Nigel Harris Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Nigel Harris

Thinking it over...

Mexico diary

(April 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 75, April 1985, p. 17.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE state of Chihuahua runs along the northern border with the United States. It is large – slightly bigger than Britain. It has been dominated for nearly a century by the Terrazas-Creels and an oligarchy of nineteen other families.

They always worked closely with interests over the border in Arizona and Texas. The revolution (1910 to 1920) expropriated most of the land. The great revolutionary general, Pancho Villa, distributed the land among his generals. But the families kept and expanded the rest of the economy.

In 1982, the last government of Mexico (that of President Lopez Portillo) nationalised the banks, and their private industrial holdings. He did it, in order to back the banks’ overseas debts with the credits of the federal government, and he hoped, stop the flight of capital from Mexico. But private business was appalled.

The leading representative of business has been stomping the country since then ‘in defence of liberty’ and against ‘the anarchy of the state’. The 46th Congress of the employers’ federation has just ended, with a resounding call for a rollback of the public sector and the subordination of state enterprises to ‘the rule of law’ (meaning the market).

It is odd because successive governments have done business a lot of favours. And Mexico has become a major industrial power. Also the President has announced that state corporations will be subject to profit and loss calculations, and loss making units will be closed.

One party state

In Chihuahua – like the neighbouring northern states of Sonora and Nuevo Leon – the opposition has taken a more overt political form. In the municipal elections of 1983, 15 of Chihuahua’s leading families came out publicly in support of the right wing opposition party, PAN (the National Action Party).

Mexico is a one party state. The PRI – the Party of Institutionalised Revolution – is slightly less reactionary than the Russian Communist Party, but not much. It beheaded what was left of the great peasant revolution of 1910, and fashioned by brute force a new ruling class for the country. It cannot be overthrown – short of civil war. Nonetheless, the cadres were alarmed in 1983.

Only by the most gross fraud and corruption could the books be cooked to ensure the PRI held the north.

The opposition parties were furious. There were sporadic riots and demonstrations in many towns, and particularly Coahuila. In Piedras Negras, the police opened fire – two were killed and forty-two injured before the PAN militants were driven over the border at Eagle Pass. The army was moved in to take over the city. Elsewhere, town halls were burned, cars sacked, and in one place a police chief stoned to death.

There were calls for a legal ban on PAN and the employers’ federation. The Church was denounced – and all three accused of being in the pay of the US Republican Party. New president De la Madrid accused the conspiracy of treason – ‘There are still people outside Mexico and some inside who think Mexico does not deserve to be independent and would like to see us under the domination of a foreign power.’

In March, there was an unseemly scramble for nominations of the PRI candidates for the elections to the Assembly and for seven state governerships in July. The Assembly is a tame body that meets for four months per year only and is overwhelmingly dominated by the PRI. The PRI election campaign began in January and the walls are already covered with giant, if vacuous slogans:

‘Each time we are more responsible’

‘Our commitment is to Mexico alone’

‘55 years of social peace’

Ministers are already touring the country, bombasting dutifully dragooned crowds. The majority stand silently and watch, as always bemused, by the fantasies of their rulers.

If the alliance of PAN and the northern ruling classes is beginning to shake the confidence of PRI, the alliance of the socialist parties and the urban working class in the south is regrettably much less developed.

The leading party, the PSUM (the Unified Mexican Socialist Party), a Euro-Communist coalition of parties dominated by the old Mexican Communist Party, has a following, but like most of the other leftist parties, it is mainly among the intelligentsia.

The PRT, the most important section of the Fourth International, is a public competitor and has just nominated its slate of candidates, headed by the redoubtable woman trade union leader, Rosario Ibarra.

The trade unions are overwhelmingly dominated by the official PRI unions, led by the famous Fidel Velasquez, now in his eighties.

Velasquez, on the point of retirement, has done more service lately for Mexico’s ruling order than probably in the rest of his long life. He and his lieutenants have loyally patrolled the class perimeter, grim-jawed at the sacrifices they are obliged to ask workers to make if Mexico’s revolution is to be preserved for the bourgeoisie.

The three years since 1982 have been economically the worst in Mexico’s post-revolutionary history.

To keep Mexico cheap for foreign tourists and exports while inflation is high requires that the devaluation of the peso must get faster and faster. It is now devaluing by 21 cents per day.

The press record tiny items of reality – the 40,000 children who die of diarrhoea each year; the land seizures; the strikes. And on street corners, increasingly youths jostle each other, vying for the attention of motorists stopped at the traffic lights – fire eaters, melancholy clowns and jugglers, silent Indian women with children tied to their backs mutely offering chewing gum.

And alongside that, the press is still advertising luxury holidays in the south of France, trips to Singapore and Japan. The fashionable restaurants are crowded and noisy. The highways of Mexico City are still packed with expensive cars. In Reforma, the nearest thing to the Champs Elysées in the Americas, bustles with finely-cut suits and exclusive gowns.

Even the corruption issue has gone quiet. The former head of the national oil company has gone down for lifting 30 million dollars. The ex-Chief of Police of Mexico City is being held in Los Angeles while the government seeks his extradition; his greatest crime was to deduct a chunk of the wages of every policeman in the city to provide proper burials for those killed on duty – and then he didn’t bury them.

The former President himself, Lopez Portillo, who swore in 1982 to defend the peso ‘like a dog’, has kept his ‘dog palaces’, the four gracious mansions he had built at the expense of the government high above the city in the west.

Left divided

For the left, for a moment, the miners’ strike in Britain offered a spark of hope. The press coverage was extensive. Even Excelsior, the leading conservative daily, had four long articles, summarising interviews in the coalfields. There were, they said, three forces at stake: Mrs Thatcher and McGregor, ‘the Lenin of Yorkshire’, and ‘those in the middle, the strikebreakers’; it is quite quaint how the middle classes see strike breaking as, like themselves, being in the middle.

In the run-up to the elections in July, there is a chance for the left. The worst of the crisis has been absorbed and now the economy is looking up. Wages have become firmer, and employment started to increase.

The left is heavily divided and few of the lessons of recent years have been learned. But history unfortunately does not wait until we are ready.

Nigel Harris Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 17 October 2019