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Mexico Profundo: building a new way of doing politics

Rodrigo Ibarra
Date Published: 
February 01, 2007

For a tourist in Tijuana, the main street Avenida Revolución provides all that is needed. Its well-paved sidewalks take you right from San Diego to the end of town. All of the decent hotels are located here, as well as the craft shops, bars and restaurants, and, of course, the nightclubs. Even though Tijuana is one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico, Avenida Revolución is quite safe. Policemen speak English, give directions to tourists, and are always in sight.

But there is another Tijuana. The condition of the sidewalks, the buildings’ facades, and the visible wealth fade with every step you take away from the main street. There, a few blocks from the nightclubs’ bright lights, wrecked houses crumble, sidewalks seem like obstacle courses, and sewage leaks out into the open streets.

Two Mexicos

There are two Mexicos and two ways of doing politics. One was implemented and sustained with gunpowder and bayonets. After snowballing over the course of five hundred years, it is about to collide with something very different. The two Mexicos—one rooted in prehispanic culture and the other based on the illusions of the ruling class—are now standing face to face.

A new politics is rising in opposition: the politics from below, from the Mexico Profundo. Two social phenomena become the visible tip of the iceberg: they are the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO in its Spanish initials) and the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign.
Author Guillermo Bonfil Batalla eloquently explained the confrontation of two realities in his Mexico Profundo, highlighting the forgotten people and lands of a Mexico deeply rooted in the pre-colonial Mesoamerica that persists today.

Mexico Profundo

To this first group, which Bonfil calls the “Mexico Profundo” (the rooted Mexico), belong today’s 62 different Indian nations. Not counting the small percentage of families who dominate Mexico’s agricultural industry, all of rural Mexico, including thousands of domestic and transnational migrant workers, has its place in this group. Big urban settlements also contribute a large proportion to the rooted Mexico. Most bricklayers, gardeners, domestic employees, and factory and sweatshop workers either are former peasants themselves or have rural roots. This also applies to the so-called informal economy—mainly street vendors who sell bootleg products as well as cheap, legal Chinese imports and Mexican handicrafts—which employs more people than the so-called formal economy.
Furthermore, there is a very large group of Mexicans who were not brought up in the hammock of Mesoamerica’s worldview, but who have their place in the Mexico Profundo. The culturally mestizo (mixed-race) population swings between the poles of the two Mexicos. Cultural mobility in this group results from its capacity to adapt to and survive the extreme conditions that capitalism imposes on it. A small part of this large and creative Mexico was studied by Octavio Paz in The Labyrinth of Solitude.

The rooted Mexico constitutes the vast majority of the population and is the one that has been writing the history of the underdogs on the desert sands for over 500 years. The Mexico Profundo has its own version of politics, but has had almost no opportunity to exercise it beyond a few communities and neighborhoods. In all cases, it has done so literally struggling to death in resistance against the second Mexico and its powerful and oppressive version of politics.

During the Mexican revolution, Emiliano Zapata created a liberated territory, putting into practice the Indians’ and peasants’ land claims that were stated in Zapata’s 1911 Plan de Ayala. US envoy William Gates visited Zapata and then published a series of articles in the United States. He highlighted the organization in the Zapata-controlled zone and said, “True social revolution can be found among the Zapatistas.” Zapata was executed for treason on April 10, 1919.

An actual contemporary example of Mexico Profundo’s politics is the autonomous communities and Caracoles in the EZLN’s Chiapas. In a process that has attracted observers from all around the world, the so-called neo-zapatistas have created their own governmental entities, schools, and hospitals, exercising the long-claimed autonomy negated by the government and its stubborn blindness towards our profound reality.

After a seven-year process that started with the EZLN’s armed uprising, two national consultations, and demonstrations of over a million people, the Mexican government passed a Constitutional amendment on Indian rights and culture on August 14, 2001. The National Indian Congress (CNI) and the EZLN declared the law “born dead” and considered it a betrayal.

Imaginary Mexico

Bonfil Batalla named the second Mexico the “Imaginary Mexico,” a reality imposed by those who came to this land from Europe to force their hegemonic rule ever since the brutal war of conquest.

Today, what is known in Mexico as politics is the modern version of colonialism: the Imaginary Mexico and its new actors imposing by force and death an impossible and imported view of the world on Mesoamerica.
Mexico’s hegemonic political system was born with severe contradictions that are impossible to overcome. It has had a long history of confrontations whose results have never taken the Mexico Profundo into account.

The post-revolutionary regime, and its push to integrate native cultures into its own idea of progress, is tantamount to a slow policy of eradication of indigenous cultures and people. For over seven decades a single party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ruled over the country. Most of the last PRI presidents were elected under accusations of severe fraud, particularly in 1988 when Carlos Salinas was declared president after a scandalous computer crash engineered to alter the vote count.
Electoral and political turmoil are symptoms of the Imaginary political system’s road to failure. In order to understand the latest predicaments, it is important to examine four components: the late electoral process, political exclusion, corruption, and the role of mass media.

Electoral fraud

Al Giordano’s “Mexico’s Presidential Swindle,” recently published in the New Left Review, states the actual facts of fraud in the most recent election: “The outcome of Mexico’s 2006 election has only exacerbated the country’s deep social fractures. Lopez Obrador supporters who placed their faith in the ballot box have seen their votes literally trashed by the IFE, the official guardians of the count, with the backing of TRIFE, the constitutional guarantor of Mexico’s ‘democracy.’ Their outrage looks set to grow as the consequences of the electoral fraud convert into government policy. Millions have lost any hope of changing institutional or electoral paths. Struggles like those of Oaxaca, Atenco, and the Other Campaign begin to look more pragmatic to many than participating in rigged elections.”
Millions of Mexicans agree with Giordano’s assessment of the fraud in the election, consider the president-elect illegitimate, and have taken the streets to oppose his imposition.

The IFE had no choice but to admit it committed several mistakes. The veil over the relationship between IFE president Luis Carlos Ugalde and President Vicente Fox’s most powerful political agent, Elba Esther Gordillo, became too heavy to sustain.

The Federal Electoral Tribunal (TRIFE in its Spanish initials) pointed out that the biggest threat to the electoral process came from President Fox and his pernicious attitude and propaganda defaming the opposition candidate, Lopez Obrador.

Some 75 percent of Mexico’s population is poor. Around 75 million people generally have no access to medical services. Contaminated water runs from their faucets or does not run at all. They do not have sewage and their streets are unpaved. They lack jobs or earn poverty wages. They can no longer survive from their harvests because crop prices do not pay what it takes to grow them. To them, living is equivalent to condemning themselves or their sons and daughters to migration.

Untold thousands of poor people favored the PAN because of Fox’s poverty assistance programs, which constitute minimal cash handouts meant to foster dependence more than help lift people out of poverty. Thousands were told they would loose help if they did not vote for Calderón. “He also gave us pencils and notebooks,” a Chiapan fisherman living in a sixteen square meter wooden shack told me. It is not coincidental that Calderón’s campaign chief, Josefina Vazquez Mota, happened to be the former Minister of Social Development, responsible for Fox’s poverty assistance programs.

Felipe Calderón received less than fifteen million votes in a nation of more than 100 million inhabitants and twenty million more living across the border. Mass media and politicians keep repeating that electoral abstention is considered normal in modern democracies. Considering, however, that for most people voting is the only means of political participation, such massive abstention should be considered a symptom of failure.

In Mexico, the vast majority of citizens are disillusioned with the political system. For many of them, not voting is a political position. They believe the political class has a monopoly on politics and that true change can only come from throwing the whole political class out of power.
There also are some who maintain faith in the political system or at least in the most recent election’s “left-wing” candidate Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador. This became apparent in the post-electoral demonstrations against fraud. At the beginning, hundreds of thousands demanded fair results and a fair vote count. Then, after the declaration of Calderón as president-elect by the TRIFE, former Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) candidate Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador summoned his sympathizers to create what he called the National Democratic Convention (the same name the Zapatistas gave a national leftist gathering in Chiapas on August 8, 1994).

On September 16, a crowd in the overflowing zócalo (central plaza) in Mexico City was asked to raise their hands to decide if Lopez Obrador was to be declared Mexico’s “legitimate president.” Using the same method of raising hands to approve a package of proposals, the convention authorized its leader to create a working team of ministers (which was done on November 3) and to establish the head office in Mexico City. The government will have “an itinerant character, will follow a republican protocol, and has to raise its own funds.”

Representative democracy

What happens when representation does not work in a representative democracy? In Mexico the vast majority of the population lacks real representation and thus is politically excluded. This absence of political participation occurs at all three levels of government but in different ways. It is another manifestation of the Imaginary Mexico and its continuous tools of deceit that manipulate and crush the Mexico Profundo.

Somehow, throughout decades of political reforms attention has been centered on the federal system with very little effect on the local mechanisms of power and social control. Power is more strongly exercised at the local level; thus it is under the roof of municipal jurisdiction that most injustices are committed.

In Mexico, municipal representatives are not directly elected. Citizens vote for a chart, a list, with the candidate for the municipal presidency’s name on top and candidates for various municipal council chairs below it. The council members are designated from all the contending parties through an algorithm based on vote proportions to assure the municipal president’s party has the majority. Thus, representatives feel no obligation to voters and are indebted to the municipal president since it was his votes that got them on the council.

The municipal president then becomes a dictator with no checks and balances, or at least without formal ones. It is practically a rule that there are one or a few rich caciques, mafia-like political bosses, in town that finance political campaigns. Their interests are always fully represented to the point of defending them even when this means displacement, robbery, or murder.

Even though at the federal and state levels the majority of the congressmen are directly elected, they very seldom disagree with their respective parties’ positions, as demonstrated by the fact that they vote in party blocks. What they ultimately represent are their parties’ interests.

Corruption of ethics

Money-making as a public servant has many facets. One legal but still unethical practice is the giving of multiple bonuses to enlarge public officials’ salaries. Fox is ending his term officially earning close to $200,000 USD per year. TRIFE magistrates make close to $480,000 USD per year. Fox just got a period bonus of over $300,000 USD, equivalent to working almost 180 years at the Mexican minimum wage. Most state governors, legislators, judges, and even many municipal presidents earn salaries close to or even higher than Fox’s.

The next level of corruption, influence trafficking, is not legal, but it is very hard to prove. Several scandals arise every once in a while, but most of the crimes go unpunished. They come to light as powerful groups exchange below-the-belt punches. Behind every government action and behind every new development, concession, privatization, and public construction lays a dark, heavy curtain where politicians hide as puppeteers pulling strings and shoving loads of public money into their own pockets. The road to so-called national development is paved with dollar bills. Social interests only appear as rhetoric in speeches as a means of mass control and ultimately as a powerful weapon to dismantle social structures and their production and survival schemes.

That is why over the decades national governments so easily become partners with foreign and multinational corporations. They are enticed by fresh money arriving from the north or overseas. Industries arrive regardless of the ecocides they cause; sweatshops open despite labor injustice; hotels populate coasts, archeological sites, and nature preserves, causing displacement and robbery of community-held lands. New urban developments flood fields with concrete; huge department stores smash small businesses, and millions of tons of goods arrive from the other side of our territory like a hale storm over every town’s local economy.
The third level of corruption is openly criminal and is directly related to drugs and organized crime. It means big money, so it is reserved for those on top. It is a matter of tolerating certain cartels and attacking others. The current dominant mafia’s iron fist is the police and military forces. Fighting drugs applies only to the competitors.

Murdered journalists

Freedom of speech is still a dream. Mexico ranks first in murdered journalists in the Americas. We just witnessed the killing on October 27 of New York Indymedia journalist Brad Will. But this tragedy aside, we must ask whose voices are reproduced and spread by the mass media. There are no public mechanisms for regulating media contents. Ultimately, the criteria of what gets published and how depends on the head editors who report to media owners or, in many cases, are the owners themselves.

On May 5, Subcomandante Marcos and the Other Campaign marched to Atenco following two days of violence and criminal police occupation of the town. Several mass media outlets and journalists from international agencies who had witnessed the riot covered the march. Two well-known Mexican newspapers’ journalists, a national television chain’s cameraman, and an international agency’s correspondent anonymously told me they were ashamed to see how the media companies they worked for showed their bias by justifying police actions and hiding rapes, brutal beatings, and warrant-less house searches. An international correspondent who insisted that his name and agency remain anonymous told me it was the owners of the mass media who directly and frequently censor part of the news content. “There is no such thing as free press,” he said.

Mass media in Mexico is a component of the hegemonic political system. It is highly responsible for the creation of the Imaginary Mexico. It hides thousands of injustices committed every day by the corporate-government alliance and at the same time drives people’s attention from one new issue or irrelevant scandal to another. It is the factual supreme tribunal that condemns whomever they want before any judicial trial and piles tons of dirt on the legitimacy of social movements.

The Other Campaign

Mexican indians, in the voice of the new Mayans, the neo-Zapatistas, have proposed the construction of a world where all worlds would have a place of their own. That means throwing out hegemony, today translated into the capitalist system. It means creating a political praxis that can project equally and in equilibrium all hermeneutics, their poles, and the gradient in between. But how can that be achieved?

The first step is dialogue. Each head and each heart is a world in itself. But these worlds are small. When one genuinely opens up to others’ hearts and at the same time puts her or his own heart on the table for others, an exponentially bigger world is conceived. That is the spirit imbibed in schools and universities. That is the reason behind coexistence.

Listening is at the heart of the Other Campaign, announced by the Zapatistas’ Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle in June 2005. Everybody who is able to genuinely participate has a place in this great dialogue. If you have deep respect for others, all of them, and differences don’t matter, then you are able to truly be open with them. The disrespectful cannot participate because if they get power their view and thought will soon become hegemonic and will exclude the rest.

From this respectful dialogue people will conceive a bigger and better world, a world were those we pick for our government possess the same respect and thus will rule obeying the people. Like the Zapatistas said, we will create a world where the government rules by obeying. Donde los gobiernos “manden obedeciendo.”

This is the new way of doing politics—the Other Politics. The Zapatistas have already opened a great channel of dialogue not seen before in Mexico. It started nationally on January 1, 2006, with what they named the Sixth Commission traveling through all of the 31 Mexican states and its federal district. And it is going.


Rodrigo Ibarra is an activist and journalist from Guanajuato, Mexico. He is the founder and editor of a local alternative magazine, Periódico Erandi and co-founder and editor of the magazine Palabras de la Otra. He has collaborated with La Jornada’s supplement Ojarasca, Indymedia Chiapas,