Mexico: The Crisis & the Left

Against the Current, No. 1, January/February 1986

interview with Ricardo Pascoe

RICARDO PASCOE is a member of the Mexican Parliament, representing the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT) of which he is a leading member. The PRT, the Mexican section of the Fourth International, was formed in the mid-1970s as a regroupment of several small revolutionary Marxist groups. It has developed into an important force in sectors of the Mexican working class and peasant movements.

In recent parliamentary elections, the PRT fielded 300 candidates and received a very impressive total of around 700,000 votes. Under a highly complex and fraud­riddled procedure dominated by the ruling PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), the PRT was allocated six Parliamentary seats.

Ricardo Pascoe is both an economist and union activist. He writes a daily column for the paper El Universal on labor, economics and politics. He wrote a doctoral dissertation on “Real Wages of the Mexican Working Class, 1939-1975” and began teaching labor economics and economic history in 1977 at the University of Mexico. From 1979-81 he was general secretary of the Independent Trade Union of the Metropolitan Autonomous University of Mexico, a union of both academic and administrative employees.

Pascoe led the first mass march of affectados, people affected by the recent catastrophic Mexico City earthquake, demanding basic services. He visited several U.S. cities in the fall, speaking on the Mexican crisis, particularly the impact of the international debt, and the development of the PRT. This interview was conducted in September 1985 in Detroit.


Against the Current: Can you describe in general terms the impact of the debt crisis on Mexico, the character of the political debate around resolving it, and then more specifically how the earthquake has affected this debate?

Ricardo Pascoe: For the past five or so years, the government has treated the discussion over the debt crisis as a debate that shouldn’t be held. They simply took it as their obligation, as a responsible government, to pay off the debt whereas the left felt that it was necessary to open a national debate. The debt is a fundamental economic and political problem. In the past two years the economic recession in Latin America and particularly in Mexico has made it extremely difficult for the government to cover its commitments. So much so that the government in 1985 could not pay the interest due on September 1 and was officially reprimanded and threatened by the International Monetary Fund.

Given the fact that from 1972-1985 we have paid practically $70 billion in interest, and that the banks have not allowed us to pay anything on the $96 billion principal that we owe, it is clear that the debt has become not only an economic problem but is seen by the banks as a political tool to control our countries. It is their mechanism to orient the political policies of our Latin American governments and to have a certain form of negotiations with the national bourgeoisies over the re-structuring by capital of the international division of labor.

The PRT’s position has been consistently that the people of Mexico have had imposed on them the responsibility of paying a foreign debt which they themselves never acquired and from which they received no benefit. Bankers simply lent massive amounts to the Mexican government and individuals, having no idea whether these funds would become productive economic programs, be used to buy arms for repression or simply fill the pockets of politicians and bankers.

On the left, the debate at this point over the foreign debt is exactly what specific way we can agree in a common front. The problem has been the following difference between PSUM (the Mexican Communist Party) and the PRT: as a party concerned with what is viable, PSUM considers it correct to demand a moratorium on the debt, whereas our party thinks it necessary to annul it, to simply state we have no responsibility for it. This difference has made it difficult for the left to come to a common position.

However, on October 23 there is going to be a continental march, where the working classes of all the countries of Latin America will march against the payment of the debt. This action we initiated in the conference on the foreign debt called by Fidel Castro. The common front has been formed to march, not to debate the demands of moratorium versus annulment of the debt. In this sense we feel it will be a very important march that will attract many union sectors as well as the political parties of the left.

A fundamental element which has blocked the possibility of any economic and social progress for the working class in Mexico is the fact that we are paying the foreign debt with practically all the resources we acquire in foreign commerce, basically through the export of oil. The government and bourgeoisie consider that the way to solve the crisis is for the working class to pay this enormous debt with its wages.

For this reason in the past three years real wages have dropped more than 30%; and this poses the problem that either we pay the foreign debt or we let people eat. Obviously, given the circumstances, we consider it is important that people eat.

After the earthquake, the national debate over the debt has become more bitter and urgent. The group of affectados are now demanding not only housing and health services, but saying also that in order to carry out these demands it is necessary to annul the foreign debt, and to dedicate the wealth created by the Mexican working class to their advancement.

ATC: Has this politicization occurred spontaneously or through the intervention of organized parties?

RP: It has happened through the work of parties. Immediately after the quake people began to organize to dig out of the rubble to save as many people as possible. Whole buildings had simply collapsed with hundreds of people inside. They also tried to find housing where they could live at least temporarily, and re-establish rudimentary health and education services.

The fact that practically on the first day the PRT began to participate with brigades in the rescue operation, and then in the social organizations of the affectados, has permitted our party within these movements to ensure that they maintain basic internal cohesion, and that the demands they pose constantly address the profound problems that the country is confronting.

The movement’s dynamic has been such that even though its demands have not been satisfied by the government, some important advances have been won. Much of the land in the devastated center city has been expropriated, an act which was demanded by the movement, to facilitate reconstruction-also, the movement has achieved an important level of internal debate, whereby it has reached the conclusion that it is important not to pay the foreign debt.

Declaring the suspension of the debt is not a step any country alone can successfully take — even Mexico — because the reaction of foreign capital, particularly American imperialism, would be so violent. It is a move that an important sector of Latin American nations must take together. In this sense we understand that Fidel Castro’s initiative is an opening.

ATC: Clearly the PRT’s ability to play a role in the movement of the earthquake victims, as well as its impact on the level of elections, are the result of years of development. How does the party see its own progress and its role within mass movements?

RP: Following the struggle of 1968 — the historic moment which catalyzed the various revolutionary trends — two main discussions emerged over what strategy to follow.

One alternative was to pursue the road of an armed movement, which was subsequently crushed. The other orientation was to go to the mass movement. As a complement to this (it was debated whether) to form a political party.

In our case we felt it was necessary both to go to the mass movements and to form a solid party. We devoted ourselves, on the one hand, to creating a group of revolutionary cadres who could be leaders of the mass movement, the peasants’ and urban popular movements, and on the other, to creating a solid political structure. We felt this structure should incorporate various political groups that coincided with us on many points, if not on what are called “the grand strategic problems” such as, for example, the characterization of the Soviet State.

We consider the construction of a party to be not an abstract problem, but a very concrete problem of its relationship to the mass movement. A sector of the working class began a very important movement, particularly among the electrical workers, a movement which in 1974-76 created a whole space for political activity.

In this period of struggle our party’s confrontation with organizational problems was being related on a constant day-to-day basis with the problems of the mass movement.

In Mexico, the official party (PRI) has completely controlled and dominated all mass movements and permitted very few authentic, independent expressions of a class movement in the strategic urban and rural proletariat. The fact that the electrical workers’ movement was combined with a political discussion in the left, with the Communists and different Maoists and groups breaking from that strategy, and with groups coming from a very union-based or nationalist-revolutionary ideology, began to bring many of these groups together with us in the debates over tactics and strategy.

On the basis of the movement experiences we were learning how to work together despite great ideological disparities.

As that movement began to disappear under repression, different kinds of problems arose. The pressure of the mass movement in what was obviously a strategic sector of the economy (electrical) demanded that the left begin to function differently than during many years on the margins, or during the spontaneous experience of 1968 or the repression of the armed currents and peasants.

In this situation the demand for a certain kind of democratic reform became a fundamental banner that continues to be a very important thing today. The problem for the masses of workers in rural or urban areas is for democratic participation in their organizations, to throw off government control and to elect the leaders of their own organizations. This pressure meant that the government had to look for a terrain on which to combat this growing movement with the least cost to its political structure.

Electoral Opening

Obviously, one alternative which the government would not permit was for the unions or peasant organizations. to become democratic, through labor reforms, because the most basic element of its domination is its direct control over the unions of the strategic sectors of the proletariat – in auto, electrical, rail and so forth. They are equally unwilling to allow a peasant movement in the most basic cash crop sectors such as hennequin, cotton, sugar or tobacco.

The government found the cheapest option to be creating an electoral reform, which they called a great political reform (although it really wasn’t). It permitted certain sectors of the left, beginning in 1977, the appearance of participation.

When the government, approved this law a great debate opened up in the left. The Communist party was the first to accept it. For the revolutionary left the question was, would participation in elections cause us to lose our main intention of creating a mass revolutionary movement? These problems were debated very broadly and bitterly.

The PRT decided that the electoral reform was a democratic space which the working class had won through its struggles for a much more basic democratic change, and that we would attempt to use this space to advance the needs and the demands of the workers’ movement. So in 1977-78 the PRT entered into a policy with two fundamental aspects: the struggle, on the one hand, for our legal registration, and on the other, for strengthening our party’s ties with the mass movement.

The policy was to combine the struggle for legality with saying to the mass movement that this was a democratic right which the movement had won, which would permit the mass movement to advance and strengthen its organizations and to better understand the political problems it confronts. Under these circumstances we began struggle for our right of electoral participation, which we finally won in 1982.

The issue was still a very difficult debate within the revolutionary left, not only within the Trotskyist currents but in the broad revolutionary left with whom we felt it was important to look for common ground, between a sector which felt we had to participate in the elections and one which felt we must insist on abstaining to slap the government in the face.

Our first campaign in 1982 was very successful. We could present our program clearly and without diplomatic phrases. It permitted us TV time. At the same time we enabled various regional, local or municipal groups to express themselves, to raise their own demands and defend themselves from the landlords, union bureaucrats, etc.

A sector of the unions, the peasant movement and the urban popular movement was able to identify politically with a program and our strategy for using that political space. We asked people to vote for us, but not to be confused by the political system.

By 1985 our attitude was different: we now felt it was important for that current of opinion, about half a million people who voted for us in 1982, to be very conscious that they must not only vote for us but defend their vote from the fraud being prepared against our party.

We concentrated our campaign in areas where we had people and structures and possibilities of growing. Yet in many areas where we did nothing, we received a surprising number of votes. For a while we couldn’t understand this-but when we went into these areas, particularly in the southeastern part of the country, we found there were old currents of socialist thinking and sectors of the population who felt represented by our party.

There were cases where some unions even called on their whole assembly to vote for us-and we had never heard of them! They were saying that they wanted us to be in the Parliament, even though they were completely opposed to Parliament itself.

During this electoral process we came to May 1, which is always the date for a march of the whole working class in Mexico — and in most other countries too, of course, except for the U.S. which is where May Day originated.

For many years our policy was to participate in the official marches, even though the bureaucrats don’t want us there. This year, because of the elections they were especially interested in keeping us out.

They did not want contingents of workers demanding that the government not pay the debt or raising demands against the austerity. It was very important for us to be there-to show that we were both in the mass movement and participating in the election, not pre-occupied with election results alone.

Bridges to the Masses

Our strategy led us three or four years ago to create what we call “co-ordinators” of the peasants’, workers’, students’ and urban popular movements. These coordinating bodies have been successful in bringing together very broad sectors in order to create greater mass movements.

They are developing their political demands so that the peasant movement, for example, says that today it wants land and tomorrow, it wants power. It then becomes a question of discussing power — which is of course related to the issues of debt and austerity.

Now that we are in Parliament we are able to organize movements and take them to the steps of the Parliament and express the demands of the people — to stand up and explain why we shouldn’t pay the foreign debt. Thus, through a long process and debate, we have advanced in terms of maintaining a necessary bridge between the mass movement and the building of a solid party that can incorporate diverse sectors.

Our work opens the door to higher forms of debate inside the mass movements as well as in the party. So the mass movement is also discussing the problem of, for example: what does the Solidarity movement in Poland mean? What does socialism mean? And if we talk about Nicaragua and Cuba, what are we talking about in terms of the aspirations of us who are exploited, and what we want in the future?

ATC: What is the present level in Mexico of the movement in solidarity with the Central American revolutions? And from a short-term point of view, what do you anticipate would be the response in Mexico to some dramatic escalation, such as bombing or invading Nicaragua?

RP: Let me begin with the second point. The possibility of the bombing or eventual open American intervention in Nicaragua would generate a very popular and broad response in Mexico, because the people of Mexico are profoundly anti-imperialist. The presence of American troops or bombers actively bombing a Latin American people will be seen as an absolutely unacceptable thing.

The solidarity movement has gone through different phases. At this point we can say that the level of consciousness is that whatever the political and ideological discussions may be (what we think about the Nicaraguan regime or the Salvadoran and Guatemalan movements) we think these struggles require our most unrestricted and fullest solidarity, given the level of American intervention. There is an absolute consensus to support these movements.

However, in the past couple of years the impact of the internal economic crisis has reduced the effectiveness of the solidarity movement. It has tended to orient people’s interests more toward their internal organizational problems-such as the defense of their unions and peasant organizations, rather than the problem of solidarity with other peoples.

This, I would of course immediately clarify, does not mean a lack of solidarity; but there is a downturn in the amount of mobilization of people and resources at this point.

But I repeat, the solidarity movement has advanced in being as unified as possible a force to support our brothers and sisters in Central America.

ATC: Is it correct to assume that this downturn in the solidarity mobilizations relates to the impact of the crisis on the confidence of the working class?

In the past, unions-particularly the more progressive-had the tradition of donating a day’s pay to the revolutions in Central America. This has now become extremely difficult for practically any union — not because of losing their sense of solidarity but because of the conditions of the economic crisis.

There is a complicated problem to study, because we don’t speak of a conservative mood in the working class, but of a growing caution about exposing itself to repression. The problem is that in a country like Mexico, unemployment means literally losing the right even to be a statistic. It means losing everything because there is no social security or services — once you’re unemployed it is also difficult to find employment again.

Therefore the key sectors of the working class have been cautious in the way they express their opposition to the austerity program of the government and industrialists.

One clear expression of this is the decline in strike movements. The fact that strikes become a center of massive conflict tends to scare off other sectors of workers. Solidarity with strikes has therefore declined.

One element that could help the working class regain its confidence would be mobilizations centered on more general political issues, bringing together sectors of workers and their organizations to act together politically even while they might be more reluctant to carry out a strike.

ATC: Mexico is on the one hand a Third World country, but it belongs to the category of what are called “more developed underdeveloped countries” as opposed to, say, a super-underdeveloped country like Nicaragua. How does this situation, of underdevelopment in the context of industry and the existence of an industrial proletariat, affect the dynamics of struggle?

RP: First, there is the fact that as of 1960 Mexico was already a largely urban society. More than SO% of the people lives in at least a medium-sized urban area. However, the development of the working class and its consciousness has been extremely complex and must be studied with great care.

In the 1930s and into the 1940s the Mexican working class was a very combative class that tried to express its own class alternative. At the same time, it was faced with an intense pressure which combined political action with repressive action on the part of the government and bureaucratic (union) leadership to seize control of the movement away from the left.

Thus the union structure was incorporated into the PRI. Thus the working class movement, initially based on a very militant tradition, lost it and went into a period of very profound political apathy. During this time, however, its basic benefits tended to rise — from 1946 until 1975 real wages rose steadily. Fringe benefits tended to rise as well.

The working class developed a sort of sense of being a sector of the population that had achieved a special and privileged position. There was intense industrialization combining both foreign and national capital. This process included petro­chemicals, medicine, the automobile industry, textiles, plastics, and other capital and light manufactured goods.

The Mexican working class has therefore developed with different levels of consciousness super-imposed on each other, reflecting different historical processes. There is great pride over the militancy of past years, but not the sense of possibility of being militant today.

However, from about 1977 to 1982, Mexico experienced a series of extremely important strikes and other struggles. The economic situation seemed to be on a tremendous upswing, an oil and foreign debt boom, while at the same time the government was applying a very stiff austerity program directed particularly at the working class, wage ceilings for example.

There was a false impression of a long-term upward cycle. Foreign capital was coming in, and there was not at that time capital flight. Yet wages were being restricted, so the working class was not participating in the economic boom which it saw taking place.

When this illusion burst, the government hit the working class even harder, and has now accepted the IMF rules to restrict public spending. We are undergoing what they call in England and France the “modernization” of the industrial sector — which means massive job cuts, and short-term heavy indebtedness to finance foreign technology.

Simultaneously the government supports private firms which are interested in modernization, making Mexican products more competitive on the world market by elevating the productivity of the work force. This means layoffs and sometimes replacing a whole work force with a new specially trained one.

There is therefore a transformation, a slow process by which the Mexican working class is being changed. In certain sectors (of the economy) there remains profound backwardness — in textiles, glass and construction for example — sectors that are more related to consumption and the internal market. So production for the internal market is based on old-fashioned technology, whereas goods that are intended for export are the “vanguard” sectors for technological change.

ATC: This creates interesting problems for political work. In what sectors of the economy is the PRT’s presence strongest?

RP: The PRT’s presence is basically in the “core” sectors-auto, steel, telephone, electrical, railroad, to some extent textile. We are strong in the petroleum sector.

We have had many members laid off, with some being called back later and others not at all. The restructuring of the modern sector of the economy has affected our work, yes. It is a difficult problem to adapt to.

In our turn to industry, we were interested in sending people in from the outside. At this point our presence and capacity for contact with people is sufficient that instead of concentrating on sending people into industry from the outside, we bring people from industry into the party. This was also imposed on us partly by the economic crisis, when many of our members with low seniority were among the first laid off.

This adjustment was healthy for us in the long run, because we have begun to bring some of the traditional, if you like the natural leaders, in these industries into the party.

In the last federal election we had very important candidates who were old leaders of the working class movement — one of them was the former secretary-general of the electrical workers in 1958, when there was a very important movement of teachers and railroad workers and he headed up the solidarity movement in support of their strikes.

ATC: Several years ago (1982) there was some publicity in the press here about organizing among workers at plants right on the border, with at least one march led by a PRT member. What is the significance of the party’s work in these border plants?

RP: The whole problem of the border has been an important aspect of our work. The border is basically a strange fusion of, or at least a point of contact between, Mexican and American cultures. The fact that there is a project of a certain sector of American capital to use Mexico as a kind of substitute for Taiwan or Korea, has created a very peculiar situation.

There is a sector of the working class that works right on the border, in American assembly plants, where the jobs are about 60% occupied by women. For some years we have been working with this sector, very actively organizing unions and alternatives for these people, which is reflected in the march you have mentioned demanding wages, collective contracts and job security.

This movement is organized principally by women, and therefore has been one of the most dynamic sectors of the union movement, where women have directly organized and carried out various tasks. In fact, they held a mass conference in the border town of Juarez, where they discussed the strategy and tactics they should pursue to organize in these “transit factories.”

This is a most important debate, because now there is a project to set up these factories in the rest of Mexico, some of them as far south as Yucatan. They use cheap labor, some Mexican raw materials, but are basically for the American internal market. The products don’t pay taxes in Mexico, they leave-and all they leave behind is a job and a wage. If the product ever returns it comes back as if it were an import, never touched by Mexican labor.

This phenomenon could even be part of a new international division of labor between Mexican and American capital, whereby Mexican capital would become a junior partner in certain sectors of American industry — particularly in less dynamic branches which suffer high production and labor costs in the U.S. Thus Mexico becomes the assembly plant; but they are called “transit plants” because in the U.S. will be the point for “final assembly” and putting the goods on the market.

By this idea Mexico could become a large Taiwan, creating islands for these assembly plants, where people would be living in isolation from the rest of the society and great masses of people outside those islands would have practically no livelihood. This is one of the most terrifying prospects we have for the 21st century in Mexico.

January-February 1986, ATC 1

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *