Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, a three-time Mexican presidential contender and a key figure in the country's democratic transformation, spoke March 10 before more than 100 people at UCLA's Charles E. Young Grand Salon about the legacy of the 1910–20 Mexican Revolution.
After a historical presentation beginning with the rule of President Porfirio Díaz, Cárdenas, in response to audience questions, sought to apply revolutionary ideals of equality and shared progress to 21st-century issues such as domestic political participation and international trade.
"What in the revolution was the peasants' right to receive land from the state … should be interpreted now as the right of Mexicans to have work in Mexico, and the state, I would say, has the obligation of providing that work," Cárdenas said.
Addressing poverty and expanding Mexico's formal economy are necessary parts of any strategy to stem drug trafficking and drug-related violence and would provide alternatives to those leaving Mexico for the United States, he said.
Cárdenas faulted the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for ravaging Mexican industries and agriculture, and proposed rethinking the 1994 treaty to address international "asymmetries." Before NAFTA, 83 cents of every dollar of exported goods came from Mexican inputs, Cárdenas said, compared with about 20 cents of Mexican inputs in a dollar of exports today.
"Instead of just keeping NAFTA as a free trade agreement, we should be thinking of a development agreement, and not only a North American agreement but a continental agreement," he said.
In his survey of revolutionary traditions, Cárdenas lingered on the 1917 Mexican constitution, the nationalization of oil resources carried out in 1938 by his father, President Lázaro Cárdenas, and the struggle for an open and fair political process. Self-effacing throughout the remarks, he referred to his father simply as "Cárdenas" and to himself as a member of the "progressive opposition" and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which he founded in 1989. One year prior to that, Cárdenas had lost his first presidential bid after a suspicious election-day "crash" of the vote-counting system.
"Finally, in 1997, the mid-term federal election in which the vote was respected, the official party lost for the first time in history its absolute majority in the lower chamber of Congress, and the progressive opposition won the election of mayor of Mexico City, the first time in Mexico's history in which this official was elected by popular vote," said Cárdenas, who was the victor in that historic mayoral election.
"From then on, we can consider we have real elections in Mexico even if our electoral systems needs still to be improved."
Far more than fraud at the voting urns, Mexican politics now suffers from infighting within each of the major parties and, as a result, the absence of clear choices for voters. In last year's congressional elections, Cárdenas said, the only concrete proposals before voters came from the margins: a push to reinstate the death penalty and another to protest the whole process by casting blank ballots.
"The most important parties had no proposals for the citizens," Cárdenas said. "We have to make a very important effort to improve the quality of political life in Mexico."
That effort, said Cárdenas in response to a separate question, should extend to Mexican migrant workers inside the United States, who should be encouraged to exercise their political rights in Mexico.
"The revolutionaries fought for democracy, for equality and justice, for education, knowledge and culture, for a just and generous nation, for shared progress and a fair and equitable world order," said Cárdenas, concluding his prepared remarks. "To build a new Mexico, the lessons we can derive from the Mexican Revolution show us the way."
The UCLA Center for Mexican Studies, part of the Latin American Institute, sponsored Cárdenas's lecture as part of a year-long series on the Mexican Revolution.