We—activists, organizers, and aspiring movement builders—have been taught that creating positive social change means responding to the political possibilities and limitations of our context. While this is perhaps inevitable, the Mexico Solidarity Network (msn) believes we must also challenge the ways these possibilities and limitations are created. The following interview with Tom Hansen, co-founder and director of msn, describes some of the forces influencing the political space that resistance occupies in Mexico and the United States. From police repression to neo-liberal capitalism, it points to how nation-states and corporations like Wal-Mart crack down on social movements and their potential. More importantly, this interview highlights the struggle of the Zapatistas (and political allies like msn) and discusses how they have sought to change the spaces and conditions for resistance in Mexico.
Sitting in Tom’s Chicago office/apartment in June of 2006, solidarity was defined as becoming critically aware of one another’s struggles and then doing something about it. The United States and Mexico have what many feel is the most important bi-national relationship in the world. This text mentions just a few of the reasons why forging radical cross-border alliances is necessary. New reasons for such solidarity emerge everyday.
Since this interview was conducted, the Neoliberal/ Neoconservative PANista Felipe Calderon has assumed Mexico’s Presidency for the next 6 years. Like the US presidential election in 2000, Mexico’s recent election was marred with electoral inconsistencies and substantive accusations of fraud. However, in Mexico the election results have been followed by massive popular protests that appear ongoing. This post-election turmoil has helped expose the extreme fragility of Mexico’s political system, and is just one more indicator of why binational solidarity is so critical for activists in the US today.
To start, could you talk about what has been going on in Atenco?
The municipality of San Salvador Atenco, near Mexico City, was under a state of siege and was occupied by hundreds of Federal Preventative Police. They ransacked homes throughout the community. The problem started on Wednesday, May 3, when flower vendors from Atenco attempted to sell flowers in the nearby community of Texcoco at the site of a planned Wal- Mart mega-mall. Police brutally displaced the vendors, beating several people in the process. In response, the Atenco-based “Frente de Pueblos en Defensa de la Tierra” (People’s Front in Defense of the Land) mobilized protests, which were in turn brutally repressed by police.
The police did not have the best tactics. So to some extent the citizens were able to defend themselves. But by 6 o’clock the next morning by some estimates there were as many as 5,000 police officers. They basically went into town, busted down doors, broke windows, and broke into people’s houses without warrants. They arrested about 218 people—some say as many as 400 hundred because two weeks later still people are missing, we don’t know where they are. And they beat the hell out of them. There were 46 women arrested, and 30 of them reported being raped. The police actually showed up that morning equipped with condoms, so apparently their plan was to sexually abuse women. Several of the people, in fact a few dozen, were beaten so badly that they had to be hospitalized. One kid is either going to die or suffer permanent brain damage 1. Many people are going to be released for lack of evidence, but the State’s Attorney General is charging 28 people with kidnapping—not for anything that had happened that particular day, but for charges they had pending since February 2. This is a typical thing that the Mexican police do; they often will issue arrests for activists without any intention of exercising those warrants until strategic moments in the struggle. And then they’ll arrest the leadership in the movement and charge them with some obscure crime.
Importantly, Atenco is a self-declared autonomous community and an adherent to the “Other Campaign.” In 2002, the community organized the Frente de Pueblos en Defensa de la Tierra in opposition to a Fox administration plan to build an airport on communally owned lands. After a year of protests, the government canceled its plans, but the community remains organized. Atenco is famous for its militant, machete-wielding protesters who have participated in mobilizations across central Mexico.
What is the importance of what’s happening in Atenco for Mexican Social Movements?
The folks in Atenco are major supporters of what’s called La Otra Campaña (the Other Campaign) which is organized by the ezln, of the Zapatista movement. The Other Campaign is an anti-capitalist effort to unite people from all over the left throughout Mexico. The Zapatistas view this attack on Atenco, which is an autonomous community closely aligned with the Zapatistas, as an attack on the Other Campaign. And most commentators in Mexico agree with that analysis, that this is basically an attack on the Other Campaign. I think lines have been drawn in the sand by both the Zapatistas and by the government, with the Zapatistas saying: “we are not going to allow the people of Atenco to be arrested for this, we want them to be released and we’re going to struggle until they are released.” And the government is saying: “this is where we’re going to draw the line, this is as far as the Other Campaign gets.”
The battle in Atenco is part of a series of events in which excessive police force has been used leading up to the July 2nd Federal elections, the presidential elections in Mexico. In April there was a police attack on striking miners in Morelos, two of them were killed. There has been quite a bit of police violence recently, which some people interpret as an effort of President Fox to instill fear in the general Mexican population. An effort to instill fear about social instability and build votes for the PAN candidate Felipe Calderon, who has based much of his campaign on the idea of what they call the mano duro or heavy hand, which entails stronger use of the police and breaking up social movements. This is kind of an interesting interpretation of social instability because most people in Mexico are concerned about police corruption and about crime in the street, but the Mexican government has switched this to say the criminals are the social movements and the people struggling just to get by. They have switched the terms of the debate, and it seems to be having some success. Felipe Calderon is actually gaining in the polls.
How is La Otra Campaña going about uniting people? What lessons in solidarity do you think it holds for US organizers?
The reason it’s called La Otra Campaña is because it’s a parallel campaign to the presidential campaign. It is an initial effort to do a mapping of what’s going on in Mexico: the social movements that are there, the way they’re organized, the kinds of people that are involved in them, the kinds of political orientation that they have. The general analysis of the Other Campaign, and this applies to the United States as well as Mexico, is that the majority of the population has been depoliticized. The extent of people’s political activities revolves around elections every two years or three years, and in the case of Mexico, six years. People don’t have any control over the political decisions that are made and are having dramatic effects on their lives. So the first step of La Otra Campaña is to give people hope, to politicize people, to mobilize people around whatever they happen to be struggling on locally, whatever they happen to be confronting locally.
Is it an explicitly anti-capitalist Campaign?
La Otra Campaña locates the fundamental problem in Mexico and in the world as the capitalist system, a system of exploitation, a system that’s wrecking havoc amongst the working class, that’s destroying the environment, and a system that—with the neo-liberal application of Capitalism—is increasingly removing economic decision making from political control. So people have less and less control over their lives.
Could you say more about why a critique of capitalism is important for people building social movements? And about how you think neoliberalism is impacting social movements?
I think capitalism is the hegemonic power in the world right now, both capitalism and the structures that accompany capitalism. By accompanying structures I’m talking about federal governments, the imf, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. I’m talking about institutions like nafta, and to some extent the United Nations. These are institutions that are partnering with capital, that do the bidding of capital, that create conditions for the profitable investment of capital around the world. They’re the institutions that defend exploitation. When a social movement rises up and people object to capitalist exploitation the State sends in the police to put them down. Without that fundamental understanding of the working dynamics of capitalism it’s hard to be strategic about organizing social movements.
What is your reading of the current immigration movement going on in the United States?
I think it is bold, energetic, and unprecedented. I think there’s a struggle going on within the movement for ideological influences over the movement. I think there is a part of the movement— mainly the ngo elements—that are working within-the-beltway logic. This sector is looking at an immigration reform that has limited parameters. Within these parameters they are looking at a limited amnesty program, a guest worker program, and they are not going to oppose the move to increase border security, which is basically a death sentence to undocumented workers. No matter what the immigration reform, these workers are going to continue to come across the border.
On the other hand, I think there is a large segment of the movement at the base that’s much more interested in attacking broader problems, broader questions. They are certainly interested in an amnesty, but they’re also interested in the kinds of economic policies that cause people to have to immigrate in the first place. The kinds of economic policies that are initiated by Washington and the White House, and then have such a dramatic effect in Mexico that people in Mexico don’t have jobs. The people crossing the border can’t stay in Mexico because they don’t have any opportunities.
What types of changes in immigration policy does msn support?
We think you have to start with the fundamental economic policies that cause immigration in the first place. We think nafta has to be renegotiated. nafta in and of itself is probably responsible for half the undocumented workers that are coming into the United States every year right now. Campesinos (farm workers) can’t compete with US foreign grain production. We think Mexico’s massive foreign debt needs to be dealt with. When the debt crisis happened in 1982 and 1994, the banks that made the bad loans and the private companies and financial institutions didn’t pay the price. Instead the loans were socialized and so the Mexican people had to pay off the price and they will continue paying off these loans for the foreseeable future. It may be five, six, seven decades. And by socializing these bad loans, basically Mexico has been put on a debt treadmill.
Rather than having an economy that produces for internal consumption where they can develop a dynamic economy, they have to produce for export so they can earn dollars to pay off this debt. Right now one-third of everything that’s produced in Mexico is exported and about a quarter of the federal budget every year goes into debt payment. You can’t have a functioning economy where the economy is bleeding money to the north. Mexico is actually sending more money to the United States every year than the United States sends to Mexico—which is not going to work out in the long run! In addition, you have companies like Wal-Mart, which is going in and basically taking over the retailing business. Wal-Mart is now the largest retailer in Mexico. Wal-Mart’s profit margins in the United States are somewhere between three and four percent; in Mexico they are more like eight or nine percent. And all these profits are repatriated every year back to the home base in Arkansas. When you look at all these profits that are immediately repatriated from Mexico to the United States, that impacts the Mexican gnp growth substantially.
What would it take to continue building an immigration movement that can support the type of economic policy reform you’re talking about?
I think we need to shift the ideological debate from a simple discussion of amnesty and guest worker programs, to a discussion of what causes undocumented immigration in the first place. I know hundreds of undocumented workers and not a single one of them would have come to the United States if not for the Washington D.C.- based policies that forced them into the position where they had no alternative. It’s either they come to the United States or their family doesn’t survive. And given those circumstances I think anybody in the United States would make the same decision. So until we address those root causes anything else is a band-aid that’s not going to work.
What can people in Chicago do right now in this political moment to best provide solidarity with Mexico?
We need to support the leadership in the Mexican- American community in particular and in the Latino community in general, that’s addressing these broader issues. We can’t get sucked in by people like Luis Gutierrez and some of these other so-called leaders in the Latino community who are arguing the beltway politics. What we call the “politics of the possible,” the only debate that’s possible in Washington is the debate that the corporations allow. And this is what the corporations want, they want amnesty and they want a guest worker program so that they can continue to create a second class group of workers in the United States.
Any concluding thoughts on solidarity?
Visit http://www.mexicosolidarity.org/site/ to find out more about msn’s work or to get involved.
1 The “kid” mentioned above, Javier Cortes Santiago, died not longer after this interview was conducted. He was 14. Since this interview, at least one other young person also died as a result of police abuse at Atenco.
2 The kidnapping charges used by the State’s Attorney General stem from a political tactic used by Atenco activists during a previous struggle. These activists kidnapped police officers in the successful effort to keep their land from being turned into an airport. The release of the officers was used as part of the negotiations between the community and the government.