IAGO hosts graffiti show:

The Instituto de Artes Graficas de Oaxaca, in addition to housing an outstanding collection of books on (and of) art, has a gallery space which has housed some of the most interesting and provocative shows we’ve seen. The masthead picture, and some others in this Newsletter are from the current show. All were originally painted on the walls of the city center during the APPO occupation, and later painted over by the current administration as part of the “beautification” process. Most were recreated using original stencils.

Calderón wants to privatize the turnpikes:

During the reign of the now-much-reviled NAFTA booster Carlos Salinas, the government of Mexico embarked on an ambitious plan to construct a network of toll-road superhighways connecting the major cities. They did it through a series of “private / public” arrangements. The cost over-runs were enormous, and the kickbacks were said to be staggering. The result was, in many cases, highways that came in late and over budget, crumbled if you looked at them wrong, and generated almost none of the user fees that had been promised by Salinas. Seems most Mexicans didn’t care for the high fees being charged, which left most Mexican cross-country travelers on the “libres”, the old (free) roads whose heavy traffic was supposed to be alleviated by the toll-ways. Meanwhile the private companies that had reaped enormous profits building the new roads, practiced a policy of benign neglect when it came to maintenance.

[The paramilitary with the gun bears the likeness of governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (URO)

Two years after taking office, his successor, Ernesto Zedillo, cried “Ya, basta!” (enough, already) and nationalized the network, paying the thieves that owned the rights to toll collection handsome fees to go away. The bailout (they owed plenty on the bonds that started coming due) cost over a hundred billion pesos. Money was put into repairs, and service was improved, although the roads were still being underused due to the high fees.

A few days ago, president Felipe Calderón announced that the government was preparing to sell 30-year “concessions” on these very same turnpikes back to private interests. The money generated from the sales, he said, would be used to double the number of toll roads. Two roads were singled out for mention, one from Zacatecas to Saltillo, and the other from Mitla to the Isthmus of Tehuantepéc. I don’t know about the Zacatecas road, but the Mitla to Istmo road has been in the surveying stage for some time, with most pre-construction work completed. The first phase, from Oaxaca to Mitla, has already been built. It is free, and does the job in a relatively understated and undisruptive fashion. Since “public-private” projects such as the concessionaires usually build are generally done on a “cost-plus” basis, expect high costs and therefore high tolls.

It is a reasonable expectation that the debacle of the Salinas scheme will be repeated, and that the next president of Mexico will be forced to preside over another nationalization whose cost will, of course, be paid by the taxpayers – as was the last one. Many opposition politicians seem to think so, and there is a growing movement in the national congress to block the proposed enabling legislation.

It should be noted that the Mitla road is part of the “Plan Puebla Panama”, Vicente Fox’s scheme to open up the south of Mexico to “development” by transnational corporations anxious to denude Oaxaca’s forests for export to Japan, use its’ aquifers to stone wash jeans, and build a cross-isthmus high-speed rail line as a “land canal” between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

[“Maluro” (bad URO), “Malburro” (bad donkey]

Monte Alban to host Miss Universe 2007:

In their latest sick display of big-bucks-tourism rip-off, one of a long string of bad decisions that includes the “Escalera Nautica” (nautical ladder), a series of resorts and marinas along the Sea of Cortez (see El Mayor, further down), Mexico’s national tourist bureau has decided to hold the “costume competition” phase of the annual Miss Universe contest at the Zapotec shrine of Monte Alban in May.

Does no-one in the government remember the 1968 Olympics, held in Mexico City, when the expropriation of millions of dollars in social services funds in order to “invest” in roads, stadiums, galas and other infrastructure in order to “prove” that Mexico was indeed part of the “first world” ended in the slaughter of hundreds of students in the plaza of Tlatelolco?

After months of upheaval and conflict, Oaxaca is still seething with discontent. The teachers of Section 22, whose annual strike every May (get that? May? The same month as the “contest”?) became the spark that touched off the popular eruption, have declared the government to have failed to make good on its promises to replace scab teachers with the teachers they displaced, and begun re-taking schools and government offices, sometimes by force, joined by the APPO. There have been serious battles between Section 22 and the breakaway faction known as Section 59 which is aided and abetted by the governor’s PRI party.

Undoubtedly, the ruins will be closed for some period of time so that the site can be “improved” for the contest. Certainly (given the pattern thus far shown by this governor) the “improvements” will be arbitrary, expensive, and unaccounted for. Tempers are sure to flare, many among the significant minority of Oaxaqueños that managed to ride the fence this last summer and fall.

Many local folks are still smarting over last year’s fashion show by designer Carolina Herrera. The cultural center next to Santo Domingo church was blockaded by scores of police so that only the “chosen” could attend.
Surely, this latest announcement will result in more militancy and more oppression. If what the government wants is to keep the lid on and paint a smiley face on Oaxaca, this has to be the stupidest idea yet.

[Latest note: we are now hearing as yet unconfirmed rumors that someone within the INAH bureaucracy (they’re the folks in charge of antiquities) may have woken up. Talk is going around that complaints are about to be registered over the issue of whether or not all the heavy equipment and the expected huge crowds might damage the site (DUHHHH). We’ll let you know…]

Join the people from below in their effort to save the land:

The indigenous villages of the Cucapá, just south of Mexicali, at the top of the Sea of Cortez, are being systematically squeezed by the Mexican government in order to make way for big-scale development, part of the “escalera nautica” (sea ladder), that if fully implemented will turn the coasts of the Sea and the Pacific into a giant series of marinas, waterfront resort properties, gated communities and ecologically disastrous “tourist-forming”.

[The center is sprouting signposts like this one. Presumably, they will make it easier for tourists to figure out where they are going. The sidewalk café in the background is owned by the wife of the Minister of Tourism. The fellow walking by probably doesn’t need the guidance, nor is it likely he takes his coffee there.]

The Cucapá are fisher-folk who like many other indigenous have made their living off the sea “forever”. In order to remove them from their lands government agencies have begun imposing all kinds of new rules on them, designed to force them into areas of low yield; and otherwise destroy their means of livelihood.

During the “Other Campaign” of the Zapatistas last year, the delegados (delegates, as they called themselves) were asked by the Cucapá to establish a “peace camp” on their land during the fishing season in order to (hopefully) prevent them from being attacked by federal police intent upon taking away their nets and boats as penalty for “illegal fishing”. The camp is already being established, in the village of El Mayor, and will remain active at least through May. Anyone interested in helping (and there is much material help needed, if you want to participate but can’t attend) should go to NarcoNews to learn more about the situation and to read the rules for attendance.

Some short notes:

John Ross is well into his whirlwind tour of the southeast, Midwest, and eastern U.S. To find out if he is going to be appearing near you, just click HERE

[The inside of the government palace on the south side of the Zócalo, which, now that the governor has moved to a more remote location, has been converted into a “museum”. “Improvements” include a new glass-and-fabric roof over the vast interior courtyard. So far, less than 10% of the available space is in use…]

Margaret Barclay publishes a frequently updated calendar of Oaxaca events that is more complete than any I’ve seen. She sends it out as an email attachment in Word document form. If you want to receive it, just write to her atbarclayma@aol.com

The University of Texas at Austin is conducting a survey to study the feasibility of offering Medicare coverage to eligible gringos living in Mexico. It takes about 10 minutes and is totally anonymous. All us expats are of course ecstatic about the possibility of receiving Medicare payments down here. If you have the time and inclination, just click onhttp://www.surveymonkey.com/s.asp?u=900112720502

Francisco Toledo, sometimes maligned (according to a couple of readers) in these pages, has done much lately for which credit is due. His wholehearted support of the APPO in the form of approving the use of the IAGO art library and the Alvarez Bravo museum for many things from conferences on the current situation and the future of Oaxaca, to temporarily warehousing donations to the movement in the face of continued harassment from the minions of Ulises and the PRI is certainly worth noting.

Come back little Tourist?

Last week, a professor from NYU of German citizenship was arrested, photographed, finger-printed and interrogated by elements of the State Judicial Police. He was picked up outside the “Curtaduria”, a space for arts and performance in the next-door barrio of Jalatlaco.

It is unclear whether the professor was harassed because he was in town to participate in an international forum on democracy and press freedom in Oaxaca (and Mexico), or as part of an ongoing series of harassments aimed at the Curtaduria itself, where painter Francisco Toledo has sponsored a show considered to be very anti-Ulises Ruiz (the unloved governor of the state). What is clear is that the administration of governor Ruiz is still doing its best –not very successfully – to stop independent observers and media from telling the truth about what is going on here.

[This fine mural is in the central stairway of the palace museum. Fortunately, it suffered little or no damage during the occupation.]

I write about Mexican politics for a monthly newspaper in Minneapolis, “South Side Pride”. Have, for 12 years or more. Hardly ever missed a month. Intend to keep doing it as long as they are foolish enough to keep paying me. During that time, there have been numerous corruption scandals, police repressions of dissent, occasional cases of mostly innocent tourists getting unfairly (and, in some cases, reasonably) deported; and getting pick-pocketed, cheated and conned (fortunately, the exception and not the ule). Not until the last months of this past year have I ever wondered –in print, or in my own mind – whether potential visitors might be better off to pick a different destination.

Last month an article I wrote for the Pride outlining the political and social situation down here, which I ended with the exhortation to “c’mon down”, prompted one reader to ask how, given the picture I painted of Oaxaca’s (and Mexico’s) current and likely future situation, I could so advise anyone. My answer was as follows:

Well, it’s all true, you see.  Oaxacans live in a police state.  Tourists do not.  Oaxacans are being arrested, beaten, tortured, disappeared and killed.  Tourists are getting good deals on lodging.  Oaxaca is a great place to be a tourist as long as you don’t care to get behind the facade and look at the grim realities, and Oaxacans desperately need the money.

Even if you overtly participate in “illegal” social activities and get caught doing so, chances are you will merely be deported, so there is very little risk here for people who are not small, dark, and poor.  Of course there are other places one can go if one can afford it – Sweden, or Italy, or Iceland, for example – where one need not confront the realities of most third world countries.  Or, there are other third world countries where human rights are more cleverly and thoroughly crushed, such as Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and much of Africa (especially Egypt): places that are still cheap like Mexico; that people like me can afford to go.

We are loathe to tell people to boycott Mexico, a position that as far as we can see only makes things worse for real people caught in the middle of the struggle, with families to feed.  On the other hand, we refuse to paint a rosy picture of happy singing Mexicans living in a kind of Disneyland set.  So if you are confused, imagine how we feel…

Although some tourists have returned to Oaxaca recently, most of them have been Europeans on package tours: come in on a bus, spend two or three days, and leave for the next destination. They have their own guides, they stay at hotels that cater to such groups, and when they are gone they have left relatively little money behind for the retailers (with and without stores and restaurants) that depend on the tourist trade. The kinds of individual, small group, and cultural tourism that really pay off for the average Juan have been cancelled. Just about every museum- or university- affiliated group has, under the demands of their attorneys, gone elsewhere this season rather than risk liability. It is estimated that even if all the social unrest were resolved tomorrow, it would take two to five years for the industry to rebound to where it was in April of last year.

Aside from squelching dissent and repainting buildings, the state government has invested an enormous amount of money and imagination into getting the tourists back. Just this last week, there have been dozens of events from concerts to cinema to dance, going on all over town, most of them free; and I mean every night, not just on weekends. From schedules I have seen, these wondrous events will continue on into the future. Even so, the tourism industry – and to a large extent the economy that depends on it – are in dire straits.

I have a friend who consults with businesses and individuals on a range of problems and solutions dealing with computers and computer systems. He offers maintenance services as well. One language school he looks after has three broken computers and no money to buy parts. Another school has reported that as of last week they have three students, and no advanced reservations until September. A tour guide we know, the son of a tour guide, and hard to book with a year ago, is now advertising his skills as a guide – and a chauffeur – and a house repairer – and an interpreter – and even as a house sitter. Imagine that: a middle aged, successful and well recognized tour guide with a couple of vans, a small sedan or two, and a few drivers, reduced to watering your plants and feeding your cat.

Look here, if things really get tense again, I’ll let you know, but meanwhile, if anybody asks you if they should come to Oaxaca, tell them I said it’s o.k.