A Flood of Inequality

Revolutionary Worker #1030, November 14, 1999

Since the beginning of October, Mexico has been hit with a devastating series of floods. The death toll probably reaches into the thousands, much higher than the official government figures. Over a million people have had their homes or means of livelihood destroyed or damaged. The destruction is particularly severe in the states of Puebla, Veracruz, Hidalgo, Tabasco, and Oaxaca. There has also been severe flooding across all of Central America.

In a period of 72 hours, Mexico received 70 percent of a whole year's average rainfall. Many small pueblos no longer exist--they have been washed away or buried under tons of mud. Now hundreds of thousands of people--mainly poor indigenous peasants--are refugees with no home to return to. They are wandering from town to town searching for food and shelter. It is reported that due to the floods, 400 people a day are arriving at Ciudad Juarez on the border with El Paso, Texas.

At the end of October a new weather system began dumping even more rain on the southeastern states of Tabasco, Campeche, Chiapas and Yucatan. The Peqitas Dam in Chiapas reached its capacity on October 23 and had to be opened--forcing 200,000 people to leave their homes. It is possible that four more dams in the region will have to be opened. Metal curtains have been put up around the dams to try to extend their capacity.

Villahermosa, the capital city of Tabasco, has been under water for a month. According to the Tabasco state government, this is due to mismanagement of the dams in Chiapas. There is so much water that crocodiles have been seen on the city streets. People protesting the lack of food and water distribution were attacked by the police with teargas and clubs. There have been at least five uprisings in the prison because the prisoners are up to their waists in water and demand to be moved to another jail. Families say that 19 prisoners have been killed by authorities. Families have not been allowed in to see the prisoners, and they have been arrested for blocking the highway in protest of the prisoners' treatment.

The Government's Cold-Blooded Actions

Official government statistics of the disaster are absurdly low--377 dead and 820,000 homeless or affected by the flood. The government is seriously minimizing the dimension of this disaster, especially in the remote indigenous regions where rescue and aid efforts will never reach. It has been charged that the Army in northern Veracruz is secretly burning bodies or burying the dead in clandestine graves. When the governor was questioned about this, he said the Army was burning dead cattle. Mexico has a disaster fund of a little more than $200 million, but the damage is far greater than the fund could ever cover. Many have compared the small amount available for natural disasters with the $8.5 billion the public must pay to rescue the banks from crisis.

The Mexican government announced early on that the disaster would not affect its ability to make its loan payments to the World Bank. An announcement was also made that there was no money left over from oil sales to help the people, even though the oil-producing areas such as Tabasco were some of the hardest hit. This announcement made it clear that the questions of who will receive aid, what zones will be rebuilt and what zones will be abandoned are going to be determined by the necessities of international capital--not by the needs of the people.

Just a few days after the massive mudslides and water engulfed the region, the government announced that the emergency was over, communication had been established with all isolated pueblos, and there were no outbreaks of disease. The truth of the magnitude of destruction was revealed, however, when people from the mountain villages, after traveling for days, began arriving in the county seats where food was being distributed. They told horrific stories about torrents of water that thundered down through the mountains, tearing trees from their roots, sweeping away everything in its path. People lived for a week in the tops of trees with no food. Roads and highways became ravines.

In many areas where commercial logging has led to serious deforestation, mountainsides collapsed and buried entire villages. In the High Huasteca region of Veracruz it is said that the "mountains are weeping blood." Residents estimate that 800 people are buried under tons of mud. The elders of the Totonaca Indians of this region estimate that 60,000 people are starving and 400,000 are sick. The elders fear that the Totonaca will be wiped out as a people as a result of the destruction, starvation and disease epidemics in the isolated pueblos.

The distribution of food in the county seats is being handled by the DIF (Desarrollo Integral de la Familia--Whole Family Development), an organization set up by the World Bank supposedly to "end hunger in the third world." This organization is known to the people for its spy activity under the cover of census-taking and distribution of aid. In this disaster, far from helping the people they have erected an absurd, bureaucratic nightmare. People who traveled days to the county seats in order to bring food and medical aid back to the starving people in their pueblo were often told they can only receive food for themselves. And they were required to present identification, a voting card and a letter signed by a pueblo official proving that they are indeed a flood victim.

One peasant said, "I didn't think they were going to ask for that, now I have to go back to my rancho 50 kilometers [30 miles] from here to get that paper....I don't know what I'm going to do, but I'm not going back without food for my people." Meanwhile, it is widely known that in the warehouses of the Regional Center of the National Indigenous Institute, there are 50 tons of corn masa which is not being made available to the people.

The Imperialist Hand in the Flood Disaster

The climatological changes affecting the planet have hit Mexico and Central America very hard. But the destructiveness of this flood is not only due to natural causes, and the flood is not the people's main problem. Mexico's people carry on their backs the weight of "three mountains": imperialism, bureaucrat capitalism and semifeudalism. The economic decisions that determine the people's future are made by imperialist financial institutions: the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The rulers of Mexico have no intention or ability to solve the people's problems. Their class exists only to help imperialism exploit the people. They assure that imperialism can continue to make a profit by providing the infrastructure like roads or natural resources that imperialism needs (either by managing them themselves or by selling them off to private owners); by ensuring that Mexico has some of the lowest wages in the world; and by keeping the people under control.

The type of economic development demanded by imperialism destroys the environment--for example the deforestation of the mountains that cause mudslides in a flood. Every year for the past 20 years, Mexico has lost close to a million hectares of forest.

Imperialist development creates areas of great wealth surrounded by tremendous poverty. Surrounding the sweatshop factories called maquiladoras--which produce for export to other countries--are the slums where the workers live.

In Tezuitlan, Puebla, one of these maquiladora communities that was built on a hill made from landfill collapsed in the rain, burying the people in mud. Residents estimate 500 people were killed. The workers made Guess and Tommy Hilfiger clothes for export to the U.S. market. "All of these people had come from the countryside to work in the maquiladoras. Most had only been here for a few years," commented a rescue worker.

Oppression and Resistance in the Mountains

The clothing-producing center of Puebla is described as the state that "shows the most dynamism in the creation of jobs in the maquiladora sector" and has had 56 percent increase in employment in the past five months. The majority of the newly hired workers are young women drawn from the countryside and mountain villages of Puebla, Oaxaca, and Veracruz. Mexico has some of the lowest manufacturing wages in the world (according to AFL-CIO statistics), and the maquiladora sector is the fastest growing sector of the Mexican economy.

Puebla was hard hit by the floods. The government's first concern was not the lives and safety of the people, but things that affect the maquiladora economy. For example, 800 kilometers of highway was destroyed--and the repair of these highways has already begun.

In contrast, the North Sierra Madre Mountain region just north of Tezuitlan, Puebla is one of the worst damaged areas--and it will receive very little aid. It is an isolated, indigenous region often said to be "forgotten" by the government. But the backward conditions are not remnants of the past. They are part of the system of semi-feudalism, one of the three mountains weighing on the Mexican people. The indigenous people in these mountains, mainly Nahuatl-speaking, are one of the oppressed nationalities in Mexico with their own distinct culture and language. Their oppression is an integral part of how imperialism sucks super-super profits out of Mexico. Many of the people who suffer in the maquiladora hellholes come from isolated, mountain villages such as these.

In the Sierra Norte and many other indigenous regions, life is totally dominated by "caciques" (local semi-feudal bosses) and landlords tied to the government. They control the land, the credit for seeds, the access to water, the transportation to take crops to market. Labor contractors called "saca-gentes," or "body snatchers," still operate in the North Sierra Madre Mountains. They contract poor peasants to work on plantations for big landlords in the neighboring state of Veracruz. The workers are purposely paid an advance of more money than stated in the contract in order that the wages paid for their labor on the plantation will not cover what they were given in advance. In this way, the worker is indebted to the boss and must come back to work the next harvest to pay the debt. The plantation bosses have private jails where people are locked up if they try to escape their debts.* This is not an isolated practice--50 percent of indigenous people who are employed receive no wages.**

But the North Sierra Madre as well as other indigenous mountain regions--like the High Huasteca in Veracruz, which is also severely flooded--are not just oppressed regions. They are feared by the rulers for the fierce resistance of the people. These areas are well known for their armed guerrilla groups. And since the peasant uprising in Chiapas in 1994, these areas have been heavily occupied by the military who "maintain tight vigilance to prevent possible outbreaks of violence" in the indigenous areas.

At a meeting at the end of September, World Bank officials announced that Mexico was once again the "star" of Latin America, having recovered from the peso collapse in 1995. The World Bank and the IMF pointed to the Mexican government's adherence to World Bank economic guidelines as a model for Latin America and put Jose Angel Gurria, Secretary of the Treasury of the Mexican government, in charge of convincing other Latin American nations not to seek moratoriums on their debt. The IMF called Mexico the "healthiest," most "mature" and fastest growing economy in Latin America. But in reality, 50 percent of the people in Mexico are suffering from malnutrition. Increased growth is mainly in the maquiladora sector--and it has brought only increased impoverishment of the people.

The pompous declarations of the World Bank bring to mind the metal curtains being erected around the full-to-bursting dams. Words cannot change the reality that Mexico's ruling classes are as healthy as a rotting corpse. And the only thing that they have to offer the people, in an attempt to channel their anger--are the upcoming elections which are being sold as "democratic" and "clean." The World Bank gave Mexico's rulers a special loan of almost $24 billion to help stave off turmoil during the elections and the change of government in 2000.

But the powerful discontent among the people bursts through every crack in the ruling regime and threatens to burst the boundaries of manageability. The people in struggle--like the student strikers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)--are striving for ways to aim their fire at imperialism and to free themselves from being channeled into electoral politics. The suffering of the people due to the floods can only intensify their hatred of the forces that oppress them and propel them to search for real solutions. These are developments that imperialism and their lackeys cannot predict or fully control--and that give them nightmares.

As the World Bank meeting ended, a powerful earthquake shook the Mexican state of Oaxaca. And then the rains began....

* "Caciquism and the structure of power in Sierre Norte of Puebla," in "Agrarian Revolution and Semi-Feudalism," Serrano, Isidro, Centro de Investigación Popular, Editorial La Chispa, Mexico.

** Statistic from Encuesta Nacional de Empleo en Zonas Indígenas, 1997, Instituto Nacional Indigenista, reported in La Jornada, 1998.

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