SIPAZ Activities (April to the middle of July, 2009)

IN FOCUS: “Electricity is the people’s”

Solidarity towards SME during a women’s demonstration in San Cristóbal (November 25th, 2009) © SIPAZ

On Saturday, October 10, 2009, just before midnight, police agents began protection of the offices of Luz y Fuerza del Centro (LyFC). The Government of Felipe Calderón had ordered the liquidation of this semi-official company due to inefficiency and prolonged fiscal deficit, according to the president. What appears to be an economic decision sparked protest among not only the approximate 44 thousand workers opposed to the loss of their jobs, but with many other Mexicans in the following weeks and to the present. It is feared that this liquidation will be the first step toward privatization of electric power generation and supply services in Mexico.

Solidarity towards SME during a women’s demonstration in San Cristóbal (November 25th, 2009) © SIPAZ

Solidarity towards SME during a women’s demonstration in San Cristóbal (November 25th, 2009) © SIPAZ

Certainly, it must be recognized that the infrastructure for provision of electric energy has not been established in many remote communities in several states of the Republic of Mexico, in particular in rural zones. In addition, residents in communities that only recently have electric lights and perhaps refrigerators or televisions began to denounce the clearly excessive charges. They also denounced the poor quality of maintenance services. In other cases, as in Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Guerrero, the high rates have been questioned given that these are states that produce large quantities of electricity for the country. For one reason or another, many people began to organize in Chiapas as well as in other states, principally in rural areas. Most recently, these points of resistance joined to have a national dimension.

Demonstration in Mexico City © Noé Pineda Arredondo

Demonstration in Mexico City © Noé Pineda Arredondo

Namely, the struggle against the liquidation of Luz y Fuerza del Centro as well as the resistance to high energy rates have joined under the slogan: “Electricity is the people’s!”

Liquidation of Luz y Fuerza del Centro: causes and possible consequences

Calderón and large media sources have attempted to justify the LyFC decree asserting that its “economic inefficiency” stems from the high salaries and benefits of the workers. However, several analysts have indicated that the lack of profitability is a result of the State’s provision of free electricity to major industries along with LyFC’s purchase of energy at exorbitant prices from CFE. At least two other possible “explanations” have been offered for the federal government’s decision.

Privatization Tendencies

The semi-official companies, which in Mexico offer electricity for domestic and commercial use, are the “Federal Electricity Commission” (CFE) and “Luz y Fuerza del Centro” (LyFC). While LyFC is responsible for the demand for service in Mexico City, Puebla, Hidalgo, the State of Mexico and Morelos, CFE operates in the rest of the country.

Since the early 20th century, power distribution had been in the hands of private companies (Mexican, Canadian, and US) that principally supplied urban areas. Due to low profitability, these companies did not work to create an infrastructure that would carry this service to rural zones, which is why the Mexican State decided to create the semi-official company, CFE, making it responsible for provision of electric energy in the countryside. The process of nationalization of the electric energy industry began in the late 30s and ended in 1960. Electricity was considered property of the Mexican people for social wellbeing.

Demonstration in Mexico City © Noé Pineda Arredondo

Demonstration in Mexico City © Noé Pineda Arredondo

However, generation of electric energy ceased to be a monopoly of the Mexican semi-official companies when in 2002 the then President Vicente Fox decreed that it would allow private companies to generate electricity for their own supply. According to the CFE itself, of “the existing effective generation capacity, 22.81% represents External Energy Producers (FEE), which include 21 centers in commercial operation.” That is nearly a quarter of the energy generation capacity is managed by private companies. Among these which most stand out for production output are the Spanish company, Iberdrola, the Japonese Mitsubishi, and the French EDF International.

The recent liquidation of LyFC could represent a step toward privatization of the Mexican energy sector, as well as of its fiber optics network (for simultaneous transmission of voice, documents, and images – the so-called “triple play” in telecommunications). Some date this attempt to privatize energy infrastructure, production, distribution and commercialization by Felipe Calderón back to when he was Secretary of Energy. Other voices go further and assert that no attempt had been made to improve the efficiency of LyFC precisely in order to favor private participation (presenting it as the only option) in the electric and telecommunications markets.

Attack on the Electrical Workers Union

Demonstration in Mexico City © Noé Pineda Arredondo

Demonstration in Mexico City
© Noé Pineda Arredondo

Another of the lessons from the liquidation of LyFC, and for others a key aspect if the attempt is essentially privatization, has to do with an intent to strike and neutralize the Electrical Workers Union (SME, a union with a 95 year history and considered most active and combative).

Prior to this and following internal SME elections last August, Secretary of Labor and of Social Prevention, Javier Lozano, refused to recognize Martín Esparza as leader of the SME, arguing that there were irregularities in the internal union elections. From August to September, union members demanded recognition of its leader, holding public demonstrations. Since that time, they have claimed that the Government’s intention was to debilitate the SME in order to privatize LyFC.

Responses from the SME and Social Movement

Demonstration in Mexico City © Noé Pineda Arredondo

Demonstration in Mexico City
© Noé Pineda Arredondo

The definitive closure of the semi-official company would leave some 44 thousand workers unemployed. While the Federal government offered compensation to the workers, the union rejected the decision as unconstitutional. Many have refused to collect their compensation and continue to gamble on recovering of their employment. At the time of this report, there was no legal certainty about an end to LyFC since the legal process challenging the presidential decree is not yet complete.

The principal demands of the SME include: the repeal of the presidential decree and reopening of the LyFC; the immediate withdrawal of armed troops and federal police from the electric installations; creation of a social dialogue committee to consider alternatives in accord with the Constitution and international norms.

Numerous demonstrations through marches and assemblies to support these demands have taken place and continue. On October 15, more than 300 thousand people marched in Mexico City, including union, student, social and political groups. At the same time, thousands marched in 30 cities in 16 states of the country.

Appealing for a national work stoppage, Martin Esparza, leader of the SME asserted: “Power comes from the people and if this power is affected, it’s time to raise a peaceful social movement… We are at the bicentenary of our Independence and at the centennial of the Mexican Revolution, and we will have to defeat, as before, the trans-nationals, the dictator, the tyranny, and violations of the Constitution. It is time for the people to organize.”

Growing process of Civil Resistance against high electric rates in Chiapas

Protest of the State Network for the Civil Resistance © SIPAZ

Protest of the State Network for the Civil Resistance © SIPAZ

From another front in the struggle, according to a June article in La Jornada, social movements resisting payment of charges applied by the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) have grown to include some 40% of all users in Chiapas. The total of payments due at the end of last May exceeded 780 million pesos.

Motives for non-payment

Those resisting payment are individuals as well as organizations of all types (some opposing one another). The Zapatista bases of support have not paid electric fee since 1994 as part of their resistance against the Government. They reclaim electricity as collective property of the nation and so demand public redistribution of it.

In other cases, the principal reasons given for non-payment are the following:

  • In Chiapas, there are the most important hydroelectric dams in the country, which provide more than 50% of the hydroelectric energy in Mexico. However, thousands of indigenous communities are left without electric service, or they pay for their use at rates considered excessive.
  • It has been reported in Chiapas that the CFE can charge an indigenous family for its electric energy service from 120 to 300 pesos or more bimonthly (which is from 13 to over 100 dollars approximately, much more than what we pay in the cities), when they have only 3 or 5 light bulbs in their homes. As they accumulate, the charges reach levels that are impossible for many to pay.
  • Continuous brownouts and power surges are suffered. The measurement of use is not verified in the communities, which might explain the unequal bills received among neighbors.

Repression and Government Programs

Protest of the State Network for the Civil Resistance © SIPAZ

Protest of the State Network for the Civil Resistance © SIPAZ

For non-payment of electric energy service, the communities frequently face harassment by the CFE or the police. Recently, “in the municipalities of Venustiano Carrranza, Villa las Rosas, Amatenango del Valle, Comitán, Chanal, Tzimol, Socoltenango, and Teopisca in the last few months a repressive escalation and significant harassment has been reported, manifested through massive outages and dismantling of electric energy, as well as with threats by the police and municipal authorities.1 Not only are communities joined in the resistance to high electricity rates but also in the defense of their lands and territory, the rejection of the political parties, and the “no” to megaprojects that affect the communities.

In addition, if the state and federal governments indeed sought to respond to the social discontent over the electric rates with programs that grant moratoriums on payments and that provide subsidies, they have not achieved a solution to the problem.

In the case of Chiapas, the state government launched the A Friendly Light program in 1995. In 2003 and until September 2008, the government carried out the Better Life program. At the end of the period, the current government announced an extension of the subsidy through the Solidarity Light program for which it reported an investment of 280 million pesos.

Another of the recurring denunciations that has been heard is the suspension or threat of suspension of government social assistance programs, such as Opportunities, if they don’t pay the electric bills.

Organizing Process in Chiapas

Logotype of of Pueblos Unidos en Defensa de la Energía Eléctrica - PUDEE© SIPAZ

Logo de Pueblos Unidos en Defensa de la Energía Eléctrica – PUDEE © SIPAZ

Currently, there are at least two civil resistance movements against the high electric rates: Peoples United in Defense of Electric Energy (PUDEE), principally in Northern Chiapas; and the State Civil Resistance Network “The Voice of our Heart”, with a significant presence in the Central and Highland municipalities and in parts of the Northern zone of the State.

The State Civil Resistance Network “The Voice of our Heart” formed in 20062 though several of the communities involved had been resisting payment of electric bills previously. Among its principles are the struggle for the right to electric energy; defense of the people’s land and territory; unity and solidarity; and non-payment of electric bills pending compliance with the San Andres Accords. As the State Network, it also forms part of The Other Campaign, a peaceful initiative for a new constitution started by the EZLN in 2005.

The communities that make up the network hold assemblies every two or three months in which representatives of the communities report on the situation in their areas, release declarations, and identify joint actions (marches, participation in national days of protest and solidarity, or workshops).

The workshops consist of training “electricity promoters” who, with the support and solidarity of workers from the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), learn about “management of the electric energy distribution system”.3 The training allows them to carry out “community maintenance work, reconnections of electric energy, and expansions to the network with economic resources and the work of the communities. This situation… begins to solve the concrete and acutely felt problem in the communities, that is, the lack of electric energy due to power cuts and the bad service provided by the Federal Electricity Commission or the poor installations that are common in the indigenous and peasant communities”.

In Other States

Logotype of of Pueblos Unidos en Defensa de la Energía Eléctrica - PUDEE© SIPAZ

Logotype of of Pueblos Unidos en Defensa de la Energía Eléctrica – PUDEE© SIPAZ

The Chiapas State Network also forms part of the National Network for Civil Resistance to High Electric Energy Tariffs, a movement that started to bring together organizations and communities in Oaxaca, Vera Cruz, Capuche, Guerrero, Chihuahua and the Federal District in May 2009 in San Cristóbol de las Cases, Chiapas.

Like the communities in Chiapas, those that make up the National Network for Civil Resistance to High Electric Tariffs had to face increases in its electric energy rate to organize. It also has faced an attitude of intimidation on the part of the CFE employees and the authorities. But the harassment does not end there, its struggle for a just tariff has been legally criminalized.

For example, currently some members of the Union of Indigenous Communities of the Northern Isthmus (UCIZONI) of Oaxaca are under arrest warrants. From the civil resistance movement in Candelabra, Capuche one woman and two men are imprisoned. The criminal charges against them are linked to an act of peaceful civil resistance in September 2008 when the CFE attempted to cut power to them, which they were able to avoid through negotiation with the CFE official from the region. “However, that same day the legal representative of the semi-official company . . . presented before a delegation of the General Ombudsman of the Republic (PGR) criminal charges against 33 movement members… for the crime of ‘obstruction of public works or service and other acts against federal officials’.”

Protest of the State Network for the Civil Resistance © SIPAZ

Protest of the State Network for the Civil Resistance © SIPAZ

Amnesty International denounced the charges as false and demanded in an Urgent Action sent in mid-July of this year “an end to the illegal use of the justice system to present unfounded and disproportionate criminal charges against social activists or human rights defenders who carry out legitimate and peaceful protests”. Several Mexican human rights organizations agree that civil resistance to high electric energy tariffs is defense of a basic right, and so they joined the demand for their liberation.

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  1. Red Estatal “La Voz de Nuestro Corazón”: Pronunciamiento público. 13 de noviembre de 2009.  (Return…)
  2. Documental “La luz es del pueblo”, del Centro de Investigaciones Económicas y Políticas de Acción Comunitaria A.C. (CIEPAC), 2009 (Return…)
  3. CIEPAC: Las experiencias de Resistencia Civil al No Pago de la Energía Eléctrica: cuestionamiento estructural e insubordinación. Segunda Parte. (Return…)