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Class and Race are Driving the Crisis in Mexico, Not Political Parties

Upheaval from the Bottom

by JOHN ROSS

The political cognoscenti on all sides of the border nonchalantly attribute the massive resistance of millions of Mexicans to the stealing of last July 2nd’s presidential election from leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) by the ruling PAN party and its rightist candidate Felipe Calderon, to the shifting weights of the right, left, and center in a post-PRI world – whoever actually won the election July 2nd, the one-time ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party finished dead last, carving out its own political tomb.

But, in fact, this surge of resistance to the imposition of Calderon, much as the five month-long occupation of Oaxaca city by striking teachers and members of the autonomous Oaxaca Peoples’ Assembly (APPO) in an effort to remove a despotic PRI governor and, to a lesser extent, the thrust of Subcomandante Marcos’s Other Campaign, blows in from a different direction – up from the vast and restless bottom: the 73 million Mexicans (calculates social economist Julio Boltvitnik), most of them of darker skin pigmentation, who live in and around the poverty line, a quarter of them barely surviving in extreme poverty.

The 2006 presidential ballot was about as close as this country has ever gotten to putting the bad gas of class and race war that seethes just beneath the stoic surface of society here, up for a vote. Lopez Obrador’s candidacy galvanized Mexico’s brown underclass and as the months passed, AMLO astutely articulated this fermentation, directing energies against Calderon who was perceived to represent the tiny white elite that claims ownership of this distant neighbor nation. Indeed, the right-winger used the implicit threat of upheaval from down below to mobilize his middle and upper class base.

But the bottom is always wider than the top on Mexico’s social pyramid and when the election was stolen. Lopez Obrador organized the largest political demonstrations in Mexican history. Tens of thousands of his supporters blockaded the capital’s central thoroughfares for seven weeks. The massive civil resistance prevented outgoing president Vicente Fox from delivering his final State of the Union address and kept him away from Independence eve ceremonies in the great Zocalo plaza where Lopez Obrador’s people were encamped.

Yet AMLO’s control over his frustrated and tattered supporters – literally "los de abajo" or those from down below – was always tenuous and often those encamped in the streets during one of the hardest rainy seasons on record, prevailed. In fact, although the independent left, which joined forces with Lopez Obrador’s three-party coalition throughout the post-electoral struggle, takes credit for driving AMLO leftwards, it was the thrust from down below that forced the former mayor of Mexico City into a more defiant posture.

Despite the militancy of the massive resistance, unprecedented in modern political annals here, the post-electoral period was almost entirely free of violent confrontation, testimony to AMLO’s commitment to peaceful civil resistance as inspired by Gandhi and Dr. King, and an uncharacteristic response from the most frustrated and ignored sectors on the social ladder.

This upsurge from down below challenges both the political parties and the class they represent. AMLO’s crusade left the three parties that sponsored his candidacy in the dust – his support was far greater from those who professed no party commitment than it was from his own home party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD.) As testified to by his eternal campaign slogan "For the Good of All but First the Poor", on the stump Lopez Obrador’s goal was always to change the class equation rather than the aggrandizement of his party.

Similarly, the taking of Oaxaca by radical teachers and the APPO which represents many of the 412 majority-indigenous municipalities in the state, represents this same thrust from down below masquerading as a confrontation between political parties. Governor Ulisis Ruiz, whose removal is at the core of the conflict, is a PRIista popularly considered to have achieved high office through wholesale vote fraud two years ago. Having resorted to police repression and paramilitary death squads to break the occupation of the state capital, he could be removed by presidential or legislative fiat for destabilizing Oaxaca.

But Ruiz’s backers, sensitive to their party’s sinking fortunes that leaves it few options other than to seek détente with the PAN, threaten to torpedo a PRI-PAN pact that effectively hands control of the new congress to Calderon if and when he is inaugurated December 1st, should either the lame duck Fox or the PAN legislative bloc in the Senate vote to remove the Governor.

If Ruiz were to be run out of office before December 1st, a new election that probably would be won by the PRD would have to be ordered. If he survives through the due date, the Governor will be able to appoint his own successor.

But what appears to be just another Byzantine tug of war so endemic to Mexican party politics is really an expression of the same class and race wars that motored the great "planton" (encampment) up in Mexico City. Those at the bottom behind the barricades in Oaxaca’s old quarter are poor and brown – the political class manipulating the tensions are white and wealthy. A recent march of Oaxaca protestors on the capital drew tens of thousands of AMLO’s supporters, effectively joining the two struggles from down below.

In several key aspects, both the upsurge in Oaxaca and Mexico City borrow precepts of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation’s Other Campaign. From the outset of "La Otra". The EZLN’s quixotic Subcomandante Marcos has urged sympathizers to "look down" to the people on the bottom rung – where AMLO was also assiduously toiling – rather than to "look up" to the political class. Imbued with a sense of Mexico’s history, the Other Campaign proposes a new constitution – much as has Lopez Obrador.

Subcomandante Marcos’s pre-election attacks on Lopez Obrador, which so disaffected AMLO’s people, zeroed in on the electoral process as being futile, a position that many of Lopez Obrador’s supporters might now agree with.

After being derailed by the brutal police attack on the militant farmers of San Salvador Atenco just outside Mexico City last May, and the post-electoral furor that temporarily rendered the Other Campaign irrelevant, "La Otra" is again on the move through the north of Mexico, the part of the original itinerary suspended after the attack on Atenco, and arrived in Tijuana last week where "Delegate Zero" (Marcos) met with Chicanos and U.S. Zapatista supporters. Increasingly since the election, which drove a wedge through the EZLN’s Mexican support community, the Other Campaign’s most vocal support has come from outside the country.

To honor the Zapatistas’ commitment not to abandon Atenco while 28 political prisoners captured May 4th remain imprisoned, seven top EZLN comandantes have traveled from Chiapas to take up residency in that farming town outside the capital. The "Red Alert" which isolated Zapatista autonomous communities in southeastern Chiapas has been relaxed.

Why the thrust from down below has blossomed at this moment in the Mexican continuum is not yet crystal clear. Certainly, there is ample justification for social explosion. After 12 years, NAFTA-ization has all but annexed Mexico to Washington. Millions of farmers are forced to abandon their plots because of huge agricultural imports from the U.S. and head north where they run smack into Bush’s Terror Wall.

The Aztec nation has been franchised and branded by the transnationals into one immense strip mall. Real wages decline and the maquiladoras pull up stakes and head for lower-wage China. Impunity for narcos and political crooks reigns and more heads are whacked off in Acapulco than in Baghdad. The forests are beheaded and transgenic corn threatens native species. Thanks to fast food, childhood obesity and early onset diabetes are pandemic. Three quarters of the population has little social protection.

But all this rot is the story that I have been writing for years. The question is why this thrust from the long-enduring bottom is surging right now?

AMLO’s candidacy became, as the proverb goes, the sack ("costal") in which those down at the bottom deposited their most cherished grievances and history is really an accumulation of such grievances. When critical mass is reached is really determined by national temperament.

In the Mexican grammar perhaps the most active verb is "aguantar" or "to endure." Political and emotional metabolism moves slowly here, the "coraje" (righteous indignation) builds incrementally. The people plot payback behind the stoic mask that Octavio Paz made so much of and the Zapatistas wear today – until suddenly they erupt, sparked by a stolen election or a student massacre or some such egregious outrage. And when the shit does hit the fan, the political cognoscenti stroke their chins and try and pin the explosion on the struggle of the political parties for power.

However Mexico gets spun out here in the big wide world beyond its borders, the surge from down below has a lot less to do with right, left and center then it does with the bad gas of class and race war seeping 24-7 up from the bottom of this lopsided society.

JOHN ROSS’s ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible–Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006 will be published by Nation Books in October. Ross will travel the left coast this fall with the new volume and a hot-off-the-press chapbook of poetry Bomba!–all suggestions of venues will be cheerfully entertained–write johnross@igc.org

Ross will speak FROM THE BOTTOM this Friday, Oct. 27th at New College, 777 Valencia St. SF (7 PM). Ross’s latest opuses – ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible – Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006 and his explosive new poetry chapbook BOMBA! – will be available for perusal by the general public.