Mexico – growing class polarisation preparing new wave of struggle

In January we interviewed Luis Enrique Barrios, a leading member of the Mexican Marxist Tendency Militante. He explains how the struggle against electoral fraud has led to heightened working class militancy, such as the struggle of the miners, and it is merely a question of time before this erupts in a new wave of mass mobilisations.

What is the current political situation in Mexico?

Luis Enrique Barrios: In 2006 we witnessed a high degree of social polarisation as a consequence of 25 years of uninterrupted attacks on the working class. The electoral fraud that put Felipe Calderón into power is the typical accident through which necessity expresses itself: there was already an evident heating up of the class struggle before the anti-fraud movement. The fraud turned into a "ya basta" ("enough is enough") rallying point for millions of Mexicans who joined the struggle to say they were fed up with being ruled in the old way and having their living conditions permanently under attack.

Luis Enrique BarriosHowever, undoubtedly, in 2007 the movement did not mobilise with the same intensity as the year before, which is natural considering the previous level of activity. Nevertheless, important struggles did develop. In particular I am referring to the struggle of the civil servants in defence of their pension scheme and against the new "ISSTE reform". This struggle was basically supported by the mobilisation of the teachers of Magisterio Democratico and the workers in state universities and several other government departments.

The struggle did not manage to involve all workers threatened by the reform, but it organised a strong and well-organised resistance against this attack: five national strikes were called, and a national strike council was created in order to coordinate the movement.

Has, therefore, Mexico entered a new, more stable phase?

Luis Enrique Barrios: No. As far as the class struggle is concerned, 2007 was not like 2006, but we cannot say there is social stability either. On the contrary, society is becoming more polarised. Despite the fact that Calderón has succeeded in establishing himself in power, he did so in such a manner that he does not have authority and his weak government simply survives from day to day, with serious divisions within the ruling party, the PAN.

Moreover, we need to say the following: in Mexico the working class took bold actions for no less than three years; the fight against the desafuero (an attempt to prevent, through judicial manoeuvres, the progressive candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador ‑ AMLO for short ‑ from running for the presidency of the republic) marked the end of an impasse, to be followed by a parabola of struggle that reached its peak in 2006 with the anti-fraud mobilisation. Therefore, some weariness is absolutely normal. The working class cannot always be on the front line.

As a matter of fact, the problems that brought the masses to the streets in 2006 not only remain unsolved, but they are also getting worse: galloping inflation, price increases of basic commodities, worsened living conditions. There is no material basis for an ebb in the class struggle!

Even though the Calderón government and the ISSTE "reform" have been imposed on the workers, we cannot say that there has been a major defeat that could be used to paralyse the class for a long time.

You are basically saying that the masses are still capable of reacting against attacks from above.

Luis Enrique Barrios: Yes. To give you an indication of the level of class struggle in Mexico, a few days ago the Mexican army together with a body of police intervened in the Cananea mine in Sonora State, to put an end to a strike that had been going on for 160 days. But with this heavy-handed intervention, the bourgeoisie and Calderón only succeeded in strengthening the strike: as a result, one hundred thousand miners are still on strike! [This was the case on January 17th when we held the interview] This shows both the level reached and the direction in which the class struggle in Mexico is going.

In Mexico the economic situation is getting worse and worse and this poses every time the same question to Calderón and the ruling class: they need to deepen their attacks. There are rumours now about the possibility that important conquests such as the Federal Labour Law may be brought into question. They may also try to privatise Mexican oil. These are rather important issues in Mexico. Those two questions alone would be enough to provoke strong mobilisations, a working class fightback comparable to what we saw in 2006.

On top of this, there are also other sectors of the masses that are moving...

Luis Enrique Barrios: As far as 2008 is concerned, since January 1st an anti-NAFTA mobilisation of the peasants' movement is unfolding in Mexico. On that day, tariff-free imports of several agricultural products like corn and beans was introduced.

For Mexican farmers and peasants, these free-trade measures can have a dramatic impact, where the situation is becoming intolerable with Mexico becoming even more dependent on the USA for food. As a consequence, we saw roadblocks, marches, protests etc.

Now the peasants are preparing a demonstration for January 31st and some elements agree with us that it could be an important one. The trade unions and the progressive party, the PRD, have joined the protest as well.

The Mexican bourgeoisie seems to be counting on repression to hold back the masses. Have repressive measures delivered the required results in the last few years?

Luis Enrique Barrios: Repression has been stepped up, but despite arrests and imprisonment and Calderón's use of the army, divisions among the workers have not emerged. This is confirmed by the events in Cananea: they used the army and the reply was a general strike on a national scale. Repression was instrumental in extending the scope of the struggle instead of isolating Cananea from the rest of the movement.

Just consider what happened in Oaxaca: there was a teachers' strike and the State government decided to use the police. The day after, we had mass demonstrations of unprecedented dimensions, that we have never seen in places outside Mexico City; to the point that a mass insurrection unfolded in that State.

In 2006, 65 miners died in an accident at Pasta de Conchos. At the same time, the then president Fox intervened to withdraw official recognition of the union leader. The resulting national miners' strike also involved the Lázaro Cárdenas metal plant in Michoacan. After more than two months on strike, the miners defended themselves from a police attack on the Lázaro Cárdenas plants. The police were routed by the workers and this strengthened the movement that eventually prevailed and defeated Fox.

But not in Oaxaca... They have gone underground now.

Luis Enrique Barrios: The Oaxaca case has its specific features. One of the reasons consists in the incorrect policy of the Oaxacan leadership, who never tried to extend the movement to national level, connecting it with the AMLO movement. This, together with the leaders of both the PRD and the unions closing their eyes and bringing the movement to a stop, all contributed to how things developed there. However, I cannot say when, but I do believe the movement is going to have a revival along the lines of the 2006 events.

What about the youth?

Luis Enrique Barrios: For several years so far we witnessed no large-scale students' struggle. In spite of that, there are two factors that must be taken into consideration:

  1. The students are affected by their parents' conditions and this creates constant social pressure;
  2. Obstacles to studying get worse and worse: the factors that led to the 10-month long struggle at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) in 1999 are even stronger now.

The OECD has repeatedly declared that state universities must be privatised, and we know that the OECD is expressing exactly what Calderón wants. Traditionally, state education was like ballast that guaranteed the regime stability. Now, they're saying that the state budget is in deficit and they need to find some extra cash. Therefore, attacks on state education are very likely to be launched in the next period. If you consider how bad the condition have become for the students over the past few years, it is hard to imagine that the students would not move.

What is happening inside the PRD? How is the main progressive party of the country affected by the class conflict?

Luis Enrique Barrios: AMLO has continued with mass actions in the name of the Convención Nacional Democrática, the front that was forged in the anti-fraud struggle. He still fills every city's main square. Wherever he goes half a million people turn up, even one million if he really wants to call for a serious demonstration. But people are now starting to raise the idea that the movement must go going further. His supporters say that what has been done so far is not enough, and therefore they are developing a more critical approach toward AMLO.

On the other hand, faced with the announcement of privatisation of oil, AMLO has had to launch a new front, the Frente en Defensa del Petroleo (Oil Defence Front), and he said that mobilisations against privatisation would be promoted. This is a key issue in Mexico because of the importance and the meaning of oil in the country's history and economy.

The masses have accumulated experience in the anti-fraud movement, now they can apply those lessons to a new struggle. AMLO was already compelled to publicly support the idea of a national general strike in defence of oil. He cannot keep his foot on the brake for much longer.

AMLO will be leading a more experienced mass movement and this could place him in a seriously complicated situation in his attempt to keep the movement under his control. We can't exactly foresee what is going to happen, but stopping the movement will surely be much more difficult this time.

The class struggle did affect the PRD. For the first time there is a very clear differentiation between the left and the right wing within the party. A process of polarisation is unfolding, with the organised left wing gravitating around AMLO and a right wing around a sinister individual, Jesús Ortega, who is in control of most of the party apparatus.

Ortega has a policy very close to the PAN and the PRI and, for instance, his faction is openly in favour of accepting the idea of privatisation of oil. They would like to get rid of AMLO and become a kind of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition.

Do they have any chance of success?

Luis Enrique Barrios: The process has just begun. Internal elections for the national leading committee - not a congress - will be held in March. Every faction has its own candidate. AMLO's candidate is Alejandro Encinas, but if they do not take any measures to ensure that the rank and file actually have a say in the internal elections, Encinas can be crushed by the weight of the apparatus.

How is this possible? AMLO is apparently very popular among the traditional base of the PRD.

Luis Enrique Barrios: It is because AMLO did not appeal to the masses, asking them to join the PRD! The PRD is still relatively empty; there is no grassroots activity. People go to demonstrations but there is no democratic participation in the structures of the party and this has left the party under the control of the right wing of the PRD. In any case, in spite of this, it is inevitable the PRD will be transformed in the process and will become more polarised. This will create more favourable perspectives for those like us, who want to intervene within it to create links with the class struggle.

How did the movement affect the Marxist Tendency?

Luis Enrique Barrios: Favourably. We were involved very much in the pensions struggle, particularly in the UNAM University and the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN). In the UNAM our comrades played a big role in the movement and in many cases if there have been strikes it is because of our role. That was thanks to our links with the labour movement through the UNAM and UAM union. We also have links with 50 workers of the Politécnico.

Our intervention in the workers' movement was strengthened. As a matter of fact, in 2008 we planned our initiative starting from our 2007 achievements, but in a much bolder way.

The other side of the coin is that our organisation has been the victim of heavy state harassment. However, despite several comrades of our comrades being put in prison, we managed to have eight of them released within nine days and ten more after three weeks. Nobody has managed to do something like this in recent years. In Mexico political prisoners normally get jailed for months or years, not weeks. This was the result of both our connections to the labour movement, the unions and the PRD, forged in the previous years, and the very important support we received from comrades and supporters of International Marxist Tendency within the labour and student movement worldwide. And I would like to express my gratitude on behalf of all the comrades in Mexico to our brothers and sisters internationally.

Thank you very much.

January 17, 2008

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