Mexican Campesinos Defend Land and Water Against Privatization

By JAIME GONZALEZ

MEXICO CITY-Consider the following scene, which actually took place on Aug. 27: A group of around 30 campesinos from San Salvador Atenco-a town in the eastern side of the Mexico City Valley-is traveling on several vehicles over a toll road. Their final destination will be a demonstration in solidarity with a group of activists that were arrested and jailed some days before in Cuernavaca, an important city and state capital about an hour and a half away.

When the Atenquenses reach the toll booth, one of them gets down and lifts the barrier so their vehicles can pass without paying. The well-armed Federal Police do not interfere, and the only reaction by the road-administration personnel-impotent, at least for the time being-is to try to photograph the small caravan from the booth complex’s command post. In a jesting tone, one of the campesinos tells the others: “Smile to the camera! They already know who we are!”

The governor of Morelos, the state where the repression and jailings have just taken place, has vowed publicly not to let the macheteros (machete-brandishing people) from Atenco to reach Cuernavaca. He must have changed his mind, since the Atenquenses successfully participated in the huge demonstration, of more than 10,000, asking for the immediate release of the 30 activists who had been violently repressed and jailed on Aug. 22.

The activists had been protesting the final dismantling of a former cultural site known as the Casino de la Selva, where some of the Mexican muralist masters had left important works. The supermarket chain Costco wants to build a huge store complex over the area the activists wanted to protect.

After the violent arrests, outrageous bail amounts are set. Criminal offenses are poured on against participants in a peaceful movement whose worst offense has been, at the most, to upset traffic in a busy intersection.

A story of solidarity

Reporters ask the Atenquenses why they attended the Cuernavaca demonstration, about 100 miles from their township, which moreover was apparently not related to their own issues. The answer-“we won because of solidarity”-refers to their recent victory in turning down an attempt by the federal government to expropriate their land in order to build a new Mexico City airport. The government pretended to compensate their land at seven U.S. cents per square meter.

Their truly determined resistance to the government’s plan reached a critical point last July 12, when another governor, Arturo Montiel, from the state of Mexico (to which the Atenco municipality belongs) sent riot police against an Atenquense demonstration that tried to reach the place where he was heading an official ceremony. Montiel’s police had staged a savage attack, resulting in several wounded and arrested campesinos (one of whom died, as a consequence of not receiving adequate medical attention while in custody).

But repression turned out to be completely counterproductive. The Atenquenses reacted by taking police and district attorney’s personnel as hostages, blocking the important highway that runs along their municipality, and then barricading themselves in their township, in defiance of the state and federal governments.

The ensuing stand-off, starting on the evening of July 12, was remindful-despite its modest scale-of legendary popular uprisings: the Atenquenses (5000 at the most, counting children), armed with sticks and machetes, were surrounded by several thousand Federal Police troops, supported with helicopters and armed with automatic weapons.

A TV channel (CNI Canal 40), for once, gave us a taste of what was really going on: on one side, the people meeting in the improvised town auditorium, somewhat nervously but seriously determined to face whatever was coming; and, on the other side, escorted, elegant, vans hectically arriving with all sorts of secretaries and top brass at theGobernación (Interior) headquarters, only to depart a short while afterward for President Fox’s residence.

Montiel’s blunder had put the whole government in a quandary: the world was watching, the whole of Mexico was transfixed with the images of the conflict, and no amount of drum-beating, helicopter-chopping, and saber-rattling seemed to intimidate the Atenquenses.

Worse even, the real boss-President Bush-has been so distracted by his maneuvers to beat some sense into the whole world that he has not delivered anything of substance to boost his most devout south of the border ally. So what is a poor filthy-rich, pro-U.S., neoliberal cabinet to do? Well, the same that President Toledo, facing a widespread discontent over his privatization plans, did in Peru just some weeks before-begin the excruciating process of pulling back.

After a confusing period of attacks and counter-attacks in ruling circles, plans to build the new airport in the Texcoco area (which includes San Salvador Atenco) were cancelled.

Pity those brave investors who, acting on “insider” information, had spent millions of dollars buying land and facilities in preparation for the $2 billion fallout from the over-gigantic public spending on a private (Yes! Fox’s most important public works project was a private airport financed with public funds!) that would have benefited only the minority among minorities in the Mexican population that uses air transportation.

Mobilization in Guanajuato

The victory by the Atenco campesinos was like a wide-ranging echo of a not so well known fight in the state of Guanajuato, some 300 miles north of Mexico City. The population of Romita (“little Rome”), an 80,000-person municipality dedicated to agriculture that is being depleted of its water by the industrialists in Leon, Guanajuato’s main city.

The municipal president (the mayor), who had sworn to defend the aquifers, was somehow “convinced” that he had to understand the strategic importance of Leon’s tanning and shoe production industry, and had to concede new wells being dug in the Romita area. After all, it was just a few wells more: only about 500, to make a total of around 1600 wells in the area (many of which are not productive anymore, due to overexploitation of the aquifer).

The rising popular movement in defense of the aquifer asked for a very reasonable solution: to give Leon drinking-grade water, and to get in return recycled agriculture-grade water, with the only condition that it had to be free of salt and toxic substances, such as heavy metals. But the capitalists in Leon, after contaminating their own aquifers, simply refuse to make the necessary investments in order to avoid turning their waste-water into something that is useless for agriculture.

Demonstrations by the Romitenses were getting larger and larger; so the state governor decided he should do something about them. On the occasion of a new demonstration against the mayor on June 19, he sent in the state police, with instructions to teach the peasants who are the bosses in Guanajuato. Hundreds were tear-gassed and bludgeoned; 300 were rounded up and had to spend the night in state prisons, many still bleeding.

The state governor, former University of Guanajuato Professor Romero Hicks, thought he had really intimidated the population, divided the leadership, and that he had the most important “subversives” on the run. But a widespread discontent in the population and an energetic campaign, in which socialist activists in the state played a crucial role, turned the tide completely.

On June 23, more than 4000 Romitenses marched in their city, defying the state of siege instituted by the police. The state police did not show up this time. And a few days later, on June 29, a national forum in defense of Romita took place, with the presence of dozens of Atenquenses (who showed up, machetes in their hands), as well as workers from the Euzkadi plant in nearby Jalisco state, who are fighting wholesale layoffs.

Sometime later, in July, the Romitenses duly paid back the solidarity they had received from the Atenquenses, when they visited San Salvador Atenco in times of much needed support.

The aquifer issue remains undecided, but the popular movement is once again alive and well. Romero Hick’s ridiculous “zero tolerance” police-state program (a caricature of New York Mayor Giuliani’s nefarious practices), directed against youth as well as against social discontent, is silently being scuttled.

And now, the heavy battalions

Taking all of the above into account, how could it be that President Fox thought this was the right moment to launch his initiative to privatize Mexico’s electrical power production?

On Aug. 22 he announced a political agreement with his own political party, the PAN, and with a fraction of the recently-deposed-from-power PRI, by which all legal obstacles to private (specially foreign) investment in electricity are to be removed, including crucial sections of Articles 27 and 28 of the Constitution. Readers who are not familiar with this issue must take into account that a very similar plan was turned back in 1999 and 2000, during the last years of Ernesto Zedillo’s presidency, by a wide popular mobilization.

Again, the reaction by electrical workers was announced quickly and decisively. In a formal membership meeting on Aug. 26, the 50,000 strong Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) adopted a very strong rejection of Fox’s plan, and a complete action program to mobilize against it, including the call for demonstrations and a massive public propaganda campaign.

Your correspondent was there at the union headquarters, attending a socialist literature table. From this modest-but privileged-standpoint the picture is very clear: electricians are ready for battle, and on their side they not only have confident popular movements like the one at Atenco, but a widespread rejection of privatization as well.

Why do electricians take this privatization plan so much at heart? Because if-as the likes of Enron, Dynergy, and Haliburton propose-Mexican electricity is not only produced by private plants but marketed by them as well, a great majority of electrical workers can bid farewell to their jobs.

I notice that our socialist newspaper, some videos, and several books are being picked up by workers at a pace I have not seen for decades.

“¿Cuánto por el barbas?” (How much for the bearded guy?). I am disconcerted for a moment. “Wha…? Oh, yes! The Karl Marx button, of course! That’s 10 pesos!” Sure enough, radicalization is taking place, swiftly and naturally.