Life After Sierra Blanca

illustration by Doug Potter

Most people weren't expecting the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) to deny approvalof the Sierra Blanca low-level nuclear waste dump. Conventional wisdom went that as soon as the November elections were safely passed and all repercussions for governor and proto-presidential candidate George W. Bush nullified, the deal would be rubber-stamped and the dumping would begin. But the members of the Mexican federal congress (and some local officials) who came to lobby against the dump didn't let cynicism dampen their zeal. Not content just to offer official pleas and call it a day, the Mexicans set up a makeshift camp in downtown Austin which became a center for protestors and all manner of anti-nuke artistic expression. Several of the Mexicans went on a hunger strike that lasted from 3pm Saturday until the Thursday hearing in which the TNRCC rejected the plan.

Councilmember Gus Garcia, a longtime watcher of Mexican politics and the closest thing the Austin City Council has to an elder statesman, turned amateur political scientist this week in his comments on Sierra Blanca and its role in the changes underway in Mexican government. He said the participation of the Mexican officials in the process signaled good things for the future of democracy in Mexico, the current status of which is tenuous at best. "What has happened is that in this last election of the national congress, the PRI had to open up the process," he said, citing the diversity of the political ideologies represented following the most recent Mexican elections as proof: Of the group that came to Austin representing the federal congress, "One of the congressmen was from the Green Party [Partido Verde], another was from the Workers Party [Partido de los Trabajadores]."

Members of the group visited both Wednesday's work session and Thursday's council meeting to repeat their plea that the TNRCC deny approval of the Sierra Blanca site, and express frustration at their treatment by Texas officials: "When we were [meeting] with Texas Secretary of State Al Gonzales, they would throw the ball between the federal government and the Texas government, and into the Mexican federal level, and they play the ball different ways," one delegate remarked.

This time the Mexicans were hoping to apply pressure through an appeal to the American public, citing appeals on the issue's merits as fruitless: "I do not want to go into technical details, because it was not technical details that made the decision of the site," said one congressman. "It was a political decision, not a technical decision." Of their last-minute visit to Austin -- hunger strike and all -- he said, "We know we are causing a little bit of trouble because it's an election time for the state of Texas. Probably it's a little bit on purpose -- to move the positions of the TNRCC. [They] are appointed by Gov. Bush, even though he doesn't participate in policies, you know that they are going to do whatever Gov. Bush wants."

Councilmember Gus Garcia

Chief among the officials' complaints was that in considering the Sierra Blanca site, the United States disregarded a 1983 treaty signed by President Reagan, known as the La Paz agreement, which prohibits environmentally risky projects within 100 kilometers on either side of the U.S./Mexico border. Had the TNRCC given the project the go-ahead, officials indicated, Mexico's relationship with the United States, and Texas in particular, would have been damaged. But they would not have given up, they said, indicating that they would make an appeal to the international court at The Hague.

But despite the unanimous accord of the Mexican federal congress in opposition to the dump, other officials dragged their feet in joining the opposition. Garcia said that the congresspeople "were concerned about the posture of the executive branch -- that Mexican President Sedillo had not come out in opposition to Sierra Blanca," and that "maybe those people are in cahoots with Sierra Blanca."

"One of the problems is that there's still a lot of corruption left over. It's widespread," Garcia said, adding that he feared that corruption may have touched one of Sierra Blanca's staunchest opponents. Just before the delegation came to Austin, Mexican congressperson Jeffery Joneswas shot in Mexico City. "He was shot three times, on his knee and the side of his head. Why would anybody in Mexico want to do that unless they were the people advocating for the dump? Jeffery was kind of like the lead spokesperson for the group, so I'm sure that his incident must have had some relationship to his position on Sierra Blanca."

Garcia said that talk of political assassination is by no means an exaggeration, and laments the lack of information he perceives in the American press about the scenario unfolding south of the border: "You hear of all the assassination attempts that go unpublished, because the American media don't cover Mexico. They cover the Middle East like it was the only place in the world, but they don't cover Mexico."

Garcia is withholding judgment on prospects for Mexico's future: "I think the presidential elections in the year 2000 will be a better barometer as to what effect all this stuff is having." Garcia cites Vicente Fox of the PAN (National Action Party) as the opposition candidate to watch. Fox, the governor of Guanajuato, is "dynamic, very clean -- they can't pin anything on him; he was president of Coca-Cola in Mexico, Mr. Knight in Shining Armor, and I think he can pull it off. I told my wife I would go and work in Fox's campaign. She said, 'They'll kill you.' I said, 'I'm old enough, I can die.'"

The 2000 election could be pivotal, according to Garcia, either in solidifying the current trend toward true democratic participation, or a violent return to the chaos and violence that has characterized Mexican politics: "Mexican people are deathly afraid to oppose the PRI. Everybody's afraid Fox is going to get killed. If Fox gets killed, we're going to have a revolution." *

There's no council meeting this week, in anticipation of the November 3 election. The next meeting will be Nov. 5.

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