Page 23


LAS AMERICAS Selma in Huacalca A Civil Rights Movement Begins in Southern Mexico BY JOHN ROSS Villa Hermosa, Tabasco MEMORIES OF the 1960s Civil Rights movement in the American South were stirred here this week, as Chontal Indians launched a widespread non-violent campaign of civil disobedience throughout this oil-rich state, protesting the failure of the national petroleum consortiumPEMEXto indemnify farmers for environmental damage and expropriation of communal lands. Led by the state leader of the left-center opposition PRD \(Democratic Revolutionten thousand Indian farmers have blocked sixty PEMEX installations \(of over nine tions at some and preventing maintenance at others. Due to the stoppages, PEMEX claims it is losing the equivalent of four hundred thousand U.S. dollars daily. The federal government was quick to respond to the blockades which began February 3, sending in hundreds of troops who teamed up with state police to break through the peaceful assemblies blocking access to installations. But the unarmed protesters have often regrouped, and continued the blockades. Petroleum is a sensitive issue in Mexico. Expropriated in 1938 from Anglo-American owners, the industry symbolizes Mexican sovereignty. Petroleum production, constitutionally the property of the nation, is deemed vital for national security. Ironically, all of Mexico’s oil exportation revenues are now being deposited in the U.S. Federal Reserve system, to guarantee repayment of the twenty-billion-dollar bailout, tendered a year ago this February by Bill Clinton, to rescue Mexico from impending bankruptcy. In addition, Mexico, crippled by its worst recession in sixty-four years, is about to privatize its petrochemical industry, a move that is being vigorously opposed by PEMEX workers. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is a twotime candidate for the governorship of Freelance journalist John Ross files about fifty-two stories a year from Mexico. Tabasco. He was defeated in a much-disputed 1994 election by the Roberto Madrazo, the candidate for the long-ruling Six months after the election, as the result of a leak thought to have originated in Madrazo’ s inner circle, the PRD received boxes of documentation, establishing that Madrazo had spent the equivalent of seventy million U.S. dollarsone hundred times the campaign spending capto win the office. Lopez Obrador’s demand that the Federal Attorney General investigate the matter has been buried in the Mexican Supreme Court for the past eight months. The Tabasco leader is also a popular candidate for the national presidency of the PRD in upcoming party elections. In toughly worded press statements, the nation’s Interior Secretary condemns the PRD as “irresponsible” and charges Lopez Obrador with “extortion.” Opting for a Zedillo administration has violently attacked demonstrators and imprisoned PRD officials in Tabasco \(seventy-one arrests at writing, government’s frontal assault on the PRD comes at a delicate moment in intra-party negotiations on electoral reform. On his recent trip to Europe, Zediflo, defending Mexico’s peculiar “transition to democracy,” bragged that he would have an agreement with all major parties by mid-March. But the struggle in Tabasco is less political than some commentators make it out to be. PEMEX installations have blighted this fertile state for years, and acid rain has permanently damaged prime fruit-growing land. Lopez Obrador claims that three hundred thousand hectares have been rendered unproductive by the petroleum giant. Four potentially lethal pipeline failures in the past twelve months have endangered the lives of those who live closest to the installations. Chontal Indians in the oil-rich center of the state complain that they have been dispossessed of fifteen thousand hectares surrounding the “Sen” well alone, the most productive in Tabasco. Seventy percent of those who live here are Indians. “We are defending our rivers and our lakes, and we hope it is not too late,” proclaimed Chontal poet Auldarico Hernandez in the central plaza of Huacalca February 7, after a bloody confrontation with government security forces. Hernandez, the only indigenous member of the Mexican Senate, has been threatened by the PRI with being stripped of his office because he has taken part in the blockades. The Chontales have proclaimed their oilrich region as “autonomous territory,” a phrase that strikes terror in the heart of government negotiators. The issue of indigenous autonomy is a high-profile theme here and has been the subject of prolonged negotiations between the Zedillo government and the largely Mayan Zapatista neighboring Chiapas. The conflict in Tabasco, a deeply southern state on the Gulf Coast, draws certain parallels to the movement headed by Martin Luther King three decades ago in Alabama. The key actors here represent an ethnic minority that has been marginalized by racism and neglect. Recalling the American South in the 1960s, local press and television have created a lynch-moblike hysteria against the protesters who, like King’s followers, practice civil disobedience and vow to fill Tabasco’ s jails. Lopez Obrador, who has publicly promised non-violence, was calling upon his followers to remain peaceful even as he was being clubbed bloody by police on February 7. The confrontation in which the popular Tabasco leader was injured, and which took place on a bridge leading to the Sen platform near Huacalca, was reminiscent of one of the U.S. civil rights movement’s most dramatic moments: the battle at the Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, which took place nearly thirty-one years ago. Send a Friend the Texas Observer In this Issue: 31,105 Words and STIILL $1.75! 307 W. 7th St. Austin, Texas 78701 22 FEBRUARY 23, 1996