“Progress” in El Llano:

The Passeo Parque Benito Juarez, known more familiarly as El Llano, named for the lions that guard it’s corner entrances, has been undergoing “reconstruction”. A lot of trees have been torn up, but most of them were in the strip of land between the street and the peripheral sidewalk, where their shallow roots heaved up one of inner-city Oaxaca’s favorite jogging paths. Also torn up in a major way have been the paving stones which made up the paths that criss-cross the park, and formed the plazas around the fountains. As promised, this edition features photos of the destruction / reconstruction in progress. More photos as the project continues.

The rent issue:

This is a lot trickier a business than I first thought it would be. While I have not – because of a busy schedule – put as much time in as I would if it were me that was newly arrived and looking for a place to stay, I have done a cursory and haphazard search, which I will continue, with more reports as time goes on. Here is what I can tell you so far:

Rents have definitely gone up, and not just for gringos. However, higher priced rentals appear to be increasing at a faster rate than lower priced ones; and all appear to be increasing by more than the rate of inflation. This is not new: the inflation rate has been below 10% for some time, while 10% seems to be about the minimum annual increase in rents. The exception may be found in the very lowest rental rates, where they seem to be remaining fairly steady.

The longer the rental, the lower the price. The exceptions to this rule are found on the highest and lowest end of the scale. There are many rentals available that are designed to be occupied by the month or even the week – some, in “residence hotels”, by the day, These are usually fully furnished. While many will give discounts for stays of six months or a year, some give only minimal discounts or none at all. At the low end are barely furnished basic cubicles, mostly occupied by transients looking for work and the working poor.

Higher priced rentals are often quoted in dollars. While some landlords have dollar accounts here or in the States, and expect checks or direct transfers, most who demand rent in dollars will take pesos at the rate of exchange. Sometimes, volunteering to pay in dollar equivalents, provided that the rental price does not rise, can work to your advantage, and sometimes not: it depends on the peso’s rise and fall against the dollar. The steady exchange rate at present argues against this sort of arrangement, since landlords no longer see it as a hedge against the weakening of the peso. In 1994, when the peso crashed, rents got very cheap for us gringos (for a while; landlords were quick to raise rents at a higher than legal rate; in some cases, where renters gave them a hard time, they discovered relatives who needed a place to stay, a legal excuse for eviction. Soon after the hapless gringo moved, the relative “changed his/her mind” and the apartment went back on the market – at a much higher rent). Of course, some landlords demand dollar equivalence, and raise the rents every year anyway.

Looking for a rental is largely a matter of connections, particularly for folks who don’t read / speak much Spanish. Often, rentals are not even advertised, a phenomenon which I fail to understand. For instance, I found a one-bedroom apartment in Reforma, in a complex of shops and apartments, that rents for $2,600 pesos on a yearly contract, and another on Guerrero in the center for $4,000 pesos, both of which are unadvertised. The landlords depend on word-of-mouth. So should you.

Rentals that are advertised – in English for the most part – in the Oaxaca Times are generally going to cost more. So will the offerings on the internet. Still, compared to what you are paying at home, they probably seem quite reasonable… The offerings on the Library bulletin board generally tend to be on the middle to high end of the scale, but there are often some pretty decent digs available, and you should certainly drop by there and study what is being offered. The Library is also the first stop on the “connections” trail. Hang out there for a morning coffee and introduce yourself. Start meeting people. One person I know found a sublet for ten months by being there when the renter walked in to post a notice. Post your own notice. Go to events that gringos attend. You get the idea…

Of course, for those with a command of Spanish, the whole experience takes on a different and advantageous dimension. Rentals posted in the local newspapers will be better deals than those in the Oaxaca Times, although there are a lot of unpleasant hovels that are going for inflated prices.

It is possible to rent for as little as 1,000 pesos a month, if you are willing to live in a single, basically furnished room, with communal bathroom, in a working-class building not too far from downtown. I was in one recently that had its own bathroom, and a little alcove with room for a small fridge and a two burner hot plate (it was the only one with private bath), and inspected the communal bathroom which was spotlessly clean and had a hot water shower.

A friend just moved down, and was sharing a fine three bedroom house not far from the Zócalo for a couple of months while looking for a more permanent, private arrangement. His rent, $225 dollars a month, is at the top of his rental budget. Still, he has a safe, comfortable, convenient temporary shelter, from which he continued his search. He got it through a gringa who happens to live next door and knew that her neighbor was open to short-term room-mates – but was not actively pursuing such an arrangement. While he was living there, a single room being remodeled in the same complex was finished. Semi-furnished and with private bath, it rents for 2,000 pesos per month including electricity. He’ll move in at the end of the month. See what I mean about connections?

“El Oaxaqueño”:

There are now enough folks from this area working in the Los Angeles basin that they have their own newspaper. “El Oaxaqueño” (EO) has news and features about life on both ends of the migration stream, from an analysis of the low turnout for absentee ballots in the States, to the plight of Santa Ana del Valle where there are so few people left due to the migration that municipal life and services are suffering.

One article that caught my eye was about corruption and extortion of returnees at the Oaxaca airport. According to EO, returning migrants are being subjected to unfair fines and confiscations by customs inspectors in the airport, and federal preventative police when leaving the grounds. I don’t know whether this is an exaggeration, or whether the situation has been corrected. What I do know is that this is another example of how we visitors (and I consider myself a visitor, even if an indefinite one) have one view of Mexico, and the people who live here have another less sanitized reality.

For those interested in reading EO, their website is www.oaxacalifornia.com

Fear and Loathing at the Ethnobotanical Garden:

One day last month, governor Ulises Ruiz announced that he had canceled the “fideicomiso” (a fiscal entity created to administer a place. Before the reforms of about fifteen years ago, fideicomisos were used by foreigners in partnership with a bank, to get around laws forbidding them to own property) that administered the Ethno-Botanical garden, and appropriated the property for the State. He demoted the administrator, and put a new administrator in his place. This was a bold move, since the old Board consisted, among others, of Alfredo Harp Hélu, one of the richest men in Latin America (and certainly by far the richest in Oaxaca), a prominent patron of the arts, and the often obstreperous Francisco Toledo. Strangely enough, little has been said about it.

[This is one of the many beautiful displays in the garden.]

This is the story as told to me by a most reliable source:

A man very high up in Ulises’ administration approached the old director, a man who as much or more than anyone is responsible for the fine collection and the impeccable display of native plants that make the garden one of Oaxaca’s most satisfying and sought-after tourist destinations. The man asked the director to hire his mother-in-law. The director asked him what her skills were, and was told not to ask so many questions, just hire her. Such employees are known as “Voladores” (flyers), because they fly in, pick up their paychecks, and fly out again. These arrangements are a common way to pay off debts from one power broker to another, both in and out of government, and are the face of endemic corruption at the most basic level. The director refused.

Shortly thereafter, the governor stepped in.

The new director says he wants to “expand” the uses to which the garden is put, for example holding more outdoor performances such as the flamenco troupe we attended a few years ago. It is unlikely that the vast majority of us will notice any changes in the fine job the gardeners, docents, and other staff perform.

I suppose there is at least one new volador on the payroll: money that might otherwise be used to improve and expand the site.

“The Life and Times of Mexico”:

Earl Shorris, a prolific writer of fiction, history, and pseudo-history, has written a huge (780 pages in small print) one-volume history of Mexico, and in the process has created a fascinating, complex, sometimes provocative analysis of his subject.

For me, the most interesting aspect of the book so far (I’m only 1/3 of the way through, having just read of the end of the “Revolution” of 1910-1920) is his position that there was never a revolution in the 20th century, unless perhaps one considers the presidency of General Lázaro Cárdenas in the 1930s – although I find it difficult to make a case for calling a series of land reforms and expropriations, most of which vanished when his term ended, a revolution, as does he.

What the Mexicans refer to as the Revolution, was in fact a series of coups and counter-coups, and a civil war which cost perhaps millions of lives, Shorris claims. Further, he says, it is just this sort of wishful thinking that characterizes the Mexican nation, which celebrates dreams while denying realities. Villa and Zapata were regional war lords with no real ambition for the nation, who in fact refused to rule when given the chance, and neither of them had any real plan of when and how hostilities would cease, or who would govern. Even the celebrated Plan of Ayala, Zapata’s manifesto for change, was never really implemented: land expropriated from the great haciendas by-and-large found itself in the hands of generals and other government officials, not the peasants for whom it was intended.

[El Llano is a city park. The sign makes it clear who is in charge here. The governor is mentioned by name, and the mayor is not.]

Throughout the book, he goes forward and backward in history from the era under discussion, in order to emphasize points he is making. For example, when discussing the problems Pancho Villa had getting weapons in the latter stages of his failed military campaigns, Shorris tells of attending a secret meeting of would-be revolutionaries in the 70s who thought for some reason – unexplained – that he could help them to get weapons from the U.S. All the attendees were eventually betrayed and captured. Shorris believes that all attempts at significant change in the Mexican system of governance begin in dreams, lead to betrayal, and eventually either to success or prison or worse.

This is definitely a “warts and all” kind of book, and there will probably be places where you won’t agree with the viewpoint he takes. I, for instance, thought his characterization of the EZLN in the early pages of the book as dictatorial and repressive– by using selective examples – was hard to swallow. Still, it’s a grand read (in both senses of the word), and I highly recommend it.

I’ll probably continue this review in a while – right now, Diana has it – as I read more of the book.

Fear and loathing on the Other Campaign trail:

The Zapatistas have been here and gone, and they left with a bang. That noise you heard was Marcos, grabbing a pop can, and hitting a window in the auditorium of the teachers’ union building – according to two of the local newspapers.

Native Americans are accustomed to opportunistic politicians of all stripes (and others) trying to use them for their own advantage. That’s part of the education I received working with the American Indian Movement back around 1980. They do what they can to avoid this sort of intrusion, but it’s hard, because they are often dependent on others for money, shelter, and sheer numbers. Already marginalized, colonized, lied to and stabbed in the back by the government, the corporate interests that want to use (and most often abuse) their land and their culture, they hope for but often do not receive support from other “progressive” organizations, whether because of fear of sharing power, or simple greed, or insistence on the doctrinaire correctness of their particular brand of “vanguard leadership”.

While eschewing state power, the Zapatistas are touring the country with a strong and sometimes unpalatable message for their host organizations: the Mexican political system is corrupt, and the corruption most accurately reflects itself in the scramble for power among the political parties vying for a seat in the legislature, or the presidential palace, or the town council, to whom a larger share of the spoils is more important than a change in the system. They sell themselves to us as the “only” way to gain access to power, as if all power comes from the top, which is where they want to be.

Let me demur here: clearly, there are many good and honest citizens and citizen organizations that do not fit this frame, including most of the individuals in Mexico’s political parties. They do not need to defend themselves against this characterization, since their actions speak for themselves. Their assistance to the Zapatistas and other grass-roots formations has been and is invaluable. The “worst” of them help through an altruistic impulse; the “best” because they understand that it is in their own interest to do so.

On Thursday, February 9, in the city of Oaxaca, a meeting was held in the auditorium of the teachers’ union (Section 22), where the Other Campaign of the Zapatistas had been fed and housed for three days and nights.

Here is the version of events that appeared in the local papers:

During that session, Marcos (delegate Zero) answered some hostile questions from members of a “left formation” of the teachers’ union who support the candidacy of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) of the PRD party for president of Mexico in the July 2 elections. He said in his remarks that AMLO’s campaign manager was among those who betrayed the San Larrainzar accords which were meant to give more autonomy to indigenous tribes. When some questioners started shouting that he should take off his mask (a provocation), he left. Some of the Other Campaign, and some of their press corps, were then locked into the auditorium by the hecklers. Marcos returned, and demanded the door be opened. When his request was refused he hit a window in the door, which was wire enforced and did not break, and then took a chair to the door. Harsh words were exchanged. The prisoners were freed. The Zapatistas and their friends abandoned the building and sought refuge in the offices of an indigenous organization nearby. Friday they continued their campaign of listening to the people whose lives are lived “below and to the left” of the system, sharing what they had discovered in the first month of their six-month campaign to weld the disaffected and disenfranchised into a national network of mutual aid and change, and on Saturday they left for Puebla.

[As you can see from this and the preceding picture, the work is moving right along. We’ll follow this project as time passes.]

In my native Minnesota, it wasn’t the Republicans who attacked the Green Party and its’ candidates. The Greens can’t take much support away from the radical right. It was the Democrats, who were unwilling to share power with what should have been their natural allies. In Mexico it is much the same for the Other Campaign. While the Others never say “don’t vote”, they have attacked – as they should – those whom they see as mere opportunists who are using the poor for their own purposes. For this reason, they have been very careful to avoid the kind of confrontation that the newspapers say occurred on Thursday. They change their campaign schedule often in order to keep their meetings from being taken over by those PRD militants who do not like their message. In order to keep their words from being twisted and used against them, they have limited press access to the campaign, angering the “mainstream” newspapers, who attack them as serving “foreign conspiracies” because some of the press corps who do have access – including an international group of “authentic journalists” organized by Al Giordano of Narco News – are foreign-born. Thus the incident Thursday night has been blown up out of all proportion by the local press, and picked up rather uncritically by the normally more thoughtful magazine Proceso in its online site.

Here is the version contained in a communiques issued by Marcos yesterday:

There were no harsh words, and no violence of any kind. What happened was an unfortunate mix-up. Folks from the Zapatista tour were hanging out in the auditorium, expecting to be allowed to sleep there after midnite when the meeting was scheduled to break up. Instead, the meeting continued, and – as is the custom when they are discussing things they do not want outsiders to hear – the teachers locked the doors. When the remaining Zapatistas and journalists decided to return to the indigenous’ headquarters where they had stayed the previous night, they found the doors were locked, asked for the doors to be opened, and they were allowed to leave. The teachers later apologized for the mix-up. Relations between the Zapatistas and the teachers remain cordial and collegial. The newspapers lied, whether deliberately or because they had been misinformed by trouble-makers.

So there you have it: two versions. While I’m not inclined to swallow either version whole, I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to Marcos, since he has little to gain by a false denial and much to lose by keeping the issue alive if he is lying.

By the way, I have spent time with the Other Journalists who are covering the Other Campaign, and I don’t know when I’ve met a harder-working bunch of folks. They pay their own way. Their articles are posted – among other places – on Narco News. More about them in the next Newsletter.

Read this article:

I rarely reprint articles by John Ross, to whose newsletter I subscribe, primarily because I want people to pay him to read his astute and often acerbic prose. I am moved to do so now because I am so incensed by the racist trends I see in the U.S. You can read it by clicking HERE.

Enough, already (Ya! Basta)

So much news, so little space. There will be an “extra” edition out in the next week or so, featuring the Lila Downs concert, the Specialties Hospital, and more chisme (gossip) and news. Meanwhile, rest your eyes…