The son of the beloved reformist president, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solorzano (born 1934) made two strong runs for the presidency of Mexico against the long entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In 1997 he was elected Mayor of Mexico City during a landmark election marking the end of 70 years of one-party rule throughout that nation.
Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solorzano was born in Mexico City on May 1, 1934. The son of Mexico's legendary reformer President Lázaro Cárdenas, Cuauhtémoc (named for the first Aztec emperor) grew up in his father's shadow. Undoubtedly, Lázaro Cárdenas played a larger role than anyone else in shaping his son's political outlook. The younger Cárdenas' populism derived from his father's reformist policies. Lázaro Cárdenas holds an esteemed position in modern Mexican history because he, more than any other contemporary figure, fulfilled the redistributionist promises of the Mexican revolution. Rising to the presidency the same year that Cuauhtémoc was born, Lázaro Cárdenas expropriated the railroads, nationalized the petroleum industry, encouraged unionization, and impelled land reform. Known as one of Mexico's greatest reformers, Lázaro Cárdenas' political zeal lived on in his son.
Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas began his formal education in private schools and subsequently earned a civil engineering degree from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). After graduating from UNAM, Cárdenas traveled extensively in Europe, studying in France, West Germany, and Italy. He returned home to begin his career and start a family. He spent most of his professional life working as an engineer and planner in the Secretariat of Water Resources. He eventually married Celeste, his Portuguese-born wife; the couple had three children—two sons and a daughter.
Predictably, the opportunity to enter politics lured Cárdenas away from engineering. In 1976 he won a Senate seat from his home state of Michoacán, and four years later he became the state's governor. Both times he ran as a candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Like his father, Cárdenas captured the imagination of the people and inspired confidence through advocacy of social reforms. Like his father, he also developed an appreciation of the political rewards to be gained by advocating the cause of Mexico's poor. Most observers, however, found Cárdenas to be a mediocre chief executive of his home state.
In 1986 Cárdenas launched a democratic reform movement, known as the Democratic Current, within the PRI. The movement's chief aim was to include rank and file members in the party's presidential candidate selection process, long dominated by the incumbent president and party notables. PRI barons rebuffed Cárdenas' efforts. The cool reception to his views within the official party led Cárdenas and several dozen Democratic Current activists to break with the PRI in 1987 and enter a political coalition—the National Democratic Front (FDN).
Cárdenas used the FDN to wage what was to become the strongest challenge to the PRI nominee for president since the party's formation in 1929. In his bid for the nation's highest office, Cárdenas capitalized on popular dissatisfaction with the government, triple-digit inflation, and economic stagnation. In 1988 the Mexican economy was flat as a tortilla, corruption abounded, and half of the country's 82.7 million inhabitants lived as ragpickers in either fetid slums or postage stamp-sized plots of land. His calm demeanor, history-book name, and populist rhetoric— incorporating the themes of honesty, nationalism, and redistribution—struck a powerful chord with the shantytown dwellers, peasants, and petty bureaucrats who had seen their purchasing power plummet amid soaring prices.
His campaign, which began in September 1987, was grass-roots in every sense. Denied full access to the officially-manipulated media, Cárdenas reached the people through mass rallies across Mexico. The FDN never evolved into a party but remained a coalition of left-leaning groups attracted to the son of Lázaro Cárdenas.
For all the enthusiasm sparked by his candidacy, Cárdenas delivered his speeches in a monotonous, undramatic fashion, largely devoid of imagination and imagery. This bland and earnest demeanor, at odds with the stereotype of a politician, proved a political advantage. He discovered that many voters identified with, and appreciated, his understated personality. Not even his public professions of atheism hurt him politically among rank-and-file believers in an overwhelmingly Catholic nation.
Officially, Cárdenas lost the 1988 election, gaining only 31.1 percent of the vote compared to 50.4 percent for Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Following the contest, Los Angeles Times pollsters found that a majority of responders believed that Cárdenas had actually won the contest. Emboldened by his strong showing, Cárdenas decided to seek the presidency again in 1994. (The constitution prohibited Salinas from seeking reelection.)
In contrast to running as the candidate of a front six years earlier, Cárdenas was the nominee in 1994 of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), a faction-ridden amalgamation of communists, socialists, nationalists, and ex-Priistas. Although Cárdenas' platform had changed little, Mexico had undergone a profound transformation since the last presidential contest. Above all, President Salinas had spearheaded sweeping reforms that privatized hundreds of state-owned firms, reduced federal subsidies, slashed inflation, revamped tax laws, tumbled trade barriers, and impelled Mexico's entry into the North American Free Trade Agreement, which also embraced the United States and Canada. A policy of modest glasnost accompanied Mexico's ambitious version of perestroika.
Salinas' innovations did not deter Cárdenas from again pursuing the position once held by his father. Unanimously nominated by the PRD on October 17, 1993, Cárdenas proclaimed that Mexico "will have to choose between the consolidation of a state party regime based on authoritarianism, corruption, and servility or a democratic system with respect of the votes, social equality, and an economic process that will benefit all." Despite social unrest in the southern state of Chiapas, few analysts believed that Cárdenas could defeat the PRI's candidate and his well-oiled political machine in the election scheduled for August 1994. They were right. After a tumultuous campaign which was marred by the assassination of PRI candidate Louis Donaldo Colosio, the machine of the incumbent Institutional Revolutionary Party emerged victorious once again as it had for decades.
Three years later Cárdenas ran successfully for Mayor of Mexico City, once again on the PRD ticket. Cárdenas' was not alone in his victory, as the election of July 6, 1997 resulted in the PRI's loss of control in the lower house of the national legislature (Chamber of Deputies). The historical election was hailed as the beginning of the end of the electoral abuses which had plagued Mexico for too long. After the election President Ernesto Zedillo stunned the nation by not only recognizing but congratulating Cárdenas' mayoral victory, thus sparking rumors that Cárdenas might still succeed in a third bid for the presidency.
There is little English-language material on Cárdenas. For election results see the Los Angeles Times. A good background book on Mexico is Michael Meyer and William Sherman's The Course of Mexican History (4th ed., 1990).