[Fwd: E;J.Ross: Chiapas blackout, May 3 (fwd)]

Ilan Shalif (gshalif@netvision.net.il)
Sun, 04 May 1997 22:30:36 +0300

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---------- Forwarded message ---------- Date: Sun, 4 May 1997 10:10:39 -0500 (CDT) From: Chiapas95 <owner-chiapas95@mundo.eco.utexas.edu> To: chiapas95@mundo.eco.utexas.edu Subject: E;J.Ross: Chiapas blackout, May 3

This posting has been forwarded to you as a service of Accion Zapatista de Austin.

---------- Forwarded message ---------- Date: Sat, 3 May 1997 13:30:10 -0400 (EDT) From: Mauricio Banda <mbanda@mail.mty.itesm.mx> Reply-To: mexico2000@mep-d.org To: Multiple Recipients of List Mexico2000 <mexico2000@mep-d.org> Subject: [J.Ross] Chiapas blackout

San Francisco Bay Guardian, April 9, 1997 WORLD VIEW Chiapas blackout

By John Ross TUXTLA GUTIERREZ, CHIAPAS, MEXICO -- From coast to coast and border to border, a low-intensity war is spreading across Mexico. Although it's not the sort detailed in Pentagon handbooks and practiced by CIA spooks, there are some similarities. This low-intensity war is about power -- electric power. Mexican ratepayers here are battling recent Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) rate hikes by withholding their payments in a massive strike. In Chiapas the CFE has responded by cutting off power to a quarter of the state's population. The people are not taking it lightly. CFE offices have been burned down and CFE officials taken hostage in Pijijapan, on the blazing Chiapas coast, where air conditioning units boost the monthly wattage and drive electric bills sky high. When CFE employees show up to disconnect lines, they are sometimes stoned or shot; one technician was killed in Pueblo Nuevo Soistahuacan last November. Workers who climb light poles to pull down lines of nonpaying customers risk having the poles set on fire under them. Chiapas CFE superintendent Rey David Jimenez calculates that 131,000 households, or 750,000 citizens, are now without lights. The rate strike -- activists are demanding a preferential rate -- has thus far cost the CFE about $1 million, estimates Jimenez, who warns that the state's electricity system is imperiled by the "no-pay culture." Since late 1996 hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have refused to pay what they consider to be exorbitant charges, which have tripled since the elimination of special government subsidies last year. In retaliation, CFE has cut off juice to entire municipalities, leaving substantial swaths of the nation in the dark.

The IMF crackdown

As with other recent rebellions in Mexico, the ratepayer insurrection first broke out in Chiapas, the country's southernmost state, and has since marched northward. Chiapas produces 45 percent of the nation's hydroelectric energy. Despite an infrastructure that has Chiapas-generated power being sold in northern Guatemala, two-thirds of indigenous households in the state remain unlit. Ever since the January 1994 rebellion of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), the Mexican government has been attempting to get electricity to the backwater villages of Chiapas. But once these communities are plugged in, families are finding it impossible to keep up with payments that have skyrocketed to as high as 300 pesos ($40) every two months to keep one bulb lit. One reason for the rate hikes: International Monetary Fund-ordered policies have ended decades of subsidies to underclass Mexicans. Last February interim governor Julio Ruiz Ferro inaugurated 200 kilometers of line that would illuminate hamlets in the Lacandon jungle canyons -- Zapatista territory. Meanwhile, CFE workers were busily cutting the current to thousands of homes in the same region for failing to keep up with payments. "We are asking a flat rate of 5 or 10 pesos a month," Gustavo Zarate, director of the Chiapas State Democratic Peoples' Assembly, said. "This would eliminate meters and meter readers and save the CFE an enormous amount that would easily offset any losses in revenue." The demand for a preferential rate was first made in 1994. Since then, the Chiapas ratepayer strikers have been organizing municipality by municipality; at least 38 of the state's 112 such jurisdictions are now participating, according to Zarate. In Ocosingo, which encompasses the Lacandon jungle, 1,500 representatives from the region's outlying communities met last October to set their own rates: 5 pesos a month for farming households, where electrical usage is often reduced to a single bulb, 10 pesos for urban dwellers, and 30 pesos for small businesses. Payments are actually 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 in the jungle. Now CFE workers are being dispatched to recalcitrant communities to start cutting off power. The suspension of electricity has had a painful effect on municipal life in towns like Jiquipilas, where water pumps have ceased to function and tortilla factories have been forced to shut down. "Without electricity, Jiquipilas is dead," town secretary Arturo Sosa said. The municipal market has also suffered, and fiestas have had to be canceled.

Power to the people State police squads assigned to protect CFE workers have clashed with angry villagers. To avoid such ugly and often fatal scenes, the CFE has begun effecting massive cutoffs from regional power stations rather than venturing into the communities. The conflict continues to escalate: consumers have grown outraged over massive blackouts; almost daily, roads are blocked around the state; and security forces are using tear gas and gunshots to repel demonstrators. In February farmers from 28 ejidos (rural communal production units) blocked the highway between San Cristobal de las Casas and the ancient Mayan ruins near Palenque, Chiapas's premier tourist corridor, called "the route of the Maya." Subsequent clashes with police led to the arrests of 61 Mayas, who were jailed at the state's infamous Cerro Hueco prison. As tempers short-circuit, there is evidence of sometimes violent retaliation by strikers. According to newspaper reports, in early March 100 armed men chopped down 14 light poles in the Chiapas highlands. The CFE's testy response to the ratepayer strike has generated a unity among Chiapanecos from all walks of life -- something the Zapatistas themselves have yet to accomplish. The region's four major Mayan subgroups -- Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Chol, and Tojolabal -- have found common ground in opposing the cutoffs. Indigenous organizations that have been feuding for years, such as the Palenque-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 villages; recently the Mexico City-based Electrical Workers Union (SME) sent members to the Zapatista outpost of La Realidad to install lines that the CFE had stopped working on. The CFE blackouts have unified different classes and sectors. Restaurant owners and undernourished Indians are equally indignant about the cutoffs. Fishers, whose catches spoil without refrigeration, strategize with campesinos from the jungle. The blacking out of schools and clinics, such as the jungle hospital at Benemerito de las Americas, which has been unable to function since the first of the year, angers every level of Chiapas society. In the San Cristobal neighborhood, electric power shuts down at 10 p.m. each night, prime soap opera time in this nation of soap opera addicts. "People lose a few chapters of their favorite telenovela (soap opera), and they get rabid," strike leader Amado Avendano said. Now the ratepayers' strike is spreading beyond Chiapas's borders. In neighboring Oaxaca, Mixe Indians have taken meter readers prisoner to publicize their demands for a 10-peso preferential rate, and the Pan-American highway has been shut down by protesters on the Tehuantepec isthmus. Last October merchants in five southeastern states (Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo) imposed a blackout on themselves to dramatize their demands for a 30 percent discount. On the northern border of the nation, for the past nine months 7,000 ratepayers in the Mexicali Valley have refused to accept a rate hike. Resistance is spreading to other utilities too. Natural gas prices in Mexico's northernmost states have risen 104 percent in the past 74 days, and in some cases are now higher than prices across the border. In response to the skyrocketing costs, ratepayers, taking a cue from the anti-CFE strikers, have started refusing to pay.

John Ross is a San Francisco- and Mexico City-based freelance writer.

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