Mexico’s Deepening Crisis (Part 2)

Against the Current, No. 66, January/February 1997

Dan La Botz

[In Part I of this article, author Dan La Botz discussed the Peoples Revolutionary Army (EPR) uprising, and analyzed the government’s neoliberal economic policy. In this second part, La Botz looks at the impact of neo-liberalism on the Mexican people, and discusses the reaction to the EPR and militarization by various sectors of Mexican society.]

THE ENORMOUS BURDEN of Mexico’s foreign debt, its entrance into NAFTA, the December 1994 devaluation of the peso by 50%, and the Mexican stock market crash brought about the worst economic depression in the country’s modern history. The years 1995 and 1996 have been worse than the Mexican great depression of 1926-1936. With the depression of 1995 the Mexican internal market collapsed, thousands of firms failed, or hovered on the edge of bankruptcy.

NAFTA opened the door to foreign, mostly U.S. imports, resulting in the collapse of hundreds Mexican farms and businesses, pushing hundreds of thousands to the brink of disaster. Mexico’s surviving small- and medium-sized businesses remain extremely precarious. Pedro Salcedo, the president of the National Association of the Transformation Industries (ANIT) representing medium and small manufacturers, recently stated that between 300,000 and 400,000 such manufacturers could collapse in the short run.

The collapse of much of commerce and industry has led to the breakdown of much of Mexico’s formal economy, driving workers into the informal economy where they have neither health benefits, pensions, minimum wages, nor other protections. Two-thirds of all Mexicans are either underemployer or unemployed. That is, of the 36 million people in the economically active population only 9.37 million have permanent, full-time jobs, despite the boom in manufacture and exports.

The great depression of 1995 also cut Mexican workers wages. The International Labor Organization reports that Mexico’s labor costs are 2.80 U.S. dollars per hour. COPARMEX, the conservative Mexican employers’ association, recently carried out a study titled “Social Development and Economic Growth,” showing that 65.4 percent of all workers receive less than 40 pesos (about six U.S. dollars) per day. The same study found that there are 40 million poor out of a total population of 91 million.

Working for under three dollars an hour, most Mexicans simply cannot provide for their families. Half of Mexico’s people no longer get enough to eat to meet minimum nutrition standards, according to various studies. The Mexican Front for Human Rights (FMPDH) states that, “Millions of Mexicans eat only once a day because of extreme poverty and the lack of food.”

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) recently warned that 23 percent of the Mexican people and 43 percent of the rural population now live in conditions of extreme poverty. Out of Mexico’s 91 million inhabitants, 37.2 million live in extreme poverty or indigence, says UNDP. Though Mexico has several state health systems, some 10 million people have no access to health care whatsoever. A Mexican bank reports that two-third of all Mexican senior citizens have no pensions.

The Mexican countryside has suffered the worst perhaps of any part of Mexican society, beset not only by the neo-liberal reforms, NAFTA and the depression, but also by long-term failure of agricultural policy and at the moment by a terrible drought in the north of Mexico. Unable to make a living in Mexico, millions of Mexicans continue to attempt to enter the United States legally or illegally, permanently or temporarily.

Taken all together in terms of unemployment, wages, and the other social problems, the neo-liberal economic policies which have worked so well for U.S.-based multinationals and Mexico’s biggest businesses have produced a disaster of unprecedented proportions among Mexico’s ordinary people–whether small businessmen, professionals, workers, or peasants.

These social conditions lay behind the uprisings of both the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in January 1994 and that of the Peoples Revolutionary Army (EPR) in June of 1996. Poverty produced desperation, and desperation produced military rebellion.

Political Response: Reform and Repression

What has been the political response to the economic and social crisis in Mexico? The Mexican government’s response to the crisis has been a combination of negotiation and reform on the one hand and repression and militarization on the other.

Shortly after the January 1 Ejercito Zapatista de Liberation Nacional (EZLN) uprising in Chiapas in January 1994, the rebels and the government entered into negotiations. Those negotiations have gone on now for two years and nine months, producing some genuine local reforms in Chiapas and some national reforms affecting Indians. At the same time, government troops have cordoned off rebel-controlled sections of Chiapas and kept the Zapatistas bottled up militarily.

When a delegation of Zapatistas recently attempted to come to Mexico City to attend a National Indigenous Congress, the government only permitted Comandante Ramona to attend as their representative.

The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) also spent the last year in negotiations with the opposition parties discussing and debating “the reform of the state.” But at the last moment, in November 1996, the PRI majority in the legislature has quashed many of the promised reforms.

The PRI had negotiated an electoral reform for two and a half years with the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and the National Action Party (PAN), with the promise of finally creating an electoral system independent of the executive branch of government, and with genuine reforms in areas such as access to the media and election financing.

After various walkouts and threats, agreement on electoral reform appeared to have been reached. But the PRI reneged at the last moment, refusing to make meaningful changes in election financing which would establish funding limits and regulate election advertisements and news coverage on television. The party which lost the most here was the PRD, whose then leader Porfirio Munoz Ledo had bet his career on the agreement with the PRI. But the PRI betrayed not only Munoz Ledo and the PRD, but all those Mexicans who had hopes for fair and honest elections.

Even these reforms, however, would not have dismantled the historic fusion of the government with the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Despite a supposed end to the forced or corporative affiliation of organizations or parties, Fidel Velazquez, head of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) and the most important figure in the Congress of Labor (CT), recently promised that millions of workers in his unions could be counted upon to cast all of their vote for the PRI in the coming elections.

Generals, Colonels and Militarization

The most alarming element in the current political situation is the tendency toward the militarization of Mexico. While Mexico did not have a military dictatorship such as those that governed South America in the 1960s through the 1980s, the Army has played a significant role in repressing democratic movements.

The Mexican Army crushed the railroad strike of 1959, and the electrical workers movement called the Democratic Tendency in 1975. In 1968 the Mexican Army repressed the student movement killing an estimated 300 students at Tlatelolco, the Plaza of the Three Cultures in Mexico City. The military is probably also responsible for the disappearance and probable murder of 500 mostly young radicals in the 1970s.

The current militarization of Mexico has been a gradual process over the last several years. Carlos Salinas de Gortari used the police against the Petroleum Workers Union and the army against the Miners and Metal workers union in the first years of his administration. Salinas also sent the Mexican Army and Air Force to attack the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and Indian towns in Chiapas in January of 1994, shortly after the uprising.

When Salinas called off the attack in January, he ordered the occupation of Chiapas by tens of thousands of soldiers. The Mexican Army was also dispatched to Tabasco when Manuel Lopez Obrador and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) led protest demonstrations against the Mexican Petroleum company (PEMEX) in that state.

Even before the appearance of the EPR in June of this year, half a dozen Mexican states from Chihuahua on the northern border to Chiapas in the South were militarized to one degree or another. (The militarized states include: Chiapas, Hidalgo, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Jalisco, Guerrero and Chihuahua.)

Militarization has meant the construction of new army and airforce bases, troop movements and maneuvers, military roadblocks and checkpoints. But more important, militarization has meant the gradual displacement of civilian by military authorities. The police forces of about 25 Mexican states are now commanded by active military officers on leave or by retired military officers, usually generals and colonels. In addition, of course, every Mexican state government has a parallel military district commanded by a general, and state governors and general usually work closely together.

In a controversial new development this past June, General Enrique Salgado was appointed to head the Public Security forces of the Federal District, bringing with him 20 other generals and 10 colonels and lieutenant colonels. As a way of fighting druglord influence and corruption among the police, the Mexican government has promoted military control over civilian government police forces.

While this approach might have been convincing twenty years ago, today some units of the Army have also been corrupted by the drug dealers. In any case the fight against drug dealers, now combined with the fight against left-wing guerrilla groups, results in a more prominent role for the military in society and the state. At the same time, for the first time since 1976, there have been rumors of military coups–one in November 1995 and another in June of 1996–perhaps intended by military officers to test the response of civilian society and the political opposition.

The growing militarization of Mexico has been accompanied by closer relations between the Mexican military and the U.S. Defense Department and police agencies. The fight against the international drug cartels has justified increased cooperation between Mexican police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), as well as other police agencies.

The U.S. and Mexican Armies recently engaged in maneuvers and increased contacts between Mexican and U.S. generals, partly justified by the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas. The U.S. Pentagon asked Congress for ten billion dollars for military assistance to Mexico, and Clinton recently gave 20 U.S. helicopters to Mexico. Mexico has permitted the United States to engage in flights over Mexican territory. The Mexico City daily La Jornada reports that a 1994 Pentagon paper promises military assistance to Mexico, including troops, in the event of attempts to overthrow the government.

Mexican Fascism

The military of Mexico have not yet created ties to any strong mass right wing movement in Mexico. The only real fascist movement in Mexico exists in Chiapas, and appeared as a reaction to the EZLN uprising and then to land seizures by thousands of peasants.

The reactionary movement in Chiapas takes a variety of forms. Wealthier farms and ranchers in Chiapas, Tabasco and Campeche have formed the Private Front against Delinquency, under the leadership of rancher Alberto Marin Toache, to stop peasant land seizures and kidnappings. In the CostaSoconusco region of Chiapas, the farmers and ranchers formed the Broad Front for the Defense of the Land in 1995, for the same reason. Interestingly, many of these farmers and ranchers also criticize the PRI, the bankers and NAFTA.

More dangerous than these groups are four organizations lined to the PRI such as Peace and Justice, the Chinchulines, Fray Bartolome de los Llanos and Los Orantes, four groups accused of violent attacks on peasants, EZLN and PRD activists in Chiapas. At the moment, only in Chiapas do the fascist and military tend to be drawn together into a common danger.

The EPR Changes Mexican Politics

Just as the appearance of the EZLN caused a dramatic shift in Mexican politics in 1994, so the appearance of the EPR has also led to a sudden change in the political landscape.

To understand the EPR’s role today we have to go back a couple of years and remember the EZLN’s impact. The EZLN won tremendous support through the country between January and April of 1994, and continues to have enormous moral authority, particularly among Mexican Indians and youth. The EZLN was able to portray itself as the organization of warriors who don’t make war.

I recently met an academic in Mexico who is doing a study of the EZLN as a pacifist organization, and who compared Marcos to Gandhi! The EZLN argued that it did not want to be a “vanguard party,” that it would not take power, and called upon “civil society” to do so.

But after two and a half years of continuous negotiations, some have also begun to see the EZLN as the revolutionaries who don’t make revolution.   The appearance of the EPR in June of this year offered an alternative strategy, and threatened the EZLN hegemony on the far left. “We fight for power,” say the leaders of the rival EPR, “we are not going to negotiate with a government which assassinates the people.”

This position differentiates the EPR from the EZLN, which has for two years and ten months negotiated with the government and says that it does not want to take power, but rather to see Mexican “civil society” take power. Parodying Clausewitz and ridiculing the EZLN’s Subcomandante Marcos who has become famous for his clever literary style, one of the EPR comandantes Jose Arturo says, “poetry cannot be the continuation of politics by other means, and this doesn’t resolve the situation nor does it point in the direction in which the movement should go.”

All Mexican political forces were forced to respond to the new guerrilla movement, one way or another. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who was present at the event in Aguas Blancas when the EPR first appeared referred to the group as a “pantomima,” that is, as a charade. Emilio Chauyffet, Minister of the Interior, immediately adopted the same term, to the embarrassment of Cardenas, twice presidential candidate of the Democratic Revolution Party.

Adolfo Gilly, a member of the PRD who also maintains close ties to the EZLN, attacked the EPR as a group whose politics were reactionary from the standpoint of socialism.

President Ernest Zedillo, commanderinchief of the Mexican military, in his “informe de gobierno,” the equivalent of the state of the union address, announced that he would use “all the force of the state” to crush the EPR. Military commanders then announced that they would carry out counterinsurgency operations in several states.

Troops were dispatched to various parts of the country, and members of various indigenous groups, peasant organizations, and of the PRD reported members being arrested, tortured, or slain by the military.

Zedillo had the support of both business and the church. Carlos Abascal, head of COPARMEX, the conservative employers’ association said in response to the EPR uprising, “We have to attack them with sufficient arms, not with holy water.” The Permanent Council of the Conference of Bishops of Mexico took the same position. Archbishop Sergio Obeso Rivera supported the use of force to suppress the new guerrilla movement. Of course, the conservative National Action Party (PAN) also called for the military suppression of the movement.

With characteristic ambiguity, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the PRD gave tacit support to the military suppression of the EPR while speaking out against a military solution. In an editorial in the leftwing Mexico City daily La Jornada titled “A civil not a military solution,” Cardenas wrote: “…military actions should with complete political responsibility limit themselves to the indispensable and take place within the shortest time period possible. The military action which should be carried out without excesses and with absolute respect for the people doesn’t have a chance of getting rid of the conditions which leads to the outbursts which the country is seeing, of desperation and arms.”

As Cardenas well knows, however, the idea of a military suppression of a guerrilla movement “without excesses” and with “respect for the people” is a fantasy. Mexican non-governmental organizations, human rights groups and many social movements criticized the government’s military approach, calling for a resolution of the social problems and an end to repression.

Marcos and the Zapatistas

The EZLN attempted to put as much distance as possible between itself and the new EPR. The EZLN rejected the military support offered by the EPR, and Marcos suggested that the EPR was probably based on the PROCUP-Pdlp or Party of the Poor, a group believed by many to be manipulated by the government. Nevertheless, the appearance of the EPR also forced the EZLN to break off its negotiations with the Mexican government.

Most on the Mexican far left still look to the EZLN for leadership in the current situation. The EZLN still commands enormous respect among the Indians of Chiapas and sectors of Mexican society. As Adolfo Gilly has argued, the EZLN uprising meant the appearance in Mexican society of a new ethos: a group arose outside corrupt party politics which identified with the poorest and most oppressed.

The EZLN still has that enormous political capital, but it does not at present have a working political strategy.  The EZLN has spent the last two years and eight months surrounded by the Mexican Army and engaged in apparently interminable peace talks, while attempting to find a way out of its political isolation.

Incredibly imaginative, the EZLN leaders have tried any number of methods to create a mass organization throughout Mexico that would both provide protection and serve as a springboard to a national political role. The first of these was the National Democratic Convention (CND) held in Chiapas in August 1994; the most recent has been the establishment of the Frente Zapatista para la Liberation Nacional (FZLN), the EZLN’s civilian non-party social and political movement.

But so far nothing has succeeded in breaking the EZLN’s isolation. Still, the EZLN has built a remarkable social base among the Indian peasants of Chiapas and a great following among Mexico’s youth and intellectuals, and has supporters around the world as proven by the recent international meeting against neoliberalism held in Chiapas. Yet the EZLN seems unable to find the vehicle which could make links to the Mexican working class and the society at large.

The FZLN claims to have 400 branches and 6,000 members throughout Mexico, and may well have them, but where they exist the branches tend to be small, weak, and often dominated by oldleftists who wait on the next communique from Subcomandante Marcos. Despite the EZLN’s talk about a new, populist, democratic, open politics, the FZLN has failed to become a democratic organization or movement, largely because it is so dependent on the charismatic Marcos and the EZLN.

The Party of the Democratic Revolution

The Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which has failed  over the six years to cohere as a political force, is making a new attempt under its new president Manuel Lopez Obrador. In the PRD elections the Party divided into the three currents which had come together to form it.

In the campaign for president of the party, the first such party election in Mexico’s history, Manuel Lopez Obrador represented the current which came out of the (PRI), Herberto Castillo the radical nationalism of the Mexican Workers Party (PMT), and Amalia Garcia, the feminist and most conservative candidate representing the former Mexican Communist Party.

Lopez Obrador, a historian and political activist and the leader of the tremendous civil rights movement against PEMEX in Tabasco over the last year won overwhelmingly with about 230,000 votes; Herberto Castillo received 43,000; and Amalia Garcia got only 34,000.

While Lopez Obrador has proven himself a fantastic leader of mass movements and a shrewd in-fighter in party politics, his political judgement at times seems peculiar. At the beginning of June, for example, Lopez Obrador made a strange announcement that there was a plot afoot to overthrow president Zedillo “inspired from abroad and linked to political and economic groups which betray the country in order to take over the riches of the country, particularly its petroleum.”

Lopez Obrador then pledged his support to the country and to President Zedillo. He never provided specifics of his claim of some supposed coup d’etat, and his gesture of support to Zedillo and the PRI government was bizarre, given Zedillo’s leading role in the technocrats’ privatization of Mexico’s industry and natural resources.

Lopez Obrador shares the same nationalist and social democratic politics as his predecessor, Munoz Ledo, even if his style is altogether different.

Upon his election to the party leadership, Lopez Obrador hurried off to Los Pinos, the presidential residence, to a meeting with President Zedillo. The discussion between Lopez Obrador and Zedillo was intended to convey to the PRI and the public that the PRD wants to be a respectable political party, and no longer a political pariah. Since its founding in 1988, the PRD has had hundreds of its members, usually local party activists and leaders, murdered, often by the PRI or the police.

Mexican Civil Society

A couple of years ago Mexican “civil society”–a panoply of human rights groups, non-governmental organizations and individual do-gooders–appeared to hold out the hope of making a significant contribution to the democratization of Mexican society. There is still some grounds for hope, but the civil society movement has proven to be more limited, weaker and more subject to manipulation than many initially hoped.

The Mexican civil society movement, which appeared during the 1980s, has proven to be mostly interested in political reform and elections. Also, the civil society movement’s nongovernmental organizations have increasingly turned to U.S. and other foreign foundations for support, which also often means adopting conservative U.S. style political methods and goals.

Some Mexican civil society groups have undertaken work in the area of civil rights and workers rights. An Alianza Civica subcommittee recently participated in helping to oversee a union election at the Ford Cuautitlan plant. But such activities are the exception, not the rule.

The Labor Movement

The PRI, through the Congress of Labor (CT) and the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) and other captive labor federations (CROC, CROM, etc.) still controls the Mexican labor unions and the Mexican workers. However, some important changes in the Mexican labor movement have recently taken place which hold out hope for the breakdown of state control.

First, a serious split has developed within the CT, between on the one hand Fidel Velazquez and the CTM and, on the other, Hernandez Juarez and the Foro group of 20 some major unions (called the Foro group because it sponsored a series of Forums on the state of Mexico).

During the presidency of Carlos Salinas, Hernandez Juarez was the model unionist supporting neoliberalism, privatization, and flexibility (lean production). Now he and his allies, such as former head of the teachers union Elba Esther Gordillo, have broken with Fidel and will probably withdraw from the CT to form an alternative labor union central. While this division between the CTM and the Foro group is a bureaucratic split, it represents an important opening for Mexican workers.

To the left of the Foro group is the Intersindical Primero de Mayo (The May First Union Coalition) a group of independent labor unions, peasant organizations, community groups, and poor people’s movements. The May First Union Coalition grew out of the 1995 May 1 workers’ demonstration in Mexico City, the first independently organized May Day in decades.

The May First coalition represents a genuinely independent movement, but does not have the sort of major union participation and social weight that the Foro group does. Together the Foro group and the May First Union Coalition organized the 1996 demonstration of over 100,000.

Some sections of the Mexican working class have begun to reorganize, democratize and become more militant. Most important has been the teachers’ union movement of 1996 which saw hundreds of thousands of teachers take to the streets in work stoppages and demonstrations throughout Mexico. These were the most important teachers’ union demonstrations since the mid-1980s.

Social Security workers demonstrated against the privatization of the pension system’s funds, but did not strike as French public employees did in the same period. But most workers’ struggles of the last few years have gone down to defeat.

Perhaps the most important workers’ struggle in Mexico of the recent period, the Route 100 bus drivers’ union (SUTAUR-100) was defeated, as was the strike at the Metropolitan Autonomous University by the independent union (SITUAM). In the private sector and heavy industry, workers have not engaged in many major struggles for the last couple of years, and strikes are at an historic low.

Perhaps the most illuminating symptom of the condition of the Mexican labor movement is the protest by the Federal District hospital workers. For several weeks now the hospital workers have been engaging in hunger strikes and drawing their own blood and spilling it on the national plaza. Such self-mutilating and humiliating protests have a history in the Mexican labor movement since the beginning of neoliberalism.

When the government closed the Fundidora de Monterrey steel mill and other steel plants in the 1980s, Mexican steelworkers took off their clothes and paraded naked before photographers apparently to symbolize their weakness and powerlessness before the government. More recently during the bus drivers’ struggle for their jobs, some supporters had their mouths and eyes sewn shut by a physician to symbolize the governments refusal to see or talk with the workers.

Now hospital workers bleed themselves. These are, I think, pathetic symbols of the weakness of labor, reflections (as is the rise of the EPR guerrillaist movement) of the weakness of Mexico’s captive labor movement and the society’s lack of democracy.

If progressive change is to come in Mexico, it will come from the indigenous people, from peasants and agricultural laborers, from women and the democratic movement—but the urban working class will be central to any such project. Unfortunately today the workers remain passive.

While at present working-class independence, organization and activity are at an historic low point, in such critical economic, social and political conditions, some left activists report small changes taking place in the workplaces and unions that point in a hopeful direction. Given the profound crisis of the PRI, the weakness of the “official” labor organizations, and the social upheaval in the countryside, one small but real victory by some significant sector of the working class could begin a rapid process of activism and radicalization.

ATC 66, January-February 1997