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Raising "Lázaro" from the Dead?

Who will step up in Mexico and follow in Lázaro Cardenas' footsteps?

August 3, 2003

Who will step up in Mexico and follow in Lázaro Cardenas' footsteps?

In these times of political change, Mexicans need guidance — and inspiration. In the process, they may rediscover their greatest 20th century president — Lázaro Cardenas.

Mexico's political landscape looks uncertain today, due in part to the July 2003 elections, the first since President Vicente Fox was elected in 2000.

They produced disturbing news, including massive disinterest among voters — only 40% of Mexico's 64 million registered voters went to the polls — the decline of the traditional political parties and a vacuum of political leadership.

To be sure, lowering voter participation to U.S. levels is an unexpected form of North American integration.

"More than one million votes cancelled, along with a record abstention of 59%. Taken together they send a brutal message — the rejection by Mexicans of all parties and of the great majority of politicians," claims political scientist Gabriel Szekely (El Universal).

Some believe these elections point to a breakdown in Mexican political culture.

"The party system isn't cracking,” says analyst Federico Estevez. "It is decomposing." (San Diego Union)

One thing seems clear. Mexico yearns for a great leader to carry it into the new millennium.

Question: Who would Mexicans name as their most recent greatest political leader?

Pundits say that much celebrated President Fox was an especially big loser in the elections. Fox's party lost so many seats in the Mexican Congress that it will no longer control legislation. He is a lame duck president.

Fox's predecessor, Ernesto Zedillo, was a quiet techno-type who kept a low profile, then shrank from the limelight after serving office. Before him, Carlos Salinas was a rising star, before accusations of corruption and financial fraud pushed him out of office — and left him exiled in Europe, where he remains.

Can anyone still name the important presidents before Salinas?

Lázaro Cardenas remains the brightest star on the landscape of modern Mexican politics — though not well known in the United States.

However, his son, Cuauhtémoc, made a run for the Mexican presidency in the late 1980s and 1990s, under the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD). Young Cuauhtémoc has not had much luck in national politics.

His father, on the other hand, may be the best-kept secret in North American political history. A cross between Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lázaro Cardenas was born in 1895, to a lower middle class family in a small town in Michoacán, Mexico.

He fought in the Mexican revolution, became a general in his twenties, and managed to shift his allegiances correctly. As a result, he stayed on the winning team during the topsy-turvy years of the revolution.

In cross-border comparison, it is Mexican President Benito Juárez — in office from 1861 to 1863, and again from 1867 to 1872 — who is the one often compared to Abraham Lincoln. But although Juárez lived in the same period and recognized downtrodden indigenous peoples, Lázaro Cardenas' connection to Lincoln may be more apt.

By 1934, at the age of 39, Lázaro became one of Mexico's youngest presidents. What made him stand out was that he had Lincoln's combination of stunning honesty, passionate commitment to social equality and visceral sense of personal power.

When "Honest Abe" was a young store clerk in Illinois, he would walk many miles to return a few pennies to a client, if he thought he had erred. When he became a lawyer, he told his colleagues: "If in your judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer."

In 1920s Mexico, "Lázaro Honrado" (Honest Lázaro) — serving as a military commander in the oil rich Huasteca region — was continuously offered bribes by foreign companies.

These included any and all incredible luxuries from that era — cars included. Cardenas not only refused all perks, he publicly challenged the principle of bribery, and made personal honesty a staple of his political career.

Stories abound on the subject of Lázaro Cardenas' honesty. In 1932, after being awarded the prestigious post of military commander of the Puebla region, Cardenas needed money to move to a new home.

In those days, generals obtained such monies by accepting financial support from benefactors, who would receive favors in return. Lázaro rejected this scheme. Instead, he took out a personal loan for the money needed to move his personal possessions to his new home.

Lincoln, for his part, had freed the slaves and fought for social equality while defending a nation dedicated to the philosophy that all men are created equal.

When he became President of Mexico in 1934, Cardenas' first move was to refuse to live in Chapultepec Castle — he felt it was too lavish for a revolutionary president. Cardenas built "Los Pinos" (The Pines), which has since remained the home of every Mexican president.

There, he received the poor and the downtrodden — to the dismay of wealthy patrons who cooed waiting for favors from "Don Lázaro."

Cardenas was the first president to throw his support to workers rights. He fought powerful industrial capitalists in his own nation.

He battled the fanatic leaders of the church as well, and organized the modern secular school system where science and rational thinking would be taught.

Lázaro embraced the driving principles of "tierra y libertad" (land and liberty) of the Mexican revolution.

He expropriated millions of acres of private lands, giving them to Indian peasant farmers through the creation of village cooperatives that became household terms throughout the Americas — the so-called “ejidos.”

Lincoln is famous for the speech heard around the world — the Gettysburg Address.

On March 18, 1938, on the great Zócalo (square) of Mexico City, Lázaro Cardenas delivered one of the most significant public speeches in Mexico's modern history.

To a wildly cheering, overflow crowd, Cardenas announced that Mexico would expropriate the assets of 17 foreign oil companies.

In one fell swoop, Cardenas challenged foreign (mostly American) investors to accept the idea that certain valued assets, like oil, belonged to the Mexican people.

Experts predicted this direct challenge to Yankee power, prestige and wealth would be Cardenas' downfall.

It was not.

The oil sector remains in the hands of Mexican public and private officials even today.

Lincoln, for his part, had shown his staying power by leading the nation to victory in the Civil War.

Lázaro Cardenas, in turn, demonstrated his grit by surviving a coup by ex-Mexican president, Plutarco Elias Calles. Calles had helped engineer Cardenas' win for the presidency, then smugly declared that he controlled Cardenas — "All he is, he owes to me."

When Cardenas proved his allegiance to the poor and to striking workers, Calles and his elite industrial friends decided Cardenas should be removed from office.

Cardenas — in a surprising and bold move — ordered that Calles and twenty of his inner circle be rounded up and deported to the United States.

There is a tale in Mexico that says Cardenas was so popular then, that when Calles was sent packing, "there wasn't a wet eye in the house."

Lázaro Cardenas was surely Mexico's most beloved 20th century head of state. No president who follows after Lázaro has been able to achieve the same breadth of change this man accomplished during his presidency.

After decades of technocrats and machine politicians occupying Mexico's higher office, a new era for Mexican politics is dawning. Meanwhile, the world waits for the next Lazarus to rise from an unseen place.