Mexican resistance strengthening
By Phil Hearse
MEXICO CITY — A demonstration against electricity privatisation and student fees by up to 250,000 workers, students and masked Zapatistas on March 18 was the high point of a week of struggle which marked a new stage in the fight against the neo-liberal policies of President Ernest Zedillo's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
While the drama of the Zapatista uprising continues in the jungles and mountains of Chiapas, Mexican workers have confronted an economic offensive. Last December, the government announced a 50% increase in the price of tortilla bread, the staple food of the poor.
To protect state finances in the face of falling oil prices (Mexico relies on the state-owned PEMEX oil company for 30% of its revenue), the government announced big tax hikes, including a 10% increase in the price of petrol. This meant an increase in the price of everything, since most goods in Mexico are carried by truck.
Inflation, at least 20% a year, means that the real incomes of workers and the poor fall daily. The standard of living of most Mexicans has fallen at least 50% in the last 20 years, in a country which has the sixth most unequal income distribution in the world. The weekly wage of a Mexico City factory worker is around 400 pesos (US$35) a week.
But workers and the poor face an all-round offensive. The state agency for fighting poverty, Conasup, has been wound down. The two main social security agencies, IMSS and ISSSTE, have had their subsidies reduced, and prices of medicines are rocketing out of the reach of ordinary people.
The government has also intensified its privatisation drive. After the government in January announced a proposal to privatise the state electricity company, PEMEX is now in it sights.
The focus for the struggle against the neo-liberal offensive has become the battles against electricity privatisation and the imposition of student fees at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City.
Electricity in Mexico is cheap, and workers in the industry enjoy, by Mexican standards, relatively high wages and job security. It is widely understood that privatisation will mean higher prices and massive job losses.
The imposition of fees at UNAM, under whose umbrella come degree and senior high school level education, will gradually exclude students from poor families. The level of fees — 800 pesos (US$80) for degree courses and 600 pesos (US$60) for senior high schools — is just affordable for all but the poorest families. But the university expects to raise fees annually, progressively making higher education the prerogative of the rich and middle classes.
The March 18 demonstration in Mexico City coincided with five demonstrations in other parts of the country which together mobilised more than 100,000 people in addition to those marching in the capital. The Mexico City march brought together, in addition to electricity workers, Zapatistas and students, contingents from car, telephone, social security and many other unions, as well as delegations from neighbourhood committees and numerous left-wing organisations.
The significance of the demonstration goes way beyond its size and militancy. Its great achievement was the bringing together of different sectors in struggle to create a new sense of unity and common purpose.
This was the first time masked Zapatistas have participated in a mass demonstration in Mexico City, and this was a demonstration dominated by industrial workers. The Zapatistas were greeted with applause and chants of "EZLN" (Zapatista National Liberation Army) from demonstrators and onlookers alike. The Zapatistas' participation, formally invited by the Mexican Electrical Workers Union, will have lasting political repercussions in the workers' movement and among the Zapatistas themselves.
The creation of a formal alliance between workers and students is another gain of the present wave of struggle. Tens of thousands of students took part in the demonstration, many from the pre-university high schools, marching behind their own banners, some of which were decorated with pro-EZLN slogans and portraits of Che Guevara. There was no trace of hostility towards the students from workers' contingents.
The UNAM students have held repeated marches of 50,000-plus and a one-day strike which closed down most faculties at the university campus. This has been despite repeated threats from university rector Francisco Barnes and a media disinformation campaign aimed at isolating and dividing the students. Now that the university council has voted to impose fees, the students, many of them exhausted, face the difficult decision of whether to begin an all-out strike.
Zapatista political offensive
The EZLN's national referendum on indigenous rights, held on March 21, and in which almost 3 million Mexicans participated, was the culmination of an eight-month political offensive by the Zapatistas.
It had its roots in the December 1997 Acteal massacre of more than 40 EZLN civilian supporters by right-wing paramilitaries, and the subsequent army offensive against pro-EZLN villages. For the first six months of 1998, the army and Chiapas state police carried out repeated attacks against the Zapatistas' autonomous municipalities, beating and robbing the people, stealing money and possessions, arresting dozens and killing 20.
These attacks culminated last June in attacks on the villages in the municipality of El Bosque, in which eight indigenous villagers were assassinated. In the same week, the army killed a similar number of peasants in the Guerrero village of El Charco who were allegedly attending a meeting organised by the Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People.
Until then, the EZLN had been inexplicably silent for six months, perhaps while its leadership debated the correct political response. Many observers expected a sustained military offensive against it, and perhaps a last-ditch stand in the jungle.
But as national and international protests stayed the government's hand, the EZLN went on the offensive with a stream of documents attacking neo-liberalism and calling on "civil society" to intervene and speed up the peace process.
The fruit of this offensive was a national meeting last December in San Cristobal de la Casas, attended by 3000 people from all over Mexico, together with dozens of EZLN fighters. This meeting was held in parallel with a meeting with the Mexican parliament's cross-party mediation commission.
At the San Cristobal meeting, the EZLN announced its March 21 national referendum (consulta). In preparation, brigades were formed in every state but one, involving 20,000 people.
Despite attempts by the government to de-legitimise the consulta by calling it absurd, it was a big success. It is clear that the popularity of the Zapatistas among its worker and peasant compañeros in non-indigenous communities is undiminished. Most importantly, despite the continued assassination of individual Zapatista supporters and the more than 100 Zapatista prisoners, the government-military offensive has for the time being been checked.
These developments come at a bad time for the ruling PRI, which has been in power for 70 years. Although Zedillo has denounced the present struggles as demagogy and populism, and insisted that electricity privatisation will go ahead, this cannot conceal the current crisis of the PRI.
One year from presidential elections, the party is beset by internal conflicts. The minority Critical Current, which claims 50,000 members, has denounced electricity privatisation as treason, and seven aspirants are conducting a bare-knuckle fight to become the PRI's presidential candidate. The party knows that next year it will face a hard fight to stay in power against the likely opposition candidates, Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas from the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and Vincente Fox from the right-wing PAN.
The huge array of movements opposed to neo-liberalism and the war in Chiapas also face major strategic problems. The first is to try to transform the current convergence of struggles into a semi-permanent front against neo-liberalism.
The second is to concretise the alliance in struggle into a coherent political alternative which represents the workers, peasants and indigenous people at a national level.
Here there is a major problem. Since its emergence from a split in the PRI in 1988, Cárdenas' PRD has dominated the radical and democratic forces in Mexico, despite the fact that it is a populist and nationalist party and explicitly not a workers' anti-capitalist or socialist party.
However, although the Mexican left is at present too fragmented to establish a coherent national political alternative to the PRD, the current surge of struggles, and the consequent radicalisation of masses of people, create much better conditions for the organisational strengthening and political clarification of the militant socialist forces.