Mexico Rising! Contested Election and Oaxaca Strike Movement Shake Republic

By Ian MacDonald

Ian MacDonald is a frequent contributor to Socialist Worker.  He gave the following report to a meeting organized by the International Socialists in Toronto on December 15, 2006.

There is a paradox in Mexican history and politics which should be kept in mind when discussing the current post-electoral crisis. On the one hand, Mexico is a very stable society. Unlike the rest of Latin America, there have been no coups, military governments or revolutions in Mexico for over 80 years. For most of those years, the ruling party was able to incorporate the major classes in Mexican society with remarkable success. On the other hand, the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 was such a thoroughgoing conflagration, throwing millions of people into political activity from one end of the country to the other, that all other Latin American revolutions are put in the shade by comparison.

In other words, while the Mexican ruling bloc is well entrenched in the state, there is a tradition of revolution in the country that is never very far away from the popular consciousness. The Mexican Revolution, even though it happened almost a century ago, looms over national political life. A precedent has been set for peasant armies seizing the land and occupying Mexico City, of the working class forming red battalions and fighting for its own anti-capitalist program. No political party or group can claim the mantle of this revolutionary tradition. Nevertheless, its memory is collectively preserved.

The system of political control that contained this revolutionary tradition was perfected by the PRI (Party of the Institutional Revolution) in its 70 years in power. The PRI-state incorporated unions and peasant organizations into a bourgeois, one-party state by means of corrupting leaders, extending real reforms to the organized sections of the working class and peasantry, and meting out severe repression to those who rebelled against the system or fell outside of it. Revolutionary nationalism was a crucial ideological crutch.

Movement for democracy

This system is now in an advanced state of decomposition. The movement for democracy can be traced directly back to the student movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The PRI’s exhaustion as a vehicle for legitimate political rule can be dated to the 1968 Tlatelolco Square massacre in Mexico City, prior to the Olympic games of that year. The ferociousness of the repression – hundreds of students were killed – turned important layers of the un-incorporated population against the regime. The activists who survived the ensuing dirty war against students and the left went on the form the National Democratic Front (FDN) in 1988, which became the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) a year later. The PRI spent massively to shore up the legitimacy of the state in the wake of ’68, but the stain of Tlatelolco could not be expunged.

The economic crisis which broke out in the early 1980s meant that the PRI regime could no longer count on the loyalty of its mass base. It began a brutal program of neoliberal reforms, the most extreme of Latin America after Chile. The left of the party, those most directly tied to its social base, bolted to form the FDN. The new party also included left groups and the Mexican Communist Party, which dissolved itself into the new formation. The FDN ran in the 1988 elections, putting forth the candidacy of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, son of the 1930s-era radical president of the country, Lazaro Cárdenas, who nationalized the country’s oil industry. Despite widespread ballot stuffing, the FDN most likely came out ahead in the final vote tally. During the middle of election night, however, the computers counting the votes went offline – a result, electoral authorities later claimed, of “atmospheric conditions.” When the computers came back online, the PRI candidate, Carlos Salinas, was ahead.

The electoral fraud of 1988 is an important touchstone for the current movement against the fraud committed during the elections held July 2, 2006. Cárdenas called demonstrations after ballots were found in garbage dumps. Hundreds of party militants were murdered by PRI vigilantes as a preventative measure against mobilization. At one demonstration of three million in Mexico City, a decision was made not to seize the national palace. Instead, Cárdenas decided to negotiate with Salinas. This badly split the new party and was profoundly demoralizing. The FDN — now PRD — resolved to continue working for democratic opening within the compromised system.

The upheaval produced by the stolen elections, combined with the Zapatista uprising six years later, convinced the Mexican ruling class that some reforms were needed to shore up their legitimacy. A new electoral body, the IFE, was formed which was supposed to be independent and beyond corruption. The tribunal is composed of a group of judges selected by Congress and paid over $400,000 a year in salary. They are consistently labeled as the most neutral and respected electoral body in Latin America by the international press.

The PRD’s political perspective during this period posited that Mexico was moving slowly towards democracy, and that once democracy was achieved, then reforms leading to socialism could be put on the agenda. The party was damaged by the sellout in ’88, and only slowly rebuilt its electoral base. In the 2000 elections, many on the left voted strategically for the PAN’s candidate, Vicente Fox. The thinking was that it was the PRI in particular that was holding up the democratic transition. The PRI had to ejected from national office. If the principle of party alternation in office could be secured, the opportunity of alternating in power would ultimately fall to the PRD.

This is important to note because it explains Fox’s victory and wide base of support, the high hopes that many Mexicans held when he took office. He was a neoliberal, socially conservative, closely allied with the U.S., a former president of Coca Cola Mexico, but he was trusted to oversee political reform.

Fox’s project was contradictory and oversold. The PAN was formed by big capital based in the north of the country in 1940 to confront the radicalization of the PRI following the nationalization of oil. It includes the hierarchy of the Catholic church, which was kept at arms length by the secular PRI. It has also managed to gain significant middle class support, due in large part to the fact that it is seen as a vehicle for the democratization in Mexican society.

As President, Fox was confronted with the basic contradiction in Mexican society, namely, the need of the capitalist state to enforce neoliberal rule in the face of its rejection by the majority of society. Democracy cannot survive, let alone emerge, in this context. Fox’s support began to decline immediately upon his assumption of power and never recovered. In mid-term elections, the PAN lost control of Congress. What is remarkable about the Fox administration is that he came in with so much credibility, a real popular mandate, and he was ultimately able to do nothing. He has no legacy to speak of. None of the major neoliberal reforms pushed during his administration – privatization of oil, reform of the country’s labour legislation, and privatization of social security – have been achieved. And Fox has fallen into the old way of ruling favoured by the PRI: finding representatives in the major unions and peak associations with which to cooperate, remove those who reject this embrace, and repress any resistance to the system.

Lopez Obrador

The most formidable challenge to the Fox government came from the mayor of Mexico City, Lopez Obrador. Obrador is a former PRIista from Tabasco state. He led a PRD campaign in state elections, and was denied victory as a result of fraud. He then led a street movement to overturn the fraud (which is common practice in Mexico; even the PAN has a history of this) which failed. He then spearheaded the PRD campaign against the terms of the corporate bailout in 1994. In very shady deals, billions of dollars were paid out to the country’s capitalist class to keep them out of bankruptcy. The Mexican working class will be paying this debt for the next 70 years, down to the third generation. Obrador wrote the book on the scandal. To their credit, the PRD published the names of who received how much money and called for the program to be dramatically scaled back to cover only small business.

Obrador became a national figure when he won the mayoralty of Mexico City in 2000. At first, he built a strong base on the left. He passed a municipal pension scheme, which though small makes an important difference in the lives of impoverished seniors. It is a universal system based on bank cards that are credited every month with about $10. Since there is no administration for the program, it was hailed as a liberal welfare state initiative. He kept a lid on the price of the metro, of gas and water. And he ran a clean administration, ending (as far as anyone can tell) kickbacks paid by developers to city bureaucrats.

The left considers honesty in government to be Obrador’s most important legacy. Once he had secured this left credibility, he moved to the centre. He built a second level of a highway linking the better off sections of the city together, a project much appreciated by the city’s car-owning class. He initiated private-public partnerships in sprucing up the main boulevard of the city, Paseo de la Reforma, which boosted the property values of Carlos Slim, the world’s third-richest man. Obrador’s policies in office are best described as “neoliberalism from below” along the lines of a Lula in Brazil.

Throughout his time in office, he attacked Fox incessantly. As Fox’s popularity inexorably declined, Obrador’s rose in inverse relation. By 2003, it was clear that Obrador was headed to the presidency. In 2006, Obrador ran a centrist campaign around the slogan “For the good of all, the poor first.” He promised job creation strategies, new state pensions, a vague renegotiation of NAFTA, and aid to the countryside. In fact he made no less than 50 promises – a little something for everyone. He promised foreign and domestic capital that he would continue with the neoliberal model while telling his base that the current model was a failure.

The foreign press accepted Obrador’s self-presentation to them as a modernized, neoliberalized social democrat, and he received the backing of all the high-profile business publications. I think there was a recognition in these quarters that there was need of some reforms to maintain stability in the country, and that neoliberalism could only be implemented by the centre-left. The Economist argued explicitly that the PAN candidate, Felipe Calderon, was too close to the big monopolies that had so effectively infiltrated every level of state power. An Obrador government might rule in the interests of capital in general, rather than favouring domestic monopoly capital.

Ruling-class response

The domestic ruling class saw things very differently. The monopoly sector opposed him because they feared losing the privileged position that they had built up in the state throughout the PRI and PAN years. But the feeling against Obrador was very strong in the bourgeoisie as a whole. They saw past Obrador’s moderate electoral rhetoric to his base in the country’s devastated working class and peasantry, and they were afraid that he would have to give them something.

On the face of it, their reaction appeared to be paranoid. They saw Obrador as a Chavez, not a Lula. They thought he would undo all of the gains they had made in the neoliberal era. I think the logic here was simply that no matter what the politics of the candidates or the narrowness of the electoral choice on offer, the poor and working class had solidly lined up behind Obrador and had some hope that he would rule in their interests. The election was a direct expression of the country’s deep class divide, in which half of the working class makes less than $8 a day while the ruling class is among the wealthiest in the world. Any political expression of this divide is frightening to the ruling class. Nevertheless, they overreached.

A determined campaign to deny him the presidency can be traced back to 2003, when both the PRI and PAN moved to block the PRD’s allotted representation on the IFE, thus laying the groundwork for what in Mexico is referred to as a “state election”. (In talking up the IFE, the international press never to my notice mentioned this fact).

In 2004, the PAN attempted to disqualify Obrador from running based on a legal technicality. This was overturned by massive demonstrations in the streets of Mexico City, after which the right retreated shamefaced and Obrador’s stature only grew. The country’s largest corporations spent millions in an illegal advertising crusade against him, and the media duopoly ran a smear campaign. Also contravening the country’s electoral rules was Fox’s intervention in support of Calderon during the electoral process. Finally, ballot stuffing was organized at the state level while the electoral authorities ensured the final tally would put Calderon slightly ahead.

Electoral fraud

There should be no doubt that the elections were fraudulent. There are two forms of electoral fraud practiced in Mexico. One is called “a la antiguidad” – the old way of simple ballot stuffing, and the new one called “fraude cibernetico” – the new way done through the computers used to tally the votes.

With regards to the first form, citizen scrutineers chosen at random were replaced at many polls at the last moment by staff loyal to Elba Ester Gordillo, the gangster president of the very powerful teachers’ union. Gordillo recognized that the PRI was finished and could no longer serve her political ambitions, and she has transferred her support to the PAN. She played a central role in convincing PRI governors that it was useless to continue supporting the PRI campaign, and that they should throw their machines behind Calderon. This was how much of the ballot stuffing was organized, especially in the states controlled by the PRI and PAN, largely in the North.

The PRD did not expect this, and only sent party scrutineers to 40 percent of the polls, and very few in the North where it doesn’t have a strong organization. Significant irregularities were found in those ballot boxes opened after the election, with more votes than voters in some case, less votes than voters in others. Votes had been systematically taken from Obrador and added to Calderon. Then boxes of ballots started showing up in garbage dumps. An electoral worker resigned complaining that his supervisors were pressuring him to favour Calderon.

Fraud was also organized at the level of the IFE itself. The computer program used in the tally was designed by Calderon’s brother, of all people. Mathematicians have looked at the results and concluded that the pattern they show could not be random. It is very difficult to hide patterned outcomes, especially since electoral returns display a certain randomness within overall trajectories. In the last 20 percent of returns, Obrador’s votes begin to fall rapidly never once to recover. Calderon’s votes exhibit the mirror opposite, and the PRI’s votes flatline.

Popular anger

The popular anger begins to build. On July 8, Obrador holds a rally in Mexico City of half a million people. The movement takes up the slogan “vote by vote, polling station by polling station.” A taped message is played of Gordillo calling a PRI state governor implicating both in the fraud. A second march is held on the 16, drawing a million. And then a third on the 30, at which two million show up. A decision is made to occupy the centre of the city, the Zócalo square, and seven miles of streets leading from the political centre to the financial district, effectively cutting the city in half. The plantón or encampment is a traditional form of protest in Mexico, but the country had never seen a “mega-plantón” like this.

At this point, the bourgeoisie hates Obrador, and he has lost the centre of Mexican politics. But in the capital city, at least, the middle of Mexican politics seems to be thinning out.

I arrived late in August and the plantón was still going strong. You could walk all day and not see it all. In fact I never in two weeks there saw the entire plantón, though I walked it every day. It is perhaps best described as a city within a city. You could sleep there, eat three meals a day, take books out of improvised libraries; there were child care facilities, soccer games and chess matches. Artists showed their work, musicians – both amateurs and some of the biggest names in the country – gave free concerts. There were political meetings and video showings at all times on every block. In the evenings and on weekends, thousands would be engaged in discussions dealing with all aspects of Mexican society.

At first, Obrador’s demand was simply to hold a full recount. The supposed margin of victory of Calderon was a mere 2 votes per polling station. The electoral authorities and the PAN refused. A partial recount of 9 percent was held, a very non-transparent process which did not change the result substantially.

When it became clear that he would not be able to overturn the fraud through the existing state institutions, Obrador’s position radicalized. By late August he was calling the legality of the institutions into question and was speaking some hard truths about the corruption of the entire country’s political system and just how entrenched large corporations are in it. New social demands emerged for a redistribution of the country’s wealth, the dissolution of the big monopolies, especially in the media, and a new welfare state.

Radicalization of the movement

The radicalization of the movement around Obrador brought in many of the traditional actors on the Mexican left, including the electrical workers, dissident union groups – the teachers most prominently – and the social security workers. Absent was any intervention by the Zapatistas, however. Marcos was residing in a northern section of Mexico City at the time, but issued no statements and made no appearances in the city itself. The Zapatistas had run an ambiguously abstentionist “other campaign” during the elections, which, while not calling for a boycott of the ballot, argued that there was no meaningful difference between the candidates. Much of the campaign was devoted to attacks on Obrador and the PRD. Communiqués issued in August repeated these critiques and levelled new ones of Obrador’s leadership of the movement to reverse the electoral fraud.

On September 5 Calderon was declared the victor and the elections validated despite what the electoral authorities called “grave irregularities.” On September 16, Obrador was declared legitimate president of Mexico in a million-strong popular assembly in the Zócalo, and plans were made for a Constitutional Assembly in March to dissolve the current constitution and refound the republic. The movement is currently organizing for this, while Obrador has formed an alternative government. The first acts of the Obrador government were to send a bill to congress taking aim at the monopoly sector, and later, an alternative budget with big spending increases in health education, pensions, etc. Meanwhile, the new Calderon government’s budget imposes austerity, but with spending increases for the police and army.

Oaxaca struggle

During this time, a class struggle was developing in the Southern state of Oaxaca, which normally would have been front page news in Mexico and picked up around the world. The crisis began with an economic strike and escalated from there to an insurrectionary situation. I wasn’t in Oaxaca, but Mexico News and Analysis, an email news service, published this email communication by an American living there which gives the flavour. It is worth quoting at length:

Report from Oaxaca

May 22-24, 2006: 70,000 Oaxaqueño school teachers go on strike. And the first indications that this was to be a “different” kind of strike were immediately apparent in and around the city’s historic centre. There, for the first time, the teachers, in the thousands, erected a tent and awning city, occupied day and night in the Zócalo and in the streets surrounding the Zócalo. It’s a peaceful occupation of the city’s center, but it is also immediately apparent that more teachers are coming into the occupied area on a daily basis. And these teachers are not just from the City of Oaxaca. They’re swarming in from the outlying villages and towns in the Valley, as well as from the mountain regions and the area of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The government’s reaction to this mobilization? “This strike will be like all the others. Its a minor inconvenience that will be over in weeks,” (!) a government spokesperson says.

June 14, 2006: The day the economic strike by the teachers becomes a political strike. And it’s a day that will change Oaxaca’s history.

It began in the early morning at about 3:30 a.m.. The state evidently decided to crush the teachers’ strike, and it did so by launching an “operation” to clear the City Center of all the striking teachers and their tent and awning occupations. Several thousand uniformed and plain clothed state and municipal cops launch an all-out attack on the teacher’s enclaves. Buses, driven by both plain clothed and uniformed police, roar, often three abreast, down city streets, smashing the flimsy and impromptu barricades and then crushing the tent and awning enclaves of the teachers. Some get as far as the Zócalo. The teachers flee from the onslaught, because to remain in their tents would mean being crushed. Overhead, there are helicopters (state police and municipal) and from various vantage points around the city center, police can be seen hurling tear gas canisters onto the city center. For those residents who lived far from the city center, it was the whomping of the helicopters that presented the first indications that something was terribly amiss in the city center.

By 7:00 a.m. there was gunfire to be heard. First the crumping of shotguns firing tear gas canisters, then the thudding of shotguns discharging pellet loads, and then, finally the cracking of automatic weapons firing. The killing and wounding of the teachers was now fully under way.

I was by then on my way back from the city airport where I had seen my daughter off on an early morning flight. A friend of mine was driving me back to the hotel and we were encountering increasing difficulties getting back to the hotel. Groups of police and teacher’s security units were trying to direct traffic but we were continually redirected in circles. Then at one intersection, we saw a group of teachers, bandanaed against the gas, fleeing from the sound of what appeared to be automatic weapons fire farther up the street. Ignoring any directions from cops and teachers alike, we got the hell out of there. On arriving at the hotel, the first whiffs of tear gas could be felt and this was six to seven blocks away from the chaos in the city center.

It was then, back at the hotel, when I saw and heard the first indications that what had happened had changed the entire nature of the teacher’s economic strike. Small groups of teachers, again in bandanas against the tear gas, were marching past the hotel, armed with clubs and axe handles, and chanting “Ulises Asesino!” (Ulises the Assassin!) and “Fuera Ulises” (Away with Ulises!). In those few short hours the strike had changed. It was no longer a strike for economic gains. It was now a full-blown political strike. The demands were no longer of salaries and benefits, but rather, for the resignation of the most unpopular governor that Oaxaca had seen in years. By 9:00 a.m. the slogans of the chants, while continuing, were also being seen on the graffitied walls of buildings as far as a mile from the center of the action in the Zócalo. And in the Zócalo itself, the anarchists seemed to be holding some sway. Instead of directing their actions against the police assaults, small groups of anarchists were busy smashing up business’ windows around the Zócalo. Most of the teachers and their legitimate supporters were too busy repelling the police attacks.

By 11:00 a.m. most of the cops had been pushed out of the encampment areas and/or withdrew. The state’s “Operation Clear the City Streets” had failed. How the teachers and their supporters maintained their discipline remains a mystery to me. But it stands as a tribute to their organizational capabilities. It was enough to make an old organizer proud.

From that day in June till the federal invasion of October 28, the teachers and the popular assembly of the people were essentially in control of the city and many municipalities throughout the state.

On October 28, Fox sent the Federal Preventative Police (PFP) to retake the state capital. Fox’s move was intended to bring a quick military resolution of the crisis before Calderon’s assumption of the presidency. Street fighting and demonstrations have continued into the Calderon era, however, and much of the state remains beyond effective police control. The repression has taken a heavy toll on the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) rank and file, and a number of its leaders have been taken prisoner by federal forces.


The social composition of the movement in Oaxaca is essentially the same as the movement around Obrador in Mexico City: public sector workers, urban social movements, students and pensioners, but with a more pronounced indigenous participation. The underlying cause of the uprising is identical: illegitimate political rule, overwhelming rejection of neoliberalism. The APPO is led by socialists from different traditions, however, and rejects social democratic forms of political organization. It distances itself from the PRD in particular. At its policy convention in mid November 2005, the APPO called for new autonomous and democratic forms of governance in the state and reiterated its rejection of the country’s ruling institutions. Its main demand continues to be for the federal government to declare the disappearance of the state governor’s powers, which is in any event the reality on the ground.

The crisis in Oaxaca is a concentration of the national crisis, but is at most regional in scale. The APPO’s central demand and emphasis on community autonomy does not resonate strongly at the national level. And yet, the APPO will have to generate organized national support if it is to emerge from under the heel of the PFP. The movement in Mexico City is still attached to the figure of Obrador, and is caught between the streets and a return to parliamentary politics. The merging of the Oaxaca and Mexico City struggles could strengthen both in their confrontation with the Mexican state, although this remains but one possibility among several. A nationally organized left capable of bringing this possibility about does not exist, however.

The current crisis is best described as the expression of a contradiction between democracy and neoliberalism. Given Mexico’s deteriorating position in the world economy, the pressures for continued neoliberal rule will not ease. Neither are the movements resisting this backing down. This is a structural crisis which will develop over the foreseeable future, inspiring us in the rest of North America and calling on our solidarity.