The New Porfiriata:

Back around the turn of the last century, there was an authoritative imperious all-powerful dictator from Oaxaca running Mexico. His name was Porfirio Diaz. Many say that he got into power – and stayed there in spite of laws limiting him to one term – by electoral fraud. When he wasn’t busy squashing his opposition through co-optation, threats, disappearances, imprisonment and exile, he embarked on a campaign of “modernization”, in which he more or less turned the assets of the country over to foreign interests (mostly U.S.) in exchange for their expertise in infrastructure building – and because he understood that if he trained his countrymen in engineering, etc., they might eventually rise up against him; and ordered the construction of grand monuments to his cultural savvy and his personal power. Thus were Mexico’s first cross-country railroads and telegraph system built. Thus was commissioned a string of palatial opera houses all over the country, including the Belles Artes in Mexico City, and the Macedonio Alcalá in Oaxaca. Huge parks and zoos, museums of immense proportions and historical monuments whose size is only out-shown by their expensive stone and gold leaf, were his “lasting legacy” to his country.

Oaxaca is now ruled by a strongman, whose often brutal and seemingly whimsical actions invite comparison to Diaz. Ulises Ruiz is the latest (and some guess the last) PRI official to govern the state. Many say that he won his election through electoral fraud; that it should have gone to Gabino Cue and his centrist coalition.

The stump in the masthead photo is what is left of a giant tree that used to anchor the northwest corner of El Llano park. Some civic minded citizen with a chain saw made it into a sculpture. The statue of Beito Juarez, to the right, is in the center of the park.

One of the first things Ulises did after taking office from his friend and mentor, José Murát Casáb, was to complete the removal of both the administrative and the legislative offices to the suburbs. Then he declared the Zócalo to be off limits to protesters, and the sidewalk cafés off limits to itinerant merchants, beggars, and most musicians. Next, he started tearing the Zocalo up, reducing the amount of shade available to visitors (and of course protesters). When the work was completed, there were a lot of people that didn’t like it. Said it was too empty. Not enough metal benches. Too formal.

Diana and I have some reservations, but by and large we are not unhappy with the new Zócalo. The elimination of many changes of level and the use of smaller and flatter paving stones make it easier on Diana’s knee, and it looks to me like it is being well utilized by the local folks. The “new” Llano is another story.

Lots of trees have been taken from the boulevards around the park officially known as Parque Paseo Juarez, and generally known as “El Llano” – without fixing the upheaval of the large concrete squares of the sidewalk which the too-shallow roots had caused. The center of the park looks like some sort of faux attempt to duplicate a century-old atmosphere of unnecessary pomp; to build a monument instead of a place – as Llano has been since I arrived – for families and civic events. To say that it is cold and formal is to understate the obvious. The north and south sections are still under reconstruction, and at this stage it looks like the theme will be continued.

Already begun, is a complete renovation of the “Fountain of the Seven Regions”, located near the medical school in Colonia Reforma. According to a recent article in “Noticias”, it will be larger, more ornate, and just as expensive as they can make it. It is pretty certain that the new monument, however grand it may be, will include the original seven women in regional “traje” (dress). For now, they sit across the street waiting to be reinstated. Granted, some renovation was required, and the ladies needed a little touching up, but was a mega-project really necessary?

This part of El Llano is yet to be “rehabilitated”. One hopes that this tree will not be removed.

Finally, “our” park, Conzatti Park, where we have gone every Friday to shop at the traveling market, is next on the agenda. It really needs some work. The paths are rough and the fountains show some wear. I wish I could say that it – like the others – won’t be transformed from a neighborhood park to a monument. So far, no details have emerged; and no-one knows what will happen to the scores of vendors who made the park their home on Friday.

Violence andTourist Safety:

For some time, now, I’ve been wrestling with the following material. How could I present it in such a way as to shed some light on some of the things that are happening in Oaxaca and elsewhere, and yet not scare the horses and the children? I don’t know if this qualifies, but it’s the best I can do…

To begin, here’s a note I posted on the website “Oaxaca Streets…”:

In more than 12 years of living in, and writing about, Mexico, I have never before been moved to write anything that would discourage people from coming down to visit. Nor do I do so now. I do not advocate, as do some, that tourists should take their business elsewhere. Increased unemployment won’t make Mexico more democratic.

However, in light of recent developments, I do feel moved to caution those who do come down to do so with a clear understanding of what the pitfalls may be.

The federal government, and the governments of some states, including Oaxaca, have decided to violently repress dissent. There is nothing new about that. It’s the level and open-ness of the violence that has changed.

Recently, in the state of Mexico, caught filming an “action” against campesino organizers who were being brutally beaten and killed, several film-makers of foreign extraction – including five women all of whom were brutalized physically and sexually – were set upon by law enforcement officers. All were severely beaten. All were subsequently deported. In Oaxaca, some foreigners who were merely in the vicinity of a peaceful march, were arrested, hooded, taken to a state prison, and later released for “lack of evidence” after paying thousands of dollars to a lawyer.

These are the kind of monuments I like: a simple phallus plopped down in the middle of the street requiring minimal care and weathering nicely with age. You might whiz by it in your car a hundred times before you looked at it twice. Celebratory historical adornmet…

Foreigners whom law enforcement may think are documenting the violence – or even worse, supporting the dissenters – are being singled out for punishment. Getting involved in the internal politics of Mexico violates the Constitutional prohibition (Article 33) against outsiders meddling in Mexico’s affairs, and is grounds for immediate deportation. There is nothing new about that. Again, it’s the level and open-ness of the violence that has changed.

If you do not want to take a chance on being beaten, raped, tortured, imprisoned, and / or deported, DO NOT get anywhere near any demonstrations. DO NOT take photos of any beatings or other abuses. Especially DO NOT take pictures of officials in plain clothes supervising the action.

As long as you are a “good tourist”, stay away from any controversial occurrences, turn away from any violations of human rights you may accidentally witness, and generally “mind your own business”, you will most likely not be in any danger.

Perhaps I am over-reacting. Probably, you could walk through a march of campesinos, take photos of their “free our political prisoners” and “the governor is a murderer” placards, and be safe.

More than likely, you will never even see a march or a demonstration, now that they have been outlawed in the Zócalo. Chances are that all those heavily armored police “specials” that are often to be seen near the Zócalo wouldn’t think of hurting you.

It’s just that these days you never know…

Admittedly, the statement is more than a little sarcastic, and more than a little judgmental. Still, the incidents described really did happen, and in the present climate can be expected to continue to happen. As a friend of mine said, a police state, in order to remain a police state, has, every once in a while, to utilize its repressive powers. If it doesn’t, the people will lose their fear, and fear is the very stuff of which police states are made. There is an iron fist behind the smiling face of tourist Mexico.

Larger than life and limned in exquisite detail, here are six of our seven ladies of the fountain

Ryanair will start flying Mexico as soon as September:

The most successful and most well-known of Europe’s “no-frills” airlines will begin service from the Toluca satellite airport (Mexico City) to an as yet unspecified U.S. destination this fall. Ryanair, which flies more miles and more passengers per year in Europe than all the current Mexican airlines put together, has gone into partnership with a Mexican company, putting up the maximum allowable by law for a foreign investor: 25%.

Jumping into the fray allowed by the privatization of Mexicana, Ryan joins a mix of domestic and foreign carriers aiming to grab a piece of a market that is expected to double in the next decade. AeroMexico partner Aero Litoral has started flying two flights a day between Oaxaca and MexCity, but prices are still high.

American Airlines recently signed a code-share agreement with Mexicana which should allow for connecting flights from AA’s hub in Texas directly to Oaxaca at some point in the future. At this point, however, AA’s web site lists only overnight (21 hours) flights from LAX to Oaxaca, transferring in Dallas and MexCity, for about the same price as other airlines: hardly a break-through.

Oh, those pesky teachers:

Normally, “Oaxaca Streets…”, which is moderated by Steve Sardeson, who happens to be a subscriber to this Newsletter, is a forum for nuts-and-bolts (questions and answers about how to get here and there, find this and that), whose objective is to smooth the path for tourists and would-be residents, thereby encouraging folks to come down. There’s not much politics discussed there, and that’s fine: there are plenty of venues to visit for those interested in the subject.

Sometimes, though, a political note creeps in. As in the last few days, in which the subject has been the occupation of Oaxaca by tens of thousands of members of the Teachers’ Union, which is tearing the town apart. The reactions of the writers to “Streets…” seems to mirror that of most Oaxaqueños: give us back our city, go back to teaching our children. Posts have come from native Oaxacans and resident gringo businesspeople. The theme is pretty much the same: teachers care more about their own salaries and perks than they do about their neighbors or their students; merchants and workers, particularly in the Center – many of whom have been sent home for the duration (without pay) – are suffering terribly from the loss of custom created by the occupation.

However, the teachers point out that all the small businesses in the area around the Zócalo that are not normally part of the tourist scene – the small groceries, hardware stores, clothing shops: the backbone of the “local” economy – are doing a land office business as educators in search of a soda pop, a new sweater for the upcoming cold season in their mountain villages and towns, etc., take the opportunity to do a little shopping in the big city. The small “cocinas economicas” (cheap kitchens: restaurants where one can still buy a good three-course meal for under 30 pesos) are selling out early. The itinerant food vendors with their carts of ice cream bars, tacos, fresh peeled fruit, etc. are certainly not complaining. Of course, these more marginal businesses do not have the same “voice” in the press that the more powerful tourist interests enjoy.

Incidents abound: an out-of-gas ambulance transporting a desperately ill child to the specialties hospital in San Bartolo was refused entry to the (closed by the teachers) gas station on Juarez and Niños Héroes for twenty minutes while the driver negotiated with the strike leader and the station manager. Plaza Oaxaca (Soriana) and Plaza del Valle (Gigante) were blockaded. The toll booth at Huitzo was taken over (a special gift to motorists, who were allowed to go through for free). City buses sought their own routes through the center and confused riders trying to get home or to work were waiting on the usual corner, to no avail. As the traffic became more and more gridlocked, the buses began to take alternative routes to the alternative routes, causing even more confusion among the ridership. Occasionally, a bus takes a swing into a little-used street, only to discover that there is not enough room between the parked cars in the middle of the block for the bus to get through. Truly, life in the center has been chaotic – and dangerous for those who, by incapacitation, are unable to cope.

The front windows in our new house go nearly wall to wall across our living / dining room. Beyond is a massive concrete planner with roses and ornamental trees.

The Teachers’ Union has a virtual monopoly over some 60,000 or more educators in Oaxaca state. While paid by the state ministry of Education, all teachers are assigned to their classroom by the union. That means that, regardless of how they feel about the issue at hand, for a teacher to disobey the call to descend on Oaxaca could mean that next year they will find themselves in a dirt-floor one-room classroom four hours’ walk from the nearest road. Not a good prospect for a middle-aged instructor with a family living in the City. Such jobs are normally done by new teachers, who tend to be younger and less encumbered.

Aside from that, there are positive incentives for the strikers: they continue to be paid while on strike, and “extra duty” for the union accrues various benefits, including credits toward the purchase of a house (my thanks to George Colman for pointing this out).

Everyone in Mexico is poorly paid. Teachers are, for the most part, less poorly paid; definitely nudging middle class. There is a contract sitting at the Ministry of Education, waiting to be signed, that purportedly gives all teachers a raise in pay, and settles a long-sought equalization of wages (equal pay for equal work). It has been approved by the Union leadership. There are indications that, without the distraction of a strike, the contract would have already been signed. So why the strike?

The teachers say it’s about more books, hot meals, uniforms and other benefits for students and their families, but apparently the 97% of citizens polled on Monday by Imparciál don’t think this issue important enough to support the teachers’ presence in downtown Oaxaca.

I believe it’s because, in an election year, the Union leadership wants to demonstrate their power, hoping to influence the upcoming vote, and incidentally reminding the political class about their power. It’s not going to help the rank and file one bit. It’s not going to raise the level of education. It’s strictly about power.

So, this (and the opening article) is by way of telling you that at the moment Oaxaca is not the sun-drenched laid back Paradise of the New York Times travel section; that the consequences of NAFTA, the “war on drugs”, and border fences, and 70+ years of PRI one-party government are becoming more manifest; that the climate is still great, the food still delicious, and the art prodigious; and that you should still c’mon down; but – at least this month – maybe you should lower your expectations just a little…

Speaking of lowered expectations:

I have had to lower my expectations of wrangle, hassle, disappointment, an obstreperous and tight-fisted landlady, and general chaos: the new apartment is going very well indeed. Turns out we have that rarest of birds, an upper class, rich, female, and generous Mexican owner. Lest you think me racist, let me tell you that in all the time I’ve been here, I have never heard of – let alone met – such a creature.

When we signed our contract (at 4,000 pesos, a reduction at present exchange rate of 1,500 pesos a month from the place we presently occupy), we didn’t expect much. We asked (but were prepared to be denied) that she arrange to get rid of the termites and repair their damage; and plaster and paint the walls. Period.

When I arrived back from California, this is what I found: the termite damage had been repaired; five workmen were busily plastering and painting; the toilet and sink had been replaced in the bathroom along with replumbing the shower and the hot water heater; the terrazzo floor was in the process of being cleaned, buffed, and sealed; the little garden outside our bedroom had been spaded up and planted with colias and roses, as you can see; and all the lighting was about to be checked, repaired, and (where needed) replaced. To say I’m flabbergasted only begins to describe my state.

Not that there isn’t more to be done: a “security door” needs to be added to our front entrance. Several windows and one door need to be screened. Some electric sockets need to be replaced, and a few extra outlets need to be installed. The wiring is so good that heavier duty circuit breakers can be substituted for the present ones (the apartment itself actually has two separate circuits). The “office” needs to be physically grounded to protect the computers. Some heavy duty anchors need to be put in the garden walls so I can hang my hammock. The new toilet works fine, but the pipes are plugged down-line (the owner will get that done, though). The phone company says a line is available, and we have a new phone number. When we actually have the phone installed and running -a process that can take some time, sometimes – I’ll make sure that those of you who need it have the new number. The DSL account remains the same: it will take a couple of days to have it transferred to the new phone.

So when Diana gets back in a couple of weeks, all the “systems” should be ready. Then begins the really hard work: picking out the cabinets and the furniture, deciding what to sell and what to move from our present house, figuring out where to put what in the new place, and supervising the actual move – all much too complex and subtle for me. That will be her job.