Mexico’s Indigenous Woman Presidential Candidate: More than Symbolic

 Maria de Jesus Patricio Matinez

Maria de Jesus Patricio Matinez

    On May 28, the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army) and the Indigenous Council of Government (CIG), selected María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, an indigenous women from the Nahua community of the state of Jalisco, to run as their presidential candidate in the 2018 election. As she readily admits, she has no chance of winning. In fact, just obtaining the opportunity to run for the presidency will be a struggle since electoral law requires that an independent candidate obtain some 850,000 signatures across 17 of the country’s 32 states.

The Goal: A New Type of Politics

    Popularly known as Marichuy, Patricio is a traditional healer, a founder of the CIG, and an early supporter of the Zapatistas. In a recent interview, she and other members of the CIG executive explained that her run for the presidency has two main goals. One is to make the suffering of indigenous communities known to the Mexican public, and, the second, is to use the election campaign as a base from which to organize a nation-wide coalition among non-indigenous people who share the view that Mexico must be re-constructed “from below.” Indeed, Patricio’s electoral campaign is just the beginning of a nation-wide campaign that will continue long after the election. Her electoral platform is a radical one. Patricio calls for an end to the current capitalist system, which is “destroying all of the [elements of] nature” and therefore life itself. The political system is equally problematic: during every election the traditional parties make promises to the indigenous and non-indigenous poor, which they never keep. The vision is of a substantive form of democracy that addresses pressing material and welfare needs (health, education, environmental degradation, and physical security).

Mexico’s Indigenous People: By-passed by Capitalist Growth

 Indigenous Woman, Oaxaca

Indigenous Woman, Oaxaca

    That the country’s some 25 million (self-identifying) indigenous people should provide the leadership and base for a political movement that rejects capitalism should come as no surprise. The high level of deprivation among the indigenous population compared with the general Mexican population is indisputable. The figure for extreme poverty for the indigenous population is nearly five times what it is for the general population. This higher degree of poverty coincides with a host of other interrelated deprivations: lower wages, lower educational levels, less access to government services (potable water, electricity, good housing), non-unionized employment, lack of social security protection (health care, pensions), illiteracy, and poorer health. In a recent conference paper, I document how throughout the twentieth century the indigenous population has experienced worsening deprivation even during times of economic growth when overall poverty has declined. Further, as I note, in an earlier post, the era of neoliberal reform, particularly from the early 1990s, has been the most devastating for the indigenous farmers of southern Mexico. In addition, indigenous communities, like Patricio’s, have been subject to violence and repression by government officials, private business interests and organized criminal groups, over, among other things, indigenous resistance to mining and other resource development projects.

The Impact of the New Movement

    Whether this new movement has an important impact will depend heavily on the extent to which it is able to garner support from other sectors of Mexican society. Given the movement’s objective of building a broad coalition of the disenfranchised, this might not be as impossible as it sounds. Poverty in Mexico has increased (from 32 percent of the population in 2006 to 41 percent in 2014) as has the level of physical insecurity. The plight of lower income Mexicans will most certainly worsen with President Trump’s policies toward Mexico if it has not already. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, (AMLO) the left-leaning front running candidate, would normally garner the lion’s share of votes from the poor, including from the indigenous population. AMLO is clearly worried about the erosion of popular support represented by Patricio’s candidacy, declaring that her candidacy represents a sell out to the political establishment since it will “divide the vote” from the political left. 

 Presidential Candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador

Presidential Candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador

    In fact, AMLO probably should be worried. In order to broaden his base of support, he has reached out to various constituencies, particularly business, a group strongly opposed to his presidential bids in 2006 and 2012. On the one hand, AMLO has respectable credentials in supporting indigenous welfare, having begun his political career in the struggle for indigenous rights. However, he has watered down his 2018 platform considerably compared to earlier campaigns. Aside from the promise to provide support to small farmers and expand rural services, there is little expressed concern for the specific sufferings faced by the country’s indigenous population. The main thrust of his electoral campaign is the promise to end the rule of the country’s corrupt mafia—that small group of politicians and entrepreneurs who have obtained quick profits through illegal means. Unlike Patricio, AMLO seeks to reform Mexican capitalism (and one might argue in a fairly moderate way), not abolish it. In addition to the expansion of social programs and improved wages, AMLO emphasizes that he is in favor of “good” private investment: he promises to promote private investment and encourage resource development. This latter is one of the key concerns of the indigenous movement. Furthermore, AMLO has incorporated key private sector actors into his campaign team, such as Alfonso Romo Garza (a powerful agro-industrialist), who maintains that AMLO has won over a significant portion of the business community.

    Should López Obrador be elected and should he adhere to his many electoral promises involving increased social spending and other policies to reduce poverty and deprivation, it is likely that the country’s poor, including its indigenous population, will see their conditions improve. However, in the process of broadening his coalitional base to include powerful members of the country’s business community and the middle classes, he is likely to abandon the aspects of his program that address the needs of the most deprived, particularly if these needs conflict with the interests of more powerful members of his political constituency. Private resource development, which often pits poor indigenous communities against private investors and governments seeking to increase revenue, is a case in point.

    As things stand, however, the organizational campaign contemplated by the CIG and the Zapatistas is very likely to acquire considerable support from non-indigenous groups who feel they have been left behind by neoliberal capitalism—poor farmers, informal sector workers along with those who sympathize with their plight. Given the radical nature of this new electoral movement, the up-coming 2018 presidential electoral campaign is likely to be deeply polarizing. The polarizing impact of neoliberalism, however, has now become a common feature of late-stage neoliberal economic globalization.