Mexico at the crossroads

On December the first 2000, Mexico witnessed the inauguration of Vincente Fox Quejada as its new President. The pomp and circumstance, the ceremonial unveiling of the flag, the military bands, the florid rhetoric, the servile speeches, were all nothing new.Yet this inauguration was something very new for Mexico. For the first time in 71 years, the President was not a member of the PRI - the comically misnamed Institutional Revolutionary Party which had ruled Mexico ever since 1929.

On December the first 2000, Mexico witnessed the inauguration of Vincente Fox Quejada as its new President. The pomp and circumstance, the ceremonial unveiling of the flag, the military bands, the florid rhetoric, the servile speeches, were all nothing new.

Yet this inauguration was something very new for Mexico. For the first time in 71 years, the President was not a member of the PRI - the comically misnamed Institutional Revolutionary Party which had ruled Mexico ever since 1929.

Under the pretext of a parliamentary democracy, the PRI in reality presided over a one-party state that kept itself in power by a mixture of electoral fraud, corruption and outright violence. The PRI was the party of the ruling oligarchy, yet paid lip service to the revolutionary traditions of Zapata and Pancho Villa. They gave certain concessions to the peasants and were traditionally opposed to the Catholic Church. The PRI had its own unions, controlled by the "Charro" union bosses, some of whom became extremely wealthy. In the past, they sometimes came into conflict with US imperialism, notably in 1938, when Lazaro Cardenas nationalised the Mexican oil industry.

This had nothing to do with socialism, but was an attempt to create the conditions for the development of an independent Mexican capitalist class. However, half a century later, nothing remains of the illusion of national independence. At the dawn of the twenty first century, Mexico is more dependent on the United States than at any time in its history.

The crushing domination of the world market is one of the most important phenomena of the present epoch. Imperialism has systematically robbed and plundered the peoples of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Central and South America. They have been compelled to open their markets and lower tariff barriers, leading to the destruction of local industries. The price of their exports has been driven down, while the cost of imported manufacturing goods has risen, plunging them into a nightmare of debt and impoverishment.

The rising price of oil has not helped Mexico to escape from this general condition. The previous PRI President Zedillo used up the country's oil revenues to pay off the country's $3 billion debts to the IMF three years early. This senseless "generosity" is typical of the servile attitude of Mexico's ruling class to imperialism.

Under pressure from the USA, the PRI already put its old policy of state capitalism into reverse gear. In 199o, Carlos Salinas (now on the run because of corruption charges) privatised the state telephone monopoly, Telmex. Predictably, the privatisation programme has made a few people very rich while hurting the poor and stifling the country's economic development.

But US imperialism was not satisfied with the control it already had over Mexico. In recent years, Washington has abandoned its previous policy of supporting military dictatorships in Latin America and elsewhere. This is not the result of any humanitarian considerations, but of cold calculation. After a series of disastrous experiences like Panama, where the CIA stooge Noriega entered into collision with the USA, they have decided that weak "democratic" regimes in the Third World serve their interests better than unstable dictatorships. Hence their change of attitude towards the PRI.

The PAN is an openly capitalist party. It stands unambiguously for "market economics" and privatisation. It is openly pro- American. And, as if that was not enough, it is openly allied to the Catholic Church. The first act of Fox after his inauguration was to go to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadaloupe. The PAN has lost no time in proposing retrograde changes in the laws on divorce and abortion, and take steps to reverse the separation of Church and state - one of the gains of the Mexican revolution.

Although Fox has publicly denied any intention to privatise Pemex, the state-owned oil company or the nationalised Electricity company, it is quite clear that both these items are on the agenda of the new government. The streets of the capital were filled with thousands of protesters on the first of December, and the largest contingent among them were members of the Electricians union. Fox knows that any move towards privatisation will provoke a massive backlash, and therefore is compelled to move carefully, but move he must.

A move to the right?

It would be easy to portray the election of the PAN as a move to the right, but such a view would be radically mistaken. After decades of rule by the corrupt and reactionary PRI, the masses wanted a change. The vote for the PAN was not a vote for right wing policies, but a vote against the PRI. The more left wing PRD led by Cuahatemoc Cardenas was not strong enough at this stage to defeat the PRI, and so the PAN in many regions benefited from tactical voting. However, its triumph will be short-lived.

The economic boom has not benefited the big majority of Mexicans, who live in abject poverty. The Mexican economy, despite its relative strength (it is the world's eighth biggest exporter, if the EU is counted as one), is now entirely dependent on the US economy. Not only is it tied to the USA by membership of NAFTA, which makes it the US's second biggest trading partner after Canada, but its most thriving industries - the so-called maquiladora - are assembly plants situated on the southern borders of the USA and working as subsidiaries for US companies. Any economic downturn in the USA will thus prove calamitous for Mexico.

Already, the growth of poverty and inequality in Mexico during the boom years has produced a ferment of discontent, which explains the defeat of the PRI. This defeat will have major psychological effects. It has opened the flood gates. In recent months there have been signs of a ferment inside the Charro unions, with the growth of a left opposition that has forced the right wing leadership to take action, such as the recent strike of public-sector workers in Mexico City. Others will inevitably follow suit. There are the first indications of strikes in the maquiladoras in the North.

Fox is obviously aware of the potential for a social explosion. That is why he has made reassuring noises about Pemex, and hastened to sign an agreement with the leaders of the Zapatista guerrillas in Chiapas. But how long is this going to last? With Fox's market oriented policies, no solution is possible for the impoverished people of Chiapas or anywhere else. The question is not whether Chiapas has formal autonomy, but whether its people have jobs, houses, electricity and running water. As long as the present system exists, the idea of "autonomy" for Chiapas will solve nothing; it will amount to the right to supervise their own poverty, while investment and jobs will continue to flow northwards.

The so-called neo-liberal policies espoused by Fox will mean further cuts in social spending and greater inequality. At a time when the Mexican economy is growing by seven percent, one third of the working population earns less than the minimum wage of a miserable four dollars a day. This is according to official figures. The real situation is far worse.

The huge and growing inequality is reflected in the figures of infant mortality. In 1998, infant mortality among the richest 20 percent was 13 per thousand, whereas for the poorest 20 percent it was 52 per 1,000, four times as high. Similarly in education, in the mid '90s, the poorest 10 percent of children gets on average only 2.1 years of schooling, as opposed to 12.1 for the richest 10 percent. State expenditure on education was cut back sharply in the 1980s when spending per pupil fell to the lowest level in three decades. The deteriorating conditions in education led to an outburst of student protests in the recent period. The policies of the PAN can only mean new cuts and more protests and strikes of both students and workers.

Vicente Fox is a businessman. He used to be the boss of Coca Cola in Mexico. Mexico consumes more Coca Cola than any country in the world, not because of the flavour but because it reduces hunger pains. He is also a rancher who likes to have his photo taken on a horse, looking very much like the man in the Marlboro advert. Now he is President and talks about a "change" for Mexico. He was elected on the slogan: "Cambio ya!" which roughly means: "Enough is enough!"

It will not take much experience of the present government to convince the masses that nothing has changed and that Fox and the PAN are even worse than the PRI. When the people conclude next time that "Enough is enough!" the stage will be set for an unprecedented explosion of the class struggle in Mexico.