there were 83 cents worth of Mexican inputs. For every dollar in labor, raw materials, services, or semi-finished products, 83 percent were Mexican inputs. Now it's 25 percent, or less. So we're exporting much more, but with much less Mexican-produced content.

And that means?
That means that the internal economy hasn't developed. A product comes from abroad, it receives some small added value in Mexico, and goes out of the country. But it could be receiving much of its inputs produced in Mexico. And this hasn't happened; this has to be promoted by the government and by the business people.

The Mexican Constitution requires that the government should control the nation's oil resources. But are there new arrangements that are actually circumventing that rule?
Yes, some of them. Through multiple-service contracts [international consortiums] for example, the government has tried to go around our legislation. I think that the most important thing that the government decides - or the Mexicans decide - is what to do with oil, how to use our oil. For example, we should try to reduce, or eliminate, the export of crude oil. We are importing gasoline! We could have a much, much more important petrochemical industry. We should be exporting refined products - fuels, if necessary, but more than that, petrochemicals. Mexico should be consuming and exporting petrochemicals; that would mean that we are really industrializing and developing the country.

Because right now you're extracting oil and sending it to the U.S. to be processed?
Half of our production is consumed in the country, more or less, and the other half is exported mainly to the United States. PEMEX [Mexico's state-owned oil company] has a joint venture with Shell, or one of the large companies, in Deer Park, Texas, and it's importing from Texas and other parts of the United States. We're importing gasoline and other fuels, and our oil balance is becoming negative. It hasn't become completely negative because oil prices are high. But if they were not high, we would be having, since a few years ago, a negative balance in our oil import-export, importing more than we're exporting, in value.

You mentioned Mexico's relationship with the rest of Latin America. A number of Latin American countries - among them Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Chile - now have left-leaning presidents. What is your view of that development and of how Mexico should relate to it?
These are governments with a much more social tendency. They're giving, much more attention to their internal social problems. And they're giving more attention to [international] projects that have been under way for a long time, like MercoSur. Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, too, are giving much more attention to strengthening MercoSur, and Chile and Venezuela are also getting involved. Mexico is participating as a kind of associate with MercoSur, not a full member. We should be much more aggressive in participating in those agreements. Because right now our international trade, in both directions, is 90 percent, at least, with the United States: six percent with the European Community as a whole, two or three percent with Japan, and the remaining two or three percent with the rest of the world, including Latin America. Whereas Brazil, for example, does 30 percent of its trade with the United States, a third with Europe, and a third with the neighboring countries in the region.

To what do you attribute the absence of Mexico in this process in Latin America?
The commitment of the government. Its position is not to associate with these projects, to keep a distance.

And you regret that fact.
I regret it, yes I do. We should be much more aggressive in moving toward Latin American integration, politically and economically. But I don't see any of the important candidates having this way of thinking.

How would it benefit Mexico to be more closely linked with the Latin American initiatives you've mentioned?
Those countries or those blocks that are faring better in globalization processes are those that constitute large demographic concentrations: high populations, developed endeavors, diversified economic structures. That's the case of the United States, of the European Community, of Japan and surrounding area, of China. Those are countries with large internal consumption, or all the possibility of a very, very large internal consumption, and with very, very diversified productive resources, or possibilities of developing their productive resources. They're better placed in the global economy than those countries that move isolated, like Mexico, or many others in Africa or Asia or in Central and South America.

If Mexico participated with Latin America, we would be part of a large block with a large population. Mexico has 100 million, Brazil has 200 million. We would be at least, maybe, 350, 400 million people, with common policies in many aspects.

Two final questions: How do you see your own role in Mexican history? And what are your immediate plans?
What we've done in these last years is a collective effort to change things in Mexico; it's not a personal achievement in any way. It was many people participating in trying to push those changes. I have my own commitment to this project of change, of sovereignty for the country, and will continue to work, from whatever place I am. I plan to go back to Mexico now. I'll be an observer of the electoral process, and continue, as I say, by writing, by talks and lectures, going around the country - with the party [PRD] or without the party, I'm not sure - to influence this project.

For a report on Cárdenas's CLAS lecture, and a link to its webcast, visit newscenter.berkeley.edu/goto/cardenas.