Mexico’s climate of crisis and mass uprisings

January 18, 2017

Mexico was rocked from the opening days of 2017 by an outpouring of protests, marches and blockades in response to sharp increases in fuel prices, which will likely lead to higher prices throughout the economy. Luis Rangel, a member of the Revolutionary Workers Party in México (PRT), spoke with Eva María about the challenges and opportunities facing socialists and the left generally in Mexico today.

LAST WEEK, SW published an article about the new wave of protests against the "gasolinazo"--an arbitrary increase in diesel, gasoline and electricity prices. What is the social character of these protests? What sectors are involved? Are they different from other recent movements, such as the demand to bring home the 43 disappeared Ayotzinapa students and the movement in defense of public education?

THE SOCIAL character of these protests is very broad. Working together are a wide range of social sectors--from farmers who will see a reduction of their earnings due to the increased cost of transportation for their products to middle-class people in the cities who can't fill up their cars with gas.

The most astonishing aspect of these mobilizations, however, is the fact that in Northern cities such as Tijuana, Monterrey and Ciudad Juárez, to places in the West such as Colima or Guadalajara, we're seeing people going out in mass numbers. Mobilizations of this sort are very atypical in these regions.

Mass protests in Mexico City against President Enrique Peña Nieto's gas price hikes
Mass protests in Mexico City against President Enrique Peña Nieto's gas price hikes (ProtoplasmaKid)

The mobilizations have taken different forms, the most common being mass marches and road blockades. Additionally, there have been reports of lootings in malls. This is important to analyze since it's been shown that these actions in some places were organized by groups related to the Institutional Revolutionary Party [PRI, the ruling party and oldest political party since the Mexican Revolution] in order to discredit the protests.

But we consider it excessive to assume that all the people involved in the lootings are provocateurs. We should take stock of these kinds of actions as more than mere maneuvers by the government to confuse, infuse fear and justify repression. These events show that there is profound social discontent, in part due to the fact that the revolutionary left is very small and lacks significant political influence.

What's happening right now in México is a result of an accumulation of outrages committed by the regime of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

For one, there are the 43 students disappeared in Ayotzinapa, which is the best know among thousands of cases of disappeared people. Then, there's the case of Raquel Gutiérrez, the disappeared daughter of our comrade Guillermo Gutiérrez. There are massacres, such as those that took place at Tlatlaya or Nochixtlán. And the average of seven murders of women reported each day in our country, which for the most part are carried out with impunity.

Politically, Peña Nieto's government has been singled out for killing the Constitution of 1917, which came out of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. This Constitution served as the foundation for the "social pact" on which the Mexican state was erected in the 20th century.

Additionally, Peña Nieto's new energy reforms sold off Mexico's oil, until now under state control, to transnational companies. In the 1930s, the left-reformist government of President Lázaro Cárdenas expropriated the foreign oil companies that then controlled Mexico's greatest natural resource.

If we add to this the surreal cases of corruption, mining concessions covering at least 20 percent of the nation's, and the invitation to Trump to visit México even before he won the U.S. presidential election, what we are seeing is not just how little credibility this government has, but also the deep crisis the regime is facing as an "oligarchic-neoliberal" state which has replaced the unique form of Bonapartism that Mexico displayed during the 20th century.

Thus, the gasolinazo isn't a final destination, but rather it is indicative of a general climate of crisis and mass uprisings.

COULD YOU talk more about the reasons for the lack of confidence in the governing party? Is the PRI any different from the other two traditional political parties?

THE CRISIS of the regime has, among its main causes, the lack of legitimacy of practically all the traditional political parties. The PRI is, first and foremost, a clientelist machine that buys and coerces votes. Therefore, their candidates are all chosen from above by their leaders.

This crisis of legitimacy is expressed every time that there is allusion to the "political caste." There are clear reasons for this. When, for example, last year in Veracruz the National Action Party (PAN) finally won a state election, it did so by running Miguel Ángel Yunes as its candidate, an old leader of the PRI who switched parties only when his attempt to become the party's presidential candidate fell short.

When he joined the PAN, he ran as a candidate for "change" and won. Cases like these make people think that the differences between PRI, PAN and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) aren't particularly significant.

However, there are a few differences between these formations. The PAN is a party of the traditional right wing, linked to the clergy and openly opposed to abortion rights and LGBT rights. The PRD, on the other hand, originates from currents of nationalism to the left of the PRI in the 20th century. They present themselves as the party of the "responsible left," but really they are a caricature of the left. José Luis Abarca, for example, a PRD politician, was the mayor responsible for the disappearance of Ayotzinapa's 43 students in Iguala, Guerrero.

HAVE NEW political organizations of importance emerged as a result of these struggles?

UNFORTUNATELY, NO. In my opinion, what has been developing since 2012 until now are lots of small collectives of people who meet in the mass movements and, when the momentum slows down, look for different ways of continuing their involvement. These activists are of different tendencies, training and interests. However, in part because of the overall rejection to the "political caste" and the traditional parties, in part because of the indirect influence of autonomism, which rejects the building of broad and permanent structures, there is very little dialogue between these new groupings.

On the other hand, there are the democratic unions and the popular and farmers' organizations that do bring together thousands of people on a permanent basis, but these existed before this new cycle. Unfortunately, sometimes there is very little dialogue between these established organizations and the new ones.

WHAT IS MORENA and what is its ideology as a party? What is the political program of Andrés Manuel López Obrador? What should be the attitude toward MORENA from the socialist left?

MORENA EMERGED as a political party in 2013 after the electoral cycle of 2012, when Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN) "won" the election through fraudulent means, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) took second place in the race. To be brief, MORENA broke off from the PRD when the latter finally stopped being a party of opposition to the PRI.

In reality, however, MORENA's political program is nothing more than a cheap update of the revolutionary nationalist program: they present as new the old idea of an alliance between a nonexistent national bourgeoisie and the Mexican people to implement protectionist policies and local investment to promote the country's development. But as Argentinian socialist Guillermo Almeyra has said, the big issue with MORENA and AMLO is that they sell the Bonapartist past of México as the future alternative to neoliberalism.

The debate about what posture the socialist left should adopt toward this party is unresolved. In addition to the limitations of its political program, MORENA is also a profoundly undemocratic party. Its only end goal is to get AMLO elected in 2018 because this is the main way in which they believe we can transform México.

And even with all these problems, we need to understand that MORENA is the only political group in the opposition that is legally able to participate in elections. Every other party in Mexico is already inside the "political caste." MORENA is on its way to the same end, but today it is still a party of the opposition. Plus, there's the fact that AMLO is a charismatic person. Millions of people, seeing no other options, are going to place their hopes for change in the hypothetical triumph of MORENA.

This is the reason we still need to somehow relate to MORENA as the socialist left. Some socialist groups are active in the party, thinking that they might be able to create a revolutionary current within it. This is not the approach of our party (the PRT).

In our view, past experiences such as what the PRD went through in 1988 show how devastating it can be for socialist organizations to sacrifice their political independence in a bid to escape marginality and advance within wider formations. Back in 1988, the immense majority of socialist parties (with the sole exception of the PRT) dissolved themselves into the PRD. Nothing is left today of these socialist formations.

When the moment came for the PRD to become a party of government, it wasn't socialism, but revolutionary nationalism that came to dominate the party's outlook. MORENA is heading in the same direction at an even quicker pace. This is why we fully believe that it is essential to maintain independence as revolutionary socialists, even when needing to relate to broader formations.

Of course, this is far from the sectarian idea that every member of MORENA is an opportunist. Instead, we have to relate to them by debating out our differences and, most importantly, working together when we agree and walking separately when this is the better choice.

ONE OF the main obstacles we have in the United States is not the lack of protest, but the organizational void on the left. What would you say is the state of the left organizationally in México?

OTHER THAN MORENA's status as a legal party of opposition, there is a large pool of organizations to on left, from student groups and farmers' collectives to a few independent unions and popular organizations in some neighborhoods. There are also dozens of ecosocialist movements fighting against the "megaprojects." Many of these are grouped within the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) together with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN).

As for the socialist left, there are various organizations expressing a wide range of political tendencies. But in reality, if we were to add up all of our forces, the organized left is still very small for how big and culturally diverse this country is.

IN THE last decade, some countries in Latin America have experienced a progressive cycle of left-leaning governments that became popularly known as the "pink tide." How did the different sectors of the Mexican left understand this phenomenon?

IN SOME sectors, this phenomenon was characterized with dangerous generalizations like saying that Lula or Kirchner were the same as Chávez, for example. On the other hand, we have some distance from these processes because México is not a member of some of the most important new regional consortia, such as Mercosur or the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA).

Put another way, at a time when other countries with "progressive governments" had a high profile, México acted more like Colombia or Perú--as a key ally of the United States. Against Mercosur, we went into the "Pacific Alliance," and this is not to mention the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Now, with all the issues that the pink-tide governments are facing, the prospect of a Mexican variant of this sort (such as a hypothetical government of AMLO, for example) becomes increasingly difficult to imagine.

THE REVOLUTIONARY Workers Party (PRT) just celebrated its 40th anniversary in December 2016. What are the main political tasks for the party in the year ahead?

I WOULD say there are two main tasks. First, engaging our modest forces as much as possible in the struggles against the gasolinazo and Peña Nieto's rule. We already predicted a few months ago that the contradictions within his government would only increase, and that this would create the conditions for a new wave of mass protests. The beginning of 2017 confirmed this for us. The level of crisis in this country implies big challenges for all of us on the left, making it necessary to take some political risks beyond the main goal of building our own organizations.

This is why, on the other hand, we have to wrap our heads around how to best contribute to crystalizing all of the social unrest and struggle in recent years into political organizations that are stronger and longer lasting. It is with this in mind that in the aftermath of the fight of the Electrical Worker's Union of Mexico (SME) we launched the Political Organization of the People and Workers (OPT) as the seed of a workers' political party.

We also welcome the call by the Indigenous National Congress (CNI) for an Indigenous Government Council that will propose an indigenous woman for president in 2018. We believe that this could cohere a social layer to the left of MORENA that might want to organize.

HOW DOES the PRT see the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States? Among his many threats, Trump has announced that he wants to immediately deport 3 million immigrants. Under the Obama administration, over 2 million immigrants were already kicked out. How do you see the immediate effects of this threat for México?

I SEE it as a very dangerous threat with uncertain consequences at this moment. If this threat of mass deportations does occur in a short amount of time, or if he taxes the remittances (together with oil, remittances are the most common way of getting dollars), or if he goes ahead with an even worse renegotiation of NAFTA, the social crisis in México could deepen dramatically.

For his part, Peña Nieto is already playing along. He recently named Luis Videgaray Secretary of Foreign Relations (before that Videgaray was the Secretary of the Treasury). He had to quit his post after he was heavily criticized for inviting Trump to México when he was only a candidate. This proves that we can't expect any consistent resistance to Trump's threats from the Mexican State. It will have to come from below through the building of international solidarity networks between the United States and México.

Finally, it's important to add that Trump's positions are actually proving very challenging for the Mexican left, beyond the obvious rejection of his xenophobia. The Mexican left has been denouncing NAFTA for decades, and now that Trump is proposing to cancel it or renegotiate it from a right-wing perspective, the situation has become more complicated. The PRD has already embarrassed itself by suggesting that, in order to oppose Trump, they should reconsider their position on this treaty. This is a terrible contradiction.

As for the left in the US, people shouldn't forget that if companies come to México or China, this is not because of a supposed anti-patriotic sentiment, but because the working conditions are notably worse here than they are in the U.S. If Trump did convince these companies to not move to any of these countries, this would only mean a dramatic lowering of working conditions in the U.S.

So I think it's very important that the Mexican and the U.S. left dialogue more so that we can start building more bridges and organize joint actions. In México, for obvious reasons, we tend to see the U.S. chiefly as an imperialist monster--without stopping to contemplate the many struggles and resistance going on there, such as the recent resistance to energy companies at Standing Rock.

For the left on both sides of the Río Bravo, it's strategic to link our struggles much more organically--not just by means of existing ties, but by expanding our networks. We need to share debates and experiences as well as think of our struggles as interconnected.

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