Mexico's Juchitan-A Popular Challenge To PRI

September 25, 2007

While other parts of Oaxaca, Mexico's predominantly Indian, ag- ricultural state, attract anthropolo- gists and others interested in ruins, Juchitan draws only political scien- tists, goes a town joke. Juchitan-- the state's second largest city-is the only major Mexican city con- trolled by leftists. But maintaining that control has not been easy. The government of the munici- Judith Matloff is a U.S. journalist working in Mexico. Her last contri- bution to the Report was "Mexican Elections-To PRI or Not to PRI?" in the March-April 1982 issue. NIiD sea2 pality of about 80,000, located on the wet isthmus leading to Guate- mala, has met harassment from right-wing forces and the Institu- tional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which has held national power for 53 years. Though many call Juchitan "that communist town," only two of the municipal government's nine mem- bers are from the Mexican United Socialist Party or PSUM, the leftist amalgam formed in August 1981 of which the former Communist Party is a member. The other seven-- including the mayor-are from COCEI, the popular Coalition of Isthmus Workers, Peasants and Students. Three Mexican towns have Com- munist municipal governments: Alcozauca in Guerrero State and Tlacolulita and Magdalena Acotlan in Oaxaca State, all elected before the leftist merger. Because these villages, each with about 1,000 resi- dents, are so small, they have not attracted the notoriety of Juchitan. Three major cities have PSUM regi- dores or city council members: Puebla City, Puebla State; Jalapa, Veracruz State; and Durango City, Durango State. Juchitan's COCEI is an independ- 41update update update update ent group which once preferred seizing municipal buses to voting as a political strategy. Now nearly a decade old, COCEI has participated in local elections since 1974. COCEI and the Communist Party linked up in the November 1980 elections. Saying the PRI's victory was fraudulent, coalition members seized town hall. The state govern- ment nullified the election results and a March 1981 plebiscite swept the coalition into power by several hundred votes. Social Rejuvenation To enter Juchitan's town hall one must now wade through long lines of peasants, who are received by Mayor Leopoldo de Gyves 14 hours a day. Cement bags, boards, pick- axes and construction workers clut- ter the entrance. "The building used to have so many holes, we couldn't work dur- ing the rainy season," says the Juchitan mayor Leopoldo de Gyves. mayor. "But now it's finally being fixed." The town hall's reconstruction symbolizes Juchitan's political and social rejuvenation. In less than two years, the new city government has tackled some problems commonly COCEI posters decry previous PRI mayors. "Juchitan Fights Back! ! " unresolved by the PRI all over Mexico. The coalition government has taught hundreds of adults to read and write (adult illiteracy was around 80%), kicked out corrupt policemen, fixed roads and quad- rupled the number of health clinics. Via neighborhood consciousness- raising groups which discuss com- plaints weekly, city officials main- tain close contact with towns- people, enlist volunteers for the lit- eracy campaign and health bri- gades and grapple with nagging problems. The groups, for example, de- cided to clean up Juchitan's open, central market where poor hygiene, along with the city's open sewers which render 50% of Juchitan's water undrinkable, were causing endemic gastrointestinal and respi- ratory diseases. Now, stall owners donate materials to collectively scour and fumigate the rat-infested area every four months. The coali- tion also wants to renovate the anti- quated market which serves ten- fold its official capacity. Opening more markets would improve health conditions and create more jobs in a region where unemploy- ment is higher than the national average. Harassment From The Right But municipal leaders say eco- nomic pressures from the PRI-run government make these aspira- tions nearly unattainable. Mayor de Gyves claims the state government froze $5.7 million worth of credit. The state also intervened to con- duct the first audit of the town's holdings 'since the 1910 Mexican revolution. "They said it was because we were giving money to Mexican and Central American guerrillas," ex- plains one COCEI leader. mCUlnepOupdate update update update Not only public funds are scarce. "No one wants to invest in Juchitan since the Reds took over," says Darien Santiago Rasgado, local PRI committee president. Forced to rely almost entirely on local resources, the neighborhood Section Committees collect money door to door. Volunteer labor and book.donations helped launch Ju- chitan's new cooperatively run li- brary. The movement has also been de- bilitated by violence against COCEI militants. Ten years of murders and kidnappings of COCEI leaders- allegedly by the pro-PRI paramili- tary group, "Brigada Blanca," based in nearby Salina Cruz-in- cluded two assassinations last year. Last August, two more PSUM- COCEI sympathizers were killed and six wounded by gunmen who attacked the crowd at the inaugura- tion of a new health center in Chicapa de Castro, Oaxaca. Count- less other COCEI activists, includ- ing the mayor, have faced death threats and attempts on their lives. "They're out to get us," says PSUM city councilman, Deciderio de Gyves, an uncle of the mayor. Mass Base & PSUM Expertise COCEI and PSUM embrace radi- cally different perspectives. COCEI emphasizes short-term goals like building sewers and expropriating large landholdings which they turn over to peasants farming the land. The nationwide PSUM calls for "de- mocracy and socialism," and de- mands massive structural change. But, despite this, the two groups complement each other. "We respect COCEI as the real vanguard of the people," says Cle- mente Jesus Lopez, a regional PSUM organizer. "They offer us a mass base, and we provide them governing and financial expertise." NeIlDaclMl2 Town Hall--"so many holes, we couldn't work during the rainy season." COCEI leaders interviewed agreed. Most townspeople see the two groups as one-"The Coalition." They support the coalition, but question its effectiveness, and sometimes express impatience that more can't be accomplished more quickly. "The coalition hasn't done much concrete," says Luis, a coco- nut vendor, summing up a common view. "But they're very well liked here." Pro-PRI Juchiteros interviewed showed that at least some residents have fallen victim to misinformation about the coalition government, claiming it committed murder and ran drugs. None could give con- crete examples. Economic Strangulation One PSUM-COCEI supporter in Juchitan won a seat among the 100 opposition members of Mexico's Congress in July's general elec- tions. But the PRI netted over 50% of the city's presidential votes-be- cause it trucked in people from other towns who voted more than once, according lo councilman de Gyves. The election figures do seem suspicious, considering that PSUM presidential candidate Martinez Verdugo drew an enthusiastic crowd of thousands last January, while PRI candidate Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado's visit provoked mostly apathy and a little hostility. According to one Juchitan-born academic, a PSUM supporter, "The PRI's economic strangulation af- fected our popular support in the elections. They also control the countryside, while we control only Juchitan City proper." Crucial is how this "economic strangulation" will affect Juchitan's next municipal elections scheduled for November 1983. "Frankly, we're worried," says one Mexico City PSUM official. Yet, even if the coalition loses, Mexico will have witnessed a local government which seriously tried to address problems glossed over by the PRI. PSUM and COCEI have af- firmed the potential of alliances be- tween parties and independent groups. And the twb bodies have learned some important political lessons from each other-PSUM, about how to develop a regional mass base, and COCEI, about the need for integrating into a more powerful, national movement.

Tags: Mexico, Juchitlan, socialism, PRI, local politics

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.