EDINBURG, RGV – It is time. It is time for a Biblical Lazareth to come forth again.
President Lázaro Cárdenas del Rio came forth eight decades ago to protect and extend Mexico’s nationalism. He served as president from 1934 to 1940.
He was, to an extent, the President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of Mexico. Or, perhaps Roosevelt was the Cárdenas of the U.S.? His son, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano, is, I declare, the embodiment of his legacy.
This column is a preface to more detailed research, homage to both father and son. The father we had with us a good time, for three quarters of a century (1895-1970). The son, alive and kicking (as in thinking, writing, planning, counseling, modeling common sense and dignity), is aging. I wanted to thank him and feature him ahead of any well-meaning (or critical) obituaries, whenever they should occur. I have met him and interviewed him, in Mexico City and here. He came to the University of Texas—Pan American campus a number of years ago to deliver a message of peace precisely at the time the Bush administration was leading this country to war.
Don Lázaro had seen war. He was a General for the Revolution against the dictator, Porfírio Díaz and the oligarchy. He was of partial Indigenous descent. Perhaps that gave him the empathy he exhibited in office. He became President in 1934. As Governor of Michoacán he had distributed land to the peasants. He continued that policy as president. He also improved education, employing the famous educator and philosopher, José Vasconcelos. He went far in smoothing rough relations with the Catholic Church. He ended capital punishment. He left the regal Chapultepec Castle, turning it into a museum. Without bodyguards or armored car, he traveled to the tiniest, poorest and farthest pueblos.
Lázaro was called by right wing detractors a “socialist” (sound familiar?). Why? He promoted Social Security. He built roads and schools and protected ejido or traditional communal Indian lands. Most notably, he nationalized important industries, including oil. He welcomed Trotsky and other European intellectuals fleeing fascism and communist tyranny. He forcefully disbanded corrupt labor unions and helped reform the ruling political party, which continued in power until the end of the 20th century. It lost its roots and bearings, victim of too much power for too long. Lázaro was called by supporters Mexico’s “Mr. Clean” and served after his presidency, through World War II as Secretary of Defense.
Lázaro retired to a modest home after his years of public service, one of the few who ignored the classical Mexican admonition “a politician who is poor is a poor politician.” Near beautiful Lake Pátzcuaro in his home state of Michoacán (now, ironically, also “home” to violent drug cartels) Lázaro kept on inspiring other leaders and peoples all over the world. He promoted free medical clinics and continued his commitment to the rural poor and to the advancement of education.
The second Mexican Lazareth was, by destiny, called forth to life during the Great Depression. Amalia, Mother of Cuauhtémoc, in that wonderful Spanish expression, dió a la luz un niño (“brought a child to the light”) on May 1st, 1934 (Solórzano de Cárdenas, Amalia, Era Otra Cosa la Vida, Instituto Politécnico Nacional, México, D.F., 2009, p. 113). It was a “happy coincidence” that he was born on May Day, celebrated all over the world, except in the U.S. as Workers Day. His names, Cuauhtémoc Lázaro Cárdenas, might be akin in the U.S. to being named Lincoln-Kennedy. Cárdenas: son of the famous progressive president; Cuauhtémoc: namesake of the last Aztec Emperor who resisted the Spanish. Those names would become a heavy burden but also provide an inspiring challenge.
Cuauhtémoc, from a modest, lower-middle class family, was the first elected mayor of Mexico City. He attended the national university (UNAM). He became a Senator from his home state of Michoacán and then Governor (from 1980-86). In 1987, after years of loyal service to the dominant party, he struggled to reform entrenched politics with his “Democratic Current” within that old party. He especially opposed “dedazo” (the big thumb), the naming of a successor by the out-going president.
Frustrated in attempts at reform, Cuauhtémoc founded a new, moderate left political party, Party of the Democratic Revolution (PDR). It is ironic Lázaro’s son would lead his followers away from the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party (PRI) his father had founded. The unreconstructed “dinosauros” of that party could not forgive him. Don Cuauhtémoc nearly gave his life before his time. He became the Democratic Front’s nominee for president.
A close campaign manager and friend was assassinated in an effort to intimidate him. He probably won the presidential election of 1988. But computers mysteriously “crashed” (for an entire week!). When they came back on line, Salinas de Gortari was declared the winner. Years of neo-liberal policies and increased corruption followed.
Few believed the election results. Cynicism would increase. Violence would increase. Over 500 PDR supporters were killed in the following years. The PRI was ultimately defeated, ironically, by the right wing National Action Party (PAN) that had always opposed the Revolution. That party won the presidency for two successive six year terms (the Constitutional limit), with Fox and Calderón, from 2000 to 2012.
However, the PRI is currently back in power with President Peña Nieto. Policies are definitely not those of either father or son Cárdenas. Ejidos are sold. Oil is privatized again. The Constitution, so sacred for so long, is subject to easy amendments, to the whims of central power—a combination of the new, capitalist oligarchy and the PRI. Those and other ironies abound.
Cuauhtémoc stands above it all, not yielding, but not really willing or able to foment a second revolution. He remains anti-NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and opposed to the pernicious effects of globalization—intended and unintended. Many consider him the moral leader, not only of the left (now, unfortunately, in tatters without his leadership) but of the country. He is the “grand old man” of Mexican politics, respected by many. Even the hatred from the right seems not to be as intense as before. This tolerance is an admirable and useful Mexican virtue.
Lazareth came forth at an appropriate time, in the form of President Lázaro Cárdenas. Three decades later his son, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, answered the call to civil service. He served the largest city in the world. He served his home state. He should have been President. But he is not bitter. There was nothing he could do. The mood was something akin to the feeling of many when George Bush was anointed President by the Supreme Court. Now, from his unique perspective, Cuauhtémoc fears the new globalization trends. They seem to be taking Mexico back to the 19thcentury of invasion and domination by foreign powers.
I am certain he weeps for Mexico, as I do. Nevertheless, he promises: ”I have the intention of remaining active in politics… to deepen and expand democracy, to oppose those who would exclude or marginalize others… to fight for the economic integration of Latin America, for a just international order… and for peace” (Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, Sobre Mis Pasos, Editorial Aguilar, México, 2010, p. 500).
Who can argue with those hopes? Only, perhaps, the most recalcitrant right wingers in the U.S. and Mexico. Will another Lazareth arise? Will another, more democratic resurrection occur in the future? Not in the near future. But we might take comfort in the Mexican dicho (saying): No hay mal que dure mas que cien años ni gente que lo aguante; ”there is no evil that will last 100 years nor a people who will tolerate it.” “Lazareth, come forth,” said Jesus. Would that such a miracle would grace our times.