Documents on Mexican Politics.

Land and Liberty in Rural Mexico

Land and Liberty in Rural Mexico

by Democracy Backgrounder

Vol I, No. 1 April 1995:

The Democracy Backgrounder is published six times annually by the Interhemispheric Resource Center. The IRC is a private, non- profit research and policy institute, founded in 1979, that produces books, policy reports, and periodicals about US foreign relations.

Campesinos in Mexico have since the last century organized under the banner of "Land and Liberty." This combination of agrarianism with demands for political freedom and self-determination was expressed most clearly in Emiliano Zapata's Plan of Ayala. Throughout Mexican history, struggles for control of land and water have often been closely linked with civic mobilization against undemocratic political institutions, particularly on the municipal and state levels.

Relations with Political Parties

The campesino movements in Mexico have had a mixed relationship with political parties. It was the ruling party under President Lazaro Cardenas (1934-40) that shaped the first national campesino organization and gave the organized peasantry a voice in government. This corporatist relationship, however, had the long-term result of creating a dependent, passive agrarian sector. Instead of guaranteeing land and liberty, the Mexican Revolution gave the campesino movement land and the state. The government maintained a tight hold on the peasantry by channeling campesino demands for land and services through organizations and associations that it financed and controlled and by keeping the the ejido's comisariados incorporated within the government's sturcutres of clientelism and political patronage.

Important nongovernmental campesino organizing was often spearheaded by national leftist parties, but this centralized control often meant that the organizing agendas of local campesino organizations were determined by the political strategies of Mexico City-based parties. There has also been a history of more independent political organizing by campesino organizations that have attempted to pursue their demands through political channels. In Morelos, Sonora, Guerrero, and Oaxaca, campesinos joined with workers and other popular sectors to create home-grown political parties to challenge PRI hegemony. In all instances, the government responded to such political challenges with repression, largely discouraging further attempts by campesinos to organize politically.

The campesino organizations that emerged following the failures of Echeverrian populism of the early 1970s stayed clear of party politics. By the late 1980s this commitment to political independence and autonomy became an increasingly questionable strategy. Fearful of being subsumed by a Cardenista corporatism, the more radical wing of the campesino movement declined to throw their direct support behind opposition candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in 1988. With an eye toward entering into agreements with the new PRI government, the pragmatic wing also distanced itself from the Cardenas candidacy. Both tendencies focused on their agendas of advancing agrarian reform and changing agricultural policy while leaving issues of political democratization to the opposition political parties, the expanding civic movement, and localized challenges to municipal power structures.

Issues of Internal Democratization

Although the campesino movement was not a major actor in national efforts to push the democratization process forward in the 1987- 94 period, it had become increasingly concerned with issues of internal democratization. More grassroots involvement and control of the new campesino organizations increased with the fading power of the ejidal comisariados and the emergence of new credit, food distribution, and other service organizations in the mid- 1970s. The declining influence of the government-sponsored National Campesino Federation and the creation of new local and regional organizations linked to national networks also created room for a more democratic campesino movement. Also important was the participation of the "generation of 1968" as technical advisors and academic consultants to the new organizations.

The increasingly democratic character of the campesino movement was also a product of the integration of traditional community organizations into producer networks. This was especially evident in the National Network of Coffee Growers Organizations (CNOC), which was firmly anchored in local and regional organizations that combined the structures of direct and representative democracy. The vibrant democracy of village assemblies and the regular regional meetings of village delegates contrasts sharply with the top-down character of Mexican political institutions and demonstrates the viability and efficiency of bottom-up social structures.

Since the 1970s campesino organizations have made great strides in creating more democratic structures. But many shortcomings remain. The clientelistic, elitist, and paternalistic behavior for which Mexican political parties and government agencies are criticized is also found within campesino organizations. Also deserving attention is the exclusion of women and women's concerns, although among campesino organizations there is a rising awareness of the importance of integrating women's concerns as well as environmental issues. Overdependence on one leader or honcho persists in many organizations, the most prominent case being that of the EZLN and its "spokesperson" Subcomandante Marcos.

Model for Local Democracy

The creation of autonomous regional organizations and national networks in the 1980s was just one element in the development of a more active civil society in Mexico. Another model for democracy was found in the Zapotec municipality of Juchitan. Agrarian struggles by indian campesinos evolved into a radical coalition of campesinos, workers, and students that since the early 1970s has been struggling for political power in the isthmus region of Oaxaca. In response to the mobilization of the Worker, Student, and Campesino Coalition of the Isthmus (COCEI) for democratic rights and economic justice, the government militarized the region. But the determination of the coalition and its innovative mixing of militant tactics and electoral politics eventually gave COCEI control of the municipal government. The successful experience of COCEI points to the feasibility of combining economic and political struggles, while offering lessons about the interplay of class and ethnic issues.

The example of COCEI also offers a hopeful alternative to armed conflict as a way to resolve class and ethnic issues in the countryside. The problems that faced the incipient popular movement in Juchitan are much like those that confront campesinos and workers in such other conflictive areas as Chiapas, Hidalgo, Veracruz, Guerrero, and Michoacan where political violence is common. COCEI demonstrated that a combination of militant mobilization and electoral campaigns can reduce the power of reactionary elites and give the poor majority a voice in local government. By forging a coalition of students, workers, campesinos, and progressive professionals, COCEI was able to change the balance of power in the isthmus. Although rooted in the popular movement, COCEI recognized that successful governance required moderation and sophisticated negotiating skills. The struggle of COCEI to represent the interests of the poor and to win political power is an important model for other popular movements. At the same time, however, the mainly urban and highly localized character of COCEI limit its relevance to campesino movements that arise in more remote regions.

Joining Political and Economic Demands

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the distancing of the campesino movement from politics reduced its influence and contributed to the isolation of the campesino sector. Although political fraud and the corruption of municipal officials were rising rural concerns, the campesino movement provided little leadership and stayed removed from the battle for democratization in Mexico. This failure to join political demands with economic and agrarian ones was highlighted by the Chiapas rebellion in which democratization was clearly a leading demand of the campesino rebels. The rash of campesino occupations of municipal buildings and the ouster of town officials that followed the January 1994 insurgency amply demonstrated the extent to which poor campesinos associated their economic plight with their lack of democratic rights. Once again, the calls for liberty as well as for land reverberated through the Mexican countryside.

The campesino movement, like many sectors of the emerging organized civil society in Mexico, has been caught in the dilemma of wanting to stay clear of politics in an effort to maintain an independent voice while acknowledging that real change will come only when the political system changes. Under the corporatist system, the ability of the ruling party to co-opt the campesino movement has been an abiding preoccupation for campesino organizations. Yet as a more pluralistic political environment develops in Mexico, the lack of integral links between an organized peasantry and political struggles has become a major obstacle to pushing campesino demands forward.

Responsibility for this disjuncture between campesino organizing and the political opposition lies mainly with the two leading opposition parties, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and the National Action Party (PAN), neither of which have opened much space for campesinos in their ranks. The PRD's inteligentsia-centered approach distanced it from grassroots groups despite the party campesinista rhetoric, while PAN's ideology is fundamentally anti-campesino.

In the wake of the August 1994 presidential election won by PRI candidate Ernesto Zedillo, the limits and the advances of Mexico's democratization process became more clearly defined. In part because of the Chiapas rebellion, the election was closely monitored by both national and international observers. As a result, the election was not characterized the widespread fraud of past elections, although voting irregularities were still common, particularly in more remote areas.

In contrast to 1988, there was little doubt which of the candidates received the plurality of the votes. The democratization process had advanced in the form of national elections whose results were not thrown into question by fraud and electoral engineering the by PRI government. In addition, the country had a new set of electoral regulations and a system of citizen vote monitoring. For all of these advances, the zapatistas with their demands for "liberty and democracy" deserved much credit.

Furthermore, the EZLN had set in motion a grassroots movement for democratization that was at least as important as the electoral aspects of democratization. In Chiapas, a State Assembly of the Chiapanecan People formed as a loose coalition of citizen groups, campesino organizations, democratic union currents, and NGOs. Responding to the call of the EZLN, a National Democratic Convention was held immediately before the August 1994 elections that brought together human rights groups, leftist academics and scholars, and popular organizations, united in their conviction of the lack of real democracy in Mexico.

Formal institutions such as the National Democratic Convention and the State Assembly of the Chiapanecan people were established largely as a result of the EZLN's call for organized civil society to take the lead in pushing for an up-from-the-bottom process of democratization. This grassroots movement for liberty took hold at the village level in Chiapas as communities began to challenge the pervasive hold of the caciques in the Altos de Chiapas and to confront municipal authorities with charges of corruption. The rising recognition in Mexico that the deep racial and caste divisions need to be addressed and a reinvigorated sense of indigenous idenity have also been important advances in the creation of a more democratic society in Mexico.

Advances and Obstacles

Although there have been important advances, the democratization process in Mexico, there remain many obstacles. Democratization means more than fraud-free elections, and liberty means more than the building of a popular movement or organizing civil society. Elections in Mexico are becoming freer but the their fairness is still highly questionable given the PRI's manipulation of government revenues for political ends (seen most clearly in the National Solidarity Program), the state's alliance with the media and large business, and the repression of dissident political forces, particularly those on the left. This lack of a level playing field is one of the major limits to Mexico's democratization process.

But the lack of true democracy is not just at the political level, it extends and to a certain extent arises from the absence of democracy at a more grassroots level. One problem is the equation on the popular level of liberty with power. This was seen in the founding slogan of the National Plan of Ayala Network, a militant campesino coalition: "Today we fight for land, and tomorrow for power." The increasingly politicized character of agrarian politics was reflected in the rewording of the slogan in 1982: "Today we fight for land and for power." Yet power and democracy are not necessarily the same, and often are in conflict.

The absence of a democratic culture at a grassroots level is seen clearly within CEOIC in Chiapas. The government predictably attempted to manipulate this civic coalition by making political and economic deals with the oficialista groups like the CNC and the productivist organizations like Campesino-Teacher Solidarity (SOCAMA). At least as damaging to the integrity of CEOIC as a representative of popular interests has been the righteousness, confrontational tactics, and power-grabbing tactics of groups like the radical OCEZ that claim to be the true and only voices of the peasantry. Further complicating the process of internal democratization is that on both sides the spokespeople of the "campesino" organizations are often not campesinos themselves but administrators, technical consultants, and political ideologues. Both formal electoral democracy and the internal democracy of campesino organizations have taken a stronger hold in Mexico since the mid-1980s, but there are still major gaps that the campesino movement with their new banner of "liberty and democracy" need to address. Democracy in the Mexican countryside is also limited by economics.

It has been said that Mexican indians vote "en corto" (in short), meaning that they vote for short-term economic considerations, such as projects or financing promised by the ruling party, rather than for longer-term, unproven alternatives. According to Mexican anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil, politics is "based on short-term consideration that have nothing to do with poltiical programs which propose alternative models for the society in the future. The vote is seen more as a resource for the here and now, exercised toward the promise of finishing a road, building a school or a drinking-water system, moving forward a land-titling process, and other small benefits which help to resolve ancestral problems that shape their daily lives."

Democracy and economic justice are closely linked, as the EZLN has observed. But this does not necessarily translate into voting for the opposition, which is not necessarily more democratic, may be no more able to ensure economic justice, and is not even in the position as the ruling party to often the short-term economic benefits that people need. A fundamental part of this problem is the PRI's tactics of "divide-and-rule" and co-optation, facilitated by the targeting of government revenues and favors. But the continuation of voting en corto also can be attributed to the failure of opposing political factions--be they political parties, popular movements, or guerrilla armies--to persuade the Mexican people of their own democratic credentials and their capability of ushering in a new era of economic progress and stability.

The zapatista rebellion, the failure of the PRI to capture a clear majority of the vote, and the deepening impoverishment of rural and urban populations all indicate the urgent need for alternative policies that can credibly offer liberty and development, justice and peace both in the short and long term. Mexico's campesinado--with its ability to adapt, its determination to survive, and its will to work and struggle--may prove crucial in both making and implementing viable political and economic alternatives.

1 Phrasing from John Tutino, From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico: Social Bases of Agrarian Violence, 1750-1940 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 8.

2 These concerns were validated after the 1988 election when Cardenas attempted to form a new national campesino organization called the Central Campesina Cardenista, which received some support in Cardenista strongholds of Michoacan and La Laguna but never got off the ground.

3 For a discussion of the progress and problems of internal democratization see Jonathan Fox, ed., The Challenge of Rural Democratization: Perspectives from Latin America and the Philippines (London: Frank Cass and Company, 1990); and Jonathan Fox, "Democratic Rural Development: Leadership Accountability in Regional Peasant Organizations," Development and Change 23(2), 1992.

4 Gerardo Otero, "The New Agrarian Movement: Self-Managed, Democratic Production," Latin American Perspectives 16(4), Fall 1989; Jonathan Fox and Gustavo Gordilo, "Between State and Market: The Campesinos' Quest for Autonomy," in Wayne A. Cornelius, Judith Gettleman, and Peter H. Smith, eds.., Mexico's Alternative Political Futures (San Diego: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, 1989)

5 For a history and analysis of COCEI see works of Jeffrey W. Rubin, including "COCEI in Juchitan: Grassroots Radicalism and Regional History," Journal of Latin American Studies 26 (1), February 1994. Also see Howard Campbell, Leigh Binford, Miguel Bartolome, and Alicia Barabas, eds., Zapotec Struggles (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993).

6 COCEI creatively used ethnic pride to push forward its class- based politics in a region in which Zapotecs not only make up the popular sectors but are also important in the PRI and in the economic power structure. According to Binford and Campbell, "COCEI transcends many of the dichotomies often used to categorize social movements: ethnic vs. class-oriented, Marxist vs. indigenista, rural indigenous vs. urban Westernized, parochial vs. international." Leigh Binford and Howard Campbell, "Introduction," in Zapotec Struggles, 17.

7 For a thoughtful analysis of the COCEI experience and its relevance to the Chiapas rebellion, see Jeffrey W. Rubin, "Indigenous Autonomy and Power in Chiapas: Lessons from Mobilization in Juchitan," Transformation of Rural Mexico, 5 (San Diego: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, 1994). According to Rubin, "The EZLN, like COCEI, may gain negotiating power by remaining at the border between violence and nonviolence....Given the strength of old-style political and economic elites in Chiapas, and the multiplicity of ethnic groups there, it is the EZLN's armed uprising that has provided a threat equivalent to that of COCEI."

7 An excellent overview of these issues is found in Jonathan Fox and Luis Hernandez, "Mexico's Difficult Democracy: Grassroots Movements, NGOs, and Local Government," Alternatives 17(2), April 1992.

8 Luisa Pare, "The Challenges of Rural Democratization in Mexico," Journal of Development Studies 26(4), July 1990, 86.

9 Guillermo Bonfil, Mexico profundo: Una civilizacion negada (Mexico City: Grijalbo, 1990), iii, as cited by Jonathan Fox, "Problems of Governance in Rural Mexico," Presented at "The Agrarian Problem in Present Day Mexico," Mexican Studies Program, University of Chicago, May 6-7, 1994.

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