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Cautious hope follows PRD victory in Mexico

Mexico has three major political parties. One, the Institutional Revolutionary Party -- PRI -- has the backing of the United States. Another, the National Action Party -- PAN -- has the support of the institutional Catholic church in Mexico. The third one, the Democratic Revolutionary Party -- PRD -- has the support of the poor, and for the first time in its political life it is in ascendancy.

Two striking examples of this remarkable political turnabout came from the July 6 elections. Cuautemoc Cardenas, twice PRD's presidential candidate (1988 and 1994), was elected mayor of Mexico City -- with an official population of 15 million but an unofficial count of 25 million, making it the second largest city in the world after Tokyo.

And in the lower house of the Mexican Congress, the House of Deputies, PRD gains wiped out PRI domination, ending 68 years of one-party control.

Neither the United States nor the Mexican Catholic church has any good reason for rejoicing at the PRD's successes. Cardenas, son of Mexico's reformist president Lazaro Cardenas (in office 1934-40), was educated in Europe and is lukewarm both to the United States and unrestricted capitalism.

Part of the coolness toward this country undoubtedly, and justifiably, stems from U.S. involvement with the PRI, which in 1988 confiscated the ballot boxes that would likely have given Cardenas the Mexican presidency. Cardenas and the PRD have little time for the Reagan-Thatcher style of economic reforms that NAFTA and Mexico's pariah ex-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari ushered in.

The post-NAFTA free-market economic disruption and unemployment have brought further misery to Mexico's poor and extended economic hard times to the working and middle classes -- where Cardenas found support.

Four years ago, when NCR interviewed Cardenas (July 30, 1993, issue), he said his own and PRD's priorities were clean elections, "a clean democracy," seeking productive investment rather than the prevailing speculative investment, and a Latin American continental trade agreement somewhat similar to the European Union.

He saw Mexico as the "disadvantaged partner" in the U.S.- Canadian-Mexican NAFTA agreement. PRD's domestic priority, he said, was employment. What he wanted most from Washington was "understanding."

In power, Cardenas and PRD's relationship with the Catholic hierarchy and its institutions in Mexico will be civil but not simpatico. He told NCR he did not regard the Catholic church as a homogeneous entity but as a church with many churches in it.

With the polls projecting a PRD victory in July, the Mexican Catholic hierarchy was notably silent in the run-up debate. It has said little about PRD's victory. The exception was Mexico City's Archbishop Norberto Rivera, who appeared in numerous photographs with PAN candidates. PAN's origins were that of a Catholic party in the days when the church was permitted some role in the national life after the Mexican revolution. PAN's critics call it right-wing or fascistic; others regard it as "center-right."

What the new mayor of Mexico City thinks and what the PRD stands for may be significant for U.S. citizens. Cardenas could well be elected president of Mexico in 2000. He and the PRD will be forever tagged "leftist" or "left-leaning" by the U.S. media, which is only accurate on a U.S. measuring scale.

Placed in Europe, the PRD's ambitions would seem similar to Germany's in terms of a strong central government role in the economy and would fit comfortably within the European Union's consensus on social services and a "safety net" for the poor, working poor or unemployed.

It is only when a party like PRD raises its head in this hemisphere that people in the United States can be reminded how far right this country has moved since the 1960s.

National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 1997