Where is Mexico headed?

May 28, 2015

Edgard Sánchez Ramírez is a member of the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT), the Mexican section of the Fourth International. He is on the steering committee of the PRT and an active member of the Political Organization of the People and Workers (OPT), a formation founded by the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) in 2011.

In the previous part of a two-part interview conducted in Mexico City by Héctor A. Rivera, Sánchez described the history of the neoliberal transformation of Mexico since the 1980s. In this second part published below he begins with developments under the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of President Enrique Peña Nieto, who won office in 2012. Chief among these developments is the Pact for Mexico, signed by the PRI, the former ruling National Action Party (PAN) and the one-time left opposition party-turned-neoliberal champion Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD)--which commits them to pushing through free-market reforms in education, labor relations, energy, telecommunications, fiscal policy and election laws. Sánchez goes on to talk about the "war on drugs" and organized crime and their impact on the state; the eruption of struggle around the Ayotzinapa disappeared students; and the upcoming midterm elections set for June 7.

IS THE Pact for Mexico part of a neoliberal ruling class consensus?

IN AN immediate sense, the Pact for Mexico was a response to the protests and questions that arose from the results of the presidential election of June 2012. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was never democratic, but it also never faced a political opposition with a real chance of winning. However, unlike in previous elections, in 2012, there were many opportunities to prevent the return of the PRI to power--the YoSoy132 movement being the most vocal opposition.

The election of 2012 is also important because instead of fighting against the imposition of the PRI, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) decides to retreat and build the Movement of National Regeneration party (MORENA). This move was important because it marked a rupture with the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and its capitulationist politics. However, his retreat from the struggle against the imposition did allow Peña Nieto to take power.

A march for the return of the 43 students disappeared from Ayotzinapa
A march for the return of the 43 students disappeared from Ayotzinapa (Isabel Sanginés | Somos el Medio)

The Pact for Mexico thus served to legitimize Peña Nieto's seat in the presidency. In 2006, for example, Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN) created the war on drugs as an internal enemy to legitimize his government. What Peña Nieto did was to create the Pact for Mexico, which included the PRI, the PAN and most importantly, the PRD--the party of the opposition. So in the immediate sense, it was the recognition of Peña Nieto as president, But in the long run, it was an agreement to push forward his program of neoliberal reforms.

This completed the cycle of neoliberal reforms begun under Carlos Salinas de Gortari's presidency with his reforms to the Constitution's Article 27 to overturn land reform [Article 27 spearheaded land reform and redistribution throughout the country after the Revolution of 1910-20. Under the Salinas administration, Article 27 was reformed to guarantee private property rights, and it ended land redistribution].

With Peña Nieto, everything that remained to be reformed from the Constitution of 1917 was reformed. Essentially, this pushed back what the Constitution of 1917 inherited from the Mexican Revolution--especially with the energy reform of 2014.

With the Pact for Mexico, the PRD effectively became a collaborationist party with the neoliberal scheme of the PRI and Peña Nieto, thus formally abandoning its position as an opposition party. This was an ideal situation for neoliberal forces in Mexico because even if the political system wasn't organized in a two-party system, it would be organized around something close to a three-party system, with an institutional "left wing" that doesn't leave space for other left forces.

So, most importantly, the Pact for Mexico concretized the current shifts underway in the political regime. It was through the Pact for Mexico that Peña Nieto was able to push through the structural reforms of labor, education and energy, and to claim a lack of opposition and a consensus on these reforms. And yes, effectively, there was a consensus on these reforms because in Congress, there wasn't a party that opposed the reforms. That was the big accomplishment of the Pact for Mexico.

YOU MENTIONED how Felipe Calderon's presidency benefited from the war on drugs by creating an internal enemy. Beyond such maneuvers, what is the ruling class' stance toward the war on drugs today?

THE POLITICAL idea of the war on drugs allowed the fraudulently elected government of Felipe Calderón to find a pretext or a reason to legitimize itself once in power. This is the old PAN thesis that they put forth with the Salinas presidency, saying that a fraudulent government could prove itself once in power--even if that government was imposed undemocratically.

The trick was to invent a common enemy to Mexico, independent of class interests, against which we have to fight and against which we can call for national unity. This made the democratic squabbles over electoral fraud seem secondary when confronting this common enemy. Therefore, Calderón declared a war on narco-trafficking.

The truth is that in Mexico, narco-trafficking has existed for a long time. It wasn't a phenomenon that arose in 2006 after Calderón's term in office. Mexico was always a transit route for drugs towards the U.S.--that geographic aspect has existed for a long time.

But the issue of narco-trafficking didn't acquire the magnitude it did until a war was declared against it. In practice, this war pushed forward a process of militarization of Mexican society. As a consequence, this militarization brought with it an explosion of violence throughout the country.

At the same time, with the consolidation of neoliberalism in Mexico, the institutions of the state have been debilitated. Some would argue that this goes beyond a weakening of the state, and is more akin to the end of the Mexican state and its transformation into a failed state. Others would call it a semi-state. But I wouldn't argue that Mexico is a failed state.

Nevertheless, all of this has to do with the consolidation of neoliberalism and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It was through NAFTA and then through the Merida Initiative--which is like Plan Colombia, so it is known as "Plan Mexico"--that control of the Mexican armed forces began to be turned over to U.S. imperialism. Plan Mexico, for example, allowed the presence of U.S. agents, not just of the DEA, but also of the CIA and the FBI to carry out operations in Mexico, collaborating with and training the Mexican armed forces and police.

Thus, the weakening of the Mexican state reached a point where its armed forces were heavily dependent on U.S. imperialism. The subordination of national sovereignty to a Yankee military industry also formed part of this process. This economic sector was very interested in the development of armed conflicts everywhere to profit from the sale and export of its weapons, be it in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India or Mexico.

An exemplary example of this subordination of national sovereignty was the case of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' Operation Fast and Furious in 2010 and the ease with which it allowed the sale and export of weapons into Mexico, which ended up in the hands of organized crime. In the end, it was in the interest of the military industry to continue feeding a war at the expense of the violence this unleashed in Mexico.

The only reason we found out about these operations was because in 2011, two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents were killed in San Luis Potosí by narco-traffickers with guns that had entered the country because of Operation Fast and Furious. These agents were killed in San Luis Potosí--not near the border in Nuevo Laredo, but in San Luis Potosí, deep inside Mexico.

There's also the case of the Mexico-Cuernavaca highway shooting in 2012, where Mexican Federal Police intercepted and ambushed a U.S. Embassy vehicle carrying several U.S. Marines. The Marines who were injured didn't even show up to court to testify after the shooting. They were airlifted straight to a hospital in Houston. This is another case that shows the level of infiltration of U.S. agents in Mexican territory.

Thus, this weakening of the institutions of the Mexican state has caused a crisis where the state is slowly losing the abilities of a state--concretely speaking, what the courts call the legitimate monopoly of violence. This monopoly of violence is being called into question here in Mexico because there are armed groups everywhere, and not all of them are soldiers or police officers. You have armed groups belonging to organized crime, but also self-defense groups that have risen as a response to this surge in violence. These groups are a break with the institutionalized monopoly of violence of the state.

Another example is the control of territory. Here, we can speak of Michoacán and Guerrero, but also large parts of the northern border and almost the entire state of Tamaulipas. In Tamaulipas, there are frequent confrontations between different groups in Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo and Tampico. In the state of Coahuila, things are the same. Ciudad Juárez continues to be unsafe. In short, this situation represents the weakening of the state itself.

All of this falls within the logic of neoliberalism; As the state abandons its responsibilities, it loses control over social sectors and territories. For example, as in the United States, there is this trend toward the privatization of prisons. But the fact of the matter is that the state in Mexico doesn't have control of a lot of prisons--not just because of the influence of privatization, but because of the influence of organized crime.

In a sense, neoliberalism has allowed organized crime to occupy some of the spaces where the state has retreated from, but where the state, the bourgeoisie and criminal organizations continue to be intertwined. For example, the power struggles between cartels often bring about clashes within government agencies or between capitalists.

Nevertheless, this doesn't lead me to the conclusion that the state no longer exists. John Holloway, for example, argues that the nation state doesn't exist anymore and that therefore political organization and struggle is useless, because there is nothing left to win. According to him, there is an ultra-national power, and political struggle at the national level is over. But I don't agree with this thesis.

So to return to the question: Yes, there's a weakening of state institutions that is a product of neoliberalism, and this weakening effect is felt even more because the neoliberal ruling class subjugated national interests to the interests of U.S. imperialism. However, I don't think that the power of narco-traficking is autonomous from the state and the national ruling class to the point that it represents an independent power.

HAS THERE been a transformation of the Mexican state because of organized crime? For example, at the municipal level we see a lot of narco-interests that take the form of electoral campaigns.

THERE IS a strong relationship between the political establishment and criminal organizations. Like I said, I don't think the concept of a "narco-state" is fully applicable yet, but there is a transformation of the political establishment underway.

Nevertheless, this political establishment is still subordinated to capitalist interests. For example, the amount of money produced by narco-trafficking can't be compared with what oil and energy produce in Mexico. Narco-trafficking produces large amounts of money, and in its process of capital accumulation currently underway, it has slowly become part of the ruling class.

As the state moved away from a Bonapartist[1] model and allowed businessmen and other sectors of the bourgeoisie to enter government, the impacts of this transformation are becoming more evident. While you have a weakening of state institutions, at the same time, you have the rise of a new sector of the ruling class that comes from organized crime, and they begin to impose their interests on the state apparatus.

In this case, the interests of one part of the oligarchy go against the interests of another part of the oligarchy. For example, the interests of the tourism industry of Acapulco are complaining about low sales because another sector of the ruling class is getting rich from weapons sales and drugs sales.

Since Calderón's war on drugs, for example, drug exports to the United States have increased, not decreased. This is, in fact, a business, which is why we often hear that the demand for legalization of drugs might be an answer to the violence. This way, those who buy it and sell it will have to pay taxes, just like buying a bottle of whiskey. This way, drugs would become a health issue, not a criminal issue. This isn't a proposal to promote drugs, as some would argue, but rather to take away their illegal character, which would also cut into their profitability and the violence.

This, though, would require the strengthening of the state so that it could regulate drug sales, tax collections and so on. But here we see another consequence of the loss of control of the state as a result of neoliberalism. For example, the state isn't the only one that collects taxes. Organized crime does so as well, through quotas and extortion rackets. Organized crime charges businesses, producers, street vendors, teachers and others outside of the formal sector. Neoliberalism is partly to blame for this, because it weakened state institutions with its arguments of lean government and laissez faire.

So yes, the nature of the state has changed, but the state hasn't disappeared. Furthermore, while sectors of the state answer to the interests of organized crime, at the end of the day, the Mexican state will answer to the interests of the Pentagon. This is one of the reasons why we suspect that the United States might know more than we do about the fate of the students from Ayotzinapa.

I WANT to zoom in from the big picture of the state of Mexican politics and society to the present--especially how the Ayotzinapa case seems to illustrate the process of neoliberalization you've talked about. Can you talk about the Ayotzinapa case in that context?

THERE ARE two elements to emphasize that are part of this problem. The first is that not only is neoliberalism undemocratic, individualistic and privatized, but at the same time that it undermines the social responsibilities of the state, it strengthens the repressive apparatus of the state. The Marxist argument that the state is a repressive instrument of the ruling class is increasingly confirmed.

In the budget cuts announced in January by the Secretary of Economy, for example, all social services had cuts. The only thing that wasn't cut was security and policing. According to the neoliberals, the state must become lean, but the repressive capacity of the state, in fact, gets bigger. Even with its subordination to U.S. imperialism, the armed forces and police play an increasingly dominant role in confronting social struggles. The traditional modes of negotiation like cooptation have given way to repression.

The second element to emphasize about the Ayotzinapa case is that the area around Iguala, where the students were disappeared, forms part of a poppy-growing region. Furthermore, there are important gold deposits in the region. So the history of dispossession and expulsion of locals forms part of a backdrop to this story.

Politically speaking, I don't think that the state had a premeditated plan to disappear the students from Ayotzinapa. I do believe that the state was spying on them and keeping track of their activities, but I don't believe that the events of September 26 were premeditated. When the students entered Iguala, they entered a mined region, so to speak, where all sorts of interests converged. This, of course, doesn't absolve the state's responsibility in the matter.

In the political juncture, however, the events of September 26 did bring about a change in the political landscape of the country. Unlike previous social catastrophes, this struggle has had a stronger presence because the government hit a politically organized sector. After the tens of thousands of disappeared during the Calderón era, this time around, they hit a politicized and organized group, which in the face of police aggression reacted with a press conference right after the first attack.

The explosion of social struggle brought about by the Ayotzinapa struggle is very important. This struggle also brought about a crisis of legitimacy for the political regime. So in addition to the weakening of the state and the transformation already underway, the current crisis reveals a crisis of legitimacy for institutions of justice, but also for political parties.

The movement reached very sharp political conclusions from the beginning. The first demand was "They took them alive, we want them back alive." This then transformed to "It was a state crime," and finally into "Oust Peña." The crisis of legitimacy of all these institutions reached the point where the main demand became the downfall of the national political regime.

This wave of struggle unleashed an unprecedented political situation in the country, because in previous crises, the demand didn't extend to the fall of the government. Of course, it's a larger task now because the possibility of preventing Peña's rise to power in 2012 is different from forcing him to step down once he's in power. Still, the movement of 1968, for example, was a pro-democracy movement, but it wasn't a movement that called for the fall of the regime. This is the first time this has happened in Mexican history.

The conclusion that the army is responsible for the disappearances questions essential aspects of the political regime. A movement that puts the blame on the army and calls for an investigation of army bases can't be co-opted. In fact, this demand has the power of a transitional demand because it fits with the level of consciousness of the masses and it questions the existing political regime. The government has been unable to recover from the crisis of legitimacy, and every new scandal sinks it deeper. This is an entirely unprecedented situation, and the challenge for us is to figure out how to move forward.

What is clear, however, is that in this political context, the upcoming midterm elections are an instrument to stabilize the political terrain for the regime and normalize the situation.

Unlike the anarchists, for our party, the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT), boycotting elections isn't a principle--it is a political decision. We argue that in the current situation, the elections only serve to stabilize the regime. When the movement is calling for the return of the disappeared, calling for the fall for the government and blaming the army, participating in electoral campaigns only helps the regime.

THAT LEADS to my last question about the upcoming midterm elections on June 7. The political crisis brought about by the Ayotzinapa movement led to a crisis for the PRD at a time when Andrés Manuel López Obrador's party, MORENA, has risen to prominence. Nevertheless, sectors of the left are calling for a boycott of the elections. And beyond this, what is the position of the Political Organization of the People and Workers (OPT) regarding the elections? What are the hopes of the Revolutionary Workers Party through its intervention in the OPT?

THROUGHOUT THE left, there is a broad debate about what to do, and we need to reach some conclusions about how to move forward.

One of those conclusions must be that the upcoming elections are a tool for political normalization. To put forward an electoral campaign under the current circumstances is out of proportion and a distraction--not because elections are distractions, but in the current moment, they are in the interest of the regime.

MORENA's current strategy is to launch an electoral campaign and argue that calling for an electoral boycott is apolitical. But MORENA is in a conflicted position, because it became a registered party at the worst moment, when everyone is calling for an electoral boycott.

Most importantly, though, we argue that MORENA is a replica of the PRD in its program and its strategy. It purports to be more honest, but it is putting forward the same political project as the PRD. Like the PRD, it is run by caudillos, from the top down. In fact, the project has already entered into crisis. The party hasn't competed in its first election, and you already have political squabbles within the party and resignations of leading members. This weakness has forced their intellectuals to engage with the radical left and accuse us of being apolitical.

The point of departure however, is that these elections are a door to political normalization, and that gives them a character that is different from others. If the state wasn't in the middle of a political crisis, the call for a boycott wouldn't have gained such popularity. If there hadn't been this political crisis, the positions of the left would probably have been different.

The regime prefers it if the left enters the political process and become part of the state's institutions, even if people come out to vote en masse for MORENA. Jesús Reyes Heroles, a neoliberal ideologue of the PRI, used to say that it's better to have a Communist congressman shouting in the Senate than a Communist leading a demonstration and shouting in the streets.

AMLO's logic falls within an institutional framework, and he has been unable to break with this political-ideological position. In the fall of 2014, for example, the mobilizations were calling for Peña Nieto to step down. AMLO agreed with this, but he wanted this to happen before December 1, so that the National Electoral Institute could organize a presidential election between the same corrupt political forces of the PRI, the PAN, the PRD and MORENA. Today, he gives lip service to the protests, but still calls on people to vote for MORENA in June--again, staying completely within the same institutional framework.

What is the next step? Comrades from Guerrero have pushed forward an electoral boycott in that state, and I think that everyone agrees the level of struggle in Guerrero is strong enough to pull off such a boycott. Some from the left have criticized this as abstentionism. However, abstentionism is a passive strategy that is useless. But the movement in Guerrero is calling for a boycott that doesn't just wait for Election Day, but has already been put in practice. It is a strategy in progress to impede the election from taking place.

Pablo Moctezuma [a member of MORENA and local candidate in a Mexico City borough in the upcoming election] argues that the call for a boycott is an apolitical proposal. In essence, the call to participate in the elections is their idea of politics. On the other hand, we are calling for political involvement at the highest level of politics, which is a struggle for power, by supporting the demand to kick out Peña.

We are putting forward a political proposal, not just an electoral one. They are only putting forward an electoral proposal, not a political one.

For AMLO, politics remains within this institutional framework because he in fact has never been part of the Ayotzinapa movement. He didn't attend the Chilpancingo convention, he didn't go to the electrician union's conference of resistance, and he didn't even show up to any of the eight global days of action for Ayotzinapa. Of course, those affiliated to MORENA went to the protests, but this wasn't part of the party's program.

MORENA's intellectuals also point to the victories of Evo Morales, Rafael Correa or Hugo Chávez as potential models for us to follow. Their argument is that a progressive government can come to power through elections. However, they forget that these movements came to power because of strong social struggles that brought down governments, like in Ecuador or Argentina.

Another example they point to is the example of SYRIZA in Greece. But SYRIZA's rise to power can't be explained without the countless general strikes that took place over several years.

The case of Podemos in Spain is perhaps more appropriate to our situation because the base of Podemos is the movement of the Indignados. Nevertheless, a political-electoral organization like Podemos does not exist in Mexico. We are putting forward the Political Organization of the People and Workers (OPT) as that alternative. Perhaps it isn't, perhaps it will be something else. Perhaps in a few years, people could come to the conclusion that they need something like Podemos.

This should serve as a warning for comrades that are trying to mechanically transplant the phenomenon of SYRIZA or Podemos to Mexico or anywhere else. Some argue that what we need is left unity, like in Greece. In Mexico, left unity would mean a coalition between the PRD, MORENA and everyone else.

However, SYRIZA's and Podemos' rise to prominence because they break with the traditional left. SYRIZA doesn't make a coalition with the Greek social-democratic party or the Greek Communist Party. In the case of Podemos, it's the same--they aren't making a coalition with Spain's main social democratic party or Izquierda Unida [the Communist Party]. What these parties have done is break with a collaborationist, social-liberal left. In Mexico, an organization that followed the trajectory of Podemos or SYRIZA wouldn't follow the path of the PRD or MORENA. On the contrary, it would have to be built on the politics of the movement itself.

In fact, the lesson from Europe is that it is time to break with the social democrats and the Communist Party. In the case of Mexico, social movements need to break with the PRD and MORENA.

In 2013, when the OPT didn't become a recognized party, we agreed that we would not support the PRD, because it supported the Pact for Mexico and all sorts of neoliberal reforms. We also agreed that we would not support MORENA because it is a project similar to the PRD. In fact, after Ayotzinapa, many politicians from the PRD jumped ship and joined MORENA [The PRD was in control of Guerrero when the Ayotzinapa case came to national prominence. The mayor of Iguala where the disappearances took place also belongs to the PRD. The PRD governor of Guerrero had to step down after the public outcry.]

Perhaps the convention for a new Constituent Assembly might be the path to follow. However, in order for a new Constituent Assembly to be relevant, the regime must fall. Unlike in the past, millions of people are now aware of how rotten the regime is. They're not only aware of it, but they are faced with all the insecurity, violence and impunity. People have lost faith in all political parties.

The neoliberal weakening of the state, the concessions to imperialism and the abandonment of national sovereignty call for new institutional scaffolding where a new Constituent Assembly can play a role. However, the neoliberals must be removed from power.

What is clear is that the regime and parties like MORENA can no longer generate illusions in the electoral process. There will be a large abstention rate in these elections. The Congress that comes out of these elections will have a huge legitimacy deficit because of the struggles underway and the low turnout. Thus, the legitimacy of this Congress will be highly questioned.

In the midst of this crisis, a project like the OPT remains relevant because it is a class-based project, it's not a cadre organization, but something more akin to a broad working class party of the people.

Of course, we are in a difficult position because the situation urgently demands an alternative of this kind, but the circumstances for it aren't in place. Political parties and state institutions have such a bad reputation, and this can contribute to a climate against all political organizations. Further, state repression can also polarize the situation because it can encourage ultra-left conclusions, instead of the project for a working class party.

The coming period remains to be defined. Perhaps like in the revolutions of the Arab world, a crisis situation has been opened up, not with the immediate fall of the regime, but with a protracted downward trajectory. It might not recover legitimacy, and it might be unable to establish stability. Whatever happens, we need political-organizational instruments to intervene in this situation. As weak as the OPT might be, we can intervene with more influence through it than if we just intervened as the Revolutionary Workers Party.


1. This reference is to a formulation developed by the Marxist tradition and applied to Mexico by Leon Trotsky, after the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 produced a stalemate between popular forces on the one hand and bourgeois forces on the other. The revolutionary forces led by Villa and Zapata took over Mexico City in 1914, but capitalism was not overthrown and replaced. According to Trotsky's analysis, what arose was a Bonapartist regime that pretended to stand above the different classes in struggle, while ruling in the context of an international capitalist system.

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