The Demise of Mexico’s PRD

Mexico City.

Mexico’s most prominent left party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), now the nation’s second political force born 19 years ago in a blaze of gunfire that took the lives of more than 500 sympathizers, commited suicide this past Cinco de Mayor (May 5th.) The probable cause: an overdose of tacos al pastor.

The PRD evolved from the wreckage of the fraud-blighted 1988 presidential election stolen by the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), then entering its sixth decade in power, from Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the son of one of the republic’s most beloved presidents, Lazaro Cardenas (1934-40.)  The younger Cardenas ran as the candidate of a hastily-improvised coalition, the National Democratic Front (FDN) that included four tiny moribund parties usually aligned with the PRI, remnants of the Mexican Communist Party gathered together in the Unified Socialist Party (PSUM), the Party of Revolutionary Workers (PRT), a Trotskyite aggregation, and the Mexican Workers Party (PMT) under the tutelage of left illuminati Heberto Castillo.

But the overwhelming majority of PRD founders were, like Cardenas and his sidekick former Mexican labor secretary and diplomat Porfirio Munoz Ledo, ex-PRIistas who had abandoned the then-official party when Cardenas was passed up for the presidential nomination by the outgoing Miguel de la Madrid who instead designated budget minister Carlos Salinas de Gortari as his successor via the PRI’s traditional “dedazo” or “big fingerpoint.”

Beginning in the autumn of 1987 through Election Day July 6th 1988 (and long after), this reporter accompanied the Cardenas crusade as it traveled the country from coast to coast and border to border, challenging the PRI’s clientele electorate, crucified by 150% inflation, to abandon the ruling party – the bottom had fallen out of the economy when Mexico went into virtual default to international creditors following the 1982 oil price bust.

Energized by the Damnificado movement that had rebelled against the PRI in the wake of government inaction after the devastating September 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the Cardenas campaign snowballed from plaza to plaza.  Where ten had fearfully gathered in January, literally tens of thousands now filled the public squares.  The son of the “Tata” (father) who had once handed out millions of acres to poor farmers and nationalized Mexico’s oil reserves was revered wherever he went.

To a gringo reporter, the campaign was bathed in history. Everywhere Cuauhtemoc traveled during that historic passage through 31 states and the federal district, he carried with him the notes (“apuntes”) that Lazaro had kept while following this same route prior to his election in 1934.

Election day July 6th proved a mega embarrassment to the PRI which never before had lost a presidential vote and certainly wasn’t about to concede the presidency now.  Out in the west-central state of Michoacan, Cuauhtemoc’s home turf, voters punished the PRI (“El Voto del Castigo”) with undisguised glee.  At one polling place in a railroad workers colony in the state capital of Morelia, usually a PRI stronghold, the returns showed Cardenas with more than 900 votes and his rival Salinas with only 14.  “This time we really fucked (“chingar” was the operative verb) the PRI” one resident guffawed to a U.S. reporter.

The scene was repeated throughout the country.  Up in Mexico City when representatives of the right-wing PAN were admitted to the National Voters Registry to review the returns as they streamed in on the screens (the 1988 election was the first to be tabulated on computers), Cardenas held a commanding lead in every district reporting.  Then the screens went blank and the PANistas were ushered out.

Just before midnight, Interior Secretary Manuel Bartlett whose ministry organized the election and was charged with tallying the results, advised reporters that the system had crashed (“se cayo el sistema”) and no numbers would be forthcoming for the foreseeable future.

Blindsided by the arrogance of power, the PRI had not seen Cardenas coming and now desperately sought to steal back the election for Salinas.  Over the next week, tens of thousands of partially burnt ballots marked for Cardenas were discovered smoldering in local garbage dumps and floating in provincial rivers.  Finally, on July 10th, the numbers started running again and Salinas was awarded a shade over 50% of the vote – Cardenas’s count had him leading with 39% and 17,000 out of 52,000 polling places unreported.  Those 17,000 precincts were never included in the final count.

Tumultuous protests filled the Mexican Street on the heels of the fraud but Cardenas, warned by the military (his father had been a general) that a blood bath was in the works, called upon his supporters to back off while the election was contested in the courts.  Justice was, of course, unavailable to the Cardenistas and on December 1st 1988, Carlos Salinas was sworn in as De la Madrid’s successor.

Salinas, a Harvard-educated neo-liberal ideologue who basked in the backing of the White House promptly sat down with the first George Bush to lay out the groundwork for the North American Free Trade Agreement that would eventually give Washington carte blanche to annex Mexico’s economy.  On the homefront, Salinas and the PRI launched the Solidarity program to co-opt the poor who had overwhelmingly voted for Cardenas.

Those who would not go along with the game were gunned down by PRI thugs in Michoacan and Guerrero and Mexico state.  Even before July 6th, Cardenas’s supporters were subject to assassination – on the eve of the vote taking, Cuauhtemoc’s top electoral advisor Xavier Ovando and his aide were cut down several blocks from the Mexican Congress.  It was suspected that Ovando had obtained the computer password that would allow Cardenas’s experts to monitor the PRI’s scamming.  The killings continued apace – by mid-term elections in 1991, the death toll had topped 500.

In a slow-motion push to consolidate supporters caught in the classic PRI squeeze of “plata o plomo” (“silver or lead”), Cuauhtemoc Cardenas issued a call for the founding of a party of the Left and on May 5th 1989, in a rented Mexico City dance palace, the Party of the Democratic Revolution came screaming into the world.  The PRD would not just be a political party, the son of the Tata insisted.  “We want our organization to be an instrument of society not just the property of its members and directors,” he told the founding convention in his trademark mournful tone but the new party was almost instantaneously torn asunder by squabbling and backstabbing between the 16 “currents” (later “tribes”) who had come together for the founding.

At the core of the dispute was the party’s vision: would it be a confluence of activist movements for whom elections were only one strategy for achieving social change or would the PRD be a conventional if progressive-minded party dedicated to tooting its own horn and winning a quota of political power? From its earliest days, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), an ex-PRIista and FDN candidate for governor of his native Tabasco, represented the activist wing.

The internecine battles between the tribes became legendary.  Revelations that Cardenas had secretly negotiated with Salinas following the ’88 fraud shocked militants.  When the Zapatista Army of National Liberation rose in Chiapas in 1994, many threw their support to the Indian rebels who bitterly denounced the party system, reserving particular venom for the PRD.

Fistfights broke out at the 1995 party convention at which Cardenas’s increasingly estranged collaborator Munoz Ledo was elected party president.  But in 1997, Lopez Obrador, fresh from leading Chontal Indian farmers against the petroleum giant PEMEX in Tabasco, won the PRD presidency and engineered Cuauhtemoc Cardenas’s victory in the first-ever popular vote for Mexico City mayor – Cardenas triumphed by about the same margin as he had tallied when he won the capital in 1988 and indeed, the PRD has won that conflictive megalopolis hands down ever since.

But as the party grew to become a major player in Mexican politics, the internal strife only intensified.  In the 1999 party “presidenciales”, Amalia Garcia, a former communist and now governor of Zacatecas, went up against congressperson Jesus Ortega in a contest remembered in PRD annals as “El Cochinero” or the Pigsty – the fraud was so redolent that the vote-taking had to be redone the next year when Garcia was declared the victor.

El Cochinero repeated itself in 2003 when Ortega, like “yon Cassius a lean and hungry” sort, was pitted against Rosario Robles who Cardenas had appointed interim Mexico City mayor when he lofted his hat into the ring for the 2000 presidential race.  Following in the footsteps of her predecessors, Robles bought the party election with the questionable financial backing of her lover, a crooked construction contractor who later would seek to blackmail the PRD with videos he secretly filmed of low-ranking party officials stuffing packets of Yanqui dollars into their suit coat pockets.  An interim president had to be named when Robles was threatened with criminal indictment.

The Party of the Democratic Revolution underwent a seismic shift after the 2000 presidential election.  Cardenas, who always considered that he had proprietary rights on the presidency, was crushed in his third and final try for high office and for the first time in its shameless history, the PRI acknowledged that it had lost Los Pinos and right-winger Vicente Fox took over the Mexican White House.  Only Lopez Obrador’s big vote in Mexico City brought home the PRD bacon, retaining the capitol for the leftists.

AMLO would become a wildly popular mayor abetted by Fox’s foiled efforts to politically lynch him and went on to win the Mexican presidency in 2006 only, like Cardenas, to be stripped of victory by ruling party (the PAN was now the ruling party) chicanery.  As Lopez Obrador’s stature buoyed, Cardenas’s sunk.  At the 2004 party conclave, the son of the Tata was booed off the microphone and retired as the PRD’s resident “moral authority.”

AMLO’s 2006 presidential campaign and the subsequent post-electoral struggle strengthened his hold on the PRD’s rank and file but incited jealousies amongst party hacks like Ortega.  Today, two years down the pike, after barnstorming the grassroots to solidify the support of the 14,000,000 Mexicans who voted for him in 2006, AMLO remains the most popular politico in the land as testified to by his leadership of the movement to prevent the privatization of Mexico’s oil industry.  Indeed, if the massive turn-outs at rallies and demonstrations against privatization are any measure, Lopez Obrador’s following is now more numerous than the PRD’s.

The March 16th balloting for a new party president sent AMLO’s candidate, the roly-poly ex-commie Alejandro Encinas against the party’s by-now perpetual great white hope Ortega.  Within the PRD’s tribal cosmography, Jesus Ortega heads the New Left (“Nueva Izquierda”) tendency, more popularly labeled the Chuchos (because so many of its honchos are named Jesus.)  The Chuchos tout themselves as the “reasonable” Left unlike the radicalized AMLOs, and negotiate with fraudulently elected president Felipe Calderon who Lopez Obrador does not even recognize.  When AMLO’s legislators took over the tribunes of both houses of congress this April to prevent fast-track privatization of Mexico’s oil, the Chuchos staged a separatist hunger strike.

Exit polls March 16th gave Encinas a comfortable lead but Ortega refused to concede until the last ballot was counted.  The problem was that the numbers from many states were highly untrustworthy.  Results favoring the Chuchos piled in from polling places that were never installed in Chiapas, Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Mexico state.  Some tallies far exceeded the number of ballots allocated to the precincts and Encinas’s people demanded they be excluded from the official count.  Caught in the crossfire between the two factions, PRD election officials quit and things began to spiral out of control.  As Ortega and Encinas sniped away at each other, the PRD’s enemies, notably the TV tyrant Televisa broadcast nightly orgies of ridicule and Calderon, the ersatz president, stridently mocked the party that continued to question the legitimacy of his 2006 “victory.”

Trapped in the middle of this treachery, La Jornada, the national left daily that uncritically supports the PRD, was forced to take sides.  Editorials dissed both of the candidates but favored the AMLO-Encinas axis.  Cartoons that displayed Ortega as everything from a rattlesnake to a vampire were more explicit.

On April 29th, the outgoing party president Lionel Cota, an AMLO unconditional obligated to give up his sinecure by May 1st, called a press conference to assert that Encinas had won the election by 13,000 votes with 83.9% of the ballots counted – the remaining votes could not be tabulated, Cota explained, because they had never been cast.  No further vote breakdown was offered.

Chucho Ortega obviously did not concur, claiming that he had won the party presidency by at least 30,000 votes.  As La Jornada “cronista” (chronicler) Arturo Cano astutely pointed out the numbers presented by Ortega were almost facsimile copies of the numbers he claimed in the 1999 “Cochinero.”  Déjà vu came trotting in all over again.

Then on May 4th, acting through a proxy tribe, Ortega convened a spurious meeting of the PRD national council but failed to obtain a quorum – according to the Jornada count, only 113 out of the necessary 120 councilors (out of a total of 360 members) showed up to ratify the Chuchos’ triumph which did not stop Ortega from designating his second in command as the new head of the party.  Encinas, whose councilors boycotted the session, decried the flimflamery: “the only thing these numbers prove is that Jesus Ortega is the president of Chucholandia.”

Meanwhile, given the lack of definition as to who is in charge at the PRD, the party’s mortal foes in the PAN appealed to the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) to suspend the leftists’ registration and cut off all government subsidies, the lifeblood of Mexico’s political parties.

What comes next is as murky as what came before.  The PRD seems to have three options to resolve the kafuffle – to redo the elections with or without Encinas and Ortega, to live with the Chuchos’ coup d’etat, or to abandon the party and start all over again, a plan AMLO seems to be on the brink of acting upon once the smoke from the battle over privatization of the petroleum industry has cleared.

On May 5th, Cinco de Mayo (but not a major Mexican holiday), both PRDs took pains to celebrate the party’s 19th birthday.  Alejandro Encinas (AMLO is on the road defending Mexico’s oil) cut the cake at a salon festooned with a few desultory balloons near the Monument to the Revolution while outside on the esplanade of the dome-shaped Monument, the Chuchos partied down with clowns, mariachis, and the eternal Sonora Santanera.  In time-honored PRI style, busloads of “accariados” from Mexico state were trucked in to pad out the party.  Jesus did not feed the masses with fishes but rather with great wheels of roast pork.  The tacos de pastor poured down like manna from heaven.

As night fell, the floor of the Monument where revolutionary apostles like President Venustiano Carranza, the one-armed general Obregon, Pancho Villa (actually his bones rest elsewhere), and Lazaro Cardenas himself are entombed, was covered in a shroud of garbage, mute evidence of the PRD’s suicide by tacos de pastor.  The Party of the Democratic Revolution had eaten itself to death.

“Congratulations Chuchos” a letter from a reader in the morning-after Jornada crowed, “you did what Carlos Salinas could never accomplish.  You killed the PRD.”

JOHN ROSS can be found at He is building a web page ( where Blindman’s Buffs (formerly Mexico Barbaro) will be archived.

JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to