[There has been plenty written about the historic struggle that is now unfolding in Mexico, but Carolyn Baker approaches the topic from a different point of view than I have read elsewhere: She starts from the perspective of Mexican youth. – MK]
MEXICO ON FIRE: REKINDLING THE SPIRIT OF ZAPATA
By Carolyn Baker, Ph.D.
© Copyright 2006, From The Wilderness Publications, www.fromthewilderness.com. All Rights Reserved. This story may NOT be posted on any Internet web site without express written permission. Contact email@example.com. May be circulated, distributed or transmitted for non-profit purposes only.
It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.
September 26th 2006, 2:50PM [PST] - In the late nineties when I began teaching in Mexico, my college-level students frequently engaged in political discussions with me, not because of me but often in spite of me. I wasn’t there to teach political science, but generally speaking, the only thing on which the educated middle class of Mexico thrives more than poetry is political discourse. As with most countries, it is much easier to talk about politics in Mexico than take concrete action. So I listened and learned from my students, and one day, one of them courageously challenged me by asserting: “Our successes are not the result of the virtues of the United States, nor are our failures the result of your vices. We make our own problems.” I was taken aback because I had been assuming that the Mexican people would have had a much better quality of life were it not for the influence of los Estados Unidos. What my students began teaching me is that Mexico’s woes, although historically tied to U.S. policies, are ultimately the result of choices made by the Mexican people, not the White House. Soon after the Mexican Revolution which concluded in 1917 and resulted in a constitution remarkably similar to that of the United States, and as the spirit of the revolution faded from memory, Mexican presidents increasingly played and capitulated to the whims of their northern neighbor—and the Mexican electorate continued to support presidents who would do so. The history of twentieth-century Mexico is one of escalating violence and corruption with one political party Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) dominating the political scene until 2000 when Vicente Fox of the National Action or PAN Party became president.
I will never forget the contagion of enthusiasm that permeated all of Mexico in 1999 and 2000 as Fox came to power. For the most part, the Mexican middle class was elated that for the first time in seventy years, Mexico might not only be ruled by an alternative party but by an individual whose ethics appeared to be dramatically in contrast with the status quo. But once again, Mexicans were disappointed, and many who had concluded that the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, (EZLN) or Zapatistas based in the state of Chiapas, were too extreme, began re-thinking their position on what it would take to transform their beloved country.
In 1994, the Zapatistas broke on to the international scene by taking over governmental buildings in San Cristobal de Las Casas, the capital of the state of Chiapas, in protest of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the confiscation of indigenous lands by Mexico’s ruling elite and foreign corporations. The leadership of EZLN is comprised of Mexican intellectuals turned revolutionary, such as Subcomandante Marcos, but its base and mass membership is entirely indigenous. The leftist Zapatistas have disparaged the Mexican political system and refused to participate in it, endeavoring instead to organize at the grassroots level to build a revolutionary groundswell among the nation’s indigenous and other poor. Since prior to 1994 the EZLN has been based in the Lacandon Jungle in Chiapas, but within the last year an entourage of Zapatistas have joined Subcomandante Marcos in touring the nation and simply listening to the woes and complaints of the Mexican people. The timing of this tour has been auspicious in the wake of growing unrest and dissatisfaction with the nation’s political process.
July is election month in Mexico, but in May, 2006, a group of teachers in the city of Oaxaca (pronounced WA-HA-KA) walked out of their classrooms and went on strike. Most North Americans do not understand that the public school system of Mexico provides its children with a quality of education far superior to that available in almost any public school in the United States. For one thing, Mexican public schools have almost no funds for the distractions of elaborate sports programs and dazzling computer systems. Students attend school for one reason and one reason only: to learn. Public school is not free and costs parents about $40 per month per child. Moreover, Mexican teachers are some of the best on earth—and some of the lowest-paid. Working for approximately five dollars per day at most, they turn out graduates who in most cases have the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree when they complete their secondary education. I can think of no group of striking individuals on earth of whom I would be more supportive than Mexican teachers, so when I learned of their struggle, I was mesmerized. These striking teachers, however, did not merely march and carry signs; they camped out in the streets of Oaxaca and daily demanded the ouster of Oaxaca’s corrupt governor, Ulises Ruiz.
In June the local police raided their encampment, but this did not disuade the striking teachers who formed the Popular Assembly Of the People Of Oaxaca (APPO) and two days later gathered with them 500,000 people marching in the streets demanding the governor’s resignation. Oaxaca is world-famous for its largest annual tourist event, the Guelaguetza, and the APPO organized a boycott of the event and organized their own Guelaguetza which drew 20,000 people. During July, APPO members organized sit-ins at government buildings and used those buildings to expand their encampment.
On August 1, about 3,000 women marched through the downtown streets banging on metal pots and pans, again demanding the ouster of Ruiz. Stopping at one hotel where state senators were holding session because they had been booted from their offices by the protestors, the women taped black ribbons on the closed doors and then pelted the panes of glass with raw eggs. No security guards or police officers appeared—a testimony to the power they had now achieved.
The strategy of the APPO is to generate “ungovernability” in order to force Ruiz’s resignation. They took over all of the office buildings of three branches of government, CORTV (the local television station), and released the station’s employees to the Red Cross. APPO members have stated repeatedly that their movement is non-violent and that they are targeting state government while leaving local businesses and tourists alone.
Protest by teachers is not new to Oaxaca. Since 1980, members of the teachers union have been demonstrating almost annually against corruption in the union’s leadership and demanding an increased federal budget for education in the state of Oaxaca. So what was different this year?
Throughout Mexico other protests have been occurring, the biggest one of all taking place in the Zocalo or central plaza of Mexico City where devout supporters of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO as he has come to be nicknamed) of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), were also encamped in protest of the dubious national election results of July 2 in which Lopez Obrador’s PAN Party opponent, Felipe Calderon, was declared the winner.
Mark Weisbrot, Luis Sandoval, and Carla Paredes-Drouet have comprised an in-depth analysis of the 2006 Mexican presidential election and concluded that:
The fact that about half of the ballot boxes in Mexico’s presidential election have “adding up” problems is enough to warrant a full recount. The evidence from the most recent partial recount, insofar as it is known, provides further reason to do a full recount. The lack of transparency and withholding of information in the two partial recounts that have been conducted also undermine the credibility of any result that does not allow for a full recount.1
However, Mexico’s Federal Election Tribunal refused to recount the votes and declared Calderon the winner, even as it acknowledged that his campaign had “violated the norms of public order” particularly with the role played by the business associations in airing rabid TV ads attacking Lopez Obrador.2 To understand the resistance to a recount, one must grasp the reality of entrenched political classes who will not make any concessions to Lopez Obrador because they fear the collapse of their entire system of privileges if they make even modest concessions. Under Lopez Obrador, millions of jobs would be created, and not only would the entiere system of bribes, favors, and kickbacks be massively curtailed, but the dominant classes would have to pay the income and business taxes that they routinely avoid.3
Every September 1 in Mexico, the current president gives his Informe or state of the union speech. This year as Vicente Fox attempted to do so, 155 leftist deputies and senators stormed into the Mexican congress to prevent him from giving the speech. Fox was then forced to give the Informe quietly from Los Pinos, the presidential residence, from which it was aired on radio and television throughout the nation. Meanwhile, in the Zocalo, Lopez Obrador and 10,000 of his followers, who had been encamped there for five weeks, marched peacefully to the Mexican congress where they were blockaded by thousands of “robo-cops.”
At this writing, the Zocalo is now empty—AMLO’s supporters have gone home or back to work, and their candidate has vowed that he will never recognize Calderon as president. In fact, he has pledged to create a parallel government. While this may or may not happen, one thing is certain: The opposition to Calderon and the ruling elite that have protected his illegitimate election to the presidency will not simply dry up and blow away. Professor Dick Reavis, in his article, “Mexico’s Time Of Troubles,” states that, “The PRD, if it has accomplished nothing else, has drawn thousands of working-class supporters into its ranks, putting politics back into kitchen-table talk.”4
On September 7, Latin American leftist newspaper, La Jornada commented:
A profound political crisis is shaking up the country. The rules that regulate the balance of power have been violated….A severe crisis in the model of control pierces the relationships of domination in large regions of the Mexican national territory. People accustomed to obeying have refused to do so. People that think they are destined to rule have been unable to impose their command. Those from below have become disobedient. When those on the top want to impose their opinion from above, in the name of the law, they are ignored from below….Taking advantage of this fight on the top, millions of people from below have shown their insubordination.5
So what is the real difference between the agenda of Felipe Calderon and Manuel Lopez Obrador? Dan La Botz in his article “Towards A Declaration Of Dual Power,” makes this assessment:
The political struggle, which may soon become a national contest between two governments, revolves around two different plans for the national economy and two different visions of Mexico: the Fox-Calderón view which favors neoliberalism and the López Obrador program which would maintain elements of a mixed economy and establish what he himself calls a cradle-to-grave social welfare state. Mexico is at the crossroads.
López Obrador argues that it is necessary to create a new and real Mexican Republic in order to defend the national patrimony and to prevent the privatization of the electric power and petroleum industries, as well as the privatization of social security and education. He calls for a new government that will combat corruption and end the impunity enjoyed by Mexican authorities and police.6
So meanwhile, back in Oaxaca, nothing has quieted down but only escalated as teachers’ union leader, Enrique Rueda Pacheco, and his colleagues stand ready for a national struggle. The Federation of Democratic Labor Unions and Organizations of Oaxaca stands with the teachers’ union, as well as the PRD, as the APPO at this writing is marching, 5000 strong and growing to Mexico City, 314 miles away, to encamp in front of the Mexican senate. The plan is for APPO to take over embassies and pressure the governor and senate, to achieve the ouster of Ruiz.
While the fact that 5000 APPO members are marching 314 miles to arrive on October 3 may sound heroic, that is not the half of it. Narco News Bulletin reports that the PRI Party sent to the federal government a request for public armed forces to come into Oaxaca. Not only must the teachers be concerned with roadside shooters but the logistics of how their throng will be fed, given dry clothing, and replacement shoes. Masses of people in the countryside have been appearing regularly to offer tortillas, fresh fruit, and bottles of water. Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly clear that the APPO protests are affecting the alliance between the PRI and PAN parties in the national legislature, the Department of the Interior, the Mexican Supreme Court, the parents of children with no schools, and the vendors of Oaxaca. PAN assures PRI that it won’t break their alliances by ousting the PRI governor, Ruiz, even as PAN has stated that it would like to do so, but is fearful of political repercussions given the political crisis going on throughout Mexico.7
While the teachers’ strike is four months old, and there are rumors that the teachers and their supporters are becoming weary and impoverished due to lack of salaries, it is also true that the movement is growing and taking hold in indigenous communities. The Oaxaca-style assemblies have begun spreading to other states like Michoacan, Guerrero, Mexico City, and Baja California. In the United States in Los Angeles and Sacramento the Oaxaca movement is drawing powerful support, and money is coming to the teachers in Oaxaca from both the Mexican community and American teachers.
On Sunday of this week, more threats of federal army intervention came forth from the state government to the teachers, and the state director of education declared that if the teachers do not return to the classroom on Monday, September 25, they will be fired and replaced with strikebreakers from among retired teachers and parents. In solidarity, the Oaxaca business community called for a shutdown of the city September 28 and 29, including not using electricity or telephones, not paying taxes, and shutting down transportation.
While the city of Oaxaca may be shut down, the radical movement engendered by its teachers will not. It is spreading and gathering momentum. In the words of the teachers, ni un paso atras—not one step back.
But we cannot realistically hope for the fires of revolution in Mexico to spread without taking into consideration that nation’s symbiotic relationship with the imperial United States. Bill Conroy of Narco News commented before the Mexican presidential elections that, “A rise in populism in Mexico is not in the interest of the Bush administration or Mexico’s oligarch, so the powers that be have to smear the leading social-reform candidates while at the same time propping up the forces more in line with U.S. interests, neoliberal forces now aligned through the presidency of Vicente Fox”8 (and soon to be the forces of Felipe Calderon).
A number of pivotal and extremely disturbing questions loom as one considers U.S.-Mexican relations:
- What is Mexico’s role in the trafficking of drugs into the United States, and from which the United States handsomely profits as documented by From The Wilderness for as long as it has existed?
- What is the role of the U.S. in the privatization of Mexican oil which Lopez Obrador vehemently opposes but which Calderon enthusiastically embraces? Mexico is the second-largest supplier of oil for the U.S. What barriers to the flow of oil from Mexico to the U.S. would have been erected under Lopez Obrador?
- How would a Lopez Obrador victory have altered Mexico’s number-one export: poverty? Clue: Cleansing the nation’s corruption would create jobs and a dramatically higher quality of life for Mexico and decrease the flow of cheap labor into the United States which benefits privileged Americans. At the same time, the ruling elite who have held power in Mexico for decades have had no motivation to improve the nation’s economy when millions of working Mexican immigrants in the United States send billions of dollars back to their families in Mexico.
- Had Lopez Obrador won, would a 700-mile fence have been voted on by the U.S. House of Representatives on September 14, 2006? Would giant corporate predators like Halliburton be filling their pockets with billion-dollar contracts to construct a wall of shame that does little to keep the U.S. border secure and millions of Mexican illegal immigrants from risking their lives, often many times, to enter the U.S. to escape Mexico’s eviscerating poverty?
While visiting the United States, Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez stated that it is impossible for Venezuela to maintain normal diplomatic relations with Mexico because Felipe Calderon led a smear campaign against Venezuela, and Chavez called Calderon’s victory “doubtful,” suggesting that his triumph over Lopez Obrador was fraudulent. Although Venezuela says that it does not plan to break diplomatic relations with Mexico, Mexico is considering breaking diplomatic relations with Venezuela in response to Chavez’s comments regarding the Mexican elections.
In 1998, Venezuela chose a path of transformation for that nation by democratically electing Hugo Chavez as president. Since then, the Bolivarian Revolution has begun sweeping Latin America as Lula of Brazil, Bachelet of Chile, and Morales of Bolivia have joined Chavez in a groundswell of reform whose roots can ultimately be traced back to Fidel Castro and Che Guevarra in the 1960s. In every instance of the Bolivarian Revolution, indigenous people have been decisive in implementing meaningful change. So it is in Mexico, and once again, we are witnessing in that nation, the polarization of the people of the land with the urban ruling elite. The world knows much about the vision of the latter, but is just beginning to appreciate the renewal of the ancient values that inform the fire that will invariably and irrevocably engulf Mexico. Inherent in these values is a reverence for the concept of “territory” as echoed in these words:
It is important to highlight the mystical element in the concept of territory. Territory is not just a piece of land, it cannot be defined in one single word (there is no direct translation in any of the primary indigenous languages of Chiapas). It has to do with where we plant our corn, where we are born, where we marry, and where we have our children. It has to do with the forest, the animals, the sacred places, the caves, the lagoons, the hills. The people are the territory.9
… seeing nature and the Earth as a mother and not as a slave, has historically been a way of working and producing in the Mesoamerican cultures. The political resistance of these cultures relies on the maintenance and strengthening of the community structures for decision-making and solidarity collaboration, as well as the preservation of the collective perception that the land and its resources are the property of everyone, of the whole community which gives it its use and family responsibility.10
Mexico is on fire, and where those fires spread—all that they consume, purify, gut, or transform will be decided by the Mexican people, and as the groundswell of Bolivarian metamorphosis engulfs Latin America, they will ultimately decide whether to remain a colonized appendage of the Empire, or reclaim the spirit of Zapata at the core of the Mexican soul.
9 At the Annual Permanent Seminar “The Rights Of The Indigenous Peoples, First Session: The Right to Territory for the Indigenous Peoples” Fray Bartolome de Las Casas Human Rights Center, November, 2005.
10 The Impact of PROCEDE on Natural Resources, Community Life, and the Social Fabric of the Indigenous Tseltal Communities of the Northern Selva Region on Chiapas,” Madera del Pueblo Surests AC, Foro Para el Desarollo Sustentable AC, February, 2006