Mexico’s New Political Era Begins

Against the Current, No. 92, May/June 2001

Dan La Botz

IN ONE OF the most moving moments of contemporary Mexican history, a Mayan Indian woman, Comandante Esther of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), took the podium in the Mexican legislature on March 28, 2001.

She spoke to the nation’s representatives and its people calling for peace in Chiapas, and for a new indigenous rights law that would grant autonomy to Indian communities throughout Mexico. She spoke for the ten million indigenous people who are the poorest, most abused and most politically marginalized among the country’s 100 million citizens.

Her reception in the national legislature was the culmination of the so-called Zapatour, the Zapatistas’ two-week march through twelve states, arriving on March 11 to a tumultuous welcome by over a hundred thousand students, workers and ordinary Mexican citizens in the Zocalo, Mexico’s national plaza.

The Zapatista spokeswoman’s appearance has many dimensions. For the Zapatistas it appears to represent the final step in their transition from guerrilla army to social movement and political pressure group.

For Mexican Indians it represents the apex (so far) of their new national civil rights movement, much like the African-American civil rights movement in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s with the March on Washington in 1963.

For Mexico as a whole, it represents the continuing political, social and psychological struggle with the European conquest of Mexico and its legacy of class, race and gender oppression.

Quest for Identity

For hundreds of years, the Mexican people have been arguing amongst themselves about their national identity, asking: Are we the descendants of the Aztecs or of Spain? Are we, as a nation, indigenous, creole or mestizo? Or are we the Raza Cósmica, the cosmic race, seen by the Mexican writer José Vasconcelos as a blend of all the races with a special mission in carrying the world forward toward peace and justice?

Are we involved in a national revolution moving toward a socialist society, as Lázaro Cárdenas proclaimed in the 1930s? Or are we a capitalist society as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) president Carlos Salinas proclaimed in 1988? What is our national destiny?

Seeing Comandante Esther on the podium in her typical embroidered Indian blouse and sandals, the Mexican people once again had to ask themselves: Who are we? What do we want to be? What is our national project?

Last summer the Mexican people asked themselves these questions as they entered the voting booths throughout the country to choose a new president, voting by a wide plurality for Vicente Fox, the former Coca Cola executive and candidate of the conservative National Action Party (PAN).

Fox’s election spelled the defeat of the seventy-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and of its one-party state, the famous “perfect dictatorship” which during its heyday had dominated not only the government, but also the economy and all the major social movements of workers, peasants, the urban poor, students, and women.

In voting for Fox the Mexican people also expressed their desire to make Mexico a more democratic society. Fox won with the votes not only of PAN loyalists, but also of renegades from the PRI, and from the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). In voting for Fox, Mexicans chose change, chose reform, chose democracy, chose what they hoped would be a better life.

Why Fox?

How did Fox, a conservative businessman who supports the neoliberal economic agenda, become the standard-bearer of the opposition? Remember that in 1988, the Mexican people had voted for Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of the left-of-center PRD.

Cárdenas certainly won that presidential election. But the people’s votes were ignored, and through massive fraud Carlos Salinas of the PRI became president. Cárdenas, though he had widespread support, declined to launch a national resistance movement to fight for his victory over the PRI, arguing that to do so would lead to a bloodbath. But in refusing to fight for the people’s votes for change he lost his credibility as the leader of the opposition, never to regain it.

A few years later, on January 1, 1994, the EZLN led the Chiapas Rebellion, and seemed to pose a new national political alternative. If the Zapatistas joined with the PRD and the civil society movement of Alianza Civica, a newly formed opposition, it seemed possible to depose the PRI in the 1994 elections or afterwards by inspiring a national social movement for democracy.

But despite a national consulta or referendum in which a million Mexicans participated and asked the Zapatistas to become a political organization, they declined to do so, arguing that Mexican politics was inherently corrupt and corrupting. Consequently, with both Cárdenas and the Zapatistas having eliminated themselves from the political competition, Fox and the PAN became
the opposition.

But Fox too deserves much credit for his own success. Dressed in blue jeans and cowboy boots, wearing a big western hat, and often riding a horse as he campaigned, he captured the popular imagination. After years of the PRI political bosses or technocrats in their suits and ties, here came a man who appeared to be a maverick.

In fact Fox is a former legislator and governor with a long association with leaders of the PAN, and represents that wing of the Mexican economic elite with strong ties to U.S. capital. Fox himself owns a ranch that produces vegetables for the U.S. market, as well as a shoe and boot company with factories that produce for the American and European markets, and was for several years Coca Cola’s chief executive in Mexico and representative to Latin America.

Yet Fox would not have won had he not reached out to the voters aligned with PRI and the PRD, and to the Mexican people with their hope for change.


Fox won because people believed he represented a democratic alternative and a more prosperous future, and so they gave him their votes. The natural question is: Has Fox measured up to the Mexican people’s hopes?

To the question “Has he brought change?” the answer must be yes. The PRI was born in 1929 as a state-party, in which the president came to be a virtual dictator, albeit an institutional dictator with a new face every six years. The loss of the presidency represents decapitation, the end of the old PRI-state.

While the PRI may survive and even be metamorphosed into some new political formation as happened with some of the old Communist Parties in Eastern Europe, the old PRI-state is definitely dead.

Has Fox brought reform? To this second question, the answer must be qualified. For example, on the issue of the Zapatistas and the Chiapas Rebellion, Fox has been a reformer of sorts.

Under President Ernesto Zedillo, the PRI, the legislature, and the military had reached an impasse. For a variety of reasons from pride to politics, Zedillo could not break the stalemate and could not reach an accommodation with the Zapatistas. The result was the continued military occupation of the state of Chiapas, with accompanying violence by the military and paramilitaries, and the stagnation and decline of the state’s economy with the poverty and misery this entailed especially for the indigenous people.

Fox has understood that in order to carry out his conservative national political-economic agenda, he first had to resolve the situation in Chiapas and in southern Mexico.

He promised to do so in his election campaign, and he has in fact recalled the Mexican Army troops to barracks, released Zapatista political prisoners, and supported and encouraged the Zapatour to Mexico City and the Zapatista appearance before Congress, despite the opposition of his own party and the boycott of Comandante Esther’s speech by most of the PAN legislators.

Fox has asked Congress to act on the San Andres-Larrainzar accords, the treaty negotiated by Zedillo’s government with the Zapatistas, or to negotiate some other treaty that will meet the indigenous people’s demands for greater autonomy.

Fox’s attempt to resolve the Chiapas situation has to be linked to his economic program for southern Mexico. Fox has adopted the Plan Puebla-Panamá, which is supposed to develop the entire region between central Mexico and the Isthmus of Panama.

Part of this broad plan is the “March to the South,” which Juan Bueno Torio, a Subsecretary of the Economy says will “identify the production vocation of each region; establish productive or commercial links; give value added to primary production and to manufacture; install maquiladoras, textile companies and other industries based on intensive use of labor.”

This program, supported by 174 million pesos in government development money, will create industrial parks not in capitals, large cities or ports, but in small towns and rural areas. (See Victor Cardoso et al, “Marchas hacia el Sur, generara 300 mil empleos in zonas más marginadas, anuncia Bueno Torio,” La Jornada, March 8, 2001).

In other words, once the Chiapas situation is resolved, that state and the entire southern region, is to be turned into one great maquiladora based on Mexico’s cheap labor force. Obviously there is a contradiction between this kind of state and corporate economic development and the notion of indigenous autonomy.

Open Border?

The other area where Fox proposes genuine reform is in the area of Mexican migration to the United States. Mexican migration to the United States represents enormous issues for both countries.

Every year more than a million Mexicans cross the border legally and illegally to work or live in the United States. (The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Border Patrol apprehend and return about 300,000 undocumented immigrants each year.) California alone needs 500,000 to plant, tend and harvest the crops each year. Mexican migrants’ remittances total $6 billion a year, the country’s third largest source of foreign exchange.

Today, after three decades of continuous migration, ten percent of all Mexicans (over ten million) live in the United States, which thus constitutes a safety-valve that reduces the likelihood of social explosions in Mexico even while the U.S. government attempts to control if not stop the flow of undocumented workers.

Since 1994, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and its Border Patrol have carried out measures to militarize the border in urban areas, forcing migrants into the desert and mountains where over 1,500 have met their deaths through exposure.

As a reformer, Fox has insisted that the U.S. government be willing to discuss the racism, violence and suffering involved in these issues, and to negotiate new policies which protect Mexican workers from the worst sorts of abuses by government authorities and vigilantes.

The Mexican president says that he understands that this is a long-term issue of ten or twenty years. In the meantime the most likely proposal may be some sort of new “bracero” or guest worker program that would bring in young Mexican males to work in agriculture and other industries, with some protections but at wages so low and conditions so basic that they constitute a kind of sub-proletariat.

Reaction and Free Trade

While on the questions of Chiapas and migration Fox may appear to be a reformer, on economic questions he is a conservative, even a reactionary. Fox remains committed to the neoliberal program of his predecessors.

He supports the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and will back the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), an expanded NAFTA-type agreement for thirty-four nations of the Americas. His cabinet appointments reflect these commitments.

The two most important are Luis Ernesto Derbez, a former economist for the World Bank and director of Vitro corporation, who was selected as Secretary of the Economy, and Francisco Gil Díaz, formerly of the Banco de Mexico and Avantel corporation, a WorldCom affiliate, chosen as Secretary of the Treasury.

At the same time, Fox has appointed some figures who come from the Mexican left, from non-governmental organizations, and from the broad opposition generally characterized as “civil society.” Most important was the appointment of Jorge G. Castañeda, a former member of the Mexican Communist Party (PCM, later PSUM and PSM), a long-time fellow traveler of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and one of Mexico’s best known intellectuals, to be Secretary of Foreign Relations.

Castañeda has said that he will focus his attention on the relationship with the United States, and particularly on the issues of Mexican migrant workers. (Castañeda’s father also served as a Secretary of Foreign Relations.)

As expected, Fox appointed Carlos Maria Abascal Carranza to the post of Secretary of Labor. Abascal, the former head of COPARMEX, the Mexican Employers Association, negotiated with Fidel Velázquez, the former head of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), an agreement on a “New Labor Culture.”

Abascal has indicated that he favors a complete revamping of Mexico’s labor laws in order to improve productivity, quality and competitiveness and to advance Mexico’s position in the world market. Many labor union leaders have indicated that they fear this means weakening labor unions and their contracts, if not eliminating them altogether in favor of company unions.

Since taking office Fox has proved to be less a reformer in the labor sphere than an opportunist. He praised the old PRI-state union, the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), when he spoke at its National Council meeting in Mexico City on February 25, saying, “It’s good that Mexico can count on labor unionism like that of the CTM which renews and strengthens its identity day by day.”

At the same meeting, Fox promised to continue Mexico’s tripartite (government-employer-union) system in both IMSS and in the Labor Boards (JFCAs), with the suggestion that the CTM would continue to be the principal union representative in those institutions.

At about the same time, Fox also announced the creation of a new Council for Dialogue among the Productive Sectors (CDSP), a tripartite organization made up of government officials, employers’ organizations, and selected labor unions, which will deal with issues such as employment, training and productivity.

But the Council is also expected to oversee the economic pact, and set the informal wage guidelines that have in the past acted as ceilings on Mexican workers’ wage gains, and in reality functioned to keep wages low.

Squeeze on Workers

For labor, there is no meaningful reform. Even as Fox supports employers’ demands for a new Federal Labor Law that will undermine unions and workers’ rights, he has also chosen to shore up the old state-controlled labor bureaucracy.

The best example is the case of the workers at Duro Bag in Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas, a U.S.-based multinational company. Workers there, earning about $4 per day and concerned about repeated accidents, attempted to organize an independent union and win a contract from their employer with support from the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM), the AFL-CIO and the Canadian Labor Congress (CLC).

Unions and workers sent many messages to Fox and Abascal asking for a secret vote election for union representation. But Fox and Abascal ignored the pleas for fairness, and workers had to run a gauntlet of company union goons before voting out loud in front of their boss and company union officials.

Not only that, but the Abascal attacked foreign unions and workers for attempting to discourage foreign investment and destabilize Mexico. Certainly Fox’s promises of change, reform, democracy and economic improvement have meant little to Mexican workers like those at Duro Bag.

Economic Turmoil

During the last eighteen years during which the PRI pursued the neoliberal economic agenda and Mexico’s integration into NAFTA, Mexican working people have seen their wages and standard of living fall. Fox promises to raise their wages by increasing domestic and foreign investment and improving quality, productivity and competitiveness so that Mexico can win in the international market.

But at the moment, the decline of the stock market and the economic slowdown in the United States have meant not only that orders have declined and workers have been laid off, but also that new maquiladoras will not be built and that other direct foreign investment is not coming, at least not now.

Consequently Fox will not be able to deliver on his economic promises. The Mexican economy will not even expand enough to maintain the existing levels of employment and income.

So far, while Fox has been a disappointment to his own party because of his apparent support for the Zapatistas and for a new law that would grant autonomy to the indigenous, he has also been a letdown to most Mexicans because he does not seem to be capable of bringing about a new prosperity. He has also been a disappointment to those who support workers and human rights because of his support for the corrupt old CT and CTM labor unions.

Perhaps the only party he has not disappointed is the United States, because his charisma and charm and his identification with change and hope guarantee at least a spell of social peace and stability in Mexico.


While Fox attempts to create a new government with its combination of reformist and reactionary characteristics, and while he still enjoys the support of many Mexicans, not everyone is waiting to see what will be handed down from above.

As already mentioned, the Zapatistas have taken advantage of the new administration to put forward demands for indigenous autonomy, and they have moved back to center stage in Mexican society. But the Zapatistas do not constitute the same radical force for change they were when they first appeared on the scene on New Years Day of 1994.

The Zapatistas can no longer claim to be the only force fighting to end the PRI’s one-party state<197>indeed it was Fox who actually ended it. They now appear as the leaders of an important sector of Mexican society fighting for social justice, but not as a group with an alternative political agenda.

Their conventions, consultas and fronts have all failed to establish a broader national movement. The indigenous movement and other social movements sometimes find expression through the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The independent labor federation National Union of Workers (UNT), for example, recently entered into a pact with the PRD.

Yet at the moment, the PRD does not either exert much political influence nor very effectively express the social movements. Since the third defeat of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas for president (1988, 1994, 2000), the PRD parliamentary delegation is reduced in size and in influence.

The party’s real bastion of power is the mayoralty of Mexico City held by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who appears to be working very hard to be an effective mayor, particularly for working class and poor citizens of one of the world’s largest cities. But at least so long as Fox still holds the hope of the Mexican people, the PRD cannot be a very strong opposition.

The labor movement represents another area of resistance. The UNT and within it the Authentic Labor Front (FAT) are attempting to play a larger role in organizing Mexican workers and building a new labor movement. Worker resistance seems to be rising, with many job actions and strikes throughout the economy.

This has yet to become a real strike wave, but there have been more strikes than we thought. A recent study by the Universidad Obrera de Mexico (the Mexican Workers’ University or UOM) finds that since the beginning of the technocratic or neoliberal presidents Miguel de la Madrid, Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo there have been not a few dozen strikes but several thousand.

The UOM reports that under the last three presidents there were 11,382 strikes of all sorts. During Zedillo’s term there were 1,738 strikes, or almost one a day. Public employees carried out a virtual strike wave involving 74 Federal government unions and 32 state unions in the last days of the Zedillo administration.

Thus, while Fox comes to power planning to promote a conservative agenda, he may find that he confronts the beginnings of a new more independent, more democratic, and more militant labor movement that has no intention of being swept aside.

Suggested reading: Mexican Labor News and Analysis at and Multinational Monitor at See the March 2001 issue: Mexico’s New Democracy: The Real Thing?

ATC 92, May-June 2001