essay 3 of the series
Building the Global Grassroots Infrastructure
July 8, 2001
this page is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Grass/Infra/Infra-3.htm
Summary: The group Ojo de Agua Comunicación in Oaxaca City catalyzed international response against threats to people in a remote mountain village. Campesinos in that corner of the Northern Sierra in Oaxaca State are struggling to prevent the destruction of their communal organization, Pueblos Unidos.
The group Ojo de Agua Comunicación in Oaxaca City catalyzed international response in opposition to the threats against Crisanto Manzano, his family, and others in their organization, who live in the remote mountain village of Tanetze de Zaragoza. Crisanto and many other campesinos in that corner of the Northern Sierra in Oaxaca State are struggling to prevent the destruction of their communal organization, Pueblos Unidos, by local caciques, local entrepreneurs, and corrupt politicians - local, state and federal - who want to gain money and power for themselves, at the expense of their communities. Mobilization of international support has greatly impacted the struggle.
"These are not big-time capitalists trying to destroy the cooperative bus service of Pueblos Unidos" so that a private company can take over the business. "They're local indigenous people who want personal profit and power", said my friend Guillermo in the office of Ojo de Agua Comunicación in Oaxaca City. Not the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, City Bank, or other 'big players' trying to steal the whole world, and drawing massive protests, like in Quebec last April. These are just little guys trying to steal, from people they know personally, by name, people who are materially poor to begin with. Not even a blip on the global scale, but raising hell in their community.
Tanetze de Zaragoza, the focal point of this struggle, is tiny. It's a miniscule circle on an official topographic chart, where 4 millimeters (about 1/6 of an inch) stands for 1 kilometer (about 3/5 of a mile). About 1,400 people are living in the village, and another 200 Tanetzans are working, temporarily, elsewhere -- Oaxaca city, Mexico city, U.S., wherever -- to eke out a living. A strenuous 5 and 1/2-hour bus ride from Oaxaca city. The first 13/4 or so hours out of Oaxaca aren't bad. Federal highway 175, paved, winds its way north (and a little east) up into the mountains to Ixtlan de Juárez. As the crow flies, it's only 401/2 kilometers (25 miles) from Oaxaca to Ixtlan, where the turnoff is. Then another 201/2 kilometers (or 123/4 miles, straight-line) the first part paved, the rest dirt, snaking east and north, threading its way through the map's contour lines into the Rincón area of the Sierra Juárez. A spectacular, bumpy, slow 3 and 3/4 or so additional hours. Before the road it took days to make the trip. For Tanetzans, bus service to Oaxaca is an important link to the outside world.
A letter initiated by Ojo de Agua, printed in the Feb 18 La Jornada, a national newspaper, says, "Crisanto was a founding member of the independent campesino organization United Villages of the Rincón of the Sierra Juárez, composed of eight Zapotec towns that have been struggling for twenty years to improve the conditions of life in their communities by means of constructing roads, the formation of social programs, working for fair trade of coffee and peppers, and by creating a cooperative society for automotive transport of passengers and freight.
"Currently the municipal president and the local caciques, colluding with the transportation entrepreneur Josué Samuel Ruiz, with the local deputies and federal PRI-Party members Romualdo Pacheco Paz and Cándido Coheto Martínez, and with the complacency of the local ex-deputy and regional delegate to the government Mauro Francisco Méndez, have decided to put an end to the Autotransportation Cooperative "United Towns" in order to open the way for private truck lines. Six months ago they seized, and have held the two newest buses of the cooperative, and in an arbitrary manner have refused, up to the date of this letter, to comply with any of the agreements for a solution that have been signed.
"Faced with the intransigence of the mayor of Tanetze and the ineptitude of the negotiators from the state government, the people of the organization decided to block, for an indefinite time, all the access roads to this community until the municipal authorities return the buses. This extreme measure has made the threatening situation in the region where they live even more tense.
"We signatories support the statements of the representatives of the organization United Towns of the Rincón of the Sierra Juárez, and we will hold Virgilio Hernández Bautista, Jacobo Chávez Yéscas, and the entrepreneurs and PRI politicians who support and advise them, responsible for any aggression suffered by Crisanto Manzano Avella, his family or any of the citizens of Tanetze who sympathize with the cause of their regional organization. We also insist upon immediate intervention by the federal and state governments to guarantee a peaceful and negotiated solution of this problem, with full respect for the rights and the autonomy of the towns of the Rincón of the Sierra Juárez." These strong demands for a peaceful, negotiated, respectful resolution concluded the published letter, signed by 11 organizations and 37 individuals.
Two days later, on Feb 20, Ojo de Agua, using e-mail, amply distributed this letter with a brief note asking that faxes be sent the Mexican president and interior secretary, and the Oaxaca State governor. Within days the officials received a large number of communications. On February 24 Ojo de Agua sent an e-mail report to supporters that began, "We have received a surprsingly large response in support of Pueblos Unidos del Rincón and Crisanto Manzano. Letters, e-mails and faxes were sent in much greater abundance than we had anticipated."
By then, however, the state judicial police had twice demolished the road blockade that Pueblos Unidos, in its drastic effort to press for a dialogue, continued returning to construct. In one confrontation the police violently beat a member of one of the communities. Also, by order of the [PRI] governor, they took the buses siezed by the opponents of Pueblos Unidos to Oaxaca, where they are still being held.
Now it is July 8, about 4 and 1/2 months later, and 10 and 1/2 months since the buses were initially seized. What has happened since then? Two facts seem pretty clear. The wide publicity that Ojo de Agua gained for the struggle appears to have pressed the State Government to discourage overt violence and to intensify somewhat its 'negotiation' process between the contending parties. An entire culture of counter-accusations exists here, well nourished during the seven decades of nearly absolute PRI rule. The powerful, politically-well-connected thieves accuse the victims. In this case the power-and-money seekers claim that the United Towns of the Rincón is only a small group, that the leadership has misappropriated (in effect, stolen) the organization's money, and that the blockade injured the townspeople by preventing necessary medical and other needs from being met. As the 'negotiations' continue, the State still holds the two seized buses, which the transportation cooperative is hopeful of having returned in a few days. During this time, the State issued a permit to the entrepreneur group allowing it to offer bus service, and granted it a loan to purchase three buses. The strategy appears to be to destroy Pueblos Unidos through less-than-honest competition with private business, rather than by means of continued threats and brute physical force. At least there has not been, so far as I know, any serious violence threatened or carried out since the deluge of letters, faxes, etc. Crisanto told me last night that the situation in Tanetze and the other towns is now relatively tranquil.
The second result of the wide show of support for Pueblos Unidos is its members' awareness that they are not an isolated group but are struggling for their community interests in solidaridy with people and organizations from far afield, both within Mexico and abroad. This realization gives them a tremendous boost in morale and determination. Two letters to Ojo de Agua bear witness to the strength they feel in that sense of solidarity; the first from Crisanto on March 4, and the second from Pueblos Unidos on April 12. The letters are revealing, eloquent and moving. Here they are.
Letter from Crisanto Manzano, March 4, 2001
Together with the rest of the members who are defending United Towns of the Rincon of the Sierra Juárez, we thank with all our hearts the unqualified help that organizations and people of all parts of the world have offered, uniting with our struggle for the good of the organization.
Unfortunately, some of the people who hold important political posts in our region have a long history of abuse of authority, the robbing of land and even the assassination of one of our leaders.
We have been subjected to an infinitude of calumnies and threats, caused by disinformation and manipulation of a group of people who complain, among many other things, that we are but a few people. However, United Towns of the Rincón has more than 4000 members in all four communities, and 1500 more in three other towns.
The motives of the people who are attacking us are to gain power and money, and for many years they have made various attempts to destroy every kind of cooperative in the region, seeking to transform every collective benefit into personal profit. We know that a business is bribing these and other persons of our region in order to destroy and block every effort of organization that is attempted.
In the last weeks the tension has grown. The State Judicial Police twice demolished the road blockade, violently beating a member of the community of San Isidro Reforma.
In one of these operations, the police took the buses to Oaxaca City, supposedly in order to return them to us, but still we don't have our vehicles. The transportation cooperative, which never had large financial profits, is now suffering the greatest loses, since the buses haven't worked since August of last year.
All of us who live in Tanetze and who are defending the organization are constantly surveilled and harassed. Also we are prohibited from buying provisions in the town. Many have given way under the pressure, and now are being forced to pay excessive fines and to sign blank pages to which the authorities attach documents they draw up without consent. These acts, among other things, they use against us.
Sometimes they have tried to stop us or to damage the video camera with which we are recording these events. Now they have prohibited us from recording in our own village.
Although we have still not confirmed it, it appears that there are arrest orders against various members, among them my son Julio César and me.
However, in spite of the pressures, all the inhabitants of San Isidro Reforma, Santa María Yaviche, Santiago Yagallo and San Juan Yaeé, together with many people of Tanetze de Zaragoza, Juquila Vijanos and Santa María Lachichina, we are reflecting on the means that we must now take. Our pain, anger and sadness come from a situation so unjust, in which our only crime is to raise our voice to demand that the members of Pueblos Unidos del Rincón decide in a collective way the future of our own organization.
We don't want the force of a small group headed by local caciques and entrepreneurs, advised by corrupt functionaries and deputies -- who are not even members of our group -- deciding for the rest of us.
As for myself and my son, we have recorded this with video camera, with which we put in evidence the manipulation and abuse of authority to which we are being subjected. In spite of the threats we are continuing our recording in order to prepare a documentary about this problem, with the goal of informing the communities of the region, and all interested people.
We figure that more than 1000 people and organizations have signed letters directed to the offices of the President of the Republic, the Secretary of the Interior and the Governor of the State of Oaxaca, as well as to some Mexican embassies and consulates in foreign countries. The surprising response supporting us is very valuable in order that this situation be widely known.
The unjust acts can be stopped when so many eyes and hearts are with us.
We hope that these so-difficult moments will end soon and well, succeeding to re-establish the peace and harmony that for such a long time we have defended among our people.
We will continue sending information, and we ask that you not leave us isolated.
For myself, my family and all the members of Pueblos Unidos del Rincón, we express our most sincere appreciation. Affectionately, CRISANTO MANZANO AVELLA
Letter from Pueblos Unidos del Rincón de la Sierra Juárez, April 12, 2001
"There are men who struggle for a day, and they are good,
"There are others who struggle many years, and they are very good,
"But there are those who struggle their whole lives, they are the indispensable ones."
-- Bertolt Brecht
Ojo de Agua Comunicación
We who have signed below, all of us from the village of Tanetze de Zaragoza, Villa Alta, Oaxaca, want to express our deepest appreciation for all the help we have received in the conflict within our community, conflict that our organization (Pueblos Unidos) continues facing. Today, just like yesterday, a constant struggle continues, a sustained struggle for free self-determination by the indigenous peoples of our country; that is the case with our grassroots campesino organization. In these months of constant tension, we recognize that if our struggle had not been publicized with the influential impact of the information media, for one thing, at this moment we would not have visual resources [the video record] to reflect on it [the struggle] and to continue telling the story of our people. We also know that the life of our people will continue along its course, very much despite there being a small group of citizens constantly trying to divide the community, not sharing the social struggle with us. Also, there are opportunistic people without scruples who get carried away trying to defame our leaders, to subject them to calumny. Their aim, we clearly know, is to destroy, to destroy and continue destroying the struggle, the effort and the sacrifice of the communities and citizens, the struggle in our visions and dreams that we still believe in. So we have to take into account that we are campesinos, that as such we are born and as such we will die, pursuing the unity of our peoples.
Today the problem is transportation, tomorrow who knows? It is up to all of us to continue maintaining the unity and the respect that our grandparents had for one another. Apparently we, their children and grandchildren, have not been able to understand that.
If only many many more Ojos de Agua were born (sources from where spring up a visual wisdom that day to day flows like the breeze that dampens the fields of corn and beans of so many villages). We are proud of having and counting on great friends like you. We think you are people with great principles of struggle and of large moral character. This makes of you greats among the great.
We are eternally thankful for your collaboration in stopping the brutal repression to which we have been subjected; we know that we are not alone, and neither will you ever be.
It will always be that foolishness is born within us,
The foolishness of assuming an enemy,
The foolishness of paying the price.
We will die as we live (struggling for survival). As for the video that our compañeros in struggle worked on, the work of making it has been very well accepted. We got a lot of encouragement from talking with people who need more community work. Their most frequent comments are:
"We want to return to being the same brothers we were before."
We want to thank the community - state, national and international - for its unqualified help, as well as, in addition, all the people who sent their letters of support. We compañeros have read them. Thank you.
Surely many times, as the years pass, one forgets things. In this case we very much doubt that that will happen.
Tanetze de Zaragoza, Oax., on April 12 of the year 2001.
Crisanto Manzano A.
The struggle in Tanetze de Zaragoza is far from over, of course. There's much more to say about it, but I'll quit for the moment, because this is getting pretty long. (to be continued in one of the susequent essays in this series)