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Nigel Harris

Mexican stand off

(September 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.90, September 1986, p.7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

ONCE was bad enough. Twice is unforgivable. A year ago, the party that dominates Mexico, the Party of Institutionalized Revolution (PRI), was caught fiddling the elections in the northern states of the Mexican federation.

Last month the same thing happened. Some 140 foreign journalists were on hand to see, when the doors of the election offices were opened, the ballot boxes already stuffed with fictitious votes. Rumour has it that ten billion pesos were used to fix the results.

One of the worst cases occurred in the election for governor of the large state on the United States border, Chihuahua. The leading opposition party, PAN, claimed to have been most damaged in last year’s elections.

On that occasion, the PAN militants rioted, and a police chief was burned to death in one township. This time PAN seized the bridge to the United States and wrecked the transborder traffic for a few days. Three PAN leaders went on hunger strike.

PRI stoutly denied any interference with the poll. The president, De la Madrid – the supposed Mr Clean of Mexican politics – openly praised what one journalist called ‘the mammoths of the old political bureaucracy’. PRI accused PAN of being agents of Reagan and the US Republican Party, and of wilfully trying to involve the church in politics, contrary to the constitution.

The priests did urge churchgoers to vote PAN, and, after the election, Archbishop Almeida of Chihuahua tried to close all churches for one Sunday to protest at PRI fraud. But PRI also tried to get the church on its side, and after the election, organised a demonstration of PRI catholic women against the archbishop. Almost certainly the Mexican ambassador to Italy approached the Pope who duly forbade the closure of the churches on the grounds that mass could not be denied catholics on political grounds.

The picture is more complicated. Earlier polls suggest PRI would have won anyway. Ballot fraud is an old tradition, but the current scale suggests the political exhaustion of PRI, its demoralization under the impact of crisis. PRI cannot indefinitely treat Mexico as if it were a small corrupt banana republic, and Mexicans, as if they were a mass of credulous fools.

Mexico’s gross domestic product is now eleventh in size in the world, and the share of product generated in industry (40 percent), is larger than in Britain (36 percent), France (34 percent), or the United States (32 percent). By the year 2000 a new giant manufacturing power will have emerged on the world stage.

But despite all the noise, PAN has been unable to stir the mass of the population. The crisis is severe. Even the PRI trade union federation grumbles, claiming real wages have fallen 40 percent in the last decade. Among the half the labour force that is officially employed, unemployment is running at over 15 percent, and inflation is over 100 percent.

Yet there have been no real riots, no sacking of supermarkets or general strikes as in Brazil. What political opposition there is remains small and relatively isolated, unable to focus mass demands and resentment. And most of it has gone to PAN, a conservative catholic and nationalist party.

Thus, in the Chihuahua governor elections, the poll was only 50 percent. The PRI claimed 61 percent of the votes and gave PAN 32 percent. The five parties of the left – the PSUM (the heart of which is the old Mexican Communist Party), the PMT (nationalist, leftist intellectuals), PRT (Fourth International), and two PRI outriders, PST and PPS – gathered just 3.4 percent of the vote between them (or 1.7 percent of the electorate).

Admittedly, the crisis is not all of a piece, especially in the north. The lower the peso sinks (it was 26 to the dollar in February 1982; it is now about 660 to the dollar), the more severe the crisis in the centre of the country, but the more the border zone next to the United States booms. North Americans flock across the border to exploit very low Mexican prices, to utilize the free trade shopping malls.

The American-owned factories in Mexico boom because the dollar value of wages is so low – employment in manufacturing in foreign owned plants on the border increased from 150,000 in 1982 to over 250,000 now.

Most of the border cities boast of increasing factory jobs this year. Ciudad Juarez, one of the largest, has 60,000 women employed in factories; it claims the longest bar in the world, in a tavern capable of taking 15,000 (and restricted to women between 5 and 9.00 p.m. when the day shift ends).

But the failure of the opposition parties further south to escape from the politics of sects is equally apparent. There is no shortage of issues – from city employment and wages to continued rural warfare between the landless and the landowners. Yet what rebellion there was came not from workers and peasants, but from the middle classes, private business and the church.

The role of private businessmen is curious. In general, capital prefers stability even if the government is not ideal (and may even be rhetorically hostile to business). Yet in two recent cases, the Philippines and South Africa, rebellion is backed by an important segment of capital. In Mexico, business has done well out of the years of PRI rule, but now part of it has swung hard against the government to the point of publicly championing the demands of PAN.

What is lacking in Mexico so far is a crisis of the ruling order, the disintegration of its right to rule. This complex phenomenon is not simply a function of the existence of a mass revolutionary party that is able to force such a disintegration – the mass party is also partly a function of the incapacity of the ruling order to sustain its political, social and moral integrity in the face of massive material challenges.

Most Mexicans – including the militants of PRI – are cynical, with very low expectations of political change. But that helps PRI; it can easily meet the most modest bribes required to sustain the loyalty of the cadre, watering the deep roots it has in Mexican society (the PRI has no parallel in the rest of the Americas, and its existence has ensured there is no cycle of military power in Mexico).

The PRI mixture of leftish rhetoric (and endless talk of revolution), mild state capitalism when required, and virulent anti-Americanism has regularly disarmed a left that has little else on its banners.

Consider the absurdity of the left demonstration in support of the last president when he nationalized the banks – in order simply to guarantee their debts to overseas lenders – they should have been demonstrating – or, better still, organizing – for the workers to seize the banks, not just accept state appropriation.

Now the left spends its time baying after the IMF and the government’s decision to join GATT, the issues of middle class nationalists that hardly connect at all with the material problems facing the mass of the population.

The earthquake a year ago was one of those bolts from the blue that could turn cynicism to fury, and it nearly did. The fact that so many buildings fell when they need not have done so, that many of the 9,000 or so who died could have been saved were clear from the beginning.

In the midst of it all, amid the blood, tears and brickdust, De la Madrid appeared on television – just as everyone needed a passionate rallying call – with his usual tired ranting. The alienation of the president from the feelings of the mass of people symbolised the alienation of the PRI, its exhaustion. The five months incompetence and corruption that followed in the relief operations only increased the agony, bringing the government’s reputation to its lowest ebb.

But then a new minister started moving fast, shifting a lot of World Bank money – 44,000 dwellings to be built in ten months in inner Mexico City – and what political opposition there had been, dissolved.

The left missed the opportunities. The bad old traditions of politics afflict all parties, the bad old conditioned reflexes of nationalism and state capitalism. This is not an argument for embracing an even worse abstract internationalism, but rather for focussing on the material questions that confront the mass of Mexicans in order not to demonstrate, to seek influence or pressure or make moral gestures, but to build an organised party.

While the socialists cannot do this, the PRI leaders do not need to stuff ballot boxes. Their right to rule Mexico is self-evident to the majority.

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Last updated: 10 April 2010