The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Mexico:
Will the PRI Reform Itself?

Nov 9, 1996

September's annual PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) convention in Mexico City raised the loud cries for reform which have been usual for the last several years. The PRI, which was created as a result of the Mexican Revolution, has ruled Mexico for the last 67 years. Although there has long been talk about corruption and the PRI, the cries for reform may be louder today than they used to be. Perhaps the foreign press now follows the problems in Mexico with more interest since the country became the sweetheart of international investors during the 1990s. Certainly Mexico's immediate neighbor to the north, the United States, has shown government-level concern over the drug traffic, immigration, and the workings out of the latest international trade agreement, NAFTA.

The problems facing the ruling party in Mexico seem considerable. The country is recovering from a financial crisis in 1994 that led to severe recession. Even though world financial institutions, including U.S. banks, arranged special loans to help stabilize the currency, Mexico remains one of the largest debtors among Third World countries, owing more than 100 billion dollars in public debt. The peso was devalued by 50%, with the result that inflation has doubled the cost of living over the last two years.

The weight of this economic crisis on the poor population undoubtedly helped encourage the formation of the EZLN, Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Its sudden appearance two years ago attracted international attention to the plight of the peasantry in Mexico's poorest region. The EZLN characterized itself as "A political force which struggles against the State-Party System. A political force which struggles for a new constituency and a new constitution. A political force which does not struggle to take political power but for a democracy where those who govern, govern by obeying." This summer another armed group killed several soldiers in Guerrero, supposedly to avenge the murder of 17 peasants on their way to attend a meeting of the opposition PRD, Party of Democratic Revolution, two years ago.

And finally, the PRI cannot overlook the embarrassment of potential corruption at the very top of the country, in the office of the presidency. The PRI candidate for the presidency in 1994, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was murdered during an election rally, which was followed by the murder of the general secretary of the PRI a week later. Sitting in jail at this moment is Raul Salinas, brother of former president Carlos Salinas, a man who salted away hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign banks during his brother's presidency. Raul is accused of masterminding at least one of those murders. But he has yet to be brought to trial. Apparently, he has been protected by the fact that he is able to point the finger at business practices reaching the office of the current president.

Another sign of the corruption which makes for dramatic headlines was the August murder of the top police commander assigned to fight the narcotics traffickers in Tiajuana. He was the sixth police officer from that region to be murdered in 1996. The following week, the chief of the federal anti-narcotics agency was also murdered, along with three of his aides. At the same time, eleven other precinct commanders from the police force in Mexico City are under investigation for alleged connections to drug trafficking and 737 federal judicial police were fired this summer for various kinds of misconduct.

The Post-Revolutionary Period

The PRI has remained in power for decades, controlling the Mexican government, the office of the presidency, all elected and appointed positions, and a vast system of patronage. The PRI was instituted in 1929, as a means of controlling the popular social forces which had played a role in the Mexican Revolution, from 1910 through the 1920s. The PRI would use the apparatuses set up by the popular forces of the revolution – the peasantry, the workers, the military, and the government – to re-establish political and social order in the country.

This shifting coalition which fought for the revolution, and sometimes fought each other, overthrew the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (in power from 1875 through 1911), which represented the powerful landowners of Mexico. Díaz had given away 50 million hectares (more than 100 million acres) of land to a tiny oligarchy of favorites, stealing most of it from the native Indians who had held it, individually or communally, for generations. Those who fought back, like the Yaqui Indians in Sonora, faced a campaign of extermination. By the time of Díaz's downfall, less than one percent of the population owned 70% of the arable land. Peons labored to produce coffee and mahogany and henequen for export, often as conscripted laborers. The life expectancy of a conscripted laborer was one year at the time of the revolution.

The Mexican Revolution imposed many transformations, first and foremost those based on the peasants' cry, "land and liberty." In Morelos, they had taken over sugar plantations under the leadership of Emiliano Zapata. In Chihuahua, the forces of Pancho Villa had confiscated land from the large estates. This first re- distribution of land was only four million hectares, a small amount given the vast numbers of landless peasants. But it corresponded to one of the aims of the revolution and it was followed by several other redistributions, or announcements of such. Nonetheless, angered by the slowness of the project, and by promises which never materialized, the peasants began to fight again for land. Still armed, angry peasants who came to be called the "pistoleros" erupted in the early 1930s to gain the land they had been promised.

In response, the government, now headed by General Lázaro Cárdenas, distributed some 20 million hectares of land between 1934 and 1940. While 20 million hectares was certainly the largest amount granted, even this distribution brought the percentage of land held by the largest haciendas down only to 61%, from the 71% it had been at the time of the revolution. Still, this reform of Cárdenas securely tied the peasants to the government, in the form of the PRI which controlled the details of the land distribution and then whatever government funds were made available for loans to the peasants.

The revolution had been, in part, a response to the long dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. The reform which was put in place to avoid another dictatorship was to limit presidencies to one term in office of six years. All elected offices, in fact, were to be held for one term only.

The military, sometimes used against the workers and peasants when they rose up, was to be pacified with raises for soldiers while its budget was gradually cut. Commanders were rotated to prevent too much power residing with any one individual, although most of the presidents of the revolutionary decades came from the military leadership.

Reforms were also won during the revolutionary period by workers whose strikes had shaken a growing industry. They won the right to organize trade unions, a basic minimum wage and a limit of 8 hours work per day, six days a week.

Meanwhile the decades following the revolution saw vast changes in Mexico for which the PRI could take credit, given its control of all aspects of the government. Land distribution and the use of more modern methods of agriculture, including the beginning of irrigation, saw agricultural output increase until it was Mexico's leading export by 1940. The population began to leave the countryside for the towns and cities. Electricity, paved streets, railroads, schools, health care began to reach the majority. The infant mortality rate fell from almost one birth in four to one birth in eight, between 1920 and 1940.

On the other hand, oil production fell severely from its high point in 1921, in part due to an ongoing dispute over whether U.S. and other foreign investors, whose money had more or less created the Mexican oil industry during the late nineteenth century, owned the rights to the land on which they found oil or merely leased it for long periods from the Mexican government. By the time of the famous dispute in 1938, total production of oil in Mexico amounted to only three percent of Rockefeller's Standard Oil total.

In a series of strikes in 1936 and 1937, oil workers, like other workers throughout the Great Depression, demanded higher wages. Standard Oil and other foreign-owned oil companies decided to ignore their demands. Under these circumstances, President Cárdenas's decision to nationalize the oil companies (and raise wages) was wildly popular in Mexico. Oil interests denounced the move, although their pain was considerably eased by millions of dollars paid in compensation by the Mexican government. The British government protested officially, and the U.S. government refused to buy any more Mexican silver in retaliation. But World War II took the imperialists' minds off such minor distractions. Mexico was able to develop the oil industry using government investments to assist some of its own capitalists instead of foreign ones in an era when "Mexicanness" became the national slogan.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party as an Institution

In the decades following World War II, the PRI was able to find ways to further its control over every aspect of life in Mexico, starting from the office of the presidency. An institutional system which has no real opposition and which comes into existence to moderate the demands of a revolutionary population can fall easily into patronage, which is little different than corruption. The principle of no re-election appeared very democratic, although it was simply a form of one-party dictatorship, and it allowed the PRI to extend its patronage widely.

Every six years, those seeking office at any level had to win the approval of the PRI, which was the same as winning office. Political oppositionists could scarcely be heard or seen in the media since the PRI controlled all campaign funding. Reporters received regular PRI payments, as did newspapers that reported the news "correctly", the way the PRI wanted it.

Each newly elected president would come in with promises of sweeping out corruption. In the first year or so of the sexenio, the six year term, everyone was busy making changes and, sometimes, charges against the previous administration. By the sixth year or sooner, the president chose his successor.

In the last year of the sexenio it became apparent that whatever spoils were coming to the office holder had to be collected quickly before the term ended. And they were – the last year of the term became called "the year of the Hidalgo" because the picture of Miguel Hidalgo, father of Mexican independence, is on the Mexican currency.

Presidents customarily became rich. When López Portillo took office, he had the chief of police in Mexico City, one Durazo Moreno, arrested; Durazo had become a millionaire on a monthly salary of $350. Lopéz Portillo then turned around and became a billionaire during his term in office, 1976 to 1982. De la Madrid began his sexenio in 1982 with the call for "moral renovation" (while his government was accused of campaign fraud). His first reform was the arrest of the director of PEMEX, the Mexican oil company, Díaz Serrano. At the same time, his government passed the 1983 "reform" law that shielded those arrested for corruption from jail time, stipulating that they must pay back what they had taken.

The next president, Carlos Salinas, began his term in 1988 by removing the governors of two states and the head of the stock market for fraud. But the 1988 election was itself called fraudulent by the opposition PRD, which was itself a reform-minded split from the PRI. Salinas had won with 50.4% of the vote, a figure which when taken with the PRI's history of electoral fraud, doctored voter lists and inexplicable computer failures was a trifle suspicious.

And the corruption so prevalent in the high offices reached down to the more modest ones. In addition to government positions, land distribution and certain wages, the PRI controls every bureaucratic aspect of life, from getting a building permit, to gathering taxes, to registering a birth, to which town gets a new school or clinic.

Even lowly cops got to take their share in bribery so customary it developed its own name: "la mordida", the bite. It was simply a way to supplement their low incomes – and those of their superior officers who got a portion of each bite.

The official trade unions get their share of the spoils by deciding who gets which jobs and which contracts (for supplies or services). This year's trade union scandal involves the head of the Mexican rail workers union, accused of murder and embezzlement by his opponents who are not tied to the PRI. The previous administration of Carlos Salinas forcibly removed the head of the oil workers union, Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, on charges of corruption; coincidentally, Hernandez had supported Salinas's political opponent.

If the corruption seems more blatant today, perhaps this is a reflection that an opposition is finally growing and is ready to make accusations.

Modern Mexico: A Boon for the Bourgeoisie

Yet during all these decades the system has continued to bring certain benefits to Mexico's bourgeoisie, not to mention a part of the international bourgeoisie. In fact, Mexico is considered something of a Third World miracle. It has been admitted to the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the club of the 25 richest countries in the world. Agri-business continue to grow, exporting fruits, vegetables, coffee and grain to the United States. The oil industry once again took off in 1977 after rich discoveries in the Gulf of Campeche. While the oil boom of 1978 to 1981 was followed by the crash of 1982, with grave difficulties for the country as a whole, Mexico remains the world's fifth largest oil producer and the fourth largest supplier of oil to the United States.

The maquiladora sector of manufacturing, with its special tax breaks, continues to grow near, and even far, from the border with the United States. Currently more than 800,000 Mexicans work in some 3,100 factories. Manufacturing for export is even more important than oil to the Mexican economy. Wages in the maquiladora sector are lower than average, turn-over is higher, workers are often young women. The fall in the value of the peso made the 1994 average maquiladora wage worth less than three U.S. dollars per day. Taking advantage of this sector are such famous North American corporations as GM, Chrysler, Ford, AT&T, IBM, Zenith, Sylvania, DuPont, Whirlpool, Caterpillar and Kodak.

Mexico's recovery through the 1980s did not change its status as a huge debtor, but it is still a popular investment target. As before, the majority of funds invested come from the United States. While the population did not recover nearly so well as the Mexican economy, 15 Mexican billionaires made it to this year's Forbes list of the world's richest.

The one-party state has worked in Mexico to ensure a rising national income and a growing modernization. The country of the peasant revolution is now less than 30% rural. Moreover, the policies of the PRI have managed to keep the social peace through six decades. Unlike much of Latin America, Mexico has experienced no guerrilla movements of any importance. Peasant uprisings have been brief and confined to their immediate grievances, such as the slow pace of land distribution. It was still being distributed throughout the 1980s, (16 million hectares under López Portillo, although most was unsuitable for farming and took years to reach its new peasant owners).

If the EZLN captured the fancy of the world press, it didn't capture any land, nor have any reforms so far materialized. Even the horrifying military murder of hundreds of student protesters in the Plaza of Three Cultures on the eve of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City did not lead to any real change in the political system nor shake up the PRI. Events such as these have toppled many regimes in other parts of the world, but Mexico has remained stable, with the PRI in power up until now.

Poverty for the Population

But neither the land question nor the poverty question have been resolved in modern Mexico. Poverty is a continuing problem there, as in much of the world. In 1990, the government estimated about half its population of 90 million lived in poverty, with rural poverty even more extreme. The World Bank noted that in the four poorest states in Mexico – Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guerrero and Hidalgo – more than half the population is illiterate, more than a quarter has no access to health services and 80% lack drinkable water.

In 1992 then President Salinas officially ended land distribution, which had tied most peasants to the PRI for 60 years. More than three million peasants are still waiting for land. The pressure is so great that some even farm in rain forests, where the soil is thin and unsuited to normal crops grown in Mexico. In the land where corn originated, food is imported to meet the needs of the population.

The four poorest states brought forth the EZLN in 1994 and the ERP in 1996 (although this latter group probably does not have a real peasant base).

The words of an Indian activist in 1993 sum up the reasons for the support given to the Zapatistas:

"For 70 years they say they've been trying to help Indians. But they haven't been able to make any progress, haven't found the right shot, the right pill to cure the Indians' poverty. Here we are, willing to work, and now they change the accounting system on us, after 70 years of perpetrating abuses and robbing money from the poor."

There are other indications of the grinding poverty which weighs on most of the Mexican population. Migration to the United States, both legal and illegal, allows some of the population to escape the worse poverty in Mexico. The "informal" economy has grown, by some estimates, to one quarter of the working population. Millions of street vendors, both legal and illegal, are seen on the streets of every major city. As the CTM's Velazquez put it, "There is no unemployment in Mexico because there is no unemployment insurance."

A Wake-Up Call for the PRI?

Even the "dinosaurs" of the PRI old guard are not oblivious to these problems, or more exactly to the wake-up call it got in the 1988 election when the two opposition parties, the new PRD and the older PAN, Party of National Action, between them took 50% of the official vote – in reality, almost certainly more. The PRI took one step to try to channel the political discontent shown by these figures. The Chamber of Deputies was increased from 400 to 500 seats, with party seats assigned by percentages to the PRD and PAN, in addition to the majority given to the PRI. The Senate doubled the number of seats. While the PRI continued to get most of the seats, the PAN won a few governorships and mayoral races beginning in 1989. If staying in power means resembling more and more the parliamentary democracies of the richer countries, the PRI is reluctantly ready to make concessions.

But they keep power in the hands of the PRI up and down the country, maintaining their old attitudes. A reform of the funding for farmers meant to allow easier access to loans for fertilizers, seeds, machinery, etc. has turned that money right back into long-used PRI channels. Payroll padding is a perennial topic of controversy. The PRD candidate in Acapulco claims that the PRI lists 5,200 people on the city payroll while less than 2,000 actually work. And perhaps its most notorious practice is murder of its opponents: the PRD blames the PRI for the deaths of 430 of their supporters in the last few years.

And the official PRI-tied trade unions continue to squelch worker dissatisfaction with declining incomes or lack of real jobs. Dissident trade unions find their leaders arrested; one hundred from the non-PRI bus workers union's recent strike were just released after a year in jail. The PRI sometimes sides openly with the corporations, as when Volkswagen closed down a factory in a 1992 dispute, firing all 15,000 workers.

At the Ford plant in Cuautitlan, worker militancy led the company to close the plant in 1987 and then reopen, hiring 3,400 new workers at lower wages. The struggle became so intense that 3,000 of the workers joined an independent union, the COR. The CTM, the official trade union confederation, then sent in 300 thugs to intimidate the workers. One person was killed. The 1990 union election took place with workers forced to state in front of the company and CTM officials for whom they had voted. In 1992, at this same plant, the CTM overturned an election when the opposition won. In 1993, another election was proposed and more than 90% of the workers boycotted it because the CTM allowed only their union to run a slate.

The official structures of the country find it hard to give up any of the power which has, up until now, brought them rich rewards. The reforms proposed at the 1996 September convention amounted to no reforms, which means the PRI will still control the state apparatus including the presidency. The party did not vote to prosecute anyone for corruption, despite the calls for reform. The out-going president will now "consult" with the executive committee in choosing his successor. Moreover, the PRI moved to protect the interests of its own apparatus when it voted to require presidential candidates to have already held elective office and have been in the party for 10 years (which would have eliminated the last five presidents from office).

Conflicting Interests?

Up until now the PRI has been seen as the party bringing Mexico into the twentieth century, providing enough of the pie to enough people to ensure its own continuation without too much difficulty. But perhaps the insistence of world financial organizations in collecting their debts means there is less money available to oil the wheels of government as practiced by the PRI. A high level of corruption and bribery are expensive. They use up money needed for government services, like the building of infrastructure and the modernizing of industry and agriculture.

More importantly, such blatant corruption interferes with the efficient working of a system, making it harder to control the country when unrest breaks out. If poverty grows ever worse, if a peasant movement grows from conditions like those bringing the EZLN to prominence, if dissident unions attract more and more angry workers, then the Mexican bourgeoisie may need several parties, and the appearance they give of democracy and change, to ensure its position and national stability. The PRI has kept the country reasonably calm and reasonably profitable for the local and international bourgeoisie. So right now there is no real pressure on it to do more than mouth certain words about reform. But its status in the OECD cannot hide the fact that Mexico is a country full of poor people. And a few different political parties make a better insurance policy than one old dinosaur.

The PRD and the PAN, with their similar pro-capitalist policies, represent a trap for workers who believe they offer something different. These new parties may give the Mexican bourgeoisie a few more choices for maneuver, but neither offers a better future than the PRI does to the workers and poor of Mexico. Only a party built by the working class, with policies determined in its own interests, can make a difference in their lives.