Mexico report: The electricity meltdown

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By John Ross

MEXICO CITY -- Monday morning, Oct. 12, broke broodingly over Mexico City. The headlines on a score of newspapers hanging from Vicente Ramirez's kiosk were universal loas for Calderon's heroic seizure of Luz y Fuerza del Centro. As usual, La Jornada, the capital's left daily, was the exception. Political columnist Julio Hernandez noted that on the eve of the centennial of the Revolution of 1910-1919, Mexico stood at a decisive moment: if Calderon was allowed to validate the takeover of the company and destroy the SME, the left's goose was cooked.

Around the counter at the Café La Blanca, sullen faces were buried in their newspapers. Isidro Zuniga talked about putting 34 years in at a box factory before being shown the door - "I gave them my youth for a handful of pinche lentils. This is how the bosses fuck us. Chinga su Madre Senor President! We will stand with the SME…"

Benito Ruiz, the driver at the hotel where I've lived for 25 years, was steaming. Calderon was like the dictator Porfirio Diaz who was dumped by the Revolution, like the president Gustavo Diaz Ordaz who had ordered the massacre of hundreds of students on the eve of the Olympics in 1968. "Watch your back, Senor John," he warned, "these bastards will stop at nothing…"

Others had less sympathy for the workers. Don Juanito Lopez, a tailor here in the old quarter, was dismissive of Luz y Fuerza which he thought rotten to the core with corruption. When you complained about your light bill or wanted to get something fixed, employees demanded a "stimulus" bribe. Sky-high electric bills have driven a wedge between Luz y Fuerza workers and the general public.

I walked over to the neighborhood Luz y Fuerza office on Carranza Street. It was locked up tight but the Mexican flag was still flapping from the roof. Handwritten signs ("Listen up people! The SME is fighting for you!") were taped to the dusty windows. A young woman who said she was the daughter of an electricista, handed me a leaflet that explained what Calderon had done "is called fascism just like under Hitler and Mussolini and Pinochet and Diaz Ordaz."

At five in the afternoon, Felipe Calderon's arch-nemesis Lopez Obrador had called a rally outside the Chamber of Deputies to offer legislators an alternative budget that would chop government officials' salaries in half, cancel their million pesos perks, and double the tax rate on Mexico's 400 top corporations that now pay only 1.7% of their total earnings. Three years after the stolen election, AMLO is still able to drum out thousands but lately attendance has dipped and the die-hards' energies dampened.

Today, however, the crowd outside Congress was swollen by word of the takeover -- for AMLO, the SME would be a force multiplier. Several thousand electricistas packed the street, chanting and pumping their fists into the dank afternoon air: "Aqui se ve la Fuerza del SME!" ("Here you see the strength of the SME!")

Andres Manuel helped Martin Esparza mount the podium and embraced him. He would put his movement at the SME's disposal. The opposition would consolidate for a "mega-marcha" on Thursday the 15th. "!Aqui se ve la Fuerza del SME!"

Esparza took the mic. He is not a brilliant speaker but he made some pertinent points, rattling off the names of companies and institutions that were exempted from paying their electric bills: the Torre Mayor, the nation's tallest skyscraper; luxury tourist hotels in the Zona Rosa and the ritzy Polanco district; "Reforma" and "Uno Mas Uno", newspapers that back Calderon to the hilt; the Chamber of Deputies and Mexico City's City Hall; Eight distinct federal Secretariats and Los Pinos, the Mexican White House. Electricity rates were high because 70% of the juice is sold to 46,000 private corporations at 45 centavos the kilowatt while home consumers shell out one peso 50 centavos. Esparza's fist shot up. "!Aqui Se Ve La Fuerza del SME!" When he drove away from the rally, the union leader was shadowed by seven carloads of federal police.

Out at Los Pinos, the Estado Mayor, Calderon's elite military guard, was installing even more forbidding metal fences around the presidential palace and shutting down all access streets. Los Pinos has always been a bunker but now it was impenetrable. The President has declared "a state of exception." Mayor Marcelo, a prominent figure in Lopez Obrador's Party of the Democratic Revolution, worried. "We have returned to the 19th century of Porfirio Diaz. I have never seen such disrespect for the workers."

Tuesday, October 13th: It rained hard all Monday night, a cold late season downpour that always spells trouble for the city's circuits. Most of Luz y Fuerza's transformers are at least 50 years old - the company has been starved for investments for decades - and the Federal Electricity Commission engineers who had been brought over to operate the plants had no idea of how to deal with such antique equipment. Blackouts spread into 22 colonias - the prensa vendida suggested sabotage.

Federal Police visited the neighborhoods where SME workers live. One electricista, as reported in La Jornada, says he was offered 25,000 pesos to return to the plant he had been forced out of in the Saturday Night Massacre. He turned down the bribe. Many SME members have climbed into the lower middle class. They have an apartment and a car and payments to make every week. Now they had no work and no paycheck yet they wern't going to give up their union without a fight. "!Aqui Se Ve la Fuerza del SME!"

Weds. October 14th: By Wednesday morning, the blackouts had radiated into 72 colonies in 12 out of the city's 16 delegations (boroughs.) Some 90,000 residents in Milpa Alta, a rural delegation, hadn't had power since Saturday night. The system was said to be on the verge of collapse. When irate customers called Luz y Fuerza, no one answered the phones.

A hundred families in Ocoyouapac, Mexico state on the western flank of the capital had enough. They marched out to the busy federal highway that connects up Toluca with Mexico City at morning rush hour and stood there with their arms folded across their chests, the women holding squirming babies, neighborhood dogs at their feet. Auto horns blared. Traffic was backed up for 18 kilometers. The Federal police arrived and threatened arrest. The colonos stood there for two hours and refused to yield until the juice was turned back on. The colonos were not alone. More than 700 manufacturing businesses in Mexico state had to close shop because of the rolling blackouts. Governor Enrique Pena Nieto, the PRI presidential candidate in 2012, told the prensa vendida that he had proof of SME sabotage.

The Calderon government opened up indemnization pay-out centers on Wednesday morning with terrific fanfare -- four pages printed in green ink ran in every newspaper instructing workers where to sign up for their checks. The pay-outs would be conducted under the aegius of the SAE or System for the Liquidation of Embargoed Goods, an agency that is usually charged with auctioning off property seized from narco traffickers. Gomez Montt warned that the if the union tried to intimate workers into refusing the checks, its leaders would be met with the full force of the law.

Despite the offer of spectacular bonuses for those who signed up to be liquidated before the end of the month, the lines were thin outside the centers, mostly administrative personnel who were not even members of the SME, some older workers on the verge of retirement plus a few ex-wives who showed up to see if husbands who owed them child support and food allotments had cashed out. Others lined up just to find out exactly how much they would receive. Carstens had promised that the government would counsel former workers where to invest their windfalls and provide them with incentives for business start-ups.

Those who were inclined to buy the government package waited from 9 a.m through mid-afternoon and gave up. The computers had crashed and the system was down. A few lucky sell-outs received checks only to discover they were post-dated and needed to be approved by arbitration and conciliation commissions before they could spend them. "Esquiroles!" SME militants yelled at them despite Gomez Montt's warning, "Scabs!" "What will you do when the money runs out?" one veteran worker called out. "Calderon has created 60,000 quesadilla venders - there won't be enough tortillas to go around…"

That morning, Felipe Calderon addressed a convention of radio and television executives whose networks had been spouting his government's calumnies against the SME for weeks. The event had been moved up a day so that the president wouldn't get caught up in Thursday's mega-march. Calderon's conscience was still clear, he told the execs. He was fighting for Mexico's poor, the victims of his own neo-liberal regime. When he had done, the executives gave him a ten-minute standing ovation. I punched off the TV. The prolonged applause of the owners of the prensa vendida brought back bitter memories of the standing ovation the Mexican congress had given Gustavo Diaz Ordaz after he slaughtered hundreds of students 41 years ago at Tlatelolco. Such servility and authoritarianism are old stories around here.

Thurs. October 15th: I awoke to the racket of Federal Police helicopters buzzing the Centro Historico like giant gnats. Ever since 1968, when Diaz Ordaz's helicopters dropped flairs to signal the start of the student massacre in the Plaza of Three Cultures, the government has deployed these infernal machines to intimate those who stand against it. I stood on my balcony and waved my fist at the intruders. "!Aqui Se Ve La Fuerza del SME!"

When I went out for breakfast, it felt like the Centro had been emptied out in preparation for the big march. The banks had not even bothered to open. In the Zocalo, the big tents housing the annual book fair had been dismantled and the books carted off to avoid conflict with the marchers. Mayor Marcelo likes to fill the great square with public spectacles, a skating rink in the winter, an exhibition of dinosaur bones all summer. The mega-march would be an occasion to reclaim this public space to demonstrate the pueblo's enormous displeasure with the mal gobierno ("bad government.")

By lunchtime, you could hear the rolling steel curtains that protect storefronts in the Centro being slammed shut. There were not nearly as many Mexico City cops in the streets as there had been for the October 2nd commemoration of the '68 massacre when students tend to maraud. SME workers are not apt to spray paint nasty slogans on the KFCs or plunder 7-11s.

I joined a gang of cultural workers in front of Bellas Artes, the rococo fine arts palace just outside the Centro Historico, captained by Paco Taibo II, the quintessential Mexico City novelist and historian, and Enrique Gonzalez Rojo, a revolutionary poet who is even more ancient than this correspondent. For two hours we stood there behind our banner as an endless river of protestors streamed by, waiting for a space to insert ourselves in the line of march.

The demonstration was clearly the densest since the protests after Lopez Obrador had been robbed of the 2006 election but it was distinct from AMLO's recent "informative assemblies" that have become stagy and ritualistic. October 15th was indeed a spontaneous response not only to Calderon's grotesque union busting but also a long painful laundry list of his government's abuse of social movements in this conflictive city and country.

The spontaneity was made manifest by the thousands and thousands of hand-scrawled signs the marchers waved calling "Fecal" every name in the book of imprecations from dog to snake to rat to asshole to the reincarnation of Gustavo Diaz Ordaz and the dictator Porfirio Diaz. "Feed The Poor!" one sign counseled, advising that Augusto Carstens' corpulent frame should be rendered into "carnitas" (roast pork.) "If there is no solution, there will be a revolution!" UNAM students bellowed.

The fists punched at the autumn air: "!Aqui Se Ve La Fuerza del SME!" A baby stroller drifted by with a sleeping child aboard, her little fingers curled around a sign that asked "Mommy, why has my daddy lost his job?" Many marchers called upon rate-payers to withhold their payments. Others hollered for a "Huelga General", a general strike. "1810-1910-2010! The revolution will come again!"

From 4 PM through 9:20 that night on my cheap chronometer, the masses poured into the Zocalo. Police estimated the crowd size at 150,000, the organizers 350,000. As a veteran Zocolologist who has been estimating the size of crowds here for a quarter of a century, I'll go with a quarter of a million.

By 6 PM, the floor of the great plaza was jam-packed and many contingents had not yet even decamped from the starting point at the Angel five kilometers down Reforma. Lopez Obrador and his thousands of brigadistas who had volunteered to bring up the rear of the mega-march did not even reach the Zocalo before the masses inside that Tiennemen-sized square intoned the National Hymn which is how such rallies wind down around here.

Despite its enormity, Mexico's largest, longest social outburst in years didn't even got top billing in the prensa vendida - Televisa led the nightly news with a story about a kid who was thought to have flown off in a runaway balloon somewhere in Gringolandia. But in a symbolic nod to the strength of the SME, Gomez Montt announced that a "dialogue" would soon be entabled between the mal gobierno and the union. Mayor Marcelo volunteered to mediate.

I joined my friend Berta Robledo, one of AMLO's "Adelitas," at the Blanca for coffee. We sat at the counter with five very serious farmers from Zacatecas. They all owned cows but they couldn't get a price for their milk anymore so they had taken to dumping it out on the highway. The banks were threatening to foreclose. Sure, they supported the SME but they had really traveled 500 miles to manifest their desperation at the worsening conditions of their lives. "Our fathers and grandfathers fought and died for this land," Don Geronimo Amaya muttered, "we don’t want to see more blood spilled. But if we have to…." His small voice trailed off into the café chatter.

Such is the mood of "los de abajo" on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Mexican revolution.

John Ross's monstrous "El Monstruo - Dread & Redemption in Mexico City" will be published by Nation Books in November. You can get an earful at Northtown Books in Arcata Calif on Friday the 13th and at Modern Times in San Francisco's Mish on the 18th. During his upcoming "Ross & Revolution In 2010" book tour, the author will also be traveling with his recently-published "Iraqigirl" (Haymarket), the diary of a teenager coming of age under U.S. occupation. Any bright ideas about venues? Write johnross@igc.org