Mexico: Zapatistas in Mexico City. What next?

Mounting excitement gripped Mexico in early March as the 15-day "Zapatour" by 23 Zapatista (EZLN) comandantes and subcomandante Marcos made its way from Chiapas towards Mexico City. The EZLN followed, in the last leg of their trip, the historic route taken by the legendary Emiliano Zapata and the revolutionary southern army in 1914 during the Mexican Revolution of 1911-1920. Robert Bechert witnessed the Zapatistas arrival.

When the Zapa Caravan finally arrived in the capital on 11 March a crowd of between 120,000 to 150,000 assembled to greet the Zapatista leaders. The majority attending were young, with a fair number of indigenous people, community groups and some older activists from previous struggles.

A tremendous roar greeted subcomandante Marcos, the EZLN’s effective leader, when he stepped forward to speak, but his words left many disappointed.

In the run-up to the rally there had been a widespread media discussion on whether the Zapatistas would launch a movement or party from their rally. But nothing concrete came from the platform. Unfortunately, an opportunity to start to build a wider movement was not taken.


The initial Zapatista uprising on 1 January 1994 captured the imagination of many around the world. It was seen as a blow against the capitalists’ triumphalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the sharp right turn of many leaders of the labour movement. The fact that the Zapatistas launched their rebellion on the very day that the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Area) came into being helped turn them into symbols of the struggle against capitalist globalisation.

In Mexico itself the combination of the 1990s boom in the USA and NAFTA have lead to economic growth in some sectors. But while the economy has boomed, the working class and poor have hardly shared in it.

Last December, the new President, Vicente Fox, pointed out: "For the last 18 years in a row, wages have lost purchasing power". A recent US report said that since NAFTA went into effect the productivity of Mexican workers has increased by 36.4%, "yet their wages have declined by 29% between 1993 and 1997…Under NAFTA, eight million Mexicans have been pushed out of the middle class and into poverty".

In just the two years between 1996 and 1998 the richest 10% of the population increased their share of the national income from 36.6% to 38.1%, while the share of the poorest 60% from 26.9% to 25.5%.

The way in which some families’ absolute living standards have increased in the late 1990s has been because more workers have had regular work or relatives have migrated to the US.

Unemployment is officially down to around 3%; and the real statistics show a tremendous growth of so-called ‘informal’ employment, street vendors, marginal jobs and part time occupations.

RECENTLY some workers have been able to start pushing real wages up, but this is precisely at the time when the boom is starting to end.

Right Populist president

THE 1980s saw a growing radicalisation in Mexico. In 1988, the PRD (a Left split from then ruling PRI), actually won the Presidential election but were denied victory by electoral fraud. But, fearful of starting a movement that it could not control, the PRD leaders did not seriously challenge the PRI’s fraudulent win.

This failure has affected the PRD ever since; its leaders have not been seen as determined enough to defeat to PRI. When, finally, after nearly 72 years in power the PRI was defeated last year, victory did not go to the PRD but to Vincente Fox the candidate of the right wing, pro-business orientated PAN.

However, Fox’s victory was not a victory for the right. He campaigned on a very populist basis, promising democracy and prosperity to all. His victory was largely the result of the masses’ determination to oust the PRI. Indeed, millions of PRD supported Fox in the Presidential race while voting for PRD candidates for the Congress.

Today, Fox is attempting to maintain a balancing act. He says his government is "not a right wing government, but a government of rights". At times Fox almost seemed to be promoting the Zapatista march, declaring: "My government is in favour of the march".

Fox’s aim is to incorporate the Zapatista leadership within "normal", i.e. pro-capitalist, politics. On this basis he welcomed the Zapatistas to Mexico City and urged Congress to support the Cocopa law, a measure to improve the lives of Mexico’s ten million indigenous peoples, the descendants of those who living in Mexico before the Spanish conquest 500 years ago.

Shaky economy

But Mexico’s prosperity is built on shaky foundations. It depends on the USA economy and that is already starting to enter a downturn.

The 1994 ‘Tequila crisis’, when the Peso crashed and a million jobs were lost, was a warning of how quickly the Mexican bubble could burst. Now 90% of Mexico’s exports go to the USA.

In the weeks before the Zapatour the first lay-offs were announced in Mexico’s large auto industry as DaimlerChrysler sacked 1,000 workers in Toluca.

Despite his sweet sounding words one of Fox’s first measures on coming into office was to start to prepare austerity measures. The first cuts in government spending have already begun.

In January, the government started to sack 8,000 of the 14,000 workers at the state-run national water commission. Now there is a plan to levy a 15% VAT on food and medicine, part of a neo-liberal plan to increase reactionary indirect taxation.

However, Fox is fearful of the population. For the beginning he has promised not to privatise the oil industry, a nationalisation rooted in the legacy of the Mexican revolution and the radicalisation of the 1930s.

Zapatista programme

IT IS in this situation that the Zapatistas have won broad public support. In many ways the forces of the PRD and the old Left have a limited appeal to the radicalising layers, especially the youth. The PRD leadership IS clearly terrified of losing much of their electoral base if the Zapatistas organise a wider movement.

However, the Zapatista leadership have, so far, consistently held back from organising the potential support they have. Increasingly, they have centred on the demands for the indigenous peoples, coupled with a general criticism of capitalist globalisation by Marcos.

Interviewed in Le Monde Diplomatique Marcos spurns the critical issue of leading a mass struggle for political power: "The problem isn’t one of taking power. We know that the struggle for power is a struggle for a lie. What is needed in these times of globalisation is to build a new relationship between government and citizens. If a peace deal is signed, the EZLN will cease making politics in the ways we’ve done so far. We’ll do politics differently, without masks, without weapons, but still for the same ideas."

But these ideas are left in mid-air, as the Zapatistas are reluctant to organise their potential support among the wider working population or to accept the socialist alternative to global capitalism. Marcos and the EZLN have rejected any idea or programme that goes beyond the approval of the Cocopa law.

The day after their entry into Mexico City the first meetings that the Zapatista leadership held were three discussions with different groups of, mainly foreign, intellectuals. The millions of working class, poor and youth of Mexico City had to wait.

Marcos’s future is ambiguous. The EZLN is now led by 23 comandantes (commanders) and Marcos is "only" a "subcomandante", but everyone knows that he is in effect the real leader. It is a peculiar form of "democracy" where the single deputy leader has more power than the formal top leadership.

Despite these weaknesses the Zapatistas still have a great appeal and could build a powerful movement for struggle and change.

Socialist programme

THE SUPPORTERS of the CWI in Mexico around their well-received new paper "Oposición Socialista" raised the question of "After the Caravan. What next?" They called on the EZLN to build upon their support to help create a new party, drawing in the most radical layers from the workers, peasants, indigenous peoples and youth, as well as the fighting elements still within the PRD.

Oposición Socialista also calls for a "new agrarian revolution" to give back the land to the peasants and indigenous peoples, together with access to technology and cheap credit for the peasantry.

Oposición Socialista campaigns within the working class to change the unions and mass organisations into fighting bodies and, where necessary, supports those who are fighting to create new ones.

Confronting the attempt by Fox to reach a consensus of PAN-PRI-PRD to reform the Constitution and create a renewed basis for capitalist rule, Oposición Socialista is calling for the election of a Constituent Assembly and for workers and peasants representatives to fight for anti-capitalist and socialist demands as an alternative to the policies of the parties of the ruling class.

With a radicalisation already under way before a recession bites Mexico will clearly see sharp class battles in the future. While an economic slowdown might inhibit industrial struggles for a period, politically it would sharpen the situation. In this situation, with the revolutionary traditions of the Mexican workers, peasants and youth, socialist ideas will gain a wider response.

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March 2001