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Mexican Labor News & Analysis

August , 2013, Vol. 18, No. 6


Mexican President Proposes Opening State Oil Company to Private and Foreign Investment; U.S. Corporations Line up to Return

by Dan La Botz

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) have proposed constitutional changes and legislation that would, for the first time since 1938, allow foreign companies to explore for and produce oil in Mexico. While this is not the full-scale privatization of the oil industry desired by conservative business interests in Mexico and by U.S. and other foreign oil companies, it is a big step toward opening up the industry in a country where the government’s ownership of the oil has been virtually sacrosanct. Even with these dramatic changes, the state-owned Mexican Petroleum Company (PEMEX) will, at least in theory, remain the dominant force in the Mexican oil industry. The oil industry proposal is also linked to opening up the electrical power industry, and legislation on that will also be forthcoming from the president.

The president, the PRI, and other parties argue that permitting private and foreign investment is necessary in order to fund the industry’s modernization. At the same time, Exxon, Chevron, and Royal Dutch Shell have expressed their interest in participating in the Mexican oil business. For some, this will be a return to the oil fields that they once controlled 65 years ago, before Mexico nationalized the industry. One could say that the greatest achievement of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1940 is being reversed as profits from the country’s most precious resource will again flow into the coffers of U.S. corporations.

A Clever Strategy

Peña Nieto has cleverly positioned his party and his proposal, which calls for sharing profits with foreign companies, midway between the conservative National Action Party (PAN), which has called for privatizing the company through the sale of shares or the granting of concessions, and the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which rejects any measures that would open the company to large-scale private and foreign investment. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who was the PRD’s second -place presidential candidate against Peña Nieto in 2012 and has since gone on to form his own political organization, the Movement for National Regeneration (MORENA), also strongly opposes Peña Nieto’s proposal. Peña Nieto’s plan, which will radically transform the Mexican oil industry if it passes, thus appears to be the more moderate of the two alternatives now put before the Mexican Congress.

The president can expect to win enough support not only from his own PRI, but also from the PAN, and probably also from enough PRD legislators to pass the constitutional amendments and new laws that are needed to make his proposal a reality. The Green Ecologist Party (PVEM), which despite its name is a satellite of the PRI and not an authentic Green Party, will also support the measure. The leftist Workers Party (PT) of Maoist origin and the middle-class Citizens Movement (MC), which together have only a few votes in Congress, are intransigent opponents who have called the idea of opening up the industry to private foreign investors “treason.”

Continuing the Neoliberal Trend

The proposal of Peña Nieto continues the neoliberal policies initiated by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-94) who carried out the privatization of hundreds of the approximately 1,000 state-owned companies that existed when he came to office. Salinas sold off to private and foreign investors, among many other enterprises, the Mexican National Railroads to Southern Pacific and Kansas City railroads and the Mexican Telephone Company (TELMEX) to a consortium comprising Mexican magnate Carlos Slim, France Télécom, and Southwestern Bell Telephone. After Salinas, the drive for continued privatization stalled, largely because of the tremendous national sentiment in favor of retaining the country’s oil in the government’s hands and the existence of an organized movement against privatization.

Why is Peña Nieto now in a position to proceed with privatization where other PRI and PAN presidents have failed? First, Peña Nieto, as we have argued before, is on a roll. Even before becoming president, he succeeded in getting the major opposition parties to join his own in the “Pact for Mexico,” a political compact based principally on a series of political and economic reforms which was approved the day after he took office. After his election a Labor Law Reform bill was approved and since taking office he succeeded in passing an Education Reform bill and then a highly contested Telecommunications Reform Bill. He jailed the controversial labor and political leader Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of the Mexican Teachers Union (el SNTE), on charges of embezzlement. He has also proposed to give pensions to all Mexican workers over 65 years of age, though that has yet to be introduced. These reforms and proposed reforms have been popular with large sections of the Mexican elite and middle class as well as with much of the public at large, giving his administration tremendous momentum at this time.

Second, the left opposition to privatization has suffered a series of defeats. The principal party with a nationalist economic program, the PRD, has seen its candidates Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and López Obrador go down to repeated defeats in national elections several times (though two of those defeats, one for Cárdenas in 1988 and one for López Obrador in 2006, are widely believed to have been the result of fraud). The nationalist economic program has been rejected overwhelmingly by the voters.

At the same time, the anti-privatization movement has suffered a defeat. The Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) that headed up the National Front against Privatization was viciously attacked by former President Felipe Calderón of the PAN when he used police and army troops to occupy the Mexican Electrical Company facilities, liquidated the company and fired 44,000 workers in 2009. With the SME preoccupied with fighting for the jobs of the 16,000 members who did not accept their severance, the front has been dormant. Calderón also persecuted Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, head of the Mexican Miners and Metal Workers Union (SNTMMRM), forcing him into exile in Canada while working with the Grupo Mexico mine company to destroy the important union local at the Cananea Copper mine, thus keeping that union too preoccupied with defending itself and making it less likely to take up the privatization issue.

Back to the Future

Mexican oil was once in private hands, the very hands that today desire to return. Oil was first discovered and developed in Mexico in the period between 1900 and 1910. The two biggest figures in the industry at the time were the American Edward L. Doheny owner of the Huasteca and Mexican oil companies, and the Englishman Weetman Pearson, Lord Cowdray, who created the Mexican Eagle Petroleum Company. Doheny sold his interest to the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey and Lord Cowdray sold his to Royal Dutch Shell.

So, by the 1920s Mexican oil was in the hands principally of those two and a number of other foreign oil companies. Mexican communities in the Faja de Oro, the Gold Belt along the Gulf Coast, feel aggrieved by the foreign companies because of the environmental damage they caused, while workers experienced intense exploitation and low wages, as well as segregation that kept them from moving into skilled or management positions. The country as a whole resented the fact that so many of Mexico’s natural mineral and petroleum resources as well as its industries and agricultural exports were in the hands of foreign capital, mostly American, English and French.

The Nationalization of the Oil Industry

The Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1940 was fought principally over the demand of the peasants for land taken from them over time by the great haciendas, but it was also a nationalist revolution against foreign ownership of the country’s resources and industries. In 1917, the Constitutionalist forces led by Venustiano Carranza called a convention at which the Constitution was rewritten. Article 27 of the new Constitution of 1917 stated that the nation owned the natural resources and held the power to expropriate them, though it required indemnification of the former private owners. President Plutarco Elías Calles ordered the foreign companies to register their properties and limited their concessions to 50 years, but under constant threat of invasion by the United States throughout the 1920s, Mexican leaders hesitated to act on their legal right to nationalize until 1938.

President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940), taking advantage of the European War, finally acted to nationalize the oil industry on March 18, 1938, paying the foreign corporations on the basis of the low estimates of value they had earlier presented to justify their low tax payments. While Soviet Russia had earlier nationalized the Baku oilfields in 1918, Mexico’s was the first major Latin American nationalization of oil, followed later by Argentina in 1949, Brazil in 1953, and Venezuela in 1976. (Argentina had actually first nationalized its oil fields and created a state oil company in the period of 1918-1922, but at that time its oil industry was not very significant.)

The Power of Pemex

Mexico’s nationalized oil fields, pipelines, port facilities, and refineries were combined into the Mexican Petroleum Company (PEMEX), which came to be the largest and most important sector of the country’s economy for several decades. Only since the 1980s have manufacturing, tourism, and out-of-country workers’ remittances come to represent as large a proportion of the economy. PEMEX is today the world’s seventh largest oil concern. Some 70 percent of PEMEX profits are turned over to the Mexican government to meet its budget, making up one-third of the government’s entire revenues. Critics of Peña Nieto’s plan for private and foreign participation in the industry argue that if the government taxed the wealthy and the corporations appropriately it would not have to rely upon PEMEX; and that by taking the company’s revenues for government operating expenses, it has kept PEMEX from modernizing.

PEMEX’s income and expenses have always been surrounded by mystery because the highly corrupt corporation has been such a source of embezzlement by politicians, government officials, labor union leaders, and organized crime. PEMEX collects dues for the corrupt and authoritarian Mexican Petroleum Workers Union (STPRM), lets contracts to the union, and makes other payments. Many union officials are involved as individuals in business deals with the company or its officials. Union officials sell union jobs to workers who also become beholden to the officials who hired them.

The most famous recent case of PEMEX and STPRM corruption was Pemexgate, when the PRI illegally ordered the STPRM to support the presidential campaign of Francisco Labastida in 2000. Those accused were not found guilty of the most serious charges, though some were found guilty of electoral fraud; the PRI was fined US$90 million for its role. Company and union officials also work with criminal organizations that siphon petroleum out of the pipelines. How many hundreds of millions of dollars flow out of the oil fields and into the pockets of parasites all along the line may never be known, but the sums must be astronomical.

Peña Nieto’s constitutional and legislative changes opening up Mexico’s oil industry to private and foreign investors will not solve the economic problems of the majority of Mexicans, but it will create an opportunity for a lot of business people in Mexico and in America of make money. As we wrote at the opening of this article, in a sense, the Mexican Revolution’s most historic achievement is being undone. The oil may still formally belong to all of Mexico, but its wealth will accumulate in a few hands there and in the U.S.

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Mexican Government and PEMEX: Shared Opacity and Corruption

By Arturo Alcalde Justiniani; this column originally appeared in Spansih at

Anyone expecting to become familiar with the situation of the oil union and its relations with Pemex will quickly learn how extremely difficult it is, since they operate under a highly sophisticated information blockade that is tough to break. We refer not only to the financial condition of the union, which is the part most criticized, but also to agreements that said union has held with the company and its ties to the government. Also with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Despite this deliberate information shield shared between union, oil company and government, it has been difficult to cover up the current corruption, because it has no limits. Notorious facts jump out, such as the yacht in Cancun, the $200,000 watch, the trips to Las Vegas, the daughter of the leader comfortably installed in a private plane with her three pets, and the Ferrari's. These acts are the tip of the iceberg of a model that is duplicated in each of the thirty-six union sections, across the length and breadth of the country. These facts have been in the public domain, but they have not merited any explanation, simply because the profiting union leaders could care less about public opinion, which does matter, though, to the enterprise and to the government, because they will ensure impunity.

Government complicity has not been unique to the PRI. When the National Action Party (PAN) was in power, it took a similar position. It is enough to remember how Vicente Fox, when he was president, hung out to dry then Federal Comptroller Francisco Barrio, who had announced that "fat cats" would fall for getting caught red-handed with the delivery of 500 million pesos [USD$39,717,528] from the oil leader to the PRI presidential candidate, Francisco Labastida. [Fox] just stopped Barrio short, in an act that defined the policy to be followed by the Fox government in full cahoots with the corrupt practices that he had promised to eradicate. Now, once again in opposition, the PAN proposes to eliminate the oil union's seats on Pemex's board of directors, as if with this measure it could look good on a restructuring that it refused [to implement] when it had the possibility of doing so.

If we observe the constant refusals of the union to submit itself to the transparency law in force regarding the many resources it gets from the company (presented in different ways: subsidies, support for events, including interest-free loans), we confirm that the initial negative to give the information comes from the oil company itself that authorizes the resources and not from the union. This does not discount the fact that it is the union that might be the one doing the dirty work of being mixed up in procedures for avoiding a basic obligation: reporting on the destiny of public funds delivered for a determined purpose. Therefore, the Commissioner President of the Federal Institute for Access to Information and Data Protection (IFAI), Gerardo Laveaga, claims the issue of union transparency as a primary point on the national agenda. Laveaga's colleague, Commissioner Ángel Trinidad Saldívar, denounces the resistance of the Pemex union to submit to minimum standards of transparency and defined such an attitude in a phrase: "It's always the same: they request amparos [protective injunctions]."

Impunity and corruption of the union would be unthinkable without the open complicity of the oil company, since its support is not limited to the delivery of public resources. [Pemex's support] is complemented by a series of agreements both via the collective [bargaining] agreement and via parallel agreements guarded as State secrets; historically, they have been made up of the delivery of positions, participation in business [negotiations] (an area exclusive to the enterprise's administration), and privileged treatment for the group designated by the union leadership.

Each collective bargaining [agreement] becomes a mystery to be discovered over the years. In the last revision of the contract, for example, it was agreed to separate out the pension issue so that it might be a later negotiation after passage of the energy reform initiative. This agreement resulted from a direct deal between the union and the Secretariat of the Treasury. Regarding private staff, without saying that water flows [downhill], the issue was put outside the collective bargaining [agreement] as part of a new labor deal whose characteristics are not made explicit, so for now these workers don't exist.

It is important to clarify the reasons why the oil company and the government have chosen to share forms of corruption and opacity. A first reason comes from their interest in maintaining control of the workers and subordination of the union leadership. Rebellions cost dearly.... A second reason is political-electoral, since resources are delivered to the union in order to support electoral campaigns.

A third reason has to do with private and domestic interests: there are many businesses in which officials and union leaders are involved and that require a shared silence. Anyone who might have business relations with this oil company knows of the arrangements necessary for contracting sales, purchases or services in which consent of the union leader in the area must be obtained although it has nothing to do with his function as union representative.

Juicy contracts with foreign companies for the acquisition of vessels come to mind, as does sale of hydrocarbons that were never properly specified, not to mention the substantial milking of the pipelines in which many are involved.

Expansion of private participation is sought precisely in this environment of opacity and corruption. If the real intention were to modernize Pemex and address its structural problems, one initial task would be to break the information shield that the oil company and union have created to hide their complicity. Another would be a thorough house-cleaning to put an end to this clearly shared model of corruption and complicity.

Just at the right moment, according to his column Money that appeared in yesterday's La Jornada, Enrique Galván Ochoa, Collegiate Tribunal [Court charged with resolving amparos, protective injunctions] has made an opening in this information blockade.

The Author

Arturo Alcalde Justiniani holds degrees in Industrial Relations from the Iberoamerican University (Mexico City) and in law from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). He carried out studies on union and related issues with both the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Geneva (Switzerland) and the Institute of Social Studies at The Hague (The Netherlands). For thirty-five years, he has advised unions and workers on legal, educational and organizational issues. An opinion writer for La Jornada, Alcalde Justiniani is also head of Legal Labor Consultants, a group of attorneys dedicated to the defense of workers

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Electrical Union Wants Limits on Private Investment in Energy

The Sole Union of Electrical Workers of the Mexican Republic (SUTERM), which represents workers employed by the Federal Electrical Commission (CFE) that manages the nation’s electrical energy production and distribution system, has called for limits on private investment in the Commission. President Enrique Peña Nieto has said he will send a bill to the Mexican Congress soon calling for private participation in electric energy generation and distribution in Mexico.

Victor Fuentes, the head of SUTERM, said that currently the Commission maintains rates so low that they “cannot recoup the real costs.”

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Protests by Teachers Lead to Agreement with Interior Minster

Weeks of protests by Oaxacan teachers over a variety of issues -- from evaluations to teachers held as political prisoners -- have led to an agreement with the federal Ministry of the Interior. While not meeting all of the teachers demands, the agreement reached between Rubén Núñez Ginez, head of Local 22, and Luis Enrique Miranda, Under Secretary of the Interior provided that teacher evaluations would not affect conditions of employment and that there would be improvement in the schools’ physical plant. No agreement, however, was reached on teachers being held on a variety of charges, though the Undersecretary did say that he would do what he could to expedite the proceedings.

The meetings between the union and the Ministry took place as 2,000 Oaxacan teachers marched into Mexico City and organized a sit-in in the city center.

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Crisis in Michoacán as Violence Leads to Economic Paralysis

Michoacán, a state on the west coast of Mexico, has entered into a syndrome of criminal violence that is leading to the collapse of the state’s economy, according to business and community leaders there. Similar problems exist in the neighboring state of Guerrero.

Sotero Samuel Fernández, former vice-president of the Michoacán chapter of the National Chamber of Industry and Construction, and Tito Fernández Torres, president of the Peace and Dignity Movement that comprises forty non-governmental organizations, and several others speaking at a press conference in mid-August complained that former president Felipe Calderón and current president Enrique Peña Nieto only sent in police and troops at critical moments without taking action to overcome the underlying situation.

The business and community leaders, academics and professionals, as well as spokespersons for the large indigenous communities in the state said that they feared there would be widespread social violence unless something was done to deal with the problems. They argued that revitalizing the economy and providing jobs were the most important necessities of the state.

Large parts of the state have for some time been under the gun and in the line of fire of the Knights Templar (Los Caballeros Templarios), one of the most violent drug gangs. The business leaders complained of merchants and farmers having to pay protection money to gangsters, while the free movement of people that is so important to tourism has been obstructed by organized crime, by the self-defense organizations, and by the police and military. In response to the wide spread gang violence, local communities have organized their own armed self-defense units, although it is not clear whether this makes communities more or less secure.

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Inter-American Commission Probes Lawyer's Death

This story was previously published by FNS News.

[August 14] The Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has accepted the case of a Mexican human rights lawyer who died under questionable circumstances in 2001. Lawyers for the family of Digna Ochoa y Placido confirmed that the IACHR has agreed to consider a complaint against the Mexican government because of an official investigation that concluded Ochoa committed suicide with three gunshots.

The 37-year-old Ochoa was among the first defense lawyers involved in the internationally-publicized case of Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera, who were detained and tortured by Mexican soldiers in 1999 after protesting logging being done for the Boise Cascade Corporation in the southern state of Guerrero. Ochoa was found dead in a Mexico City apartment of gunshot wounds on October 19, 2001.

Years of police investigations, legal wrangling and polemics culminated two years ago when the Mexico City district attorney’s office upheld the suicide determination. When the case was closed in July 2011, the office was headed by Miguel Angel Mancera, the current mayor of Mexico City.

Supported by Mexico’s National Association of Democratic Lawyers and the Center for International Justice and Law, Ochoa family lawyers Karla Micheel Salas and David Pena helped convince the IACHR that investigative irregularities allegedly committed by Mexican justice officials warranted the review of the Organization of American States’ human rights commission.

“We are going to clear up my sister’s reputation, which (the district attorney’s office) has so smeared, and show that the murder hypothesis was not erroneous,” said Jesus Ochoa, brother of the late attorney.

A well-known Guerrero cattleman and politician, Rogaciano Alba Álvarez, was fingered as the intellectual author of Ochoa’s murder by two state residents nearly a decade ago. Alba, the former Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) mayor of Petatlan, was arrested on drug-related offenses by Mexican federal police in the state of Jalisco in 2010. In a video-taped confession released by police to the media, Alba admitted to ties with reputed drug lords Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

But in an unusual chain of remarks, Alba emphatically denied any involvement in Ochoa’s murder, even though he was not formally charged with the crime after his detention by the federal government.

Shortly before her death, Ochoa returned to Guerrero and met with farmer-environmentalists who were struggling to defend local forests from illegal logging. Whatever the cause of Ochoa’s death, the activist lawyer’s passing in the first year of the Vicente Fox administration set off alarm bells in Mexico.

Ochoa's death was widely viewed as a harbinger for human rights in a country that was supposedly undergoing a transition from decades of authoritarian rule to a more representative democracy where freedom of expression and citizen participation would be respected.

More than 15 years after the forest defense movement gained momentum in Guerrero, the state’s mountainous zones are the scene of continued illegal logging, violent attacks against environmentalists, persistent outbreaks of narco-violence, and the forced displacement of communities.

The lawyers representing Digna Ochoa and family have until December 5 to present their arguments to the IACHR, which will then give the Mexican state an opportunity to defend the Mexico City investigation that determined Ochoa’s untimely death a suicide.

Additional sources: La Jornada, August 13, 2013. Article by Fernando Camacho Servin., August 13, 2013. Article by Blanca Valdez. Cimacnoticias, August 7, 2013.

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Repression: Two Cases—Environmentalist and Communists

On August 8, the Mexican Movement of those Affected by Dams and for the Defense of Rivers (MAPDER) denounced irregularities in the investigation of the assassination of environmentalist Noé Vázquez Ortiz that occurred on August 2. Four suspects have been arrested and a minor who witnessed the killing has been interrogated. He had been an activist in the movement to stop the El Naranjal hydroelectric plant in the state of Veracruz.

Members of the Mexican Communist Party demonstrated at the State of Guerrero’s offices in Mexico City on August 10 in protest of the assassination of three of their comrades: Raymundo Velázquez Flores, Samuel Vargas Ramírez, and Miguel Ángel Solano Barrera which took place on August 4 and 5 in Guerrero. They say that they hold President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Governor Ángel Aguirre of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and Ramiro Ávila Morelos the mayor of Coyuca de Benítez responsible for the murders. Click for a detailed account in English.

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Labor Shorts: Mexicana Airlines Workers Asked to Resign, VW Workers Face Layoff

Mexicana Airlines Workers Asked to Resign

Workers revealed on August 15 that the company has asked them to resign and accept their severance pay. Mexicana Airlines went bankrupt in August 2010 and despite several attempts by the unions to find buyers, the airline remains grounded. Retired flight attendants have been involved in a sit-in at the Mexico City Airport for 40 days to protest loss of their pension benefits. They said they would take “drastic action” but declined to state what it was.

VW Workers Face Layoff

Volkswagen will lay off 300 temporary workers at its Puebla plant in September. The company argued that the layoffs were necessary because the VW workers, members of the Independent Union of Volkwagen Auto Industry (SITIAVW), voted down a “3 for 4” work plan under which they would have had to work four days and then be off three days each week. The union head, Antonio Flores Trejo, said the workers rejected it because when they voted for it ten years ago the company took advantage of the situation to layoff both permanent and temporary workers.

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Social Statistics: Auto Industry Inequities; Consumer Debt Up; Industrial Production and Economic Growth Projections Down

Industrial Production Fell in June

Industrial production fell in June by 2.4 percent according the Secretary of the Economy, Ignacio Navarro Zermeño. He said that Mexico’s economic growth problems were part of a “complicated situation affecting the whole world,” and not just Mexico.

Auto Industry Inequities

The value of automobile production rose 76 percent between 2007 and 2012, while workers’ pay rose only 23 percent according to a study by the Mexican Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI).

Consumer Debt Grows in Mexico S&p Warns

Standard and Poor’s warned that consumer debt has been growing in Mexico and that this could become problematic for the country’s banks in the near future. Overdue credit cards increased by 17 percent since a year ago.

Banco de Mexico Lowers Growth Estimate

The Banco de Mexico lowered its projections of growth for the Mexican economy in 2013 from 3 to 4 percent to 2 to 3 percent.
Mexican Youth on International Youth Day August 12
According to the National Institute of women (INMUJERES), 44.3 percent of males and 43 percent of females between 15 and 17 have abandoned their studies for lack of economic resources. Only half of all youth between 12 and 29 study, and only a fifth of those between 20 and 24 do. Taking the group of youth between 24 and 29 all together, only 18 percent of males have finished high school, normal school or earned a bachelor’s degree, while among women the percentage is 20.7. Another study suggests that some 7 million youth neither work nor study.

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Mexico's Guilt by Omission, by Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano

As the Comprehensive Immigration Reform advances in the U.S. Senate, repressive policies against migrants who pass through Mexico have become more pronounced and represent a huge step backwards. The authorities’ concern is not the protection of the higher interests of humanity, but rather issues linked to geopolitical interests defined by the U.S. Pentagon’s Northern Command–to extend the southern border of the United States to the Suchiate River between Mexico and Guatemala. The idea is that migrants will pile up there instead.

Note: this is part of a series of pieces included in the Americas Updater Vol.11, No. 12: Special on Immigration Reform

Spy Reports: Content, Methodology, and Historiography in Mexico's Secret Police Archive

Dossier in *Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research *19, no.1 (July 2013): 1-103.

Open access is available until the end of August.

Lawsuit Against Ex-President of Mexico Is Dismissed

World Briefing | The Americas, By ELISABETH MALKIN, Published: July 18, 2013

A United States District Court judge in Connecticut on Thursday dismissed a civil lawsuit against former President Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico that was filed by 10 anonymous plaintiffs who said they were survivors of a 1997 assault. Judge Michael P. Shea said he was deferring to a request for immunity for Mr. Zedillo submitted by the State Department last year. The two-year-old lawsuit had sought $50 million in damages against Mr. Zedillo, who now leads a research institute at Yale University. Members of the indigenous group that was the target of the assault, known as Las Abejas, or the Bees, said they did not know the plaintiffs and disassociated themselves from the suit. Mr. Zedillo was president in 1997 when paramilitary gunmen fired on members of the group taking refuge from fighting in the southern state of Chiapas and killed 45 people, including 18 children.

What the Empire Didn't Hear: US Spying and Resistance in Latin America

By Benjamin Dangl

US imperialism spreads across Latin America through military bases and trade deals, corporate exploitation and debt. It also relies on a vast communications surveillance network, the recent uncovering of which laid bare Washington’s reach into the region’s streets and halls of power. Yet more than McDonald’s and bullets, an empire depends on fear, and fear of the empire is lacking these days in Latin America.

The controversy stirred up by Edward Snowden’s leaked documents reached the region on July 7th, when the first of a series of articles drawing from the leaks were published in the major Brazilian newspaper O Globo. The articles outlined how the US National Security Agency (NSA) had for years been spying on and indiscriminately collecting the emails and telephone records of millions of people in Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Argentina, just as it had done in the US, Europe and elsewhere.

Continue reading click here.

FNS Has New Website

Readers can stay abreast of Frontera NorteSur stories by checking out their new website.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Peoples History of the Mexican Revolution

By Dan La Botz

The Mexican Revolution—dated variously from 1910 to 1920 or from 1906 – 1940—was an enormous, long, and complicated series of events encompassing conflicts between a dictator and those who wanted democracy, between landlords and peasants and between factory owners and workers, as well as involving shifting alliances between rival revolutionary bands. We have all heard some of the names of the most famous revolutionary leaders—Francisco Madero, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Venustiano Carranza, and Álvaro Obregón—though the forces they represented and the programs they fought for may have eluded us. While beginning in northern Mexico, the revolution eventually spread throughout the country as armies of tens of thousands clashed, leaving one million dead while another million migrated to the United States. The great upheaval swept away the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz and los científicos, the small coterie of hacienda owners, industrialists and professionals who surrounded him, together with the crony capitalism that they had created. Out of the revolution rose a new elite of revolutionary generals who through their populist program and reforms won the support of peasants and workers and succeeded in creating a more broadly based and remarkably stable capitalist state.

Though the most violent stage of the revolution ended in 1920, militant agrarian reform movements, workers strikes, and political protests continued into the 1930s. Finally, during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40), the revolutionary government fulfilled the revolution’s goals: the hacienda virtually disappeared as ten million acres of land were distributed to peasants, labor unions were recognized, and the foreign owned petroleum industry was nationalized. Yet, at the same time, Cárdenas incorporated into the ruling revolutionary party the army, the peasants' leagues, workers' and public employees' unions, and the organizations of the self-employed, creating a corporate party that evolved into the authoritarian and corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled Mexico until 2000 and, after a 12 year hiatus, rules Mexico today.

Stuart Easterling does a very fine job of telling this complicated story in an extremely economical way in The Mexican Revolution: A Short History, 1910-1920, fleshing it out with a few anecdotes that give us a feel for life at the time, some thumbnail sketches of revolutionary leaders and, most important, an explanation of the social forces that they represented. (1) (This is not an easy task as I know from my own attempts). The historic photographs and woodcuts complement the text nicely. With its large type and generous leading, the book is an easy read.

As the writing shows and the end notes confirm the author has a command of the extensive literature of the Mexican Revolution, yet the book is written in a popular style; it is a kind of “people’s history” of the Mexican Revolution, without academic or political jargon. It is the kind of book one could use in a college survey course in Latin American History or in a study group for young activists interested in knowing about this tremendously important revolution that took place in North America only a century ago. It is a good introduction to the subject for the general reader.

Since it is a popular book, Easterling addresses himself to really popular misconceptions about Mexican history and history in general, such as what might be called “the Great Man theory.” He points out that some historians try to explain the Mexican revolution in terms of the striking characters and personalities of leaders: the naïveté of Madero, the integrity of Zapata, or the volatility of Villa. More important than their personalities, argues Easterling, was their relationship to the social groups of which they were a part: Madero’s connection to the landowners and businessmen who had been excluded from the dictator's inner circle, Zapata’s rootedness in the peasantry of the State of Morelos, and Villa’s experience among the bandits, ranchers, and workers of the North.

The Mexican Revolution has raised many fascinating questions. Easterling spends much time on only one: Why didn’t the campesinos take power? Following Adolfo Gilly (more about him below), he argues that the peasants and ranchers could not overcome their parochialism and develop a national strategy. Another important question that Easterling does not discuss is: What was the nature of the group that actually seized power? Manuel Aguilar Mora argued in his El Bonapartismo Mexicano (1982) that, when peasants, workers and the capitalist class proved incapable of taking power, a Bonapartist figure, first Álvaro Obregón and then his successor Plutarco Elías Calles, took power, balancing above all of the classes.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had developed this analysis earlier to explain the coming to power of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte in France and also used it to analyze Otto von Bismarck’s Germany. While Mexico had a capitalist economy, Aguilar Mora suggested, it did not have a capitalist ruling class. Nora Hamilton looked at this idea of the relative autonomy of the state from social classes in her book The Limits of State Autonomy: Post-Revolutionary Mexico also published in 1982. For political activists in Mexico, one’s attitude toward the Mexican state was all important. The Mexican Communist Party (PCM), later the Unified Socialist Party of Mexico (PSUM), and Lombardo Toledano’s Popular Socialist Party (PPS) suggested that the Mexican state should be supported and pushed to fulfill its revolutionary potential, while the Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers Party argued that the state should be opposed and overthrown. Perhaps, by simply writing a narrative, Easterling missed a chance to raise some important theories about the nature of revolutions.

Nor does Easterling have anything to say about the historiography of the Mexican Revolution, which is a fascinating one which even a novice might like to know something about, at least in broad outlines. Frank Tannenbaum, a former member of the Industrial Workers of the World who became a historian, first argued to the American public that Mexico had had a genuine social and political revolution in his book Peace by Revolution: An Interpretation of Mexico (1933). It was, he suggested, a progressive revolution that had expanded democracy and created a more just society. Reissued as a paperback in 1966, Tannenbaum’s book was the standard text and the common dog-eared textbook into the 1970s.

Then, in the conservative 1980s, regional studies began to dissolve the Mexican Revolution into a series of local events while, particularly in European studies, post-modern attacks on the very idea revolution—bourgeois or socialist—and the rejection of narratives of social progress, tended to undermine the whole enterprise. Many young academics came to reject economic and social explanations or the idea of revolution altogether. Revolutions? Some said, there never were any. Other said, oh, yes, there were, but they’d all gone bad, inevitably. This was reflected in studies of the Mexican Revolution in Eduardo Ramón Ruiz argued in The Great Rebellion (1980) that Mexico’s upheaval should not be called a revolution, since the overthrow of a capitalist dictatorship had led to its replacement by….a capitalist dictatorship. A year later Friedrich Katz broke new ground, however, by placing the Mexican Revolution in the context of the machinations of the great imperial powers in The Secret War in Mexico: Europe, the United States, and the Mexican Revolution (1981).

Allen Knight weighed in on the debate over the revolution with his exhaustive, two volume The Mexican Revolution (1986), synthesizing the enormous academic literature into a powerful argument that reaffirmed Tannenbaum’s claim that indeed, there had been a political and social revolution in Mexico. At the same time, two other scholars expanded our understanding of the Mexican Revolution by placing it in a longer time frame and in a broader international context. John Tutino’s From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico: Social bases of Agrarian Violence, 1750-1940 (1986) suggested that the roots of the Mexican Revolution had to be found in the two-hundred year long struggle of Mexican peasants for the land taken from them by the Spanish conquers and colonizers. A year later, John Mason Hart’s Revolutionary Mexico: The Coming and Process of the Mexican Revolution (1987) undertook to compare the unfolding of the Mexican Revolution with the experiences of revolutions in Iran, China and Russia.

The trends changed once again in the 1990s from this focus on social classes, revolutionary processes and the state, with what has been called a post-modern cultural turn in Mexican Revolution studies, as exemplified by the collection of essays titled Everyday forms of state formation: revolution and the negotiation of rule in modern Mexico (1995) edited by Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent.

One of the peculiarities of American academic scholarship is that it tended to ignore Mexican writing on the Mexican Revolution. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Adolfo Gilly, the Argentine born revolutionary sat in his cell in the Lecumberri Prison, jailed for his role in the 1968 political protests. While in prison he wrote La Revolución interrumpida, Mexico, 1910-1920: una guerra campesina por la tierra y el poder (1971), a Marxist analysis of the Mexican Revolution that had an enormous impact on the subject in Mexico. What made the book so fascinating at the time was its footnotes citing the texts by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels that were used to elucidate Mexico’ revolutionary experience. Octavio Paz, the most famous Mexican writer, essayist and poet of the time stopped the presses on a forthcoming book in order to include a chapter reviewing Gilly’s book. Not until 2005 was Gilly’s important history published in English under the title The Mexican Revolution by the New Press; in 2006 New Press reissued it as part of it Peoples History Series.

Easterling has written a fine introductory book, though we will still turn to Gilly for his explicitly Marxist interpretation and to Knight for the encyclopedic account. For those, who after reading Easterling, might want to take a somewhat deeper plunge in this pool, I would recommend Michael J. Gonzáles’s The Mexican Revolution, 1910-1940 (2002), also an introduction, though at 307 pages about twice as long as Easterling’s.

This review was previously published in New Politics.

1. Easterling’s history first appeared in three successive issues of the International Socialist Review, number 74, 75 and 76.

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Arturo Silva Doray


"The relationship that we've had with international organizations
-- thanks to ties with UE   --  is hugely important.

"After each international meeting, we feel more and more encouraged by the knowledge that we're backed by outside organizations as strong as the UE."

-- Arturo Silva Doray
General secretary of municipal workers union in Juarez, Mexico
& of Federation of Municipal Workers for Chihuahua, Mexico



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