Struggle to Forge a Vanguard Is KeyA Revolution Is Brewing In Mexico
Protest in Mexico City against bloody cop attack on Oaxaca teachers, June 14.
(Photo: Eduardo Verdugo/AP)
Forge a Revolutionary Workers Party!
An abbreviated version of this article was published in The Internationalist No. 25 (January-February 2007).
As 2007 dawns, Mexico is still reeling from ten months of sharp class conflict. A new government has taken office vowing to employ “the full weight of the state” against those who defy it. Felipe Calderón, the reactionary president imposed by the Federal Elections Tribunal over massive protests, wants above all to assure Wall Street and Washington that he will “preserve economic stability.” The appetites of the head of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) for a “strong state” are evident, but he comes into office as the weakest government of any in recent history. Not only did protesters shut down the capital’s main square and main thoroughfare for six weeks last summer protesting electoral fraud, workers, peasants and teachers repeatedly defeated police and troops in a series of pitched battles over the last year. Although a six-month mass strike in the southern state of Oaxaca ended with an eruption of cop violence and hundreds of arrests, the tens of thousands of strikers are unbowed. The dramatic clashes of 2006 have sown the seeds of revolution, as the strikes of 1906-07 signaled the coming of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. But the key element for a victorious outcome is absent: a revolutionary vanguard with the program and determination to sweep away the inhuman exploitation and mass poverty of capitalism and set out on the road of international socialist revolution.
The response of Mexico’s rulers to last year’s unrest has been rampant militarization. Twice in recent months, the government of outgoing president Vicente Fox surrounded Congress with a ring of metal barricades and thousands of troops and riot police and kept the area sealed off for days. Calderón was sworn in as head of state by a military officer at a private midnight ceremony in the presidential residence, Los Pinos. He slipped into Congress the next day by a back door for an official appearance that lasted less than five minutes, then ducked out again. The new ruler started off the new year by donning a military cap and jacket as commander in chief of the armed forces to review Mexican Army units in Michoacán, where they are allegedly fighting drug traffickers. He simultaneously launched a “Plan Tijuana,” supposedly directed at the drug kingpins who dominate the city under Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) mayor Jorge Hank Rhon. But the plan mainly consisted of searching vehicles and carrying out military patrols in neighborhoods considered to be “conflict” zones looking for stolen autos, contraband and networks for funneling undocumented immigrants across the border to the United States. In other words, it was really about getting the population used to police-state controls.
Federal Police patrol Colonial Libertad in Tijuana, accustoming the
population to police-state controls. (Photo: Don Bartletti/Los
Calderón is also militarizing his administration. Among the officials participating in his Michoacán military review were the new minister of the interior (Gobernación), Francisco Ramírez Acuña, who gained notoriety as governor of Jalisco by his heavy-handed jailing of anti-globalization protesters; the new attorney general, Eduardo Medina Mora, formerly head of the Federal Preventive Police (PFP); and Michoacán governor Lázaro Cárdenas Batel, who last April sent state police to join the PFP in assaulting striking steel workers in the city named after his grandfather, President Lázaro Cárdenas Ríos. Now the administration plans to fuse the PFP and Federal Investigative Agency to create a “super-police” under the general commanding the combined police/military force in Oaxaca, Ardelio Vargas. The purpose of this operation is to provide security and “stability” for capital. Calderón explained to the convention of the Mexican Stock Market last October, “As head of the federal executive I am committed to creating an environment favoring investment and employment…, promoting competitiveness,” etc. After the media show of going after narcos and coyotes is over, his beefed up police apparatus will get down improving the business “environment” by repressing workers and other opponents.
In his speech to the stock marketeers, Calderón vowed to maintain Mexico’s “leading position in attracting investment.” Police “reform” is high on the agenda of foreign investors and pundits, who may be annoyed by the pervasive corruption and ties to drug gangs, but were livid at the spectacle of federal police retreating before youths armed with slingshots and “Molotov cocktails” in Oaxaca last November 2. Keeping Wall Street money men happy is uppermost in the minds of Mexico’s rulers in recent years, as imperialist bankers have bought up 80 percent of the country’s financial institutions. What they are really after is grabbing Mexico’s enormous oil (nationalized by President Cárdenas in 1938) and hydroelectric resources. This would require an amendment to Mexico’s constitution and likely provoke a battle royal with workers unions and nationalist politicians. Speaking out of one side of his mouth, Calderón tells international high finance that he will accommodate them (a U.S. Energy Information Agency report says the new president will “allow private companies to participate in new energy projects”) while for domestic consumption he vows he won’t privatize oil or electricity. The double talk covers a contradiction which cannot be maintained much longer.
The imperialists are getting impatient with the pace of economic “reform” in Mexico and are demanding drastic action. Last fall, the British Economist (18 November 2006) published a special survey on Mexico under the title, “Time to Wake Up.” It called on Calderón to be “far bolder than his predecessor in tackling the many vestiges of the old order that are still holding the country back.” These “vestiges” include going after “monopoly power . . . from the teachers’ union to Pemex, the state oil monopoly.” But like Fox before him, the technocratic president tied to the ultra-rightist Catholic secret society El Yunque hesitates to tear down Mexico’s corporatist structure all at once, for fear that the country could come apart. Other provocative demands by the international bankers include extending the sales tax (IVA) to medicine – which Fox tried but failed to push through Congress – and ending subsidies of basic food products, like tortillas. In November, the government raised the price of subsidized milk by 28 percent, while in December it increased the minimum wage by less than 2 pesos (20 cents) a day, not enough to buy one egg and one aspirin. Now the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is telling Mexico’s government to privatize the ejidos, land belonging to peasant and Indian communities. Such calls are designed to provoke a revolt.
The main thing holding it off so far has been the porous border to the U.S., which acted as a kind of safety valve: instead of protesting, the dispossessed headed north. Now the border is being closed, and pressure is building toward a social explosion. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has devastated Mexican agriculture. Millions of poor peasants have been forced off their land because their corn cannot compete on the market with the (highly subsidized) U.S. grains. As trainloads of corn from Iowa headed south on the (now U.S.-owned) railroads to Mexico, Mexican peasants headed north to Iowa to find work in packing plants. Now the situation in the countryside is about to become even more dramatic, as tariffs on imported corn are due to fall from 27 percent to 16 percent this month, and to 0 by January 2008. For a time the maquiladora free-trade zone plants managed to absorb many young workers producing electronic goods, auto parts and clothing for the giant U.S. market. But in the last several years hundreds of thousands of maquiladora workers have lost their jobs as fly-by-night entrepreneurs shut down plants to head for even lower-wage havens, particularly China. So while racist reactionaries in the United States froth about Mexican workers “stealing American jobs,” their counterparts south of the border rail against the Chinese deformed workers state for “stealing Mexican jobs.”
For more than six decades, the one-party regime of the PRI was able to maintain “economic stability” with a capitalist economy in which key sectors (energy, heavy industry, transport, finance) were in the hands of the state. They fostered the growth of a domestic capitalist class with cheap energy prices and cheap credit, while keeping a lid on labor protest with corporatist “unions” which acted as labor cops for the bosses. Leaders were integrated into the PRI-government apparatus, workers in key industries were thrown some crumbs in the form of job security and social benefits, while wages were kept low and dissidents brutally repressed. Over the last two and a half decades, PRI presidents De la Madrid, Salinas and Zedillo and then Fox of the PAN have been dismantling this semi-bonapartist regime bit by bit. Salinas sold off more than 1,200 state-owned companies to his cronies, making instant billionaires of some and turning Carlos Slim (owner of the privatized Teléfonos de México) into the third-richest man in the world. As the super-rich wallow in dollars, the already miserable incomes of Mexican are falling while social security is gutted. Mexico is hurtling toward a crisis. The only question is the outcome.
“Popular Democracy” or Workers Revolution
The “president elect” imposed by the
Federal Elections Tribunal, Felipe Calderón, wears a military
cap while reviewing the troops together with his secretary of war,
Guillermo Galván. (Photo: Guillermo Arias/AP)
Beginning with the deaths of 65 coal miners in the state of Coahuila last February, Mexico has been convulsed by almost uninterrupted labor unrest. When Fox’s labor minister tried to remove the head of the corporatist miners “union,” Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, as punishment for slipping the leash and talking of “industrial homocide” at the Pasta de Conchos mine, more than 300,000 mine and metal workers walked out in protest. Gómez Urrutia called it off after a few days, but steel workers at the Sicartsa-Las Truchas plant in Lázaro Cárdenas (Michoacán) and copper miners at Cananea and Nacozari (Sonora) stayed out on strike for months. The miners lost and were forced back to work with hundreds fired, but the steel strikers won, with an 8 percent wage increase, full pay for strike days, a US$700 bonus and increased benefits. This victory was a dramatic demonstration of the workers’ power, having occupied the plant and defended it by driving off an assault by federal, state and local police along with marines on April 20, at a cost of 2 strikers killed. But the impact of the strike victory remained limited as the struggle was confined to strictly trade-union bounds.
The cop-military attack on the Sicartsa plant was followed two weeks later by a brutal police assault on peasants and townspeople in San Salvador Atenco, in Mexico state near the Federal District. It began with the arrest of some flower sellers by police of the town of Texcoco, whose PRD mayor wanted to ban street vendors in order to make way for a Wal-Mart store. There, too, the police were driven out, only to return with thousands of federal and state police who brutally beat and arrested hundreds. Several dozen women protesters were sexually molested and raped after being detained. This set off worldwide protests initiated by the “Other Campaign” of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN). But by far the largest struggle was that launched by striking teachers in the state of Oaxaca, which began in late May and lasted until the end of November. On June 14, the murderous state governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, ordered an army of several thousand riot police to evict a strikers’ encampment (plantón) in the center of Oaxaca city. But the 40,000 teachers fought back and drove out the cop attackers. From then until the PFP invaded at the end of October, the state capital was in the hands of the strikers and their allies of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO).
The story of that convulsive struggle is recounted in a series of articles in this issue and the previous issue of The Internationalist (No. 24, Summer 2005). Following the violent arrest of hundreds and imposition of a de facto state of siege in Oaxaca on November 25, the focal point of mobilization has shifted to the demand for immediate release of the detainees, several dozen of whom are still in jail, and dropping the trumped-up charges. More than 20 strike supporters were killed over the course of the six-month battle. But while the PRI governor-assassin Ruiz Ortiz crows victory and his PAN allies in Mexico City proclaim that it’s all over, the working, poor and indigenous people of Oaxaca continue to fight. On January 6, “Three Kings Day,” when children in Mexico traditionally receive presents, the APPO held an event to give toys to the children whose parents are behind bars, prisoners in the class war. Typically, the state government sent riot cops to keep the kids out of the Plaza of Santo Domingo, claiming the need to “provide security for tourists.” Hundreds of children showed up anyway, some with signs saying the best present would be for Ruiz to leave (La Jornada, 7 January).
While keeping up the struggle, it is time to take stock and draw the lessons of more than half a year of hard combat. What are those lessons? The APPO leaders who have not been jailed are focused on getting their comrades out of prison, particularly APPO spokesman Flavio Sosa, a demand that should be taken up by the entire workers movement, in Mexico and internationally. Militant sectors want to settle accounts with Enrique Rueda Pacheco, the leader of the 70,000-strong Oaxaca teachers union, Section 22, SNTE-CNTE, who broke ranks and ordered strikers back to work at the beginning of November, leaving APPO supporters alone on the barricades. Thousands of teachers refused to obey and now rightly want to throw out Pacheco for strikebreaking. At the same time, the leader of the national corporatist teachers “union” (SNTE), Elba Esther Gordillo, has cashed in on her crucial electoral support to Calderón, placing her agents in control of the secretariat of public education, and setting up a new Section 59 in Oaxaca made up of teachers who scabbed during the strike. Meanwhile, combative students and youth who played a key role in the victorious November 2 defense of Oaxaca University sharply denounce the APPO leaders for abandoning them after November 25.
The militants’ complaints are utterly valid, but by posing the issue in essentially personal terms, on the terrain of simple militancy vs. betrayal, they fail to address the political reasons for the “moderates” stab in the back. The basic fact is that the leaders both of the APPO (Sosa) and of the Oaxaca teachers union (Rueda Pacheco), as well as of the new scab section of the national SNTE, all are supporters of the bourgeois populist Party of the Democratic Revolution. Sosa, while he may affect the look of a student radical, is a national counselor of the PRD, who in 2000 even joined those PRDers calling to vote for the rightist Fox as a “lesser evil” to the PRI. While they engaged in combative tactics locally, nationally they looked to the PRD. APPO’s support to PRD presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the July 2 elections was seen by many Oaxaca strikers as a “tactical” move against Ulises Ruiz Ortiz: a vote for AMLO against URO. But for the APPO leaders it was strategic. When they traveled to the capital for negotiations, they sat down in the PRD plantón in the Mexico City Zócalo. And just as López Obrador didn’t intend his street protests to challenge the bourgeois state, which they didn’t, the Oaxacan leaders quite consciously never raised demands going beyond the limits of capitalism.
Yet the pitched battles in the streets of Oaxaca that defeated police attacks, the erection of thousands of barricades throughout the city, the takeover of several dozen towns around the state by striking teachers, the teachers’ “police” squads that kept order in the occupied state capital – these aspects of a hard-fought class struggle did begin to present an implicit challenge to the capitalist regime. But they lacked an explicit revolutionary political perspective. Many radicals seized upon these initial steps to present a picture of the struggle in Oaxaca as if it were already a revolutionary situation, or on the verge of becoming one. This make-believe vision was synthesized in the propaganda that circled the globe about a Oaxaca Commune. We warned (see “A Oaxaca Commune?” page 36) that this substituted fantasy for fact, and that in any case, the goal of Marxists would not be an isolated commune in the most economically impoverished state of Mexico but a revolutionary proletarian mobilization throughout the country and particularly in the capital. We also emphasized that those who equated the Oaxaca struggle with the 1871 Paris Commune in terms of “democracy” misread the class nature of the latter, which Marxists from Marx and Engels to Lenin and Trotsky hailed as the first workers government in history.
In the aftermath of November 25, there have been different responses on the radical left. Some, like the Liga de Trabajadores por el Socialismo (Socialist Workers League) have simply kept on with the fiction of a Oaxaca Commune, calling it “An Initial Revolutionary Attempt” and saying it’s necessary to continue onward and upward from this “new stage in the class struggle” (in its dossier, “Crisis of the Regime and Lessons of the Oaxaca Commune,” 29-31 December 2006). This misses the fundamental point that the roiling mass strike in Oaxaca was defeated not by bloody repression, although that was very real, but because the political perspective of the APPO and Section 22 leaders had taken them to a dead-end. APPO supporters came out by the thousands and defeated the PFP on November 2, but following the November 25 police attack they did not come out to defend Radio APPO a second time. Why not? Not because they lacked courage and the will to fight. They showed that over and over through half a year of battles. It was because their leaders had shown them no way forward. Would they endlessly go up against the tanquetas (armored personnel carriers) with slingshots and stones until the militarized police carried a large-scale massacre with live ammunition? What kind of a perspective is that?
Another current, the Militant tendency, flatly proclaimed a defeat, writing laconically, “The Commune of Oaxaca reached its end” (“Lessons of Oaxaca,” Militante, December 2006). Similar to the LTS, Militante continues to insist that the APPO represented “embryos of soviets” – leaving aside the fact that, while various unions participated in the APPO, it was not based on the proletariat, but rather represented a multi-class conglomeration of the various sectors in struggle (teachers, indigenous peoples, students). Militante says, rightly that the alternative was revolution or counterrevolution, and that the responsibility lies with the leadership. According to them, Pacheco betrayed, while Sosa, having only an “empiricist” program, “unfortunately wasn’t up to the task.” How’s that for a “Marxist” explanation! What Militante wants to sidestep is the fact that both Pacheco and Sosa, and the rest of the APPO leadership and most of the teachers union tops, supported the PRD. And the reason for this omission is simple: Militante poses as the “Marxist tendency” of this bourgeois party. They criticize “APPO and AMLO” for not calling for a united front against repression and pushing for “an insurrectionary general strike”! How could they?! Looking to a bourgeois politician to call a workers uprising only creates dangerous illusions. And for its part, Militante gave political support to both APPO and AMLO.
The largest left-wing political tendency active in the struggle in Oaxaca was the Communist Party of Mexico (Marxist-Leninist) and its Revolutionary Popular Front, which had supporters in the leadership both of the APPO and the teachers’ Section 22. When the bourgeoisie called on APPO leaders to rein in the “radicals,” the FPR was who they had in mind. The PCM(m-l) is an aggressively Stalinist party, hailing “the immortal scientific ideology of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin” and prominently displaying the portrait of the man Leon Trotsky accurately described “the great organizer of defeats” in the zócalos of Oaxaca and Mexico City. With the radicalization of struggles by Mexican workers and youth in recent years, notably the 1999 National University (UNAM) strike and 2004 mobilization by Social Security workers, and in 2006 the mine and metal workers’ and Oaxacan teachers’ struggles, the PCM has often struck a combative pose. Its posters declare, “For the Victory of the Proletarian Revolution” and denounce capitalism. But at bottom, its political program is the same old Stalinist-Menshevik line of a “two-stage” revolution, in which the first stage is (bourgeois) democratic. Thus whatever their red flags and posters may suggest, these Stalinists are not fighting for workers revolution in the here and now.
A recent pamphlet by the PCM(m-l) and FPR, Considerations on the Revolutionary-Democratic Process of the Peoples of Oaxaca (November 2006) interestingly had a first edition referring in the introduction to a “Commune that is questioning the bases of the system of domination” by the capitalist ruling class, while in the second edition the Commune has been disappeared. The document goes on a great length describing the ravages of capitalism, which has condemned three-quarters of the population of Oaxaca to a life of poverty, massive illiteracy, denouncing the “Senate of illustrious bandits” and the “House of merchants.” It talks of the “big hotel owners” who are in league with the “old-line caciques” (political bosses) and “puppets like Felipe Calderón.” But while it talks of the “fascists” PRI-AN coalition, and of the “inconsistency of the social-traitors of the PRD,” it pointedly does not criticize López Obrador. Rather than attacking the capitalist state, it refers to the “financial oligarchy and its state.” And it ends up calling for a “new popular democratic republic based on the power of the masses through their popular assemblies.” In other words, their operational program is for a bourgeois republic governed by an equivalent of the APPO.
For a Leninist-Trotskyist Workers Party
Supporters of the Popular Assembly of the
Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) confront federal police on November 20.
Forging a revolutionary
proletarian leadership is key.
The various tendencies of the centrist and reformist Mexican left adopt a fundamentally anti-Marxist view of the relationship between democratic and socialist struggles. All of them call for a new constituent assembly or revolutionary convention, harking back to the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917. And their identification of “people’s assemblies” with soviets, the organs of proletarian rule in the Russian Revolution, is common to the vast majority of the left in Latin America. When a “National and Indigenous Peoples’ Assembly” was formed in Bolivia at the height of the 2005 worker-peasant uprising, a chorus of ostensibly revolutionary leftists proclaimed this APNO to be “soviets on the altiplano.” That body turned out to be stillborn, as we in the League for the Fourth International pointed out at the time, and was never more than a cartel of left-talking bureaucrats. So when the APPO in Oaxaca took shape with undeniable mass support, those who were disappointed in Bolivia took heart and again proclaimed the advent of “soviets,” this time in the indigenous heartland of Mexico. This disoriented the struggle by implying that what was needed was simply to intensify and radicalize the APPO’s struggle instead of transforming and extending it to the powerful industrial proletariat.
As in every class battle, the question of leadership is key. Militante proclaims that “this defeat has provoked the demoralization of the Oaxacan masses,” when these pseudo-Trotskyists are actually describing their own demoralization. The struggle in Oaxaca suffered a serious setback and temporary defeat, but it could flare up again tomorrow. What the Oaxacan masses require is a vanguard with a proletarian revolutionary program instead of all the talk about an amorphous “people” including sectors of the bourgeoisie. Just before the crackdown in Oaxaca, Zapatista Subcomandante/Delegado Zero Marcos declared, “We are on the eve of a great uprising or a civil war” (La Jornada, 24 November). After the repression of November 25, Juchitecan painter Francisco Toledo said he felt Oaxaca is “almost on the verge of a civil war” and that the “Oaxacan political class has to disappear in order to change the situation in the state” (La Jornada, 4 December 2006). Today the immediate issue posed is to free the Oaxacan detainees. In Spain in the 1930s, the struggle to free thousands of Asturian miners imprisoned after the failed uprising of 1934 was a key factor leading to the Civil War of 1936-39. But that struggle was hijacked and subjugated to the bourgeoisie through the Popular Front.
Banner of Grupo
Internacionalista at November 11 rally by SITUAM (Union of Workers of
the Metropolitan Autonomous University) in Mexico City in defense of
Oaxaca teachers: “For a
National Strike Against the Murderous Government! Form Workers Defense
Committees! Down With the Bloody Bourgeois Parties PAN, PRI and PRD!
Forge a Revolutionary Workers Party!” (Photo: El
The Grupo Internacionalista has called repeatedly to break from the popular front around López Obrador and the PRD, just as we warned for years that the Cárdenas popular front was diverting workers from organizing a class struggle against the PRI regime. Contrary to those (such as the Grupo Espartaquista de Mexico) who deny the existence of a popular front in Mexico, this popular front has now been formally constituted with the signing of a document of “strategic alliance” between the “independent” pro-PRD unions, several peasant groups and López Obrador’s Broad Progressive Front (FAP), which including the PRD, the Party of Labor (PT) and the Democratic Convergence, all of them bourgeois parties. As new struggles loom, over Calderón’s plans for privatization of electrical energy for example, it will be crucial to call on the unions, such as the SME (Mexican Electrical Workers Union), to break from the popular front with AMLO and the PRD, and to instead fight to build a revolutionary workers party. After the battle of Sicartsa and throughout the struggle in Oaxaca, we called for the formation of workers defense committees against the repression ordered by the PAN, PRI and PRD. As the SNTE led by Gordillo tries to victimize Oaxacan teachers for their courageous strike, the GI calls on teachers and workers throughout the country to break the corporatist straitjacket by building unions with class-struggle leaderships, separate from and opposed to all the bourgeois parties.
The reverse suffered by the Oaxacan masses is the result above all of the bourgeois-democratic program of their leaders which was incapable of leading them to victory. It is necessary to politically rearm to go forward. This is an inevitable part of every serious class struggle. As Karl Marx wrote about the French workers’ struggles of the mid-19th century:
“Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to success . . . . On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite colossalness of their own goals – until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible…”
–Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852)
The Trotskyists of the Grupo Internacionalista insisted from the beginning on the need to place the struggle on a firm class basis and extend it to the “heavy battalions” of Mexico’s working class. The goal cannot be limited to “democracy,” however popular or even revolutionary this is made out to be. Even if the murderous governor of Oaxaca were dumped, even if the “neo-liberal” policies of recent Mexican governments were replaced (and AMLO’s program was only for “neo-liberalism with a human face”), the teachers and indigenous peoples of Oaxaca would still be condemned to a life of poverty and oppression, as they were for decades under the PRI. The goal today, not in the distant future, must be to organize to prepare a workers revolution, from Oaxaca to Mexico City to the heart of imperialism. And that requires the leadership of an internationalist, revolutionary workers party, built on the program of permanent revolution and tempered through intervention in the class struggle and the fight to forge Trotsky’s Fourth International anew as the world party of socialist revolution. n
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