Way Forward for the Left?

Following the rejection by the Mexican Electoral Tribunal this past Saturday August 6 of a full recount of the vote from Mexico’s recent elections, protesters have taken to the streets in support of center left PRD (Democratic Revolution Party) candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The elections that recently took place in Mexico on July 2 were expected to be a showdown between López Obrador and the conservative PAN (National Action Party) candidate, Felipe Calderón. After allegations of fraud that prompted a retallying of votes, it was announced on July 6 that the conservative Calderón had won by an extremely narrow margin of 243,934 votes.

The Mexico elections are one in a series of contests taking place across Latin America where popular leftist leaders are entering the fray. But the Mexico elections also witnessed a new trend that has been less common in other countries, the promotion of an anti-capitalist, non-electoral alternative by the Zapatista indigenous activists. Why did the Zapatistas refrain from supporting a candidate who would be more favorable to their cause? To what degree is this tendency, that the Zapatistas call the “Other Campaign,” gaining ground in other Latin American countries and to what effect?

López Obrador was a popular mayor of Mexico City who had implemented several progressive policies during his tenure as mayor. Following in the trend of other Pink Tide leaders such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, he promised to end privatization of natural resources, promote national sovereignty, and improve welfare subsidies to the poor and elderly. But closer to Brazil’s Lula and Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner, he would continue his successor’s policies of free trade, support for the private sector, and friendly relations with the United States.

There is no doubt that fraud occurred in these recent elections. Mexico has a long history of fraud and corruption in elections, including vote buying, stealing of ballot boxes, and misrecordings of ballots. In 1988, Carlos Salinas, member of the long-standing PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), claimed a fraudulent victory after the alleged crash of a computer that changed the election results. López Obrador supporters say that in the recent elections there was evidence of irregularities in some 50,000 of the country’s 130,000 polling stations. Discrepancies included stolen ballot boxes discovered in  municipal garbage dumps, tampering with ballot boxes, and the misrecording of ballots on tally sheets. López Obrador is challenging the July 6 decision of a Calderón victory and is demanding a full vote-by-vote recount.

The Zapatistas have vowed to mobilize in the streets along with López Obrador and his supporters to denounce instances of electoral fraud. But they continue with their campaign, the Other Campaign, as one of the principles of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, released in June 2005. In the Sixth Declaration, the Zapatistas renewed their commitment to struggle for indigenous rights and dignity. They criticized political parties, PRD, PRI, and PAN for their exclusion of indigenous people from decision making and their failure to recognize indigenous rights and culture. The Sixth Declaration states that “there was no point to dialogue and negotiation with the bad governments of Mexico.” The Sixth Declaration lent its support to the Good Governance Juntas, created to promote self-governing rebel indigenous municipalities, and to separate civil bodies from political-military tasks. The Declaration raised the demand for a new constitution that would recognize rights of “housing, land, work, food, health, education, information, culture, independence, democracy, justice, liberty and peace.” And it concluded by announcing a national campaign known as the Other Campaign to build the struggle against neoliberalism and create a new kind of politics.

The Other Campaign was launched in San Cristobal de Las Casas in January 1, 2006, a historic date on which the Zapatistas had occupied the city twelve years earlier. Alongside the campaign efforts of political candidates, the Zapatistas took to the road with marches, mobilizations, and mass meetings across the country.

The aim of the Other Campaign is not to tell people to abstain from voting, but rather to point to the limitations of an election where political parties share a consensus on most major issues, and participation is reduced to going to the ballots once every six years. It is to carry the campaign beyond the period of elections to everyday organizing. It is to raise debates over issues such as land reform, neoliberalism, indigenous rights, and free trade, which are not being addressed in the electoral arena. It is to point to the difficulty of achieving change through the electoral arena in a system dominated by corruption and fraud and plagued by high rates of abstention. The Other campaign involves “Others,” such as indigenous people, gays, and minorities, who are excluded from the agreements and pacts of political elites. It seeks to spread the message that the only way forward is people organizing from below in defense of their interests.

There are some echoes of the 2002 Brazilian elections in the Mexican scenario, where the Landless Laborers Movement (MST) debated over whether to support Workers Party (PT) candidate Lula. The Brazilian MST is an organization of landless laborers who organized to take over unused land and set up cooperatives, where they jointly build houses, provide health care and education for their children, and launch campaigns for land rights. They see themselves as a revolutionary organization that needs to take back the rights to land and employment denied to the people through successive so-called democratic governments in Brazil. During the nomination period, the MST did not support Lula, because they wanted to emphasize their independence from the PT, and they were concerned that Lula’s agenda would be tied to that of multinationals and the IMF, which would limit his ability to effect social change. But during the election, Lula managed to win their support, by promising to give land to 400,000 families and granting land titles to 500,000 squatters, a promise that was not kept.

When I visited some MST encampments on the outskirts of the city of Saõ Paulo in October 2004, people told me that having Lula in power had opened some space, but he had not really been supportive of the MST, and so the MST needed to retain their independence from the government. The MST had continued to organize around issues of employment, international trade agreements, and agrarian reform. People said that part of the problem with Lula was that since he had emerged from a movement of trade unions and organized workers, he did not have strategies for relating to the growing urban and rural informal sector. The other problem they mentioned was that Lula’s programs such as Zero Hunger relied strongly on a neoliberal orientation of privatizing social welfare functions and displacing these tasks onto the people themselves.

The turn to this kind of non-electoral politics in an era of leftist governments is gaining ground in other parts of Latin America also. From the slogan, “Our Dreams Don’t Fit on Your Ballots,” employed by some sectors of the Recuperated Factory Movement in Argentina, to the critical stance of urban social movements and indigenous groups in Venezuela and Bolivia towards elected leftist leaders, there is a sense of the need for social movements to maintain their distance from electoral politics. 

Community activists are finding that popular leftist governments often promote a developmentalist agenda that retains a capitalist model of exploitation and development. Leaders such as Chávez and Evo encourage popular actors to take on a protagonistic role in their society, but they are restrained by a bourgeois state apparatus that minimizes the role of the masses. Community activists struggle to identify who the state represents, whose interests are being protected by the supposed impartiality of bureaucrats, and on whose side the army will be willing to intervene in new leftist governments. They find that it is not always in the interests of ordinary people. In conflicts between rural MST activists and landowners in Brazil, and between rural land reformers and landowners in Venezuela, the military has often allowed the killings of peasant leaders to continue without intervening. The realization that they cannot be assured of state support is generating a greater impetus towards self-organization and autonomy among social movements.
In Venezuela, some social movements have begun to use mobilization as a tool to influence the environmental policy of the Chávez government. An example of this were the protests in March 2005 and again in January 2006, when activists of the National Association of Alternative and Community Media (ANMCLA) came together with social organizations and indigenous groups to protest the plan of the government to increase the extraction of coal in the oil-rich state of Zulia. Maracaibo, the capital of Zulia, home to over two and a half million people, is dependent on two sources of water in the mountains of Perijá, that come from the rivers Cachirí and Socuy. The plan of Corpozulia, the regional development corporation of the national government, was to open coal mines above the reservoirs to increase extraction of coal from 8000 tons to 30,000 tons. During the protests, media activists and the indigenous Wayú, Barí, and Yukpa people from the area argued that the plans would increase water contamination and health risks for the mostly indigenous population of the region who depend on scarce water supplies.

The protesters were highly critical of the model of development that the coal mining represents. In their press statement, they said, “The plans for coal mining in Zulia are part of an exogenous strategy that weaken self-determination, and moreover, are in keeping with a hegemonic economic and productive model in the world, that identifies development with economic expansion and a growth in the consumption of energy.” One of the posters at the march had an image of the Grim Reaper, draped in the American flag, which read, “Exploiting coal is death! And money for transnationals.” The banners criticized the ties of the Chávez government with foreign and multinational investors, which include $5 billion investment deals with Texaco-Mobil and Exxon to exploit the Orinoco oil and gas fields.

In contrast to the government slogan, “Another world is possible,” the Venezuelan protesters claimed, “Another integration is possible.” Like the Zapatistas and the MST, they are talking about another way of doing politics, that will likely include alliances with radical leftist leaders to bring about structural social change, but which also requires what the Zapatistas call building an alternative “from below and for below.”

Sujatha Fernandes ([email protected])

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