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Issue 53

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Issue 53, Jan/Feb 2001

Fin de Fiesta

    The Mexican left and the PRD
    The Zapatistas
    Transition and instability

Last year's elections in Mexico ended the political dominance of PRI. As PRI can trace the roots of its one-party rule to the revolution of 1910-20, its fall represents a major turning point. CARLOS ESTRADA and CARLOS PETRONI describe what has been taking place and assess the implications.

NOW THAT THE euphoria of the elections is over and Mexicans are watching to see how the government of Vicente Fox will fulfil the voters' high expectations, we have to analyse what exactly happened. How did this long-hoped-for result finally come about? What does the fall of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional(PRI) regime mean for Mexican politics in the next period? What does it mean for Mexican workers, young people, marginalised ethnicities and immigrants in the United States?

The election results mark the final collapse of the PRI regime, a process which began in the late 1980s. There has actually been a prolonged crisis brewing since the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, when over 700 students were killed during huge demonstrations against the Olympic Games. Since then, the PRI has faced waves of discontent, political and economic turmoil, mass mobilisations and guerrilla struggles, which together have created a long curve of structural crisis for the regime.

There have been erratic swings in events: the student massacres of 1968 and 1971; periods of relative stability during the Luis Echeverria and López Portillo presidencies; the deep economic crisis and instability in the 1970s and 1980s; with a new political crisis in 1986-88. In the latter crisis the PRI had to resort to massive fraud to snatch electoral victory away from the neo-Cardenist (named after Lázaro Cárdenas, Mexican president 1934-40) Frente Democrática Nacional (FDN). FDN later developed into Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD). The period was crowned by a whole series of crises - including the emergence of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) and the murder of Luis Colosio (PRI presidential candidate) in 1994 - during the last years of the Carlos Salinas presidency, and continuing under Ernesto Zedillo.


The past twelve years have seen the ripening of the conditions for PRI's fall. Even though the PRI managed to stabilise some aspects of the economy, the gap between rich and poor widened and unemployment remained high. Worse still for the PRI, the crumbs of political reform it was willing to give satisfied no one. What followed was actually quite simple: a mobilisation of workers, peasants and sections of the middle class to get rid of the government and the regime.

top     The Mexican left and the PRD

WE SPEAK OF a prolonged crisis since 1968, yet the PRI managed to survive that and the crises and movements of subsequent years too. It even sailed clear of its own internal splits, the collapse of its political structures and its electoral defeat of 1988. How and why?

The responsibility for the survival of the PRI falls squarely on the shoulders of the left. The Mexican left in all its incarnations capitulated to the PRI regime when it could have beaten it and with the same blow swept away any attempt by the ruling class to remain in power. The Trotskyist Partido Revolucionario Trabajadores (PRT), the Euro-communist Partido Socialista Unificado de México (which later fused with the left-nationalist Partido Mexicana de los Trabajadores to become PMS), and a gamut of small left groups and organisations all dissolved into PRD in 1986-88.

At the beginning of the 1980s the left had thousands of militants, sympathisers and voters. It was by far the strongest left in Latin America. Yet this left placed its bets on the ability of the capitalist neo-Cardenist leadership to conduct the democratic and political revolution in Mexico. What was the nature of PRD? Were the expectations which the left placed on the PRD leaders realistic?


The origins of the PRD are in the Corriente Democrática (CD) of the PRI, led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, Ifigenia Martínez, César Buenrostro and others. Corriente Democrática sought to salvage the populist and nationalist roots of the PRI, 60 years too late, breaking away from PRI in 1986 to initiate a 'project for replenishment' through a change of the regime and government. When it split, the current became the FDN. Both FDN and its successor PRD were fundamentally capitalist projects. Both were led by a wing of the Mexican bourgeoisie seeking, on the one hand, to rescue the remains of the capitalist building erected in the 1930s and, on the other, to democratise the regime to guarantee its economic and social permanence.

The strategy of neo-Cardenism was doomed economically, politically and socially. Salinas had advanced significantly the privatisation of state enterprises and industries, reinforcing the private sector of the Mexican bourgeoisie and bolstering its opposition to the permanence of the regime. In this manner, the dismantling of the hitherto popular state capitalism of the PRI brought new activists into the Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN), the right-wing party which came to power with Fox. The bourgeoisie simply turned coats. Moreover, the PRD, which called itself centre-left, never saw the need to base itself socially among the exploited classes in Mexico (the peasantry, the working class, the Indians) or on their mobilisations. Rather it sought to preserve the old multi-class and popular-frontist structures of the original Cardenism. The regime of Lázaro Cárdenas, however, enjoyed popular support for its extensive land redistribution and the nationalisation of US oil companies in the 1930s. For neo-Cardenism, the support of the popular masses meant the same as it did for the PRI: they were just clients to be mobilised at election times.


The PRD was not able to pull off this feat given that the Mexican bourgeoisie had already exhausted its nationalist and populist stage by the 1950s. Now the Mexican bourgeoisie was embarked on a process of dismantling what remained of the old project. The PRI buried its demagogic nationalism with the privatisation of state companies: some in ruins from neglect, corruption and bad management; others solidly in the black and sold off to the friends of the regime for a pittance. But by then, with the left dissolved in the flaccid PRD, there was not a single voice of protest to be heard from a real left which might have been able to stop this process.

Steps towards achieving the bourgeois-democratic tasks (agrarian reform, secular state, nationalisations), which had been left dangling by the interrupted revolution of the 1930s, were hastily rolled back from the 1970s on. This was facilitated by the degradation of the unions and peasant organisations which under Lázaro Cárdenas had been partners in the promised power. They were now powerless prisoners of the regime, bound to it by corruption, privileges and perks for its leaders. The Congreso del Trabajo (CTM - the main union federation) and CNC (the peasant umbrella organisation) were assigned the job of providing PRI representatives and senators who would vote for wage caps and budget cuts.

As under Lázaro Cárdenas, neo-Cardenism did not propose a solution based on the working class: deepening the nationalisations, introducing workers' democracy in the trade unions and society, implementing fundamental agrarian reform and creating the possibility of a workers' government. Instead, it subjected the oppressed classes to the sections of the bourgeoisie which backed PRD, as opposed to those from PRI or PAN.


PRD bet all its chips on a political and electoral transition which would avoid destroying the PRI regime, while achieving the 'democratic' assimilation of a sector of the very same PRI bourgeoisie. But in 1988, when FDN was defrauded out of a widely-acknowledged election victory, neo-Cardenism refused to head a mass movement to topple the government. The opportunity was there and the neo-Cardenists let it slip away: Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas did not want revolution but reform of the regime.

This betrayal meant the end of the PRD as a real alternative to the PRI. In 1991 it polled a shameful 8% in the elections. Then in 1997 it won the mayoralty in its bastion, Mexico City. On taking power in the capital, PRD did the same as PRI had done. It limited itself to administrative reforms to enhance efficiency without making even a small dent in the power structures it had inherited. PRD became mired in electoral fraud in the internal primaries before splitting along the lines of each leader's personal agenda. Finally, in the latest elections, the PRD came in at a shameful third place, illustrating the demise of its project at the national level. In Mexico City, the PRD will be forced to rule along with PAN and ADLF, which will only deepen its internal crisis and put in question the support of vast, politicised sectors in the country's capital.

PRT and PMS simply capitulated to neo-Cardenism, dissolving themselves into PRD. Heberto Castillo, Martínez Verdugo, Pablo Gómez, Ricardo Pascoe, Edgar Sánchez, Rosario Ibarra and other leaders of the three left parties were more interested in a short-term project - obtaining a few administrative or elected posts. They embraced the PRD's strategy and were the first to fall. By the close of the 1980s, the 70-year-old Marxist left tradition in Mexico had vanished as an alternative. The left had lost the historical opportunity to create an alternative to the PRI regime. While neo-Cardenism touched bottom in 1988-99, the Marxist left had vanished long before, digested by the PRD.


This explains the victory of the rightist PAN. There is no violent turn to the right by the peasants, workers and students as Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, Adolfo Gilly and others on the left seem to believe. Those who betray never want to explain their own responsibility. Instead they blame their failures on the mass movement. In 1986 the masses supported who they perceived to be leftwing. They followed the left's leadership and neo-Cardenism until Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas's capitulation became evident in 1988.

top     The Zapatistas

AFTER FDN'S DEFEAT in 1988, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) emerged as an alternative with its 1994 insurrection. Thousands of militants moved away from the PRD and turned towards what appeared to be a left alternative. They were soon to be disappointed. The EZLN quickly retreated from its initial goal of building a national movement aimed at overthrowing the government and regime. The EZLN de facto abandoned the building of a left alternative on a national level. The Zapatistas restricted themselves to raising a series of regional demands and building a solidarity movement with the struggles in Chiapas, rather than posing an alternative to the PRD's betrayal. The EZLN did this in part as a response to their isolation in Chiapas and their military limitations. But the fundamental reason for this course of action stemmed from the absence of a clear class and left alternative to the crisis - within EZLN and in the left in general.


The Zapatistas, in effect, accepted the Salinas-Zedillo proposals for negotiations on condition it restricted its movement to Chiapas. This condemned the EZLN to a war of attrition which isolated it nationally and internationally - after a stage of initial success. It also brought splits in its own base of support, part of which sought agreements with other political forces, including the PRI. The EZLN's tacit support of a PRD-PAN electoral coalition to vote for a PRI candidate in Chiapas closes a new chapter in the EZLN's capitulation to the bourgeoisie.

The PAN victory, delivered by the masses who flocked to the polls, should not be attributed to any alleged shift to the right. The blame is squarely on the failure of the neo-Cardenists, the old Marxist left, and the neo-Zapatistas. All of these betrayed the struggle against the regime and adapted to the rules it set down. They left the road wide open for PAN to become the only plausible vehicle to get PRI out of power. After all, it was Cárdenas who first proposed a national alliance with PAN in 1999 to defeat the PRI. Cárdenas only withdrew his proposal when he realised that he would not be chosen as the candidate.

top     Transition and instability

THE NEW GOVERNMENT of Fox arrives with the intrinsic political weakness of a transition government entrusted with the task of creating a new political regime. Fox lacks the political confidence of the electorate, many of whom voted for him purely to get rid of the PRI. In exit polls, only 8% declared that they voted for Fox because of ideological loyalty to his party.


Fox's first populist measures were aimed at consolidating a social base to enable him to govern: promising not to be ultra-Catholic; proposing votes for immigrants in the US; raising the idea of 'open borders' with the US; as well as attempts to negotiate with sectors of the PRI state bureaucracy and the unions. These measures have earned Fox strong opposition from ultra-right-wing sectors of PAN.

Dismantling the PRI regime has left Fox with the problem of what to do with more than two million bureaucratic officers in the structures of the state. These were educated in the skills of bribery and perks of office. Some were leaders of unions, and peasant and popular organisations, kept for decades in the comfortable shadow of an almighty state which guaranteed their privileges and power. This remains a significant sector of the bourgeoisie which sucks from the breast of the capitalist state.

It is among these people that Fox is searching for his base of support. He wants to mix them with the new sectors of his party and with allies in the opposition to whom he has offered a government of collaboration. This includes PRD and the former Marxist left. Fox is looking for a structural base of support to reformulate the state and to consolidate his electoral victory. But he will necessarily have to get rid of other sectors, due to political hostility or the need to make room for his new supporters. Fox will sit uncomfortably amidst pressures from all sides: from the Catholic Church and the rightwing of PAN; from those sectors which his actions throw into opposition; and from the new sectors brought into the state demanding concessions.


The mass movement is not defeated. On the contrary, the joy of having kicked PRI out of power will energise new movements to demand rights among workers and popular, peasant, Indian and student sectors. All struggles from now on will have a specific target: Fox's government. To the struggles by traditional opponents will be added those of the castaways from the old regime, especially from its popular and workers' organisations.

Both PRI and PRD will suffer the consequences of their respective electoral and political defeats. The splits will be right-wing (those who wish to collaborate with PAN), and left-wing (those who lean on the mass movement to consolidate their position). These divisions will further complicate any attempts to consolidate a new regime headed by PAN. PAN now inherits responsibility not only for the new government but also for drafting a new political regime project for the Mexican capitalist state.

Will this be a multi-party regime with strong parliamentary traits? Or will Fox try to create a new single-party regime, this time based on the part of the bourgeoisie who grew up outside PRI's old state capitalism? Will he try to reach an equilibrium through a bonapartist government balancing between the private and state capitalist sectors? That would involve maintaining the current electoral structures resting on the three main parties, which obliges at least two parties to form an alliance to win power. Any of these forms, or a combination of features, will exclude sections of the bourgeoisie powerful enough to stage a credible opposition to the regime emerging from this first post-PRI government.


The PAN government's relationship with US imperialism will be decisive for its political equilibrium and in resolving the difficulties involved in establishing a stable political regime. PAN and Fox simply have no alternative other than total capitulation to US imperialism and a continuation, in this sense, of the policies of the last four PRI governments. A new capitalist political regime in Mexico cannot be created without close collaboration with and assistance from imperialism. Contradictorily, this requirement will be itself a strong source of instability because it clashes violently with the anti-imperialist traditions of the Mexican workers' and peasants' movement.

Many thanks to VERA CANDIANI for translating this article.

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