Contours of the Mexican left

By Phil Hearse

The left in Mexico is a huge and incredibly diverse phenomenon and one which is potentially extremely powerful. It encompasses tens of thousands of tenacious, devoted and often very brave men and women, fighting against a state which, despite the democratic space created in the past 20 years, still routinely responds to its worker and peasant opponents with disappearances, assassinations, imprisonment and torture. Every critical point made here has to be seen against that background.

Mexican capitalism is in a deep political crisis, which shows no signs of abating. The reason for this is that the structures of the Mexican state the corporatist, virtual one-party system are inherited from the long period of import-substitutionist state capitalism, which lasted from the 1930s to the early 1980s. The epoch of neo-liberal globalisation, and the vastly increased mass striving for democracy, now requires very different political structures, and a further undermining of the nationalised sector of the economy. But this is no easy matter. The Mexican bourgeoisie is deeply intermeshed with the party which has ruled Mexico for 70 years, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The elites in business and finance, the army, the federal state apparatus, the mass media, the big majority of the state governments and (insofar as it is distinct from the other categories) the narco-bourgeoisie are in a tight embrace with the PRI.

The affiliation of the major unions to the PRI and the involvement of top union bureaucrats in the PRI leadership have been a central factor in ensuring capitalist stability. The possibility of moving to a real multi-party democracy threatens all the levers of government patronage which go via the PRI; and it also threatens to eject from government the party which controls the major unions. Even if the right-wing PAN (National Action Party) were to win the presidency, this would imply a severe dislocation of the traditional system of rule.

This structural problem is compounded by mass disaffection among the working class and the rural poor, who have been traditionally tightly controlled by PRIista unions and peasant organisations, and by the corrupt system of patronage which has bought off key popular leaders.

Neo-liberalism has been a disaster for the working masses of Mexico. Poverty has accelerated rapidly, and income disparities are enormous (Mexico has the sixth most unequal income distribution of any country in the world). Twenty per cent of the population live on 12 pesos a day or less (just over US$1); ninety per cent live on 65 pesos a day or less (US$6.50). Twenty per cent annual inflation, and a "minimum wage" system which continually pegs pay increases at half that, ensure that poverty continually worsens.

Further, eighteen years of neo-liberalism have undermined the social security and health systems and the nationalised sector of the economy, which subsidised the basic commodities of the poor and are seen by the vast majority as historic gains of the 1910-20 revolution. In he countryside, the reversal of the 1930s land reform and the penetration of agribusiness have thrown the peasantry and rural poor into deeper destitution. It is now estimated that between 40 and 50 per cent of the population suffer from malnutrition.

Neo-liberalism has deepened the subordination of the Mexican economy to (mainly US) imperialism. Thanks to the penetration of the Mexican economy by transnational corporations and the maquiladora system, huge profits are taken out of the country untaxed. This has turned a whole section of Mexico's elite into a new comprador bourgeoisie. On top of all this, Mexico's state finances are pillaged by massive corruption at the top of the state apparatus.

All this has had a dramatic result: Mexico is the sixteenth largest economy in the world, but in terms of income per head it is eighty-first. It is a rich country in which most people are poor, but the wealthy are rich by international standards and flaunt their vast riches in an aggressive manner in the bourgeois ghettos of Las Lomas, Polanco and Coyoacán.

Not surpassingly, therefore, Mexico is a highly politicised country in which the forces of political radicalism have a large audience. A huge array of left political groups, militant trade union fronts, peasant organisations, human rights groups, women's organisations, solidarity networks and non-governmental organisations exist across the country. However, all the mass organisations of "civil society" are influenced or controlled by one of the main party-type organisations the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD Partido de la Revolución Democrática), the Zapatistas and the far left groups. In Mexico, the political party remains the "modern prince".[1]

The left is not nearly as effective as it could be. Mexico, as much as any country in the world, has the objective conditions, and the human raw material, for the creation of a powerful mass anti-capitalist, militant socialist party. What is missing is the will a grasp of the necessary steps to unify and politically clarify the very broad militant left forces.

The legacy of clientalist populism

Few people, perhaps none, know every Mexican political party. There are dozens and dozens. The reason for this affects everything about politics in Mexico. In contrast to advanced capitalist countries, there are few avenues for social advance for people from outside the bourgeoisie and a narrow layer of the petty bourgeoisie. In a country where at most 4 per cent have access to post-highschool education, often the only way out from grinding poverty is criminal activity or the army (which is why there are so many sons of the peasantry and indigenous people in it).

But Mexico is also a country with a strong state apparatus, funded by very high taxes (which of course narco-traffickers, US corporations and the rich evade). Many people, especially in the countryside and the urban barrios, depend on the favours of national and local state officials to get basic amenities like housing, electricity and drinkable water. Access to the state apparatus, even office at municipality level, gives immediate access to money and endless opportunities for corrupt clientalism.

Bossism and clientalism are all-pervasive in Mexican life. The establishment of a political party, even with just a local base, can get people elected who will thus have access to money. Being an official in a party with access to money, even without elected position, can give you finances and power. This is compounded by state funding of political parties, based on election results. The biggest parties, the PRI, PRD and PAN, get tens of millions of dollars from the state every year. Sad to say, the structures of bossism and clientalism corruption for short have often seeped into the Mexican left, including its far left component.

This assessment has direct bearing on understanding the PT (Partido de Trabajo Labour Party) and the PVEM (Partido Verde Ecologista de México the Greens). The PT utilises the emblems of the Brazilian PT. Politically there is nothing to distinguish it from the centre-left PRD. But all observers on the left agree that the PT was set up in 1994 with the aid of the ruling PRI during the presidency of Carlos Salinas, with the aim of dividing the opposition and winning votes from the PRD. The people who formed the PT come from a Maoist background, and easily made a transition from the belief that there were no principles in electoral politics to the belief that there were no principles in politics, full stop.

In fact, today the PT has evolved from simply being one of the PRI's satellite parties to a more independent position, utilising its handful of deputies in the federal parliament to swivel from conjunctural alliances with the PRD, to support for initiatives of the PRI depending on the temporary political, and doubtlessly financial, advantage. The PT will support the PRD in the 2000 presidential elections, having already declared its support for former Mexico City mayor Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas as its presidential candidate much to the consternation of Cárdenas' principal PRD opponent, Porfirio Muñoz Ledo. Muñoz Ledo himself has become the candidate of the largely fictitious PARM (Authentic Party of the Mexican Revolution), one of numerous "virtual parties" with no noticeable political positions and tiny memberships, which exist solely for the self-aggrandisement and enrichment of their leaders.

The PVEM is a caricature of a green party, with no radical political positions whatever. This is especially ironic in a country which is sinking deeper and deeper into environmental catastrophe.[2] The party is largely dominated and owned by a single family. Its propaganda contains vague and simplistic denunciations of evil things like pollution and bullfighting without the slightest attempt to put forward radical solutions. Recently it supported the candidate of the neo-liberal PAN in the state of Mexico gubernatorial elections with absolutely no explanation. Doubtless the promise of minor office if the PAN won, or some other financial inducement, was key. Family patriarch Jorge Gonzalez has appointed himself presidential candidate for the year 2000, despite the opposition of 25 state leaderships.


The mass of the population with a radical, democratic or anti-PRI outlook is dominated politically by the PRD and the Zapatista movement. The latter has three components: the army (EZLN), the Zapatista base communities in Chiapas centred on the autonomous municipalities, and the Frente Zapatista (FZLN), the EZLN support network which has affiliates nationwide.

The PRD emerged from a split in the PRI in 1988-9, led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, son of the 1930s president Lázaro Cárdenas, who nationalised the oil industry, and Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, former president of the PRI and at various times labour minister and ambassador to the United Nations.

The "cadres" of the PRD a high percentage of whom are elected officials or full-time party functionaries come mainly from two backgrounds, the PRI and the Communist Party, which went into the PRD in the late 1980s, dragging a big section of the left with it. While conflicts between EX-PRIistas and EX-CPers are commonly referred to, in fact on political questions the PRD rarely divides on these lines. There is no sense in which EX-CPers constitute a left inside the PRD. While the party president, Amalya Garcia, is from a Communist background, in the decade of its existence the party has been dominated by the EX-PRIistas; the socialism of the former Communists has sunk without trace.

The PRD faces many political difficulties. One factor is that the March 1998 elections for the new party president and the new Mexico City leadership collapsed, after widespread fraud was proved discrediting the party's democratic credentials and smacking of old-style PRI habits. The second reason, less immediate but in the long term debilitating, is the failure of the Cárdenas Mexico City government, elected in 1997, to carry through any significant reforms, exposing it to a demagogic right-wing campaign by the PRI, PAN and the PRI's fascistic "mass front" in the urban barrios and countryside, the Antorchistas (Torch Bearers).

Cárdenas, who in October 1999 resigned as Mexico City mayor to be the PRD's presidential candidate, is likely to fare badly in the July 2000 elections. And the party could be defeated in the Mexico City elections.

Ten years after the party's founding, the PRD lacks credibility. Its work is totally centred on elections, and its leaders have failed to take clear stands on the key struggles in the country, particularly the historic six-month-long student strike against education fees at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) and the deepening militarisation of Chiapas. The party is hated by the PRIista bourgeoisie, but Cárdenas in particular trims everything he says to avoid offending them, which means that, aside from vague noises about democratisation, he says nothing. The net result is that the party is failing to create any crusading enthusiasm among the poor, and at the same time has no chance of winning the allegiance of the rich, who are mainly loyal to the PRI and have the PAN as a second option.

Muñoz Ledo, to the right of Cárdenas and with an ego the size of a planet, is clearly on his way out of the PRD, with his "New Republic" current. Some people have hinted that this is a PRI-financed operation, which has made Muñoz Ledo several million dollars richer. True or not, Muñoz Ledo's sudden attack has hit home hard and damaged Cárdenas, because some of his accusations appear to be well founded especially his accusation that Cárdenas is a hereditary caudillo who operates in an undemocratic way inside the party (the party of the "democratic revolution" is especially adept at ensuring the dominance of Cárdenas and his entourage).

Figures for PRD membership vary widely; the party leadership claims more than a million, others say around 100,000. Much revolves around the definition of a member. The ultra-politicisation of Mexican society means that many people declare themselves to be affiliates of a political party without doing much more than help in elections, if that. With more than 200 parliamentary deputies, several state governors and hundreds of mayors and municipal officials, the PRD in organisational terms is clearly the largest party after the PRI. How should it be assessed from a socialist viewpoint?

The PRD is the party of the "democratic" revolution. Its program is for the democratisation of Mexican society, not its socialisation. The origin of the PRD is in the abandonment of the PRI's historic "state capitalist" project in favour of neo-liberalism. In many ways, the PRD sees itself as the authentic continuation of the populist traditions of the PRI, defending for example the nationalisation of electricity and the oil industry, aligning itself with the defence of free public education and so forth. These are the residual gains of the 1910-20 Mexican revolution and its aftermath, and put the program of the PRD way to the left of contemporary European social democracy. But the past of the PRI during the high point of "revolutionary nationalism" in the 1930s is not a past of socialism, but of a bourgeois nationalism which went through periodic radical phases.

What the PRD has changed from the old-style PRIista politics is its commitment to multi-partyism and democratic rights, a big break from the de facto one-party state of the old PRI days. But the PRD remains securely wedded to the electoral road and, for example, criticises the Zapatistas for using "armed struggle" (of course the Zapatistas are armed though not involved in an armed struggle in any conventional sense, but let that pass). Respect for the "law", and commitment to electoralism are real handicaps in Mexico when electoral fraud can be pulled out of the bag at any time to deny victory to the PRI's opponents. What the PRD does not base itself on is mass struggle of the workers, peasants and indigenous people. This assessment might seem slightly at odds with the proliferation of PRD marches and rallies, but those things are the stock in trade of all Mexican politics and a reflection of populism: a rally and a march are not a struggle.

All these statement pertain to the PRD program and leadership; PRD members at the base get involved in a multitude of struggles, and some of the leaders of the Section 9 of the SNTE teachers' union, a very militant section of the teachers' union involved in bitter fights, are members of the PRD. The PRD's leadership is dominated by people with a middle-class, professional and university background. And the party retains the traditional Mexican obsession with stars and personalities, who have their own clientalist cliques.

Clientalism has emerged as a crucial problem in the DF (Federal District Mexico City and suburbs), where the PRD controls the city government. In the delegations (municipalities) the PRD's elected councillors have often acted in a corrupt and clientalist way, not much different to their PRIista forerunners.

Most of all, the PRD is not a class party. On May Day, PRD banners are nearly completely absent, although doubtless many PRD supporters march with their union contingents. But to march as the PRD would smack of "classism" inappropriate for a multi-class party of "the whole Mexican people".

The emergence of the PRD in 1988 was the catalyst which led to the collapse and absorption of the Communist Party, and the eventual capsizing of the PRT, the main Trotskyist party. In many ways it is the key obstacle to the emergence of a mass party of the workers, peasants and other popular sectors. Such a mass workers' party could come about only through, or in conjunction with, or by causing, a huge crisis inside the PRD.

Nonetheless, socialists have to be extremely open to the PRD militant base, and pursue systematic united action with them. This is an important issue within the revolutionary left, where some Neanderthal post-Maoist and "Trotskyist" organisations have sometimes refused to work with PRDers and denounced them, not because of what they have done or said, but purely because they are members of the PRD. Far from damaging the PRD, such attitudes only strengthen it.

The Zapatistas: a left turn?

Mexican politics changed forever on January 1, 1994, when the EZLN staged its uprising. Since that date, the Zapatistas have been a fundamental factor in Mexican politics, putting the question of the indigenous peoples (and racism in general) in a central position and acting as a spur to the reanimation of the whole Mexican left. Moreover, the EZLN is evolving, and despite its "radical democratic" framework, there is strong evidence to suggest it is evolving leftwards, towards a more systematic "class struggle" position on an all-Mexican scale. In any case, its evolution is not finished, and it would be foolish to try to put this unique organisation into a predefined category. I will try here to outline some of the basic factors to be considered in making an evaluation of the EZLN, and its dominant political figure, Subcomandante Marcos.

The first leaders of the EZLN, including Marcos, came from the Maoist guerilla tradition, who with the defeat of the urban and rural guerilla struggles of the 1970s decided to try to build a base in the indigenous communities. In an application of Che Guevara's foco strategy (probably its most successful, if not only successful, application) six of them three indigenous and three non-indigenous went into the Chiapas jungle in 1983. It took them more than a year to win any adherents, but by 1988 they had won the allegiance of the elders of many of the indigenous villages in Chiapas, who took the decision to send some of their sons and daughters into the jungle highlands and prepare an uprising.

The EZLN made its first public appearance in 1992, when thousands of indigenous peasants (not in uniform) marched into San Cristóbal de las Casas on the anniversary of Columbus' landing and pulled down the statue of a notorious Spanish conquistador.

The EZLN leadership, we should always remember, is the Clandestine Indigenous Revolutionary Committee i.e., it is an indigenous organisation which fights for the social rights of indigenous people, including autonomy and self-rule. (But of course they do not consider the indigenous people to be a nation, and do not demand independence.) However, they understand that their demands are impossible to meet without major changes in Mexican society as a whole, and generally they refer to this as democratisation. Nowhere in the EZLN's propaganda or writings do we find any reference to socialism as an objective. It is this general posture which has led people like the dreadful Jorge Castaneda to refer to them as "armed reformists" an exceedingly simplistic way to put it.[3]

However, the evolution of the EZLN politically has been determined by two things. First, following the 1996 San Andreas accords, which set out the need for a negotiated solution, the PRI government has refused to negotiate and has deepened repression. The EZLN leadership has thus stepped up its attempts to construct alliances and political support across Mexico. Second, Marcos understands very well that democratisation in Mexico means getting rid of the PRI, and an alternative socioeconomic model to the current neo-liberalism.

The EZLN held a national referendum about setting up a national political organisation in late 1995, and in 1997 set up the Frente Zapatista (FZLN). This was not a national political party-type organisation, but one which a) excluded members of other political tendencies and b) had its role restricted to being a support organisation for the EZLN. For example, there are (or were a year ago) 50-plus FZLN groups in Mexico City, but they have never taken any position in relation to the PRD city government, which means that they can't act on crucial questions of local politics.

The contradiction of the EZLN operation in setting up the Frente was the following: in order to build a really effective support organisation to coordinate with the Chiapas struggle, you had to build an organisation which would attract people who wanted to be active on the broad spectrum of Mexican politics. Otherwise, they would join the PRD or the far left. But the FZLN does not allow people to be active on the broad range of national politics within its framework, and thus the best left activists have not joined. A cheerleader organisation is not a particularly attractive option.

While this is not entirely true in some southern states, in Mexico City the FZLN attracted many middle-class types looking for a political home. Others already involved in socialist or class struggle politics could support the Zapatistas without joining the vague and semi-inactive Frente. This was the price which Marcos paid for limiting the FZLN politically and organisationally. The Frente could not become a vibrant new political force, certainly not a new left opposition to the PRD.

A key turning point in the evolution of the EZLN was the events of December 1997 to June 1998. In November 1997, 1111 masked EZLN supporters came to Mexico City to be present for the foundation of the Frente (although not to participate). Insofar as any political trend could at that time be discerned inside the leadership of the Frente, it was the group of people around Sergio Rodriguez, formerly the leader of the Trotskyist PRT. He and his ally, Rosario Ibarra- leader of the movement of the mothers of the disappeared, several times PRT presidential candidate, and a person with immense moral authority among left and democratic forces are clearly very close politically to Marcos himself.

Just a month later, the Acteal massacre took place, the start of a six-month military offensive against the Zapatista civilian municipalities, which the EZLN fighters, deep in the selva, were in a poor position to defend. For six months the EZLN leadership was totally silent, leading to all kinds of speculation about what was happening: it is quite possible that the EZLN leaders were debating what kind of response was needed, and whether they could militarily defend their base communities or whether only a political response was possible. In June 1998, Marcos intervened with a 28-page document entitled "Masks and Silences", a frontal attack on the PRI and neo-liberalism. Within two weeks, the Zapatistas' Fifth Declaration was published, calling on "civil society" to defend the indigenous communities and promote a peaceful solution.

In the one year since then, the Zapatista leaders have intervened politically in support of every single major struggle most notably those of the electricity workers against privatisation and the UNAM students' struggle against education fees. In addition, they have sent delegations from Chiapas to several mass demonstrations and 5000 of their base community supporters all round the country in support of their national referendum for peace and indigenous rights. (The referendum was a stunning success, three million people voting an incredible logistical and political feat.) They have also held several national meetings with "civil society" and radical union trends in Chiapas, which thousands of people have attended.

De facto, Marcos is trying to build a national alliance against neo-liberalism. He is also trying to forge direct links between the EZLN base communities and popular sectors engaged in struggle. During the referendum campaign, local "brigades" were set up nationwide, involving more than 20,000 people, most of them not FZLN members. This whole strategy seems to be a recognition of the weakness of the Frente Zapatista, and an attempt to ally directly with struggles and struggle organisations.

In the past the Zapatistas have often seemed to have a stand-offish attitude to workers' struggles; for example, they were silent during the 1995-6 struggle of the Mexico City bus workers. This has changed sharply. One thing which has not gone unnoticed is that the EZLN delegation which came to Mexico City for the huge May Day demonstration marched with the Primero de Mayo union federation, which is controlled by the far left (and it should be said, in some cases: ultra-left). This political turn by the EZLN seems premised on the correct idea that the fate of the Zapatistas and indigenous people is deeply linked to the fate of the struggles of other popular sectors. Since the beginning of the UNAM strike (April '99) Marcos has maintained total support for the strike leadership, which is largely in the hands of extreme (if not ultra-) left groups.

These developments are encouraging. Nonetheless, it should be remembered that the EZLN is not a socialist organisation, and has no ambition to forge a new all-Mexico socialist party. It has no elaborated social and economic program for Mexico. It is a struggle organisation for the indigenous people. As such, it plays an absolutely central role, and the defeat of the Zapatistas would be a crushing blow for the whole Mexican left. But it is not, and cannot be, a new socialist leadership for Mexico.

At the time of writing (autumn 1999), the Zapatista base communities have for several months been victims of a new campaign of military occupation and encirclement. If the PRI wins the 2000 elections, the military pressure against the EZLN will intensify. The forces of Mexican radicalism will have to wage an enormous struggle to defend the Zapatistas. For, in the end, the "low intensity warfare" of today is just the first stage of the ruling class's ambition to crush the indigenous rebels.

The armed 'left'

There are several armed guerilla organisations in the countryside no-one knows exactly how many. The ones which have made a public appearance are the EPR (Revolutionary People's Army) and the EPRI (Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People). These organisations are based in the southern states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, Hidalgo, Veracruz and Chiapas, and maybe some others. Reliable information about these organisations is extremely scarce, because they are by definition clandestine. One has to be extremely circumspect in making an assessment of such organisations, because many of their activities, and even their political positions, are not in the public domain.

The largest of these organisations is the EPR. It seems to have originated in the state of Guerrero, to the south of Mexico City, from the (Maoist) Party of the Poor. Many observers trace the roots of this party to the peasant struggles of the 1970s, which resulted in Guerrero in genocidal repression from 1973 onwards. Tens of thousands were killed by the army in the attempt to crush the guerilla struggle.

The EPR came into public view in the summer of 1996, when a public commemoration of the 1995 peasant massacre in Aguas Blancas being addressed by Cárdenas was interrupted by dozens of masked guerillas marching into the crowd. Cárdenas denounced it as a (perhaps state-organised) provocation. In the early autumn of 1996, the EPR set up roadblocks outside Acapulco, levying "revolutionary taxes", and shot up the main square in the millionaire seaside resort Huatulco.

Since then it has apparently organised sporadic attacks on army bases and ambushed army patrols. The government claims to have crushed the EPR; independent observers say the guerilla has been repressed in Guerrero, but is still active in Oaxaca and other states. Certainly, in Guerrero and Oaxaca, hundreds have been assassinated, "disappeared" or imprisoned for allegedly supporting the EPR.

The Party of the Poor and the EPR are regarded by the rest of the left as examples of extreme Stalinist dogmatism and sectarianism perhaps not surprising, given their origins. Extreme repression and militarised clandestinity often combine to produce authoritarianism and sectarianism in its caricatured worst case forms, Sendero Luminoso and the Khmer Rouge. Relations between the EPR and the EZLN are, to say the least, frosty (especially after an organisation close to the EPR tried to take over the Zapatista solidarity network in 1994-5).

In 1998 the EPRI emerged as a split from the EPR. The political difference is between the "prolonged people's war" strategy of the EPR and the "insurrectionist" strategy of the EPRI. The EPRI has publicly been much more friendly to the EZLN, supporting the Zapatistas' national referendum, for example. The EPRI's explanation of its strategy seems to imply a conception of insurrection which is fundamentally the work of the people, not the revolutionary army, and in which the role of force is that of "armed self-defence". On the other hand, the EPRI in Guerrero has threatened the army with "an eye for an eye", and recently shot four soldiers in retaliation for the murder of two campesinos and the rape of two peasant women by the army. The EPRI says that the EPR has a uselessly long strategy and conceives of prolonged people's war as lasting an intolerable 30 years or more.

Of the other armed organisations, virtually nothing is known, if only because for the moment they are literally keeping their powder dry. However many fighters the military left has in total probably some hundreds their political support in the southern countryside should not be underestimated. Extreme poverty and harsh repression of the peasants in general, and the indigenous people in particular, is the source of that support. But in my opinion, prolonged guerilla war is not a viable strategy in Mexico because of extensive urbanisation (75% live in towns) and because of the size and US-aided counterinsurgency expertise of the Mexican army. Militarism is a product of the peasantry, not the working class. It is not capable of building support in the biggest concentrations of the popular masses the big cities. Sections of the left animated by democratic concerns are usually repelled by the authoritarianism and sectarianism of these organisations.

Independent Unionism

The electricity workers' battle against privatisation has highlighted the battles inside the trade union movement. The industry's workers are divided into two unions, the Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas (SME), which has mobilised all-out against privatisation, and SUTERM (United Union of Mexican Electricity Workers), which has supported it. By coincidence, the leader of the main PRI union federation (the Congreso de TRABAJO CT), Leonardo Rodriguez Alcaine, is also general secretary of SUTERM. His support for privatisation has caused uproar in his own union. In May, thousands of opposition SUTERM workers organised their own demonstration against privatisation.

Further, the SME has resigned from the CT over its support for privatisation; it is possible that the SME will join the independent UNT federation. The government's neo-liberal policies are causing problems for other PRIista unions. For four weeks in May and June, thousands of teachers supporting the CNTE (Coordinadora Nacional de los Trabajadores en Educación) camped out in the city's central square, the Zócalo, and held daily demonstrations demanding substantial pay increases and an end to repression of the democratic teachers' movement. (There are more than 120 teachers from the southern states assassinated, "disappeared" or in prison.) The CNTE is the left tendency of the pro-government Sindicato Nacional de los Trabajadores en Educación (SNTE). The SNTE leaders attacked the teachers' camp as being led by people similar to the ultra-violent Peruvian guerilla group Shining Path, and called on the government to punish harshly teachers involved in the many battles with the granaderos (riot police).

The development of independent unionism, represented by the UNT, the FAT (Frente Auténtico de Trabajo) and the CIPM (Coordinadora Intersindical Primero de Mayo), is a major step forward for the Mexican workers. It has been aided by a recent high court decision to outlaw the "closed shop" compulsory union membership. In many countries the closed shop has been defended by militant unionists, but in Mexico it has meant compulsory membership of the pro-government unions. The court decision will give independent unions more freedom to win members from PRIista unions.

But independent unionism has its own conflicts and contradictions and the UNT and CIPM are often at one another's throats. The UNT, founded in August 1997 by CT dissidents, claims one and a half million affiliates, including social security workers, TELMEX telephone workers, university workers, airline crews and many others groups.

Although it declares itself in total opposition to neo-liberalism, the reality is more complex. For example, the key UNT leaders is Hernandez Juarez, leader of the STRM telephone workers, an unapologetic member of the PRI. Juarez enjoyed a particularly good relationship with former president Carlos Salinas, and was instrumental is negotiating a "flexibility" deal with TELMEX owner Carlos Slim, Mexico's richest person. Juarez claimed the deal saved jobs, but the opposition democratic current in the STRM which supports the Intersindical Primero de Mayo called it a sell-out.

The Primero de Mayo calls the UNT leaders "mini-charros" (charros is the term of abuse used for the pro-government union bosses). But there is a major difference between the CIPM and the UNT. The UNT is a real union federation, made up entirely of affiliated unions, and with the weight to act as an alternative to the CT pro-government unions. Its May Day contingents were disciplined groups of industrial workers, each decked out in their own uniform track suits and baseball caps.

The CIPM is not a union federation in the same sense. In reality it is a coalition of some smaller trade unions, trade union opposition groups, peasant organisations, far left mass fronts like the Frente Popular Francisco Villa and the Movimiento Proletario Independente (which controls the Mexico City bus drivers' union) and revolutionary organisations, which can affiliate directly. The much older FAT, by contrast, is a real union federation with very radical political positions; while much, much smaller than the UNT, it has some weight in the border maquiladora industries and has promoted union links across the US-Mexico border.

The CIPM may be right that the UNT leaders are "mini-charros". But the UNT's independent unionism is a major gain for the Mexican workers. While keeping at arm's length from the CIPM to their left, the UNT leaders support strikes and are often involved in battles with the leadership of the CT.

The Frente Auténtico de Trabajo is much older than the CIPM and the UNT, having originated in Christian Democratic currents and still maintaining links with Catholic radicals. Like the CIPM, its affiliated organisations include peasant organisations and other sectors from outside the working class proper. A lot of FAT activity goes into providing lawyers to individually represent workers in labour courts. Because it has some representation in the border maquiladora industries, the FAT has promoted cross-border links with US unions. The FAT has also proved very adept, with its Christian connections, at promoting itself internationally, giving some foreign observers the impression that the FAT is "the" trade union opposition. But the UNT is much bigger, and the CIPM is more politically dynamic.

Whatever happens to the battle over electricity privatisation, the "big one" privatisation of PEMEX, the state-owned oil industry is yet to come, and may indeed not be possible until after the presidential election next year. Oil workers are a pillar of the pro-government union federation, and an attempt to privatise oil would surely lead to more cracks in the system of corporatist, state-sponsored trade unionism.

Barrio and pueblo politics: the frentes

Politics in the Mexican barrios revolves round the struggle for the basics of existence housing, drainage, drinkable water and electricity. The formation of the pueblos starts generally with the construction of makeshift houses built by the people themselves. Once a pueblo reaches a certain size, inevitably the fight starts to get key amenities. This can be done only by organising mass campaigns to press local authorities into action. Often the amenities are gained by the actions of the local PRI, which exchanges political favours especially support in elections for at least some basic comforts.

But often the fight for the basics of life is led by the left. In the Mexico City pueblos and in the north leadership is often seized by "frente" type popular organisations, led by ex-Maoists. This is the origin of sizeable groups like the Frente Popular Francisco Villa and the Frente Popular Emiliano Zapata. The PSR (Partido Socialista Revolucionario), its fronts and splits from it like the MULP (United Movement of Popular Struggle) also have a base in this kind of work.

Effective work in the pueblos can develop into political leadership of whole communities, but there are enormous pitfalls in basing yourself on this type of activity. Political leadership of the pueblos frequently leads to clientalism and corruption, and manipulatory authoritarian politics. It has also in-built a certain transitory quality. Normally when leadership of a barrio is in the hands of one of these organisations, they start to act as local bosses. Political opponents are kept out with violent methods. People who want favours approach the local party boss. Support for the frentes is expressed in participation in its activities rallies, marches etc and not in the form of membership of a real organisation. By its nature, this kind of work is extremely localised, and it is hard to utilise this support to create an effective national presence.

Active support for the frente-type organisations is at a high point during the struggle for local facilities. Afterwards support melts away, especially because the communities are constantly changing as people move and new people come. From this point of view, while socialists can do (and have done) valuable work in the pueblos, they cannot be a stable centre for revolutionary work, which in a highly urbanised country like Mexico has to be in the working class proper.

Trotskyist groups

Basically Trotskyism in Mexico originates in two "schools" the Fourth International and the Morenista trend, which at its high point in the 1970s and '80s was based on the Argentinian Movement for Socialism (MAS), led by Nahuel Moreno. In the 1980s by far the largest organisation was the PRT (Revolutionary Workers Party), affiliated to the Fourth International. The PRT was able to establish a definite electoral presence, gain the leadership of one of the most important peasant unions and lead important local struggles.

The PRT blew up with its early 1990s split. The political crisis in the PRT started in 1988 with the emergence of neo-Cárdenism and subsequently the PRD. By taking the political (especially electoral) space to the left of the PRI, the PRD squeezed all the left organisations. Sensing an opportunity for a mass radical alternative to the PRI, big sections of the left got swept into the PRD, including the Communist Party and a section of the PRT, including its best known intellectual, Adolfo Gilly, author of the best Marxist account of the Mexican revolution. Gilly is now a key advisor to Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas.

In 1992 the PRT split over electoral tactics, between a minority led by Edgard Sanchez and a majority led by Sergio Rodriguez leading to the existence of two PRTs. Subsequently, in the mid-1990s, the Rodriguez PRT (by now renamed "Democracia Radical") decided to "integrate" itself into the Zapatistas and thus dissolve. The people who followed Sergio Rodriguez are among the key leaders of the FZLN, but do not act as a political current of even the most informal kind.

A minority of the Rodriguez PRT in 1996 founded a new orthodox Trotskyist group led by Jaime Gonzalez and Manuel Anguilar Mora, the LUS (League for Socialist Unity). (Manuel Anguilar was one of the main leaders of the 1968 student movement and a key person in the 1970s [re]foundation of Mexican Trotskyism.)

The SANCHEZ-PRT (now renamed PRT-Covergencia Socialista) recently split again. Edgard Sanchez and his supporters (a minority in the split) have decided to go into the PRD. The majority of his group, however, including the PRT's vestigial peasant base in two Guerrero pueblos, have decided to maintain an independent, open organisation

The LUS is a small organisation of about 70 members, of whom about 30 are in Mexico City. Its priority orientation is towards the unions and youth. One of its leaders, Emilio Amaya, was the national coordinator of the Primero de Mayo union front until his death in October 1999, and it plays a role in the debates over the political direction of that organisation. Essentially the LUS is trying to re-establish a Marxist cadre around "orthodox" Trotskyist positions.

The LUS is in a working alliance ("Coordinadora Socialista") with one of the four organisations of Morenist origin, the Partido Obrera Socialista (POS). It has also started working, especially in the six-month long student strike at UNAM, with three other organisations the PRT, Unios! and the Unión Revolucionario de los Trabajadores, an ex-Maoist organisation based in México state.

The largest of these organisations is the POS, which has 150-200 members. But, crucially, the POS has about 60 youth, most of them students, in an organisation called Juventud Socialista. This has enabled the POS to play a role in the leadership of the UNAM struggle, and brought them into sharp conflict with the ultra-left, ex-Maoist groups who are in the strike leadership.

Conclusion: problems of the Mexican Left

To make progress towards the formation of a mass left alternative means the organisational reconstruction and political clarification of the forces of Mexican radicalism. Ideologically Mexican radicals have to come to terms with the legacy of the Mexican revolution and its political incarnation in "revolutionary nationalism" which in Mexico is the term used in referring to the (bourgeois nationalist) post-revolutionary state capitalist ideology of the PRI, and especially the PRI in its most radical period, the 1930s Cárdenas government.

Today, mutatis mutandis, the main continuation of revolutionary nationalist tradition is in the PRD. But its influence goes a long way beyond the PRD itself. For example, the Popular Socialist Party (PPS, which traces its origins back to a split from the CP) still has an essentially revolutionary nationalist ideology: its propaganda emphasises that electricity privatisation is "treason to the nation", rather than treason to the working class.

Second, the Mexican left needs to situate correctly the question of democracy, and break with the prevailing radical democratic discourse which infects the PRD and sections of "civil society"', especially the rightward-moving NGOs.

Can bourgeois nationalism have any progressive role in Mexico today? To answer that, you have to start with the question of whether Mexico is still an oppressed country. In fact, the oppression of Mexico by imperialism, mainly US imperialism, is even more obvious than it was 20 years ago. The PRI-led transition from state capitalism to neo-liberalism, started after the election of the Miguel de la Madrid regime in 1982 and cemented by the signing of the NAFTA accords, has opened up Mexican industry and agriculture to massively increased exploitation. While there is still a "national" bourgeoisie, huge sections of the Mexican elite have been transformed into a new comprador bourgeoisie, living off the crumbs of imperialist super-profits generated in the maquiladora industries, subsidiaries of US transnationals and agribusiness.

One figure, quoted above, which is indicative of this situation is the position of Mexico in the recently published new world economic league table. Mexico is 16th in terms of GNP, but 81st in terms of income per head. The discrepancy can hardly be explained by the disappearance of vast sums into the pockets of crooked business people and narco-traffickers; much vaster sums are repatriated as profits directly to US (and European and Japanese) corporations, tax free.

In the light of this, "national" demands against the exploitation of the country are inevitable and correct. When protesting electricity workers chant "Zedillo entiende, la patria no se vende" (Understand this, Zedillo: our country is not for sale), they express the anger of millions that privatised electricity would in all likelihood be bought up by US transnationals.

However, in Mexico demands in defence of national sovereignty cannot be separated from anti-imperialism, and hence anti-capitalism. There is no section of the Mexican bourgeoisie, even its "national" component, which is politically prepared to struggle to shake off the shackles of imperialist tutelage. On the contrary, the PRI's demagogy about "national sovereignty" (mainly aimed against foreign radicals who visit Chiapas) is a fig leaf to cover supine prostration in front of the United States, whose Hollywood trash culture is pathetically worshipped and religiously aped by the Mexican ruling and middle classes.

If Marxists in the 1930s could give critical support to the anti-imperialist actions of the Lázaro Cárdenas regime such as the nationalisation of the oil industry, there are no such actions, no such social and political force with support in the bourgeoisie, to give critical support to today. The fight to reclaim national sovereignty is not a fight for national unification, or a single national market classic tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution, already achieved. It is today a fight against imperialist domination and thus a fight totally against the Mexican bourgeoisie.

Anti-imperialism consistent anti-imperialism means class independence and a refusal of all strategic alliances with any section of the capitalist class. This is where the neo-Cárdenists in the PRD fall down. Their program contains not a jot of anti-capitalism or anti-imperialism, which is hardly surprising in a bourgeois populist party in the 1990s.

Most importantly, the social basis for "revolutionary nationalism" of the 1930s type does not exist. Then, the space existed for an import-substitution state capitalist strategy of economic development. Today the world situation is very different, and the economic and political space does not exist for this kind of bourgeois nationalism in the exploited countries; the epoch of neo-liberalism and intensified imperialist exploitation has crushed it. Thus every section of the Mexican financial and industrial bourgeoisie sees its future linked directly with international capital, and especially US capital. Every major financial institution in Mexico has links with US banks and insurance companies. And the Mexican state sees itself as directly dependent on the good will of the US government, which, together with the IMF and the World Bank, is in effect the Mexican "banker of last resort" as it was during the economic crises of 1982 and 1994.

The question of democracy cannot be separated from anti-imperialism. The fight to break the single-party PRIista regime is of course progressive. Equally, the fight against anti-democratic repression, and for the democratic rights of the indigenous peoples, has an immense progressive charge. But, in the post-1989 situation, huge sections of the progressive intelligentsia have been won away from any commitment to socialism to the more limited horizons of a "democratic transition".

Real democracy in Mexico cannot be limited to the winning of formal democratic rights (which largely exist, despite the "presidentialism"' of the regime). Real democracy means winning self-determination for the indigenous peoples, women's democratic rights including the right to abortion the right to education for the children of the poor, the abolition of child labour, the right for Mexico to control its own industries and above all the right to have enough to eat. All that cannot be done without a crushing popular victory over the pro-imperialist bourgeoisie. This has major implications for left strategy.

A good point to start is the question of government. The forces around the Primero de Mayo advance the (quite correct) slogan of a "gobierno obrero, campesino, indigena y popular". Each part of that governmental slogan denotes a key social force that needs to be mobilised around a program for a real anti-imperialist and democratic transition.

In this context, it is necessary to make a point about the social structure of Mexico today. We are not talking about 1917 Russia, where the urban population was around 15% of the total. In Mexico 75% of the population live in the towns (Mexico City alone has 20% of the total population). Moreover, the peasantry proper is a small percentage of the population, because the majority of the rural labourers are agricultural proletarians not owners of their own small plots of land, but employees of agribusiness estates, and of big Mexican landlords tied to agribusiness. Thus the term "campesino" in the above governmental slogan refers to the rural labouring population in general.

The key force for a democratic, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist transition is the major social force of the country, the urban proletariat. This is not merely a question of the "leading role" of the working class in a political sense, but a crude sociological fact: if you want to build an effective political majority in Mexico, you have to build amongst the workers. Nonetheless, the political weight of both rural struggles and the indigenous peoples' battle is very high in Mexico.

The reason is simple: the rural workers peasants, semi-peasants, agricultural proletarians and the indigenous peoples are the most oppressed and exploited. Therefore, their struggle is immensely popular with every section of progressive workers. Moreover, the role of the indigenous people and peasantry in the 1910-20 Mexican revolution was pivotal; thus support for the struggles of the rural poor is part of the historical memory of Mexican radicalism.

Equally, the relations between town and country are complex in a state where mass urbanisation is a product of the last 30 years. Many people in the poor urban pueblos have arrived from the countryside recently, and still have strong links. In addition, the 75% urbanisation figure includes towns of a few thousand, with naturally strong links to the surrounding countryside. It is not unusual in such towns for one member of the family to be working in agriculture, another employed in a factory owned by a transnational corporation.

Any force trying to work for a democratic, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist transition has to win a base among the rural poor. But for historical reasons to do with the nationalisation of the land under Lázaro Cárdenas and the predominant form of peasant land tenure, which was "village cooperative" rather than based on individual plots, the demand for "land to the tiller" in Mexico does not imply an individual plot for every peasant or rural worker or family. In Mexico, collectivism among the peasantry is a strong tradition: we are not dealing with the atavistic Russian peasants, but a country in which there has already been a bourgeois-democratic revolution led by the peasantry.

One consequence of these factors is that the radical political forces among the rural population are on the whole explicitly anti-capitalist and socialist in their ideology (leaving aside the EZLN, which is a slightly different case). Sometimes this outlook is expressed in support for guerilla organisations; but struggle movements of the rural population are widespread, and they spontaneously ally with the most militant city-based leftist organisations. A good example of this is the OCSS (Peasant Organisation of the Southern Sierra), which would have no difficulty in getting the dictatorship of the proletariat written into its program.

The general conclusion about strategy which needs to be emphasised is that, far from Mexico having ceased to be an oppressed country, today it is more oppressed than 20 or 30 years ago. Anti-imperialist and democratic tasks are absolutely central, and can be carried forward only by an alliance of the workers, peasants and indigenous peoples. No section of the Mexican bourgeoisie will support the anti-imperialist struggle, and therefore any strategic alliance with the bourgeoisie is excluded.

The above considerations point to the need for a united socialist organisation, capable of unifying the struggles of the four major groups of the popular masses and acting as a counterweight to the PRD among the masses. Evidently, however, the present complex array of diverse groups, parties and fronts cannot be simply amalgamated into a single organisation, if only because many of them are quite wrong on the major strategic questions, with lingering nationalist confusions, and some of them are involved in dirty dealing with right-wing parties locally, especially with the PRI.

There are other strong reasons why simply advocating socialist unity is pointless. The first is the sectarianism and manipulation of the Maoist and post-Maoist groups. These really are authoritarian Stalinist organisations, sometimes mired in corruption. Democracy in the workers' movement, including the democratic control of members over leaders, is the sine qua non for any democratic socialist politics.

Any healthy socialist regroupment in Mexico would have to make involvement in any form of corruption, especially corrupt financing by the government or the PRI, at local or national level, an instantly expellable offence. Financial corruption goes hand-in-hand with "bossism" and the lack of internal democracy. Corruption and opportunist relations with bourgeois parties are, historically, a function of the state capitalist system in the "revolutionary nationalist" period. It is the importation of the methods and norms of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois state into the popular organisations themselves. So habituated to corruption have most people become that it is not even considered unusual, or deplorable, inside some left organisations. That culture must be broken radically.

"Bossism" (caudillismo), the cult of the big star general secretary, and lack of democracy in general in some left organisations are connected to the role that women play in them. In general the far left tends to have a very high proportion of women in its ranks especially the pueblo-based organisations, because women are the social organisers in those communities but much less so at leadership level. Caudillismo is of course connected with machismo, and this is deeply embedded in Mexican society. There are, however, some positive signs on this front, especially among young women. Women played a disproportionate role in the UNAM student strike, making up more than 50% of the leadership in most faculties and providing more than 50% of the strike activists. In any case, the left needs to put the fight for women's rights much more centrally in its concerns, and this could be easily done by building a coalition against the utterly repressive abortion laws.

To wish for the creation of a mass militant socialist party is not of course to imagine that it will easily come about. The obstacles to a progressive regroupment are many, and not least the petty leadership positions and privileges that a layer of people currently have. But most of all, the obstacle is the PRD. While it maintains its (especially electoral) dominance, the space for a more radical alternative is always squeezed. The nearest thing to a mass left coalition today is the Primero de Mayo, but even here the forces within it could not be easily unified because of the sectarianism and ultra-leftism of some of its components, especially the post-Maoist Movimiento Proletario Independiente. Until there are big political events which shake up the PRD and the left, and create the basis for a more rapid regroupment, there is no alternative to building a more limited cadre organisation, within the perspective of united mass action and seizing what limited opportunities there are for regroupment. But so long as the far left and Marxist forces remain terribly divided, their ability to build a real mass alternative to the PRD at national level will be undermined.


1. The vast majority of NGOs have moved sharply to the right, and are in the political ambit of the PRD.

2. The change in the climate has brought catastrophic annual floods (500 died in 1999). Other problems include deforestation, soil erosion, vast pollution in the maquiladora border area, the most polluted capital city in the world and drought in the north. Mexico is getting hotter in spring, colder in winter and wetter in the rainy season thanks to global warming.

3. Castaneda is the author of the hapless book Utopia Unarmed (1993) and a regular contributor to Newsweek and the US academic lecture circuit. Once an adviser to Cárdenas, he is now a lieutenant of ultra-neo-liberal Vicente Fox, governor of Guanajuato and presidential candidate of the PAN.