Mexico: The long road to working class independence

Pablo Velasco reviews the long and difficult fight for independent working class politics in Mexico since the Tlatelolco square massacre of 1968.


 

On October 2nd 1968, a huge crowd of students, workers and political activists filled Tlatelolco Square in the centre of Mexico City. The demonstration was the culmination of months of protest before the Mexico-hosted Olympic Games. It was part of a world wide protest movement — the French general strike in May, the Prague Spring, the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations all over the world. Influenced by everything from Sartre to Guevara, from Bob Dylan to the Beatles, as well as authentic Mexican revolutionaries such as Emiliano Zapata and Ricardo Flores Magon, the demonstrators were united by their unwillingness to be ruled any longer by Mexico’s one-party — the PRI — state which had endured since 1929. In response, President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz unleashed a wave of repression by the Mexican army. More than 300 people were murdered that day, 2 October in the square. Thousands were rounded up, tortured and jailed during the following years. The massacre of Tlatelolco Square became a running sore in the body of Mexican politics, a breach between the Mexican state and its people from which it has never recovered.

Thirty years later the government still refuses to release the relevant documents.

What was the character of the movement in ’68 in Mexico? Why did it arise? What were the consequences of the repression? These are the questions are still being debated by political activists today.

Between 1940-65 Mexico experienced an economic miracle. Production grew annually by more than 5%, cities expanded. Economic development at the turn of the century under the dictator Porfirio Diaz had helped generate the revolution of 1910. It began as a bourgeois reform movement for an effective suffrage, but became a peasant war, led by Zapata and Pancho Villa. Ultimately they were defeated. The capitalist class remained weak and the working class remained largely unorganised and without effective political representation. In these circumstances, a dictatorial Bonapartist regime established itself during the 1920s and 1930s, around the party which became the PRI. A president was elected for one six-year term, but effectively control remained with the same PRI political machine which incorporated mass organisations of peasants and the central trade union federation, the CTM, into the state machine.

The state sponsored the expansion of industry, and under Lazaro Cardenas nationalised the oil industry in 1938. The absence of a democratic political process masked the dissatisfaction felt by the overwhelming majority of Mexicans, most of whom still laboured for a pittance as agricultural labourers, or factory and office workers, or tilled their tiny plots of land as peasants. Universal primary education since the revolution, and the rudiments of a welfare state in health and pensions, only served to raise expectations which were brutally disappointed. By 1968, the state was heavily in debt. Agriculture and the export industries slowed down.

The political movement of 1968 had many roots. It was politically a mixture of “Communism” and Maoism, Castroism (and bowdlerised Trotskyism) and of the populist Mexican nationalism with which the ruling party had welded together its people.

Led by the National Strike Committee, the movement was independent from the government, which had subsumed earlier radical elements into its structure. It was democratic in both its internal structures and its objective — to secure political democracy in Mexico and end one-party rule. It was a student-dominated movement, able nevertheless to reach out to workers and peasants. It represented, as did other student-led movements across the world an ideological rupture with the capitalist state. It questioned the purpose of education. It demanded a democracy…

Mexico’s political and economic crisis at the end of the sixties panicked the rules into the severe repression of 2 October and after. Yet the government was forced during the 1970s to allow for alternative parties and slates to stand in Mexican elections. The growth of the PRT, an openly Trotskyist party with some local and national prominence was an exciting development, although it declined after 1988. Oppositional caucuses and even independent trade unions developed amongst the organised working class (such as the Democratic Tendency led by electrical worker Rafael Galvan). Peasant movements seized land: a guerrilla movement appeared in Guerrero. Many of these movements were stubbed out by fierce repression.

The most substantial challenge to the PRI has come from the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), whose leaders were originally part of the ruling apparatus, only by fraud preventing Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, son of the ex-President, winning the Presidency in 1988. There is now an opposition majority in one tier of the Mexican parliament. The tragedy here is that the opposition is entirely confined to bourgeois-democratic reform. No independent workers’ voice has been registered. As their name suggests, the PRD remain very much within the confines of the old state ideology.

The significance of 1968 for Mexicans is clear. It inspires those who currently battle with the regime. The massacre of 2 October also destroyed the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of millions. Economic crisis has continued unevenly, with short bursts of growth punctured by devaluation, debt crisis and slump. More than 80% remain below the poverty line, and some 800 people are reportedly still missing, according to Amnesty, with army massacres still an almost annual occurrence. The forty families who rule Mexico still contain as many billionaires as are found in France or Japan. While ex-President Salinas languishes in exile in Ireland, his brother was tried and is doing time for corruption, and involvement in drug trafficking and money laundering during Salinas’ presidency. In 1993 I joined a demonstration of 10,000 people in Mexico City to commemorate twenty five years of opposition to the regime, and to remember those who died.

The opening of democratic space in Mexico undoubtedly offers new opportunities for the left, but to reconstitute a revolutionary left will involve a break with many of the populist and nationalist assumptions of most of the 1968 New Left, and the reassertion of class politics. The forces for this task exist, but they are scattered and disorientated. The Marxist left in Mexico will have to reconstitute itself and carry out the necessary work of clarification, linked with activism in the various movements against the regime.