Mexico City Heralds Rise of the Aztec Sun

His given name is that of Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec leader, who fought a desperate battle to head off the Spanish conquest of what is now Mexico City.His surname is that of his father Lazaro, the most popular Mexican president of the twentieth century, revered for land reform and nationalizing the oil fields some 60 years ago.Now, as though fulfilling an Aztec prophecy of cyclical return, another Cuauhtemoc with unmistakably native facial features, has retaken this overwhelmingly brown-skinned city by storm. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas' landslide victory in the first-ever election for mayor of the world's largest city points to the emergence of a new Mexico, a Mexico whose leadership will be browner, more democratic, more accountable to the country's poor majority, and less amenable to guidance from Washington.The rise of the Aztec sun -- symbol of Cardenas' Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) -- over Mexico City signals the rebirth of the Mexican left. Just three years ago, Cardenas was soundly defeated in a presidential bid in national elections following implementation of NAFTA, which he opposed. But NAFTA's legacy of rising unemployment, declining real wages, and record numbers of bankruptcies has helped reverse his fortunes.>From a dismal showing of 16% of the national vote in 1994, the PRD has risen to 26%. In the Federal District (Mexico City), C‡rdenas not only won 48% of the vote (more than his two principal rivals combined), but his party won 38 of the city's 40 districts, cinching control of the city's legislature.More significantly, it now appears the Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI) will lose control of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress.Without a congressional rubber stamp, President Ernesto Zedillo stands to lose most of his informal powers. In a system centered on "presidencialismo" -- the unquestioned authority of the chief executive -- that in itself would be nothing less than a de facto revolution. The new Congress can be expected to not only question presidential initiatives but launch unprecedented inquiries into official corruption. It will also begin questioning the neoliberal economic orthodoxy that has created a record number of billionaires while plunging a majority of Mexicans -- those with darker skin -- deeper into poverty.One legacy of nearly seventy years of authoritarian presidential rule by the PRI is an inordinate focus on Mexico City (the Federal District). This centralization makes Cardenas the country's second most prominent political figure. With Zedillo hamstrung by the Chamber of Deputies, Cardenas -- with the Federal District legislature firmly behind him -- will have a ready-made platform for criticizing federal policies. That will help position him for another presidential bid in 2000.Even the weaknesses of Cardenas' position are likely to become sources of strength. Technically, he will be governor of the Federal District, yet he will control neither the police nor the prosecutor's office, both of which remain in the president's hands. That will free him of responsibility for the notoriously corrupt justice system, and let him argue that he can only fix the problem if he wins the presidency.Such talk is music to the ears of Mexico's dark-skinned, impoverished majority. Portraits and statues of his father are treated as icons in much of the country, where the return of stolen lands is still remembered. Cuauhtemoc, as he is known, has cultivated that association throughout his political career -- taking the time to travel to every small rural community and every urban barrio to hear grievances in person. Wherever he goes, he is received with traditional festivities and gifts .Ironically, that sort of personal loyalty did not help Cardenas in his two presidential campaigns. Accustomed to demonstrating allegiance face to face, rural Mexicans have either shunned the ballot box or simply followed the directives of PRI "caciques" (strongmen), who often have the power of life or death over them.Desperate poverty has now helped drive many of these people to the city. In the process, they have broken the chains of custom -- and discovered the power of the ballot.Quietly, this time without violence, a new Mexican revolution is underway. Its protagonists may have learned to speak Spanish, but they remain Indian at heart.

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