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International Socialist Review Issue 44, November–December 2005

Zapatistas reenter the political fray


IN SEPTEMBER, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) launched what it called “the other campaign” for social change in the lead-up to next year’s presidential elections. The other campaign hopes to organize protests to demand change in the interests of ordinary people no matter who is elected next year. It seeks to reach out directly to Mexico’s workers. As the EZLN’s Sixth Declaration from the Lacandón Jungle, issued June 26, put it: “A new step forward in the indigenous struggle is only possible if the indigenous peoples join with workers, farm workers, students, teachers, the employed…that is, urban and rural workers.”

The Zapatistas’ new campaign followed on the Sixth Declaration’s invitation to many socially excluded groups: “so that, individually or collectively, you participate directly with the Zapatistas in this NATIONAL CAMPAIGN for the construction of another way of making politics, of a program of national struggle that is of the left, and for a new Constitution.”
In the context of a national presidential campaign whose current leader is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate of the liberal Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the Zapatistas’ “otra campaña” [other campaign] has provoked a debate inside the Mexican Left.

The most controversial part of the declaration and of other statements to the press that Zapatista spokesman Subcommander Marcos has made was its strong criticism of the role of the PRD and of López Obrador. “We’re not going to remain quiet, and not only because the return of the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party] can be already seen in the higher ranks and circle around López Obrador, and because the right today dresses in black and yellow [the PRD’s colors], but also because what is at stake isn’t just a set of jobs and appointments, payrolls and budgets and are put up for sale during elections, but the existence of a nation and the sovereignty of its inhabitants,” said Marcos at a meeting of activist organizations held in Chiapas on August 14.

This criticism of López Obrador has caused a lot of discomfort among some left-wing activists and intellectuals who support López Obrador’s candidacy. To author Elena Poniatowska, “what Marcos is doing is dividing the left, which seems absurd to me.” Octavio Rodríguez Araújo, another intellectual and strong supporter of the Zapatistas, said that Marcos should “see a psychiatrist.” Nevertheless, this debate is healthy for the Mexican Left and for the Left in the rest of the world.

The debate raises one of the key questions that faces the Left both in Latin America and internationally: What kind of political strategy is needed to win the demands of social movements and ordinary people? The debate in México is unfolding after years of struggle have created the conditions for “center-left” governments to win elections across Latin America. But in many cases, these governments have proven just as committed to carrying out the neoliberal agenda as their right-wing predecessors. So this has presented the Left with a challenge of building its own political alternative.

A new era in Mexico?

The Zapatistas decided to call the “red alert” in June and to announce their new departure in the wake of the enormous April 24 demonstration in Mexico City against the Right’s attack on López Obrador. This may have surprised the Zapatistas’ international acolytes, who had treated the Zapatistas’ previous record of abstention toward national politics as a sign of their new way of doing politics. But the Zapatistas concluded that the events that brought millions into the streets in April required a reassessment of their previous position vis-à-vis national politics.

The April 24 demonstration protested the collaborative effort in congress by PRI andFox’s party, the conservative National Action Party (PAN), to strip López Obrador of his immunity from being charged with a crime. Meanwhile, a politically motivated prosecution directed from the heights of President Fox’s government planned to try López Obrador on an obscure charge of ignoring a judicial order barring the construction of an access road to a hospital. Had López Obrador been convicted or even tied up with a court case, he would have been prevented from running for president.
So PAN and PRI knew exactly what they were doing—eliminating a rival that current opinion polls show to be leading any PRI or PAN candidate by ten to twenty points. After the PRI-PAN bloc in the congress approved the desafuero (the term used for stripping a politician of immunity from prosecution), Fox and his cronies like Interior Minister Santiago Creel and PRI leader Roberto Madrazo traveled around Mexico giving speeches about how prosecuting López Obrador would uphold the rule of law.

But few believed them. Opinion polls in Mexico showed that López Obrador’s popularity actually increased—and Fox’s declined—after the desafuero. And whatever they thought of the charges against “AMLO” (López Obrador is popularly known by his initials), more than two-thirds of Mexicans believed they should still have a right to vote for him.
This could be seen in the crowd that attended the “March in Silence” on April 24. People of all ages—including thousands of the elderly who receive a pension that was one of AMLO’s reforms—marched. While earlier crowds in López Obrador’s defense had been largely organized by and confined to members of AMLO’s populist PRD, the March in Silence was broader. PAN and PRI had to notice that many of those rallying to AMLO’s defense were their own supporters.

For weeks, leading PAN and PRI politicians, including Fox himself, had been dogged at public appearances by protesters accusing them of selling out democracy. Only days after the enormous march, Fox fired his attorney general—the man leading the charge against López Obrador—and pulled the plug on the prosecution.

The outpouring of outrage against the maneuvers against López Obrador captured the widespread disillusionment in Fox’s rule. Promising “change” after seven decades of authoritarian PRI rule, Fox has supported more of the same free-market policies that his PRI predecessors pushed. Last year, the PRI-PAN bloc in the congress approved drastic cuts in pensions for workers in the country’s social security system.
Fox, who pledged to find a solution to the oppression of indigenous people in Chiapas that led to the 1994 Zapatista uprising in “15 minutes,” stood by while the National Assembly voted down a Zapatista-supported plan for autonomy in Chiapas in 2001.

The hypocrisy of politicians whose parties were convicted of laundering millions from foreign capitalists and stealing from the state-run oil company, PEMEX, to finance their presidential campaigns in 2000 was too much for most Mexicans to take.

But the support for López Obrador went beyond mere disappointment with Fox. It is one aspect of the revolt against free-market dogma that has spread across Latin America. AMLO is popular because he has supported certain reforms, like universal pensions and jobs programs, in Mexico City. He has called for prosecutions of banks that swindled billions from the country during the 1995 peso collapse, for the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and he opposes the privatization of Mexico’s oil industry.

Why not AMLO?

The April 24 demonstration showed that the Mexican people want a real change from the politics of free-market economics and corruption that has dominated the country for many years. A series of workers’ mobilizations, including those of electrical workers and social security workers against privatization, preceded the turnout against the desafuero on April 24. But it’s doubtful that López Obrador will fulfill the hopes of those who want genuine change in Mexico.

Extremists in Washington think López Obrador is a populist akin to Washington’s new bogeyman in Latin America, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. This is nonsense, as even López Obrador rejects the comparison with Chávez. “On a sliding scale [López Obrador’s] danger to U.S. hegemony in the Americas is probably at Lula-level, a notch below the return of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega,” wrote journalist John Ross.

With every passing day, López Obrador shows himself to be less of a populist and more of a respectable president-in-waiting. He has gone out of his way to assure the bankers, the media, and the Bush administration that he is a “centrist” politician who has no plans for radical change should he be elected president. In fact, taking a page from Lula’s playbook, López Obrador has already written a letter addressed to Mexican business leaders telling them that he plans to maintain existing macroeconomic fundamentals. Among his chief advisers is Manuel Camacho Solis, a former ally of right-wing president Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

His election manifesto is full of generalities, but it supports the idea of “taking advantage of globalization and not just suffering from it.” As China has developed by exporting its labor power, he argues, Mexico can develop by exporting its energy resources. He promises more social reform and the completion of the San Andrés Accords with the Zapatistas, but none of his proposals challenges private capitalism.

Left-wing commentator Alejandro Nadal, writing in La Jornada, worried that the election manifesto and the presence of advisers like Camacho Solis already signals that a number of “corrupt politicians, opportunists and architects of national pacts” that lowered workers’ wages, are already lining up to jump on López Obrador’s bandwagon.

The PRD, which attracted the support of much of the Mexican Left after its founding in 1989, has increasingly become a haven for opportunists leaving the PRI and even for business people. Many of the PRI opportunists participated in or supported governments in the 1980s and 1990s that imposed disastrous neoliberal policies on Mexico. Few of them have renounced their pasts.

For their part, the Zapatistas have learned the hard way the price of allying themselves with the PRD. Three weeks before the 1994 national election, the EZLN hosted the National Democratic Convention (CND) that brought thousands of activists to Chiapas. At the CND, the EZLN attempted to shift Mexican politics to the left by urging a vote against the right-wing National Action and Institutional Revolutionary Parties—a tacit endorsement of populist candidate Cuahtémoc Cárdenas of the PRD.

Between 1994 and 1999, the EZLN and PRD maintained both verbal and written agreements that committed the PRD to supporting proposals for indigenous rights in the Mexican Congress. But PRD senators stabbed the EZLN in the back in 2001, when they joined with PRI and PAN members to vote down Zapatista-backed legislation for indigenous autonomy in Chiapas.

If the EZLN criticisms of the PRD seem so bitter, it is because they come from bitter experience. And they have a resonance beyond Chiapas not only because of the EZLN’s prestige, but because the voting base of the PRD—activists in social movements, trade unions, and peasant organizations—shares them. Activists who want to see an end to the ruin of neoliberalism in Mexico are becoming increasingly dismayed at López Obrador’s “centrist” maneuvers.

At least the Zapatistas have challenged the Left not to feel satisfied with the election of López Obrador as a “lesser evil” to the main neoliberal parties, the National Action Party (PAN) and the PRI. The example of the Brazilian Workers’ Party’s betrayal of its working-class base is very much on the minds of the Zapatistas and other Mexican activists.

What kind of “other campaign”?

Nevertheless, the Zapatista proposal has its own problems. Zapatista statements tend to discount any electoral participation, including that of socialists or of other genuine leftists. And Zapatista declarations about what the “other campaign”—the extraparliamentary one—should do, are vague.

But the opening created by the Zapatista initiative offers opportunities for forces on the left to offer genuine alternatives to the mass of the Mexican population, 45 percent of whom tell pollsters that they wish they had other choices on the presidential ballot. Last February, more than 200 organizations of workers, peasants, and social movements gathered in Querétaro to draw up a “minimal non-negotiable program.” The Union, Peasant, Popular and Indigenous Front issued the Querétero Plan as a ten-point plan opposing privatization of Mexico’s resources and social services and opposition to the neoliberal agenda. To date, López Obrador has made no comment about the Plan.

Another important development in August was the decision of several socialist groups led by the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT) to launch a Socialist Front to offer a socialist alternative to Mexican voters during the 2006 elections. The groups that are organizing the Socialist Front participated in the recent Zapatista-sponsored meetings among activists in Chiapas.

The socialists will support actions organized by the “other campaign,” while, at the same time, running their electoral campaign whose goal will be to strengthen the Mexican Left. Unfortunately, the Front is divided on the question of calling for a “critical vote” for López Obrador or backing the run of an independent candidate representing workers and social movements. No doubt an independent campaign, even if it were small, would play an important role in organizing the Left for the battles that are sure to come.

“[The question] is not to vote or not to vote. It is, on the contrary, before, during and after the elections, organizing independently of the state and its tools, whether these are called the church or the political parties,” wrote socialist Guillermo Almeyra in La Jornada on October 16. “To affirm an independent and alternative political direction, built on struggles from below, and, if possible, to have an anti-capitalist candidate in the elections, and if not, for after the elections to resist the policies of the three main candidates.”

Whatever happens, the social change that Mexicans need will happen only as a result of struggle from below in workplaces, in working-class communities, and in the countryside—wherever the Mexican working class can be found.

Lance Selfa is a member of the ISR editorial board.

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