Luis H. Álvarez, a former presidential candidate and longtime prominent figure in the conservative National Action Party (PAN) who spent decades pushing for democratic reform in Mexico, died Wednesday. He was 96.
The PAN made the announcement in an evening statement, without specifying a cause of death.
“The passing of Don Luis H. Álvarez fills the party and Mexico with pain, as he was one of the greatest figures of our recent history and one of the leaders of the transition to democracy,” party president Ricardo Anaya was quoted as saying.
Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón, also a member of PAN, called Álvarez an “exemplary Mexican” via his Twitter account.
Born Oct. 25, 1919, in the northern state of Chihuahua, Álvarez ran for governor of that state in 1956 and made an unsuccessful bid for the presidency as the PAN candidate in 1958.
At that time the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had an iron grip on the presidency and most of Mexico’s political system that lasted for 71 unbroken years. Álvarez lost to PRI candidate Adolfo López Mateos, who took nearly 91 percent of the vote.
Álvarez, who was not allowed any radio time to campaign, recalled years later how his operation was harassed, physically attacked and sometimes shut out of hotels.
At one point he was arrested and spent several hours behind bars. When he asked on what charge, the jailer said “being a candidate of the opposition,” Álvarez told a news agency in 2000.
In 1986, Álvarez attracted attention as the mayor of the Chihuahua state capital by going on a hunger strike to protest alleged PRI vote-rigging in local elections and to call for a more open democracy. He lost 15 pounds during the protest and was hospitalized when it ended after 41 days.
The following year he was chosen at age 67 as the PAN’s new leader, a position he used to continue agitating for truly competitive elections.
In 1988 the party finished third in a presidential vote that many believed was fraudulently stolen from Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of the leftist opposition.
Seeking legitimacy, the winning candidate, Carlos Salinas of the PRI, forged a tactical alliance with Álvarez and the PAN that forced major reforms to the political system.
During Álvarez’s tenure as party president through 1993, the PAN won its first governorships in several states as opposition victories gradually came to be recognized.
The PRI’s stranglehold on the presidency finally ended in 2000 with the historic election of the PAN’s Vicente Fox, who named Álvarez peace negotiator for talks with leftist Zapatista rebels in the southern state of Chiapas.
Calderón won office six years later and made Álvarez his commissioner for indigenous affairs.
Álvarez’s legacy “is undeniable for democrats and for Mexico,” Anaya said in the statement. “The recent history of Mexico cannot be understood without his tremendous participation.”