A Critical Perspective After Mexico’s Election: The Left vs. the Party-State

Against the Current, No. 54, January/February 1995

Olivia Gall

“FRAUD IS NO defeat, fraud is fraud. The country will not live through six more years of illegitimacy, and the peace of the nation cannot be any longer at risk,” proclaimed opposition presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in Mexico City’s central plaza, the Zocalo, on August 23, two days after the election.

In the article “Mexico’s Difficult Futures” that I wrote for Against the Current (ATC 50), which analyzed events in Chiapas and on the national level between January-April 1994, I concluded: “The alternative facing Chiapas and the country today is the choice between an authoritarian state and a state based on rights.”

The August 21 elections for president, parliamentary deputies and senators didn’t alter this alternative — but by granting the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) a large victory at all levels, it has drawn the alternatives more starkly. Legitimate or not, the PRI’s victory has only lengthened the existence of the very element of Mexican political life that prevents democratization: the fusion of the state and the party which has been in power for sixty-five years.

Political scientist Jorge Castañeda wrote that “there is no way to cut the umbilical cord between the PRI and the state if this party doesn’t lose.” But he pointed out that the converse is also true: The PRI won’t lose if it is not separated from the state. Castañeda’s conclusion is that the opposition didn’t lose the elections, it was the system which snatched victory away. In this situation of crisis and discontent through which Mexico is living today, the PRI’s victory produces an ever stronger political polarization. As each political event reveals the extent of PRI corruption and its death grip on the state, that polarization will be deepened.

In this article I review the attempts of Mexican left’s main currents — the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) and the National Democratic Convention (CND), which first met in the Chiapas jungle in early August — to find peaceful solutions to both the national and Chiapas crises. I will cover their initiatives and perspectives in light of the August-October 1994 events.

The PRD’s Dilemma

Four days after his post-election rally, PRD leader Cardenas proclaimed that perredistas would not vote again, unless the election is a clean one. “We must resist in our conscience so as to invent new ways and methods of action.” Regarding Chiapas, he called for the PRD to “be an active element towards accelerating the agreements between the government and the EZLN, in order to help guarantee political and social stability and a long-lasting peace for Chiapas and for the entire country.”

The PRD, however, seems to have received a very harsh blow from the results of the unequal electoral contest.(1) This is not, primarily, because the official numbers assigned it third place, but above all because this important center-left party lost the gamble it had made that Mexico could obtain democracy through elections.

The PRD was the only one of the eight opposition parties to really act as an opposition — and the only one to warn of the magnitude of the impending PRI fraud. It is therefore difficult to understand why this party failed to prepare itself to counteract the official electoral count rapidly and efficiently.

On September 11 the PRD National Council agreed on two different — or should I say contradictory? — lines of action. On the one hand is a “dialogue” line, which consists of impelling “a large national democratic dialogue” among all political forces, including the government, the PRI and the conservative National Action Party (PAN), in order to create the necessary compromises and establish a deep-going political reform.

On the other hand the National Council continued its “democratic intransigence” line, “which above all means to demand Robledo Rincón’s resignation and the recognition of Amado Avendaño’s victory [as governor of the state of Chiapas]; not to admit [PRI presidential candidate] Zedillo’s victory if its imposition is consummated, and to keep on organizing and encouraging mobilizations.”

The inevitable question arises: Why since its birth in 1988 has PRD accepted participation in a corrupt electoral process? I agree with Jorge Castañeda that this pattern reoccurs:

“The State doesn’t let the PRD break through, the PRD underestimates this, loses and then protests. The result is that to participate and to denounce at the same time has been an unfortunate combination that has driven this party into a difficult impasse.”(2)

Further, the themes of the recent perredistacampaign showed a lack of clear decision about who was the target: the Mexicans condemned by the regime to misery, or the large middle class? Cardenas “one day presented a moderate and centrist economic program; the following day he met [Zapatista commander] Marcos and the EZLN in the jungle and swore he would reverse the agrarian counterreform;” on the third day he “denounced the colossal fraud that was being prepared” but at the same time assured voters that despite the fraud, he would win.

Everything seems to point towards a very dramatic conclusion, writes Castañeda: Up to now the PRD’s position does not seem to emanate from “a conscious decision but from having taken the only road it has been able to find, between making a pact [with the party-state regime] as PAN has done, and not participating at all.”

The Zapatista Strategy

At the beginning of August the Zapatista army presented, via subcommandante Marcos, a crude analysis that the PRI position would “end up sacrificing Salinas on behalf of the military option,” i.e. to win the presidential election by all the fraudulent means at its disposal. Within this perspective the EZLN assigned to the CDN, the convention that hadn’t yet held its first meeting, a crucial role. “If there is fraud, there will be only one way for civil war not to break out,” said Marcos, and that would be for the CND to be “representative enough and intelligently active so as to win for itself the indispensable moral authority it will need to avoid war.”

In his August 7 speech to the CND’s first meeting, Marcos assured the convention that “The war won’t be our initiative . . . .This is not the time for military solutions.” Explaining that the EZLN was willing to wait for the “horizon to open up,” Marcos announced that the EZLN would participate in the meeting with only twenty delegates.

Yet after the electoral fraud in Chiapas the EZLN reinstalled its barricades and declared itself on red alert. On August 30 the Zapatistas asked Robledo Rincón to resign in favor of “the true winner, Avendaño.” The Zapatistas also accused the cattle owners and the merchants who were demonstrating in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, outside the government’s building, of preparing bloodshed by recruiting private armies.

On September 20 the Zapatistas began warning that the government’s armed forces posted in Chiapas were organizing provocative actions; on October 8 they communicated their decision to break off dialogue with the government because of the incessant provocations by the army against land occupations and peaceful Indian demonstrations inside Zapatista territory.

The Zapatistas denounced the government for “seeking to intimidate and provoke an armed encounter.” Further, said Marcos, after the murder (discussed on next page) of PRI General Secretary Licenciado José Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the EZLN did not know “whether we have been talking to the PRI leaders’ murderers, or to the leaders who are still to be murdered.”

A few days later, a number of armed EZLN soldiers previously unknown to journalists showed up at a CND session in Aguascalientes and fired into the air in unison, “as an answer to the federal government who can thus see that we are an army who doesn’t surrender or yield.” CND delegates, already surprised and worried by the suspension of the EZLN-government dialogue, would be even more worried when they listened to Marcos’ unusually harsh and angry speech.

Marcos urged the CND “to decide rapidly and efficiently, as the rhythm of events demands, what the Convention really is, what is its fighting program,” and to let Mexicans know that the CND is “the other door that the country needs” at a time when the government’s path leads no longer to a door but to a wall. He publically accused the perredista leading team of inadequately organizing the civil insurgency against PRI fraud, of trying to subordinate the CND to the PRD, and of injecting into parts of the Zapatistas’ base the idea that the best they could do was to make a pact with the government.

Marcos announced that neither the EZLN nor CND will be a “card in the card game the PRD is negotiating with the government.” He concluded: “If we cannot mobilize people to avoid the war, much less will we be able to stop it.”

Days previously Bishop Don Samuel Ruiz, conscious of how delicate the situation had become, proposed a way to re-establish dialogue through the creation of a new National Mediation Commission to be composed of prominent personalities; the return of the Mexican army and EZLN to their pre-March 23 positions; an EZLN declaration of willingness to resume dialogue; and a satisfactory solution to the Chiapas electoral problem. While this initiative remains under discussion inside the EZLN’s base committees, Marcos and his comrades have shown in several ways that they agree with it. They have also communicated that they are willing to renew the dialogue on condition that the government fully recognize the EZLN as a belligerent force and stop military incursions into Zapatista territory.

An Alternative Government?

Born during the first days of August in response to the EZLN’s bold summons, the CND grouped dozens of popular organizations around the country in an attempt to find an innovative road towards peace with democracy, justice and dignity. Its first meeting took place in Zapatista territory in a place the EZLN called Aguascalientes (recalling the historic 1914 Convention convened in the city of that name during the Mexican Revolution).

After three days of discussion the CND decided to: 1) participate in the August elections as a step in the fight for a peaceful democratic transition; 2) vote against the PRI, without calling for a vote for any other particular party or candidate; 3) fight for the introduction of a social system which would admit pluralism — an expression of the diversity of cultures of the people who live in Mexican territory — and encourage the Indian villages’ participation as equals in the country’s political life.

In case of fraud, the convention committed itself to organize civil resistance throughout the country immediately after the elections, to call for a national civic strike to demand the election of a transition government and to establish a Constitutional Congress to be in charge of writing a new Constitution.

As I write these lines, just before Ernesto Zedillo assumes the presidency on December 1 and before Rincón’s December 8 installation as head of the chiapenec government, Chiapas is in ferment. “Here the only law ruling us is literally the law of the jungle, not the Zapatista one but real jungle law,” a taxi driver said to me a few days ago — and the CND has a titanic task to accomplish.

Is the CND the only viable door through which Mexico can walk toward democracy? Is it really — as Antonio Garcia de León, the historian and expert on Chiapas, affirms – “the only possible social space for constituting a large front, capable of stopping the institutional violence, capable of creating tolerance and freedom”?

This is so, in Garcia de León’s view, because the CND “is the only organization that doesn’t have anything to lose, neither seats in the government nor small concessions, and because it is also the only one that is not ready to obey any more or to serve the tyrants.”

For me, it is extremely difficult to think about this organization in the terms Garcia de León does, above all because of its simultaneous extreme youth and old age. As a union of highly diverse organizations, the CND is extremely inexperienced, as even Marcos admits — the CND doesn’t yet even know its own identity. Yet this young formation already faces the responsibility of being “the only way out” of the Mexican crisis, fighting prísta “wolves” with sixty-five years experience in power.

At the same time, many of the organizations that constitute the CND have long been involved in the political fight. Although under the Aguascalientes sailboat and under the inspiration of the high ethical and moral quality of the Zapatistas’ way of making politics (and under the protection of their guns), the convencionistas were able to attain a “praiseworthy spirit of tolerance and openness” that fills many of us with hope, these organizations have also been dragging along for years many of the vices for which Marcos harshly reproached the PRD.

Just as the PRD has been playing by the rules of the game in the dirty business of traditional Mexican politics, so too have many of the others. In this sense I would not be so sure as Garcia de León that some “wouldn’t have anything to lose” from abandoning this game.

Economic Turmoil & Political Assassination

Outgoing President Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s sixth and last annual government report, presented the first week in November, stated that on the economic level the crisis that damaged expectations and opportunities for the majority of Mexicans during the ’80s is under control.

He claimed that Mexican finances have been “sanitized” through improving competitiveness, ending deteriorating wages, knocking inflation down and moving toward stabilizing the economy. This line of action, he added, was ethically motivated by a social policy “to dignify the nation’s poorest, to dignify the living and working conditions of those who are the source of Mexico’s cohesion, identity and richness.”(3)

On the political level, Salinas emphasized, “Mexico has become a country with enlarged spaces for freedom, democracy, justice, tolerance and well-being, a country where political pluralism is irreversible, where no one aspires to unanimity.” The new “civic and solidary Mexico” was a country of more than thirty-five million voters “who are conscious that the government no longer controls the elections and that what comes before anything else is the Republic.”

Despite Salinas’ words, the news filling the press tells a different story: that the country is going through the worst crisis since 1929. These events do not at all denote clean elections, nor peace and harmony, and much less the success of Salinas’ economic policy; they signify, on the contrary, crisis, misery, discontent, violence, deep divisions inside the governing team, the eruption of a dangerous narco-power, lack of government control — and, finally, the search for alternative solutions by groups of citizens or communities, mainly in the southern state of Chiapas, taking their lives and governance into their own hands.

These developments include the following.

* A deep crisis of the banking institutions.

* Hundreds of denunciations around the August 21 election irregularities. The October 21 final report of Alianza Civica/Observacion ’94, the independent Mexican organization that brought together throughout the country people from all political tendencies and viewpoints, concluded that the PRI as the state party “created, reproduced and carried out the buying and coercion of votes,” on such a scale that it “did influence the election’s final results.” Further documentation is impossible because the government has not permitted access to a number of electoral mechanisms (a full account of which would be too lengthy to include here).

* Assaults and abuses, many of them committed by federal police or former cops.

* Kidnappings: According to the attorney general’s office, nationally there have been 3,000 kidnappings between 1993-94, and sixteen this year in Chiapas alone.

* Constant political murders on the local level, including 291 perredistas killed during the six years of Salinas’ administration.

* This year’s second spectacular political assassination, committed on September 28. The victim was Licenciado José Francisco Ruiz Massieu, Salinas’ former brother-in-law and the brother of the present assistant attorney general. Formerly the governor of the state of Guerrero, last April he was “elected” PRI general secretary and on August 21 elected as a federal deputy.

Appointed to coordinate the PRI’s delegation in the new Congress, Ruiz Massieu was clearly one of the key men in the system; moreover, experts lately had been pointing toward him as PRI’s next candidate for the presidency, the man who very possibly could have governed Mexico between 2000-2006.

Everybody — this includes prístas, panistas and perredistas — agree in characterizing Ruiz Massieu as a reformer, in the same way that the murdered PRI presidential candidate Colosio had been. This is true: both in declarations and interviews, these two PRI leaders seemed to have wanted to democratize the PRI and separate it from the state.(4)

The murder investigation points in two directions: to the PRI’s old strong and tough politicians, “the dinosaurs,” whose interests are well protected by today’s setup; or to an alliance between the biggest capos (bosses) of Mexican drug dealing, especially the Tijuana and Golfo cartels, and the high spheres of power.

[Shortly before this issue went to press, the Attorney General stated publicly that his brother’s murderers were acting on instructions of high-level PRI leaders, who were obstructing the investigation. He then resigned from the government and ruling party. — ed.]

* Indeed, about two months before the murder of the new PRI general secretary, a national scandal had erupted about precisely this linkage. Reports in the prestigious newspaper Exélsior, and a declaration by Eduardo Valle on the Colosio murder, revealed important facts about the strength of this link and how dangerous it has already become for the country’s future.(5)

Eduardo Valle, better known as “El Buho” (The Owl), was one of the most important leaders of the Mexican student movement in 1968. He accuses the Golfo drug cartel, headed by Juan García Abrego, of direct involvement in Colosio’s murder with the connivance and protection of high-level federal and local officials, judges and newspaper people.

Grassroots Insurgencies

Meanwhile, even as Mexican television allots enormous time to the great achievements of the Salinas government’s social policy, groups of people, popular organizations, communities and whole villages show the authorities the full extent of their distrust. In Mexico City, the number of anti-government demonstrations staged by people coming from all over the country is growing day by day.

Communities, entire villages or groups of Mexico City residents forced to live in parts of the capital city’s urban jungle have lately decided to take the law into their own hands, lynching criminals of several kinds whether they are cops or not.

On the October 12 celebration of the 502nd anniversary of the “discovery of America,” chiapanec Indians coming together in an organization called 500 años de Resistencia Indígena, Negra y Popular declared the autonomy of regions of Chiapas that are today under their control. In a word they entered into civil insurgency and will govern their lands by themselves.

Also in Chiapas, signs of discontent and lack of government control multiply: takeovers of pieces of land, roads, streets, plazas and mayors’ offices are multiplying. Some of these actions are clearly political protests against what opposition organizations call “the biggest political fraud in the history of Chiapas.” They demand that the “elected” PRI candidate for state governor not take the office, which they claim was won by PRD candidate Amado Avendaño.

On the opposite side is the “cattle and small landowners’ organization.” After a three-month demonstration outside the government building in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, this group has recently marched to Mexico City where more than 100 of its members launched a hunger strike. They demand that President Salinas “give them back their land and cattle that legally belonged to them and were violently stolen by the Zapatistas.”

On November 12 Efrain Gutiérrez, the spokesperson for the indigenous organization, Xi’Nich, reported that more than 300 men arrived heavily armed at three different sites of land takeovers (El Patricio, which the government had granted to the campesinos as well as Sabana Perdida and El Naranjo). They expelled more than 1,000 men, women and children from the sites, burning their huts, and threatening them with death and rape. Eight members were tied up and their heads shaved, twenty are still missing.

The following day the expelled campesinos began a sit-in in the Palenque town square, with more than 1,000 protesters demanding that those responsible be punished, that the twenty disappeared be accounted for, that the government indemnize the campesinos for damages caused and that their lands be returned. Three days later a group of 200 ranchers, local government officials, state judicial police and local businessowners attacked the 150 sitting-in at the town’s plaza, hitting them with sticks and the butts of their weapons, burning their banners, blankets and sound equipment, and forcing them onto trucks.

Mario Landeros, Xi’Nich leader and recent PRD candidate for congress was beaten, tied up and taken away. Maria Meyers of the Committee for the Defense of Indigenous Freedom, as well as Armin Luna Jimenez, Jose Teodomiro Damas and Richard Villaneuva Lopez were also taken away.

By the end of November human rights organizations in Chiapas were issuing urgent action alerts against police repression. Campesinos traveling along roads as well as demonstrators were being attacked, in some cases directly by state police forces, and in other cases by provokers, backed up by members of the state and municipal police.

There are many reasons for people to demonstrate in Chiapas: religious-political conflict in the Chamula communities; struggles for the state electricity company to provide service to communities; demands that the authorities punish those responsible for crimes, such as the murder of three taxi drivers in Tuxtla Gutiérrez that led the collective transportation system to strike for several days.

Another complex angle of the conflict are refugee problems on the Mexican-Guatemalan border. Refugees in both countries ask the authorities to guarantee they will not be attacked in present or future confrontations between guerilla and army forces.

The Crucial Importance of Communities

The situation, then, is extremely complex and difficult. How can the different left political forces respond? Antonio Garcia de León thinks that among the conditions the CND has to fulfill is to become more representative of Mexican society. This is, I agree, an important step, but not enough if the left opposition in Mexico doesn’t turn its eyes to the best possible transition for this country, towards “the community” and its capacity — shown by the struggles mentioned above — of self-determination.

Throughout the world small population groups, united by common problems. search for creative and positive solutions, which the modern state can no longer offer. These communities must either stand against the transnationalization of political and economic power or become extinct. And it is precisely the EZLN’s ability to translate these community voices that has driven large sectors of the Mexican people to identify with its cause.

The poorest and most forgotten Indian and/or peasant communities have shown us twice during this century — under General Emiliano Zapata in the state of Morelos during the Mexican Revolution and under the EZLN in Chiapas today — how powerful their history and tradition of community self-determination can be. But we must also think about other groups that might not be as forgotten as the Indian villages have been, and perhaps more integrated into “modernity,” yet just as deprived of their humanity and self-determination, even if in a different way.

From this perspective the August elections, despite all their fradulent character, need not draw the country to the edge of the precipice. More than 50% of the voters at least voted against the state’s party. This can be the beginning of a real step forward, provided that representative organizations of civil society meet the challenge of strengthening the communities’ struggle for freedom.

Up to now the Mexican government has shown no sign of wanting to surrender any political space. Ernesto Zedillo’s government will have to decide whether to face the Chiapas conflict by opening up some of that space, as Mexican civil society so strongly demands, or by taking the authoritarian road.

The Mexican left has a very difficult task: not to fall into any provocation, not to help the state play the card of war. As Adolfo Gilly reminded us some weeks ago of the European anarchists’ famous sentence, written at the beginning of this century: “Whoever loves war hasn’t seen its face.”

The EZLN, the CND, the PRD or anyone else who really wants to see this country change must walk neither faster, nor slower, than the communities’ voices dictate. Along that path, learning to build for ourselves a true civil society, lies the only possible way for us to confront power and succeed.


  1. [Some of the methods of systematic fraud perpetrated in the election, along with other reasons for the PRI’s victory, are discussed by Dan La Botz in his article in ATC 53 — ed.]
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  2. PRD policy has created situations that harm it greatly. President Salinas was able to make fun of angry protests from PRD deputies during his annual government report. Differences of opinion between Cardenas and PRD president Porfirio Muñoz Ledo were expressed in March and again a few days before the elections. PRD senator Herberto Castillo stated that despite his PRD membership, he will conduct his Senate job in an independent way and won’t submit to party decisions.
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  3. [For a brief account of the role of this “social policy,” in the form of PRI’s newest patronage/welfare “solidarity” arm PRONASOL, in manipulating the electoral process,see La Botz, ATC 53. — ed.]
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  4. Discussion of Ruiz Massieu’s political personality centers around why he was a reformer. Some, especially PRI and PAN members, think he had always been one, that his main political cause had always been the country’s democratization. Others — for example, Heberto Castillo, one of the main PRD leaders — argue that after being harsh, intransigent and repressive, “in one word, a prísta when he headed Guerrero’s government, the minute Ruiz Massieu began racing towards the presidential chair he was forced to outline a new, modern strategy, “to negotiate and give in up to a point, where he could still hold and control things.” In Castillo’s view, Ruiz Massieu was killed precisely because he had been chosen to orchestrate a limited opening up of the system.
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  5. Figures linked in these reports to the drug cartels include the Vatican’s ambassador to Mexico, Monseñor Girolamo Frigione; Licenciado Emilio Gamboa Patrón, Salinas’ minister of communication and transport; and Dr. José Córdoba Montoya, former secretary of the president’s office, said to be “the brain behind Salinas’ government” and now Mexico’s representative in the Interamerican Bank for Development.
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ATC 54, January-February 1995