New Airlines Coming to Mexico :

While the government proceeds with plans to sell off Cintra, the national monopoly that controls Mexicana and Aeromexico to private bidders, others have taken the opportunity to enter Latin America ‘s second largest domestic air market to directly compete with Mexicana’s new “low-cost” domestic carrier, Mexicana Click. I put low-cost in quotes, because a recent web search gave me results which were only slightly reduced from the old Mexicana tariffs.

The largest and most aggressive of the competitors will come from Brazil : GOL airlines. They will be joined by ABC Interjet, Aerolineas Mesoamericanas, A Vuelo and Avolar. Most of the action will be concentrated on the “big market” cities in Mexico , such as Cancún, Guadalajara , etc.

On the international front, Mexus, which is in the process of constructing its system, and does not yet appear to have a firm starting date in mind although they are said to be planning a startup sometime this year, will, as its name implies, be serving many Mexican and US cities, including Oaxaca. This is one to keep an eye on, as it is the only one to take on Continental head-to-head. They have announced they will use the “point to point” model pioneered by Southwest, rather than the “hub and spoke” model that has proved so costly for the old-line outfits. They are limiting their routes to flights of under four hours, and do not intend to fly within either Mexico or the US . This probably means that you folks in New England won’t be flying Mexus any time soon…

[This ceramic, which Diana photographed at La Mano Magica, is a good example of how the simple “indigenous” style of local craftware has evolved under the ministrations of a younger generation of artisans.]


Elections Are Only One Year Away:

Even though the official (and legal) starting date isn’t until July, all three major parties have already seen plenty of pre-electoral action. In the PAN, Santiago Creel, who was the Minister of the Interior, resigned to walk the campaign trail, amid charges that he made a last-minute sweetheart deal with Televisa, the largest of the two national video giants in which he traded off-track betting franchises for special treatment for his campaign ads. On Monday, Felipe Calderon, a party wheelhorse who was recently secretary of Energy, announced his own candidacy, saying it was time to bring the party “back to its’ roots”. Calderon can be considered a stalking horse for longtime party power broker Diego Fernandez and the more reactionary elements of the party, who have never been comfortable with the internationalist and too-liberal Creel.

In the PRD, the fire horse has once again heard the bell. Cuauhtemóc Cárdenas, three-time loser (the first by fraud), appears determined to run again at any cost – including a division of the votes that otherwise might put his party rival López Obrador in the chair currently occupied by Vicente Fox. Last week Cardenas announced that he would not seek the endorsement of his party (not that he could have gotten it) because it had become too impure for his taste. Instead, he averred, he is waiting for an invitation from an unspecified minority party to become its candidate. Observers here believe that he will receive the endorsement of two or three parties who hope to use his candidacy to garner the requisite 5% of votes, which will then make them eligible for government funding (and, some would say, the possibility of graft that comes with it).

The PRI, which has shown a remarkable ability to come back in the last few months, crowned by the latest victory, the governorship of Mexico state, the largest in the union, may be about to suffer its own implosion. With .Roberto Madrazo, the party’s president, set to resign at the end of this month in order to run for President of the Republic, there appears to be an internal split over the natural succession of Elba Esther Gordillo, the second-in-command Secretary General. Elba, whose faction in the PRI suffered mightily after she endorsed president Fox’s proposal to impose a tax on food, medicine, and school books last year, has threatened (through intermediaries) to bolt the party should she not be approved to move up. It is unclear which would suffer most if this should occur, the Party or Elba’s sinecure as head of the national teachers union, in which she has been under increasing pressure from dissident state organizations.

One thing is certain: the campaign will be plagued by funding scandals, as the PRI and the PAN spend many times the legal limit. Madrazo is notorious for having spent 10 times the limit on his gubernatorial campaign in Tabasco in 2000, and both parties have been accused of similar practices in the recent Edomex (State of Mexico) race.

[After a year’s hiatus, the city sent a crew back to continue cutting down the giant ficus outside our house. Now there is only one big branch left, and of course it’s the one that is closest to (and most likely to shed on) our garden. Sigh. Maybe they’ll be back sooner than another year…]

To Go or Not to Go: Community Tourism in Oaxaca :

As we’ve noted many times in the past eleven years of publication, visiting rural tourist destinations can be a chancy thing, given the squabbles that often occur between factions fighting over all-too-infrequent income. While we recommend checking with the state tourism bureau before leaving town, even that is no guarantee as the situation is often volatile and changes can happen frequently; and information is sometimes unreliable.

Two recent examples serve to illustrate the point.

Hierve el Agua, the limestone seep and grand vista in the mountains near Mitla, has never closed, although the state tourism bureau has at times advised visitors to stay away. The problem has been the contention between two municipal organizations as to who has the right to collect an admission charge. At times, one road or another to the site has been blockaded, and interruptions of service have occurred. In a recent Newsletter, I wrote that visitors were being double-charged, paying first one entity, and then a little further along the road, paying the other, while each claimed the exclusive right to charge.

Last week, in a brilliant stroke of co-operation, the two towns resolved their conflict. They decided to make it official: in order to get to Hierve de Agua, tourists must pay their admission fees in two installments, first 10 pesos and then 15. The “official” admission fee is now 25 pesos. Everyone gets a cut, and everyone lives happily ever after. How sensible…

In the Sierra Norte (northern mountains), also known as the Sierra de Juarez after Benito Juarez who was born there, there have – as in every quarter of the state – been many conflicts based on ownership of land, profits from extraction of natural resources, and control of water rights among other causes. This is to be expected in an area where endemic poverty makes the possession of even the tiniest of advantages the difference between starving to death and subsisting. Occasionally, but rarely, a tourist will get a glimpse of such conflicts, but mostly they are played out in remote areas where tourists do not go; and when they occur closer to the tourist routes, the local folks do everything they can to hide them from eyes which come with purses attached, so as not to discourage the paying customers from returning.

[It only takes one guy up in the tree to cut it, but it takes several guys on the ground with cleverly looped ropes to keep the branches from crashing down on the power lines.]

If one were to read the local newspapers over the last couple of months, one would assume that the eco-tourism destination in the Sierra Juarez near his birthplace of Guelatao, known as Mancomunidades, is a dangerous place to go. There have been sometimes-violent clashes between local factions over control of – and profit from – the timber trade. Some of the contestants have been local eco-tourism groups concerned about controlling the amount of trees being cut. The state government has been unable to broker a deal between the various interested parties. Occasionally, someone gets injured or killed.

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk too a couple of different vendors at the Pochote organic market who come from that area. They both agreed that there is absolutely no danger to tourists. They said that the nature trails are open and safe; that the cottage industries that produce honey, mushrooms, weavings and other products have not been affected; that tourist services such as guest houses are still open.

Guelatao, and the nearby city of Ixtlan , are pretty and tranquil, as are the tourist destinations nearby. For those who intend to venture further, I recommend checking first with Ron Mader

Zócalo update:

It appears as if my prediction that they would remove the tin in front of the portales before Guelaguetza was once again a case of wishful thinking. Even though some parts of the project are being worked in double shifts, there seems little hope today – a week before the great event – that this will occur.

Meanwhile, the summer school closing, and the influx of European tourists and U.S. Spanish teachers down for some in-service credits has turned the passages through the sidewalk cafes (the only way to get from one side of the square to the other) into a congested mess.

One anomaly: all along, the main mover for the project, a man named Carlos Melgoza Castillo, who heads the Oaxaca Patrimony Institute,, has been insisting that one of the main reasons for tearing up all the streets and sidewalks was to make everything “level”; to eliminate all the steps up and down when going from the sidewalk cafes to the Zócalo, a statement which he repeated in an interview for this month’s “Oaxaca Times”. One wonders, then, why a very distinct curbing is being installed around the Primavera corner. There is so much BS going around, especially about the intentions of the renovation plan – which was drastically changed recently after the resignation of the chief architect – that all one can do is wait until it’s done. But my advice is, don’t wait in the Zócalo…

[ The masthead picture is of the Zócalo work looking to the south from the Alameda toward the Bar Jardín. The picture below was taken over the fence from the restaurant at the Hotel Marques del Valle. As you can see, the new benches will be cement. Notice that there are no drainage holes… ]

5 Brothers, one restaurant:

The young French family that opened the hole-in-the-wall “Cinco Hermanos” restaurant about a year ago, and later opened a take-out store in Reforma; and sold their quiches at the Pochote organic market, has closed up and moved everything to one location: El Mano Magica. For some time now, Mary Jane and Arnulfo, who own the building, have been contemplating turning the courtyard that used to house many looms and showcased Arnulfo’s family’s rugs, into a restaurant. There is a great kitchen which has not been used at least since I’ve been here, and seating for dozens (in the old place, the brothers were lucky to seat 8).

For those of you who used to go to the old place on Hidalgo , I advise thinking about this place as a new restaurant. Don’t go expecting the old menu, or the daily comida corrida. There is a small ala carte menu. There is a service bar, and a waitress. The cooking is as good as ever, and a few “signature” dishes such as the rabbit terrine are still available, with the addition of some decidedly un-French tamales and other Oaxaca fare.

I guess I’m getting to be a reactionary in my old age. I miss the special crowded ambience of the old place, and the variety of the menu. The new place is very nice for tourists, and I wish them well, but for me Cinco Hermanos – now called Cocina Magica – has become another one of those places I will go to on the rare occasions when I am looking for a very good restaurant meal with all the frills, instead of somewhere homey and with a more spontaneous atmosphere. Ah, well, that’s progress, I guess…

Noticias update:

On Monday, I paid a visit to the offices of Noticias, the opposition daily newspaper that is now in its’ fourth week of captivity. I tried to talk to a “striker”, hoping to find out whether the staff contingent trapped inside the building in June was still in there. He refused to talk to me, but as you will see, below, there was an intelligence officer taking my picture, something that hasn’t happened to me since the ‘70s outside the corporate headquarters of Minneapolis Honeywell when we were trying to get them to stop making cluster bombs. It reminded me that my life has been entirely too inactive, if nothing I have done since has called me to the attention of somebody’s “red squad” until now.

What I was trying to figure out was this: how is it that after 24 days of being locked in, with no food or water or medicine allowed to pass, there are still people alive in there? I can’t credit it. It seems to me that either the prisoners have a very large secret stash, or else someone is passing them what they need, either the “strikers” through the front door or supporters through some other channel; or they have been released. I mean, there are diabetics in there who have been without medication for weeks. Surely they cannot have survived without insulin.

Noticias is being published in the meantime, from a plant they own in Tuxtepec, four hours away in the mountains that form the border of Oaxaca and Veracruz states. While there have been sporadic attacks by public authorities on people who are selling and distributing the newspaper, it is nonetheless plentiful on the streets of Oaxaca.

The governor of Oaxaca continues to stonewall all attempts to intervene, saying this is a states’ rights issue and that no-one, federal or foreign, has any status in the affair.

What are those wily Zapatistas up to now?

A couple of weeks ago, the EZLN declared a “red alert”, and announced that all the leadership was being removed to the mountains for a plenary session at which time it was to be decided what course the rebels would take in the future. For many of us, it was a curious affair, since they had not long before established their “good governance councils” to help solidify the gains they had made in their struggle for autonomy in the areas of their influence.

Recently, a letter from the Central Committee appeared in the daily La Jornada, which was roughly titled “what we are going to do and how we are going to do it”. It was a love letter to all movements worldwide who are seeking change without seeking state power; or even taking part in party politics. It pledged all the help that a poor movement can muster, which by count wasn’t much: some corn, a smile, whatever. It hinted at future attempts to revive the pan-indigenous movement that they failed to create in 1996 or so with their big march on Mexico City . It said nothing concrete about the future of the “caracoles”, the centers of autonomous governance that they closed during their alert.

So, here we are again, as we have been in the past, waiting for the EZLN to drop the other shoe. At least, waiting for the Zapatistas is more interesting than waiting for the Zócalo…