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The Meaning of Solidarity

Étiennevon Bertrab13 March 2015

Protestors outside Downing Street in London, February 2015. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

Protestors outside Downing Street in London, March 2015. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

For me, the most significant definition of solidarity is expressed in the words of Eduardo Galeano’s, the  extraordinary yet humble Uruguayan writer:

“Charity humiliates because it is practiced vertically and from above; solidarity is horizontal and implies mutual respect”

This is what many of us, upset about the state visit of Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto last week to the UK, found not only in the streets, but in lecture theatres in UCL, LSE, SOAS, Queen Mary University, and several other public spaces.

The other pleasant surprise was the discovery, at least for me, of Jeremy Corbyn, MP, who was the most outspoken about this state visit (the Queen has two of these per year) in light of the ongoing human rights crisis in Mexico, which the Mexican state has been contributing towards in a significant manner.

The two videos featured in this post say a lot. The first (in English), about the protest on the first day of Peña Nieto’s visit; the second (mixed English and Spanish), about the extraordinary discussions held in universities in the space of just one week.

Finally, while the bilateral Dual Year Mexico-UK insists on focusing on trade and investment – and yes, also a bit of education, culture, and nice arts and yummy food – a growing number of people, including 44 members of the UK Parliament, insist that without addressing the pressing issues that affect Mexican society, this initiative is at best misguided, and at worst a slap in the face to Mexican society at large.

In Mexico traditional media is highly controlled or pro-government (supporting whoever is in power). In the UK, Mexico has been afforded very little attention in the media, though this is changing.

For this reason, we have created this site with meaningful, trustworthy information of what really goes on in Mexico, all in English, with the hope of educating and increasing awareness: www.ukmx2015.org

I invite you all to visit the pages and simply to watch and read some of the content, in solidarity.


Étienne von Bertrab is a Teaching Fellow at the DPU and a guest lecturer in universities in Mexico. He also works as a consultant in the UK and in Mexico, where he has been a social activist for ten years. Twitter: @etiennista

Mexico: Where does hope reside? (Part III)

Étiennevon Bertrab18 February 2015

La tierra no se vende, se ama y se defiende. La Parota, Guerrero. Image: Javier Verdin (Agua, Ríos y Pueblos)

La tierra no se vende, se ama y se defiende. La Parota, Guerrero. Image: Javier Verdin (Agua, Ríos y Pueblos)

This post focuses upon the disconnection between the urban population in Mexico (a large majority) and what happens in the non-urban territory, and reflects on the crucial role and state of journalism. However, events that have come to light in the last 7 days demand a short digression:

Just Another Week On

An on going investigation has revealed that the ‘disappearance rate’ in Mexico is currently a shocking 13 people per day. That is one every 2 hours. These people are usually considered as ‘disappeared by force,’ as reinforced last week by the UN Committee of Forced Disappearances. They are mostly marginalised women and men who predominantly belong to poor rural and indigenous communities.

To add to the tragedy 40% are aged 15 to 29, simply too young to go through such experience without life-long consequences – if they survive. The injustice doesn’t end here: confronting a reign of impunity their own relatives face high risks when choosing to do something about it.

This was the case of Norma Angélica Bruno, aged 26, who had recently joined a group of determined to find ‘the other disappeared’ in Guerrero. So far the group has discovered 48 bodies in clandestine graves across the state. In a sickly ironic turn of fate, Norma was assassinated before the eyes of her three children while walking to the funeral of a murdered colleague.

As if living in a parallel world, the Interior Minister Osorio Chong declared that Mexico has the highest levels of security in ten years and that “very important steps have been taken to give back peace and security to all Mexicans”.

National Autonomous University (UNAM), Mexico City. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

National Autonomous University (UNAM), Mexico City. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

The missing link between society and nature

Despite growing awareness of the crises in Mexico, politicians, analysts, mainstream media and even organised citizens who try to reform or rebuild the State, tend to ignore an underlying issue. The country is highly urbanised and most citizens are, willingly or not, alienated from nature, or more concretely, completely dislocated from what happens ‘elsewhere’.

It turns out, however, that Mexico’s land, water and natural resources are being degraded and extracted at an alarming pace. Mexican institutional framework, created in order to join the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the early 1990s, has been largely irrelevant in the rhetorical pursuit of sustainable development.

Take water resources, for instance: after conducting hearings between 2006 and 2012, the Latin American Water Tribunal warned of “possible hydric collapse” and condemned the Mexican State for violation of international treaties and its own legal framework to guarantee the right to water as a fundamental human right.

Indigenous Resistance

Indigenous communities have resisted for centuries. However, as a result of a combination of constitutional reforms and trade deals, resource grabbing has increased significantly over the last two decades; and it often unfolds violently.

For instance, in the mountains of Guerrero communities have been resisting the imposition of the La Parota Dam, which would displace 25,000 and severely affect livelihoods of another 75,000. Their decade-long resistance has been relatively effective, yet at a tragic cost: repression, illegal incarceration and assassination of communal leaders.

But this region is by no means an exception. Another ethical tribunal, the Tribunal Permanente de los Pueblos (TPP), documented over the last few years 220 active socio-environmental conflicts across the country, and observed the normalisation of institutional violence towards those who resist.

TPP’s condemnation of the Mexican State, entitled “The dispossession and degradation of Mexico: Free trade and deviation of power as causes of structural violence, impunity and dirty war against Mexico’s peoples”, can be downloaded here.

For years, active community members have regular meetings where they discuss structural problems and actions. With huge efforts they form regional assemblies and have an annual national assembly. This is the case of the Asamblea Nacional de Afectados Ambientales (ANAA).

In my view, these forms of organisation are poorly supported and understood, and are essential not only in slowing down environmental degradation, but also in addressing a key factor in Mexico’s humanitarian crisis.

Mazahua people confront the dispossession of their water - pumped to Mexico City. Image: Agua, Ríos y Pueblos

Mazahua people confront the dispossession of their water – pumped to Mexico City. Image: Agua, Ríos y Pueblos

The brave world of journalism

Mexico has become one of the most dangerous countries to practice journalism, particularly critical, independent journalism. According to the map Periodistas en Riesgo, a recent initiative by Freedom House and International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), 13 journalists have been killed over the last two years (the most deadly period has been May-October 2014) and four journalists are currently thought abducted.

Without brave journalists we would be incapable of understanding what happens in a country whose State machinery has dominated the art of manipulating our mainstream media. On a positive note, as noted by several political analysts, those in power have been completely unable to understand the world of the Internet – despite attempts to monitor and control. Civil society is way ahead in understanding the power and potential of social media, a space where anyone can join in solidarity.

To explore the role of street art in social movements in Mexico DPU and UCL Americas are hosting a unique conversation with artist-activists part of Oaxaca’s Colectivo Lapiztola, on Monday 23 February. Read more and register to attend.

Étienne von Bertrab is a Teaching Fellow at the DPU and a guest lecturer in universities in Mexico. He also works as a consultant in the UK and in Mexico, where he has been a social activist for ten years. Twitter: @etiennista