Interview with Manuel Aguiler Mora and Jaime Gonzalez

Mexico, the Crisis and the Left

Editorial 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? 

*MAM. 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 Labastida.

The 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. 

*JG. 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.

The 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? 

*JG. 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.

Cuauthémoc 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.

In 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.

In 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. 

*MAM. 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, Cárdenas. 

* 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.

All 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.

This 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. 

* JG. 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.

The 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 government.

I 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 initiatives. 

* 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. 

* JG. 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.

Now, 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.

Now, 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.

But 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.

I 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.

Finally 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.

During 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.

What 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 for Mexico. 

* 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? 

* MAM. 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.

The 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.

The 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? 

JG 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.

The 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? 

*MAM. 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 hardly existed.

In 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 electoral defeat.

The 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.

The 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. 

*JG . 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.

What 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.

But 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? 

* MAM.  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.

For 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 ideas.

This 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? 

* JG. 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.

This 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.

People 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.

I 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 electoral politics. 

Interviewers: Phil Hearse and Kathy Kirkham