Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 215 | Junio 1999



Society and Parties on Diverging Paths

The parties are absorbed in their internal struggles and only focusing on candidacies and electoral marketing. Meanwhile, society is weaving new networks out of the disappointment, anger and dreams of many people and the government only responds to the demands of an effervescent society with injustice. How long can this continue? Injustice can also fuel rebellion.

Jorge Alonso

May 1999 made it patently clear that Mexico's political parties and a large part of Mexican society have very different agendas. While the parties are already enmeshed in the intricacies of their electoral campaigns, large sectors of society are still struggling to defend themselves from the blows of the government's neoliberal policies. The media, skilled at manipulation, is paying more attention to the campaigns while society looks for new ways to make its demands felt.

PRI: No more anointed successors

A state party and democracy are like oil and water. The big obstacles to democratization in Mexico stem from the persistence of the Revolutionary Institutional Party's state party regime. If this regime is to be brought down, the presidency must pass into the hands of the opposition. Given this possibility, and given its waning support among the voters, the PRI has been working on a strategy to hold onto power in the 2000 presidential elections. The surveys still show it leading a divided opposition, and thus one of the strategy's main lines is to encourage division in the opposition. But the PRI also runs the risk that division within its own ranks will undermine its strategy. The struggles among the PRI tendencies have favored gains by the opposition, which has won several gubernatorial races.

Another line in the PRI strategy is to maintain internal discipline and unity, but a number of problems must be overcome to achieve this. Things were easier before: a party member who broke party discipline would be shuffled between one government post and other, while those who kept their heads down knew that submission would be rewarded in time. But as the opposition has grown more powerful, PRI members can no longer be assured of election. Also, they have now seen that rebellion pays off: it puts them in a stronger negotiating position and they can even cross over to the opposition, where they often triumph. This was the case with the current governors of Zacatecas, Tlaxcala and Baja California Sur, who rebelled when the PRI refused to back them and sought the support of opposition alliances that ultimately brought them to power.

The race for the presidency is already underway, but the rules of the game are changing. In the past, the President quietly selected his successor. Once he let his choice be known the whole party machinery went into operation to formalize the decision. The formal election was just one more rite on behalf of an already-anointed candidate. Today things are more complicated. Candidates are competing for the nomination, and the final nominee no longer has the presidency in the bag.

The Madrazo case

Five years ago, Roberto Madrazo's election as governor of Tabasco was so clearly marred by fraud that demonstrations broke out against the results. In response, President Zedillo agreed to reverse Madrazo's spurious victory, and the two men supposedly reached an agreement to this effect in the President's office. But when Madrazo returned to Tabasco, surrounded by the economic powers that had financed his campaign beyond all legal and ethical limits, he reneged. He charged that Zedillo's presidential campaign had drawn from the same coffers that had supported his campaign. In the end, the agreement was forgotten and he was sworn in as governor of Tabasco.

Madrazo learned his lesson. In 1999, he launched an extravagant campaign, financed by the same powerful economic groups, to promote himself as the PRI's presidential candidate. Party leaders have tried, without much success, to get him to back off, accusing him, for example, of having his campaign chest filled with millions of pesos from two highly questionable sources, Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Carlos Hank González. Hank also worked for Zedillo's campaign, and the DEA has accused his family of threatening US interests because of its links with drug trafficking.

But Madrazo wasn't frightened. With the slogan, "Who says you can't?" he hired a team to work throughout the country to pave his way to the PRI nomination. It is estimated that he had already spent over US$10 million by early May; in April he was spending over $100,000 a day on television ads alone. He's betting on a costly political marketing strategy that will build a new image for him—ignoring the substance of his political career— and carry him first to the PRI nomination and then to the presidency. It's a pretty good bet.

Labastida "unveiled"

Zedillo had wanted his treasury secretary to succeed him. But powerful groups within the party put some conditions on the candidates: to ensure that technocrats wouldn't end up in important posts without having passed through election campaigns, these traditional sectors insisted that one condition for the party's presidential nomination was having previously competed in a campaign.

Although the President and his people originally thought they could get around this condition, the other PRI tendencies stood firm and thus Zedillo's first pick was out. The governor of Pueblo, Manuel Bartlett, then decided to enter the race without Zedillo's approval. Bartlett has been accused in the United States of having links with drug trafficking. As Secretary of Government in the late '80s, he was also the one responsible for the computer system's "crash" in the highly fraudulent 1988 presidential elections.

In response, Zedillo—while insisting that the nomination would be the party's decision— chose to push the candidacy of Secretary of Government Francisco Labastida, who had been using his position to prepare a strong team of regional politicians for the race. Thus, using the structure and resources of the ministry in charge of interior policy, Labastida was "unveiled" as a candidate for the PRI's presidential nomination.

Who is Labastida? When he governed Sinaloa, he too was accused in the United States of being linked to drug trafficking, while Mexico's own opposition parties charged him with repression and electoral fraud. Once he was unveiled, a practice connected with money laundering appeared in Sinaloa: people in the streets were offering dollars at half the official rate. Labastida has now left the Government Ministry without fulfilling the three commitments he made when he assumed the post: end the conflict in Chiapas, reform the state, and improve public security.

PRI's new rules of the game

The PRI was created after the revolution to give the groups vying for power a nonviolent way to solve their differences, a forum through which they could divvy up government posts. This scheme broke down in the 1995 presidential campaign, when the PRI resorted to assassinating its own candidate, Luis Colosio. The fear that this method will reappear has not been put to rest.

In an effort to ensure that the groups fighting for power would reach agreements rather than break up the official party, the PRI leadership recently proposed rules to govern this fight, which include consulting the party's membership and creating a special body to oversee the primary campaigns. They proposed that candidates avoid negative campaigning and defamation, promised that limits would be placed on campaign spending, and announced that there would be sanctions against those who do not follow the rules of the game.

It was announced with great fanfare that, with these new rules, the PRI has been democratized. It has already been pointed out, however, that not all PRI members are equal, nor will their votes count equally. The candidate who wins the majority of the country's 300 electoral districts will be the party's nominee, but by this logic a scarcely populated district is equal to a heavily populated one. It was also learned shortly after the announcement that those who control the levers of the party's electoral machinery have already moved out to the electoral districts to ensure the victory of the President's candidate, Labastida.

Lining up and passing the hat

The accusations the candidates in the internal PRI campaigns are making among themselves reveal the antidemocratic methods the party continues to use. There was not to be any buying of votes, for example, but this is still one of the PRI's favorite techniques. Public money was not to be used on behalf of a particular candidate either, but this practice remains characteristic of the PRI.

The state structure continues to serve the PRI's electoral interests, which is precisely what makes it a state party. For example, the programs to fight poverty are still being used for electoral purposes. Madrazo and Bartlett accuse Labastida's team of using the state structure for his campaign, and the truth is that, though the President proclaims that he no longer hand-picks his successor, he continues to provide party and state support to one candidate.

The promises of democracy were clouded by another phenomenon as traditional as the selection of the successor. Most PRI governors, who control the party apparatus in their states, have lined up behind Labastida. Another method the state party uses is to pass the hat: wealthy businesspeople are asked to contribute money to the official campaigns in exchange for future favors outside the law. Prominent businesspeople have already offered to support Labastida's campaign.

Democracy in the PRI?

A retired politician named Gutiérrez Barrios heads the commission to oversee the PRI's primary elections. As former supervisor of the political police, he has precise information on the PRI's leading figures, many of whom have things to hide. It has been striking to see many politicians who have cynically undermined democracy in Mexico calling for democracy now. But the announcements that democracy had come to the PRI didn't last long. Reality showed that the antidemocratic tactics, learned and put into practice over the years, still operate. The simulations were so obvious that some believe Zedillo could have imposed order but didn't want to, since Madrazo and Bartlett have only launched their candidacies in order to seek a strong bargaining position. Others say that so much money has been spent—by political groups, business groups, drug traffickers—that the danger of future tensions, even bloodshed, cannot be discarded.

Politics as theatre

There have been many interpretations of this unconvincing show of democratization. Some have pointed to evidence of a hardening of positions, pressure and intolerance. Others warn that politics has been converted into mere theatre, with ideas relegated to second place. The campaigns, both within the parties and between parties, are mainly just publicity.
Marketing technology identifies the candidate and uses cosmetic methods to sell images, treating the candidates as commercial goods. A bad candidate with a lot of money and good techno-marketing skills is capable of winning. A survey in mid-May showed that, presented with a list of 18 possible presidential candidates, 15.9% preferred Governor Fox of the National Action Party (PAN), who makes great use of this kind of publicity; 11.9% opted for Governor Madrazo, who at the time was at the height of his image-selling campaign; 11.5% chose Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and only 5.5% picked Labastida, whose campaign lagged months behind the others.

When it comes to preferences for parties rather than individuals, the PRI remains in the lead with 44%, followed by the PAN with 29% and the PRD with 19%. The PRD's fall in the surveys may be due to an intense television campaign against it.

The race of events

Mexican business world veteran Juan Sánchez Navarro questioned the heavily publicized end of the practice of anointing the presidential successor and criticized the PRI practice of fundraising among businesspeople. To the treasury secretary's declaration that there would be no sixth-year crisis at the end of this six-year term, he replied that the crisis would come because economic crises in Mexico are closely linked to the lack of democracy. More optimistically, however, he believes that after seven decades of PRI dictatorship, the presidential elections in 2000 will open up the possibility of a transition to democracy if the opposition wins.

Events are moving so fast that one must readjust one's vision of the country every day. A basic adjustment in this changing context is that it may be a mistake to think the PRI has already achieved discipline and unity. The PRI senator in Chiapas resigned from the party, was followed by a large contingent, and called for an opposition alliance in that state. Events are moving fast¼

Unified opposition?

Some surveys show that if the opposition parties run a joint candidate against the PRI, they will receive 43% of the vote to 39% for the state party. Both the PRD and the PAN criticized the PRI's staged "unveiling" as mere simulation to hide the same old methods of appointing candidates, and charged that the PRI was defending established interests. Other criticisms poured down as well: that the party was using the same corrupt, unethical methods, that people were bought with money from the public coffers and from drug trafficking, that cynicism reigned. The supposed limits on campaign spending and practices were not limiting anyone. There is once again evidence that money robbed from banks—which taxpayers would reimburse through the government's shameful resolution of the FOBAPROA bank scandal that outraged the country last year—has passed into PRI hands.

Beyond the legal obstacles to coalitions and common candidates, however, what was really weighing in the minds of the two main opposition parties were their own party interests. With respect to state reform—progress in democracy, strengthening of the federal system, consolidation of the division of powers, the creation of more opportunities for citizen participation—the PAN and the PRD are in full agreement. On economic issues, however, the PAN is much closer to the PRI. Both in the legislation to convert FOBAPROA to IPAB, the new Institute to Protect Bank Savings, and in the makeup of the IPAB board, the PAN leadership reached agreements with the President behind the backs of even their own legislative representatives.

An analysis of electoral district trends shows that if an alliance between the PAN and PRD does take place, the opposition could win three-fifths of the districts. A proposal has been made to first draw up an agenda for the transition, then hold primary elections to select a unified opposition candidate. But both the legal obstacles to coalitions and the calculations of each party and their candidates suggest that it will get increasingly harder to hammer out an alliance.
Supporters and opponents of this opposition alliance can be found in both the main opposition parties. The main argument for the alliance is that the presidency must pass into the hands of the opposition in order to bring down the state party regime, although the big question of what would be done from the presidency remains open and reveals important differences. For example, while the PAN's Fox has announced that he would sell PEMEX, the state petroleum company, the PRD is opposed to any privatization policies.

The fact is that the two parties just don't trust each other. Throughout the month of May, there were meetings and declarations that both encouraged the alliance and revealed the problems. The two parties flung accusations at each other, then moderated their language to avoid confrontations. For his part, Manual Camacho, the former commissioner for peace in Chiapas, called repeatedly for a social-political pact to carry out the transition peacefully, and proposed agreements to defuse the conflicts and ensure a non-partisan management of the main areas of government.

The right to education

While the major mass media fill up with information on the presidential campaign already underway, significant sectors of society are concerned with other issues. The government calculated that by it could weaken the student movement by blocking dialogue over the question of tuition fees in the Mexican National Autonomous University (UNAM). But just the opposite happened, as the movement has grown stronger over time. When the Argentine government, following the same neoliberal policies, tried to drastically cut the university budget, an opposition equal to the task arose. Writer Juan Carlos Portantiero expressed a widespread belief when he said that it is society's responsibility to pay taxes and the state's responsibility to support education, which is not a service but rather a right. The Argentine government had to step back in response to the demands of a broad-based movement.

University protest continues

In Mexico, the authorities have been less responsive. The government has tried to use the university conflict as a weapon against the PRD, which it accuses of masterminding the strike. The media are virtually trying to lynch the student movement, while participants have been harassed and spied upon.

The students have had to learn to build their own democracy: a rotating leadership, long assemblies susceptible to polarization, a search for consensus. Faced with the administration's inflexibility, doublespeak and refusal to engage in true dialogue, the students have been building a process of dialogue among themselves and with broad sectors of society.

The objectives of the university struggle are becoming more clearly defined: to stop the privatization of higher education and begin its democratic transformation. The students have insisted on a public, open, direct dialogue, without intermediation, to solve the problems. In response to the media's attempts to demonize their movement, they have gone through neighborhoods, schools and public transport carriers explaining their reasons and objectives. They also organized a successful citywide citizen consultation on the subject of education.

New slogans have come up: "Let's form dream committees," "Let's be pessimistic, ask for the impossible," "They can paint the walls black, but there will always be a color for truth," "Our hope can only come from despair."
In an environment dominated by top-down authoritarianism, the university students have tried to establish horizontal links. They have received the support of workers from UNAM, the National Institute of History and Anthropology (INAH), the National Art Institute (INBA), the parents' society, and the teachers' feisty National Council of Educational Workers (CNTE). An electrical workers' union gave them paper and facilities for their consultation. The students printed 1.4 million ballots and set up 2,300 voting booths in secondary schools, higher education institutes, museums, cultural centers, markets, parks and plazas throughout Mexico City. Many booths were so heavily used that they ran out of ballots early in the day. In the huge popular response, a majority voted in favor of free education, showing that education is a leading concern of a large number of families. The consultation on education was one of the largest mobilizations to come out of the strike.

Keep at it, compañeros!

Other kinds of mobilizations have also taken place. Just before teachers' day on May 15, dissident teachers around the country held a massive demonstration, which the UNAM student protesters attended. The teachers demanded pay raises, an increase in the education budget, repeal of UNAM's tuition regulations, cancellation of the privatization of the electrical industry, fulfillment of the San Andrés accords and demilitarization of the indigenous regions.

A strike was held in the Metropolitan Autonomous University (UAM) in support of the UNAM student strike and UNAM faculty and researchers decided to march in support of several points in the student movement's demands. On May 20, there was another massive march for a larger budget and free education. The students have given a festive tone to all of these marches.

The Zapatistas's solidarity has been very evident in both the student and labor movements. In one of the marches, a statement from Zapatista leader Marcos was read in which he said that the students represent "what is new." The students sang out their appreciation to a mambo rhythm: "Marcos, que chido es Marcos," which can be roughly translated from student-speak as "Marcos, you're the best."
The voices of indigenous people have also been heard in the university demonstrations. "We'll never get to the university," said one of their statements. "The government keeps trying to fence us off where our voice cannot be heard. Enough of this disdain and discrimination. The government is a war being waged against us. We are not afraid, although the army moves deeper into our communities every day." The indigenous people ended their statement encouraging the students, "Keep at it, compañeros, throw your hearts into it!" Many of the young people in the student movement have participated in caravans, concerts and marches for Chiapas. Thus, these diverse movements have been developing a deep sense of solidarity. In the UNAM strike, the dreams, anger and disenchantment of many sectors of society have come together. The Mexican government has responded to all these social demands with affronts, but it is worth remembering, as many social analysts have shown, that it is not privation or poverty alone that spark rebellions, but rather the affronts.

Meeting in Chiapas

In early May, the Chiapas community of La Realidad was the site of the EZLN's second meeting with civil society. Over 2,000 delegates from around the country answered the Zapatista call. In the meeting, an evaluation was made of the Zapatista consultation carried out in March and the tasks left pending. Marcos referred to the need to put "the pieces of the consultation" back together. Through the consultation, the Zapatistas found other pieces that helped them imagine another, larger figure. They appraised the participation of so many new people without political experience in the consultation. They criticized the government and voiced support for the UNAM students. They also criticized the parties for being closed into their electoral concerns. They spoke of the need to widen the spaces linking all of those who seek a more just, free and democratic Mexico.

Weaving a broader network

The Zapatistas asked the national, state, regional and municipal coordinators who participated in the consultation to become contact points between the EZLN and civil society. Initial tasks include informing everyone of the agreements reached in this meeting and spreading the results of the consultation. They asked that all those who participated in organizing the consultation to also help form a bridge between the Zapatistas and the social organizations, movements and individuals they worked with, since this would energize an already powerful network, helping it grow so it can support popular struggles and mobilizations of all kinds. The Zapatistas asked for support for the UNAM student movement and the electrical workers' struggle and laid out the need to build an information network effective enough to guarantee that if anyone is touched, everyone else can act quickly in response. Finally, the EZLN invited people to another meeting in July.

Marcos' analysis

Marcos analyzed the current situation in Mexico along the following lines. This year is moving quickly. Those in power believed that the EZLN had lost the capacity to call people together, that it was no longer in people's hearts. But the consultation proved them wrong. On the betting table, the power put down police, the army, the parties, opinion leaders, television channels, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, officials, and a lot of money. The Zapatistas put no more than they had already revealed on January 1, 1994.

On the table of this game, we have seen that after a disastrous opening move—the government's mistake of December 1994, which led the country to the verge of economic collapse—foreign resources have managed to momentarily shore up Mexico's macroeconomic figures. Things are going so well, in fact, that this year the government decided to start saving for its 2000 campaign. It is doing this by making cuts in education and other areas, creating unemployment and raising prices. But it doesn't care, since this is how it builds up its "petty cash box"—which is getting very large indeed—for the PRI candidate.

"The rotten apple of power"

What is in dispute, says Marcos, is "the rotten apple of power." Zedillo has tried to deceive people with the story that he will not designate his party's candidate. And the PRI, reaffirming its vocation as a band of crooks, has been trying to keep its rebellious gangs in check. The PAN, playing a game with its leadership on one side and its deputies on the other, is agreeing to everything the President proposes. In the PRD, people complain that they are victims of a conspiracy and forget that the most painful blows come from those on their own side: the struggles between Porfírio Muñoz Ledo and Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas for the party's nomination.

All of this is grand theatre with the collaboration of much of the media. But while the powerful are busy placing their bets, electrical workers have come on the scene to fight against privatization of the electrical industry, the student movement has emerged to oppose privatization of the UNAM, people of all kinds have come onstage to oppose the war of extermination against the indigenous people. The powerful were caught off guard and talk about conspiracies against them. Electrical workers, indigenous people, students and others— many others—keep coming. In civil society, an unprecedented dialogue is underway. On one side of the table is the weight of the Mexican political system, with its rotten apple of power, and on the other side "what is new."
Marcos believes that the PRI's primary election aims only to protect the oligarchy. Whoever is designated as the state party's candidate will continue to hear from the Zapatistas, however. Whoever wins the presidency in 2000, of whatever party, will have to respond to their demand for justice for Mexico's indigenous poor. The new President will have to fulfill the accords on indigenous rights and abandon the military option, since it has not managed to rout the Zapatistas even though the current government has been pouring over the US counterinsurgency manual for the past five years.

Chiapas like Kosovo

With his typical doublespeak, Zedillo has repeatedly said that he has infinite patience with the Zapatistas and that the solution will come not through violence but through dialogue. The Mexican bishops, however, believe that the government is betting the EZLN will wear down. Many sectors are convinced that Zedillo wants to make Chiapas into an election issue. PAN charged that Labastida's political clumsiness in the Government Ministry aggravated the crisis in Chiapas and PRD Senator Carlos Payán, a member of the legislative Commission for Harmony and Pacification, charged that the government is seeking to prolong the conflict there.

In its report released in May, the organization Global Exchange said that the Mexican government has continued to harass foreign observers. And in a meeting between Mexican and Spanish legislators, the latter demanded that the Mexicans resolve the problem of Chiapas through genuine dialogue.

The Zapatista question remains in the minds of many people around the world. Canadian filmmaker Netti Wild has just finished a film titled A Place Called Chiapas.

There have been at least 70 other political assassinations since the massacre in Acteal in December 1997. If 145 people died in the declared war, many more have been killed in the dirty war. The movie shows the government's cynical agenda and gives proof of the existence of paramilitary forces. The filmmaker believes that Chiapas is "a state of mind."
Nobel Prize laureate in literature José Saramago keeps bringing up the topic of Chiapas in his interviews. In mid-May, commenting on the war in Yugoslavia, he said that he does not believe that nationalism is bad in itself, but it can become the worst of all sentiments if it is used as a weapon against others.

And this is what he believes is happening in Chiapas: in the name of a purported unity that is really almost phantasmagoric, the Mexican government has reached the point of believing not only that indigenous people do not count, but even that they get in the way. Saramago says Milosevic also felt the Kosovars were getting in the way, so they had to be eliminated. His comparison between Milosevic and Zedillo couldn't be clearer.

The narrow logic of power

It is hard to draw conclusions from process still underway. There are some leads to think about, however. The Mexican bishops have harshly criticized the government for proclaiming macroeconomic progress while health and education services are clearly deteriorating. According to figures provided by the United Nation's Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA), the greatest setbacks in the region's fight against poverty can be found in Venezuela and Mexico. Other figures show that the stockholdings of Mexico's hundred leading businesspeople equal 53% of the GDP. Employment in the informal sector represents 44% of total urban employment, and most of these activities provide barely enough to survive. Looking towards the next electoral campaign, the President has announced a new plan to fight poverty. Leading economists consider the plan to be improvised and opportunist, merely part of the state party's strategy to sway the vote and hold onto power.

The Chiapas problem remains. An UAM researcher who specializes in military matters maintains that resolving the conflict in Chiapas necessarily involves demilitarization and the unmasking and dissolution of the paramilitary groups. So far the government has tried to address the conflict in Chiapas with the logic of power and the narrow reasoning of the state, without taking the nation's needs into account.

Something similar is happening with its economic policy. A survey shows that a majority of the population opposes privatization of the electrical industry. Nonetheless, the government insists on this plan, paying no attention to what people think. An alternative economic policy is sorely needed, one that serves people rather than large capital but does not unleash the fury of the powers that are capable of destroying the economy of any country. And although a change in the party in power would not in itself resolve the country's economic problems, it would help dismantle the antidemocratic state apparatus. Democracy would also make it possible to examine many proposals made from the grass roots and bring them together to build a new kind of power.

Inclusive networks

An alternative that serves popular interests remains a distant possibility. But the effervescence of popular mobilization is there for all to see. There is still no strong movement that links all the others, like a solar system, but many movements are arising that, like dots of mercury attracted to each other, tend to form a converging, growing popular force. The union movement, the student movement and the indigenous movement are coming together creatively and imaginatively. Thus, while power excludes and segregates, while power aggravates, inclusive networks of resistance are being built in society. It is just a question of time.

Jorge Alonso is a researcher with CIESAS Western and envío correspondent in Mexico.

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