The Face of NAFTA Goes to the Polls


It’s early morning in the southern Mexican village of San Juan Coatzóspam, Oaxaca. The sun is just peeking over the tips of the distant mountains. A rooster has begun to crow outside the window. Three birds are softly chirping in the branches of the avocado tree. And downhill from the birds and roosters and tranquility, a loudspeaker crackles to life and begins to blast a political campaign announcement across town. The ad is loud and forceful, entering every home. As a singer on the loudspeaker touts the virtues of candidate Alejandro Morales, a second loudspeaker begins to play — this one from the campaign headquarters of Alejandro’s opponent, Marcelino Pueblita. The second loudspeaker plays a Chilean protest song. The two broadcasts blend together into a cacophony of campaign slogans, political arguments and blaring music.

This is election season in Coatzóspam.

San Juan Coatzóspam is a rural indigenous community, similar to hundreds of other towns across Mexico. (See, “The Face of Rural Mexico,” 10/1/06 TPP, and “Mexico at the Crossroads,” 3/15/12 TPP.) Thanks to NAFTA and other neoliberal policies, its coffee farmers have been forced to migrate elsewhere in search of work. The loss of the town’s lifeblood has led to the loss of the community’s native Mixtec culture as well — as young people leave for the cities or the United States, they become increasingly disconnected from their own language, customs and worldview.

These problems — an exploitative globalized coffee trade, massive migration, loss of indigenous culture — were at the forefront of everyone’s minds this summer, as Coatzóspam’s natives prepared to head to the polls on July 7, the date set for Congressional and local elections across Mexico. This year marks a turning point in the race for mayor’s office in Coatzóspam — the first year that conventional political campaigns have been employed here. In addition to the daily “war of the loudspeakers,” both candidates — Alejandro Morales, a schoolteacher and cultural promoter, and Marcelino Pueblita, a community organizer—have held massive events with a stage, music and food, campaign posters, marches through town, flags and caps and t-shirts with political slogans. “Honestly, I don’t see the point in all this fuss,” says Bernardo Cayetano, a retired schoolteacher. “This is such a small town, we already all know each other. What’s the point of spending all this money on a campaign?”

Interestingly enough, despite all the fanfare, both candidates are remarkably similar to each other. Both Alejandro Morales and Marcelino Pueblita use a very populist, anti-bourgeois discourse. Both speak of the need to protect the rights of smallholder farmers, to allow Coatzóspam’s campesinos to live from the wealth of the land. Both have even employed the Latin American protest song, “Las Casas de Cartón,” in their campaigns. Both candidates promised to support education and to give priority to the rights of the poorest and the most marginalized.

Each candidate has his own strong points, of course. Alejandro has long worked to promote and rescue the Mixtec culture of Coatzóspam. He was involved in the publication of a book in 2009, containing the town’s folklore, customs and language, which has been implemented as curricular material in local elementary schools. During his campaign, Alejandro promised to reinforce the intrinsic value of the Mixtec culture and create a Linguistic Council with local schoolteachers. “I have never felt the need to mimic the culture of the United States, as some do,” he told me during a lunch of chicken mole prior to the elections. “I look southward, toward our indigenous sisters and brothers — that’s where I find my inspiration.”

Marcelino has a long history of labor rights activism and community organizing. He was instrumental in organizing the local transport drivers, and has long worked to bring state and federal aid resources to the neediest residents of Coatzóspam. In addition, he has a firm grasp on the challenges faced by Coatzóspam’s coffee farmers. “The problem here,” he told me prior to July 7, “is that our farmers are totally dependent on the coyotes (intermediaries). We’re not organized.” Coatzóspam’s farmers have recently been selling their coffee exclusively to AMSA, Mexico’s largest buyer for the foreign corporations of Big Coffee, and the price has continued to drop. This past season, they were paid 22 pesos (less than $2 US) per kilo of coffee beans. (There are reasons to suspect that the leadership of Coatzóspam’s coffee farmer association has been paid off by AMSA reps.)

Despite the similarities between the candidates, both campaigns have engaged in personal attacks—not unlike a political campaign anywhere else. Much of this hostility derives from an issue that has divided and plagued this community for decades.

Years ago, the town was run according to usos y costumbres, the traditional system of governance common in indigenous communities of southern Mexico. Residents came together, united, to discuss issues and reach a consensus on local problems. Mayoral candidates were evaluated based on their individual merits. Then a rift was carved in the community which has yet to heal—partisan politics appeared in Coatzóspam in the 1980s. Some townsfolk joined the leftist political parties, the PRD and PT; others remained fiercely loyal to the PRI, the party that ruled Mexico for 70 years straight. The town has been deeply divided ever since, in a conflict that often has little relation to any political ideology and is more reminiscent of a conventional Hatfield-McCoy style feud.

“I remember seeing machete fights break out in the town square in the past because of politics,” says Loreto, a young town native. “People died for a political party from some far off city that doesn’t even care about people like us.” While the tension has diminished, the division still exists: Alejandro ran on the PRI ticket; Marcelino with the PRD-PT coalition. The same parties which divided Coatzóspam, preventing people from uniting against coffee exploitation and the loss of their culture, are now investing millions in the local campaign.

On July 7, the people of Coatzóspam lined up along the main street of town to cast their votes. Dark clouds gathered in the sky; winds blew from uncertain directions. By the end of the day, Alejandro Morales was declared the official winner, by a margin of 80 votes. Members of the opposition challenged the declaration, alleging a fraudulent count. The victory felt anticlimactic, announced not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Before I left town, I chatted with Alejandro in the shadow of the municipal government building. We discussed the future of San Juan Coatzóspam, and the effects of partisan politics on the community. “You know, David,” Alejandro told me, “all those politicians in the Federal Government, they’re all buddies. Whatever party they’re from — PRI, PAN, PRD — they all play golf at the same country club at the end of the day. And here, in Mixtec towns like Coatzóspam, the poor just get poorer. We need to come together if we’re going to change things.”

In a community like Coatzóspam, in this day and age, Mayor Alejandro Morales has his work cut out for him.

David Schmidt is a freelance writer and multi-lingual translator in San Diego, Calif. He is a proponent of immigrants’ rights and fair trade, and works with worker-owned coops in Mexico to help them develop alternative sources of income. Contact him at

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2013

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2013 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652