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International Socialism, July 1997


Lance Selfa

Mexico after the Zapatista Uprising


From International Socialism 2:75, July 1997.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) rose up on 1 January 1994 in the Mexican state of Chiapas and thus gave notice to the world of a deep social and political crisis in that country. Devastation of the rural economy represents the sharpest edge of the crisis. More than a decade of ‘free market’ reforms rolled back a central gain of the 1910-1917 Mexican Revolution: land reform. Mexico’s under-secretary of agriculture predicted in 1992 that 1 million peasants and farmers would be forced out of agriculture annually throughout the 1990s. [1] The bulk of them can be expected to look for work in Mexico’s cities or in the US. Those left behind face increasingly desperate conditions, some bordering on starvation.

For workers already in Mexico’s cities, the situation is little better. President Ernesto Zedillo’s savage 1995 peso devaluation threw the Mexican economy into a 1930s-style depression. Official figures put the 1995 contraction in the gross domestic product at 7 percent. The most optimistic economists predict that the economy grew by 3.5 percent in 1996. [2] A 1996 survey reported that nearly 53 percent of the people said they did not get enough to eat, 17 percent said they lost their jobs and 29 percent said that children under age 16 have had to go to work to support their families – 45 percent said they could not receive healthcare. [3]

The long-governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) exists in a state of advanced decay. Longstanding PRI politicians have resigned from the party to run for opposition parties in the 1997 elections. Former president Cartes Salinas de Gortari sits disgraced in exile in Ireland. Salinas’s zealous pursuit of ‘free market’ policies made him a darling of the Western media. But in Mexico he is held responsible for bringing the economy to collapse. The former president’s brother and close political associate, Raúl Salinas, sits in jail in Mexico. He awaits trial on charges that he conspired with drug barons to murder the ruling party’s director.

These conditions have given rise to an outpouring of discontent and struggle. Between February and August of 1996 nearly a half million people demonstrated in the capital, Mexico City, against government labour and housing policies and against government repression. [4] Today at least three other guerrilla organisations besides the Zapatistas have announced themselves. These organisations represent the tip of an iceberg.4 Subcommander Marcos, the chief Zapatista spokesperson, has said, ‘There are three or four armed groups that the government does not want to recognise in the states of Hidalgo, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Puebla’. [5]

Guerrilla uprisings have put the subject of revolutionary change on the Mexican left’s political agenda for the first time since the 1970s. This article assesses the prospects – both objective and subjective – for revolution in Mexico today. Firstly, it outlines the economic and political roots of the Mexican crisis. Secondly, it assesses the strength of the social forces – namely, Mexican workers and peasants – that are key to the transformation of Mexican society. Thirdly, it considers subjective factors – most importantly, the politics of the guerrilla organisations and the left – that shape the struggle against the Mexican state.

Neoliberalism triumphant: the ‘Salinastroika’ fraud

More than a decade of ‘free market’ or ‘neoliberal’ policies brought Mexico to the current crisis. The government of Miguel De La Madrid (1982–1988) initiated these policies in the wake of the 1982 debt crisis and oil crash, when the Mexican economy nearly collapsed. In exchange for US and international aid – and to win back the confidence of Mexico’s bosses – successive governments moved away from the state-led development policies that they had followed since the 1930s.

Many analysts, and much of the left, pin Mexico’s turn to neoliberalism in the 1980s onwards to factors external to Mexico, such as pressure from the US and international lending agencies. [6] The Mexican economy, one twentieth the size of the US economy, is certainly subordinate to the ‘colossus of the North’. But an exclusive focus on external factors elides the fact that powerful forces inside Mexico pushed for the opening to the world market. The majority of the Mexican capitalist class supports neoliberal policies and wants to them to continue. As David Barkin argues, the 1982 debt crisis – considered the turning point in the shift to neoliberal policies – offered ‘a privileged group of financial and industrial capitalists and a new generation of policymakers new opportunities to reorganise the Mexican economy’. [7] Mexican government plans for privatisation actually exceeded the World Bank’s goals. [8]

In the three decades after the Second World War, Mexican governments helped stimulate the development of a domestically oriented industry behind a wall of protective tariffs. In the period of the ‘Mexican miracle’, between 1940 and 1968, the economy experienced average annual growth rates of 6-7 percent. The value of manufacturing output for ‘traditional’ industries (textiles, food, wood products) dropped from 73 percent of all industrial output to 49 percent of all industrial output between 1955 and 1978. In the same period the value of manufacturing output for ‘non-traditional’ industries (chemicals, metal products, machinery and equipment) increased from 25 percent of all industrial output to 49 percent of all industrial output. [9] Meanwhile, income distribution actually became more skewed to the rich during this high growth period.

Mexico’s manufacturing sector is tremendously concentrated. The largest 100 Mexican firms hold twice the percentage of available capital than do the 100 largest US firms. Some 300 firms account for 70 percent of the country’s exports. The concentration of private sector industry accelerated after the 1960s with the proliferation of multi-firm groups (grupos) which can be likened to the South Korean chaebol. The most important of these is the Monterrey Group, which has organised the capitalists of Nuevo León state, across the border from Texas, since the early 1900s. Following a reorganisation in 1974, the Monterrey Group ‘spun off the Alfa Group of 109 enterprises’. These include: Vitro, a major glass manufacturer which has acquired firms in the US and Canada; Visa, a major brewer; and Cydsa, a large chemical conglomarate. By the 1970s these huge corporations reached a ‘minimum efficient size’ which required them to seek capital and technology from foreign markets. The Mexican economy was neither large enough nor strong enough to provide these resources. For these reasons, a strategy which looked to the world market became essential for Mexican capital. [10]

De La Madrid’s handpicked successor, Carlos Salinas, followed in his patron’s footsteps. After his paper-thin and fraudulent victory in the 1988 presidential elections, Salinas moved quickly to assure stability for domestic and international businesses. Salinas implemented a number of reforms, for which the Mexican private sector had pressed for more than a decade. He initiated an ‘orthodox’ programme of privatisations, slashing of tariffs and other trade barriers, and closing or selling off state run plants that were inefficient on the world market.

A crucial part of these programmes for Salinas was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Fearing that US protectionism might forestall his plan to make Mexico into an export-led industrial power, Salinas endorsed a ‘free trade’ agreement with the US and Canada. NAFTA simply wrote into law what had been occurring for the previous two decades: the growing integration of the three economies. NAFTA assured that Mexico would be able to continue trading with the US, where more than two-thirds of its bilateral trade is concluded. NAFTA, which went into effect in 1994, called for the phasing out of nearly all tariffs and duties for trade in goods between the US, Canada and Mexico. Crucially, however, it explicitly ruled out free immigration between the three countries.

For most of Salinas’s 1988–1994 term the results were spectacular – from the capitalist point of view. After Mexico joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1987, Mexico’s average tariff on imports dropped from 45 percent to 9 percent. The country’s bilateral trade swelled from $21 billion in 1987 to $62 billion in 1991. Inflation dropped from 159 percent to about 10 percent in 1993. Rich Mexicans repatriated the billions that they had sent out of the country following the 1980s debt crisis. Their funds – and those of international investors – fuelled a speculative boom in the Mexican stock market. Between 1988 and 1994 the Mexican stock market increased its value 15-fold. An estimated $70 billion in foreign investment rushed into the country between 1989 and 1994. Mexico became the world’s fourth leading producer of billionaires, behind the US, Japan and Germany.

The speculative boom made Mexico a haven for money launderers throughout Latin America. When Salinas embarked on a mass privatisation campaign – selling off formerly state run banks and manufacturing companies – Colombian cocaine cartel money launderers flocked to Mexico. One noted Mexican political commentator speculates that Salinas himself invited the Colombian cartels to buy up privatised companies at double and triple their book values. With so much cocaine money floating around Mexico – added to Mexico’s proximity to the vast US drug market – corruption in the Mexican government reached new heights. The February 1997 arrest of General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, the chief of Mexico’s National Institute to Combat Drugs, on charges that he fronted for one of the country’s top druglords, shook governments on both sides of the US-Mexico border. Feuds between rival drug gangs are widely believed to lie behind the assassinations of a Catholic bishop and the ruling party’s director and 1994 presidential candidate. [11]

But the ‘free market’ programme carried the seeds of its own destruction. First, the capital intensive economic growth that Mexico experienced under Salinas did not create enough jobs to keep up with the population’s demand for them. Between 1988 and 1992 only 583,000 jobs were created – far less than the 1 million per year that would have been needed to keep up with population growth, according to a study by the Mexican business paper, El Financiero. [12]

Secondly, only about $10 billion of the $70 billion which flowed into Mexico from abroad funded productive investment in plants and equipment. Much of the rest was simply gambled on the stock market or used to buy up shares in the newly privatised banks, national telephone company, and other privatised firms. De la Madrid and Salinas cut the number of state-owned companies from 1,155 in 1982 to 280 in 1990. Privatisations made a few wealthy Mexicans – most of them cronies of the president – even richer. [13]

Finally, the remaking of the Mexican economy as a manufactured goods exporter was based on the import of machinery and credit from the US and other advanced countries. By December 1993 Salinas had accumulated a trade deficit of more than $100 billion – contracted primarily with the US. This pushed the peso to an overvaluation against the dollar of between 30 percent and 55 percent. [14] Rather than devalue the peso during in the 1994 election year, Salinas propped it up by running down the country’s foreign currency reserves. Salinas then off-loaded the responsibility for devaluing the peso on Zedillo. Less than one month after Zedillo took office in December 1994, Mexican currency speculators abandoned the peso before the expected devaluation. This action triggered a run on the Mexican currency. Only the $40 billion emergency loan package from the US halted the complete collapse of the Mexican economy. But to secure the loan guarantee, Mexico promised to deposit revenues from the sale of its oil in the US treasury. In March 1995 Zedillo announced a savage austerity package: Mexico fell into its worst depression since the 1930s.

By late 1996 finance minister Guillermo Ortiz touted a ‘recovery’ in the Mexican economy. He predicted that 1997 would bring 4 percent growth, 800,000 new jobs and an increase of $8 billion in direct investment. Even if those optimistic predictions prove correct, Mexican workers and peasants will see few benefits. The real industrial wage (adjusted for inflation) is lower today than at any time since 1939 and the real minimum wage stands at about the same level as it did in 1955. [15]

The Mexican economy today presents a modern example of what Trotsky characterised as the combined and uneven development of capitalism. [16] In the northern states that border the US, the economy is a virtual extension of the US economy. Harley Shajken, a University of California at San Diego labour economist, explained:

The technological superiority that retained the most advanced production in the United States is disappearing, so that northern Mexico is now almost a 51st state (of the US) in terms of production. Boeing might have a hard time making jet airliners in Mexico, but Mexican workers can match the skills of 70 percent of the labour force in the United States. [17]

The majority of these highly productive plants are maquiladoras. In 1965 the Mexican government granted manufacturers the right to import duty free parts and supplies to assembly plants, known as maquiladoras, in a 25 mile region along the US-Mexico border. Manufacturers, taking advantage of low Mexican labour costs, assembled goods for export. The maquiladoras, 50 percent of which are US owned and 44 percent of which are Mexican-owned, have been the most dynamic section of the Mexican economy. From 12 plants employing 3,000 workers in 1965 they have swelled to more than 3,500 plants employing 900,000 workers today. [18] About seven out of ten maquiladora plants are located in this zone along the US-Mexico border. US, European and Japanese capital gain the skills of Mexican workers at about one tenth the hourly wage that prevails just across the border in the US.

But in the south and south west of the country, in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Guerrero, several factors combine to create a different Mexico: a peasant agricultural economy, areas rich in natural resources, and the bulk of Mexico’s indigenous population. In these three southern states about 50 percent of the economically active population works in the ‘primary’ sector (agriculture, hunting, fishing, cattle raising and forestry) which compares to a national average of only 28 percent of the population engaged in ‘primary’ activities. These areas resemble Central America more than they resemble the rest of Mexico. Chiapas, located next to the Guatemalan border, is one of the states in Mexico richest in natural resources. Chiapas and Tabasco produce 80 percent of the country’s oil. Chiapas produces 50 percent of the country’s hydro power. Yet 60 percent of Chiapanecos live under the government’s officially stated poverty line.

The majority of the country’s indigenous population, for whom Spanish is a second language to their indigenous language, live in these southern regions. Although ‘official’ Mexican society celebrates the country’s Indian heritage in its mural art and historical preservation, today’s ‘real’ Indians face desperate poverty and racism. As late as the 1950s Indians were not allowed to enter Chiapas towns to sell their produce. They were forced to sell to mestizo middlemen who pocketed high markups. [19] Today the country’s 15 million indigenous people, representing 56 ethnic groups, earn about 36 percent of the incomes of other Mexicans. Indian illiteracy is double that of other Mexicans. In Oaxaca, the state where the largest number of indigenous people live, 53 percent of infants are malnourished. [20] Peasant poverty and oppression of the indigenous population in the south combined to fuel the peasant and guerrilla struggles of recent years.

The origin of the state party

The political regime which seems on the verge of unravelling today originated in the period of the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath. The revolution, one of the great upheavals of the 20th century, opened with the struggle to overthrow the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. Diaz ruled Mexico in league with US and European capital from 1876 to 1910. The years leading up to 1910 saw a rising tide of struggle among peasants and the first major industrial struggles of the 20th century. By 1910 the Diaz regime had alienated nearly every sector of Mexican society. Francisco Madero, the son of a wealthy Coahuilan landowning family, announced his candidacy for president in 1910. When Diaz won the rigged 1910 election, Madero raised armies for a brief armed struggle against Diaz’s disintegrating regime. But while Madera had depended upon peasant armies to put him in power, his programme limited itself to the questions of political reform and fair elections. It had little or nothing to say about the poverty of the mass of Mexicans, 80 percent of whom were peasants. Within a year, a peasant army led by Emiliano Zapata proclaimed its struggle for land reform against the Madero government. Madero also faced opposition from the old order, which wanted to reinstate the political control of the old oligarchy.

Three ex-Porfirista generals, led by Victoriano Huerta, led a coup against Madero in February 1913. They captured and executed Madero, and installed Huerta as the new president of Mexico. Opposition to the military counter-revolutionaries came from two sources. The first was the ‘constitutionalists’, led by Venustiano Carranza, one of Madero’s generals. The constitutionalists desired to contain the revolution within the framework that Madero had laid out. The second source of opposition came from the peasant armies led by Zapata in the south and by Francisco (Pancho) Villa in the north. The Zapatistas and the Villistas aimed at more fundamental change than the constitutionalists did; both called for land reform. In a bloody war, these two forces combined to oust Huerta’s regime in 1914. The forces which Carranza represented – sections of the landowning class, the small capitalist class and middle class – would never have defeated Huerta had it not been for the intervention of the Zapatistas and the Villistas. The struggle reached its crescendo when the peasant armies led by Villa and Zapata occupied the federal capital in 1914. However, Villa and Zapata had no programme for reaching beyond their peasant base or for governing the country. They abandoned contention for national power, leaving a power vacuum, which a succession of bourgeois generals’ regimes filled. [21] Carranza assumed the presidency and proclaimed a new bourgeois constitution in 1917. Zapata fought on for two more years until his assassination in 1919.

Workers, predominantly under anarchist political influence, did not enter the revolution as an independent force. Instead, the main working class organisation (the House of the World Worker) allied itself with the bourgeois generals to defeat Zapata’s and Villa’s peasant revolution in 1915–1916. The constitutionalist generals ‘sought to establish a strong, stable government; to promote economic development, along conventional capitalist lines; and to achieve a degree of social equilibrium, based on limited guided political participation and pragmatic, even opportunist, social reforms, which implied no grand restructuring of society’. [22] Throughout the 1920s, the generals suppressed right wing attempts to roll back the revolution. To promote political stability, the bourgeois generals established in 1929 the Revolutionary National Party (PRN) – the precursor of the PRI – as their vehicle for controlling Mexican society. The PRN’s founder, President Elias Plutarco Calles, hoped the party would establish rules of succession among Mexico’s revolutionary elite. He hoped that his handpicked successor, former general and Michoacan state governor Lázaro Cárdenas, would continue his policies, which stressed economic development in partnership with foreign and private capital.

But the presidential succession took place in the depths of the Great Depresssion. Mexican export earnings dropped from US $274 million in 1929 to US $96.5 million in 1932. Unemployment produced hunger marches and agrarian revolts throughout Calles’ 1929–1934 term. The depression pushed President Cárdenas to embark on a populist economic programme emphasising state intervention in the economy, land and labour reform. The 1934–1940 Cárdenas government took over failed haciendas and distributed more than 20 million hectares of land to peasants. Cárdenas’s agrarian reforms effectively ended the hacienda system. Moreover, he moved to limit the role of foreign capital in the Mexican economy. He won tremendous popular support in Mexico (and tremendous animosity from the US government and oil companies) when he nationalised the oil industry in 1938. [23]

Cárdenas retains a reputation as populist hero today because of his support for land reform and labour organisation. Although his government granted asylum to Trotsky and leaned on the Communist Party for support, the Cárdenas government was not as radical as it has been remembered. One historian noted:

Cárdenas’ government was not opposed to capitalism or capitalists, but, on the contrary ... he protected them and promoted their development and strengthening. The radical official phraseology that filled the political atmosphere in the country and Cárdenas’ confrontations with certain segments of capital ... gave rise to ideological legends whose end result was to present the government, and particularly the president, as staunch enemies of capital, as advocates of a non-capitalist social order, whose tendency was to socialise the means of production. [24]

In 1935–1936, in the midst of a strike wave involving tramway, petroleum and railroad workers, Cárdenas’s opponents – Monterrey capitalists and former president Calles – condemned his labour policies for spurring unrest. As a means of bolstering support for his administration, Cárdenas called for the formation of a single labour federation, and in 1936 almost all major national unions and existing federations merged to form the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). The dependence of the CTM on Cárdenas’s good graces undermined CTM organising drives among rural workers. The ruling party’s 1938 establishment of the National Peasants’ Confederation (CNC) as a ‘popular organisation integrated into the ruling party’ formalised the division between urban and rural workers. [25]

Cárdenas revamped the ruling party in 1938, merging the CTM, the CNC and the National Confederation of Popular Organisations (an organisation of government bureaucrats, civil servants and the self employed). In 1949 it was renamed the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) and it has dominated all political life in Mexico, suppressing or co-opting opposition to its rule. Until 1989 its candidates never lost a governorship of one of Mexico’s 31 states. To this day, it has never lost a presidential election.

Business organisations and the church were formally excluded from the ruling party, but the PRI served business interests nonetheless. The state party ‘created a climate very favourable to private investment, not only through attractive incentives such as industrial protectionism or tax exemptions but, perhaps more importantly, through a very effective political infrastructure which absorbs and neutralises demands’. [26]

The PRI’s relationship to trade unions illustrates the point. Dating from the House of the World Worker’s collaboration with the revolutionary generals against the peasant armies, Mexican trade union organisations have rarely displayed independence from the state or its bourgeois leaders. Unfortunately, the main tradition of Mexican socialism, that of Stalinism embodied in the Communist Party (PCM) and the Popular Socialist Party (PPS), helped give a red gloss to the state’s ‘revolutionary’ leaders. PPS leader and Stalinist fellow traveller Vicente Lombardo Toledana led the CTM when it was incorporated into the ruling party under Cárdenas. The Mexican Communist Party, pursuing its policy of alliances with the ‘progressive wing of the bourgeoisie’, abetted this historic defeat for trade union independence. [27]

In the 1940s, as the Mexican state moved away from the populist policies of Cárdenas, it moved against any union leaders who protested its pro-business policies. In the period of 1947–1950, the government relied on the leaders of the CTM to oust ‘communists’ from the unions. When leaders of several important unions announced plans to form a labour federation independent of the CTM, the government simply removed them and imposed compliant leaders in their place. These new leaders, known as charros [28], dominate the official (state-affiliated) union movement to this day. No greater symbol of charro control exists than 97 year old Fidel Velázquez, who has ruled the CTM unchallenged since the late 1940s. The charros’ chief qualification for remaining in control of their unions was their loyalty to the ruling party and its economic policies. [29] In exchange for complying with state policy, the CTM was allowed to allocate jobs, to run the nation’s social security system, and to operate union owned firms.

A political regime in crisis

The breakneck pace of privatisations and economic liberalisation undermined a crucial source of support for the ruling party. Salinas and Zedillo have been forced to dismantle the structures of clientelism and corruption which served to deliver votes and support for the PRI. Commentator Jorge G. Castañeda explained the problem for Mexico’s governing elite:

For various reasons, [Salinas’s] government dismantled or discarded many of the traditional means to settle disputes among elites. Corruption did not abate, of course; it was merely rechannelled toward a few privileged beneficiaries. The distribution of privileges, posts, sinecures, jobs, seats in the Chamber of Deputies, governorships, scholarships, and embassy posts, and all the Mexican system’s scaffolding of cooptation, corruption, and consolidation started shrinking. There are fewer state-owned companies, and those still there are handed over to groups that are ever more closed. [30]

The old structures provided both a system of economic patronage and a system of political control. In abolishing the economic sources of patronage, Mexican governments have lost levers for their political control as well.

Implementation of ‘free market’ policies provoked the most serious split in the ruling party since its formation. Longtime PRI loyalists Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, a former PRI chairman, and Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, a former PRI governor and son of Lázaro Cárdenas, formed an opposition faction in the ruling party in 1986. Demanding a rejection of neoliberal policies and a return to PRI popularism, they found their main support among government bureaucrats and sections of the CTM. The ruling party expelled the faction, pushing Cárdenas into an opposition run for the presidency on a National Democratic Front (FDN) ticket. For the period leading up to the 1988 presidential election, the FDN gained massive popular support. It provided a focus for urban and rural protest movements that emerged in response to the devastation the government’s economic policies brought about.

Cárdenas’s opposition candidacy created a stampede of virtually the entire left into his camp. With the notable exception of the Fourth International affiliate, the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT) [31], the Stalinist and nationalist left forged an alliance with the old PRI apparatchiks to give the FDN its legs. Telephone workers, airline workers, petroleum workers and dissident members and officials of the electricians’ union gave covert and overt support to Cárdenas. The FDN probably won the 1988 presidential election. The government, claiming the computer counting election results broke down, suspended announcement of the presidential winner. When the government announced Salinas’s victory, millions of Mexicans flooded into the streets around the country to protest fraud. Much to the dismay of FDN’s supporters, Cárdenas refused to lead a campaign to overturn the election. Cárdenas plainly feared that the forces his candidacy had helped to mobilise might escape his control – and with it his ability to bargain with the PRI on the movement’s behalf.

Instead, the FDN moved to turn itself into a permanent populist opposition party – forming in 1989 the Party of the Democratic Revolution. The PRD amalgamates disparate forces: nationalists, independent activists in various urban and peasant movements and the Stalinist and Maoist left. This combination has fuelled many faction fights and disagreements over party democracy in the PRD. While the PRD was the first major opposition party to gain a foothold in Mexico in 50 years, its attempt to revive the 1930s style populism of Lázaro Cárdenas foundered. Cárdenas’s populist policies coincided with the period in the world economy in which planning and state intervention was the accepted orthodoxy. But internationalisation of trade and investment flows – and Mexico’s place in the North American trade block – curtails any revival of 1930s style state capitalism.

Significantly, the PRD’s rise signalled the eclipse of independent socialist politics as it had been constituted in Mexico. The Unified Mexican Socialist Party (PSUM), the descendent of the Mexican Communist Party founded in 1919, dissolved itself into the PRD. ‘Mexican communism, as an historical current represented by a party, the ex-PCM, has signed its death certificate,’ wrote one observer. [32] The PSUM’s liquidation into the PRD represented the final act of Mexican Stalinism decades long capitulation to Mexican ‘revolutionary nationalism’.

However, the greatest beneficiary of the shakeup at the top has been the right wing opposition party, the Party of National Action (PAN). PAN, formed in 1939 as a quasi Christian Democratic opposition to President Lázaro Cárdenas’s populism, captured much of the electoral opposition to PRI prior to the 1988 presidential campaign. After being temporarily displaced as the main opposition to PRI in 1988, it regained its second place status. It now controls four governorships and 15 of the country’s 20 largest cities. PAN member Antonio Lozano served as the country’s attorney general for the first two years of Zedillo’s term – the first opposition politician ever included in a PRI cabinet. [33] Ideologically, PAN stands for right wing economic policies: privatisation, NAFTA and free trade, and cutbacks in the government role in the economy. With the exception of supporting a greater role for religion in public life and its reputation for opposing corruption, it differs little in its approach to the ‘big questions’ of Mexican politics from the PRI. PAN supports the government’s economic policies. Before Zedillo fired him in 1996, Attorney General Lozano engineered government crackdowns on the Zapatistas and other guerrillas.

For this reason, Mexican business found in PAN a ‘safe’ opposition. It was no secret that militant ‘anti-statist’ business groups funded PAN victories in the mid-1980s to pressure the PRI government to adopt ‘neoliberal’ economic policies. [34] But as Salinas and Zedillo implemented neoliberal economic policies, big business support for PAN subsided. Salinas’s and Zedillo’s recognition of PAN election victories helped give the regime a democratic facade while reassuring business of its continued adherence to free market policies. Yet PAN continues to grow in strength, particularly in the north of the country. It serves as a vehicle for middle class voters and for business groups which feel ‘locked out’ from the cosy relationship the president has developed with the largest, export-oriented capitalists in the country. [35] Today, the idea of a US-style political system, where two capitalist parties alternate in power, is gaining acceptance among Mexican business. [36] Indeed, PAN president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa recently told an audience of US foreign policy experts that with PRI becoming ‘the principal factor of political instability in Mexico’, PAN will play the role of the system’s stabiliser. [37]

Today, a new political party system is taking shape. The PRI continues to hold the presidency and the dominant position in framing the country’s economic policy period. But it is ceding more control of regions and congressional seats to opposition parties. The PAN gathers strength in the north. And the PRD, initially strong in the centre of the country, has lost some of that support to PAN and the PRI. Today, the PRD is stronger in the rural southern areas of the country, where dislocations from the destruction of the agrarian economy fuel opposition to the ruling party. The PRI is still the only force with a national reach, but many Mexican political observers believe that the PAN and the PRD together could seriously challenge PRI for the congressional majority in the July 1997 elections. [38] What is clear is that the crisis of the old order has opened up the possibilities of change from below.

The Zapatista challenge

The Chiapas uprising was the first major guerrilla challenge to the regime since the 1970s. Twice the government has attempted to suppress the EZLN militarily, once in January 1994 and another time in February 1995. Both times, the government was forced to retreat in the face of large protests in Mexico City, the rest of the country and around the world. In May 1994 the Zapatistas forced the government to meet with their leaders and to offer the EZLN a series of reforms. These included general demands from improved healthcare and sanitation to increased farm prices. The government also agreed to specific demands to address the needs of the region’s indigenous population, such as support for indigenous language radio stations. The EZLN, arguing that the government’s offer was insufficient, rejected it in June 1994. Since then, an estimated 25,000 troops have surrounded the Zapatistas in the hills of the Lacandón jungle, while the army conducts a ‘low intensity’ war against the population of Chiapas. The EZLN broke off peace negotiations with the government in September 1995.

Estimates of the number of guerrillas under the EZLN’s arms vary from a few hundred to as many as 3,000. Most of the combatants are armed with primitive weapons, but the Zapatistas have the active or passive support of thousands. The Zapatistas’ audacity and the effectiveness of their chief spokesperson, Subcommander Marcos, in explaining their case to the world have earned the EZLN celebrity status on the Mexican and international left. [39] For socialists, the justice of the EZLN’s demands is not in doubt. The question is whether their politics and strategy offer a way forward in Mexico.

The EZLN appears to have sprung from the efforts of the Maoist organisation Popular Politics (PP). PP emerged from the radical 1968 student movement. Its chief theoretician, National Autonomous University professor Adolfo Berlinguer, urged in his pamphlet Hacia una Politica Popular (Towards a Politics of the People) that student radicals and intellectuals must live among the masses and organise them. By one account, Samuel Rulz, the Catholic bishop of Chiapas and proponent of liberation theology, was so impressed with the PP’s neighbourhood organising in Torreón that he invited PP activists to move to Chiapas. Subcommander Marcos said he was one of the first 12 PP activists who relocated in Chiapas in 1983 to organise a guerrilla war. [40] The radicals operated under the protection of the church, often accompanying priests on religious missions into the Chiapas hinterlands.

The EZLN emerged from self defence brigades set up to defend peasants from terrorism at the hands of Chiapas coffee barons and cattle ranchers. ‘Peaceful’ land occupations turned bloody when landlords’ pistoleros (gunmen) attacked peasants. Later, said Marcos in one interview, ‘the comrades saw it wasn’t enough to do self-defence of a single community: but rather to establish alliances with others and to begin to take up military and paramilitary contingents on a larger scale’. [41] If one single event can be said to have pushed these paramilitary groups to embark on the road of armed insurrection it was the Salinas government’s 1992 decision to repeal Article 27 from the federal constitution. Article 27, a product of the Mexican Revolution, did not grant peasants land but it did guarantee them rights to petition to use disused private land or land held by the state. Peasants could farm the land on collectively run farms called ejidos.

For years, Article 27 had been a dead letter, especially in Chiapas. The government retained power to rule on peasants’ petitions to take over land. Since the Mexican Revolution, the quality of land distributed under Article 27 has worsened, with only about one fifth of it considered arable. [42] But ending Article 27 closed off any hope for peasants that they might be able to gain a plot of ground to call their own. Class differentiation within the Chiapas peasantry was exacerbated following the ‘oil boom’ of the 1970s and 1980s. Some peasants enriched themselves by working on the oilrigs in Chiapas or by setting up small businesses that serviced the oil industry. Others, settlers who moved into the region in the 1970s, grew wealthier by marketing cash crops and running cattle on acreage they hacked out of the forest. Those wealthier peasants tended to align themselves with the ruling party. Repealing Article 27 polarised indigenous communities and peasant organisations between those who supported continued ‘peaceful’ methods of struggle and those who chose the ‘armed struggle’. In the debates that broke out over how to respond to the government, the ‘armed struggle’ tendency won out. Long before NAFTA passed the US Congress, the EZLN’s leadership set a date for an uprising. [43]

An EZLN fighter interviewed during the first days of the rebellion was reported to have said that he was fighting for ‘socialism like Cuba only better’. But the Zapatistas are not socialists. On the contrary, they quite explicitly situate themselves in the Mexican revolutionary nationalist tradition of Zapata and Villa. Their First Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle, issued on the eve of their uprising, cited the authority of the Mexican constitution to legitimise their insurrection. ‘We are patriots,’ they declared, ‘and our insurgent soldiers love and respect our tricoloured flag.’

They demanded ‘work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, freedom, justice and peace’ and pledged to form a ‘free and democratic government’. [44] While they appeal to Mexican nationalism, they also speak on behalf of Mexico’s indigenous population.

When the Zapatistas launched their uprising, they pledged to march on Mexico City and called Mexicans to rise up ‘to depose the dictator’ Salinas. But a few weeks into the uprising, EZLN leader Subcommander Marcos said the Zapatistas had no desire to ‘take power’ nor to interfere with the elections planned for August 21 1994. [45] As a journalist sympathetic to the EZLN recounted:

The Zapatista electoral posture reeks of cognitive dissonance. The many pronouncements of Marcos and the CCRI [the EZLN’s clandestine leadership] on this subject take mind boggling swings. The EZLN first seemed to be saying that the presidential candidates are all anti-democratic duds and the parties compromised and corrupted by political expediency – but, nonetheless, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation pledges armed upheaval in the land if the election is tainted by fraud... By election day, however, the EZLN had grown less truculent, willing to try peaceful protest first if the PRI wasn’t defeated at the polls. [46]

Three weeks before the 1994 national elections, the Zapatistas convened a National Democratic Convention (CND). The CND brought together 6,000 grassroots activists, an extraordinary gathering of the Mexican left. Yet the convention represented the EZLN’s attempt ‘to shift Mexican politics to the left and to influence the final outcome of the election,’ according to one socialist who attended the conference. [47] The Zapatistas banned from the conference two political tendencies – those which advocated the armed overthrow of the government and those which advocated abstention in the elections. While the EZLN and the CND did not officially endorse a candidate in the Mexican election, EZLN representatives urged a vote against the PRI and the PAN – a tacit endorsement of Cárdenas. Dan LaBotz’s characterisation of the CND is apt:

in political terms, the thrust of the CND resolutions was nationalist, democratic and social – in a word, social democratic. This was in no way a revolutionary socialist convention. The CND saw no special role for the working class in leading the struggle for democracy ... The CND represented the Mexican Jacobin tradition, the traditional petty bourgeois radicalism that had animated the Mexican Revolution. [48]

The CND illustrated the essentially reformist nature of the EZLN’s politics: the EZLN are ‘armed reformists’. [49]

While there is widespread sympathy for the Zapatistas around the country, they remain isolated from the majority of Mexicans, who are workers living in and around the country’s urban areas. Zapatista communiques carry few references to workers or working class issues, aside from general criticisms of neoliberalism or by inclusion of the workers in the ‘broad front’ fighting for democracy (along with intellectuals, medium and small business, students, peasants, women, etc.). In the immediate aftermath of the uprising, groups of workers petitioned to join the EZLN. [50] But the Zapatistas have not sought to join the class demands of Chiapas peasants with those of urban workers. For example, the EZLN refused for months to endorse the nationally prominent struggle of Mexico City area bus drivers in 1995–1996. Only when the EZLN received criticism from supporters inside and outside Mexico did it endorse the bus drivers’ struggle.

The EZLN’s reluctance to associate itself with trade unions contrasts with its embrace of ‘civil society’, the catch-all term for a panoply of neighbourhood, human rights, environmental and other organisations. The EZLN’s current vehicle for forging the link with ‘civil society’ is the Zapatista National Liberation Front (FZLN), launched in 1995. The Front coordinates support for the EZLN around the country, but it also channels that support into electioneering for the PRD. Front activists tend to come from the same middle class and student milieu that produces PRD activists in the cities. The EZLN’s current alliance with the PRD simply brings the EZLN’s theory and its practice into correspondence. Put starkly, the EZLN’s politics do not represent a break with the nationalist tradition which has helped to incorporate opposition forces into the state. Instead, the EZLN’s politics encourage a broad front orientated around the PRD, which is itself increasingly becoming a haven for nationalist former ruling party politicians.

The EZLN remains isolated in the hills of Chiapas, deadlocked in on-again, off-again negotiations with the government. The government may yet attempt to crush the Zapatista rebellion. However, the EZLN’s nationalist politics certainly do not rule out some kind of accommodation with the government. In any event, the EZLN has lost political momentum. Among many poor peasants and city dwellers, the EZLN has lost its place on the cutting edge of the Mexican left to the People’s Revolutionary Army (EPR). When the EPR announced itself at a memorial for 18 peasants murdered by the state’s police in Guerrera in June 1996, government and opposition figures (including Cárdenas) denounced it as a ‘pantomime’. But the EPR’s simultaneous attacks on police and army outposts in Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas on 28 August 1996 dispelled the characterisation.

In late 1996 the EPR became a focus for radicalisation in Mexico. Its communiques have stressed politics not much different from the EZLN’s. It calls for the creation of a ‘national revolutionary movement to topple the PRI and to establish a more democratic and just society.’ But unlike the EZLN, it has refused to negotiate with what it calls ‘a government which assassinates people’. The EZLN has rejected any association with the EPR. Still, the EPR’s appearance has given the government an excuse to unleash tremendous repression. Most of the repression has been aimed at the Broad Front for the Creation of a National Liberation Movement (FAC-MLN), which the government claims is a front for the EPR. In reality, dozens of poor peoples’ organisations came together to form the FAC-MLN in 1994. It is a ‘broad front’, like the FZLN. But unlike the FZLN it urges abstention from elections. Because it is a front of more than 300 peasant organisations, independent labour unions and neighbourhood organisations, its rank and file is much more proletarian than the FZLN’s. ‘Whether any of these groups have links to the EPR or are infiltrated by it is a murky and much debated question,’ wrote one reporter. [51]

What about the Mexican working class?

When the 1910–1917 Mexican Revolution took place, the peasantry made up 80 percent of the Mexican population. Today, only 25 percent of the workforce work in agriculture, while 15 percent work in manufacturing, 6 percent work in other industries (such as mining), 19 percent engage in commerce, and 35 percent work in services. [52] One quarter of the country’s 91 million people live in 2 percent of the country, the area covered by the three largest cities, Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey. Only one in five Mexicans live in towns with a population of less than 1,000 people. [53] The extreme crisis in the agrarian economy has produced both a flight of peasants to the cities and the support for guerrilla uprisings centred in the southern parts of the country. In the northern and central parts of the country, where the peasantry has far less social weight than it does in the south, the guerrilla struggle has little appeal. Guerrilla struggle is an important indication of the depths of the crisis in rural areas but there is no way that a rural based ‘prolonged people’s war’ can defeat the Mexican state and assume control of the world’s eleventh largest economy. [54] A second Mexican revolution will depend on the working class of the cities.

The most strategically important sectors of the Mexican economy – at least from the point of view of the country’s rulers – are the oil industry and the maquiladora sector. These two sectors of the economy account, respectively, for the first and second most important earners of foreign exchange, the crucial ingredient for export-led industrialisation. Despite firing 60,000 workers between 1989 and 1992, the state-run oil monopoly PEMEX still employs about 100,000 workers; it remains the largest single employer in Mexico. The last decade’s defeats have weakened the petroleum workers’ union severely. The charro leadership Salinas imposed signed contracts giving up seniority rights and union job allocation and allowing for the hiring of non-union personnel. A 1992 PEMEX reorganisation decentralised the company into four subsidiaries, breaking a single national contract. The setbacks under the charro leadership caused so much rank and file unrest that the PRI forced the charros’ resignation in 1993. [55] Meanwhile, the 1994-1995 devaluation crisis brought a further collapse in the domestic market, increasing the importance of the export and maquiladora sector. Maquila output between January and August 1996 was 17 percent higher than for the same period in 1995. The maquiladoras employ 27 percent of manufacturing workers, compared to only 7 percent in 1985. [56] Maquiladoras accounted for 41 percent of all new waged jobs created between 1988 and 1993. [57]

Despite the fact that the maquila plants are some of the most modern in the world, conditions for the workforce are terrible. Pay amounts to US $30–$40 per week, the working week lasts an average of 48 hours, and workers also suffer health problems from the pollution the plants dump into the rivers. Women workers, who make up two thirds of the maquiladora workforce, face constant sexual harassment from management. Trade union rights are limited. Only about 10 percent of the maquiladoras are organised in unions, with CTM-affiliated unions representing most organised plants. CTM contracts permit substandard working conditions, tailoring the contract to the needs of production. [58]

Maquiladora workers tend to be younger, and possess less union experience, than the workers who worked for the old state-run industries. On the other hand, when they fight, they can be tougher for the old corporatist unions to control. In early 1995, 13,000 workers in the maquila zone in Ciudad Juarez – across the border from El Paso, Texas – struck and in most cases won raises. In two of these strikes – one against the Swedish/US owned Thomson Electronic/RCA plant and one against the Japanese owned TDK – wildcat strikes won against a contract that the official unions negotiated. Later, a 1,000 strong wildcat strike at the Coclisa plant, blocking the plant’s entrance and raising red and black flags to demand a 30 percent pay increase. Despite the weakness of union organisation in the maquila zone, terrible conditions continue to foster resistance.

The conditions for a workers’ upsurge exist in Mexico. But the rebuilding of a labour movement faces major challenges. The legacy of the defeats of the 1980s and the early 1990s weighs on the labour movement. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s the government imposed contracts, ordered troops to expel strikers from workplaces, declared bankruptcy of state-run companies to break union agreements, and removed resistant union leaderships. [59] The number of strikes the state recognised dropped from 875 in 1982 to an estimate of 159 in 1992. Between September 1995 and August 1996 strikes dropped by 44 percent. Only 60 strikes took place in that period. [60] Much of the decline should be laid at the feet of the official unions, which file thousands of strike petitions with the government’s labour relations machinery as a substitute for organising any real action. The official unions remain a major obstacle to working class struggle in Mexico. One quarter of Mexican workers belong to trade unions, but most of these are CTM-affiliated unions integrated into the ruling party and the state. Crucial to the success of Salinas’s and Zedillo’s ‘free market’ policies has been the CTM’s agreement to a series of ‘solidarity pacts’, which held wages within ‘acceptable’ levels. Therefore, class struggle in Mexico cannot be separated from a fight for trade union independence from the state.

The Authentic Labour Front (FAT) [61] is the most long standing advocate of independent union organisation. Founded by Catholic union activists in 1960, it was radicalised during the 1970s ‘worker insurgency’, a period of struggle that threw up oppositions in the electrical workers’ and other CTM unions. It describes its goal as ‘the transformation of society and the capitalist system into a self-managed form of socialism.’ It organises both wage workers and worker-owned co-operatives in the countryside. One of its affiliates, the Ford Democratic Workers Movement, has waged a seven year struggle against CTM gangsterism to bring democratic unionism to the Ford plant at Cuautitlan outside Mexico City. FAT’s membership of 40,000-50,000 is scattered among the textile and garment and auto-parts industries and in such public sector areas as the fisheries ministry. FAT has also developed a ‘strategic organising alliance’ with the United Electrical, Machine and Radio Workers Union in the US. [62] Despite its tenacity, FAT’s small size limits its ability to build a workers’ movement independent of the state. Yet, for the foreseeable future, it will be an important player in the building of a genuine labour movement in Mexico.

Under the stresses the economic crisis created, splits emerged within the official union bureaucracy. In 1996 ten CTM-affiliated unions and federations formed a dissident Forum of Unionism Facing the Nation. [63] These unions, known as the foristas because they sponsored a series of public forums (foros) criticising PRI policy, included the powerful telephone workers’, electrical workers’ and teachers’ unions. They linked with independent unions and federations, including FAT. A total of 25 unions and federations now form a permanent organisation which has faced threats of expulsion from the CTM. The Forum may signal that ‘the official union apparatus is coming apart at the seams’ [64], but it is unclear how far the foristas are willing to go. Leading foristas, like telephone workers leader Francisco Hernández Juárez [65] or former teachers’ leader Elba Esther Gordillo, have criticised Zedillo’s policies, but they have not taken any action against them. Nor have they led any fights against the employers.

One other major independent federation stands to the foro’s left. It is the May First Inter-Union Coalition, whose leading organisation is the SUTAUR-100 Mexico City bus drivers’ union. The May First Coalition grew out of the organising committee for the 1995 May Day demonstration in Mexico City, one of the most important events in recent Mexican labour history. FAT and other independent organisations belong to the May First Coalition. But it remains politically divided between supporters of the FZLN and the FAC-MLN.

In 1995, and since, Mexican workers reclaimed the tradition of May Day. For the first time in more than 60 years, the state controlled trade union movement – fearing that a large gathering of workers would turn into general anti-government protests – cancelled 1995’s ‘official’ May Day demonstration in Mexico City. While the ‘official’ union leaders denounced the march from the confines of the National Palace, as many as 200,000 workers from independent unions, dissident groups within the official unions, and supporters of the Zapatistas took over downtown Mexico City. In 1996 the independent unionists repeated their action. This time, delegations of workers from the electricians’, social security workers’, airline pilots’ and telephone workers’ and other Forum unions joined with the ‘independents’ in the demonstration. [66] By 1997’s May Day, hatred of the government could not be contained in the outdoor demonstration. While dissident protestors rallied in the government square, a hand picked crowd of CTM loyalists heckled Zedillo repeatedly during his address in the National Auditorium.

Workers have shown an increasing willingness to demonstrate against government policies. Social security workers mounted dozens of mass demonstrations throughout 1996. The threat of privatisation and job losses forced these workers, who do not have a tradition of militancy, to fight back. Movements like these represent a beginning point for working class struggle. In 1996 dissident teachers in the national teachers’ union led the biggest teachers’ struggle since the mid-1980s. Unlike the social security workers, the teachers took the struggle to the next necessary level – combining mass demonstrations with workplace struggle and strike action. [67] Whether promising beginnings like the 1996 teachers’ and social security workers’ struggles can generalise into a working class fightback that offers a real alternative to the neoliberal agenda depends on leadership at the rank and file level. The development of that leadership is inseparable from the development of a left which sees the working class as central to changing Mexican society. As Trotsky pointed out in analysing the role of unions in nationalised industry in Lázaro Cárdenas’s Mexico, ‘In any case, to use this new form of activity in the interests of the working class, and not of the labour aristocracy and the bureaucracy, only one condition is needed: the existence of a revolutionary Marxist party that carefully studies every form of working class activity, criticises every deviation, educates and organises the workers, wins influence in the trade unions’. [68]

The Mexican left

The Mexican left exists on two levels: in the broad forces of opposition to the regime, from peasant rebels to independent unionists, and in the formal political organisations, representing politics from Zapatismo to Marxism. Many analysts of Mexican politics promote the left of the broad opposition as antidote to the left represented in political organisations. They argue that formal political organisations are self-aggrandising, sectarian and manipulative of popular forces. [69] The current focus on ‘civil society’ as the key to transforming Mexico, which the Zapatistas have helped to promote, follows this logic. ‘Civil society’ took centre stage following the Mexico City earthquake of September 1985, when neighbourhood groups came together to rescue and feed those trapped in the quake. In a society dominated since the 1920s by the ‘revolutionary state’, the capacity of ordinary Mexicans for self-organisation proved liberating. Certainly any movement to transform Mexican society will involve a great majority of women’s, neighbourhood, environmental and other organisations of civil society.

Nevertheless, civil society is a jumble of cross-class alliances involving a multitude of organisations and ideologies. Middle class human rights activists and poor slum dwellers do not see the world from the same vantage point. They may ally in a general movement for democracy, but they share different class interests. El Barzón, a debtor’s movement formed in 1993, has led militant protests against bank foreclosures and high interest rates throughout the crisis. It has even allied with the EZLN. However, its supporters are wealthier farmers and bankrupted small businessmen. Obviously, these are uncertain allies for any workers’ or poor peasants’ movement. [70] According to one admirer, the focus of civil society is not on ‘the factory, mill, mine or workshop as on the barrio, the street, the schools, the fields, and the struggles for access to land, housing, and urban services like portable water, roads and power’. [71] These community based struggles are important. But they do not hold the same power to transform Mexican society as workers’ struggles in the ‘factory, mill, mine or workshop’.

Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) sustain civil society. These are subject to corruption from two sources: the Mexican government, which provides funds for local projects, and international lending agencies and foundations. [72] Civil society’s focus on ‘practical’ questions also leads to parochial agendas. According to Francisco Saucedo of the Assembly of Barrios (neighbourhoods), which formed in the early 1980s in Mexico City:

We were successful with the early stages. We demanded land and housing. We succeeded and we constructed the Assembly of Barrios. We had tens of thousands of people, almost in permanent mobilisation. Now the government has penetrated us and divided us. The organisations are local and small and fighting for the same things. These small organisations, if not linked to some larger project, lack political impact. They become competitive and parochial. [73]

When most commentators speak of the ‘leftist opposition’ in Mexico, they refer to the PRD and its leader and perennial presidential candidate, Cuahtemoc Cárdenas. Yet during 1994’s presidential campaign Cárdenas wasn’t able to capitalise on the leftward shift in Mexican society following the Zapatista uprising. When the uprising broke out, Cárdenas condemned it and called for its suppression, but in a way, he said, consistent with human rights. Within a week, when Cárdenas saw the degree of support for the Zapatistas amongst his own supporters, he shifted tack, calling for the government to negotiate with the EZLN. In 1997 his PRD attacked the EPR while engineering an electoral coalition with the EZLN.

Cárdenas, sensing the PRI’s vulnerability in 1994, attempted to position the PRD as a respectable party of government. As Castañeda noted, ‘One day [Cárdenas] would present a moderate, centrist economic program; the next day he would promise to reverse the agrarian counter-reform; and on the third day, he would denounce the gigantic fraud being prepared’. [74] As a result, he seemed to please no one. Exit polls showed that 20 percent of 1988 Cárdenas supporters voted for PAN and 9 percent voted for the PRI. By highlighting questions of electoral reform, while downplaying his economic criticisms of the government, Cárdenas seems to have driven a sizeable section of his urban vote to PAN. [75]

Thus the populist PRD is caught between its militants’ desire for far-reaching change and its leaders’ opportunism. The PRD’s militants have actively waged civil resistance campaigns and protests against vote fraud in Chiapas and Tabasco. The government has targeted the PRD for repression, murdering as many as 500 of its militants since 1989. Nevertheless, the PRD sees its base as a stage army to pressure the government for electoral reforms that will make it easier to win elections. It endorses a return to a more nationalist economic policy, but it does not campaign for workers or peasants. [76] Its leaders often seem more concerned with arcane matters of electoral law and electoral deals with other opposition parties than with the concerns of those who support it. Its newly elected leader, Manuel Lopez Obrador, a respected popular organiser, looks set to continue moving the party to ‘respectability’. Going into the 1997 congressional election, Lopez Obrador pursued a two-pronged opportunist strategy: announcing an electoral pact with the right wing PAN (which the PAN rejected) and offering PRD candidacies to politicians quitting the ruling party. In neither case does this strategy offer anything for Mexican workers and peasants. [77]

The missing party

The 1968 Mexican army massacre of more than 500 student protesters in the run up to the Olympic Games in Mexico City signalled the end of an era in Mexican politics. After the massacre, the Mexican government’s attempts to cloak itself in the legitimacy of the early 20th century nationalist revolution increasingly fell on deaf ears. The massacre also marked a turning point for the revolutionary left. According to one Mexican socialist,

The events of 1968 vastly renewed the panorama of left organisations. New parties emerged, those already in existence were strengthened – but several organisations unable to adjust to the new situation were swept away. The democratic and independent features established by the student movement were to influence and mould the popular mobilisations of the 70s. [78]

Armed struggle currents, influenced by the Cuban Revolution, and community organising currents, often led by Maoists, predominated. But the post-1968 upsurge also brought a revival of orthodox Trotskyism embodied in the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT) formed in 1976.

The Mexican government crushed the post-1968 guerrilla organisations in the 1970s. And most of the rest of the post-1968 left and the former Communist left has dissolved into the PRD or into the organisations of ‘civil society’. But 15 years of economic restructuring and ‘free market’ policies has brought Mexico to another turning point.

Polarisation in Mexican society is extreme. Guerrilla struggle and urban unrest is only one indication of that polarisation. Reports that hungry peasants and workers hijacking trains carrying food or looting government food warehouses are heard with greater frequency. Another indication of that polarisation is the growing militarisation of the country. In 21 of the country’s 31 states, active duty or retired military officers command civilian police forces. Under the guise of combating drug trafficking and guerrillas, Mexican troop strength has swelled to more than 200,000 – a 15 percent increase from 1994. [79]

Elections scheduled for July 1997 will test the regime’s staying power. But no matter what happens in the elections, Mexico’s bosses will continue to try to resolve the crisis on the backs of workers, peasants and the urban poor. If conditions deteriorate further, even the previously unthinkable – a military coup – could became a reality. The economic crisis cries out for a solution de abajo (from below) – in the interests of the majority of Mexicans. But the organisation that can fight for that kind of a solution is missing. No major political force exists to the PRD’s left, save the guerrilla organisations and their urban fronts. The Trotskyist left has undergone a three-way split since 1992.

Yet as the last three years of struggle have shown, the political situation is extremely fluid. The potential for the rapid growth of a revolutionary socialist organisation dedicated to the self-emancipation of the Mexican working class, leading the peasantry and other oppressed groups, is vast. [80] The May Day protests, the social security worker’s demonstrations and the teachers’ struggle all pay testimony to the possibilities for building socialist organisation out of the struggle itself. The process of creating such a party will not be an easy task for Mexican socialists. But it is nonetheless crucial for the possibility of a socialist solution to the crisis. A revolutionary socialist organisation, standing on working class politics independent of Zapatismo, Guevarism or Mexican nationalism, is urgently needed in Mexico today.


I would like to thank the following people for helping me with the research for this article: Joe Allen, Anthony Arnove, Paige Bierma, Brian Campbell, Dan LaBotz, Fred Rosen and Ahmed Shawki. Thanks also to Bridget Broderick, Mike Gonzalez, Carole Rarnsden and Lee Sustar for commenting on the first draft of this article.

Throughout the article I follow the convention, where possible, of translating the names of Mexican organisations into their English equivalents, but referring to their Spanish initials. Thus, the reference to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, which carries the initials ‘EZLN’ for ‘Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional’.

1. T. Barry, Zapata’s Revenge (Boston 1995), p. 194.

2. L. Crawford, Turnaround a Welcome Surprise, Financial Times, 1 October 1996, p. 13.

3. Information on the survey, conducted by Alianza Civica, a middle-class reform organisation, comes from M. Garcia, El Impacto de La Politics Economica de Zedillo, ¡Exito! (Chicago), 28 November 1996, p. 12.

4. L. Cardoso and A. Martinez, Mil 169 Manifestaciones en el DF en 7 Meses; 70% Provinieron de Provincia, Uno Mas Uno, 29 October 1996, p. 12.

5. M. Stott, Mexico Government says Unaware of New Rebel Group, Reuters, 5 December 1996. Two other organisations, the Armed Front for the Liberation of the Marginalized Peoples of Guerrero, operating in the same southern state as the EPR, and the Revolutionary Army of Popular Insurgence (ERIC), operating in the north of the country, have yet to take any action.

6. These explanations focus on the role of international lending institutions, like the World Bank and the IMF, which exacted neoliberal policies in exchange for loans needed to finance Mexico’s debt. Sebastian Edwards, a former World Bank economist, claims credit (if that is the right word) for pushing Mexico and other Latin American countries toward trade liberalisation and ‘free market’ policies. See S. Edwards, Crisis and Reform in Latin America (New York, 1995), pp. 55–58. Someone like Edwards can hardly be called an impartial observer. But too much of the left accepts the simple ‘external’ explanation as well. For example, the radical writer Tom Barry argues ‘the radical restructuring of Mexican agriculture responds primarily to the forces of economic globalisation.’ See T. Barry, op. cit., p. 53. The agents of this change are transnational corporations and multinational lending institutions. He goes on to argue that: ‘the Marxist maxim that power is in the hands of those who control the means of production needs modification. Ownership of the means of production is still important. But financial power also means controlling the means of distribution, access to world markets, technological research and development, and processing facilities.’ (T. Barry, ibid., p. 54.)

I stress the ‘internal’ explanation to underscore that the majority of the Mexican capitalist class – and not just some ‘comprador bourgeoisie’ – supports the neoliberal agenda. Much left-nationalist rhetoric pins the blame for the current crisis on ‘large, transnational capital’ and their political representatives, the ruling party’s ‘technocrats’. This opens the door to a policy of alliances with ‘progressive sectors’ of the ruling party or with ‘small and medium-sized business’.

7. D. Barkin, About Face, NACLA Report on the Americas (May 1991), p. 34.

8. S. Edwards, op. cit., p. 57.

9. N. Harris, The End of the Third World (London and New York 1986), pp. 72–73.

10. See J.G. Castañeda, Los Ultimos Capitalismos (Mexico City 1982), p. 87; R.A. Camp, Entrepreneurs and Politics in Mexico (New York 1989), pp. 209–210; S. Trejo Reyes, Concentracion Industrial y Politica Economica en Mexico, Comercio Exterior 33 (1983), pp. 818–829.

11. See P.I. Taibo, Help! I’m Living in a Telenovela, The Nation, 24 April 1995, pp. 559–562, and A. Guillermoprieto, Mexico Murder Without Justice, New York Review of Books, 3 October 1995, pp. 31–36.

12. J.G. Castañeda, The Clouding Political Horizon, Current History (February 1993), p. 65.

13. P.L. Russell, Mexico Under Salinas (Austin, Texas 1994), pp. 187–190.

14. L. Sanchez, Overvalued Peso, Foreign Debt Top List of Economic Woes, Latin American News Update (Chicago), December 1993, p. 9. This article, written in December 1993, proved amazingly accurate: ‘When the ... flow of hard currency finally stops, which will have to happen with or without NAFTA, at the end of 1994 or the beginning of 1995, the GDP will go into free fall. The crisis of 1982 will look like child’s play.’

15. Figures from D. Barkin, I. Ortiz, F. Rosen, Globalization and Resistance: The Remaking of Mexico, NACLA Report on the Americas (January/February 1997), pp. 23–25.

16. See L. Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (New York 1969). Developed to explain the Russian experience, Trotsky’s theory noted that capitalism did not develop uniformly in one country or in the world. Within the borders of one country, the most modern, technologically sophisticated techniques can coexist with the most backward and primitive (even pre-capitalist) techniques.

17. L. Uchitelle, America’s Newest Industrial Belt, New York Times, 21 March 1993, pp. C1, C14.

18. Figures on today’s maquiladora industry come from En tres años las maquiladora surtiran el mercado nacional, La Jornada, 12 May 1997. Figures for 1965 come from P.L. Russell, op. cit., p. 203.

19. P.L. Russell, The Chiapas Rebellion (Austin, Texas 1995), p. 2. The majority racial group in Mexico (more than 60 percent of all Mexicans) is mestizo, descendants of Indian and Spanish intermarriage.

20. M.A. Bartolome, Indians and Afro-Mexicans at the End of the Century, in L. Randall (ed.), Changing Structure of Mexico (Armonk, NY 1996), pp. 301–304.

21. This crude summary of the Mexican Revolution doesn’t do justice to one of the great political movements of the 20th century. For history of the revolution, see A. Knight, The Mexican Revolution, 2 vols (Lincoln, Neb 1986); A. Gilly, The Mexican Revolution (New York 1987); J. Womack, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution (New York 1968).

22. A Knight, op. cit., p. 518.

23. For a discussion of the forces represented by the Cárdenas government and the policies it promoted, see N. Hamilton, The Limits of State Autonomy (Princeton, NJ 1982), pp. 104–140.

24. A. Anguiano, El Impulso Al Capitalismo, in I. Colmenares, M.A. Gallo, F. Gonzelez and L. Hernandez (eds.), Cien Años de la Lucha de Clases en Mexico, 1876–1976, vol. 2, edn. 17 (Mexico City 1995), p. 111.

25. K.J. Middlebrooks, The Paradox of Revolution (Baltimore, Md 1995), pp. 91–92.

26. J.L. Reyna, Redefining the Authoritarian Regime, in J.L. Reyna and R.S. Weinert (eds.), Authoritarianism in Mexico (Philadelphia 1977), pp. 155–171.

27. See M.A. Velasco, El Partido Comunista Durante El Periodo de Cárdenas, in I. Colmenares, M.A. Gallo, F. Gonzelez and L. Hernandez, op. cit., pp. 163–168. In 1937, 23 major unions, including the electricians, railroad workers and teachers, walked out of the CTM to protest the undemocratic tactics of Lombardo Toledano and Fidel Velázquez. The CP initially supported the dissident unions, which could have formed the basis of a labour federation independent of the state. However, under heavy pressure from the Comintern and the intervention of the leader of the US Communist Party, Earl Browder, the CP reversed its support for the dissidents and adopted a slogan of ‘unity at all costs’ with the CTM. The CP used its substantial influence to bring the dissidents back into the CTM, submitting completely to the leadership and discipline of the Toledano and Velazquez. See N. Hamilton, op. cit., p. 152–162.

28. D. LaBotz, Mask of Democracy (Boston 1992), p. 67. The label charro derives from the nickname of Jesus Diaz de Leon, known as ‘El Charro’ (‘the Dude’), the corrupt leader the government imposed by military force on the rail workers’ union. The label charro is today used to describe the corrupt leaders of Mexico’s official unions.

29. The Congress of Labour includes the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), the Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM), and the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC). Although the three organisations differ little in their overall outlook or in their support of the ruling party, they maintain different structures. Sometimes Mexican presidents have found it useful to play one ‘official’ federation off another – in order to win union support for their policies.

30. J.G. Castañeda, The Mexican Shock (New York 1996), p. 165.

31. The PRT ran its own presidential candidate, Rosario Ibarra, a well-known human rights campaigner.

32. O.R. Araujo, Ocaso del Comunismo en Mexico in M.A. Mora and M. Schoijet (eds.), La Revolucion contra del PRI (Mexico City 1991), p. 169.

33. Zedillo fired Garcia in November 1996. This was part of a Zedillo’s effort to consolidate the PRI and the government in preparation for the 1997 elections.

34. Andres Marcelo Sada Zambrano, one of the leading members of the Monterrey Group, explained business’s strategy in supporting PAN: ‘[Entrepeneurs] support PAN because there is an overlapping of basic values between the two groups. Yes, the activities of the entrepreneurs in politics can indeed change the relationship between the two sectors in the sense of putting more pressure on government decision making, similar to the pressure used by the unions.’ Quoted in R. Camp, Entrepreneurs and Politics in Twentieth-Century Mexico (New York 1989), p. 137.

35. J.A. Teichman, Privatization and Political Change in Mexico (Pittsburgh, Pa 1995), p. 190. PAN also attracts the votes of thousands of working class and poor voters who simply want to vent opposition to the PRI.

36. F.V. Ugalde, The Private Sector and Political Regime Change in Mexico, in G. Otero (ed.), Neo-Liberalism Revisited (Boulder, Colo 1996), p. 144.

37. Calderón quoted in J. Cason and D. Brooks, Calderón: AN, principal factor de estabilidad en Mexico, La Jornada, 16 October 1996.

38. For a description of the emerging party system, see J.L. Klesner, The Evolving Party System: PRI, PAN and PRD, in L. Randall, op. cit., pp. 263–274.

39. Many on the left hailed the Zapatistas as the most important radical force to emerge in the post Cold War world. Weeks after the EZLN’s uprising, Mexican historian and left wing commentator Lorenzo Meyer wrote, ‘The EZLN is the first post-modern rebellion in Latin America. It is the first which has been born not only in the post-communist, but also in the post-anticommunist period. This is a world where there are no dogmas which unite, but also one where now rebels cannot be discredited as instruments of the USSR.’ Quoted in Latin American News Update (Chicago), March 1994, p. 7.

40. Information on the Zapatistas’ founding comes from D.C. Hodges, Mexican Anarchism after the Revolution (Austin, Texas 1995), pp. 194–197; J. Ross, Rebellion from the Roots (Monroe, Me 1995), p. 227. Ross describes Berlinguer, a disciple of Maoist Charles Bettelheim, as a ‘top-level manager’ for President Luis Echeverria when he founded Popular Politics.

41. Marcos, quoted in G.A. Collier, Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas (Oakland 1995), p. 84.

42. T Barry, op. cit., pp. 118–120.

43. The government almost crushed the movement before the uprising. After several incidents of shootouts between soldiers and armed peasants, government forces discovered an EZLN training site in May 1993. Mexico’s main political magazine, Proceso, published a story about the discovery of the camp. But the Mexican government, wanting to preserve an image of ‘stability’ while NAFTA’s fate was debated in the US Congress, refused to launch an offensive against the EZLN.

44. The text of the Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle appears in Shadows of Tender Fury: The Letters and Communiques of Subcommandante Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (New York 1995), pp. 51–53. The book includes a selection of EZLN communiques dating from January to August, 1994. In the afterword, Frank Bardacke points out that Marcos mentions the word ‘socialism’ only twice in the more than 60,000 words in the book (p. 259).

45. J. Ross, op. cit., pp. 286–287. Ross called the EZLN’s refusal to take power ‘an odd strophe for a revolutionary army ... Some call what the Zapatistas do armed propaganda rather than armed struggle.’

46. Ibid., pp. 339–340.

47. D. LaBotz, Democracy in Mexico (Boston 1995), p. 176.

48. Ibid., pp. 188–189.

49. My use of the term ‘armed reformists’ shouldn’t be confused with J.G. Castañeda’s use of the same term to describe the EZLN. While it is an accurate description of the EZLN, Castañeda believes that only reform is possible because ‘revolution simply ceased to be on the agenda’ in Latin America. (See his The Mexican Shock, p. 85). The ‘obsolescence’ of revolution is a central contention of his book, Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War (New York 1993). Castañeda, an adviser to Cuautémoc Cárdenas, makes clear that his main complaint about the Zapatistas is that they are armed, not that they are reformists.

50. R. Mendoza, Zapatista Rebellion Opens Door to New Stage of Mexican Revolution, Bulletin in Defense of Marxism (March 1994), p. 5.

51. Information on the EPR comes from Mexican Labour News and Analysis (7 January 1997) and from the Robert Collier’s series of articles in the San Francisco Chronicle, 9–10 December 1996. The Independent Proletarian Movement (MPI), a left organisation with politics close to the ‘Third Period Stalinism’ of the 1928–1934 Comintern, is a major player in the FAC-MLN. The MPI holds strong influence in the SUTUAR-100 bus drivers’ union. Mexican Labour News and Analysis (MNLA), published in English, is the best source for news on Mexican labour. MNLA is produced in collaboration with the Authentic Labour Front of Mexico and with the United Electrical (UE) Workers union (US). It can be viewed at the UE’s international web site: Hereafter, I will cite it as ‘MNLA’.

52. The 1930s figures are from C. Aguilar and L. Meyer, In the Shadow of the Mexican Revolution (Austin, Texas,. 1993), p. 123 (translated by L.A. Fierro). The 1995 figures are from T. Rendón and C. Salas, The Workforce of the 1990s in NACLA Report on the Americas (January/February 1997), p. 21.

53. R. Randolph, Census Shows Lower Birth Rate and Later Marriages, Mexico City Times (December 16 1996), p. 9.

54. Alex Callinicos made a similar point in relation to South Africa in South Africa Between Reform and Revolution (London 1988), p. 72–73.

55. J. Teichman, Economic Restructuring: State-Labour Relations, and the Transformation of Mexican Corporatism, in G. Otero (ed.), Neo-Liberalism Revisited (Boulder, Colo 1996), p. 160.

56. Figures from D. Barkin and F. Rosen, Why the Recovery is Not a Recovery, op. cit., p. 25.

57. T. Rendón and C. Salas, op. cit., p. 21.

58. J. Villegas, M. Noriega and S. Martinez, NAFTA and Occupational Health: Three Countries, Three Years Later, in MLNA, 1 December 1996.

59. See J.A. Teichman, Privatization and Political Change in Mexico (Pittsburgh, Pa 1995), pp. 118–119 for a summary of these government actions against unions.

60. Figures from the 1980s from L.H. Mendez Berrueta and J.O. Quiroz Trejo, Modernización Estatal y Eespuesta Obrera: Historia de una Derrota (Mexico City 1994), p. 352; 1996 figures cited in Dismuyen las Huelgas, Reforma, 2 September, 1996.

61. This discussion of FAT relies heavily on B. Carr, Crossing Borders: Labour Internationalism in the Era of NAFTA, in G. Otero, op. cit., pp. 223–224.

62. As part of the ‘strategic organising alliance’, the UE has aided FAT organising drives in maquiladora plants of UE organised companies such as General Electric. FAT has provided Spanish-speaking organisers to UE organising drives in the US as well.

63. My description of the Foro unions relies on H De la Cueva, Cracks in PRI Unionism, NACLA Report on the Americas (January/February 1997), pp. 16–17.

64. Ibid., p. 16.

65. Hernández Juárez headed a reform group which replaced the corrupt telephone workers’ leadership in 1976. Union activists later accused him of using the same tactics as those of his predecessors. In 1987 Hernández Juárez was elected president of the Labour Congress. See B. Carr, Labour and the Political Left ..., p. 137, n27. More recently, he invited Zedillo and Carlos Slim, the billionaire owner of the privatised telephone company, to attend his swearing in as leader of the telephone workers’ union!

66. For reports on the May Day marches, see Marcha Independiente en Donde los Partidos Politicos Quedaron Relegados, La Jornada, 2 May 1995, and A. Becerril, Parteaguas en el sindicalismo, La Jornada, 2 May 1996.

67. MLNA 16 (1), 2 September 1996. Some workers’ demonstrations involve humiliating rituals meant to illustrate workers’ sense of powerlessness. In 1996, Federal District hospital workers protests included hunger strikes and workers throwing their own blood on the steps of the National Palace.

68. L. Trotsky, Nationalized Industry and Workers’ Management, Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1938–39 (New York 1974), p. 329.

69. Writing on the mid-1980s neighbourhood-based coordinadora movement and its relationship to left parties, Barry Carr wrote ‘Clearly, the parties of the left have a lot to learn about the delicate issue of respect for the autonomy of mass movements and local organizations.’ See B. Carr, Introduction, in B. Carr and R. Anzaldúa Montoya, The Mexican Left, the Popular Movements, and the Politics of Austerity (San Diego 1986), p. 17.

70. A journalist who profiled El Barzón for Houston-based Mexico Business Magazine told me that ‘El Barzón’s leaders joked with me while I was working on this story that while the leaders of the group are PRD, the members are overwhelmingly PANistas.’ (e-mail from P. Bierma, 11 December 1996).

71. B. Carr, Introduction, in op. cit., p. 16.

72. See J. Petras and M. Morley, The Retreat of the Intellectuals, in Latin America in the Time of Cholera (New York 1992), pp. 158–169 for an excellent class critique of ‘civil society’ and the role of Western foundations.

73. Saucedo quoted in D. Barkin, I. Ortiz and F. Rosen, op. cit., p. 26. Saucedo is a PRD official.

74. J.G. Castañeda, The Mexican Shock (New York 1996), p. 147.

75. J.I. Dominguez and J.A. McCann, Democratizing Mexico (Baltimore, Md 1996), p. 204. After the election the PRD’s theoretical magazine, Coyuntura, published a criticism of the Cárdenas’ campaign which scored it for endorsing a more conservative economic platform.

76. In February 1997 the PRD sponsored a meeting with trade unions in Mexico City. This could indicate a new orientation on the unions in the run-up to the 1997 elections.

77. See L. Crawford, Mexico: Political Defections Cause Stir, Financial Times, 27 December 1996, and P. True, Mexico: Alianza para Desplazar al PRI, La Raza (Chicago), 9–15 January 1997, p. 1.

78. M.A. Mora, Why a Revolutionary Alternative, in Against the Current 3 (4) (new series), September–October 1988, p. 34.

79. R. Collies, Out of the Barracks, Mexican Army flexes new muscles, San Francisco Chronicle, 10 December 1996, p. A13

80. One organisation that emerged from the split in the old PRT, the League of Socialist Unity (LOR), maintains orthodox Trotskyist politics. It has a small presence in four major cities. I thank Dan LaBotz for this information on the Trotskyist movement (from e-mail, 5 January 1997). I also thank Brian Campbell for sending me copies of the PRT newspaper, La Bola, from Mexico.

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