Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 178 | Mayo 1996



Tabasco: Dignity and Petroleum

Tabasco is near Chiapas, but not only geographically. The same social marginalization the and same rebellious inconformity in the face of government policies make of Tabasco and Chiapas a single conflict zone, a single terrain for solidarity.

Roberto Del Carmen Valencia

"Guitars, cry guitars..." sang all of Mexico at the end of March. The death of singer Lola Beltrán on March 24 saddened everyone. Since 1954, after her presentation on the radio program "This is My Land," Lola had been a symbol of national identity, of the country (ranchera) music that links Mexico to many nations, not only Latin America.

The news of Lola Beltrán's death pushed everything else out of the newspaper, radio and television headlines. But reality soon descended; demands for an end to impunity, corruption and violence, the dialogue on Democracy and Justice in Chiapas, the ineffective palliatives to the economic crisis and the resignation of the governor of the state of Guerrero, Rubén Figueroa Alcocer, were some of the key issues of the moment, and none of them went away.

In the midst of them all, the conflicts in the state of Tabasco symbolize both Mexico's struggles and the ups and downs of its search to solve the crises facing federalism, ecology, the economy, corruption and violence. All these issues became more critical after the 1994 elections for governor, mayors and legislators. Thanks to fraud, so the opposition to the PRI claimed, PRI leader Roberto Madrazo took office in Tabasco on December 31, 1994. Charges against the electoral results and proof of millions illegally spent on the campaign joined with Tabasco residents' protests against the ecological destruction provoked by PEMEX in the region. The project to sell off large segments of national petroleum production, on the other hand, is felt as the defeat of a nationalism promoted by President Lázaro Cárdenas in 1938, and defended ever since.

Given all of this, we dedicate this analysis to the state of Tabasco. It is the hot point in Mexico's current reality.

Tabasco's crisis

Here is a brief chronology of Tabasco's most recent crisis:

December 31, 1994: Roberto Madrazo takes office as governor amid protests by the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and the National Action Party (PAN). Outgoing PRI governor Gurria Ordóñez leaves office tarnished by accusations of political favoritism, nepotism and repression of opposition groups.

April 20, 1995: Local leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador goes to Mexico City with a contingent of PRD supporters to accuse Governor Madrazo and demand a pluralistic government.

June 9: López Obrador presents the national press with 14 boxes of original documents from the PRI finance secretariat proving campaign spending of 237 million pesos 60 times more than the limit fixed by Tabasco's electoral law.

August 21: Roberto Madrazo accuses the Attorney General of the Republic of "judicial indiscretion" and of "making state sovereignty vulnerable" and files a suit of constitutional controversy with the Supreme Court against the federal executive branch.

December 31: Madrazo's first government report is prepared and, in the governor's absence, is simply sent to the State Congress. The document is read amidst fighting and yelling.

January 29, 1996: Close to 5,000 PRD militants block 18 PEMEX oil fields with 60 wells in five municipalities of Tabasco. They are violently removed on February 2.

Tabasco Is Strategic

Tabasco is important in the national context because it is strategic to economic and political control. With a fifth of the country's oil reserves, Tabasco's deposits are second only to those in Mexican territorial waters. Tabasco's petroleum production is valued at approximately US$1.9 billion per year. With 926 oil wells, Tabasco has nearly a fourth of the 4,000 in all of Mexico and has 3 of the country's 9 gas processing plants.

The 60 wells that PRD protesters blocked represent 6% of Tabasco's wells and 1.5% of the national total. Each blocked well means an average loss of $25,000 daily, according to PEMEX. The blocking of the 60 wells caused losses of $1.5 million per day, 5% of the industry's export income.

Of Tabasco's land, 67.6% is dedicated to cattle, 12.6% to forestry activity, 8% to agriculture. Most of the rest 11% is bodies of water.

Tabasco lies near the conflictive state of Chiapas. This proximity merited a military presence and the creation of a Mixed Base of Operations, made up of personnel from the National Navy, the Federal Highway Police and Federal and State Judicial Police, as well as anti riot squads and Federal Public Ministry agents and Mexican Army soldiers.

Chiapas is not only geographically close. The commonalities of social marginalization and discontent with government responses make Tabasco and Chiapas a single conflict zone. Just as in the Zapatista conflict, we find the main protagonists in Tabasco in the Chontal indigenous people, peasants from Nacajuca, Comalcalco, Cárdenas, etc. This is dangerous for the government. In the EZLN's early stages, its conditions for dialogue included solving the electoral conflicts of both Chiapas and Tabasco.

Tabasco is a "political promise" to the President of the Republic. President Zedillo showed a lack of political judgment when he promsed, "With Madrazo until 2000," a phrase implying an incentive for Tabasco's PRI political class. He thus turned his back on more than 40,000 indigenous, fishermen, peasants and citizens who sympathize with the PRD or, even if they are not PRD supporters, disagree with the way Madrazo's group has managed the conflict by beating on peasants and indigenous.

Political and state reform are at stake in Tabasco. The main opposition party, whether one agrees with its pressure methods or not, is the PRD. The solution to the Tabasco conflict is for the PRD to sit down at the national political dialogue table.

Fire in the Petroleum

Some 800 soldiers, federal police and grenadiers, with army helicopter and tank support, removed the 130 peasants who blocked access to the oil wells in February. The motive of this conflict is none other than PEMEX's historical failures to Tabasco's Chontals. The debt is immense: damaged fields, contaminated lakes and rivers, continuous loss of harvests because of acid rain produced by the effects of petrochemical perforations, animal deaths, damaged houses and continuous illnesses caused by toxic wastes unique to the exploitation of this resource.

Resolution to the conflict has been sought through dialogue, but the Tabascans have only received repression. The evident corruption of Madrazo's campaign was simply the match that set fire to areas already doused with oil.

The country's crisis has caused the most damage to this southeastern Mexican state. The drop in cocoa, plantain and beef prices has maintained natural resources in a commercial stagnation of macroeconomic proportions. Meanwhile, the production of national supermillionaires had its local celebrity in the sad and gray figure of Cabal Peniche, whose businesses in the shadow of Salinas brought the region great prosperity.

Who's Who

The local PRI. Faced with the danger of the law of the fittest, where the one with arms and economic power wins, the PRI announced that it also "would take over the wells if PEMEX gave resources to the PRD and left the Madrazo government out of the negotiations." Who makes up the local tricolor party? Basically, the business sector (CANACO and other Chambers), which has reiterated its unconditional support to Governor Madrazo.

The National PRI. It has supported the Madrazo government and has the support of the majority of representatives and senators, who have requested privation of privileges and incarceration for opposition leaders. They demand a "hard hand" for the Chontal indigenous and peasants.

The Local PRD. Headed by natural leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who represents an important number of Chontal peasants and indigenous, the movement of fired streetcleaners, some student movements that don't support the government and leftwing Tabasco intellectuals. It also has a lot of sympathizers in Cárdenas, Comalcalco, Nacajuca and the municipality of El Centro, Villa Hermosa.

The National PRD. It has given its unconditional support to these movements and, in an unexpected trip to the country's interior, managed to unite positions around the conflict. The decision of PRD legislators to go before the Prosecutor to declare themselves guilty alongside the peasants is a demonstration of political control that, though it radicalizes positions, defines the conflict.

The Local Church. The recently named bishop of Tabasco, Florencio Olvera Ochoa, has preferred to limit himself to a soft "call to dialogue and accord" in his letter to Tabascan Catholics, declarations that are far from representing a posture in favor of the Chontal indigenous, independent of political affiliation. The words of Pope Joan Paul II to President Zedillo were more conclusive the press interpreted them as a "papal scolding." It should not be the most unprotected sectors of society, said the Pope, "who are charged with the heaviest burden of economic readjustments." He added that the conflicts should be resolved "through dialogue and respect for the idiosyncracies of ethnic minorities and protecting them from all form of violence and external intervention."

The Federal Government. The Secretariat of Government, PEMEX, and the Presidency of the Republic are in the eye of the hurricane. Although in an authentic federalism they would not have the final word, they are in this federalism the ones who could resolve the conflict. Yet they have kept quiet or tried to negate the obvious.

Chiapas Repeated

Faced with the violent removal of protesters from the oil well sites, the phenomenon experienced in Mexico during the armed uprising in Chiapas was repeated. The people do not permit each other to be hurt. National solidarity which is beginning to take on international dimensions started coming in via Internet, and the most varied human rights committees and independent groups demanded justice for Chontal peasants. The consensus is clear: no one wants the groups to radicalize into bloody incidents.

"If the Zapatista uprising in January 1994 questioned Mexico's entrance into economic globalization, the Tabascan movement today is concretely and directly challenging the economic strategy that mortgages petroleum for more financial dependence," said commentator Marco Rascón.

There is an indigenous peasant movement of national dimensions in Tabasco. The Chiapas confrontation is being repeated with different actors and procedures. For years, Tabascans sought to resolve issues through petitions for electoral participation, demonstrations, long walks to the capital, and the like. But they were not heard. PRI candidate Roberto Madrazo's campaign was one of the most costly in history, not only in the state but in the whole country, simply to avoid these Tabascans.

There are serious social rifts in Tabasco and the struggle is a just one. Health, education, housing, food and land shortages go beyond the simple state program of "A Floor, a Stove and a Latrine." The critical contamination of flora and fauna cannot find a solution in a simple local emergency ecology plan. Without resources and adequate administration, the causes of the conflict will be repeated.


There is actually a political knot in Tabasco that does not favor the PRI and strengthens opposition parties, concretely the PRD and PAN. The government's strategic management has erred, and ambiguity increases its lack of credibility. To disqualify a broad, legitimate movement with a passion that can only be understood by meeting the Tabascans is, in addition to irresponsible, an obstacle to a resolution of the conflict. The official version of the Tabasco case buttresses the image of an informal government more interested in "what the neighbors will say" than in "what is happening at home."

Official declarations about the "demand industry" really the only one that has flowered under Zedillo are also lamentable. At the same time that these declarations emerged, the Zapatista National Liberation Front expressed the way that the government understands pacification and dialogue: "The government's war," said Subcomandante Marcos on February 8, "is masked as pacification. For 500 years, 'pacification' has meant death, imprisonment, torture, persecution, humiliation and abandonment for Mexican indigenous."

President Zedillo's declaration that "petroleum is not a political weapon" coincided with an imprisonment order for 49 PRD members without bail, the detention of 21 other Chontals and the placing of a permanent barricade for the "detection of arms and explosives" in the Tabasco municipality where Cárdenas' PRD has the most support. The opposition's actions appear more prudent in the sense of "not radicalizing the movement," said López Obrador, who has united and strengthened the PRD.

With Tabascan Love

If it really wants to calm the conflict and enter a phase of dialogue, the government should show more political will. It should:

*Define Madrazo's term in the local governorship.

*Withdraw the orders to apprehend Chontal peasants and indigenous for alleged "sabotage."
*Stop the police repression, which is banking on unnecessarily wearing down the opposition and growing discontent.

*Initiate an open dialogue with public opinion, with pluralistic participation of political parties, civil society, and social media.

*Listen, dialogue and, where necessary, give indemnization to peasants whose lands have been affected.

What is at play here is Tabascan dignity and the dignity of all Mexicans. The discontent and generalized bad feelings point to a solution, but do not define it totally. What is still needed is for PEMEX to be willing to face the conflict realistically. The legitimacy of civil resistance as a last step in political pressure must be recognized. Was it not this same desperation that led the Zapatistas to take up arms? The anthropological and cultural aspect of the Tabascan situation can't be ignored. It is well expressed in the popular song: "Let's go to Tabasco, because it's Eden... Because Tabascan love is always totally dedicated with heart and soul." The Chontals already decided with their "Tabascan love," and it landed them in prison. From this perspective, many Mexicans have already joined the Chontals' cry: "I also blocked the entrance to the oil well! Put me in jail as well."

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