November 2006

MEXICO: A POWDER KEG

A report by Uli Schmetzer
From La Realidad and Oaxaca:

On the walls of La Realidad, the base-village of the Zapatista movement deep in the Lacandona jungle, the paintings of Emilio Zapata, Che Guevara and Subcommandante Marcos have faded over the last three years. Even the Mexican soldiers who used to pass twice a day along the track outside to intimidate the 600 villagers have given up. La Realidad is returning to its drowsy rural existence before its inhabitants on January 1, 1994 spearheaded the Zapatista takeover of San Cristobal de las Casas and two other cities in Chiapas.
But those who are reporting the peasant rebellion has spent itself have their perceptive wires crossed. Chiapas appears calm because the focus of public fury against an anachronistic and colonial Mexican political and judicial system has moved elsewhere. Today Zapatista front-man, Sub-commandante Marcos, has taken the rebellion on the road. He is visiting indigenous populations from one end of Mexico to the other, exporting ideas, listening to laments of abuse, corruption and misery, laments that have been the same for centuries in this country. Quietly Marcos is creating new indigenous bases of support for a movement demanding autonomy, indigenous rights and an end to the serf-like existence of millions of Mexican indigenes and peasants.
Yesterday it was the State of Chiapas. Today it is all of Mexico.
The masked Sub is traveling across a country simmering with insurrection. The spirit of revolt emanates from Mexico City where fraudulent presidential elections threaten to spark a civil war. In central Oaxaca a bloody six months long teachers strike has expanded into a popular uprising against a governor accused of corruption and brutality. The violence against the demonstrators in Oaxaca has kindled a wave of national and international solidarity for them. Meanwhile in Chiapas the Zapatistas are still on alert, aware if a crack-down does come from an establishment anxious to preserve their privileges they are sure to be an early target.
Yet the atmosphere of revolt is contagious: In Colonia Valle, Mexico City, I saw six and seven year old primary school pupils last month block off a major traffic artery for six hours in protest against ‘a corrupt headmistress’ while academics at the Autonomous University of Mexico City just two blocks away debated the pros and cons of autonomous rights and anti-globalization which, so one activist shouted into the aula: “You won’t learn about at university or in books but in the streets of Seattle and Genova’ (and lately Melbourne).
After three years of virtual inertia the Zapatistas voted (everyone over 12 years of age has a vote) to empower Marcos to take ‘the other campaign’ to the rest of the country. Once again our armchair ‘leftists’ had a brain storm: Marcos (now traveling with the label ‘Delegado Zero’) was no longer welcome in La Realidad and had to go on the road. Worse (so the rumor mill had it) he will not be allowed to return.
Wrong again. One needs only to go to La Realidad and watch the Zapatistas glued to Radio Insurgentes every day, rushing forward, mesmerized, whenever Marcos speaks from somewhere on his ‘other campaign’ in Mexico. One only has to watch their faces glow, the concentration on their brows, to realize their masked pipe-smoking icon is still venerated as No 1 - well, at least at home.
It is true outside Chiapas Marcos has lost the support of the socialists and social democrats, the historic compromise makers of modern politics, willing forever to make secret pacts and forge alliances in order to corner a slice of power which they then claim to use for the good of the great multitude, a multitude they inevitably betray to pad their own pockets.
The Sub upset these opportunists deeply when he refused to support the bandwagon of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, (AMLO) a populist with populist slogans and billionaire friends, in his quest for the Mexican presidency. He was right: Where was AMLO when riot police killed, beat up and raped the people of San Salvador de Atenco in May this year, one of the worst violations of human rights for years in Latin America? Did he promote any inquiry into the rape of detained women among the 2,000 people arrested? (four foreign women, two Spaniards, a Chilean and a German, were simply deported as undesirable aliens before they could file rape charges) It was Marcos and the Zapatistas who came to the rescue of Atenco with a march of 5,000 followers.
And in Oaxaca where was AMLO, the great pseudo-champion of the poor, when government thugs on the payroll of the loathed Oaxaca governor Ulises Ruiz shot dead 17 people including an American cameraman during a five months long standoff by protesting teachers eventually joined by workers and students? (the government has only admitted six were killed in the clashes, the rest died of ‘unknown causes’ among them ‘mysterious’ bullet wounds) The defeated presidential candidate was more interested in furthering his personal ambition as an alternate president then supporting a popular movement battling to rid a Mexican province of a cruel, devious and arrogant tyrant, an anachronistic dinosaur who may not be worse then any of his predecessors but who became, during the five months long revolt, a symbol of all that is wrong and evil in Mexico.
Oaxaca - a State that is anti-governor to the smallest and remotest town - illustrated again how easily information can be perverted by the corporate mass media. The world was served an amazing home-brewed cocktail of news month after month by an American news agency whose correspondent seemed to act as the beleaguered governor’s propagandist. The reports mentioned a five star hotel so frequently one suspects the correspondent must have occupied a suit there – gratis. The question was raised on the Internet whether this correspondent was actually in Oaxaca or reporting from London or New York
Before he left for his fatal assignment in Oaxaca where he was shot dead the American cameraman Bradley Will, 36, told friends he had to go to Oaxaca to document the story that ‘a commercial media simulator is distorting instead of reporting…..’
In one dispatch from Oaxaca City in November this U.S.-based news agency summed up the death toll with this baffling phrase: ’Six people have been killed, all of them leftists.’ It sounded as if the hunting season had opened in Oaxaca on ‘leftists.’ In all dispatches the agency’s partisan correspondent blamed demonstrators (who had no guns according to all independent news reports) for starting the shootouts that resulted in casualties. The agency also went along with the official verdict issued by the governor’s henchmen that security officials were innocent although several of them were shown in photos published by the Mexican mass media firing their guns at the demonstrators. Instead, so the inquiry into Will’s assassination concluded, ‘unknown leftists’ firing at close range had killed the American cameraman (another leftist?)
If one took these reports as accurate it almost justified the federal government sending thousands of riot police into Oaxaca, 5,000 of them alone to Oaxaca City where they surrounded the Zocalo, the governor’s headquarters around the clock and made an unsuccessful attempt to dislodge 500 students barricaded into their university. With the riot police - decked out like robots and backed by water canons, teargas and mustard spray - flooding the city center the governor announced Oaxaca was now calm, the tourists could come back. Of course, reality was different.
In this make-belief world of official lies who could really blame the Zapatistas for refusing to support yet another candidate of a system so rotten its own followers over recent years formed breakaway political parties to escape the stench.
In July AMLO (heading another breakaway party) lost the presidency by the narrowest of margins to the pro-business neo-liberalist Felipe Calderon Hinojoso, the anointed successor of outgoing president Vicente Fox and Washington’s favorite. As has been the custom in Mexico for decades the vote was rigged, probably by both sides. But socialists and armchair academics blamed AMLO’s defeat on the Zapatistas whose support could have swung the result the other way. (AMLO on November 21 swore himself in as President of an ‘Alternate Mexican Government’).
Suddenly Marcos, once the darling of the socialist and academic left, metamorphosed into the villain of the election drama. Everyone conveniently forgot the Zapatistas had been repeatedly betrayed by successive governments and political parties who made loud public promises (like the St Andres accord on indigenous rights) but diluted these accords to zilch in the legislatures. The rebels, an estimated 300,000, had decided no longer could they trust any politician or any government. Marcos himself had argued: “If we want to see progress for our cause the entire political system has to change.”
Their ‘cause,’ embodied in the slogan ‘Land and Liberty’ is the same today as it was for peasant leader Emilio Zapata nearly a hundred years ago. Sadly the roots of the ‘cause’ are virtually also the same today as they were then.
In reality not much has changed since Zapata’s days in Mexico. The provincial jails of the country are still crowded with indigenes held on flimsy often invented charges that crooked officials levy to extract money or land. Powerful financial and corporate interests push the indigenes further into barren areas where they virtually starve. One tribal group in northern Baja California, the Kiliwa people, decided to let their tribe ‘die out’ by ensuring no more children are born ‘because we’re too ashamed to bring them into a world where they have no food, no schooling and no respect for their culture.’ The youngest Kiliwa today is 30-year old Elias Espinosa.
The Mexican daily La Jornada reported in November: ‘The rich State of Sonora lives off the backs of its Indios population; especially those in the higher plains and mountains of the Primeria Alta where the white man has taken over the most fertile soil kicking out, persecuting, torturing and jailing the sons of these tribes…..The judicial police beats and tortures them, the Mestizo farmers invade their land, the narcotics traffickers at gunpoint force the young to work in marihuana plantations and use the land for the same purpose. Children and adults have blisters on their feet, snot runs from the noses of the kids because they never cure their respiratory ailments and malnutrition…..”
In Teotitlan del Camino, Oaxaca State, the jail, an old Spanish garrison, has not changed since the days 37 years ago when I was held there as a suspect seeker of the magic mushroom in the nearby Sierra Mazzoteca. (In fact the judiciary officials simply wanted money from me). The inmates at the jail today are still indigenes held without charges or on drummed up excuses until they can pay ‘a fine’ to the authorities. While being held the inmates’ families still have to feed them just as they did 38 years ago. The inmates still sit in the courtyard during the day, do their toilet into a hole in the open and sleep four to six in small cold cells with locked iron bars as doors. There is still a ‘Damas’ section where native women, usually young, are held. Freedom is obtained by arbitrary fines.
Returning to Mexico for the first time since I worked there as journalist in 1968 I found the Mexican judicial and political system as bad, as partisan and as cruel as I remembered it.
So how can anyone blame the Zapatistas for lack of faith or Marcos for broadcasting over Radio Insurgentes in November that all political parties, whatever their initials, cannot be trusted: “PRI or PAN,” he said: “All these parties are the same. They are run by politicians who are not interested in us. Don’t believe it when one of them tells you he will give you this or that and more then the other party. In the end they will screw you. They will give you nothing. Don’t trust them.”
His argument made sense. So did the decision not to support any presidential candidate following a 12 year long rebellion that left a trail of broken promises by a political elite made up mainly of landowners and industrialists, people who consider handing over land or surrendering unoccupied land as anathema. These landowners and corporate interests are literally up in arms (their paramilitary units often invade Zapatista villages) by the nagging fact the Zapatistas today occupy about a third of the province of Chiapas, an area of thick rain forests, rich in minerals and bio-diversity. The Zapatista have declared their ‘caracoles’ (occupied zones) as autonomous regions. These are now self-governed by a system of rotating juntas known as ‘Juntas of Good Government.’
Until 2003 thousands of international sympathizers trekked through the rain forest to help shield the Zapatista villages against the Mexican army and paramilitary thugs. But once the army reduced its patrols this great trek of foreigners (who rushed out onto forest trails forming human chains in front of villages) turned into a trickle.
Today the international solidarity movement for the Zapatistas has taken on different forms. Italian provinces five years ago financed the turbine which provides electricity for 600 villagers in La Realidad. Youths from social forums like Ya Basta, autonomy and no-global movements, built the water canals, electricity poles and conductors that now supply power to Zapatista villages. The visitors are so diverse they even included a contingent from the Ultras, a football fan club with a leftwing ideology.
In November Italian municipalities paid for an Italian technician, Pier-Luigi, to repair the turbine and lecture on its correct maintenance. The turbine had ground to a halt as the result of silt and gravel deposits that require it to be cleaned periodically. Now it works again.
The new initiative of the Zapatistas known as ‘the other campaign’ is documented extensively on Internet websites that have served the Zapatistas as successful weapons in the past. In fact it is now generally accepted the Zapatistas maintained their autonomy zones not by the force of their arms but by the international solidarity movements they managed to galvanize on their behalf via the Internet. Theirs is the first successful Internet-based revolution.
Although the Mexican government, at least temporarily, shelved military options against the Zapatistas it has not been sitting on its haunches.
The worst highway in Mexico leads into Chiapas, a highway left for years so potholed and cratered anyone would think twice before subjecting a vehicle to its torture. Worse, the two-lane obstacle highway is a toll road and motorists have to fork out two tolls of five dollars each for the privilege of seeing their suspension ripped to pieces on the way in and out of Mexico’s poorest State, despite its wealth in oil, gas and minerals.
At the same time Mexico’s government is busy luring Zapatistas into the government camp by offering them solar energy systems, 300 pesos ($30) handouts a month as well as rice, crackers and a teacher for their children.
The campaign to let materialism achieve what guns could not, has found its weak spots.
Even in La Realidad, like in many Zapatista villages, the ‘PRI-istas’ (turncoats who took handouts from the governing Partido Revolucionario Institucional) live on the outskirts, shunned by the Zapatistas though they are allowed residence and the right to tend their land.
Unlike the strictly moralist Zapatistas who ban alcohol, drugs and women bathing uncovered in the river, the PRI-istas do violate these taboos. The two sides, though living side by side, do not fraternize. Those who took the handouts can no longer participate in Zapatista assemblies where every decision is voted on by everyone, can no longer benefit from Zapatista transport or power supply and if their drunkenness becomes a public spectacle can be jailed in Zapatista prisons.
On the other hand the Zapatista children are not allowed to attend school taught by a government teacher in the PRI-ista zone. When the Zapatista turbine broke down the Zapatista part of La Realidad was in darkness for seven months while the lights blazed on the PRI-ista side thanks to a government provided generator and solar panels.
Still, many of the turncoats are repentant today: “I regret now having taken the government handouts. They came just once then they stopped. But they put a wedge between us and the compas (comrades). That I regret,” said Emilio who took the handouts but continues to live virtually wall to wall to the nearest Zapatista house.
Adds Ramirez the Zapatista store manager: “They were conned. Only their leaders got the real handouts and a monthly check for 300 pesos, the others got a sack of rice. Eventually they’ll come back to us. They are Indios just like us.”
Divide and rule has become the government antidote also in Oaxaca.
Huautla de Jiminez, once famous as the magic mushroom paradise presided by the late curandera Maria Sabina, is today a buzzing commercial center notorious for its education industry. The indigenes from all over this wildly beautiful mountain region have been convinced education is the recipe for their emancipation. At enormous personal sacrifice the Indios sent their children to the mushrooming schools in Huautla. When Oaxaca teachers went on strike last May for higher wages the government sent in scab teachers or so-called ‘pirates’ who took over the schools as ‘educators’. Some of these ‘pirates’ were barely literate; few had teaching certificates; most had worked previously as manual labor or as components of ‘rent-a-crowds.’
When the local teachers union voted to return to classes the teachers of Huautla and other Oaxacan towns found their jobs taken by ‘pirates’ who were supported by the Oaxacan education department and refused to vacate the schools. Fights broke out, the pirates being supported by local security forces while the legitimate teachers could only count on the unarmed members of APPO (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca), a dissident movement born of the teachers’ strike.
Just like the struggle for a more just and egalitarian Mexico, the battles for the schools still rages; so does the battle for Zapatista-style autonomy which scares a great many people in Mexico.
After all, if autonomy succeeds, so the ubiquitous Radio Insurgentes asked in one of its broadcasts recently: “What happens to millions of diplomats, bureaucrats and politicians? They’ll be superfluous, won’t they?” (ends)