1990s >> 1994 >> no-1074-february-1994

Class War in Mexico

Peter Newell, author of a biography Zapata of Mexico gives the historical background to the recent peasant uprising in the south of Mexico

The Mexican government appears to have been taken by surprise at the recent events in the state of Chiapas, three hundred miles east of Acapulco, in southern Mexico. Indeed, as late as October last year the Interior Minister was denying the existence of insurrectos in Chiapas.

Yet on New Year’s day, hundreds of guerrilleros, calling themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army, captured the town of San Cristobal. They carried a variety of mostly old hunting rifles, home-made grenades and machetes. Many were women. On the same day, Canada, the United States and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The Land Question
When the Spaniards first arrived in Mexico, in 1517, the Indians still held the land in common. The idea of private property in land did not exist. The common lands were usually located on the outer edges of the pueblos or settlements. They were called “ejidos”, which means exit or “way out”.

New Spain, as Mexico was called, was largely conquered by private adventurers known as conquistadors, who were firmly controlled by a group of agents of the Spanish Crown known as “gachupines” (Wearers of Spurs), together with the leaders of the Catholic Church. At first, the conquistadors numbered only a few hundred, and even after a generation only a few thousands. The conquistadors soon made the Indians work on their land, which in theory now belonged to the Spanish Crown, whilst the Indians, later called peones (People of the Earth), were expected to live on the produce of their ejidos.

As time went by, the Spanish Crown granted legal titles of ownership of the land. But since most of the Indian pueblos could not obtain grants, the conquistadors gradually enlarged the boundaries of their estates, claiming that the land that they were occupying belonged, not to the peones, but to the Spanish Crown:
“By a slow process of attrition extending through generations, the relatively small holdings of the original conquistadors were gradually enlarged into enormous haciendas which covered most of the fertile lands of Central Mexico.” (Henry B. Parkes, A History of Mexico).

Probably 40 percent of the Indian population were compelled to become labourers on the haciendas and large estates. They became debt-slaves, and their debts were inherited from generation to generation.

The hacienda owners, or “hacendados”, were not generally interested in improving their methods of production. And the Indians were deprived of farm implements and domesticated animals such as oxen. Agriculture, therefore, stagnated. But early in the nineteenth century, a form of “plantation capitalism” slowly began to emerge. Within a still largely feudal economy the haciendas developed, whose aims were purely commercial.

After a long and bitter struggle, Mexico achieved its independence from Spain in 1821. Following independence, the Catholic Church was forbidden to own land; but it was paid compensation for its former estates. The Indian peones were unable to purchase the former Church land (which, before the Spanish conquest, was theirs anyway); only the already wealthy landowners could afford to. The result was to increase the concentration of land ownership on a scale hitherto unknown.

By 1889, twenty-nine landowners obtained 27.5 million hectares, or 14 percent of the total land area of Mexico. By 1900, about 50 haciendas comprised more than 100,000 hectares each. Meanwhile, the Indians continued to lose their common lands; and more and more of them were forced to work on the large estates.

On November 21, 1876, Porfiro Diaz became President of Mexico. He was to remain virtual dictator until May 1910. Nevertheless, under Diaz, Mexico underwent profound change. He encouraged the flow of foreign capital into the country. Money flowed in from Britain, the United States and elsewhere. Vast sums were invested in the construction of railways, the mining of silver and, after 1900, the production of coffee, sisal and sugar. Between 1880 and 1890, foreign capital outpaced Mexican investment. Public works were undertaken, including harbours, canals, drainage works and telephone and telegraph lines. A new industrial working class was recruited from the former peones displaced from the land. Indeed, by 1907, there were 40,000 textile workers and 100,000 miners in Mexico.

Naturally, this emphasis on industrialization increased the already clearly defined differences between rich and poor.

Industrial capitalism was very largely imposed upon the hacienda system, under which half the population was bound by debt-peonage. Modern capitalism was developing within the shell of a bureaucratic, corrupt and decadent feudalism. In cooperation with foreign interests, Mexico’s economy was tightly controlled by a small group of businessmen and financiers known as “cientificos”.

But by 1904, there were signs, tenuous at first, of economic instability. Between 1907 and 1910, inflation was rampant. Yet there was no ascertainable rise in wages. Trade unions were banned or severely restricted; but in 1906, the first industrial conflict in Mexico broke out at Cananea, in the state of Sonora. The workers of Mexico had begun to move. Other strikers, in the textile industry, followed in 1908 and 1909.

Without quite realizing it, Porfirio Diaz began to lose support.

The first to rebel against Diaz was Francisco Madero, the son of rich landowners in northern Mexico. Madero had a passion for education and radical reform. In June 1910 he challenged Diaz for the presidency; but first, he was arrested, then he was said to have received only 196 votes throughout the country. (Later on, in 1913, he was to be murdered by supporters of the by then deposed Diaz.) Madero, however, had begun a movement which would not only overthrow Diaz, and the ancient regime, but would result in a bloody and violent conflict lasting ten years. To the casual observer, the Mexican revolution seemed quite chaotic and purposeless. Small armies and guerrilla bands appeared to be rushing about in all directions; and the whole country seemed to be in a state of disintegration. But by 1911, a distinct pattern began to emerge. Mexico was, in fact, rent into three completely irreconcilable socio-economic classes.

The first was the deeply-entrenched hacendado, land-owning element, supported by the Catholic Church, a few home-grown financiers, and a powerful coterie of foreign concessionaires, chiefly British and American. Politically, they were Porfiristas; and they were looking for a new and young dictator. The second was the emergent, rising bourgeoisie – the businessmen and small land-owning class, including a few prosperous rancheros. They were generally nationalistic, which meant being anti-British and anti-American. And, like the bourgeoisie of seventeenth-century England and eighteenth-century France, they favoured a somewhat limited constitutional democracy that would free them from the fetters of a largely feudal absolutism, and give them a modern administration responsive to their needs.

The third was the great mass of Mexico’s dispossessed – the peones and debt-slaves, the small rancheros, and the new class industrial wage-slaves, such as the miners and railway workers. Among these, there was a distinct, and very independent group, mostly confined to the state of Morelos and a few neighbouring states, who would later be called Zapatistas.

Morelos lies just over 60 miles south of Mexico City. Since the sixteenth century, sugar plantations have dominated its life. Unlike elsewhere in Mexico, the great hacendados produced sugar-cane for profit and the market, and not for immediate consumption. After 1880, more and more of the Indians were forced off their common lands. Many of the haciendas developed into “company” towns, employing from between 250 and 3,000 workers. Such was the environment into which Emiliano Zapata was born, in San Miguel Anencuilco, in 1879.

Zapata was not a landless peon; his family owned a modest rancho, and his parents lived in a small adobe-and-stone house (the remains of which still exist, as I discovered when I visited Anencuilco). The Zapata family were poor, but, unlike most of the people in Morelos, not depressed to the verge of want. Emiliano also had a little schooling. And he became an expert horseman. He was a bad orator, but he became a good organizer. And soon came to hate the rich landowners. Nevertheless, he was far more patient than many of his companions, even after he had been elected Supreme Chief of the Liberation Army of the South.

Emiliano Zapata was, of course, not a socialist. Nor was he an ideologue. He wanted, and fought for, the return of the common lands stolen from the Indians; and, as time went by, he was influenced to some extent by the ideas of the anarcho-communist Ricardo Flores Magon. If anything, Zapata was a rather backward-looking utopian communist. But he could not be bought. He was offered almost anything to give up the struggle against the rich, the powerful and the Mexican state; but he never gave up, even after ten years. In 1919 he was lured into a trap by government agents and murdered.

By 1920, after ten years of struggle, insurrection and civil war, Mexico was in a very poor way indeed. The power of the hacendados had been largely broken; but the people were exhausted. Even the Zapatistas had had more than enough. But, as recent events have shown, Zapatismo lives on.

New Mexico
Between 1920 and 1933, almost eight million hectares of arable land was returned to the peones. But between 1934 and 1940, during the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas, more than twelve million hectares was distributed. He also organized an “ejidal” bank to give credit to new farmers.

However, with what was to be the slow, but irreversible, development of industrial capitalism in Mexico, the few existing, as well as newly-created ejidos, tended to become merely cooperative farms, largely financed by the government. Since 1940, more land has been distributed; but, in the main, the plots have been so small that they are economically unviable.

Feudalism in Mexico has gone. A new, bourgeois, capitalist class has emerged, as well as its opposite, a propertyless, working class. But there are still millions of peones and former peones often living in appalling poverty. Many are, in the words of Franz Fanon, the “Wretched of the Earth”, waiting, if they are lucky, to be used as cheap, exploited labour in a increasingly capitalist economy. For decades following the end of the civil war, they had became apathetic, demoralized, even frightened. Meanwhile the Mexican government had become more powerful, efficient and, therefore, more repressive. Then, things began to change. In October 1968, on the eve of the Olympic Games, over 200 student demonstrators were killed by units of the army.

After 1969, numerous Zapatista-type groups began to operate in various parts of the country. There was considerable unrest in the state of Puebla, following land occupations. In the state of Guerrero, a guerrilla “party of the poor”, another Zapatista-type organization, had considerable grassroots support in the vast, almost impenetrable mountain and jungle areas between Acapulco on the Pacific Coast and Morelos.

Still Active
Although its leader, Lucio Cabanas, was finally killed by the army in 1974, remnants of the “party of the poor” were still active in Guerrero when I was there in 1980. Throughout the 1970s, there was considerable unrest in at least five states. And hundreds of peones were killed by the Mexican army. In 1981, there were violent demonstrations against the state oil company, Pemex – in the state of Chiapas.

Chiapas is in the extreme south-east of Mexico, and borders Guatemala, with which it has more in common than northern and central Mexico. It has the highest percentage of “pure” Indians, largely of Maya origin, in the country. Many of its people do not speak Spanish, the official language of Mexico, but up to 20 local languages.

Although capitalist relationships prevail in Chiapas, as elsewhere in Mexico, semi-feudal, conditions continue to exist. There are also still vast cattle ranches, controlled by a small clique, with the Indian villages administered by pro-government caciques or village bosses. Only about 65 percent of households have any electricity; and, particularly in the rural areas, there is little main drainage or running water. In a manifesto issued by the Zapatista Liberation Army, they claim” “we possess nothing, absolutely nothing, not land, not work, not education. Today, we say: enough”. It is not surprising, therefore, that some at least have rebelled.

They have claimed up to 2,000 guerrilleros, but this is obviously an exaggeration. Most of their weapons have been stolen from army depots. Originally, they captured about six towns, including San Cristobal de la Casa and Guadalupe Tepayac.

The army have drafted in up to 15,000 troops. Over 200 people have been killed, much of them from bombing by the Mexican air force.

Modern State Power
It is obvious that such a movement will fail against the power of a modern state. Furthermore, it has no positive, forward-looking objective.

The people know what they are against, but that is about all. Now that, especially with the signing of NAFTA, Mexico is being integrated into the North American capitalist orbit, the workers of Chiapas, and elsewhere in Mexico, have no alternative but to organize with their fellow workers throughout the world, in order to abolish capitalism completely. Violent rebelling can achieve nothing of value, neither in the short nor the long run.

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