the Crisis and the Left
Note: The following interview with two leaders of the Liga de la Unidad
Socialista (LUS), was carried out in Mexico City on December 22 1999.
Despite some changes in the situation since then the interview stands
up as a fundamental statement of the character and problems of the
revolutionary struggle in Mexico.
In 1994-5 it seemed that the Mexican bourgeoisie was going through
an acute crisis with the collapse of the peso and the Zapatista uprising
in Chiapas. Five years on it seems that this crisis has been overcome.
With the rise in oil prices the peso is buoyant; PRI (Institutional
Revolutionary Party) candidate Francisco Labastida is likely to be
elected president next year and is only challenged by the right wing
PAN candidate Vicente Fox; the EZLN has been forced onto the defensive.
Has the situation really been stabilised?
Yes and no. The structural crisis of the system is still there, but
(president) Zedillo has managed to stabilise the economy over the
last two years, especially with the rise in oil prices. This is important
in a year in which the state needs lots of pesos and dollars to carry
out the traditional bribes and fraud in the presidential election,
to ensure the election of the chosen candidate of the PRI elite, Francisco
PRI has not managed to change a real fundamental of the situation,
the massive discontent among the popular masses in Mexico. But yes,
they are not faced with the same dire situation as 5 or 6 years ago.
There are two basic factors here, which are the key to the situation
in Mexico. Mass discontent is very widespread and very deep, but it
lacks a focus and a leadership. This is connected to the role of the
two main opposition parties, the PAN (National Action Party) and the
PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution). I would put the stress on
the role of the PRD, because of its popular base, which has enabled
it to channel discontent into mainly parliamentary and electoral channels.
In this last five years the Mexican bourgeoisie has successfully subjected
the working class and other popular sectors to a period of massive
super-exploitation. It has been able to do this primarily for political
reasons - the weakness of the working class, and the collaboration
of the major unions. And this is very disturbing, because as we know
that the bourgeoisie can overcome a prolonged structural economic
crisis if its doesn’t face major opposition from the workers.
other aspect of the stabilisation has been that it has been done on
the basis of enormous concessions to the United States, which was
the price of the US-organised financial rescue plan in 1994. Through
NAFTA and the “letters of intent” which the government signed with
the US and the IMF, the government committed itself to a rapid deepening
of privatisation and state financial cutbacks. In effect the US has
control of the main levers of the Mexican economy, except possibly
oil. The Mexican bourgeoisie has, because of the effects of this,
undermined further the effectiveness of its ‘coporatist’ apparatus,
especially in the unions. This was shown especially by the revolt
inside the PRIista electrical workers union SUTERM, in which the majority
came out against privatisation and allied themselves with the more
radical electricians’ union the SME. But here are hundreds of other
examples of the same process.
How do you see the evolution
of the PRD since its foundation in 1989?
The PRD was a new attempt to create a bourgeois nationalist-populist
party. Such attempts have been a constant in Latin American history
in the 20th century. This happened in Peru and Mexico in the 1930s,
in Brazil and Argentina in the 1940s, with the MNR in Bolivia - there
are many more examples. And let’s remember that the Castro team first
presented themselves as a nationalist leadership. This trend is a
very important factor in Latin American politics.
Cárdenas was very successful in the late 1980s in establishing this
project. But what is very interesting is that the PRD has found great
difficulty is maintaining its nationalist-populist discourse in the
1990s; in fact this project has fallen apart very quickly.
the 1930s and ‘40s, populist
bourgeois nationalism could, by making concessions to the workers
and peasants and other large sections of the population, strengthen
itself vis-à-vis imperialism. In the era of neoliberalism the political
and economic space for this kind of project is eroded. This was clearly
expressed by Cárdenas in his speech at the Davros economic summit
in Switzerland. The problem, said Cárdenas, is not the ‘Washington
consensus’ as such(a polite way of saying ‘neoliberalism’), but the
fact that it needs to be adapted to specific national situations.
a small way, Cárdenas faced the same problem when he was mayor of
Mexico City. A lot of people say that his ‘moderation’ as mayor of
the Distrito Federal was tactical, because he wanted a respectable
image for the presidential election campaign in the year 2000. But
the reality was deeper than that. He found himself inevitably constrained
by the financial limitations on Mexico City imposed by the PRI government,
and behind them the institutions of the “Washington consensus”. This
created a very strong disenchantment among the working population
in Mexico City, and the results are seen in the plummeting opinion
poll ratings which Cárdenas now has.
In 1988-89 the great majority of the left in Mexico, together with
a large section of the social leaders, were swept into the PRD. It
was like a vacuum cleaner, sucking in everything. Only a tiny minority
of us resisted, and took great stubbornness to stick to revolutionary
marxism and oppose this great stampede into the PRD.The most sophisticated
apology for this collapse into the PRD was that made by the group
around Adolfo Gilly. They claimed that the PRD could be a “movement
towards socialism”, and indeed that Cárdenas embodied the specifically
Mexican expression of socialism. A decade of experience has absolutely
disproved this thesis, and indeed the leftist components of the PRD
in 1989 have become completely domesticated and assimilated by the
‘revolutionary nationalist’ ex-PRIista leadership of the party. Look
at Rosario Robles, who took over as interim mayor of Mexico City when
Cárdenas resigned to fight the presidential election campaign. She
is an ex-Maoist student leader; and today there is nothing radical
at all about her administration. Look at Amalia Gárcia, the president
of the party, who comes from the Communist Party and has forgotten
all about socialism. The ex-leftists have been transformed into functionaries
in the Mexico City and other state and municipal administrations,
or full-time functionaries of the party. And they rely for their position
on the approval of the PRD nomenklatura around the caudillo himself,
But what about Manuel Lopez Obrador, the ex-president of the party
and current candidate for major of Mexico City in the year 2000? Does
he represent a left position compared to Cárdenas?
JG. Lopez Obrador has tried to do a balancing act - to simultaneously
maintain his position in the leadership of the party and at the same
time to stay aloof from the dirty business which bourgeois politicians
have to do. But in elaborating his own political positions, and trying
to appear as a respectable politician, he has collided with the harsh
reality of Mexico today. Mexico today is a dominated, semi-colonial
country - something more obvious today than ever.
these politicians have to answer one fundamental question - what are
they going to do about Mexico’s foreign debt? All the PRD leaders
try to sweep this issue under the carpet. We say the debt should not
be paid. And of course this is something not to be said lightly, because
any such stance has enormous social and political consequences. You
have to move enormous social forces, not only in Mexico but across
Latin America, to even begin to countenance such a thing. At a recent
conference of social organisations, a leader of the street traders
said to us: “You can’t possibly do that because we will be bombed
or even invaded by the US”. And I must say I appreciated his response,
because he understood the scope of the question being posed, even
if a bit melodramatically. The main thing here is that if you talk
about forcing imperialism to back down on the debt, it is absolutely
utopian to imagine this can be done by parliamentary means, without
an enormous social and political mobilisation. Without an enormous
mobilisation, without tough anti-capitalist measures, it would be
absolutely suicide to play with the idea of refusing to pay the debt.
issue is illustrative of the very hard questions which the PRD has
to answer, and which they are incapable of answering.
MAM. Lopez Obrador will
probably lose the election battle in Mexico City to the PRI candidate
Silva Herzog. Part of the reasons is that people know he is a candidate
imposed by the PRD apparatus, against local and more radical candidates.
This discussion takes us to a fundamental strategic issue. The Mexican
bourgeoisie - whatever section or political leadership - is incapable
of carrying out the basic democratic aspirations of the Mexican people.
People like Cárdenas and Lopez Obrador embodied an enormous hope of
the Mexican workers and popular masses for a really radical alternative
to the PRI and the PAN. But now, with NAFTA and the 1995 and post-1995
financial agreements with the US, World Bank and the IMF, the PRD
leaders find themselves absolutely trapped. NAFTA is not just an economic
accord, but a profound political agreement, which locks Mexico into
neoliberalism in perpetuity. If you want to act in the interests of
the Mexican masses, you have to confront these basic issues, go to
the heart of the matter like the Russian revolution did, or you had
better stay within the system. And the system of course is the PRIista
system. What the PRD leaders are finding is that there is today no
middle way between accepting the ‘Washington consensus’ and confronting
imperialism. And the latter course has revolutionary consequences.
What is the situation of the Zapatistas? In 1998 the government organised
a series of military attacks on Zapatista base communities. In 1999
however, their strategy has turned to the systematic occupation of
these communities, surrounding the EZLN with a ring of steel. It is
unclear to me what the EZLN response to this is.
MAM. The response has been
very weak. Part of this is that the position of the EZLN, especially
of Marcos himself, has been that the Mexican people didn’t need to
build a solidarity movement with Chiapas, but merely to pursue their
own struggles. Today there is almost no solidarity movement, and this
aggressive military strategy by the government has not been repudiated
or systematically opposed by the Mexican people.
strategy of the EZLN is very contradictory, and has helped to contribute
to the stalemate. On the one had they have refused to surrender their
weapons - quite rightly. On the other, they do not have an elaborated
or aggressive political strategy to fight the government, and have
wasted many opportunities to link up with other forces to attack the
think they need to completely re-evaluate their strategy. They have
to accept that the ‘dialogue’ with the government has resulted in
a dead-end. And they need to understand the need to build a mass movement
with other forces in struggle in Mexico. Of course they have very
good positions on the electricity workers struggle and the UNAM students
struggle, but they need to build on these positions to create political
But surely over the past year there has been a beginning of precisely
this process? Marcos sent a delegation from the EZLN to the (March
18) electricity workers demonstration; and they sent a delegation
to lead the Primero de Mayo union federation contingent on May Day.
Marcos has refused to break with the ultra-left leadership of the
UNAM student strike, and has been one of the most articulate defenders
of the students. During the Zapatista ‘consulta’ hundreds of EZLN
supporters spoke at left meetings, met with the SME union executive,
spoke to student meeting around the country etc. This of course is
a recognition of the weakness of the Frente Zapatista - the EZLN’s
nationwide support organisation - and a recognition precisely to link
up with other forces in struggle. I don’t understand what more you
expect them to do.
The situation in Chiapas has been in a stalemate since 1995, because
neither side has made any fundamental advances. The EZLN has maintained
it social base and spread its message worldwide. But every national
political initiative of the Zapatistas has been a failure. The CND
(National Democratic Convention) in 1995 was enormously popular, but
went nowhere. The Aquas Calientes assembly of the CND mobilised 3000
people, generally the best leaders of the social movements. But it
resulted in hot air and no concrete proposals. The CND was followed
by a series of initiatives, the most important of which was the launch
of the Frente Zapatista, but that has simply not taken off the ground.
how is it that this enormously popular movement has not been able
to sustain any of its more general political initiatives? In my opinion
the answer is simple: they do
not have a clear strategy to win. They don’t know what to do with
the elections and they don’t have the slightest idea of a programme
for the rest of Mexico. And let me say, that’s not their responsibility.
How can an indigenous uprising in one corner of southern Mexico have
an elaborated programme for the whole of Mexican society? For the
people in the north, for the economy, for an anti-capitalist transition?
You could say it like this: the Zapatistas pose problems which they
are inherently incapable of solving themselves.
this weakness has been counter-balanced by a tremendous strength -
an instinctive wish to link themselves with the moving masses in Mexico.
This is, as I say, instinctive, not theoretical. If you read the Subcommandante’s
voluminous writings, they lack any understanding about the key social
forces in Mexico, the role of the working class etc and are full of
wild speculations about civil society, non-governmental organisations
and I don’t know what.
nonetheless their instincts are very good - every time a struggle
comes forward they join that struggle. And I think that’s the meaning
of the student fight. If you read Marcos carefully on this question,
he does say, well the students don’t have a sense of humour - a very
good criticism! They have all these useless and endless discussions,
they are totally incompetent, but they are going forward.
don’t share all Marcos’s positions on the students, but in general
his instincts on the main struggles is unfailing. And that’s what
keeps them alive.
I want to say something about the roots of the EZLN and the other
indigenous movements, which has not been emphasised enough. Mexico
is a very heterogeneous country. Up to the Mexican revolution the
majority of the people were of indigenous origin and spoke languages
other than Spanish. If you live in a contemporary indigenous community
you will quickly see that these people do not consider themselves
part of the ‘official’ history of Mexico. There are two great histories
of Mexico - the official one imposed by the whites and mestizos, and
the history of the indigenous peoples themselves. Their own historical
memory is not one centred on Mexico City and the artificial political
structures which official Mexico has created. And it is specifically
alien to the main established political parties. It is from these
people that the support for Marcos and the EZLN comes. You could even
say that these people, who mainly live in the pueblos - small rural
communities - are not really integrated into the Mexican nationality.
The Chiapas rebellion has opened a huge window for the whole world
to see this.
the Mexican revolution, when Zapata wrote his manifesto, the Ayala
plan, attacking (then president) Madero - Zapata’s movement said Madero
was a traitor because he did
not understand the demands of the pueblos, in other words the
demands of the indigenous peoples.
I’m trying to get to is this: Marcos’ leadership, the EZLN, moves
between this reality, this other history, and the modern class struggle.
This explains many things. And it poses an enormous challenge to Marxist
analysis and the development of an adequate revolutionary programme
A key aspect of building class independence is to have really class
independent unions. There are three co-ordinations which might seems
to embody this - the UNT (National Workers’ Union), the Co-ordinadora
Intersindical Primero de Mayo (1st May Union Federation) and the Frente
Auténtico de Trabajo (FAT). What’s your assessment of these?
I think that the union movement is changing in such a rapid and dynamic
way, that it’s very difficult to see the exact future, even in two
or three years. The three federations you mention are just the way
the trade union opposition appears at the moment. I would absolutely
discount the FAT. It’s the oldest of the three, founded 30 years ago,
and has a long history of failures. I think the real question is between
the Primero de Mayo and the UNT.
UNT has the enormous advantage of huge resources, and especially the
integration of a huge and powerful union, that of the TELMEX telephone
workers. But its leadership is absolutely corrupt, especially its
key leader Hernández Juarez, a man who was very close to former president
Carlos Salinas and remains very close to Carlos Slim Hernu, the owner
of TELMEX and the richest man in Mexico. The deal done by Juarez over
privatisation of the telephone system completely corrupted the union.
Primero de Mayo has the great advantage of its alliance with the SME
electricity workers union, which has led the fight against privatisation.
The SME has left the PRIista CT union federation over the issue of
privatisation, and I think that the SME is well placed to be at the
centre of the recomposition of the union movement. The Mexican workers’
movement is just emerging from its long period of tutelage by the
PRI, its integration into a corporatist bloc. Naturally, it is just
beginning to speak its first few words independently. And these first
few words can’t tell us what will be the last words.
What explains the tenacity of the 250,000 students at UNAM (National
Autonomous University of Mexico), who have been on strike against
student fees for 9 months now? How has an obviously ultra-left leadership
managed to keep its base of support?
The student struggle has deep roots among the population. Even though
the student strike council (CGH) has committed grievous errors, repeatedly
delaying crucial decisions and allowing itself to become emeshed in
leftist provocations, it has kept a base of support, apparently in
defiance of the laws of political gravity. The reason is simply that
there are enormous masses in Mexico absolutely fed up with the PRIista
system, and who have been hard-hit by the post ’94 economic crisis,
and have nothing to lose. It’s this kind of desperation which historically
gives rise enraged leftism
- in history you can look at the enragées, the sans-culottes, there
are many examples.
stamina of this movement has surprised everyone, not least us. But
this kind of thing is going to be part of the social struggles in
Mexico in the 21st century, and we have to understand that clearly.
Yes, the defeat of the students would be an enormous blow to the struggle
against neo-liberalism. That’s why we have tried, although it’s terribly
difficult, to advocate a different line of march for the movement
- yes, to support the student demands and fight against any form of
repression, but also to propose a dialogue and a negotiated solution.
What is the situation of the ‘far-left’ in Mexico today - those who
claim to be Marxists and revolutionaries. What explains the collapse
of the PRT, the main revolutionary organisation in the 1980s? What
steps can be taken to reconstruct a revolutionary marxist organisation?
Let’s deal with the experience of the PRT first. There are many lessons,
but I will just stress the main ones. First, the PRT could not withstand
the pressure of the mass movement which developed around the presidential
candidacy of Cuauthémoc Cárdenas in 1988, and then led to the establishment
of the PRD in 1989. The leadership of the PRT was a young leadership,
even if it was 20 years old as a leadership. Nearly all of us came
from the student movement, and didn’t have the experience of great
workers’ struggles. I don’t mean that in an absolute sense, because
of course we had the experience of trade union battles and strikes.
But we didn’t have deep roots in the working class movement, for the
simple reason that the workers’ movement as a class independent force
1988 we resisted the pressure of Cárdenas and refused to withdraw
our candidate Rosario Ibarra, but the priced we paid for our absolute
electoral defeat was very high. After the elections the party leadership
started to drift towards Cárdenas, and Rosario herself became an outspoken
ally of his. We thought in this way we could limit the damage of our
second lesson is that we went very deeply into the electoral field,
and achieved formal electoral registration, which gives you a lot
of benefits - money from the state, TV advertisements etc - and a
section of the leadership adapted to this pressure.
third main lesson is that because of our failure to build roots in
the organised working class, we turned almost entirely towards the
non-proletarian poor, especially the peasants. This was symbolised
by the fact the a party member, Margarito Montes, was the leader of
the peasant union in the state of Veracruz. Historically the peasants,
given the weakness of the workers movement, have been pulled behind
the PRI. Immediately the Veracruz movement came to the attention of
the PRIista state governor, who very intelligently tried - successfully
- to pressurise and corrupt this movement by many economic concessions
to the peasant union, and by under-the-counter financial subventions
to movements’ leaders.
. The situation in Mexico is not peculiar to this country. Mexico
had a deep economic recession in the 1980s, and from 1983 onwards
many heavy battalions of the workers movement were defeated and even
destroyed in frontal battles. The left and the extreme left which
emerged from the 1960s naturally suffered from that - you cannot defy
objective reality. Frankly I find all this chest-beating and hair-pulling
angst over the situation of the left a bit ridiculous. The far left,
including the PRT, was bound to suffer major reverses. However, I
don’t want to imply from that we are exempted from any mistakes, of
course not. In particular, we failed to create a solid nucleus which
would be able to resist the avalanche of the unfavourable objective
situation, which was compounded by the ideological effects of the
fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Creating
such a nucleus of perhaps three or four hundred people was absolutely
possible, and that’s where we failed. And we are paying the price
for that failure right now.
we have right now is all these ultra-left currents, which have survived
because they have a social basis in the impoverished barrios on the
fringes of the cities. Look at the Frente Popular Francisco Villa
- that’s exactly where they have their social base. This creates big
problems for us, because we have to struggle against their ultra-leftism
in the Primero de Mayo union federation and other places. At the same
time, the strategic position we face is complicated by having to struggle
simultaneously against semi-Stalinist ultra-leftism, and what you
might call intellectual fashion, which is all this talk about ‘civil
society’, concretised in the sucking-in of sections of the left to
the PRD, the theorisation of the Zapatistas as a universal ‘model’,
the drift to the right in the NGOs etc.
against all that I would stress one point: every time we act in the
class struggle we can see the tremendous possibilities that exist.
The political space for the action of revolutionary marxists is enormous.
The LUS is at the centre of an attempted regroupment process. Part
of this is with the remaining PRT with which you share a common history.
But also you are working together with a number of groups which come
from the Morenista tradition, especially the POS (Socialist Workers
Party) and its associated youth group Juventud Socialista - which
has played a very important role in opposition to the ultra-lefts
in the UNAM fight, and which is the other group with you in the Coalícion
Socialista. But is it really realistic to have a regroupment project
with them? Aren’t they congenitally leftist?
Not at all. The fact that they come from the Morenista tradition
is only part of the story. You have to understand two things. First,
they come from an enormous crisis, just like us. Their international
current has split in several different directions and this has compelled
a lot of rethinking. Second, they are composed overwhelmingly of young
people, although a few of their leaders are older. And they are not
at all stupid people, far from it. They have understood something
important; although they are bigger than us, it is not a qualitative
difference. That’s why, despite conjunctural differences, they have
stayed in the coalition with us, and why we have been able to work
with them, especially in the UNAM strike.
the year 2000 we are proposing to them and a number of other groups
an alliance to build a socialist campaign in the elections, although
we won’t have electoral registration or a candidate. We have to use
the opportunity to put forward a socialist programme and socialist
is especially the case because the cracks in the PRD are starting
to show. The vacuum cleaner which sucked everything in, is now starting
to blow in the other direction, to lose members. Part of this is to
the right, but part to the left. After the July 2 elections, given
the enormous defeat Cárdenas will suffer, the PRD is going to suffer
a tremendous crisis. The perspective of the electoral road to the
democratic revolution will lose credibility fast. That’s why a socialist
alternative is so important.
One thing not mentioned so far is the armed groups other than the
EZLN, and the tremendous repression that these groups and their alleged
supporters are suffering. What’s your opinion on them - the 23 armed
groups which are alleged to exist?
Let me deal with the human rights question first. At first sight it
seems like an enormous contradiction. The owners of Mexico, the ruling
class, the PRI and the United States, are organising these elections
- the most expensive in the world - and striving hard for a large
voter turnout to prove the process of democratisation is going forward.
On the other hand we have this tremendous human rights crisis, and
when one of the most important human rights groups, the PRO, has its
most important lawyer (a nun) kidnapped at her own house and held
for nine hours by state agents, who subjected her to a form of torture.
How is this possible? The democratic transition has not happened in
Mexico, the PRI dictatorship is still intact. On the one hand you
have this tremendous propaganda about democratisation, on the other
hand massive repression, especially in the countryside.
powerful state-PRI apparatus believes that it can carry out dual policy,
but it is having difficulties. Look at the Acteal massacre: they thought
they could cover that up. The new reality is that they couldn’t. But
look: there have been many Acteals, many assassinations, many disappearances
in the countryside, in Chiapas, in remote places like El Charco and
the community of Mazátlan-Villa Flores in Guerrero, where 26 people
have been killed since 1996. This is nothing new. Armed repression
is the way opposition in the countryside has been dealt with for decades.
in Mexico City find it hard to believe, but it happens every day.
And this is the basis of these armed movements like the EPR and the
EPRI in Oaxaca, Guerrero, Hildalgo and many other states. It is obvious
that if PRI thugs are armed by the government and brutalise peasant
communities, there will be organised opposition, including armed opposition.
don’t believe these stories about 23 armed groups. The reality is
more complicated. Nearly every community which has experienced armed
repression has seen some kind of armed resistance. This is understandable,
and some kind of self-defence security measures are certainly necessary
for these communities. But overall, armed struggle is not a viable
way forward. The armed groups are invariably smashed. The government
can always deploy more force. That’s why the experience of Mazátlan-Villa
Flores in Guerrero is so important. There they have carried out a
mainly political struggle, utilising their community assembly, and
building a big network of political alliances the workers movement
in the cities and the countryside, to win their own self-governed
municipality and defeat the repression. The price has been extremely
high, but they have been successful. It shows that in the face of
armed repression there is an alternative to guerrillaism and purely
Phil Hearse and Kathy Kirkham
Phil Hearse and Kathy Kirkham