Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 251 | Junio 2002



Open Files in an Aborted Transition

Elitist policies persist. The country is more dependent on the Unites States. The transition to democracy has stalled and appears to have been aborted. Human rights violations continue. And, in Chiapas, peace is far away.

Jorge Alonso

Many cases are still open in Mexico that have yet to be resolved on behalf of the majority of the population. Meanwhile, those in power appear more interested in partisan battles than in searching for ways to meet the country’s needs.

Bush’s servant

President Vicente Fox’s government has taken care to be submissive to the United States, appearing to all the world as its peon as its actions have demonstrated time and again. Although this is nothing new, attempts used to be made to mask it with demagogy. Since Fox doesn’t dissimulate, he is openly accused of being pro-Yankee. Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, head of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), lamented that "every day confirms anew the unconditional servility of the head of the Mexican government towards his counterpart in the United States and our government’s absolute subordination to the interests of the political-financial leadership governing the United States." The US Secretary of Defense announced in April that Mexico’s armed forces would come under the Pentagon in a "Northern Command" to defend North America. The announcement stirred such concern in Mexico that the government had to clarify that it would not be a case of "subordination" but of "cooperation for security."
The failed coup in Venezuela showed yet again that the United States will not tolerate independence and a refusal by Latin American nations to submit. The Mexican government’s response to the events in Venezuela was ambivalent. On the one hand, it abided by Mexico’s traditional foreign policy of non-intervention and influenced other governments on the continent not to recognize the self-proclaimed interim government. But on the other, Fox, embracing the arguments assumed by US officials to justify the coup, declared that Chávez had been brought down because of his "erratic economic policies."
At the Monterrey Summit—which was organized by the United Nations, implying that all participating nations enjoy equal rights—Fox asked Fidel Castro for two things: not to attack Bush and to leave as soon as possible in order to avoid trouble with the United States. He then repeatedly declared to the media, legislators and the Mexican people that he had exerted no pressure on Cuba. When Castro, back in Havana, reported the conversation that had taken place between the two men, Fox was shown to be a liar. The incident made him look ridiculous, and more than a few people recalled that Nixon fell not because he spied on his opponents but because he lied to the nation about it.

In Geneva, the United States pushed the UN Human Rights Commission to condemn Cuba on human rights issues. On this occasion, the Mexican government abandoned its non-interventionist foreign policy outright in aligning itself with the US. It tried to cover up the true source of the initiative against Cuba, claiming that it emanated from Latin America, but the media discovered the real author. In response to the strong criticisms of Fox’s submissiveness to the United States, Bush came out in his defense, describing him as "a patriot."

The high cost of servility and lies

Lies and servility have degraded politics. On the international level, people ruled by servile governments have not profited from this attitude and indeed, have paid dearly for it. This has been proven yet again in Mexico’s case in two episodes related to migrants and water.

In the United States, self-proclaimed defender of human rights around the world, a court decision leaving migrant workers legally unprotected revealed the country’s willingness to accept conditions very close to slavery in its own house. The Mexican government’s response to the legalization of abuses against Mexican workers in the US was slow and tepid. The government secretary described the court’s decision as ominous and asked the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to intervene. Mexican migrants in the US have been increasingly mistreated in recent months.

As to the water issue, Mexico signed a treaty with the United States in 1944 to divvy up the international waters of the Colorado and Bravo Rivers. Since then, Mexico has owed water to the United States only five times. In recent years, however, its debt has surpassed a billion cubic meters, amounting to 1.26 billion for the 1992-1997 period, which was paid off on May 27 of last year. The current debt will not be known until the new period ends in September, but it is thought to be around 1.93 billion cubic meters.

With an election campaign underway in Texas, the United States has been pressuring Mexico to begin paying this debt now. Fox and his secretary of agriculture replied that it would be paid soon. During recent years, however, the northern regions of Mexico have been struck by one of the worst droughts on record. The governors of the northern states asked the federal government to explain its plans and demanded that it attend to the needs of Mexican farmers first. Some fear that we could be in the early stages of a water war between the two countries.

Bitter disputes between
the executive and legislative branches

The inconsistencies in Fox’s statements and the approaching campaign for the legislative elections in mid-2003 have heightened tensions in the already-tense relationship between the executive and legislative branches. Foreign Relations Secretary Jorge Castañeda refused to appear before the Senate to explain the government’s behavior at the Monterrey Summit that led to the conflict with Cuba. In reprisal, the Senate refused to grant the President permission to take a scheduled trip to the United States and Canada. Fox responded by accusing the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of trying to prevent his government from carrying out the changes that the Mexican people had voted for. He explained that the purpose of the trip was to obtain new investments and sign several agreements related to developing small- and medium-scale business and expanding the temporary work program with Canada. When a group of jobless people asked him for work, Fox told them to take their complaint to the Senate, which had blocked a trip aimed at creating employment.

The President’s National Action Party (PAN) accused the PRI of trying to impose foreign policy, a responsibility that constitutionally falls to the President. Castañeda then joined in the dispute by insisting that the legislature could not be both party and judge and suggested that it file a constitutional appeal with the courts if it thought the President’s foreign policy violated the Constitution. In this dispute, surveys suggested greater support for the President (56.9%) than the Senate (30.4%). Later, Fox called for talks between the two branches, while the government secretary appealed for effective collaboration between them as essential to efficient democracy. He lamented that the current situation in the country’s institutions did not favor good governance, and that the staggered electoral calendar left the parties constantly competing and blocked needed collaboration.

On many points, Fox’s foreign policy does not enjoy congressional consensus, as demonstrated by the events around the vote against Cuba in the UN Human Rights Commission. The opposition parties in the Senate, which comprise the majority, had recommended that Mexico abstain, but the government chose not to follow their recommendation. The Senate majority then warned that there would be conflicts between the two branches if Fox ignored the legislature, and accused him of doing the United States’ "dirty work." A Secretariat of Government spokesperson retorted that the government could not accept a "gag law" from the legislature, since a democratic government could not be silent on the issue of human rights. The confrontation between the two branches continued along these lines, with opposition legislators calling for Foreign Minister Castañeda’s resignation. Having dismissed him as a valid interlocutor, the Senate quit asking him to appear for having lied in the Fox-Castro incident.
After strong pressure, the government was forced to admit that Bush had asked Mexico to ensure that he would not have to see Castro at the Monterrey Summit. Opposition legislators charged that Fox had failed to respect the constitutional principles of self-determination, non-intervention and the legal equality of all states. The president of the National Human Rights Commission said that the Mexican government lacks the authority to go around insisting on human rights abroad when it has so many problems in this matter at home. He recalled that torture is still practiced in Mexico and prison conditions are miserable.

Electricity and oil:
A controversial privatization

At the end of April, the Supreme Court threw out the reforms that Fox had decreed in 2001 in the electricity sector to encourage private participation. Congress had filed a constitutional appeal arguing that the executive branch had usurped powers belonging to it, and the court agreed. Fox has been accused of trying to privatize the electricity industry through the back door.

Given this new crisis between the branches, Fox once again called for dialogue and the opposition senators met with him. They demanded that he respect Congress and reiterated their sharp disagreement with his foreign policy. The confrontation appeared to be letting up somewhat when the two branches issued a joint statement promising greater communication between them to promote a better relationship. Fox said he was turning the page on his conflict with the legislature and praised its work on several recent pieces of legislation. Opposition representatives from the House also met with Fox, who reiterated his willingness to talk but refused to accept the demand for Castañeda’s renunciation. Finally, Fox met with the legislative bench of his own party, whose relationship with the President has not always been easy, and promised to work with them for the 2003 elections.

Just when it seemed that the storm had died down, it was whipped up yet again. On his next trip to the United States authorized by the Senate, Fox declared that people opposed to the United States were attacking his foreign policy and that he was up against resistance from those who had benefited from the previous regime. Although this last point is true, it again sparked criticisms from PRI leaders. On his return, Fox tried to soften his tone. He met with the PRI’s leader and invited the party to govern alongside him, emphasizing that there is more common ground than differences between the two parties. This statement, in turn, aroused discontent among PAN members.

Speeches abroad,
conflicts at home

In mid-May, the dispute was inflamed yet again by a meeting in Brussels between Castañeda and former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Legislators of all parties demanded information about what had been discussed at this unexpected meeting. Though Castañeda said it had been a casual, informal get-together, no one was convinced. During his own trip to Europe, Fox once again spoke of opening up the energy sector, both oil and electricity, to private enterprise. He accused both the PRI and PRD of obstructing his government’s plans, said he wanted an active and democratic PRI, and charged that Mexico’s current Constitution responds to the interests of the former regime and has now been rendered obsolete by the country’s democratic situation and the international agenda.

Fox’s speeches abroad sparked still more conflicts at home. PRI representatives felt that he had first invited them to co-govern and then insulted them. And while the opposition called for consolidating public companies, the government insisted that Mexico would soon experience shortages if the electricity sector were not opened up. The World Bank advised opening up PEMEX, the national oil company, to private enterprise. On this issue, it is worth noting that a US senator recently described ENRON’s questionable maneuvers as clear evidence of the mistake committed in deregulating the energy sector in the United States. On his return, Fox called on Congress to reform the electricity sector and urged the parties to rise above their misunderstandings.

Business leaders launched a campaign against Congress, describing it as an obstacle to the needed reforms. Hard-liners in the PRI obliged the party’s leader to make a speech in its Political Council confronting Fox, to which the President responded that differences may be freely expressed in a democratic country while warning that corruption and impunity could not be the price of good governance.

Endemic corruption
in the judicial branch

One issue that has been of great concern to the PRI and that they would prefer not to see run its course is the investigation into the diversion of funds from PEMEX into PRI coffers during the last election campaign. The Attorney General ordered the arrest of PEMEX’s former director, also a former governor of Coahuila and a prominent PRI member close to Salinas. Several other officials have also been implicated, but the real brains behind the diversion of funds remain free.

The judicial branch is crucial in the fight against corruption and has acquired an unprecedented importance in the conflict between the executive and legislative branches. As a result, it must be clean and law-abiding, but unfortunately, this branch is precisely where the corruption is most endemic. A report by the special UN representative on the independence of judges and lawyers noted that a very high percentage of judges in Mexico—from 50-70%—are tarred by corruption. The report criticizes the bias of Mexican courts and concludes that there is virtually total impunity.

Mexico’s party-ocracy has reached new heights. The upcoming election campaigns promise even more conflicts and little or no collaboration among the branches of state, while national interests remain relegated to second place.

Privileged bankers

Bankers were the PRI regime’s prodigal sons and continue to enjoy the same treatment from Fox’s government. As PRD representative López Obrador has demonstrated, they do not render accounts; no one audits them; they do not pay consumer or sales taxes; they receive more state resources than the public university or several of the nation’s states and have been raking in public funds for the last several years thanks to the scandalous operations in the Fund to Protect Bank Savings (FOBAPROA). In the past six years, over US$35 billion has gone into bailing out the banks, and foreign institutions have been the greatest beneficiaries. A full 87% of the shares in the Mexican banking system are now in foreign hands.

When a prosecutor charged with investigating corruption cases in Spain asked Mexico to look into the purchase by Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA) of Mexican banks Probursa and Bancomer, it turned out that the Spanish bank had not invested the required capital. It also had not checked into the origin of the resources used in the purchase, which turned out to have included laundered funds from drug trafficking. Meanwhile, the Mexican magazine Proceso reported on the corruption of José Madariaga, close ally of both Salinas and former President Ernesto Zedillo, who was a BBVA vice president and a leading figure in these two sales. Several academic studies have shown that banks sold to foreigners tend to be concerned only with their own, often illicit interests.

Elitist visions and reforms

Private enterprise has made it known, on numerous occasions and in various tones, that it does not trust the political parties. Businesspeople have been pressuring the federal government to reduce the price of fuel and electricity, open the energy sector to foreign investment, reform labor legislation in order to eliminate the labor rights that have been won and reduce the number of legislators. Another of their demands is to eliminate free, secular public education and intervene in evaluating education. Fox’s team includes many officials who echo these positions. And, in fact, in the last budget cut, 76% came out of health and education programs.

In keeping with these interests, one of the candidates for the presidency of Mexico’s leading business council has based his campaign on a proposal to dismantle Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) and privatize the energy sector. He has also argued that indigenous problems are not priorities for the country, and are mainly the result of alcoholism.

Labor reform: Betrayed promises

While the very rich prosper from public resources and impunity, the very poor have to get by on increasingly scarce means. Among those hardest hit are peasant farmers. On April 10, the anniversary of Emiliano Zapata’s assassination, peasant farmers all over the country marched to defend the land and oppose evictions and expropriations. On May 1, workers marched to repudiate the labor reforms being cooked up between business and government. The workers defended the eight-hour day and the right to strike, backed by the country’s Catholic bishops, who issued a statement urging that the labor rights won by workers be respected.

The government is trying to impose on society a reform previously defined by the authorities that ignores everything Fox promised on this matter as a candidate: labor freedom, autonomy, democracy and pluralism. The budget included in the proposed reform encourages participation by foreign capital and neglects social interests. In one of the clearest examples of this betrayal, Fox met with the old PRI union leaders, those who had enriched themselves by letting the party control the workers’ movement and are among the traditional obstacles to union democracy and freedom. Over 20 researchers specializing in labor issues called upon the Department of Labor to drop its secret, top-level talks and strive to negotiate consensus on labor reform.

Digna Ochoa: A pending case
for Mexico and the world

The nongovernmental human rights organizations are very concerned by increasing threats against them. Amnesty International charged that human rights activists are under attack, intimidated and slandered in Mexico and other Latin America countries. The UN Secretary General’s special representative for the protection of human rights defenders reported that attacks against them have increased and said she hoped that the murder of human rights activist Digna Ochoa would not be covered up. She emphasized that the authorities are responsible for providing a valid explanation of Ochoa’s assassination, since the government had not taken adequate measures to protect her despite sufficient warnings of the threats against her and the serious risk to her life.

After the last of the military officers cited by the Prosecutor’s Office in the Federal District testified in the Ochoa case, the prosecutor announced that they had provided no relevant information. The OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission said that the Prosecutor’s Office had effectively carried out its role in the investigations into the crime. The Commission agreed to oversee and follow up on both the investigation and the protection measures for Ochoa’s family, the lawyers involved in her work and the Miguel Agustín Pro Human Rights Center. Nongovernmental organizations announced that they would only accept results backed by solid, conclusive evidence and demanded that such evidence be verified by independent analysts. They also demanded that the still unclarified threats against Ochoa be included the investigation.

Six months after Ochoa’s death, the Federal District Prosecutor’s Office was following four lines of investigation. Two involved military officers, one had to do with her social and family environment and one posited suicide. This last hypothesis was leaked to the media.

Prominent journalist Miguel Ángel Granados Chapa wrote that the leaks were aimed at preventing the investigation from following a course that would damage the centers of power. Ochoa’s brother said he had the support of Mexican, German and French experts in dismissing the suicide hypothesis and questioned who that suggestion sought to protect. The Prosecutor’s Office announced that it was willing to let NGOs and human rights activists review the evidence in Ochoa’s death and requested impartial experts approved by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.

With the Senate’s consent, Fox went to Europe to participate in the summit of European and Latin American nations in Madrid, and was the first Latin American President to address the European Parliament. When the case of Digna Ochoa also inevitably came up came up in a meeting with the Ministers’ Committee of the Council of Europe, Fox promised that his government would provide all the information required by the Prosecutor’s Office.

The human rights issue in general was also addressed in the meeting. Fox admitted that the government and army were accused of most of the repression and disappearances that took place in the country in the two decades following 1968. He defended himself, however, by noting that his administration had established a special prosecutor to investigate these crimes. Recognizing that human rights activists are still being threatened, he added that the country was fully open to foreign nongovernmental organizations that could help build a culture of respect for human rights.

Impunity and the disappeared

At the request of the mothers of the disappeared and in keeping with his own convictions, Mexico City’s mayor filed a constitutional appeal against the Senate’s interpretation of the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearances of Persons, which limits its application to events that occurred after it came into effect. The appeal asks that the Senate decree, which would make it impossible to prosecute those responsible for past disappearances and encourages impunity in the case of kidnappings carried out by armed forces members, be repealed. The Senate decree protects not only people responsible for the 1968 and 1971 massacres and the forced disappearances in the 1970s and 1980s, but also those who carried out the Aguas Blancas and Acteal massacres and those who killed Digna Ochoa.

The mothers of the disappeared have asked the government to remove the prosecutor it named to examine socially and politically motivated crimes in the past, charging that he has shown no interest in going after those ultimately responsible. The Eureka committee, which works on the issue of the disappeared, held a demonstration in front of the Supreme Court demanding that these crimes against humanity not go unpunished.

Indigenous law
in the court’s hands

The legislative and executive branches are not only enmeshed in their own conflicts, but are distanced from society’s demands. One of the clearest examples can be found in their positions on the problems of indigenous peoples. The Mexican state has one last chance, however, as indigenous peoples have knocked on the doors of the judicial branch, which now bears responsibility for responding to them.

From May 6 through June 15, the Supreme Court held hearings on the 321 constitutional appeals filed against the Indigenous Law that the legislature approved last year. The National Indigenous Congress asked the judges to issue a just verdict in accord with the law and expressed their confidence that the unconstitutional, illegitimate law would be overturned. They also called on civil society to join in this new phase of their struggle.

The municipalities’ legal representatives have not attended the hearings, although this does not indicate disinterest. The municipalities involved are very poor and isolated, and many managed to take their demands to Mexico City for the first time only with the support of local politicians who used the situation to advance their own position, but once having achieved it, they abandoned the communities. This was especially true in Oaxaca.

Other communities have been able to organize themselves to carry on the fight and have been following the cases. They have also organized cultural events in front of the Supreme Court, fully aware that this strategy is just one more step in their centuries-long resistance struggle.

Devastating European
report on Chiapas

While Fox declared in Europe that Mexico’s Indigenous Law was among the most progressive in the world, indigenous rights specialists continued to give the lie to this affirmation. The International Civil Commission for the Observation of Human Rights, made up of 104 people from 14 European countries, issued a report on their visit to Mexico that concluded that no progress has been made on human rights issues. They presented this report to the European Parliament when Fox was in Brussels on his official visit.

The report highlighted the government’s failure to respond to the conflict in Chiapas and the deteriorating economic situation of Chiapas’ communities. The observers warned that implementation of the Puebla Panama Plan (PPP) could worsen the situation. The report offered proof that high-level officials have encouraged the formation of paramilitary groups as part of a counterinsurgency scheme. The report revealed that, far from reining in the paramilitary groups, those in power have left their leaders free. It charges that they continue to fan conflicts and apply a policy of terror, assassinations and constant aggressions against Zapatista communities in the guise of land disputes, party or religious conflicts, personal enmities, family vengeance and accidents. The report also confirmed that the groups are supported by the old PRI structures at the community and municipal levels and have operated with the complicity of the army and state security forces.

The report again demonstrated that peace has not come to Chiapas. All the superficial, cosmetic work boasted of by the foreign relations secretary crumbled under the evidence presented by the European observers. The Zapatista cause could not be swept under the rug, as Fox had hoped to do.

The Puebla Panama Plan:
Undermining peace in Chiapas

Fox tried to convince the European politicians to support the PPP, but failed. Most analysts concluded that the Fox government is still applying PRI policies on indigenous issues, and many charge that he hopes to make the conflict in Chiapas wither away so that the PPP may prosper.

A Central American Peasant Forum held in Tapachula, Chiapas, concluded with an unequivocal rejection of the plan. This forum brought together 650 delegates from 52 indigenous peasant organizations in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. They described the PPP as neoliberal, globalizing and authoritarian, and charged that it is being promoted by the United States through Fox and represents one more step in the line of anti-farm trade agreements and public policies that have ruined Central American agriculture, transforming these countries into net food importers. They also rejected the PPP as an anti-democratic project that hinders people’s self-determination.

US expert on Latin America James Petras has described the PPP as yet another instrument for exploiting cheap labor. Far from helping integrate our region into the global market, he argues, it will lead to even greater subordination to US interests. Nor will it facilitate the emergence of new business sectors, since it will only extend the maquila in the South. In Europe, the PPP is accused of encouraging militarized globalization, and European activists have described the San Andrés Accords as an antidote to it.

The EZLN’s year of silence

The end of April marked a year of Zapatista silence. In their place, we have heard the voices of the autonomous municipalities. Although there were changes in the local and federal governments in Chiapas, local power remains in the same hands. Because paramilitary groups continue to act in impunity, peace remains far off, and the truth is that a low-intensity war is continuing in Chiapas. The Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center has documented 122 deaths caused by this paramilitarization since 1995, and reports that over 12,000 displaced people are still awaiting justice. Independent investigations have determined that the army maintains 232 posts and 32 checkpoints in Chiapas.

With the mediation of the legislature’s Harmony and Peace Commission (COCOPA), three Zapatistas were freed from the Cerro Hueco prison in Chiapas at the end of May. The government propagandized the event, insisting that the EZLN return to the negotiating table. The imprisoned Zapatistas refused to be photographed with either the COCOPA members or the government’s peace commissioner, stating that their freedom was not enough. The Zapatistas’ lawyer argued that their liberation was no sign of good will from Fox, since the three had already completed their sentences as established by law.

Two bishops in Chiapas speak

The bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, said there was no reason to be grateful for the freeing of the Zapatistas prisoners, since it was their just due. He also gave his analysis of the situation, arguing that racism and disdain towards indigenous peoples are ongoing problems in Mexico. The bishop said that although the EZLN has become a political force, the rebel group’s effective renunciation of the use of arms has not been adequately appreciated. He emphasized that a reform of the state and the construction of a new society lie at the heart of the Zapatistas’ proposals.

The bishop explained that the indigenous demands related to culture and rights were to have been the starting point as they were thought to be the easiest points. He also noted that while the Zapatistas have encouraged autonomy in their communities, other communities have chosen to take the government’s charitable aid, which has led to great divisions among the indigenous people. In late May, the bishop of Tapachula, also in Chiapas, said that "a latent war" is underway in the region.

Globalization and its discontents

The Zapatistas have been unwavering in their rejection of neoliberalism, a position that has been growing increasingly strong all around the world. Writer Naomi Klein has argued that the Zapatista rebellion marked the start of the movement against corporate globalization. Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate in economics, maintains in his new book Globalization and its Discontents that Latin America’s economic reforms have been a failure, with the limited growth of the past decade benefiting society’s richest sectors and virtually no attention being paid to either instability or inequality. He argues that the neoliberal model has failed to generate shared economic growth. With it, large sectors of society fell from low to zero productivity. Policies to eradicate poverty, he writes, have also failed. One fundamental problem is that the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund decisions, which have such a sharp effect on entire communities, are made exclusively by finance and trade ministers and central bank directors, thus reflecting only these interests within the government. The representatives of the various other sectors of a country’s society have no say in the decisions. They are not the result of broad consensus, nor do they consider social and political consequences. Stiglitz maintains that the countries of the North would never accept the recipes that the IMF is imposing on the South.

Europe applauds the Zapatistas

While the rulers get indebted to their own summits, the parallel grassroots demonstrations have grown increasingly strong. The European Union-Latin America and the Caribbean Summit in Madrid was nicknamed the "Summit of Disappointments." Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, the leader of Mexico’s Eureka committee, was among those heading up a huge march in that city protesting today’s corporate globalization. Other demands included the establishment of an international criminal court to judge the genocide and repression in Latin America starting in the 1970s and of adequate social and political conditions to ensure that human rights activists are not threatened or killed like Digna Ochoa in Mexico. The Zapatista cause was also present in the march, as Zapatistas marched alongside other leaders of Latin American indigenous and peasant movements. And when an EZLN banner was raised in the Plaza de España, the crowd burst out into applause, shouting "Zapata lives, the fight goes on!"
In her speech, Ibarra said that although the Berlin Wall had fallen, those in power are now building new walls of hunger and misery. She recalled that José Martí had predicted that America would rise up with its indigenous peoples and that this is already happening with the indigenous people of Chiapas. Thus, while the Zapatistas are heard and applauded in the heart of Europe, in Mexico a government made up of businesspeople is trying to ignore them, after centuries of keeping them under foot. This story is far from over, however.

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