The Birth of a New Alliance
The US punishment of Mexico for opposing the invasion of Iraq
has given yet more impetus to a new national grassroots alliance
that has formed to promote national unity against neoliberalism.
This carefully forged alliance is stirring hope.
The history of Mexico’s grassroots movements has been characterized by a search for common ground, which has been hard to find and is often short-lived. Some people have become discouraged because alliances invariably slip away as divisions prevail. Others see hope in the persistent and consistent search for them, despite previous failures.
A new grassroots convergence was born at the end of 2002 to develop a strategic, systematic opposition to neoliberalism. In the course of its initial evolution, it increasingly recognized that there is no easy line to be drawn in defining the effects of neoliberal thinking. The story of its birth and its efforts to ensure success this time bears telling.
An good moment for trying againThe immediate predecessor of this novel movement was the appearance in 2001 and 2002 of 14 separate new fronts to fight for human rights, against Plan Puebla Panama and against the sale of the state electricity and petroleum companies to private capital. Several of these struggles took innovative forms, reaching beyond a single sector of society.
Given this revival of pluralistic social movements, an initiative arose to unite them. People began to sketch out a mechanism to bring them together that everyone would be able to trust, free of vanguard notions and leadership cliques. They sought the collaboration of public figures known for their impartiality and clarity, enlisting the help of Samuel Ruiz, bishop emeritus of San Cristóbal de las Casas; professor Pablo González Casanova; Conchita de Nava, the wife of a leader of democratic civic fronts; and Miguel Angel Granados Chapa, a journalist who has helped restore some trust in the electoral branch.
The people participating in those initial discussions mapped out Mexico’s social movements, including the armed ones, since one point of agreement was to consider all forms of struggle legitimate. In so doing, they became aware of the enormous social capital that could be mobilized in the country. At the same time, they perceived the urgent need for information and for building consensus.
A common agenda and first principlesThe process was a very free and open one. A minimal organizational structure was created, with monthly meetings, and they opted for a collective, horizontal leadership. On the issue of national electoral politics, they made it clear that participants could do as they wished, as no single electoral position would be forced on anyone.
The nascent movement announced that it would encourage the participation of everyone in the country by organizing regional and state forums and meetings to generate discussion around the proposed grassroots civic unity, its agenda and forms of organization. Proposed as a collective coalition operating according to democratic principles, the movement would also have to operate in such a way as to facilitate the work of its member networks.
Seeking the most effective way to move ahead together, the early participants drew up a minimal common agenda and began to work their way through it, taking care not to get bogged down in all the immediate, urgent issues requiring response. They were determined to create a new kind of convergence and prevent the initiative from backsliding into the formation of yet another activist single-issue front, even if at a new level. To avoid getting mired in old, interminably controversial debates, they proposed to learn from previous efforts and, most important, to try to listen and discuss rather than assume judgmental positions. Thus, for example, starting from an attitude of respect for the Zapatista position, they discussed how that movement has its own rhythms and has chosen another strategy for the moment.
The group analyzed the effects of the neoliberal model applied by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral organizations all over Latin America in the past two decades. They agreed that this model has led to greater impoverishment, the concentration of wealth in increasingly few hands, indiscriminate plundering of natural resources, privatization of the national patrimony and public services, the loss of basic social rights, a growing flood of migration and the subjection of national sovereignty to outside interests. Looking specifically at Mexico, they recognized that the model’s application has exacerbated social inequality and is playing a major role in many of the issues that the social movements have been addressing in recent years.
In their discussions, they did not overlook the fact that indigenous people have been denied constitutional recognition of their rights. Nor did they ignore the proposed privatization of PEMEX, the state-owned petroleum company, which has polarized the country, with half of those surveyed opposing the privatization and the other half supporting it. Their analysis included the labor reform currently underway, which will limit workers’ rights as it increases profits for private investors, and the new phase of NAFTA, which will further harm Mexico’s rural areas. They also considered the intense global imperialist expansion of the United States in the economic, political, cultural and military realms, seeking to establish the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) as a framework for regulating economic and trade relations all over the continent, as well as imposing Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), Plan Colombia and the Andean Initiative.
The goal is to change the correlation of forcesBased on this analysis, people concluded that all the various forms of resistance to these issues must come together to forge a new correlation of forces in Mexico to create the framework for a new, more just order. They thus realized that the point around which everyone could unite was the promotion of national unity against neoliberalism, not with a short-term, reactive, issue-by-issue approach but rather with a strategic focus and a systemic understanding aimed at defeating this model.
With all these points established, this initial organizing group, which called itself the Promoter of National Unity against Neoliberalism, drafted an initial declaration announcing its plan to promote broad, pluralistic, grassroots, civic unity in the fight against neoliberalism. Along with the declaration, they issued an invitation to social, civic and grassroots organizations, unions, networks, coalitions, fronts and movements from all around the country to participate in preparing and holding a National Conference Against Neoliberalism and for the Defense of Sovereignty and National Independence in May 2003.
Key points of the common agendaThey then began to draft a common program and national agenda, listing the basic points on this agenda during an open discussion. The first has to do with the fight for democracy, with new forms of representation and mechanisms for direct democracy to ensure social participation in decision making. Another important point is to continue demanding compliance with the San Andrés Accords, with the goal of establishing new, just institutional structures and practices that guarantee local communities the right to self-government and autonomy. This is a very important issue in the demilitarization of indigenous regions.
Since the movement includes many peasant farmers groups, another basic demand is related to achieving food sovereignty by supporting small-scale rural production. Some of the other proposed demands have to do with guarantees of the right to information and democratization of the media; the urgent need to build a new, ethical political culture; and the need to create egalitarian, equitable gender relations.
One of the key points is related to the defense of national sovereignty. The new movement proposes to push for a new world order based on justice, peace, dignity, democracy and sustainability, which presupposes putting a stop to military expansion and imperialist wars.
As in most movements opposed to neoliberalism, other central points include cancellation of the foreign and domestic debts and rejection of trade agreements such as the FTAA and the PPP. In the areas of economic, social and cultural rights, the movement rejects the labor reform currently underway, and obviously supports the full exercise of individual and collective rights with recognition of and respect for cultural, racial, sexual and generational diversity.
Planning for the conferenceThe invitation for the May conference had been formulated round all the discussions that had taken place in the first few months of the year. It touched on both the national and global situation, expressing alarm over the US war against the people of Iraq and Washington’s decision to use force to consolidate its global hegemony and try to overcome the country’s own protracted economic recession. The invitation also made clear that the conference was open to all the country’s organizations, independent of their nature, size or political orientation. The only requirements were that they oppose neoliberalism and be willing to unite in a common front to defend national sovereignty and achieve a new political, economic and social order that would satisfy the needs of all Mexicans for food, health care, housing, education, jobs, land, recreation and justice.
The conference agenda would have two main points: first to analyze the national and global situation, and second to define the character of the new movement, draft a specific short-term program of struggle and determine its structure, name, slogans and emblems. All conference participants would have the right to present papers and participate in the thematic group discussions and plenary discussions. The commissions for analysis, coordination and organization agreed to draft documents for discussion.
For peace in Iraq…and in MexicoAs the organizers prepared for the conference, they continued participating in other struggles. For example, they joined in one of the worldwide marches for peace on April 12.
A statement from Subcomandante Marcos was read at this march, in which he described the war against Iraq as an attempt to globalize fear and submission, but noted that it had also globalized indignation. He added that in a few short months, the United States government had achieved what it took Hitler’s regime years to accomplish. Marcos again spoke out against all the political parties, this time for calling a march for peace in which they did not even dare name those who perpetrate war. He accused the political class of trying to capitalize on people’s anti-war feelings, recalling that this same class had united against recognizing indigenous rights and culture, and that this had resulted in a continuation of the war against the indigenous people of Mexico. Members of the new movement against neoliberalism also took advantage of the occasion to underscore that Mexico itself couldn’t be said to be living in peace.
A great and careful organizing effortA series of conference organizing meetings and workshops were held to ensure that the initiative would bear fruit over the long term. A strategic plan like this, designed for the long term, obliges friends and enemies to define themselves, but to keep from getting bogged down, they identified the points on which the participating organizations do not agree and avoided making proposals related to them. These included anything with a whiff of partisan politics or elections. To strengthen unity, the promoters instead sought to maximize the points on which they did agree and worked scrupulously to ensure that the differences among the participating organizations would be respected, so that the declaration respecting their autonomy would not be a merely formal one. As another essential task was to correlate strategy with tactics though a careful effort to combine unity and diversity, they proposed discussions, negotiation and the building of consensus as indispensable mechanisms. Throughout the whole process, the desire to clear up any possible confusion among short, medium and long term requirements became almost an obsession.
The movement was also obliged to analyze the nature of its relationship to the state carefully, since it would inevitably confront the state powers. In addition, there was a striking concern to create a methodology that would ensure the movement’s inclusive organization and ethical, democratic functioning. People agreed that the best way to create an environment of inclusion was to develop a culture of dialogue. They further recognized that consultations and discussion forums were essential mechanisms for elaborating global, national, regional and sectoral focuses for the proposed action plan.
While organizing the movement was a delicate task, there was much greater clarity around its purpose. It was agreed that it should be a forum for opposition to the dominant system to encourage the revival of social movements with the goal of building a new social hegemony based on a project of nation.
The national conferenceThe conference took place in Mexico City at the beginning of May, with the participation of some 1,900 people from 18 institutions and over 100 social and civic organizations of all kinds and with the most diverse origins. They included unions, independent workers’ movements, retired people, farmers’ associations, indigenous groups, students, teachers, cultural and civic leaders, human rights activists, women, environmentalists and politicians. Among them was the emerging movement of Atenco residents, who demonstrated such organizing capacity and combativeness in their struggle to save their land last year. Although the initial organizers were aware that the new forum would not represent all of Mexico’s social movements, these organizations do cover a good part of them.
The meeting differed from previous similar initiatives in that it had been organized from below. Among its achievements was the environment of tolerance in which the discussions took place. Regarding the first agenda item, the analysis of the national and global situation, participants agreed that the change brought with the defeat of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the 2000 elections had not brought the democratic transition Mexico needs, since the National Action Party (PAN) government has not dismantled the privileges of the groups in power.
The rapid pace of global events obliged them to add several points to the analysis made in the first declaration. For one thing, people felt that the US victory in the war against Iraq had emboldened the neoliberals, which would increase exploitation, keep salaries down and fuel social violence. They accused Fox of not daring to condemn Bush for the aggression against the people of Iraq, although his government had initially opposed the unilateral intervention. They also argued that Mexico had changed from its origins as a social state to a state for the wealthy with disempowering charity mechanisms for the poor. Despite the concern to steer clear of party politics, many participants insisted that neither the PRI nor the PAN are options today, and given the actions of the governments of Michoacán and Mexico City, most demonstrated little hope for the PRD as well, which they accused of bowing to capital and resorting to repression.
No more isolated strugglesThe second point on the agenda was the movement’s own organization, program and plan of action. While the emphasis was on resistance during the preparatory stages, without ignoring the need to propose alternatives, the stress during the conference was on proposals, especially those related to migrant rights, the generation of new forms of grassroots production, exchange and trade, and a plan to fight for work and land. On the issue of migrants, people noted that income from remittances is now greater than income from tourism, and that 1,897 Mexicans have died trying to cross the border jin the past few years alone.
The action plan was polished during the meeting, in which there was wholehearted agreement over the goal of ensuring that grassroots struggles in Mexico would no longer be isolated. The participants pledged to publicize the agreements and build state, regional and sectoral structures. Although the entire organizational effort before the conference had relied on the Internet and people agreed to keep using it, they also decided to publish a bulletin and continue holding workshops to analyze the situation.
The new convergence’s proposals were announced on May 20 in public events around Mexico City.
A convergent indigenous meetingThe National Encounter of Meso-American Response and Resistance to Neoliberal Globalization was held in mid-May, in a Mixe indigenous community in the state of Oaxaca, as a first expression of the new convergence. Those invited included indigenous organizations and eoples as well as other nongovernmental organizations and networks. Some 400 delegates from over 100 organizations participated in the event.
The participants again condemned the PPP, FTAA and NAFTA as forms of government despotism that favor the interests of large corporations. They described the mega-projects imposed on the region as a huge wave that is pillaging and destroying natural resources, violating the population’s social rights and undermining national sovereignty. They also denounced the governments of both Mexico and Central America as “employees of transnational corporations” that do not respect the rights of indigenous peoples.
The meeting’s slogan was “For a future without the PPP or FTAA.” The agreements again included the issue of respect for women’s rights and for indigenous practices and dress.
Showing that another world is possibleWhile they have provided heroic symbols, isolated attempts at resistance have not changed the correlation of forces in favor of grassroots causes. That evidence is what that led to the search for this new convergence. It has set itself the task of designing strategies to highlight and empower people’s specific proposals and is attempting to create alternatives in order to begin showing that another world is possible.
All of this implies keeping a distance from the current governing political system, especially today’s political parties. The goal is to encourage innovative forms of doing politics to counter the elitist forms and the leadership cliques that become oligarchies primarily concerned with their own reproduction.
The new convergence has become a place to learn about the country’s diverse movements, a place for information and coordination, which was created through a careful and solid process. The challenge is enormous and will require tremendous innovative energy, but this energy exists. This utopia that is beginning to take shape on the horizon has produced great hope. It is showing us the way and helping us get there.
Jorge Alonso is a researcher with CIESAS Western and envío correspondent in Mexico.