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December 1994


Editors Note:

Chiapas, NAFTA, Colosio, Zedillo, Zapatista — all names that have recently entered the international lexicon during an extraordinary year in Mexico's history. And to the questions of political stability which these terms raise is added the urgent issue of economic stability, following the dramatic devaluation of the peso in recent weeks, and the hastily arranged $18 billion line of credit offered to Mexico as part of a plan to deal with its economic crisis.

The author, a senior analyst in the Analysis and Production Branch of CSIS, puts these events in context, and ventures both political and economic predictions for the near future.

Disclaimer: Publication of an article in the COMMENTARY series does not imply CSIS authentication of the information nor CSIS endorsement of the author's views.


Mexicans will not fondly remember 1994, a year of social instability marked by several highly publicized incidents: the Zapatista rebel uprising in Chiapas, kidnappings of prominent Mexican businessmen and assassinations of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio and PRI secretary general Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu. The year-end peso devaluation added one more woe to a dismal year.

These incidents are tied to fundamental political and economic change occurring in Mexico. These changes have disrupted the social contract that has defined political and economic relations between the government and the people during the past 65-year, uninterrupted rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The pressure to reform

Over the past six years, the Salinas government's adoption of a free trade, free market economy has obliged Mexican institutions and citizens to deal with economic structural adjustment and democratic liberalism.

The governing PRI, under newly elected Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, is trying to democratize Mexico's political institutions. Reforms are also being driven from the bottom up as Mexicans, especially those disenfranchised under the existing one-party plutocratic system, search for ways to exercise what they perceive as newly found political pluralism.

The Zapatista-led indigenous uprising in Chiapas, the peso devaluation and growing narcotrafficking violence have reinforced the urgency among Mexican reformers to end fraud, corruption and human-rights abuses while maintaining economic stability.

Foreign interests — media, business, foreign governments and humanitarian groups — are more keenly aware of events in Mexico. Whether seen as investment or exploitation, major oil companies, multinationals like Nestlé wishing to expand coffee production, and tourist companies wanting to promote Mayan ruins, are more interested in Mexico's economic and social stability.

Canadian implications

Events in Mexico have implications for Canadian business, government, NGOs and tourists. Trade between the two countries will near C$6 billion in 1994, up from $3.6 billion in 1992. A host of Canadian companies operate in Mexico, including four major banks and leading communications companies. Over a half million Canadian tourists annually visit Mexico. These linkages are expected to expand further under NAFTA or under a broader Americas free-trade zone, as discussed at the recent Summit of the Americas in Miami. Moreover, Canada has agreed to contribute $1.5 billion to the $18 billion international line of credit offered to Mexico as part of President Zedillo's plan to deal with Mexico's economic crisis.

Mexico's changing social contract: dedazo meets democracia

For the past 65 years, the PRI has governed Mexico under a one-party, autocratic presidential system. Although Mexico's constitution allows for an American-style separation of powers at the federal level, the presidency has, in reality, maintained absolutist control — presidencialismo — over Mexican society. During their 65 years of uninterrupted rule, PRI presidents have selected and removed senators, governors and supreme court judges, often through staged elections and appointments. The president has chosen his successor through personal selection called dedazo (pointing of the finger), knowing that this appointee would be the next president.

In addition, the president has maintained his grip on society through a pervasive corporatist political party system built around three pillars: labour, peasants and state employees. In this way, the president commands the police, labour unions and agrarian organizations. Television remains in effect a monopoly, although the press is more diverse and independent. Control is applied through national, regional and local bosses (charros who control labourers and caciques, politically well-connected landowners, who control peasants).

Mexico's federalist system also calls for a separation of powers between the federal and state governments, empowering Mexico's 31 states to enact independent laws. In practice, however, the PRI has for the past 65 years controlled virtually every state legislature. As a result state policies have typically been nothing more than mirror images of those at the centre.

This one-party corporatist system has endured partly because the strong centralized government has delivered stability and continuity of direction. Mexicans have viewed the president as the embodiment of Mexican manhood and nationalism; the working class see the president as a protector against the rich; and PRI power-bosses have ensured protection of worker rights and wage increases.

Evolution from the top down

Under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, however, the long-standing social contract between the president and the people was reshuffled. During his six-year presidential term which began in 1988, he opened the country to neo-liberal, free-market, free-trade policies, culminating with the implementation of NAFTA in January 1994. He also reformed land and rent laws, hoping to stimulate investment in agriculture and real estate.

These initiatives jolted the social arrangements between the absolutist presidency and the people, necessitating revamped political structures to accommodate the new economic environment.

Growing public participation and the Chiapas rebellion added more pressure on the Salinas government to move on political reforms. International scrutiny by business interests wanting to protect investment and by foreign governments promoting democracy and human rights also played a stronger role in shaping Mexican government responses to domestic political and economic events.

As a result, Mexico's economic liberalization was accompanied by some political reforms, most notably to the electoral process leading up to the 21 August 1994 presidential elections, won by PRI's Ernesto Zedillo. Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) — an independent body responsible for the organization and administration of federal elections — spent over $1 billion registering voters, conducting an independent audit of the lists and providing tamper-proof voter identification cards.

Procedures at voting stations were improved, stiffer penalties were introduced for election fraud and a $55 million cap was placed on campaign spending. More than 21,000 Mexicans acted as election monitors; they were joined by over 800 foreign " visitors", including 51 Canadians, who watched election proceedings.

Most international observers have concluded that the elections — which saw a record voter turnout — represent the free choice of the people, although irregularities still occurred. Progress on improving the legitimacy of the election process is seen as being substantial, particularly given the history of corruption in past elections. Critics, however, maintain that the elections were not fair, even if they were cleaner.

Other top-down political reforms, such as expanding party democracy, have moved more slowly and have been opposed by traditionalist hardline "dinosaurs" who wish to retain the old system of authoritarian, privileged rule. Mexican media have alleged PRI hardliners were involved in the assassinations of Luis Donaldo Colosio and Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, both known as party reformists. Other rumours have fingered narcotraffickers, and government sources maintain that Colosio was killed by a lone gunman.

Although smaller political parties and NGOs have increased their involvement in the political system, this has not yet translated into a strong opposition party.

Revolution from the bottom up

Like other centralized political systems in the 1990s, Mexico's plutocracy seems no longer able to address the diverse problems of its citizenry: job loss and wage reductions, inequities between rich and poor, increasing crime and narcoterrorism, and rising political instability. Andrew Reding, a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute at New Yorks New School for Social Research, calls it the "crumbling of a perfect dictatorship" and an evolution of a new political culture in Mexico.

Mexican peasants and indigenous people have long struggled to end years of oppression, elitism and institutional corruption. The Salinas presidency, however, galvanized a new level of social protest. Mexicans have embraced political liberalism and demanded an end to political fraud. A populist call has arisen for an independent electoral process, true separation of powers, a genuine multi-party system and international standards of human rights.

After Salinas' 1988 presidential victory was widely condemned for being fraudulent, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) was founded under Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas. Having lost his bid for the Mexican presidency, Cárdenas persisted in crying foul and demanding fundamental change to Mexican politics, thus opening a new era of political protest in Mexico. Since then, the government has come under criticism for fraudulently preventing the PRD from winning state governorships and municipal elections in Michoacán, Guerrero and the State of Mexico.

From these examples, other grass-roots protests have emerged. In August 1993, 20,000 angry demonstrators from low-rent barrios of Mexico City protested against legislative reforms aimed at encouraging more construction by removing tenant protection against landlords. Two months later, 100,000 people demonstrated against the army in commemoration of the 1968 brutal repression of student demonstrators in Tlatelolco.

Indigenous people: 500 years of repression and the Zapatista rebels

The Zapatista rebel uprising on 1 January 1994 in Mexico's most southerly state of Chiapas is a manifestation of long-festering indigenous people's dissatisfaction and protest against historic discrimination and repression. The Mexican government says 145 people were killed in early January after nearly 20,000 Mexican soldiers were sent to quell the uprising by some 2,000 guerrillas, who descended from their highland strongholds and seized about a dozen Chiapas towns.

Chiapas, with its poor citizens and large indigenous population, epitomizes the poverty and discrimination suffered by indigenous people in Mexico. The majority of Chiapas' 3.2 million people are descendants of the ancient Mayas. Tzotziles, Tzeltales, Choles, Tojolabales, Mames and Zoques are the principal ethnic groups.

Chiapas generates 55% of Mexico's hydro-electric power and provides 21% of the oil and 47% of the gas produced nationally, yet 60% of the homes lack electricity and nearly 50% lack tap water. The illiteracy rate is 30%, triple the national average. Well above average levels of deaths from treatable diseases continue; tuberculosis causes more deaths in Chiapas than anywhere else in Mexico. Drug trafficking has put several thousand indigenous people in prison.

Chiapas is the last stronghold of Mexico's caciques (white landowners). Under successive PRI governments, indigenous people have continued to lose land to ranchers, farmers and miners. Land for cattle occupies 50% of the state, up from 10% in the 1940s. State and local governments have historically represented the interests of cattle, logging and coffee élites. Indigenous land claims and peaceful protests have been met with decades of repression. Human rights organizations have repeatedly recorded local and state police torture, corruption and illegal arrests.

In mid-January 1994, 2000 people marched in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, against army brutality resulting from the Zapatista uprising. Days earlier in Mexico City, between 50,000 and 100,000 people marched to demand a "stop to the massacre". Indian, student, labour and church groups participated.

Shortly after, President Salinas ordered a ceasefire and issued a general amnesty for Zapatista rebels; the ceasefire has held since then. In March, a tentative 32-point peace proposal was hammered out between the government and Zapatista spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos. Three months later, rebel troops and supporters rejected the accord, although lines of communication between the government and the rebels remained open. In August, Zapatista rebels kept their promise and did not interfere with the presidential elections.

The Zapatista command seemed to turn over the national political agenda to the Democratic National Convention (CND), a leftist umbrella group of indigenous peoples, students, peasants and labour. It was created by the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army) to find social solutions to rebel demands and, according to some media reports, to become the future political wing of the movement.

So far, the Convention has not provided an effective voice for social reform. The first CND meeting in mid-August 1994 attracted some 6000 delegates; three months later, less than 3,000 attended. Both meetings have been plagued by disharmony among delegates. Moreover, calls for national political reform have been muted by the convincing PRI presidential victory of Ernesto Zedillo.

Chiapas remains a cauldron of discontent. Throughout Chiapas, violent confrontations continue to erupt between peasants and Mayan Indians on one side and wealthy ranchers and landowners on the other. Since January 1994, Chiapas peasants have forcibly occupied more than 50,000 hectares of privately owned farmland. Some 500 landowners marched in protest against these land seizures; they threatened to reply with force unless the government took action. At least half a dozen peasants were killed in related violence.

In April 1994, an estimated 50,000 peasant farmers, indigenous people and workers' organizations from across Mexico marched in Mexico City to mark the 75th anniversary of revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata's death and to demonstrate against land reforms made to Article 27 of the Mexican constitution.

In October, a local leader of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) was murdered, supposedly by ranchers (260 PRD members have been killed in Mexico during the past six years). Three days later, four were injured as more violence erupted between local PRI supporters and peasant activists; elsewhere a peasant was shot to death by so-called "white guards" working for caciques in the area.

In mid-October, the rebels broke off talks with the government. They issued a "red alert" in response to an alleged government build-up of forces; media reports warned that the rebels were preparing for one last, desperate act of war. The Salinas government, however, denied any plans for a military offensive.

Prognosis for Chiapas: more instability, new rebel factions

A political solution in Chiapas is still possible. In the first six months of 1994, the Salinas administration poured more than US$220 million into social and economic development projects in Chiapas. Future spending is targeted at nearly $800 million. The government this year handed out $30 million in direct payments to aid farmers under its Procampo program.

So far, President Zedillo has continued his predecessor's push for a peaceful solution, although party hardliners and local landowners want a more aggressive government response. Since taking office, Zedillo has publicly stated that the military will not break the ceasefire.

Over the past several months, EZLN spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos, has maintained that the rebels still want a peaceful, political solution. He recognizes that army troops surround rebel positions in Chiapas and says the EZLN can do little militarily, although he has several times hinted at possible actions outside their mountain strongholds.

Zapatista rebels warned of a blood-bath if PRI's Eduardo Robledo Rincon took office as state governor in December 1994. He was declared the winner in the August 21 Chiapas state gubernatorial elections, run concurrently with the presidential elections. So far, only non-violent demonstrations have occurred.

Following Robledo's inauguration, defeated PRD opposition candidate, Amado Avendano, set up a self-claimed parallel state government and has called on supporters not to pay their taxes and to continue a campaign of civil disobedience.

A year into the Chiapas uprising, prospects for peace are mixed. Government critics have accused the military of beefing up their forces in Chiapas, possibly in advance of renewed fighting. During December 1994, troop movements were evident on both sides and EZLN and government forces were on full alert, according to media reports. Tensions eased when President Zedillo agreed to his Interior Minister, Esteban Moctezuma Barragan, opening new talks with the EZLN under a National Mediation Commission, headed by Chiapas Bishop Samuel Ruiz.

Zapatista rebels are expected to react with force to any military crackdown by the government, likely confronting government troops directly in Chiapas. Although confined to the southern corner of Chiapas, where they face more than 20,000 highly-trained, well-equipped government troops, the EZLN has over 2000 troops and a 5000-person militia.

Broad-based, rebel-initiated aggression is unlikely, although smaller scale attacks against government forces by the EZLN are possible. Since January, moreover, at least two other armed groups have claimed a presence in Chiapas, sympathetic with but not controlled by the EZLN. Emerging factions such as these may make it increasingly difficult for Subcomandante Marcos to remain the only voice of rebel discontent in Chiapas.

Any renewed armed confrontation would likely spark anti-government protests in other states with large Indian populations such as Michoacan, Oaxaca, Puebla, Hidalgo and Guerrero. Guerrilla groups are operating in Guerrero, according to media reports. A self-proclaimed Zapatista Militia recently announced its formation in central Queretaro and Guanajuato states, although the state governor disclaimed its existence.

Outside Chiapas, a Zapatista-like armed uprising would be most likely in the southern state of Guerrero; a guerrilla movement existed there during the early 1970s. In the past year, slogans have appeared on walls naming Revolutionary Workers Clandestine People's Union Party (PROCUP), an ultra-leftist Marxist-Leninist group formed in the early 1970s, who claimed responsibility for explosions in Acapulco and in Mexico City during January 1994. A guerrilla group — the Armed Force for the Mexican Revolution — claims to have 1,000 well-armed, well-trained followers. Other groups, some receiving advice from EZLN rebels, are also operating in the state, according to media reports.

Any pre-emptive action by the government against Zapatista rebels will almost certainly provoke an immediate, negative reaction by labour, political, church, human rights groups and indigenous groups from across Mexico and internationally. In addition, the Zedillo government would probably face sporadic attacks in other parts of the country and against its missions abroad, similar to what occurred in January 1994, purportedly in support of the Zapatista uprising. At that time, bombings occurred in Acapulco and Mexio City, a bomb threat was made against the Mexican stock exchange and at least two Mexican Embassies were attacked with Molotov cocktails.

Mexican government policy — where to from here?

Over the next three to five years, Mexico's new Zedillo government will face the challenge of building more democratic, decentralized political institutions, without losing control over the process of change. This will mean finding a workable compromise between those wishing to cling to Mexico's decades-old, one-party, plutocratic system of government and the many seeking greater fulfilment of their political and economic aspirations. It will mean maintaining economic health, achieving more equitable distribution of wealth, reduced institutional corruption and improved human rights. It will also mean ongoing law enforcement action against criminals such as narcoterrorists.

Achieving these goals will be difficult, given the economic restraints the government must impose to deal with the fallout from the peso devaluation. Although Zedillo has said the next administration's challenge will be to raise Mexican's standard of living by creating jobs, the measures required to correct Mexico's trade imbalance and currency crisis will make this unattainable, at least in the short term. Labour groups see the new government-business-labour rescue pact as again placing the burden of Mexico's stabilization policies on the backs of workers. But Zedillo holds that a sound economic foundation, especially price stability, is the only way to realize sustainable economic growth.

Apart from the economy, the more important issues facing Zedillo are poverty, a breakdown in law and order, weakness in the judicial system, partisan nature of the media, absence of constitutional checks on presidential power, greater autonomy for state governors and legislatures and new policies to address social inequities.

Zedillo has stated that overall reform of the judicial system will be his response to criminal violence, to crime associated with drug trafficking activities and to those who are determined to preserve illegitimate sources of power and wealth.

As president, he will face risks in giving more power to state and local authorities where traditionalist hardliners are stronger, yet the times demand decentralization. PRI party members have already publicly called on the government through newspaper advertisements not to return to authoritarian rule.

Early indications are that Zedillo will push ahead with party reform. His newly appointed cabinet includes several reformists, most notably Esteban Moctezuma in the powerful post of interior minister. As well, Zedillo has taken the unprecedented step of choosing Antonio Lozano, from the National Action Party, as attorney-general and has met with members of the Democratic Revolutionary Party to discuss mutual co-operation, something never done by the former president.

Mexico's international affairs are heavily influenced by its relations with the United States. California's Proposition 187, approved in November 1994, is an example of the intertwined relationship between the two countries. It is aimed at restricting state services — welfare, education and all but emergency medical care — to California's 1.7 million illegal aliens, most of them Mexicans. President Zedillo has said that his country was "rather offended" by Proposition 187 (which has since been the object of a federal court injunction) and called for bilateral solutions to the problem of Mexicans illegally migrating to the United States.

In the foreign arena, Zedillo has set his agenda on strengthening national sovereignty, pursuing stronger relations with its NAFTA partners, expanding NAFTA to include other Latin American countries, diversifying international relations, intensifying relations with Spain and undertaking a frontal attack on narcotrafficking, including a world conference between producer and consumer countries.


Over the next year the risk of instability will remain high. Mexico's economic rescue plan will curb economic growth, hold down wages and cut public spending. This may calm financial markets but could spark unrest if government social programs are curtailed and as tough austerity measures take hold causing increased unemployment. President Zedillo has already run into aggressive opposition from increasingly independent unions, who strongly resisted wage concessions contained in the economic rescue plan.

In Chiapas, the prospects for peace will continue to run hot and cold. The Zedillo government will be anxious to reach a peace accord with Zapatista rebels to help reassure financial markets. But senior government officials, feeling that the rebels present no military threat, see that a stalement is likely if rebels stick to demands aimed at forcing the PRI from power.

The views expressed herein are those of the author, who may be contacted by writing to :

P.O.Box 9732
Postal Station T 
Ottawa, Ontario K1G 4G4 
FAX: (613) 842-1312

ISSN 1192-277X
Catalogue JS73-1/52

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