John Ross : Epic Hunger Strike in the Land of the Hungry

Cayetano Cabrera of the Mexican Electricity Workers’ Union (SME). His hunger strike was the longest in Mexican history — but it ended in futility. Photo from Musicios y Politicos y Locos.

Where Hunger is palpable:
Mexican hunger strike sets record
But electrical workers win nothing

By John Ross / The Rag Blog / August 8, 2010

MEXICO CITY — Hunger is palpable in Mexico. Beggars line the streets of the cities with their bowls and their children, pleading for coins: “Para comer, Senor, para comer?” (“To eat, Mister?”) Whole families rifle through the trash bins in front of the fast food franchises hunting for discarded scraps. At La Merced market, women like Juana Cortez glean the rotting produce thrown out on the patio. “Para comer, Senor…”

According to National Nutrition Institute (INN) studies, 42% of all Mexicans have experienced some degree of malnutrition in their lives. Millions of children living in extreme poverty go to bed hungry every night. Although tortillas are universally utilized to wrap food or scoop up what’s on your plate, for 13 million kids affirms the INN, the tortilla is the whole meal.

With hunger so rooted in Mexican demographics, it seems a jarring anomaly that deliberately starving oneself should be so popular a tactic of achieving redress for social grievances but activists here seem to reflexively go into hunger strike mode when they have exhausted all other remedies to reverse perceived injustices.

Indigenous Zapatista prisoners in Chiapas jails stop eating to protest inequities. So does their emeritus bishop Samuel Ruiz who once hunkered down in a freezing cathedral and refused food for weeks until the government made room for his peace group at the negotiating table. 91 year-old Luis H. Alvarez, once a right-wing PAN party presidential candidate, sat on the steps of the Chihuahua legislature and refused to eat for 41 days to protest electoral flimflam as did his successor as PAN presidential hopeful Manuel Clouthier after the 1988 election was stolen.

Rodolfo Macias, a self-proclaimed president of Mexico, went 50 days in the Zocalo to protest the government’s refusal to recognize his exalted stature.

Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, whose activist son disappeared in police custody and is the force behind the Mothers of the Disappeared, has staged seven hunger strikes demanding the reappearance of those who have been taken. This reporter went 26 days without eating in front of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to protest a Latin American debt that takes food off the table from those at the very bottom of the food chain.

This past April 25th, over 100 members of the Mexican Electricity Workers Union (SME) lay down under a tent pitched in the great Zocalo plaza here, the heart of the Mexican body politic, and declared themselves to be on hunger strike. When medical emergencies forced many of the original strikers to abandon the strike, others stepped up to take their place on the cots under the tent. But after three months, their numbers had been winnowed down to 14. Two of the survivors, Cayatano Cabrera and Miguel Angel Ibarra, vowed to fast to the death to get their jobs back.

Both Miguel Angel and Cayatano had worked for years for “Luz y Fuerza del Centro” (“Light and Power of the Center”), a state-run enterprise that distributed electricity throughout Mexico City and five central states. On October 11, 2009, President Felipe Calderon declared “Luz y Fuerza” to be a debilitating drain on Mexico’s floundering economy and shut down the company. Thousands of federal police and army troops swarmed over 103 generating stations, pushing 44,000 SME members out of their work places at bayonet point.

Shuttering Luz y Fuerza and the subsequent displacement of union workers was one further step in the creeping privatization of the electricity generation sector here that the Constitution mandates to be the domain of the state. Despite constitutional restrictions, over 30% of Mexican electricity generation is now in private — and often transnational — hands.

Calderon’s takeover of Luz y Fuerza appeared to be predicated on his fascination with the company’s 24,000 kilometers of transmission lines upon which he hopes to lay fiber optic cable and sell off the technology to the highest bidder.

From the get-go, it was evident that the Calderon government was equally as dead set on dismembering the Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas (SME), the second oldest union in Mexico, born 96 years ago at the zenith of the Mexican revolution during a strike against the transnational Canadian Light and Power that then monopolized Mexico City electricity generation.

The SME, which remained largely independent of the long-ruling PRI during that party’s 71 year rule, has a tradition of solidarity with social organizations in struggle — SME volunteers hooked up turbines deep in the Lacandon jungle to bring light to Zapatista villages and, in the aftermath of the horrific 8.1 1985 earthquake here, quickly repaired fallen lines in working class colonias and got Mexico City humming again.

In a not so subtle maneuver to break union solidarity, Calderon and his hard-nosed labor secretary Javier Lozano, who political wags suggest is being groomed to succeed his boss, offered the displaced workers indemnization based on seniority if they would give up their SME affiliation.

Bonuses were promised to those who cashed out quickly and the ex-workers were told they would soon be re-contracted by the Federal Electricity Commission. The CFE is charged with distributing energy outside of Mexico City but has temporarily taken over Luz y Fuerza’s operations here — but only 100 ex-SME members were ever hired.

To sweeten the offer, government financial advisors were made available to counsel the former workers on how best to invest their payouts. Fast food franchises were offered but proved to be prohibitively expensive — former electricity workers were soon selling old clothes in the streets. Under the Calderon-Lozano putsch that involved prime time TV spots and even Twitter messages to prompt cash-outs, 60% of the SME membership was snookered out of fighting for their jobs.

Of 44,000 workers, only 16,400 remained on the SME books and Lozano went after the holdouts with a vengeance, refusing to accept election results that had returned the union’s secretary-general Martin Esparza to office for a second term and freezing 100,000,000 pesos in union funds.

Popular resentment to the Calderon-Lozano assault on the SME flourished briefly. Five days after the takeover, a quarter of a million citizens marched through Mexico City to demand the workers’ reinstatement. Over the next months, according to city transit officials, the SME initiated nearly 900 marches and rallies (nearly three a day), further snarling Mexico City traffic that at best moves at a snail’s pace, to gridlock.

Two attempts at a national strike fizzled. Esparza flew off to Geneva to plead the SME’s case before the OIT or World Labor Organization, a wing of the United Nations. Despite the OIT’s condemnation, Calderon and Lozano would not budge. Finally, on April 25th, Cayatano and Miguel Angel and their comrades lay down in the Zocalo and declared they were not going to eat again until they got their jobs back.

Massive protests occurred after 44,000 members of the Mexican Electricity Workers’ Union were pushed out of their work places at bayonet point. Photo from Think Mexico.

The weeks and months mounted up. By June, Cayatano had clocked 53 days on hunger strike, one more than Provisional Irish Republican Army leader Bobby Sands who expired in the Maze prison in 1981 under British custody — 10 more Provos would starve themselves to death before they won recognition for their struggle. In Ireland, hunger strikers honor the martyrs of the Easter Rebellion who back in 1916 resorted to starvation to win freedom from the British yoke.

By the beginning of July, Cayatano was trespassing into Gandhi’s territory — the Mahatma went on multiple prolonged hunger strikes to win India’s independence. Hunger striking is an Indian tradition in which the aggrieved lay themselves down on the doorstep of those who have wronged them and seek to shame them into just compensation by starving themselves to death.

Now, as he entered his 75th day, Cayatano’s numbers were running neck and neck with Turkish political prisoners, nearly 80 of whom have died in the last decade to protest repression in their country. Turkish activists proudly wear the clothes of those who starved themselves to death in pursuit of justice.

Day after day, Cayatano and Miguel Angel, the others, lay on their cots in the Zocalo. The World Cup, broadcast on giant screens to multitudes in the great plaza, came and went. A tropical music festival followed. Demonstrators for diverse causes tramped into the square. The summer rains inundated the SME camp.

By mid-July, Cayatano Cabrera was fading fast, down to skin and bones, his body eating itself to provide desperately needed nourishment. He had lost 60 pounds, a third of his body weight, suffered two pre-heart attacks, and needed oxygen to breath. The physician who attended the strikers, Alfredo Verdeleguel, pronounced him near death. The government threatened to suspend the doctor’s license if Cayatano died. Verdeleguel began receiving anonymous death threats.

Cayatano and Miguel Angel insisted upon an audience with Felipe Calderon: “…if he fails to give us this right, then he will be responsible for our deaths,” Cabrera gasped, reading a letter to the press that both workers had signed, demanding their jobs back. But Felipe Calderon was preoccupied with praising other hunger strikers, Cuban political prisoners that the Castro government had just released.

When corporate media charged that Cayatano was faking it, that he was sipping atole (corn gruel) and munching on pan dulce in the mornings, his SME comrades ripped off their shirts, plunged syringes into their veins to draw blood, and painted banners with it denouncing the calumnies.

But as Cayatano neared the Guinness Book of Records mark of 94 days set by an IRA prisoner decades ago, the Calderon brain trust was getting jumpy. A government ambulance was stationed in the Zocalo to whisk Cayatano off to hospital if he fell into a coma but the workers drove it off.

Mexico is a mess these days with the economy in free fall and 25,000 citizens sacrificed in Calderon’s foolhardy drug war and the death of a hunger striker or two would only pour gasoline on the blaze. Moreover, many world dignitaries would be showing up in the very plaza where the hunger strikers were starving themselves to death in just six weeks for Mexico’s bicentennial celebrations. Something had to give.

On July 15th, the President fired his Interior Secretary Fernando Gomez Mont, the second most powerful politico in the nation and a staunch proponent of labor secretary Lozano’s hard hand. The new Interior minister was an unknown from Baja California, Francisco Blake Mora, a school chum of Calderon’s that he could control.

Blake’s appointment undercut Lozano who by now was sending out 5,000 Tweets a day threatening to jail Esparza for murder if Cayatano croaked. Blake summoned the SME secretary general to his offices to negotiate an end to Cayatano’s hunger strike.

After months of rejection and frustration, the union had distilled its demands down to three. Sensing that the SME would never get back the Luz y Fuerza jobs, Esparza focused on the figure of a “substitute patron,” i.e. finding a new boss for the workers, a practice embedded in Mexican labor law — indeed, Luz y Fuerza had been founded on the same principle in the 1960s when Canadian Light and Power gave up the ghost.

Esparza and his team urged that the Federal Electricity Commission contract the remaining SME workers but Lozano considered this an impossible solution because the CFE already has contracts with its own compliant company union. The creation of a new corporate entity to oversee Mexico City electricity generation was also nixed by Lozano — the Calderon government has budgeted billions for the bicentennial celebrations and the cupboard was bare.

The second demand was that the labor secretary accept the election results or “toma de nota” (a new vote had been held) ratifying Martin Esparza as the SME’s top official and unfreezing 100,000,000 pesos in union funds. The third demand was amnesty from prosecution for SME strikers — as blackouts spread throughout Mexico City and environs, Lozano and the deposed Gomez Mont accused the electricistas of “sabotage.”

Following a six hour July 22nd negotiating session behind closed doors at the Interior Secretariat, the protagonists emerged from the inner sanctum to announce the end of Cayatano Cabrera’s hunger strike. No jobs or contracts or new companies or even amnesty for the workers were promised although Lozano indicated that union recognition was under renewed consideration. Blake Mora, Javier Lozano, and Martin Esparza shook hands and posed for the official photo. That was it. No agreement had been signed. The details would be worked out later. Trust me.

Past 2 a.m., Martin Esparza sped back to the encampment in the Zocalo in his silver Gran Marquis and disappeared into the tent where the hunger strikers were laid out. For two hours, the SME boss cajoled and browbeat 13 of the starving men into eating again. By acquiescing to the Calderon government’s demands, the men gave up the only power card they still held, the threat of their death.

The one holdout was Cayatano Cabrera. All he wanted was his job back. When his companeros were taken to hospital for treatment, he refused to go along and his family carried him to the car and took the emaciated man home. The longest hunger strike in Mexican history was now history and Cayatano had not gotten his job back.

[John Ross, author of El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City (“gritty and pulsating” — New York Post), is at home in Mexico City. He is available for dinnertime tete-a-tetes at the Café La Blanca in the Centro Historico. Write]

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2 Responses to John Ross : Epic Hunger Strike in the Land of the Hungry

  1. Anonymous says:

    A very fine piece of journalism, as usual, from John Ross. Thank you.

    David Morris

  2. Anonymous says:

    Excellent writing of the workers’ courage, government priorities, and mirrors so much of what happens in present ill-functioning social systems.

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