Mexico: Zedillo Wins, the Struggle Continues

Against the Current, No. 53, November/December 1994

Dan La Botz

MANY ON THE left in Mexico believed that the politically inexperienced and inept Ernesto Zedillo could be defeated, and that Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, leader of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) would win the August 21, 1994 elections. In mid-August the prospective victory seemed palpable, despite the polls, and Mexican radicals were planning to enforce their victory through a national campaign of civil resistance.

Yet when the votes were counted Zedillo had won, and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) could celebrate yet another national election victory, continuing sixty-five years in power since the founding of the party in 1928. The final result showed Zedillo won slightly less than half of all the votes, with Diego Fernandez Cevallos of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) winning approximately 27%, and Cardenas of the PRD (PRD) winning only 17%.

In addition, the PRI dominates the Senate and the House of Deputies, as well as taking back control of states that had been governed by the opposition.

The result came as a shocking, stinging defeat for the left and for democratic movements — and a tremendous victory not only for the PRI, but also for the banks and multinational corporations who were putting their money into Mexico.

How could the Mexican left — and some of us — have been so wrong? What was the left thinking?

Cardenas had won the 1988 election — Carlos Salinas and the PRI had been forced to steal it to remain in power. Cardenas’ supporters believed that they could do it again. In the meantime the PRI and PAN had moved closer together, a movement facilitated by their common conservative economic program.

The PAN had compromised itself by making political deals with the PRI in state and local elections. The little parties were puppets of the PRI, and the PRD was the only genuine opposition party.

The left also had believed that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari had been his own undoing. Salinas’ economic transformation of Mexico, the privatization of the economy and attacks on the state-controlled labor unions and peasant organizations appeared to have weakened the Mexican political system based on “corporativism” or state control of employers, unions, peasants and the poor. How could the PRI continue if its corporate pillars were eroding?

Salinas’ economic program had brought little or no immediate improvement to the terrible economic situation of Mexico’s workers and peasants.

Unemployment remained very high, while wages were about half what they were in 1982. Moreover the economic situation had actually stagnated since the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into effect in January 1994.

Then there was the new middle-class citizens’ movement represented by organizations like the Citizens Movement for Democracy and Alianza Civica/Observacion 94, the citizens’ campaign for a free and fair election. This citizens’ movement was building a real mass movement for democracy and civil rights in Mexico, something unheard of in the past.

Zapatista Inspiration and Leadership

Finally, and no doubt the most important factor psychologically speaking, the January uprising in the southern state of Chiapas by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) had brought a new unity and militancy to a rather demoralized left. The Zapatista uprising inspired a wave of indigenous, peasant, worker and citizen activism.

The uprising also brought new energy to the campaign of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, and pulled that campaign to the left. Cardenas even went to visit Subcomandante Marcos in the Lacandon rain forest, and EZLN slogans and symbols became part of the PRD campaign.

Then in early August, just before the elections, the EZLN convened a National Democratic Convention (CND) in Chiapas, part of it held in San Cristobal de las Casas and part held in the Lacandon jungle stronghold of the Zapatistas. Some 6,000 delegates attended — mostly activists from peasant organizations, urban poor people’s movements, and non-governmental organizations.

The nation’s leading peasant and labor organizers, radical intellectuals and human rights activists were appointed by Marcos to the presidium. The CND put forward resolutions calling for participation in the election, defense of a free and fair vote by means of peaceful civil resistance, a transitional government, a constituent congress and the writing of a new constitution.

The CND was probably the broadest and most important gathering of the left in modern Mexican history. Moreover, the CND seemed a way of linking the revolutionary uprising in Chiapas, the urban democratic movements such as the Citizens Movement for Democracy (MCD) and Alianza Civica (AC), and the Party of the Democratic Revolution.

The Left’s Miscalculation

How then could the PRI defeat such a broad democratic movement?

Much of the left’s analysis was no doubt correct. The PRI had all the weaknesses the left discerned, and the PRD and other movements had many strengths. But the left failed to understand the enormous power of the PRI’s political machine, and its impact on the left’s historic constituency.

Despite the shocks to Mexico’s economic and political system, shocks which had shaken even the pillars of the PRI, the machine still worked, and in some ways it worked even better. Salinas cranked up the party machines, and money oiled them until they hummed.

The new machine, PRONASOL, the National Solidarity Movement or Solidaridad, is largely responsible for the victory. Salinas created PRONASOL in December 1988, a government poverty program that could also build a classical political patronage machine. Working with unions and community groups, and coopting many previously independent ones, PRONASOL built road and sidewalks, put in sewers and electricity, distributed housing and jobs.

Just before election day, the PRI’s PRONASOL workers passed through the poor urban neighborhoods and the rural communities, passing out food and clothing, and reminding voters that they owed it to the PRI. In many cases they threatened voters with taking away their services, housing or jobs if they failed to vote the right way.

But Salinas and Zedillo also revved up the old machine, which despite the age of some of its parts (Fidel Velazquez, head of the labor federation CTM, is now 94), still clunks along. The PRI’s labor and peasant organizations, the Congress of Labor (CT), the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) and the National Peasant Confederation (CNC), all endorsed the PRI and its candidates and mobilized their members to attend party rallies and vote.

When mere exhortation did not suffice, the unions used threats. The CTM salesmen’s union sent a letter saying that workers who failed to attend a Zedillo rally would be “docked two days’ pay.” Other PRI organizations also turned the screws: vendors were threatened with losing their market stalls. Precisely because so much was on the line, the party bosses brought all their power to bear.

The old machine even worked well in new surroundings. In some of the modern manufacturing plants or maquiladoras along the northern border, union officials collected the workers’ voter registration cards and photocopied them.

The PRI-controlled unions were clearly trying to intimidate voters. While election reforms may have better protected voters’ ballots in this election, many Mexicans nonetheless believed that the party, the union or their employer would find out how they voted. Poll watchers told me, in fact, that in many rural areas PRI officials, employers, and union officials actually looked over the peasants’ ballots to be sure they voted right. In rural areas, and particularly in indigenous areas, local caciques or bosses continued the traditional practice of bringing carloads of voters to the polls and instructing them “to vote for the flag,” the emblem of the ruling PRI.

As important as the PRI’s powerful political machine is its control of the news media, particularly television. A study by the Mexican Academy of Human Rights indicated that Televisa dedicated 36% of its presidential campaign coverage to Zedillo, 11% to Fernandez, and only 8% to Cardenas. Fully 60% of the Mexican population watches Televisa. The same was generally true of most radio and newspaper coverage.

If the PRI’s domination of the mass media was crucial to its victory in this election, fear and repression also played their part. In 1988 Salinas used the police and army to attack petroleum workers and miners, acts intended to intimidate labor. Political repression has been even fiercer. The PRD has documented the political assassination of 254 of its members, often murdered by PRI officials or the police.

The PRD believes another thirty-two activists were also killed for political reasons. Several of those killed were labor union or peasant activists. There have been many other cases of kidnapping, torture, beatings, and threats. In such a violent political atmosphere real democracy cannot function.

Zedillo and the PRI played upon the fear of violence which spread across Mexico after the still unsolved assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in March. The PRI called upon people to “Vote for Zedillo, Vote for Peace,” suggesting that a vote for the opposition would lead to violence. At the same time the PRI government purchased water cannons, tear gas and other materiel to be used to quell post-election civil resistance. All this combined to make voters fearful of opposing the ruling party.

The election process itself was intended to stifle democracy. The PRI had spent billions of dollars to set up a Federal Election Institute (IFE) which was exceedingly bureaucratic, complex, and intimidating to the average voter. Moreover, in the minds of most Mexicans the new IFE was still identified with the PRI.

There was also an enormous amount of plain old fraud, according to both Mexican and foreign observers. Many voters were unable to vote for two principal reasons. First, names were “shaved” from the voting lists at regular polling places. Second, at the special polling places for those in transit, or for those who found their names not listed at the regular polling places, soldiers or PRI loyalists showed up to use up all the ballots.

The PRI spent – directly — $1.25 billion, twenty times the legal limit. For 17,336,324 voters, this works out to $72.10 per voter! (Christian Science Monitor, 9/15/94, 19)

Cardenas’ Ineffectual Campaign

As the PRD itself has recognized, part of the responsibility must also be placed on Cardenas and his advisors. During the campaign Cardenas moved to the right, toning down his criticism of NAFTA.

Cardenas’ drift demoralized some supporters and confused the electorate. The national PRD newspaper Corre la Voz observed in its August 25-31 issue:

“Cuauhtemoc carried out a campaign intensely concerned with winning ‘confidence’ from particular power centers: the army, the Church, and national and foreign entrepreneurs. Consequently, he systematically distanced himself from the PRD, even though that was where he had built his campaign committee. In a strict sense, Cuauhtemoc ended up isolated from the broad membership of the PRD, trapped in a small circle of his ‘closest advisors.’

Cardenas’ behavior in the campaign is only the electoral expression of a more serious problem, namely that the PRD was largely built around Cardenas and his name, or his father’s name. (Ironically it was his father, Lazaro Cardenas, who was the architect of the PRI’s system of corporate control.)

The PRD’s various factions — former PRI leaders like C. Cardenas and Muñoz Ledo, Mexican nationalists like Herberto Castillo of the Mexican Workers Party (PMT), and Communists and Castroists from the Mexican Socialist Party (PMS) — never fused into a coherent party. It has been held together by Cardenas’ name and his consistent struggle against the PRI — for which he deserves great credit. But the party, as EZLN leader Marcos pointed out, was neither a model of democracy nor the effective political expression of a social movement.

Tentative Conclusions

When all the factors of fraud, manipulation and intimidation are taken into account — which surely mock the clean, “free-and-fair” election process portrayed in most U.S. media — it remains a fact that it was a conservative vote, a swing to the right. Many were persuaded by, or at least that there was no alternative to, the PRI’s neoliberal policies.

By most estimates, Cardenas received 35-40% of the vote in the stolen election of 1988. This time he drew only half that much, while 75% of the vote went to the right-wing PRI or PAN.

The biggest hole for the left in the election, and in Mexican politics, was the absence of working-class organization. The labor movement had been so defeated during the years of presidents de la Madrid and Salinas that its presence in 1994 was minimal, whether in the PRD campaign or the National Democratic Convention (CND).

Looking toward the future, it is the Zapatista rebellion and the CND that give the Mexican left, in the broadest sense, a potential to reorganize itself and to build an independent force — not only for political democracy but also for socialism.

Cardenas and the PRD have created a “Truth Commission” and launched a national campaign both to gather information about electoral fraud. They also have been joined by the CND, headed by Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, in organizing sit-ins (plantons) in municipal palaces to protest electoral fraud in the localities.

It is too early to tell exactly what will come out of these PRD and CND protests, but the fight goes on — or as the CND convention delegates chanted, “Zapata Vive! La lucha sigue!”

ATC 53, November-December 1994