For Caut'emoc C'ardenas and his fellow dissidents within Mexico's ruling party, the stakes of their struggle are high - nothing less than the long-term future of Mexican political democracy and stability. For over a decade, the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has had growing difficulty coping with Mexico's mounting economic and social problems. Yet the party has remained what it was since its consolidation of power in the 1920s, the only game in town.
Many Mexican and foreign analysts agree that, although the PRI appears to be increasingly unable to lead the country out of its present crisis, it has done a magnificent job in making all other parties, whether of the right or left, marginal.
However, Mr. C'ardenas - a former state governor and the son of Lazaro C'ardenas, one of Mexico's most popular presidents - has laid down a challenge to the party hierarchy by declaring his candidacy for president in next year's election. This is the first time in decades that a candidate, especially one disapproved of by PRI leaders, has openly announced a presidential bid rather than relying on backstairs intrigue to be tapped as the party's nominee by the incumbent head of state.
The heart of the struggle between the party leadership and the dissidents is whether Mr. C'ardenas and his group will be able to make headway in their struggle to democratize the ruling party from within, or will be forced out of the PRI and become just another gadfly party on the government's flanks.
This struggle reached new intensity in May when the PRI central committee formally censured C'ardenas and a fellow dissident, ex-PRI president Porfirio Munoz Ledo.
The initial target for reform for the ``Democratic Current,'' as the dissidents call themselves, is the way that each incumbent president of Mexico handpicks the next PRI presidential candidate, who is virtually assured of election.
C'ardenas strongly opposes this ``unveiling'' of the next candidate. ``We believe,'' he said, ``by struggling against unveiling we are struggling against the whole system of authoritarianism which dominates the party and prevents a creative discussion of solutions for Mexico's problems. If we get rid of unveiling, we can continue democratizing the PRI, all the way down to the party bases.''
C'ardenas believes democratization is necessary because, he says, the party and government leadership have been captured by special-interest groups - cliques in the bureaucracy and around the president, the rich, and entrenched elements of labor-union leadership.
The struggle between the Democratic Current and the leadership is not just another in-house party fight, according to most observers. They share the opinion of one prominent Mexican analyst who says, ``A tired and increasingly ineffective party leadership may still be able to use the banner of party discipline to crush dissent, to block democratization of the PRI, and to stop an open and broader discussion of Mexico's problems and alternative solutions.''
This analyst believes that if the PRI leadership manages to silence reform leaders or relegate them to the fringe, the government, faced with a constantly deteriorating economic and political situation, would probably become more dictatorial. This, in turn, could worsen Mexico's situation and long-run stability, the analyst says.
Some observers of the Mexican scene think that the government might make concessions after President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, whose term ends next year, unveils the name of his successor, since the leadership does not want to appear to act under dissident pressure. But others, including the leaders of the Democratic Current and the analyst quoted above, say this attitude is very much part of the problem.
``This is the root of Mexico's crisis,'' the analyst says. ``Any important change in this country cannot come about through normal democratic pressures but has to be graciously granted by government decree. The state decides when, how, and with whom reforms will be made. And then what they do is to simply use reforms as a way of coopting opposition.''
Although the dissidents are now concentrating on party reform, they have sketched out a political and economic agenda of their own.
The leaders of the reform movement generally believe that both the government and the PRI leadership have sold out the populist heritage of the party that dates back to the 1911 Mexican Revolution and, later, the presidency of C'ardenas's father in the '30s. They feel that Mexico should make new arrangements for paying back its debt, transfer more financial and technological resources to the peasants to become self-sufficient in basic foodstuffs, and attempt to create a stronger internal market for Mexican goods by raising the people's living standards.
Like many other Latin leaders, C'ardenas says Mexico's foreign debt burden is too large and must be renegotiated. He says that interest rates must be reduced and repayment dates pushed back. Some of the debt should be canceled altogether, he adds. ``The banks that lent Mexico all that money,'' he says, ``knew how bad underlying conditions were. The banks must accept some responsibility for this.''
The dissident leaders, like many third-world politicians and economists, hold US policy largely responsible for the high interest rates under which the money was borrowed.
Ifigenia Mart'inez, a dissident leader and economist, links the high rates to the greatly increased US defense budget. This, coupled with President Reagan's refusal to raise taxes, led, she believes, to the current US budget deficit.
To avoid massive inflation while maintaining such large deficits, the US let interest rates rocket, Ms. Mart'inez says.
Dissidents like C'ardenas oppose the current government policy of paying back Mexico's foreign debts with oil. He believes that 20 to 40 years from now worldwide oil reserves will be scarce. Mexican oil should be shepherded carefully and only used for internal demand, he says. He believes Mexico should not export crude oil, but only refined petrochemical products.
C'ardenas also believes that the government must rationalize its enterprise holdings. Many failing private businesses were foisted on to public ownership, he claims.
C'ardenas concentrates on agriculture. He believes Mexico should become self-sufficient in basic foodstuffs. Mexican land reforms of the 1930s failed, he says, because the communal peasant organizations were never given the proper lands, grains, bank credits, or education. The more independent peasant leaders were often physically intimidated, he asserts, while others became corrupted by the system. A proper cooperative system for marketing goods and for buying tools and fertilizers was never installed. Correcting these errors should be a main task of any Mexican government, he says.
The dissidents have attracted, according to analysts, substantial grass-roots sympathy. But the Democratic Current's attempts at reform, and the PRI's attempts to silence them, will probably not be decided in the next few months. However, the struggle now begun, whichever way it goes, could seriously affect the next Mexican administration, and perhaps the country's long-term future.
(Most of the interviews on which this article is based were conducted by the writer in Mexico last month.)