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U.S. Latinos Entertain Strange Political Suitors

by Ray Rodriguez

May 21, 2000
Copyright © 2000 Hispanic Link News Service. All Rights Reserved.

Much has been made of the fact that Hispanic voters are being avidly courted by both presidential candidates. In states where they represent 10 percent or more of the registered voters, they could provide the swing vote needed to carry the states. Never have Latinos enjoyed such political attention.

This is especially true for Latino voters of Mexican ancestry. They are being extensively wooed by the two leading presidential hopefuls.

No, the candidates are not Al Gore and George Bush. They are Mexico's opposition candidates, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and Vicente Fox, who are seeking to break the ruling party's 71-year stranglehold on that country's presidency.

Although Mexican citizens living abroad are not allowed to vote in Mexico's elections, they wield tremendous influence upon how their families in Mexico vote. This influence is due in part to close family ties. However, it is accentuated by the fact that workers in the United States reportedly remit $6 billion a year to their relatives. As they say in Mexico, "Con dinero baila el perro!'' Money talks!

Cárdenas and Fox are seeking to defeat Francisco Labastida, candidate ofthe ruling PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Cárdenas is the candidate of the PRD, the Democratic Revolution Party; Fox represents PAN, the National Action Party.

The PRI is the traditional, autocratic party that has been in power since it was founded in 1929. The PRD is more liberal in its outlook and goals. PAN is conservative and business-oriented. Obviously, Mexican voters are presented with a wide span of political choices.

With the presidential election set for July 2, less than two months away, Vicente Fox has the best chance of defeating the PRI's Labastida. In some quarters, the contest is considered, if not dead even, too close to call. Fox hopes that his trip this month to the United States will energize Mexicans to become involved, call home and persuade their relatives to vote for him.

One very shrewd ploy that has gained Fox wide attention and support is his proposal to use the NAFTA agreement to persuade Canada and the United States to open their borders and allow free passage of workers among the three countries. His message of inclusion, as demonstrated by his personal appeal, is also well received by residents of "México de afuera.'' Mexicans living abroad have often been viewed as turncoats by those who remain behind.

Fox is not a neophyte politician. He has served in Mexico's congress and as governor of the state of Guanajuato. While U.S. residents often tend to think of the ruling PRI as a monolithic, the governorships of 11 of Mexico's 32 states are held by the opposition parties, as are nearly half of all city governments. Clearly, the era of political change has come to Mexico.

Fox is trying to convince Mexican voters that it really is time for a change. To position himself as the voice of the new Mexico, he has broken with the traditional presidential campaign format. His approach and appeal closely resemble that of U.S. politicians. He has crossed and crisscrossed the nation and campaigned in hamlets and villages usually ignored by candidates in the past. Like voters everywhere, Mexicans don't like being ignored; they like to think that their votes make a difference.

Noting Fox's meteoric rise, the opposition has tried to discredit him on several counts: One is that he is a wealthy rancher who doesn't really understand or care about the plight of the poor people, a plight his wealthy class has perpetuated for its own benefit. Another charge is that he is an autocratic, self-centered ruler who, as governor of Guanajuato, often ignored the wishes of his own party. An attempt is made to portray him as a loose cannon.

His close association with U.S. business interests is also suspect. Fox worked for Coca-Cola for 15 years, rising to chief of operations for Mexico and Central America.

However, the most damning aspects of his candidacy -- ones that could derail it -- are his Anglo-Saxon name and background. Although Fox's father was born in Mexico, his grandfather was a U.S. citizen. Opponents like to question his mexicanismo and would like to make it a campaign issue. Surprisingly, the charge has failed to influence or gain credence with Mexican voters. Is there a lesson there for us?

Ray Rodríguez of Long Beach, Calif., is a retired university professor and weekly columnist on Hispanic issues for the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

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