Mexico: Social and political struggles and the state of the left

Peter Gellert. Photo by Rachel Evans.

Peter Gellert is a US-born, long-term activist, now Mexican citizen. He is a leader of Mexico's Movement for Cuban Solidarity. Links International Joural of Socialist Renewal’s Rachel Evans spoke to Gellert in Mexico City.

February 18, 2009 -- Inside Peter Gellert´s small apartment books of history, politics and art, line groaning walls. Meticulously framed Cuban posters monopolise the remaining space. Three turtles climb over each other in a fish tank that gurgles sporadically.

'NAFTA destroyed Mexican agriculture'

"Mexico signed onto the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 which meant greater subordination of Mexico to United States’ (US) interests", began Gellert. "NAFTA destroyed Mexican agriculture. Mexico was sustainable, but now we have 40% of food imported. We also had a mass exodus of young men from the Mexican countryside to work in the US. Twelve-million people, one eighth of the entire Mexican population, are now in the United States. NAFTA didn't only affect agriculture in a negative way, but local retail was also badly affected”, noted Gellert.

"Mexico was flooded with franchises, 'Domino Pizzas' for example, whose every ingredient comes from the US. The flour, tomatoes -- they are all from the US. They use no local produce at all. I am sure Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s have the same policy. Wal-Mart is here as well, which has meant local markets with fresh agricultural produce, are getting wiped out. An added effect is that obesity is mushrooming. There was not as much obesity in the 70s, before the onset of American franchises."

"The countryside is in a massive crisis”, stated Gellert. "The average wage earner in the countryside is earning 40 pesos or less a day. The minimum wage has increased by 4% per year, but inflation has seen prices mushroom. As a result, there has been massive immigration from the Mexican countryside to Mexican cities and from the countryside to the US. In the 1950s, 75%  of the Mexican people lived in rural areas. Now only 20% are based in the countryside.

"The economic crisis has seen everything rise in price. Unions can strike, but it is a long and complicated process. And while Mexico is a gasoline producer, gasoline prices have increased 26  times in the last year. Compounding the problem, 90% of gasoline stations rob customers. Many workers at gasoline stations have to initially pay for their job! Some get no wage, and only survive on tips or stealing. Twenty-five-gallon cars get charged for 30 gallons. It's a huge issue”, explained Gellert.

"The current Mexican president, Felipe Calderón, is from the National Action Party (PAN). This government has wanted to open the oil industry up to private national and foreign investment, and the unions and social movement have forced a partial retreat. Manuel López Obrador, who was the presidential candidate of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in 2006, has been crucial in this campaign against privatisation. Obrador was robbed of the presidency in the fraudulent elections of 2006”, Gellert reported.

2006 elections

"In these elections, more than 30% of polling stations recorded discrepancies between the number of ballots received and the number of ballots cast. In response to these stolen elections, there were the biggest mobilisations in Mexico's history.

"Obrador was popularly known as the legitimate president. He led the National Democratic Convention, which declared a shadow, legitimate government. At one stage 2.5 million people marched against electoral fraud. For 40 days there was a seven-kilometre occupation of the major road in Mexico City. This road was occupied 24 hours a day. Traffic had to go elsewhere as the city was broken in two.’’

"In working-class neighbourhoods Obrador had overwhelming support, as well as some support in middle-class areas", said Gellert. "The support for the PRD and Obrador was immense. For example, in the working-class neighbourhoods adjacent to where I live, the PRD beat Calderon 8 to 1.

"In reality, the shadow, legitimate government that Obrador initiated could not do much. In fact, to a certain extent, it has been overshadowed by the campaign to defend the government-owned oil industry, headed up by Obrador. There are thousands of 'grassroots brigades' or campaign units in local areas of Mexico fighting off privatisation plans of the PAN government -- with the campaign mobilising thousands”, noted Gellert.

Workers and unions

"Every worker has to join a union – this is obligatory in Mexico”, continued Gellert. But 90% of those unions are "white" unions that are controlled by the bosses. Workers don't have real democratic control of their unions. Ninety per cent of the unions in Mexico are white unions, and have no democratic participation within them at all”, said Gilbert.

Social security workers

"Another site of struggle has been the social security workers union contract”, said Gellert. "The government pays low wages to this sector, but they provide good benefits. There is a Christmas bonus that is obligatory for all companies to pay. Private sector workers get a bonus of at least 15 days, while in government it is at least 30 days. Social security workers get a three month Christmas bonus. Mind you, the Mexican government does not provide unemployment benefits or student benefits. But the government has been trying to whittle away collective bargaining agreement provisions, and this has resulted in big battles”, remarked Gellert.

Privatisation of education

"For all intents and purposes, public universities are free, with the government charging minor tuition fees. But the quality is not the best. The private university system is better quality and very expensive. Companies are starting to hire only private university students. However, education privatisation has been fiercely contested.

"A massive student-led fight arose in 1999, as the government tried to introduce upfront fees. To put this fight in context -- free education was one of the victories of the 1910 Mexican revolution -- a historic moment in Mexican history. Tuition had not been raised since 1941. This big campaign in 1999 was run through large democratic assemblies -- with everyone, students and professors alike -- participating. Fortunately, the campaign had enough momentum despite many ultraleft excesses to, in essence, win its demands. Public university education is still basically and for all intents and purposes free”, emphasised Gellert.

History of struggle

"There has been a consistency of major campaigns from the heady 1960s in Mexico, unlike in other countries, which saw a downturn in the struggle. In 1968 there was a huge student struggle. In 1986, there was another upsurge of the students. In 1988 there was a left-wing split from a major political party – the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)”, noted Gellert. "We then had another upsurge in 1994 with the Zapatistas in Chiapas. In 1999 there was the upsurge in the student movement and, currently, social movement leaders are being born in a number of struggles."

"Currently", continued Gellert, "the electricity workers’ union is fighting against privatisation and government attacks on labour laws. At the moment, that sector has a rather advanced union contract. In Mexican labour legislation, there is no hourly pay – only monthly pay. Additionally, it's hard for the bosses to lay people off as they have to pay redundancy. Hence, they want more flexibility. The miners’ union has also been struggling hard against government intervention in their union. But it is the campaign to defend the oil industry that is the biggest and broadest campaign to date."

Social disintegration

"In international news there is coverage of kidnappings taking place in Mexico”, reflected Gellert. "Rich people are being held to ransom and it's quite bad. In one case they stole a child. The kidnappers got the ransom but killed the kid anyway. It's the drug cartels. But it is linked to high government officials. The head of the anti-drug unit was on the payroll of drug dealers. Police are also involved because their salaries are so minimal. Horribly low. Sixty per cent of police agents are said to be on the pay of drug traffickers.”

The Mexican left

"There are huge social movements in Mexico, and the left press has significant influence. La Jornada, a left-wing newspaper, has a circulation of between 70,000 to 100,000 copies per day. It reflects the existence of a social left, a community of sorts. It is the second- or third-largest selling newspaper in Mexico. Online, it has 120,000 readers per day", reported Gellert.

"The electoral left is also very strong. They control Mexico City -- which is the political centre of Mexico. Mexico City holds one quarter of Mexico's entire population. Out of 16 districts in Mexico City – the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) has control of 14. The PRD also has Mexico City´s mayor, Marcel Ebrad. There are also a lot of regional leftist governments.

"Additionally, within Mexico City, as in other parts of the country, an urban popular movement exists. There are 1000 independent neighbourhood organisations in the city alone. The national workers’ confederation (UNT) is a strong, independent movement. The students are organised faculty by faculty at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Conversely, the Marxist parties have pretty much collapsed here”, explained Gellert.

Political parties

"The government rules by repression and cooption. Repression is a constant factor in Mexican politics. At the cooption end, there are numerous former leftists in government. Former activists are even to be found in the ruling National Action Party (PAN) government, arguing that if they were not there, PAN would be worse. They are lured by high salaries, and the excitement of power.

"The PRI got ousted by PAN in the 2000 elections, and is weakened – but it is planning a come-back. The Green Party here is in a permanent alliance with the PRI, and is utterly and completely discredited. Its main platform is the reintroduction of the death penalty! Something not even the PRI bothers with. In fact, even PAN and PRI are opposed to the death penalty”, explained Gellert.

"PAN, formed in the 1920s, is linked to the Catholic Church and is anti-abortion and thoroughly neoliberal -- very conservative. PAN wants more links with the US, but it has to contend with a deep-seated anti-imperialist sentiment within Mexico. The PRI will make a comeback, but it is a wounded tiger -- terribly discredited.

"The PRD, founded in 1989, is going through a major crisis and Obrador, currently, is looking at the minor parties to see if a broad electoral front can be registered using their ballot status instead of running on the PRD ticket. This possibility he has left open.”

The Party of Democratic Revolution

"There is a strong likelihood there will be a split in the PRD after the coming elections in 2009. The possible split is not over being in government; insofar as there are political issues at stake -- the internal conflicts usually take the form of disputes over posts, candidacies and the huge amounts of money coming from the state subsidies, rather than party program or orientation. Rather, a possible split would involve the degree of subordination to the parliamentary rules of the game versus more of an orientation toward the mass movement and more of a frontal opposition toward the Calderón administration", explained Gellert.

"The PRD was born after the 1988 elections, following a left-wing split from the PRI, with election fraud leading to mass mobilisations. The PRD allows tendencies to exist within its organisational structure, but these tendencies tend to be centred on personalities, not a political program. This exacerbated some of the worst aspects of Mexican culture – such as the use of acarredos, whereby the leader of a social organisation basically corrals the ranks into participating in marches and rallies.

"Obrador has been dealing with internal tensions within the PRD over positions by leading mass mobilisations. Obrador does not describe himself as a socialist, but he is building up grassroots committees around defending the oil industry, while not neglecting work with parliamentary deputies. Obrador is not depending on parliamentary politics and is broadly considered to have won the 2006 elections."


"In Chiapas, the Zapatistas's project is important and positive, constructing people's power within the communities”, explained Gellert. "Outside indigenous, peasant communities of Chiapas, however, the model clearly does not work. In all major struggles outside Chiapas, the Zapatistas have basically abstained, with the partial exception of the campesino movement and on agricultural issues. As a result, the Zapatistas have earned a reputation for being sectarian.

"They won't turn up to rallies if any political party speaks, or involves themselves in anything with political party involvement. They consider parties part of the 'power structure'. They see unions in the same light. They tend to be Chiapas-centred. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) developed a political wing -- the Zapatista National Liberation Front -- as it understood the need to relate to civil society. But it dissolved this group a few years after its formation when it was clear that it wasn't going anywhere.

"For example, in 2006 there was a massive movement against electoral fraud; there have been struggles in defence of the electric power industry, of the miners’ union and for an increase in education funding and teachers’ salaries in Oaxaca, which led to generalised mass upsurge. In all of these movements, the Zapatistas have basically abstained.

"The movement led by the Zapatistas had everything going for it -- they put indigenous rights on the front burner in Mexico”, continued Gellert. "They were a force that was not corrupt. Indigenous people have a raw deal here. And the Zapatistas had heaps of support. One quarter of a million people came to a rally when Subcommandante Marcos came to town. Their sectarian approach has led, unfortunately, to their almost complete isolation. At May Day in 2008, there were 600,000 people marching. But no Zapatistas to be seen."

Left unity

"At the moment, there is little movement for a left socialist party project. There is agreement in abstract for 'unity', yes, there is some movement for that -- but there is no issue that is forcing that move”, reflected Gellert.

"The PRD is in a crisis. It is the social left – hundreds of thousands if not millions of people are involved at different levels but in terms of a unity party project, so far, nothing. In 2009 there will be elections... After the elections there is a strong possibility of a split as a result of infighting over control, finances and candidacies. It is very bad, and gives the left a bad reputation.
"We will see who, among the left groups, can take advantage of the economic crisis and use it to grow.


``The rejection of the US economic blockade against Cuba, however, is expressed across the board. Even PAN and the PRI support the campaign to end the blockade against Cuba”, commented Gellert.
Cuba is a political reference point in defining Mexican government policy. All of the Mexican government’s foreign policy moves through the prism of US-Mexican relations, i.e. will Mexico bend to US foreign policy? When President Fox was in power, there was an Iberoamerican Summit dinner which both Fox and Fidel Castro were to attend. Fox called Fidel to ask if Fidel could make himself scarce, so as not to make George Bush uncomfortable.

"Fidel told the world Fox had asked him to do this, which Fox denied. Fidel -- who had taped the conversation -- proved this to be an utter lie. Fox was very embarrassed. In Mexico, Cuba is much more a reference point for the population, more than is the case for other Latin American countries."


"This economic crisis will cost PAN. The divided left has a bad reputation here among the Mexican people, with the PRD crisis playing out in public -- it is not a private discussion. Obrador has consolidated, however, through his involvement with, and support of, the oil defence campaign, in particular", concluded Gilbert.