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LAS AMERICAS Unfriendly Light BY JOHN ROSS Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas The low-intensity war currently spreading across Mexico is not the sort of low-intensity war detailed in Pentagon handbooks, but its still about powerelectric poweras economically-squeezed Mexican Since late 1996, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have refused to pay what they consider to be exorbitant charges: utility rates have tripled in the last year, as the result of the elimination of special government subsi dies. In retaliation, the CFE cuts off the juice to entire municipalities, leaving sub stantial swathes of the nation in the dark. As with the recent rebellions, the ratepayers’ insurrection first broke out in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, where two-thirds of indigenous households in the state remain unlit. Ever since the rebellion of the Zapatista Army of National fully brought home such inequities, the Mexican government has been striving to electrify the backwater villages of Chiapas. But once these communities are plugged in, families are finding it impossible to keep up payments that have skyrocketed to as high for a single light bulb. Chiapas CFE superintendent Rey David quarter of the state’s population is now without lights. On a recent February day, while interim governor Julio Ruiz Ferro inaugurated 200 kilometers of line that would illuminate hamlets in the Lacandon Jungle canyons, the Zapatistas’ base area, CFE workers were busily cutting the current to thousands of homes in the same region, because the residents were unable to keep up payments. At least thirty-eight of Chiapas’ 112 jurisdictions are now participating in a ratepayers’ strike. The state’s “government in rebellion,” civilian Zapatistas who formed a parallel state apparatus following questionable gubernatorial elections, first voiced demands for a preferential rate in 1994, while its successor, the Chiapas State Democratic Peoples’ Assembly \(AEDten pesos a month. In Ocosingo, which encompasses the Lacandon Jungle, 1,500 representatives from the region’s outlying communities met last October to set their own rates; payments are being held in escrow, pending resolution of the dispute with the CFE. Following the Ocosingo assembly, representatives took over a local radio station to broadcast their decision to far-flung hamlets out in the jungle. Now, CFE workers are being dispatched to recalcitrant communities to effect cutoffs. The suspension of electricity has painfully impacted municipal life in towns like Jiquipilas, where water pumps have ceased to function and tortilla factories have been forced to shut down. Chiapanecos have not taken the cut-offs lightly: CFE offices have been burnt down and commission officials taken hostage in Pijijapan on the blazing Chiapas coast. When CFE employees show up to disconnect lines, they are sometimes stoned or shot, and workers who climb poles to pull down deadbeat lines risk having the light poles set on fire underneath them. To avoid such ugly scenes, the CFE has taken to effecting massive cut-offs from regional power stations rather then venturing into the communities. Of course, that only heightens the conflict. Massive blackouts enrage consumers and lead to daily roadblocks that security forces break up with tear gas and gunshots. In February, farmers from twenty-eight ejidos blocked the highway between San Cristobal de las Casas and the ancient Mayan ruins near Palenque. Subsequent clashes with police led to the arrests of sixty-one Mayans. In an effort to defuse the tension, Jimenez, who evaded interviews for this article, boosts the Commission’s Luz Amiga for community work on CFE infra-structure, Luz Amiga advertises a 50 percent six-month discount to low-income Chiapanecos who use a minimal 150 to 300 watts every two months. But the program has failed to stimulate much interest. “What will happen after six months?” asks Carlos Rodriguez, an activist with the Jomolotatic farmers organization in Palenque. “The name luz amiga has no meaning in our language,” reads graffiti in the Chamula Tzotzil La Hormiga neighborhood of San Cristobal. As tempers short-circuit, there is evidence of vigilante retaliation by suspected Cl-E, workers. Newspaper reports speak of 100 armed men chopping down ,fourteen light poles in the Chiapas highlands in March. The CFE’ s testy response to the movement has generated a unity among Chiapanecos from all walks of life that the Zapatistas themselves have not been able to accomplish. The region’s four major Mayan subgroupsTzotzil, Tzeltal, Chol, and Tojolabalhave found common ground in opposing the cut-offs. Indigenous organizations that have been feuding for years, such as the Palanque-based Xi’Nich campesino group and the government-oriented Socama group, have staged joint road blockades. Workers from the big cities have joined forces with farmers from the remotest jungle villagesrecently, the Mexico City-based Electrical Workers atista outpost of La Realidad to install lines the CME had stopped working on. Even political warring political parties APRIL 25, 1997 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21