Atzompa in our sights:

We recently paid a visit to Santa Maria Atzompa, a nearby village famous for its green pottery. Atzompa is a very “ordinary” small town of the Oaxaca valley, with little to distinguish itself from other towns of its size, aside from the relatively new co-operative pottery market and the central network of paved streets (where in other towns one might encounter dirt). Unlike Teotitlán del Valle, there are few large houses, no fancy display rooms, no tour groups, and few signs steering tourists to one or another of its famous potters.

Since the “troubles” swung into overdrive, and the tourist business went away, times have been tough in Atzompa. When we were there, there were few visible buyers, and none of them appeared to be Anglos. Lack of business has not kept the artisans of Atzompa from innovating, however. We were surprised at the variety of “post traditional” textures and painting styles. All but one of the pictures in this issue were taken there.

There is a “tipico” restaurant on the premises. The beer is cold. The prices are good. The empanada we had was generous, but not very tasty.

[Checkout time. There was no waiting line.]

Getting to Atzompa can be a bit of an adventure, but worth the effort. Unless you are driving, there are really only two choices: a “suburbano” bus from the 2d class bus terminal ($3.50 pesos, the same as the city buses); or a colectivo for about twice that, which comes and goes from the street of colectivo stands just behind the depot. The colectivo is much faster (and more direct).

Mr. Bush pays a visit:

George W. Bush has come to – and gone from – the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, where he took part in a “state visit” with our dubiously elected freshman president, Felipe Calderón; the fourth and final stop of a whirlwind tour of our southern neighbors. Having irrevocably lost the “war” in Iraq, and desperately wanting to bomb Iran, Dubya (I salute your memory, Molly Ivens) is looking to get a little “statesmanship” mileage by visiting “friendly” regimes.

In every country he visited, there were massive demonstrations against his wars and his policies. In some places, curfews were declared, and demonstrators were kept as much as five miles away from his empirical presence. In Merida, thousands of U.S. troops and operatives, including a fleet of Blackhawk helicopters flying overhead, were used to keep him safe. An awful lot of Mexicans got very upset at the way they were being treated. Some arrests were made.

[Many hands make light work. These packers were so adept that by the time the bill was ready, almost everything was packed.]

Just as a side note, Bush and Calderón met – as did Clinton and Zedillo – at the hacienda near Mérida (where both were holed up in separate hotels) that is owned by Roberto Hernandez, the “narco-banker” whose involvement in the drug trade was first exposed by the investigative reporters of the popular Yucatecan newspaper “Por Esto”. Clinton may have had an excuse – it could have been argued that he simply didn’t know about all the planeloads of cocaine coming and going from Hernandez’ private Caribbean island, being offloaded by men wearing the uniform of his private security forces. Bush can’t possibly make that claim. Once again, the “war on drugs” can be seen as the hypocrisy it is.

In addition to the push for unilateral free trade agreements, with which he hopes to weaken “MercoSur”, the economic alliance between some of our southern neighbors, and bring them back into the disastrous “Washington Concensus”, he’s trying to make deals with Brazil and Guatemala to retool their agricultural production and export ethanol to the U.S. Many on the ground in those countries see this as a move back to the old “hacienda” system, with the concentration of more and more land in the hands of fewer and fewer people. For more on that line of thought, I recommend Eduardo Dimas’ article in the latest issue of “Progresso”.

Aside from the dubious advantages of ethanol to the average consumer or the atmosphere – and I’m willing to argue that some other time – it is noteworthy that Bush is not looking for ethanol from Mexico. He wants oil. Hugo Chavez just savaged him by following him around, just one country away, and addressing stadiums full of people, telling Bush to “go home”. Hugo Chavez supplies a significant amount of U.S. oil consumption. Bush would like very much not to need Venezuelan oil, but that is a faint hope at the moment. Actually, he will likely need even more crude from Venezuela and Mexico to offset the predicted loss of supply from the Middle East should he be foolish enough to bomb Iran.

[This is one corner of the inner courtyard of the co-op. There are rooms and rooms of pottery surrounding it.]

Mexico, on the other hand, is facing a time of decreasing output, due to outmoded pumping equipment, massive theft from the pipelines, ancient and inefficient refineries, and existing wells that are rapidly being depleted. Government estimates are that Mexico will produce 26% less crude this year. This may place remittances from Mexican citizens living abroad in the number one spot for legal sources of income : a very unstable money fountain on which to run a government. Drugs are, of course, the primary hard currency earner, but Mexico’s treasurer has no listing for this income source in his account books and no way to tax it. Parenthetically, income from the national oil monopoly PEMEX has in the past accounted for well over 50% of the Mexican gross national product, and falling sales in a time of high prices is the government’s worse nightmare.

The cheapest new Mexican oil reserves – in terms of cost of recovery – are in Chiapas. Felipe desperately needs the income from those reserves for the budget, to keep the government floating. The only problem is those pesky Zapatistas, under whose land the Oil is pooled, and through whose land – including the pipelines and the “road improvements” that extraction would need – the goods would flow. They don’t want their land – such as it is, and much of it is pretty non-arable – and their livelihood (likewise hardscrabble) to be destroyed. They are not going to go easily or quietly.

In response to the growing paramilitary / military threat, the EZLN has this week established a new “autonomous area”, in the municipio (kind of a cross between a township and a county) of San Cristobal. They have declared it a “biosphere”, and are inviting outsiders to come down and hang out in two “peace camps” which have two purposes: to educate the visitors, and to interpose a presence of foreign nationals between themselves and the repression which may follow. More information on that can be found at Narco News.

The military option seems like a risky one for Felipe: the Zapatistas have the world looking over their shoulders, and that has protected them thus far. Moreover, the “Other Campaign”, which saw Subcomandante Marcos taking testimony from and speaking to crowds of variously oppressed indigenous people in almost every state, has resulted in a profusion of new grass-roots alliances springing up all over the Mexican countryside. These groups, drawn from laborers, social change organizers, farmers, students and others, are committed to resisting the “development” of their own area by private transnational capital. Then there is the ongoing fight against the dying –but still thrashing – PRI party machine that has ruled this state for over 70 years; and the phony but resource intensive “war on drugs”. Getting bogged down in the mountains of Chiapas may not be the best use of the military – something the army itself may point out to the president.

Still, Felipe is probably going to try, using the increasing death squad paramilitaries in Chiapas, the “co-operation” of the Guatemalan army along the border that abuts up to Chiapas; advisors from the FBI (remember COINTELPRO?), the CIA (remember “Operation Phoenix” in Vietnam?), and the Special Forces – all of whom were recently welcomed by Felipe and his Minister of the Interior, supposedly being brought in to help bust those pesky dope cartels that are paying so much money to Mexican (and U.S.) politicians and law enforcement personnel; and being financed – according to many Mexican news sources – by the country’s most powerful and influential bankers and other “respectable” folk. Everybody, with the possible exception of the U.S. and Mexican corporate media, knows the real goal is the suppression of dissent in preparation for massive exploitation of resources, both natural and human.

[All but one of the hanging pottery objects on our patio wall was made in Atzompa, as were some of our planters.]

The Zapatistas centered their “Other Campaign” on the idea that there wasn’t a nickel’s worth of difference between the three major political parties; they characterized electoral politics as a pointless waste of time. They stopped short of saying “don’t vote”, but many took that to be part of the message. There is a plausible argument to be made that if many who didn’t vote had voted they would have voted for then-front-runner Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO); and that with that vote, the outcome of the election might well have been different.

However, the Zapatistas believed that López would treat them – and most of the marginalized indigenous of Mexico – little better than the others would: AMLO, in Juchitan during his campaign, pledged to work for “maquila development” in southern Oaxaca state, which translates to supporting a system of new and enlarged highways, and the high-speed freight railway across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, needed to bring the goods to market. The new maquila corridor along the railroad right-of-way, and the railroad itself, will require enormous amounts of new energy, which under present plans will come from a new hydro-electric dam and a vastly expanded wind-farm. The plants would deplete the acquifer, poisoning what is left with chemicals from stone-washing jeans, etc. In the process of all this “development”, which is a part of the “Plan Puebla Panama”, dozens of indigenous communities will be displaced and much of the last old-growth rain forest in Oaxaca state will be destroyed.

Without the international support, and the newly built alliances with other marginalized communities all over the country, the Zapatistas probably would not stand a chance against big oil. With them, they just may be able to survive.

The brilliant scholar and writer Chalmers Johnson says you can’t have both Empire and Democracy. Likewise, you can’t serve Empire and preserve your people’s civil rights. Calderón is way past that choice. How far he is willing to go – and how far he can go – is yet to be played out.