|Contours of the Mexican Left (1999)|
Left in Mexico is a huge and incredibly diverse phenomenon - and one which
is potentially extremely powerful. It encompasses tens of thousands tenacious,
devoted and often very brave men and women, fighting against a state which
despite the democratic space created in the past twenty years, still routinely
responds to its worker and peasant opponents with disappearances, assassinations,
imprisonment and torture. Every critical point made here has to be seen
against that background.
capitalism is in a deep political crisis, that shows no signs of abating.
The reason for this is that the structures of the Mexican state - the
corporatist, virtual one-party system - are inherited from the long period
of import-substitutionist state capitalism, which lasted from the 1930s
to the early 1980s. The epoch of neo-liberal globalisation, and the vastly
increased mass striving for democracy, now requires very different political
structures, and a further undermining of the nationalised sector of the
economy. But this is no easy matter. The Mexican bourgeoisie is deeply
inter-meshed with the party which has ruled Mexico for 70 years, the Institutional
Revolutionary Party (PRI). The elites in business and finance, the army,
the federal state apparatus, the mass media, the big majority of the state
governments, and (insofar as it is distinct from the other categories)
the narco-bourgeoisie are in a tight embrace with the PRI.
affiliation of the major unions to the PRI, and the involvement of top
union bureaucrats in the PRI leadership, has been a central factor in
ensuring capitalist stability. The possibility of moving to a real multi-party
democracy threatens all the levers of government patronage which go via
the PRI; and it also threatens to eject from government the party which
controls the major unions. Even if the right-wing PAN (National Action
Party) were to win the presidency, this would imply a severe dislocation
of the traditional system of rule.
structural problem is compounded by mass disaffection among the the working
class and the rural poor, who have been traditionally tightly controlled
by PRIista unions and peasant organisations, and by the corrupt system
of patronage which has bought off key popular leaders.
has been a disaster for the working masses of Mexico. Poverty has accelerated
rapidly, and income dispartities are enormous (Mexico has the sixth most
unequal income distribution of any country in the world). Twenty per cent
of the population live on 12 pesos a day or less (just over US$1); 90
per cent live on 65 pesos a day or less (US$6.5); twenty per cent annual
inflation, and a ‘minimum wage’ system which continually pegs pay increases
at half that, ensures poverty continually worsens. Further, 18 years of
neo-liberalism have undermined the social security and health systems,
and the nationalised sector of the economy, which subsidised the basic
commodities of the poor and are seen by the vast majority as historic
gains of the 1910-20 revolution. In he countryside, the reversal of the
1930s land reform and the penetration of agribusiness has thrown the peasantry
and rural poor into deeper destitution. It is now estimated that between
40 and 50 per cent of the population suffer from malnutrition.
has deepened the subordination of the Mexican economy to (mainly US) imperialism.
Thanks the penetration of the Mexican economy by transnational corporations,
and the maquiladora system, huge profits are taken out of the country
without ever paying taxes. This has turned a whole section of Mexico’s
elite into a new comprador bourgeoisie. And on top of all this, Mexico’s
state finances are pillaged by massive corruption at the top of the state
this has had a dramatic result: Mexico is the 16th largest economy in
the world, but in terms of income per head it is 81st. It is a rich country
in which most people are poor, but where the wealthy are rich by international
standards - and flaunt their vast riches in an aggressive manner in the
bourgeois ghettoes of Las Lomas, Polanco and Coyocan.
surpisingly therefore Mexico is a highly politicised country in which
the forces of political radicalism have a large audience. A huge array
of left political groups, militant trade union fronts, peasant organisations,
human rights groups, womens organisations solidarity networks and non-governmental
organisations exist accrosss the country. However, all the mass organisations
of ‘civil society’ are influenced or controlled by one of the main party-type
organisations - the PRD, the Zapatistas and the far left groups. In Mexico,
the political party remains the ‘modern prince’.[i]
left is not nearly as effective as it could be. Mexico, as much as any
country in the world, has the objective conditions, and the human raw
material, for the creation of a powerful mass anti-capitalist, militant
socialist party. What is missing is the will; a grasp of the necessary
steps to unify and politically clarify the very broad militant left forces.
legacy of clientalist populism
people, perhaps none, know every Mexican political party. There are dozens
and dozens. The reason for this affects everything about politics in Mexico.
In contrast to advanced capitalist countries, there are few avenues for
social advance for people from outside the bourgeoisie and a narrow layer
of the petit bourgeoisie. In a country where at most 4% have access to
post high-school education, often the only way out from grinding poverty
is criminal activity or the army (which is why there are so many sons
of the peasantry and indigenous people in it).
Mexico is also a country with a strong state apparatus, funded by very
high taxes (which of course narco-traffickers,
US ccorporations and the rich evade). Many people, especially in the countryside
and the urban barrios depend on the favours of national and local state
officials to get basic amenities like housing, electricity and drinkable
water. Access to the state apparatus, even office at municipality level,
gives immediate access to money, and endless opportunities for corrupt
clientalism. Bossism and clientalism are all-pervasive in Mexican life.
The establishment of a political party, even with just a local base, can
get people elected who will thus have access to money. Being an official
in a party with access to money, even without elected position, can give
you finances and power. This is compounded by state funding of political
parties, based on election results. The biggest parties, the PRI, PRD
(Party of the Democratic Revolution) and PAN, get tens of millions of
dollars from the state every year. Sad to say, the structures of ‘bossism’
and clientalism - corruption for short - have often seeped into the Mexican
left, including its far left component.
assessment has direct bearing on understanding
the PT (Partido de Trabajo - Labor Party) and the PEVM (Partido
Verde Ecologista de Mexico - the Greens). The PT utilises the emblems
of the Brazilian PT (but note the difference in name: Labor Party not
Workers Party). Politically there is nothing to distinguish it from the
centre-left PRD. But all observers on the left agree that the PT was set
up in 1994 with the aid of the ruling PRI during the presidency of Carlos
Salinas, with the aim of dividing the opposition and winning votes from
the PRD. The people who formed the PT come from a Maoist background, and
easily made a transition from the belief that there were no principles
in electoral politics to the belief that there were no principles in politics,
fact, today the PT has evolved from simply being one of the PRI’s satellite
parties to a more independent position, utilising its handful of deputies
in the federal parliament to swivel from conjunctural alliances with the
PRD, to support for initiatives of the PRI - depending on the temporary
political and doubtless financial advantage. The PT will support the PRD
in next year’s presidential elections, having already declared its support
for former Mexico City mayor
Cuauthémoc Cárdenas as their presidential candidate - much to the consternation
of Cárdenas’ principal PRD opponent, Porfirio Munoz Ledo. Munoz Ledo himself
has become the candidate of the largely fictitious PARM (Authentic Party
of the Mexican Revolution), one of numerous ‘virtual parties’ with no
noticeable political positions and tiny memberships, which exist solely
for the self-aggrandisement and enrichment of their leaders.
PVEM is a caricature of a Green party, with no radical political positions
whatever. This is especially ironic in a country which is sinking deeper
and deeper into environmantal catastrophe[ii].
Largely dominated and owned by a single family, its propaganda contains
vague and simplistic denunciations of evil things like pollution and bullfighting
without the slightest attempt to put forward radical solutions. Recently
it supported the candidate of the neoliberal PAN in the state of Mexico
gubernatorial elections - with absolutely no explanation. Doubtless the
promise of minor office if the PAN won, or some other financial inducement
was key. Family patriarch Jorge Gonzalez has appointed himself presidential
candidate for the year 2000, despite the opposition of 25 state leaderships.
dominant forces of radicalism: the PRD and the Zapatistas
mass of the population with a radical, democratic or anti-PRI outlook
is dominated politically by the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution)
and the Zapatista movement, which has three components: the army (EZLN),
the Zapatista base communities in Chiapas centred on the autonomous municipalities,
and the Frente Zapatista (FZLN), the EZLN support network which has affiliates
PRD emerged from a split in the PRI in 1988-9, led by Cuauthémoc Cárdenas,
son of the 1930s president Lazaro Cárdenas who nationalised the oil industry,
and Porfirio Munoz Ledo, former president of the PRI and at various times
labour minister and Mexican ambassador to the United Nations. In fact
the ‘cadres’ of the PRD - a high percentage of whom are elected officials
or full time party functionaries - come mainly from two backgrounds, the
PRI and the Communist Party, which went into the PRD in the late 1980s,
dragging a big section of the left with it.. While conflicts between ex-PRIistas
and ex-CPers are commonly referred to, in fact on political questions
the PRD rarely divide on these lines. There is no sense in which ex-CPers
constitute a left inside the PRD. While the party president, Amalya Garcia,
is from a Communist background, in the decade of its existence the party
has been dominated by the ex-PRIistas; the socialism of the former communists
has sunk without trace.
PRD faces many political difficulties. One factor is that the March 1998
elections for the new party president and the new Mexico City leadership
collapsed, after widespread fraud was proved - discrediting the party’s
democratic credentials and smacking of old-style PRI habits. The second
reason, less immediate by in the long-term debilitating, is the failure
of the Cárdenas Mexico City government, elected in 1997, to carry through
any significant reforms, exposing it to a demagogic right wing campaign
by the PRI, PAN and the PRI’s fascistic ‘mass front’ in the urban barrios
and countryside, the Antorchistas (Torch Bearers).
who in October 1999 resigned as Mexico City mayor to be the PRD’s presidential
candidate, is likely to fare badly in the July 2000 elections. And the
party could be defeated in the Mexico City elections. Ten years after
the party’s founding the PRD lacks credibility. Its work is totally centred
on elections, and its leaders have failed to take clear stands on the
key struggles in the country, particulalry the historic 6-month long student
strike against education fees at UNAM (National Autonomous University
of Mexico) and the deepening militarisation of Chiapas. The party is hated
by the PRIista bourgeoisie, but Cárdenas in particular trims everything
he says to avoid offending them. The result is that other than vague noises
about democratisation, he says nothing. The net result is that the party
is failing to create any crusading entusiasm among the poor, and at the
same time has no chance of winning the allegiance of the rich, who are
mainly loyal to the PRI and have the PAN as a second option.
Ledo, to the right of Cárdenas and with an ego the size of a planet, is
clearly on his way out of the PRD, with his ‘New Republic’ current. Some
people have hinted that this is a PRI-financed operation, which has made
Munoz Ledo several million dollars richer. True or not, Munoz Ledo’s sudden
attack has hit home hard and damaged Cárdenas, because some of
his accusations appear to be well founded - especially his accusation
that Cárdenas is an hereditary ‘caudillo’ who operates in an undemocratic
way inside the party (the party of the ‘democratic revolution’ is especially
adept at ensuring the dominance of Cárdenas and his entourage).
for PRD membership vary widely; the party leadership claims more than
a million, others say around 100,000. Much revolves around the definition
of a member. The ultra-politicisation of Mexican society means that many
people declare themselves to be affiliates of a political party without
doing much more than help in elections, if that. With more than 200 parliamentary
deputies, several state governors and hundreds of mayors and municipal
officials, the PRD in organisational terms is clearly the largest party
after the PRI itself. How should it be assessed from a socialist viewpoint?
PRD is the party of the ‘democratic’ revolution. Its programme is for
the democratisation of Mexican society, not its ‘socialisation’. The origin
of the PRD is in the abandonment of the PRI’s historic ‘state capitalist’
project in favour of neo-liberalism. In many ways the PRD sees itself
as the authentic continuation of the populist traditions of the PRI, defending
for example the nationalisation of electricity and the oil industry, aligning
itself with the defence of free public education and so forth. These of
course are the residual gains of the 1910-20 Mexican revolution and its
aftermath, and put the programme of the PRD way to the left of contemporary
European social democracy. But the past of the PRI during the high point
of ‘revolutionary nationalism’ in the 1930s is not a past of socialism,
but of a bourgeois nationalism which went through periodic radical phases.
the PRD has changed from the old-style PRIista politics is its commitment
to multipartyism and democratic rights, a big break from the de-facto
one-party state of the old PRI days. But the PRD remains securely wedded
to the electoral road, and for example criticises the Zapatistas for using
‘armed struggle’ (of course the Zapatistas are armed but not involved
in an armed struggle in any conventional sense, but let that pass). Respect
for the ‘law’, and commitment to electoralism is a real handicap in Mexico
when electoral fraud can be pulled out of the bag at any time to deny
victory to the PRI’s opponents. What the PRD does NOT base itself
on is mass struggle of the workers, peasants and indigenous people. This
assessment might seem slightly at odds with the proliferation of PRD marches
and rallies, but those things are the stock in trade of all Mexican politics
and a reflection of populism: a rally and a march are not a struggle.
these statement pertain to the PRD programme and leadership; PRD members
at the base get involved in a multitude of struggles, and some of the
leaders of the Section 9 of
the SNTE teachers union, a very militant section of the teachers union
involved in bitter fights (see section on trade unions below) are members
of the PRD. The PRD’s leadership is dominated by people with a middle
class, professional and university background. And the party retains the
traditional Mexican obsession with stars and personalities, who have their
own clientalist cliques.
has emerged as a crucial problem in the DF (Mexico City and suburbs) where
the PRD controls the city government. In the delegations (municipalities)
the PRD’s elected councillors have often acted in a corrupt and clientalist
way, not much different to their PRIists forerunners.
of all the PRD is not a class party. On May Day, PRD banners are nearly
completely absent, although doubtless many PRD supporters march with their
union contingents. But to march as the PRD would smack of ‘classism’ -
inappropriate for a multi-class party of ‘the whole Mexican people’.
emergence of the PRD in 1988 was the catalyst which led to the collapse
and absorption of the Communist Party, and the eventual capsizal of the
PRT, the main Trotskyist party. In many ways it is the key obstacle to
the emergence of a mass party of the workers, peasants and other popular
sectors. Such a mass workers’ party could only come about through, or
in conjunction with, or by causing, a huge crisis inside the PRD.
socialists have to be extremely open to the PRD militant base, and pursue
systematic united action with them. This is an important issue within
the revolutionary left, where some Neanderthal post-Maoist and ‘Trotskyist’
organisations have sometimes refused to work with PRDers and denounced
them, not because of what they have done or said, but purely because they
are members of the PRD. Far from damaging the PRD, such attitudes only
Zapatistas: a left turn?
politics changed forever on 1 January 1994, when the EZLN staged its uprising.
Since that date the Zapatistas have been a fundamental factor in Mexican
politics, putting the question of the indigenous peoples (and racism in
general) in a central position and acting as a spur to the reanimation
of the whole Mexican left. Moreover, the EZLN is evolving, and despite
its ‘radical democratic’ framework, there is strong evidence to suggest
it is evolving leftwards, towards a more systematic ‘class struggle’ position
on an all-Mexican scale. In any case, its evolution is not finished, and
it would be foolish to try to put this unique organisation into a pre-defined
category. I will try here to outline some of the basic factors to be considered
in making an evaluation of the EZLN, and its dominant political figure,
first leaders of the EZLN, including Marcos, come from the Maoist guerrilla
tradition, who with the defeat of the urban and rural guerrilla struggles
of the 1970s decided to try to build a base in the indigenous communities.
In an application of Che Guevara’s foco strategy (probably its most successful,
if not only successful application) six of them - three indigenous and
three non-indigenous - went into the Chiapas jungle in 1983. It took them
more than a year to win any adherents, but by 1988 they had won the allegiance
of the elders of many of the indigenous villages in Chiapas, who took
the decision to send some of their sons and daughters into the jungle
highlands and prepare an uprising. The EZLN in fact made its first public
appearance in 1992, when thousands of indigenous peasants (not in uniform)
marched into San Cristobel de las Casas on the anniversary of Colombus’
landing and pulled down the statue of a notorious Spanish conquistador.
EZLN leadership we should always remember is the Clandestine Indigenous
Revolutionary Committee - eg its is an indigenous organisation which fights
for the social rights of indigenous people, including autonomy and self-rule.
(But of course they do not consider the indigenous people to be a nation,
and do not demand independence). However, they understand that their demands
are impossible to meet without major changes in Mexican society as a whole,
and generally they refer to this as democratisation. Nowhere in the EZLN’s
propaganda or writings to we find any reference to socialism as an objective.
It is this general posture which has led people like the dreadful Jorge
Castaneda to refer to them as ‘armed reformists’ - an exceedingly simplistic
the evolution of the EZLN politically has been determined by two things.
First, following the 1996 San Andreas accords, which set out the need
for a negotiated solution, the PRI government has refused to negotiate
and deepened repression. The EZLN leadership has thus stepped up its attempts
to construct alliances and political support across Mexico. Second, Marcos
understands very well that democratisation in Mexico means getting rid
of the PRI, and an alternative socio-economic model to the current neoliberalism.
EZLN held a national referendum about setting up a national political
organisation in late 1995, and in 1997 set up the Frente Zapatista (FZLN).
But this was not a national political party-type organisation, but one
which a) excluded members of other political tendencies and b) had its
role restricted to being a support organisation for the EZLN itself. For
example, there are (or were a year ago) 50-plus FZLN groups in Mexico
City, but they have never taken any position in relation to the PRD City
government, which means that it can’t act on crucial questions of local
politics. The contradiction of the EZLN operation in setting up the Frente
was the following: in order to build a really effective support organisation
to co-ordinate with the Chiapas struggle, you had to build an organisation
which would attract people who wanted to be active on the broad spectrum
of Mexican politics. Otherwise, they would join the PRD or the far left.
But the FZLN does not allow people to be active on the broad range of
national politics within its framework, and thus the best left activists
have not joined. A cheerleader organisation is not a particularly attractive
this is not entirely true in some southern states, in Mexico City the
FZLN attracted many middle class types looking for a political home. Others
already involved in socialist or class struggle politics, could support
the Zapatistas without joining the vague and semi-inactive Frente. This
was the price which Marcos paid for limiting the FZLN politically and
organisationally. The Frente could not become a vibrant new political
force, certainly not a new left opposition to the PRD.
key turning point in the evolution of the EZLN was however the events
of December 1997 to June 1998. In November 1997 1111 masked EZLN supporters
came to Mexico City to be present for the foundation of the Frente (although
NOT to participate). Insofar as any political trend could at that time
be discerned inside the leadership of the Frente, it was the group
of people around Sergio Rodriguez, formerly the maximum leader of the
Trotskyist PRT. He and his ally, Rosario Ibarra- leader of the movement
of the mothers of the disappeared, several times PRT presidential candidate,
and a person with immense moral authority among left and democratic forces
- are clearly very politically close to Marcos himself.
a month later the Acteal massacre took place, the start of a six-month
military offensive against the Zapatista civilian municipalities, which
the EZLN fighters, deep in the selva, were in a poor position to defend.
For six months the EZLN leadership was totally silent, leading to all
kinds of speculation about what was happening: it is quite possible that
the EZLN leadership were debating what kind of response was needed, and
whether they could militarily defend their base communities or whether
only a political response was possible. In June 1998, Marcos intervened
with a 28-page document entitled ‘Masks and Silences’, a frontal attack
on the PRI and neoliberalism. Within two weeks the Zapatistas’ Fifth Declaration
was published calling on ‘civil society’ to defend the indigenous communities
and promote a peaceful solution.
the one year since then, the Zapatista leadership has intervened politically
in support of every single major struggle - most notably those of the
electricity workers against privatisation and the UNAM students’ struggle
against education fees. In addition they have sent delegations from Chiapas
to several mass demonstrations and 5000 of their base community supporters
all round the country in support of their national referendum for peace
and indigenous rights. (The referendum was a stunning success, with 3
million people voting, an incredible logistical and political feat). They
have also held several national meetings with ‘civil society’ and radical
union trends in Chiapas, which thousands of people have attended.
facto, Marcos is trying to build a national alliance against neo-liberalism.
He is also trying to forge direct links between the EZLN base communities
and popular sectors engaged in struggle. During the referendum campaign
local ‘brigades’ were set up nationwide , involving more than 20,000
people, most of whom not FZLN members. This whole strategy seems to be
a recognition of the weakness of the Frente Zapatista, and an attempt
to directly ally with struggles and struggle organisations.
the past the Zapatistas have often seemed to have a stand-offish attitude
to workers’ struggles, for example they were silent during the 1995-6
struggle of the Mexico City bus workers. This has changed sharply. One
thing which has not gone unnoticed is that the EZLN delegation which came
to Mexico City for the huge May Day demonstration marched with the Primero
de Mayo union federation, which is controlled by the far left (and it
should be said in some cases: ultra-left). At any rate this political
turn by the EZLN seems premised on the correct idea that the fate of the
Zapatistas and indigenous people is deeply linked to the fate of the struggles
of other popular sectors. Marcos has since the beginning of the UNAM strike
(April ‘99) maintained total support for the strike leadership, which
is largely in the hands of extreme (if not ultra-) left groups.
developments are encouraging. Nonetheless, it should be remembered that
the EZLN is not a socialist organisation, and has no ambition to forge
a new all-Mexico socialist party. It has no elaborated social and economic
programme for Mexico. It is a struggle organisation for the indigenous
people. As such, it plays an absolutely central role, and the defeat of
the Zapatistas would be a crushing blow for the whole Mexican left. But
it is not, and cannot be, a new socialist leadership for Mexico.
the time of writing (autumn ‘99) the Zapatista base communities have for
several months been the victims of a new campaign of military occupation
the PRI win the year 2000 elections, the military pressure against the
EZLN will intensify. The forces of Mexican radicalism will have to wage
an enormous struggle to defend the Zapatistas. For, in the end, the ‘low
intensity warfare’ of today is just the first stage of the ruling class’
ambition to crush the indigenous rebels.
are several armed guerrilla organisations in the countryside - no one
knows exactly how many. The ones which have made a public appearance are
the EPR(Revolutionary Peoples Army), and the EPRI (Revolutionary Army
of the Insurgent People). These organisations are based on the southern
states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, Hidalgo, Veracruz and Chiapas and maybe some
others. Reliable information about these organisations is extremely scarce,
because they are by definition clandestine. One has to be extremely circumspect
in making an assessment of such organisations, because many of their activities,
and even their political positions, are not in the public domain.
largest of these organisations is the EPR. It seems to have originated
in the state of Guerrero, to the south of Mexico City, from the (Maoist)
Party of the Poor. Many observers trace the roots of this party to the
peasant struggles of the 1970s, which resulted in Guerrero in genocidal
repression from 1973 onwards. Tens of thousands were killed by the army
in the attempt to crush the guerrilla struggle.
EPR came into public view in the summer of 1996, when a public commemoration
of the 1995 peasant massacre in Aguas Blancas being addressed by Cárdenas
was interrupted by dozens of masked guerrillas marching into the crowd.
Cárdenas denounced it as a (perhaps state-organised) provocation. In the
early fall of 1996 the EPR set up road blocks outside Acapulco levying
‘revolutionary taxes’, and shot up the main square in the millionaire
seaside resort Huatúlco.
Since then it has apparently organised sporadic attacks on army bases, and ambushed army patrols. The government claims to have crushed the EPR; independent observers say the guerrilla has been repressed in Guerrero, but is still active in Oaxaca and other states. Certainly, in Guerrero and Oaxaca, hundreds have been assassinated, ‘disappeared’ or imprisoned for allegedly supporting the EPR.
Party of the Poor and the EPR are regarded by the rest of the left as
examples of extreme Stalinist dogmatism and sectarianism - perhaps not
surprising given their origins. Extreme repression, and
militarised clandestinity, often combine to produce authoritarianism
and sectarianism - in its caricatured worst case forms, Sendero Luminoso
and the Khymer Rouge. Relations between the EPR and the EZLN are to say
the least frosty (especially as an organisation close to the EPR tried
to take over the Zapatista solidarity network in 1994-5).
1998 the EPRI emerged as a split from the EPR. The political difference
is between the ‘prolonged peoples war’ strategy of the EPR, versus
the ‘insurrectionist’ strategy of the EPRI. The EPRI has publicly been
much more friendly to the EZLN, supporting the Zapatista’s national referendum,
for example. The EPRI’s explanation of its strategy seems to imply a conception
of insurrection which is fundamentally the work of the people, not the
revolutionary army, and in which the role of force is that of ‘armed self-defence’.
On the other hand the EPRI in Guerrerro has threatened the army with ‘an
eye for an eye’, and recently shot four soldiers in retaliation for the
murder of two campesinos and the rape of two peasant women by the army.
The EPRI says the EPR has a uselessly long strategy, and conceives of
prolonged peoples war as lasting an intolerable 30 years or more.
the other armed organisations, virtually nothing is known, if only because
for the moment they are literally keeping their powder dry. However many
fighters the military left has in total - probably some hundreds - their
political support in the southern countryside should not be underestimated.
Extreme poverty and harsh repression of the peasants in general, and the
indigenous people in particular, is the source of that support. But in
my opinion prolonged guerrilla war is not a viable strategy in Mexico
because of extensive urbanisation
(75% live in towns) and because of the size and US-aided counter-insurgency
expertise of the Mexican army. Militarism is a product of the
peasantry, not the working class. It is not capable of building
support in the biggest concentrations of the popular masses - the big
cities. Sections of the left animated by democratic concerns are usually
repelled by the authoritarianism and sectarianism of these organisations.
electricity workers’ battle against privatisation has highlighted the
battles inside the trade union movement. The industry’s workers are divided
into two unions, the Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas (SME) which has
mobilised all-out against privatisation, and SUTERM (United Union of Mexican
Electricity Workers) which has supported it. By coincidence, the leader
of the main PRI union federation (the Congresso de Trabajo) Leonardo Rodriguez
Alcaine, is also general secretary of SUTERM. His support for privatisation
has caused uproar in his own union. In May thousands of opposition SUTERM
workers organised their own demonstration against privatisation.
the SME has resigned from the CT over its support for privatisation; it
is possible that the SME will join the independent UNT union federation.
government’s neoliberal policies are causing problems for other PRIista
unions. For four weeks in May and June 1999 thousands of teachers supporting
the CNTE (Coordinadora de los Trajabadores en Education) camped out in
the city’s central square, the Zocalo, and held daily demonstrations demanding
substantial pay increases and an end to repression of the democratic teachers’
movement (there are more than 120 teachers from the southern states assassinated,
‘disappeared’ or in prison). The CNTE is the left tendency of the pro-government
Sindicato de los Tabajadores en Education (SNTE). The SNTE leaders attacked
the teachers’ camp as being led by people similar to the ultra-violent
Peruvian guerrilla group Shining Path, and calling on the government to
harshly punish teachers involved in the many battles with the granaderos
development of independent unionism, represented by the UNT, the FAT (Frente
Autentico de Trabajo) and the CIPM (Co-ordinadora Intersindical Primero
de Mayo), is a major step forward for the Mexican workers. It has been
aided by a recent high court decision to outlaw the ‘closed shop’ - compulsory
union membership. In many countries the closed shop has been defended
by militant unionists, but in Mexico it has meant compulsory membership
of the pro-government unions. The court decision will give independent
unions more freedom to win members from PRIista unions.
independent unionism has its own conflicts and contradictions - and the
UNT and CIPM are often at one another’s throats. The UNT, founded in August
1997 by CT dissidents, claims one and a half million
affiliates, including social security workers, TELMEX telephone
workers, university workers, airline crews and many others groups. Although
it declares itself in total opposition to neoliberalism, the reality is
more complex. For example, the key UNT leaders is Hernandez Juarez, leader
of the STRM telephone workers, is an unapologetic member of the PRI. Juarez
enjoyed a particularly good relationship with former Mexico president
Carlos Salinas, and was instrumental is negotiating a ‘flexibility’ deal
with TELMEX owner Carlos Slim, Mexico’s richest person. Juarez claimed
the deal saved jobs, but the opposition democratic current in the STRM
- who support the Intersindical Primero de Mayo - called it a sell-out.
Primero de Mayo call the UNT leaders “mini-charros” (charros is the term
of abuse used for the pro-government union bosses). But there is a major
difference between the CIPM and the UNT. The UNT is a real union federation,
made up entirely of affiliated unions, and with the weight to act as an
alternative to the CT pro-government unions. Its May Day contingents were
disciplined groups of industrial workers, each decked out in their own
uniform track suits and baseball caps.
CIPM is not a union federation in the same sense. In reality it is a coalition
of some smaller trade unions, trade union opposition groups, peasant organisations,
far left mass fronts like the Frente Popular Francisco Villa and the Movimiento
Proletario Independente (which controls the Mexico City bus drivers union),
and revolutionary organisations which can affiliate directly. The much-older
FAT by contrast is a real union federation with very radical political
positions; while much, much smaller than the UNT, it has some weight in
the border maquiladora industries and has promoted union links accorss
the US-Mexico border.
CIPM may be right that the UNT leaders are “mini-charros”. But the UNT’s
independent unionism is a major gain for the Mexican workers. While keeping
arms length from the CIPM to their left, the UNT leaders support strikes
and are often involved in battles with the leadership of the CT.
Frente Autentico de Trabajo is much older than the CIPM and the UNT, having
originated in Christian Democratic currents, and still maintaining links
with Catholic radicals. Like the CIPM, its affiliated organiations include
peasant organisations and other sectors from outside the working class
proper. A lot of FAT activity goes into providing lawyers to individually
represent workers in labour courts. Because it has some representation
in the border maquiladora industries, the FAT has promoted cross-border
links with US unions. The FAT has also proved very adept, with its Christian
connections, at promoting itself internationally, giving some foreign
observers the impression that the FAT is ‘the’ trade union opposition.
But the UNT is much bigger, and the CIPM is more politically dynamic.
happens to the battle over electricity privatisation, the ‘big one’ -
privatisation of PEMEX, the state-owned oil industry - is yet to come,
and may indeed not be possible until after the presidential election next
year. Oil workers are a pillar of the pro-government union federation,
and an attempt to privatise it would surely lead to more cracks in the
system of corporatist, state-sponsored trade unionism.
and Pueblo politics: the Frentes
in the Mexican barrios revolves round the struggle for the basics of existence
- housing, drainage, drinkable water and electricity. The formation of
the pueblos starts generally with the construction of makeshift houses
built by the people themselves. Once a pueblo reaches a certain size,
inevitably the fight starts to get key amenities. This can only be done
by organising mass campaigns to pressurise local authorities into action.
Often the amenities are gained by the actions of the local PRI, who exchange
political favours - especially support in elections - for at least some
basic amenities. But often the fight for the basics of life is led by
the Mexico City pueblos and in the north leadership is often seized by
‘Frente’ type popular organisation, led by ex-Maoists. This is the origin
of sizeable groups like the Frente Popular Francisco Villa and the Frente
Popular Emiliano Zapata. The PSR (Partido Socialista Revolutionario),
its fronts and splits from it like the MULP (United Movement of Popular
Struggle) also have a base
in this kind of work.
work in the pueblos can lead to political leadership of whole communities,
but there are enormous pitfalls in basing yourself on this type of activity.
Political leadership of the pueblos frequently leads to clientalism and
corruption, and manipulatory authoritarian politics. It has also in-built
a certain transitory quality.
when leadership of a barrio is in the hands of one of these organisations
they start to act as local bosses. Political opponents are kept out with
violent methods. People who want favours approach the local party boss.
Support for the Frentes is expressed in participation in its activities
- rallies, marches etc - and not in the form of membership of a real organisation.
By its nature, this kind of work is extremely localised, and it is hard
to utilise this support to make an effective national presence.
support for the Frente-type organisations is at a high point during the
struggle for local facilities. Afterwards support melts away, especially
as the communities are constantly changing as people move and new people
this point of view, while socialists can do (and have done) valuable work
in the pueblos, it cannot be a stable centre for revolutionary work, which
in a highly urbanised country like Mexico has to be in the working class
Trotskyism in Mexico originates in two ‘schools’ - the Fourth International
and the Morenista trend, which at its high point in the 1970s and ‘80s
was based on the Argentinian Movement for Socialism (MAS), led by Nahuel
Moreno. In the 1980s by far the largest organisation was the PRT (Revolutionary
Workers Party) affiliated to the Fourth International. The PRT was able
to establish a definite electoral presence, gain the leadership of one
of the most important peasant unions and lead important local struggles.
PRT blew up with its early 1990s split. The political crisis in the PRT
started in 1988 with the emergence of neo-Cardenism and subsequently the
PRD. By taking the political (especially electoral) space to the left
of the PRI, the PRD squeezed all the left organisations. Sensing an opportunity
for a mass radical alternative to the PRI, big sections of the left got
swept into the PRD, including the Communist Party and a section of the
PRT itself, including its best known intellectual, Adolpho Gilly, author
of the best Marxist account of the Mexican revolution. Gilly is now a
key advisor to Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas.
1992 the PRT split over electoral tactics, between a minority led by Edgard
Sanchez and a majority led by Sergio Rodriguez - leading to the existence
of two PRTs. Subsequently, in the mid-1990s, the Rodriguez PRT
(by now renamed ‘Democracia Radical’) decided to ‘integrate’ itself into
the Zapatistas and thus dissolve. The people who followed Sergio Rodriguez
are among the key leaders of the FZLN, but do not act as a political current
of even the most informal kind.
minority of the Rodriguez PRT in 1996 founded a new orthodox Trotskyist
group led by Jaime Gonzalez and Manuel Anguiler Mora, the LUS (League
for Socialist Unity). (Manuel Anguiler was one of the main leaders of
the 1968 student movement and a key person in the 1970s [re]foundation
of Mexican Trotskyism).
Sanchez-PRT (now renamed PRT-Covergencia Socialista) recently split again.
Edgard Sanchez and his supporters ( a minority in the split) have decided
to go into the PRD. The majority of his group however, including the PRT’s
vestigial peasant base in two Guerrero pueblos, have decided to maintain
an independent, open organisation.
LUS is a small organisation of about 70 members of whom about 30 are in
Mexico City. Its priority orientation is towards the unions and youth.
One of its leaders, Emilio Amaya, was
the national co-ordinator of the Primero de Mayo left union front
until his death in October 1999, and it plays a role in the debates over
the political direction of that organisation. Essentially the LUS is trying
to re-establish a Marxist cadre around ‘orthodox’ Trotskyist positions.
LUS is in a working alliance (‘Coalicion Socialista’) with one of the
four organisations of Morenist origin, the Partido Obrera Socialista (POS).
It has also started working, especially in the six-month long student
strike at UNAM, with three other organisations - the PRT, Unios! and the
UCLAT, an ex-Maoist organisation based in Mexico state.
largest of these organisations in the POS, which has 150-200 members.
But crucially the POS has about 60 youth, most of them students, in an
organisation called Juventud Socialista. This has enabled the POS to play
a role in the leadership of the UNAM struggle, and brought them into sharp
conflict with the ultra-left, ex-Maoist groups who are in the strike leadership.
problems of the Mexican Left
make progress towards the formation of a mass left alternative means the
organisational reconstruction and political clarification of the forces
of Mexican radicalism. Ideologically Mexican radicals have to come to
terms with the legacy of the Mexican revolution, and its political incarnation
in ‘revolutionary nationalism’ - which in Mexico is the term used in referring
to the (bourgeois nationalist) post-revolutionary state capitalist ideology
of the PRI, and especially the PRI in its most radical period, the 1930s
mutatis mutandis, the main continuation of revolutionary nationalist tradition
is in the PRD. But its influence goes a long way beyond the PRD itself.
For example the Popular Socialist Party (PPS, which traces its origins
back to a split from the CP) still has an essentially revolutionary nationalist
ideology: its propaganda emphasises that electricity privatisation is
‘treason to the nation’, rather than treason to the working class. Second,
the Mexican Left needs to correctly situate the question of democracy,
and break with the prevailing radical democratic discourse which infects
the PRD, and sections of ‘civil
society’, especially the rightward-moving NGOs.
bourgeois nationalism have any progressive role in Mexico today? To answer
that, you have to start with the question of whether Mexico is still an
oppressed country. In fact, the oppression of Mexico by imperialism, mainly
US imperialism, is even more obvious than it was 20 years ago. The PRI-led
transition from state capitalism to neo-liberalism, started after the
election of the Miguel de la Madrid regime in 1982 and cemented by the
signing of the NAFTA accords, has opened up Mexican industry and agriculture
to massively increased exploitation. While there still is a ‘national’
bourgeoisie, huge sections of the Mexican elite have been transformed
into a new comprador bourgeoisie, living off the crumbs of imperialist
super-profits generated in the maquiladora industries, subsidiaries of
US trasnationals and agri-business.
figure, quoted above, which is indicative of this situation is the position
of Mexico is the recently published new world economic league table. Mexico
is 16th in terms of GNP, but 81st in terms of income per head. The discrepancy
can hardly be explained by the disappearance of vast sums into the pockets
of crooked business people and narco-traffickers; much vaster sums are
repatriated as profits directly to US (and European and Japanese) corporations,
the light of this, ‘national’ demands against the exploitation of the
country are inevitable and correct. When protesting electricity workers
chant “ Zedillo entiende, la patria no se vende” (Listen [President] Zedillo,
our country’s not for sale), they express the anger of millions that privatised
electricity would in all likelihood be bought up by US transnationals.
in Mexico demands in defence of
national sovereignty cannot be separated from anti-imperialism,
and hence anti-capitalism. This is because there is no section of the
Mexican bourgeoisie, even its ‘national’ component, which is politically
prepared to struggle to shake off the shackles of imperialist tutelage.
On the contrary, the PRI's demagogy about ‘national sovereignty’ (mainly
aimed against foreign radicals who visit Chiapas) is a fig-leaf to cover
supine prostration in front of the United States, whose Hollywood trash
culture is pathetically worshipped and religiously aped by the Mexican
ruling and middle classes.
Marxists could give critical support to the anti-imperialist actions of
the Lazaro Cárdenas regime in the 1930s such as the nationalisation of
the oil industry, there are no such actions, no such social and political
force with support in the bourgeoisie, to give critical support to today.
The fight to reclaim national sovereignty is not a fight for national
unification, or a single national market - classic tasks of the bourgeois
democratic revolution, already achieved. It is today a fight against imperialist
domination and thus a fight totally against the Mexican bourgeoisie.
- consistent anti-imperialism - means class independence and a refusal
of all strategic alliances with any section of the capitalist class. This
is where the neo-Cárdenists in the PRD fall down. Their programme contains
not a jot of anti-capitalism or anti-imperialism, which is hardly surprising
in a bourgeois populist party in the 1990s. Most importantly, the social
basis for ‘revolutionary nationalism’ of the 1930s type does not exist.
Then, the space existed for an import-substitution state capitalist strategy
of economic development. Today the world situation is very different and
the economic and political space does not exist for this kind of bourgeois
nationalism in the exploited countries; the epoch of neo-liberalism and
intensified imperialist exploitation has crushed it. Thus every section
of the Mexican financial and industrial bourgeoisie sees its future linked
directly with international capital, and especially US capital. Every
major financial institution in Mexico has links with US banks and insurance
companies. And the Mexican state sees itself as directly depedent on the
goodwill of the US government, which together with the IMF and the World
Bank is in effect is the Mexican
‘banker of last resort’ - as it was during the economic crises of 1982
question of democracy cannot be separated from anti-imperialism. The fight
to break the single-party PRIista regime is of course progressive. Equally,
the fight against anti-democratic repression, and for the democratic rights
of the indigenous peoples has an immense progressive charge. But, in the
post-1989 situation, huge sections of the progressive intelligentsia have
been won away from any commitment to socialism to the more limited horizons
of a 'democratic transition'.
democracy in Mexico cannot be limited to the winning of formal democratic
rights (which largely exist, despite the 'presidentialism' of the regime).
Real democracy means winning self-determination for the indigenous peoples,
women's democratic rights -including the right to abortion, the right
to education for the children of the poor, the abolition of child labour,
the right for Mexico to control its own industries and above all the right
to have enough to eat. And all that cannot be done without a crushing
popular victory over the pro-imperialist
bourgeoisie. This has major implications for left strategy.
good point to start is the question of government. The forces around the
Primero de Mayo advance the (quite correct) slogan of a "gobierno
obrero, campesino, indigena y popular" - a government of the workers,
peasants, indigenous peoples and popular masses (nb. in the Mexican context
the addition "y popular" is necessary to denote the inclusion
of the semi-proletarian masses in the urban pueblos who, arguably, are
not part of the working class proper). Each part of that governmental
slogan denotes a key social force which needs to be mobilised around a
programme for a real anti-imperialist and democratic transition.
this context it is necessary to make a point about the social structure
of Mexico today. We are not talking about 1917 Russia, where the urban
population was around 15% of the total. In Mexico today 75% of the population
live in the towns (Mexico City alone has 20% of the total population).
Moreover, the peasantry proper is a small percentage of the population,
because the majority of the rural labourers are agricultural proletarians
- not owners of their own small plots of land, but employees of agribusiness
estates, and those of big Mexican landlords tied to agri-business. Thus
the term “campesino” in the above government slogan refers to the rural
labouring population in general. The key force for a democratic, anti-imperialist
and anti-capitalist transition is the major social force of the country,
the urban proletariat. This is not merely a question of the 'leading role'
of the working class in a political sense, but a crude sociological fact:
if you want to build an effective political majority in Mexico, you have
to build amongst the workers. Nonetheless, the political weight of both
rural struggles and the historic emergence of the indigenous peoples'
battle, is very high in Mexico.
reason is simple: the rural workers - peasants, semi-peasants, agricultural
proletarians and the indigenous peoples are the most oppressed and exploited.
Therefore their struggle is immensely popular with every section of progressive
workers. Moreover, the role of the indigenous people and peasantry in
the 1910-20 Mexican revolution was pivotal, and thus support for the struggles
of the rural poor is part of the historical memory of Mexican radicalism.
the relations between town and country in a state where mass urbanisation
is a product of the last 30 years are complex. Many people in the poor
urban puelbos have arrived from the countryside recently, and still have
strong links. In addition, the 75% urbanisation figure includes towns
of a few thousand, with naturally strong links with the surrounding countryside.
It is not unusual in such towns for one member of the family to be working
in agriculture, with another employed in a factory owned by a transnational
corporation. Any force trying to work for a democratic, anti-imperialist
and anti-capitalist transition has to win a base among the rural poor.
But for historical reasons to do with the nationalisation of the land
under Lazaro Cárdenas, and the predominant form of peasant land tenure
which was ‘village co-operative’ rather than based on individual plots,
the demand for ‘the land to the tiller’ in Mexico does not imply an individual
plot for every peasant or rural worker or family. In Mexico, collectivism
among the peasantry is a strong tradition: we are not dealing with the
atavistic Russian peasants, but a country in which there has already been
a bourgeois-democratic revolution led by the peasantry.
consequence of these factors is that the radical political forces among
the rural population are on the whole explicitly anti-capitalist and socialist
in their ideology (leaving aside the EZLN which is a slightly different
case). Sometimes this outlook is expressed in support for guerrilla organisations;
but struggle movements of the rural population are widespread, and they
spontaneously ally with the most militant city-based leftist organisations.
A good example of this is the OCSS (Peasant Organisation of the Southern
Sierra) which would have no difficulty in getting the dictatorship of
the proletariat written into its programme.The general conclusion about
strategy which needs to be emphasised is that far from Mexico having ceased
to be an oppressed country, today it is more oppressed than 20 or 30 years
ago. Anti-imperialist and democratic tasks are absolutely central, and
can only be carried forward by an alliance of the workers, peasants and
indigenous peoples. No section of the Mexican bourgeoisie will support
the anti-imperialist struggle today, and therefore any strategic alliance
with the bourgeoisie is excluded.
above considerations point to the need for a united socialist organisation,
capable of unifying the struggles of the four major groups of the popular
masses and acting as a counterweight to the PRD among the masses. Evidently,
however, the present complex array of diverse groups, parties and fronts
cannot be simply amalgamated into a single organisation, if only because
many of them are quite wrong on the major strategic questions, with lingering
nationalist confusions, and some of them are involved in dirty dealing
with right wing parties locally, especially with the PRI.
are other strong reasons why simply advocating socialist unity is pointless.
The first is the sectarianism and manipulation of the Maoist and post-Maoist
groups. These really are authoritarian Stalinist organisations, sometimes
mired in corruption. Democracy in the workers' movement, including the
democratic control of members over leaders, is the sine qua non for any
democratic socialist politics. Any healthy socialist regroupment in Mexico
would have to make involvement in any form of corruption, especially corrupt
financing by the government or the PRI, at local or national level, an
instantly expellable offense. Financial corruption goes hand-in-hand with
'bossism' and the lack of internal democracy. Corruption and opportunist
relations with bourgeois parties is, historically, a function of the state
capitalist system in the 'revolutionary nationalist' period. It is the
importation of the methods and norms of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois
state into the popular organisations themselves. So habituated to corruption
have most people become that it is not even considered unusual, or deplorable,
inside some left organisations. That culture must be broken radically.
'Bossim' (caudillismo), the cult of the big star general secretary, and
lack of democracy in general in some left organisations, is connected
to the role that women play in them. In general the far left tends to
have a very high proportion of women in its ranks - especially the pueblo
based organisations, because women are the social organisers in those
communities - but much less so at leadership level. Caudillismo is of
course connected with machismo, and this is deeply embedded in Mexican
society. There are however some positive signs on this front, especially
among young women. Women played a disproportionate role in the UNAM student
strike, making up more than 50% of the leadership in most faculties and
providing more than 50% of the strike activists. In any case, the left
needs to put the fight for women's rights much more centrally in its concerns,
and this could be easily done by building a coalition against the utterly
repressive abortion laws.
wish for the creation of a mass militant socialist party is not of course
to imagine that it will easily come about. The obstacles to a progressive
regroupment are many, and not least the petty leadership positions and
privileges that a layer of people currently have. But most of all, the
obstacle is the PRD. While it maintains its (especially electoral) dominance,
the space for a more radical alternative is always squeezed. The nearest
thing to a mass left coalition today is the Primero de Mayo, but even
here the forces within it could not be easily unified because of the sectarianism
and ultra-leftism of some of its components, especially the post-Maoist
Movimiento Proletario Independiente. Until there are big political events
which shake up the PRD and the left, and create the basis for a more rapid
regroupment, there is no alternative to building a more limited cadre
organisation, within the perspective of united mass action and seizing
what limited opportunities there are for regroupment. But so long as the
far left and Marxist forces remain terribly divided, their ability to
build a real mass alternative to the PRD at national level will be undermined.
[i] The vast majority of NGOs have moved sharply to the right, and are in the political ambit of the PRD.
[ii] The change in the climate has brought catastrophic annual floods (500 died this year). Other problems include deforestation, soil erosion, vast pollution in the maquiladora border area, the most polluted capital city in the world, and drought in the north. Mexico is getting hotter, colder and wetter thanks to global warming.
[iii] Castaneda is the author of the hapless book ‘Utopia Unarmed’ (1993) and a regular contributor to Newsweek and the US academic lecture circuit. Once an advisor to Cárdenas, he is now a lieutenant of ultra-neo-liberal Vicente Fox, governer of Guanajato and presidential candidate of the right-wing PAN (National Action Party).