On our second day, we visited the central plaza of Mexico City – the Zocalo -, one of the largest city squares in the world, and once the center of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. Ever since then, it has been the stage for national celebrations, battles, ceremonies, parades, protests, like the zocalo, or plinth, of Mexican history.
Surrounded by the ruins of the Templo Mayor, a great aztec temple razed by Cortes, the Cathedral, the Palacio Nacional and other government buildings, around the huge Mexican flag, on the pavement of the squre stands an encampment – plantón – made of colored fabrics hung on polls. First pitched by the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), it is now occupied by around 40 Mexican and international labor organizations, in protest against certain recent policies of the central government led by Felipe Calderón. Important among their supporters are Mexico’s independent labor federation, the National Union of Workers (UNT), and the U.S. labor federation, the AFL-CIO.
Since its inauguration in 2006, Calderón’s government has taken many measures that fragilize unions and criminalize union activity (and try to intimate political dissent in general). They include:
- spurious legal charges against unions. For example, the Procuraduría General de la República - the office of the General Prosecutor – has drawn up charges for fraud against the SME’s General Secretary Martín Esparza, Secretary of Labor Eduardo Bobadilla. These are based on actions done two years earlier: the SME’s attempt to withdraw money, with authorization by a judge, from its own bank account after it was frozen by government authorities.
- new anti-union labor laws. Among these is one that jeopardizes the union’s democracy and independence by giving the government -the Secretary of Labor- the power to accept or reject democratically elected union officials, violating international labor standards.
- take over of unions’ facilities. For example, in October 2011, Calderón issued a decree that ordered police and military units to seize the facilities of Luz y Fuerza del Centro, the state power supplier, for the “extinction” of the company. Its 44,000 employees were terminated, and their union membership. Most were members of the highly militant SME, and 16 000 refused severance and continue to fight for their jobs with the union.
- increase in army and police presence and activity. For example, the federal police is seen all around the encampment of the Zocalo, though it is peaceful. Interestingly, it is also being argued that Calderón’s ongoing “war on drugs” that legitimates the deployment of around 50 000 soldiers and 35,000 federal police since its declaration in 2006, serves also to intimidate political militancy and activism, and unions’ demonstrations especially. It is said to be in reaction to events such as the great protest in Oaxaca in 2006 when the local teacher’s union occupied the city and set up a popular government in opposition to the state’s governor Ruiz Ortiz, which resulted in a violent police crackdown.
Driving down last week from Ocotepec, a town where Nour and I live, once an ancient Aztec village, known for celebrating its indigenous roots and actively defending its autonomy against central municipal authorities of Cuernavaca and commercial interests, we drove past perhaps eight army trucks and jeeps on their way up. Like in a parade, the soldiers were holding machineguns well in view, and one man standing at the back of each vehicle held it up horizontally in shooting position. After the last armored truck had passed, our friend Juan Manuel said to us, “Ya van por el desayuno”, they are going to breakfast. Whether recent acts of local militancy and the military parade are related or not, it was a show of power that probably could not inspire feelings of security among many in Ocotepec. This recent increase in police and army force has quite obviously now failed to intimidate protesters, especially those camping at the Zocalo.
Tonight Justin Bieber gives a concert at the Zocalo, where 200,000 fans are expected. This may be Calderon’s new strategy, to hire Bieber in the hope that he and his girls finally oust the unioners.
Crecerá el campamento del SME en el Zócalo capitalino: www.jornada.unam.mx/2010/02/01/politica/013n1pol
Mexican Electrical Workers occupy Zocalo: www.socialism.com/drupal-6.8/?q=node/1711
Decreta Calderón la extinción de Luz y Fuerza: www.jornada.unam.mx/2009/10/11/index.php?section=politica&article=005n1pol